Here’s a conversation starter for you: What do Rod Blagojevich and Mary Lincoln have in common? (It’s not good hair.)
The two are an incongruous pairing: an impeached former governor known for his wire-tapped expletives and a refined, widowed former first lady of the nation.
The answer: narcissism, according to modern experts.
People with narcissistic personality disorder are “self-centered and boastful, seek constant attention and admiration, consider themselves better than others, exaggerate their talents and achievements, believe that they are entitled to special treatment, are easily hurt, set unrealistic goals, and may take advantage of others to achieve their goals,” according to medicinenet.com, a WebMD Web site.
In a Jan. 25 State Journal-Register article, a Springfield psychiatrist and a Chicago psychologist said they believe Blagojevich could have the disorder, citing his vanity, unrealistic political ambitions while facing impeachment, and alleged self-serving misdeeds in office.
Many people during Mary Lincoln’s time and today think she was “insane,” since she was committed to an insane asylum (due to a charge led by her last living son, Robert). Dr. DeWitt Patterson, the head of the Batavia asylum where she spent nearly four months, diagnosed Mary as having “monomania,” according to Jean Baker’s biography, Mary Todd Lincoln (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987). Some historians consider Baker to be one of Mary’s more sympathetic biographers.
Monomaniacs were irrational, Baker explains. “To Dr. Patterson, mania did not mean an ‘elevated state of euphoria,’ but rather described a compulsion that overrode the moral instincts so critical
for women. Sufferers often appeared entirely sensible.”
Robert Lincoln and Dr. Patterson (among the other men who committed Mary — she was not allowed to testify in her defense) thought her shopping sprees, forays into spiritualism, extended grief, anxiety, excitability, migraines, backaches, and fears she was being followed (she was — Robert hired men to keep an eye on her) proved she was insane.
But Baker says modern experts believe Mary was narcissistic. She could be demanding of family, friends and staff. “Over the years, Mary Lincoln’s oft-practiced therapy of self-aggrandizement made the friendships for which she clamored more difficult,” the author writes. Her spending sprees and intense bargaining with sales clerks helped her feel important, Baker theorizes.
Mary was easily offended or hurt. William Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner and no friend of Mary’s, believed her longstanding dislike of him stemmed from their first meeting. He asked her to dance when she was single and new to Springfield. She danced so well that he tried to compliment her by saying she “glided…with the ease of a serpent.” Mary chastised him and walked away, leaving him a solo dancer, according to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln’s Herndon (Alfred A. Knopf, 1948).
Much later, when she lived in the White House, Mary opened a letter addressed to her oldest sister, Elizabeth, who had been living at the White House temporarily to help Mary after the Lincolns lost a second son. The letter was from Elizabeth’s daughter (Mary’s niece) and contained very unflattering comments about Mary. Mary took it out on Elizabeth.
“(Mary) became enraged at me. I tried to explain – she would send back my letters with insulting remarks,” Elizabeth once said (as quoted in Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis’ book, Herndon’s Informants.)
While narcissists act pompous and entitled, these actions belie their real insecurity, according to medicinenet.com. One theory is that childhood neglect or traumas cause narcissism.
Mary certainly had traumas. Baker believes a lifetime of losses made her insecure, which fueled behaviors of self-importance as consolation. When Mary was four years old she lost a brother; when she was six her mother died. Shortly afterwards her father remarried, to a woman who was more stepmonster than stepmother and favored the nine children she had with Mary’s father over Mary and her siblings.
As an adult, Mary lost three out of four sons, after nursing them through long illnesses, and watched as her husband was assassinated beside her. That’s not to mention the Todd family members she lost during the Civil War.
It’s always tricky and hardly definitive when experts try to diagnose someone from afar. But it’s interesting food for thought. Mary's latest biographer, Catherine Clinton (Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009), who had access to recently discovered letters written by Mary from the insance asylum, believes the question of her sanity is still unanswered and never will be answered. Still, from a layman's perspective, it’s easy to see how the endless traumas in Mary’s life could have caused mental unrest.
But what’s Rod’s excuse?