Psych ! The Discipline That Came and Went

Mary Strachan Scriver
5 min readAug 18, 2020


Professor Sam Vaknin and Richard Grannon did a series of conversations I found absorbing, but I gather that though they went well, later a schism developed. I didn’t have specifics until I watched this vid from Grannon who doesn’t blame Vaknin, but explains that he has had a major shift in psych thinking, one that moved away from the medical/academic model that was originally the rigid style of the new discipline when it needed to defend itself. Professor Vaknin has clearly remained in that mode.

(Jan 22, 2017)

Hunting for a photo of Katherine Tyler, I just looked through my high school yearbook which is scribbled with little salutes from classmates about my “good personality.” Little did they know about my private life of cat and book. They were praising my presentation, not my psyche. It was the time of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Doris Day.

Grannon has realized that “personality” is a culture-bound concept. Not every culture even conceives of such an entity. They might think of one’s role, even one’s identity, but those get defined according to the hierarchies and pursuits of the people. Maybe “personality” comes from movie culture after WWII and were a means of marketing certain actors, whose private lives had nothing to do with what they presented on the screen. Like Rock Hudson.

In those days everyone worried about your “personality” more than your sex life. One was meant to be cheerful, cooperative, and achieving: pillow talk on divided screens. That’s when the notion of IQ, that wretched circle measuring cultural features and then endorsing them as “intelligence” so as to rank high the culture that devised it, marking as stupid all the people who came from other cultures. It’s impossible to get that out of people’s heads, though it has little to do with the complex and situational ability of a person to respond in life, far beyond the mechanistic habitual personalities required by the military who asked for the IQ.

Professor Vaknin made his psych bones by defining “narcissism” and, like Freud, naming it for a Greek myth to give it a kind of reality. This was indeed a useful concept and came directly out of the obsession with “personality” that pushed people into scrutinizing themselves. It must be remembered that in the story the boy is very beautiful and admiring his own presentation, not his empathy, his understanding of the world, or even his intelligence.

As with Christianity, when an original conception becomes over time a bit detached from the original impetus, two strategies are possible. One is “apologetics” such as the again useful sub-categories Professor Vaknin describes — things like “grandiose narcissism” or “malevolent narcissism” which — truthfully — have nothing to do with a boy admiring his looks in a reflecting pond which could easily be a boy in a bathroom mirror trying to get his hair perfect — not conquer the world or bend others to his will.

The other way to approach the subject is to just throw out the original concept and define new words and patterns that fit the present better. This is what Grannon is doing. He says he has lost “faith” in the whole Psychological Diagnosic Manual strategy of designing lists and definitions and categories and then voting on their worthiness. So does an educated older white man who works in a nice private office have any real insight about a schizophrenic heavy laborer who beats his wife? Or why she stays?

Grannon talks about the four Cluster B characteristics that are taken very seriously by some, who forget they are opinions, constructs. They describe well a person who succeeds at a faculty cocktail party without embarrassing anyone.

“Cluster B personality disorders are a categorization of personality disorders as defined in the DSM-IV and DSM-5. These disorders are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior and interactions with others.”


“The disorders in Cluster B are Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

Great stuff for cartoons and diagrams. But it leads to such ridiculous and hampering ideas as the Goldwater Rule which makes life much more comfortable for professionals. Talking about Trump as a narcissist makes him sound trivial and explained, when in fact he and his cronies are criminals, anti-social con men who are openly destroying the country on purpose with the strategies of extortion and blackmail. Trump has dementia. He is a madman in the most literal sense.

On the other hand, the paradigm of narcissism as someone who demands constant praise and obedience is quite valid and co-exists. It just needs another name and Cluster B won’t serve. Felony, capital crime, and treason are more relevant. What does the Spartan Life Adviser tell us about that? What terms would those folks use? We need to hear them.

Psychiatry (MD qualification for using meds), psychology (academic confirmation of mastery at some level), pharmacists (extensive knowledge of chemicals) and insurance financial arrangements have interacted in such a way as to lock us all into unexamined assumptions. As Grannon points out, the DSM-5 is constantly updated by VOTE, so that when previously non-mainstream desires become popular, they get voted in. Now there is no death penalty for being gay in this country. It’s not even considered “sick.” But it’s a great marketing strategy for material goods, though it’s hard on those who claim they can “cure” homosexuality for a price. Economics have a lot to do with sanity.

In my opinion, which is not very humble, these guys are all accepting the doctrine of the free individual who acts in some kind of typical environment, when they should better use anthropology, the study of people in all sorts of times and conditions who have managed to devise a culture that lets them survive. The problem is not to conform as an individual but to find a reconciliation with the surrounding place and people, the conditions of real life. One situation might demand cold-blooded management of delicate controls and math, and another might ask for the subtle emotional intonations and timing managed by the nimble fingers of the violinist, and a third might demand raw physical prowess. They are each intelligent if they fit the life the person is in.

Hobbs might have thought bloody domination was the route to success, but Darwin’s real idea was the survival of the fittingest. Alter oneself or alter the circumstance or get the hell out of there. If the Psychological Diagnosis Manual does not function as a survival manual, it’s not doing its purported job. So now I’m interested in hearing about the meshing and clashing social circles who are the sources of thinking about psychology. To be mean about it, what is the narcissism of the shrinks? Grandiose, malevolent, or just defensive?



Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.