By Rosanna Kellett
“I’ve always had a strong desire to communicate, but I also have a really strong desire to be invisible and to disappear.”
Anne Manne is the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s best-kept secret. The soft-spoken, Walkley-Award nominated journalist and social philosopher is at the Festival this year to talk about her newest book, The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, a title that pays tribute to Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller, The Culture of Narcissism. Ms Manne’s book is an equally ground-breaking exploration of how our behaviour, and even personality, is shaped by culture.
In her book, she explores the personality disorder known as narcissism and reveals how a whole spectrum of behaviours it fuels – from selfie-taking through to more pathological terrorist acts – are directly caused by the social values implicit in our economic system. The book’s argument is that in our hyper-competitive and increasingly disconnected world we are less trained in the art of empathy for the vulnerable or for altruism, qualities too often seen as weaknesses rather than as necessary to our society and the future of our planet.
It’s a natural culmination of ideas, for Anne Manne, who has written widely on many harrowing topics including loneliness, gendercide, disability, parenting and pornography. Her work on the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church is now part of the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
Her writing is always compelling reading; she makes her subjects immediately accessible through perceptive, vivid character portraits and gently guides us through her meticulous research with her characteristic, wry sense of humour and keen awareness of human nature.
As she discusses her book, she is calm, focused and chooses her words thoughtfully, and every so often a small, self-deprecating chuckle can be heard. “I just am immensely curious,” she says. “The puzzle, the mystery of people, really intrigues me. What is in someone’s mind is so much – it’s what will create a situation, lead to an action. For example, not just the what of child sexual abuse, but the why.” Her short memoir, So This Is Life: Scenes From a Country Childhood, reveals that even as a child, she had an extraordinary curiosity, insight and empathy towards others, even when facing some of the more confronting aspects of life in a conservative, rural community.
Anne Manne herself is something of an enigma, and when asked to talk about her own life rather than her subjects’, she seems genuinely surprised. After pausing to reflect, she says her interest in empathising with others was probably her way of dealing with harsh circumstances as a child.
“One protection you can have as a child is if you become the observer, the analyst, the person who can try and understand. If I achieved that objectivity, I could see calmly something that had, the moment before been very painful, I could transform it. I could lay it to rest because I understood it,” she says. “My great desire in writing, whether or not I achieve it, is to understand things in as clear-sighted a way as possible, to be willing to enter the dark territory of child abuse or gendercide or human cruelty, and bear witness truthfully, with as few distortions from either ego or from trying to say something that pleases someone else.”
Her memoir contains haunting portraits of individuals she encountered as a child who were isolated, misjudged, or at odds with life somehow. “There’s a quote by Isak Dinesen which is very deep in me,” she says, “which is that all sorrows can be borne if they’re made into a story. So I’ve always had a way of making meaning out of something even if it was terrible.” She says that bearing witness to people around her who were misunderstood meant that writing became, for her, a way of correcting what she saw as the unjust treatment of others.
“My mother had a serious mental illness at a time when there was great stigma,” she says. “There was a child’s protest, a silent one, but it was a deep one. There was a kind of refusal, as a child, of the way she was often seen, a kind of determined re-imagining of her life in a way that gave her dignity, and gave her a place to stand.”
Her speech stalls. “It had the most profound effect. But it made me more empathetic, probably, and more interested in people who were downtrodden or who were humiliated by life or made vulnerable in some way.” She sighs. “I think that really is at the centre of my life.”
These experiences have clearly influenced Anne Manne’s interest in narcissism. “Seeing what happens to people when they become invisible or vulnerable or excluded in some way gave me a kind of abhorrence of human hierarchy. And narcissism is about asserting a hierarchy,” she says. “People do need to be recognised and feel respected, and in a way, narcissism is that impulse, in all of us, a cry from the heart to be recognised as a human being equal with every other individual, only that primal impulse has become twisted and gone all awry.”
She says that what we need is more authentic, social connectedness. “I think being lost in a cause larger than oneself, or a project that’s not just about your curriculum vitae is a very healthful thing. There are parts of the human character that can really flourish in those circumstances that don’t flourish when it’s just about competition or trying to have a bigger personal profile.”
Anne Manne gave a free talk, ‘On Narcissism’, at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.