Book Review: Child Man—The Selfless Narcissist

January 2011 / Book Reviews

Child Man—The Selfless Narcissist by Ashok Malhotra

Arundhati Ghosh

Ashok Malhotra, graduated in Philosophy before doing a post graduation in Management. His career comprises a stint in teaching at the  Administrative Staff College, leading the HR function in Indian as well as Multinational companies. He is now a management consultant who has over two decades of experience of working with individuals, groups and organisations in the areas of personal growth and organisation development. In this interview he speaks to Arundhati Ghosh, about his first book “Child Man – The Selfless Narcissist”.

 

Ashok Malhotra and Arundhati Ghosh

 

(AG: Arundhati and AM: Ashok)

AG: Ashok, The Child Man is your first book. Most of us you know you as a management consultant working with organizations and individuals for the last four decades on personal growth and organizational development. So, we had thought that your first book would be about organisation behavior. But I hold here your debut, intrigued by the title ‘The Child Man – A Selfless Narcissist’! So what is the concept of the ‘Child Man’?

AM: As it happens I was planning a book that would have been more on the lines of what you call organisation behavior. It is true that I have mainly worked with corporates, but my primary interest has always been with what I would call the ‘human drama’ – which takes place inside an individual, inside families, inside work organisations, inside communities or wherever. So ‘Child Man’, to my mind, is not so much in the realm of management, but my understanding of the human context and what is happening to the individual in the current situation that we are living in. And one of its features, as I understand, is the growing gap between techno-eonomic advancement and psycho-social maturity. So while technology is advancing the kind of maturity that is required to handle that advancement and comprehend the complex network of forces which govern our lives is taking a beating. This is also because of a sharp decline in all psychological and emotional support infrastructures like family and community making the individual much more helpless, vulnerable and anxious. So, on the one hand the individual today feels extremely powerful and potent, knows that there is a plethora of choices available to him and is freer from many of the earlier constraints that confined him. But on the other hand, the sense of anxiety, helplessness and alienation from his own self is on the rise and is making him extremely fragile. It’s essentially this gap – the gap that I encounter day in and day out with myself, and the people that I work with – that I have tried to explore in this book. This is the gap between prowess and emotional fragility.

AG: You have a very interesting byline next to the title of the book “the Selfless Narcissist”. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? As in, how can a narcissist be selfless? Would you throw some light on this?

AM: Well, a narcissist is always selfless since a narcissist is in love with an image. A narcissist has no concept of self. Often we put all kinds of self centricity into the same basket.

AG: Under the bracket of ‘selfishness’ perhaps?

AM: That’s right. An egoist and a narcissist are seen as one and the same but there is a big difference between the two. An egoist is someone who is governed primarily by his own self interest. But a narcissist is someone who has made an emotional investment into an image of his self. Often at the cost of his own self interest he will pursue it. The reason I have chosen to use this byline is because often when I speak to people about the concept of the Child Man they seem to confuse it with related concepts like alpha male. It’s not the same.

AG: In fact, very different from that?

AM: Yes, very different. An alpha male will never work against his self interest whereas a Child Man does.

AG: And he is very fragile in the ways that you have mentioned earlier.

AM: Correct. Now, the second reason is that whatever sense of self that the Child Man has it is mainly governed by his narcissistic needs and wounds. All the time he is trying to heal those wounds. For example he is not governed by the need for achievement but by rage and vengeance. He needs to avenge or set certain things correct which he thinks are wrong. So to make this point clear and differentiate it from many such other ideas I have chosen this byline.

AG: What is also very interesting about this book, as compared to others, is that it is divided into two parts. In the first part you are narrating stories  told by the three characters from the Mahabharata – Balaram, Duryodhan and Bheem. Now I have two related questions really. The first is that why did you chose the Mahabharata to set the context of the book where you could have used any other trope. And the second question relates to the fact that you have used three apparently very different characters – Bheem who is seen as a lovable buffoon, Duryodhan who of course is the eternal villain and Balaram who almost disappears into the text after they move from Brindaban to Mathura and is hardly ever heard off again. You have used these three to create one thread that holds together the Child Man. Why?

AM: Let me answer the first part – why Mahabharata. It is partly a coincidence. I was discussing some concepts, with some of my colleagues. At night I kept thinking about these three characters realizing that all three of them had some relevance to the concept of the Child Man. So it was only logical that I use their stories. But midway, I did think should I create fictional characters, look for characters elsewhere. But you know, it’s so tempting to go back to the Mahabharata. As a Bengali saying goes, ‘whatever is not in the Mahabharata cannot be found in the entire world’. It’s so rich, it contains so much..

AG; And it’s so relevant ….

AM: Yes, true…it’s so relevant. I could not think of anything else that would portray this concept as powerfully as these three characters. So, I stayed with the option of using these three characters. Also, my personal evocation was very strong. As far as the second part of your question is concerned about the link between these three characters, it is surprising to me that the similarity between them is not more clearly seen. Well, all three were mace warriors…

AG: Oh yes, of course…

AM: Balaram was the teacher of the other two. They all show certain kinds of similarities in their temperament. Clearly there were differences as well. In the first chapter of the second part of the book which is called ‘The Three protagonists”, I discuss the similarities and differences of these characters. I am not saying they were identical. There were clearly differences in the ways that they dealt with certain kinds of things. But the commonality, the common thread from my point of view, or from the point of view of the Child Man psyche, is very strong. In that chapter I also discuss how I see that Bheem and Duryodhan are actually extensions of Balaram. Just like Arjun and Karn were extensions of Krishn. And all the central conflicts in the Mahabharata are between these three sets of people. There are lots of similarities between the one triangle which consists of Krishn, Arjun and Karma and the other triangle consisting of Balaram, Bheem and Duryodhan.

AG: There is also a relationship between Balaram and Krishn as the heads of those two triangles which manifests in the other two pairs.

AM: That’s right. And Mahabharata is such a fascinating text that can be looked at in so many ways.

AG: Yes, everyone can have their take on it. So, tell me, while your book begins with these characters, it moves on to a more relevant time, the time of today, which you call “the age of reason” and the Child Man dealing with this age. At the beginning, you talked about the growing gap which has been augmented with technological advancement of this world and the failure of the social and familial systems and infrastructures to keep up with this advancement. So where exactly do you find the Child Man today, Where is he, what is he doing, what are his preoccupations?

AM: You are asking a lot of questions in that one question so let me ramble a bit. I have used the first person narrative to tell the stories of the three protagonists. The idea is not to analyse and dissect the Child Man but to visit his inner landscape.

AG: You mean experience him?

AM: Yes, as in what does he feel? How does he look at things? What are his preoccupations? So, try and understand his point of view. Not look at him from the outside. A lot has happened in that area. Freudians will look at him in one way, Jungians in another way, and students of gender in still a different way. But my idea is to put myself in his shoes and see what does the world looks like to him. That’s why I have chosen that format. And then I have looked at the current scenario. For example one of the significant things which has happened in the age of reason is that the chief source of prowess has shifted from the physical to the mental; from physical strength to rationality and reason. So the entire frame changes. The scope of emotional volatility which was available lets says to someone like Bheem or Duryodhan or Balaram is no longer available to the modern man. In the chapter of ‘The Age of Reason’ I have drawn a comparison with the film ‘Good Will Hunting’. Now Will Hunting in many ways is a typical Child Man. On the face of it he would look very different from a Bheem or a Duryodhan but you scratch the surface and you find the same kinds of processes – the same kind of hunger for love, the same kind of commitment to relationships, loyalty, disdain for conventionality, a need to prove your prowess just for the sake of it with no particular concern for achievement or being directed in any purposive kind of a manner. Now there have been a whole lot of other changes like the dynamics in the relationship of men and women etc, I am not going to go into the details here but you know what I am saying.

AG: So, what happens then?

AM: If you look at the last part of the book which is the Child Man in the modern day context, the essential thesis that I have is that today given the kind of world we live in, the structural imperatives force you to continually suppress the Child Man in you.  However, the emotive conditions are continually fuelling the Child Man in you. So you come to a point where one hand the Child Man is being continually fueled whereas in order to survive you have keep suppressing it. So today the Child Man resides in what I would call our psychic and social underbelly. In the social underbelly it is clear to see, one survives as a terrorist or gangster or an underworld leader or even as a street bully. That’s the only place he can find. In the psychic underbelly you see him coming up and showing his face in situations that are relatively safe. For example, the road rage situation is a typical example where everyone behaves as if the road belongs only to them and to no one else. It’s Child Man expressing itself. Or in a split between your public self and your private self where the two are very different. Now that’s worrying. Because there are beautiful parts in the Child Man and if this is suppressed its something we need to be concerned about.

AG: So what is the impact of the Child Man in a typical work environment that you can see?

AM: Let me first clarify that it’s not like there are child men and non child men. The Child Man is there in every human being. In some people it may be a little more prominent. Well, in the corporate world by and large people with a strong Child Man psyche are seen as excellent trouble shooters, rarely go beyond middle management levels, are seen as action people but who cannot strategise, good start-up people but cannot consolidate. So there is a discomforting relationship that most organisations have with the child men. At one end they are useful and needed…

AG: But they are also very quickly disowned…

AM: That’s right…so at best you know if they can be kept in check…so you know…

AG: Needful evil kind of thing?

AM: That’s absolutely right.

AG: And what happens to the man-woman relationship with a person who has a very strong Child Man in him? I am talking about the man now, because I do want to ask you later about how you see the Child Man psyche work in women. So what are the issues or concerns that happen in a man-woman relationship when the man has a strong Child Man in him?

AM: Well, I am over generalizing but here it is. Often people with a strong element of Child Men in them invariably get attracted towards women who are more feminine in a more conventional way. I don’t want to go into the details of it but this is what the Jungians call the ‘static feminine’ – the nourishing, the nurturing, the loving….

AG: The mother sort of figure?

AM: Absolutely – very similar to that and very soon when they see the negative side of the static feminine or the negative side of the mother which is the devouring mother…

AG: You mean all consuming mother?

AM: Yes, that’s right. So when they see that, the love of their life becomes the most terrible nightmare from which they have to run. And then they may become alcoholics or addicts or find some other kind of things – could be other relationships – to escape or run away. Sometimes, they also get into very abusive relationships. Particularly, it depends on….have you seen this film called Yuva?

AG: The one directed by Mani Ratnam?

AM; Yes, that one. There is a character in that played by Ahishekh Bachchan. The relationship between him and the role played by Rani Mukherjee is fairly typical of one aspect of the man-woman relationships of the Child Man. Particularly when it turns abusive. And this happens when both individuals have strong streaks of co-dependence. Child Man is essentially a co-dependent person. What it means is that he needs other people to depend on him. So that he can be the protector and look after them. And also the protector can often become the abuser. Now what is very interesting in the current scenario is that, as women are becoming more independent and autonomous, increasingly they are turning around and saying “thank you, we don’t need you. We have experienced far too much exploitation and abuse in the name of protection, so keep your protection to youself.” That leaves a void for the individual who then looks for other symbols from where his need to protect can come from.

AG: Otherwise what will he do with the need to protect!

AM: That’s right. How will he feel like a man. He can only feel like a man if he is protecting something. And very sadly what is happening is that increasingly that place is being taken by religion. So ‘religion is in danger’ is becoming a big war cry all over the world. And many things like innocence and simplicity that was accorded to women is now being displaced onto religion. So, thus becoming a protector of religion the Child Man today feels like a man.

AG: As in he is upholding something. So it could be nationhood or community or something else too.

AM: Sure.

AG: So far we have been talking about Child Man in men but you also talk about Child Man and its manifestations in a woman. So what kind of things does one see there?

AM: Well it becomes a little more complex because the pursuit of prowess is traditionally associated with men more than women.

AG: Is that why you call it the Child Man and not Child Woman?

AM: Yes, because the attributes are what are traditionally regarded as masculine attributes. Now since it is more associated with men there are two aspects to its displacement in women – one it attracts more hostility. The example would be the Bandit Queen – the rage of the oppressed woman and the hostility that it encounters making her choose the path of the pursuit of prowess…

AG: To take revenge as well.

AM: Yes. Traditionally it’s been more around the femme fatale scenario. And one looks at sexual attraction also as prowess. There are also differences in the way emotion is expressed among men and among women. So there are different kinds of things that happen. On the other hand, the positive thing, is that among women pursuit of prowess does not become compensatory. Both men and women are prone to performance anxiety. Biologically it’s more so for men than women. So a woman’s identity in that sense is not so much linked to performance. Therefore it doesn’t have the same compensatory element. To put in a nutshell, in a man the Child Man becomes a source for affirming your gender identity, that I am a man. Often times in women it becomes a negation of their gender identity…

AG: That I am not a typical woman.

AM: Yes, so in men you are trying o hold on to your gender identity and for women you are dissociating from your gender identity. So that leads to different types of dynamics.

AG: Towards the end of the book you also have a chapter on befriending the Child Man, engaging with it. Would you like to talk about that?

AM: In a nutshell there are two central themes there. One is that to befriend the Child Man we would seriously need to revisit our notion of maturity. Because often we tend to see maturity as an interface concept; as in how well one is managing the relationship, not getting perturbed with things, remaining calm and composed. That’s the notion of maturity we believe in. It’s like a dam for managing, controlling and channelising the flow of emotions in oneself. Concepts such as emotional intelligence and emotional quotient have reinforced this frame of reference. Now to befriend the Child Man one can’t look at only this frame of reference of maturity. While it’s important, it’s not the only one. One has to look at what is happening to ones internal ecology. The different facets that one has to ones self – nourishing them, valuing them, cherishing them and fostering them. Otherwise what happens is that your inner landscape becomes totally dry. You have nothing really to fall back upon in your self. And all the time you are looking at the external world for sustenance. For example today people have become so scared of pain that they have no idea how to handle it, how to deal with it. They have lost the ability to heal each other and themselves. If your internal ecology is gone your healing capacity will also go. So unless you look at maturity as a way of fostering your inner ecology together with managing the interface it will be impossible to befriend the Child Man. The second theme is that the balance between patricentricity and matricentricity has gone awry. The world has become almost totally patricentric. It is true that we are finally finding freedom from patriarchy, but that’s because women are becoming more patricentric. So unless the balance between patricentricity and matricentricity is restored it will be very difficult to befriend the Child Man. If you see, he is extremely patriarchal but he is not patricentric. So he is even more out of place in world that is becoming less patriarchal and more patricentric. You can’t go back to patriarchal regressing from here. But you need to restore the balance between patricentric and matricentric orientations.

Ag; I love the way you have constructed the book starting from stories moving on to understanding the Child Man psyche to figuring out ways of befriending him in this modern world. Who do you see as your reader?

AM: I have written it for the general reader. How readable and likeable it will be I can’t say. I have written it for those who have an interest in their selves, those who are interested in the present human condition, who would like to think about these things. I have tried to keep it as jargon free as possible. So a general reader who is thinking about himself and the world he lives in, is my reader too.

AG: Now to end, I have one question that has intrigued me. You have, towards the end put yourself out there. You have talked about your growing up, the issues you have had – basically talked about your experiences. How easy or difficult has it been for you to do this?

AM: Firstly, The piece that I have written about myself I was not in touch with it till I began writing this book. I had glimpses of it, but I did not grasp it fully. The many aspects of it came to me through the writing of this book. So I felt that it was only fair that I share this exploration of myself with the readers. The second and more logical reason for putting that in, is that since I am talking about the present human context, and there are multiple ways of looking at that, I thought it was only fair that the reader gets to know the person who is writing this and from what location is he seeing the world.

AG: Thank you so much Ashok for sharing the Child Man with us. We hope many people will read the book.

About the Authors

(The book is available at http://www.flipkart.com/child-man-self-less-narcissist-book-0415589894)

Ashok Malhotra, the author, can be reached at ashokmal9@gmail.com

Arundhati Ghosh is a not for profit professional based in Bangalore and can be reached at arundhati.consulting@gmail.com )