He's as smooth as an eel, as friendly as a lapdog, as adaptable as a chameleon. A sweet-talker. A back-slapper. A stroker. He treats casual acquaintances like intimate friends, and intimate friends like casual acquaintances. Deep down, he thinks of other people as stick figures to be measured according to what they can do for him.
Do you know this person?
Richard Restak thinks you do, because according to Restak, The Manipulator is everywhere. He or she may be your boss, your co-worker, your spouse, your child, your next-door neighbor, or -- not to beat around the bush -- your very self. In any event, Restak assumes The Manipulator is someone you will want to know better, in which case you will want to consult Restak's new book, "The Self-Seekers: Understanding Manipulators, the Predominant Personalities of Our Age."
A bearded neurologist/author who practices near Dupont Circle and teaches at Georgetown University Medical School and the Washington School of Psychiatry, Restak has set out to expose a troublemaker in our midst, and to explain his rise to prominence and (perhaps) what can be done about him. "There have always been manipulators," says Restak, sipping a canned iced tea on the porch of his tree-shrouded home off Foxhall Road, where the family Jaguar and Corvette blend in nicely with the neighbors' cars. "What's new about it is the pervasiveness of it, the tremendous numbers of people. We're talking about the psychology of people who are winners, who are very successful . . . This problem is not limited to the psychiatric sphere. It has exploded into the culture."
As a group, manipulators suffer from an insufficient "sense of self," caused by a failure "to internalize soothing, dependable, anxiety-reducing relationships," according to Restak. Early on in life, the typical manipulator decides that his parents and others haven't responded well to his uncalculating self, and he becomes a compulsive role player, approaching every social encounter as a battle to be won or lost. And as long as most of the battles are won -- as long as the manipulator is sustained and distracted by material and professional achievements -- he is not likely to advertise the fact that, underneath it all, something is missing.
Then how do we know something is missing? "The unsuccessful manipulator is really the tip-off," says Restak. "That's where we learn what this character is like."
The unsuccessful manipulator can often be found in the psychiatrist's office, says Restak (who was trained as a psychiatrist himself and interviewed a batch of them for his book). In the Victorian Age with its tightly defined morality, he says, hysteria and neurosis were the characteristic psychiatric ailments. But now that the lid is off -- now that, as the pop psychologists say, "Norm is the name of a guy who lives in Brooklyn" -- today's psychiatrists are hearing more and more complaints about "relationships," feelings of "emptiness" and "existential problems -- the kind of thing that years ago people would talk to a priest or a philosopher about." And the complaints come from people who impress the casual observer as stylish, relaxed and articulate, people who have done well for themselves--up to a point.
"Many times, the successful ones don't begin to unglue until later in life," says Restak, "when the marriages have come apart and they have lost their good looks and their winning ways." And the comedown, when it comes, can be a regular psychic avalanche. Consider this portrait of an "aging narcissist," one of the subcategories of manipulator catalogued in Restak's book:
The aging narcissist is unable to accept the inevitability of physical decline, and resorts to a "flight into youth," Restak writes--"a last-ditch effort by means of dress and cosmetology to recapture one's lost past. But eventually the battle is lost. At some point the aging narcissist is faced with the reality of his own mortality and death . . . Life is empty, unfulfilling, hopeless . . . A lifetime spent in manipulating others has precluded the narcissist from appreciating the depth and complexity of other human beings . . . The past--the repository of happier memories that ordinarily provide some measure of comfort in advancing years -- is as empty and barren as the present."
"The manipulator is terrified of old age," he explains, "because this is an individual who is not at all part of the cycle. He doesn't look upon life as a cycle of development. He can be jealous of his own children as people who are now coming forth and who are ready to achieve, because the manipulator feels they're taking it away from him. It's the lifeboat mentality. There's only so much to go around, so much opportunity to be famous, so much praise. All these things have to be hoarded."
Restak sees no single explanation for the manipulator's rise to prominence. But television and the modern workplace get some of the credit. TV programs tend to be created by manipulators who remake humanity in their own image, says Restak, and many of today's jobs -- particularly in this white-collar city of influence and connections -- demand a talent for quick, casual, superficial dealings, the manipulator's forte. Manipulation can be a genuinely useful skill from 9 to 5, Restak adds, but "after a day of manipulating in a workplace, you can't turn off this orientation like a spigot." He cites a lawyer friend whose wife tried to kill herself because she suspected him of having a love affair. "I'm not worried," the lawyer told Restak. "She can't prove a thing."
"Well, that attitude is fine in the courtroom," says Restak, "but once it gets out of the courtroom it's dangerous. If you had to think of a profession whereby manipulation and manipulative life style are being spread throughout society, it would be the legal system."
Restak set out originally to be a psychiatrist, and it was only during his internship at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital that he became interested in the brain (before it was fashionable, he says) and switched into neurology. At 40, he is still torn between the two fields. "I like the precision of neurology and I like the humanism of psychiatry," he explains. Fortunately, many patients come to him (or are sent by courts of law) with complaints that could have a psychological or neurological cause. It is Restak's job to decide which, and the decision is not always easy. "That's why it's so challenging," he says. "That's why it's so much fun."
"The Self-Seekers" is his third book, following one on bioethics ("Premeditated Man") and one on the brain ("The Brain"). Citing the theory that rationality comes from one side of the brain and creativity from the other, he says (with a laugh) that his earlier volumes came from his left hemisphere while the current one comes from his right. It also comes, evidently, from the heart. "I've just been very fascinated and preoccupied with 'self' disorders for many years," he says, adding that he would have written this book sooner if agent Ann Buchwald hadn't advised him to do the others first.
His hobbies -- along with an interest in Eastern religion and in tai chi, the gentlest of the Chinese martial arts -- include a collection of ritual masks from Africa and the Caribbean, and the masks tie in with his thinking about manipulators. "I've always been interested in masks and the whole concept of masking," he explains. "We have the fantasy that when you remove the mask you get to the real self, but many cases, as in a dream, when one tries to delve into what the self is, it's very evanescent, very fluid, and in some cases there's nothing there."
Lacking a firm sense of self, manipulators tend to be inconsistent people whose behavior "depends very much on the social situation," Restak writes. "The manipulator can rant and rave about sexual morality on Sunday, and participate in group sex experiences on Friday." But at any given moment, the manipulator is inclined to repress or forget the elements of his personality not now in play, and that fragmentation, or refusal to acknowledge conflicting impulses, is one of the underlying psychological problems of our time, he thinks.
Today's fashionable therapies are preoccupied with the self, he notes, but they define the self as "something you can grab like gold or money." People are being told that if they can find their own spontaneous feelings and act on them, all will be well. "Subjectivity is being raised almost to the level of idolatry," he says.
"Basically I feel that in the society as it exists, it's very difficult to maintain the fiction that we have one personality or one self. What we've got to do is not to let these multiple selves become independently operating, so that there's no overseer. By staying aware of what we have done in the past, perhaps criticizing it, growing from it, but still integrating it, one can perhaps have a capital-s 'self.' "
In the meantime, Restak hopes his book will help non-manipulators identify and deal with manipulators, and help manipulators identify and deal with themselves. His hope was encouraged by a promotional trip to Hollywood, where, he says, he kept running into people who would tell him, with a wide smile, "Well, I've read your book and you've described me to a 'T.' "