A Study in Evil: Voldemort, the Malignant Narcissist

(Editor’s note: This editorial was presented as a paper at the Lumos 2006 Harry Potter Symposium in Las Vegas. At the request of the author, please do not copy, circulate or reproduce without permission.)

by Maria Hsia Chang

In their introduction to an edited volume on German literature (1), Jeffrey Adams and Eric Williams remarked that “Though most writers have at best an intuitive grasp of the human psyche…there are some few who have expert knowledge.” To that privileged latter group belongs J.K. Rowling.

Rowling’s portrait of Voldemort is uncannily consistent with psychologists’ understanding of malignant narcissists. A number of psychiatrists, notably M. Scott Peck (2), have identified a direct connection between malignant narcissism and evil. Among the ranks of malignant narcissists are serial killers such as Dennis Rader, and mass murderers such as Adolf Hitler.


On Narcissism

A simple definition of narcissism is “self-love.” Social and biological scientists maintain that love of self is instinctive in all living creatures because concern for one’’s well-being is functional for biological survival.(3) In his seminal 1914 essay on narcissism, Sigmund Freud called it “the instinct of self-preservation” found in “every living creature.”(4) In other words, our instinctive form of self-love is a form of self-interest, the instinctive concern for one’’s biological survival. and well-being.

Since the word is used in both expert and common parlance, however, “narcissism” means something more than our instinctive life-preserving love of self but refers instead to self-love that is undue and excessive. Here, the etymology of the word is instructive, for “narcissism” has its origin in an ancient Greek myth about a beautiful young man named Narcissus who became so besotted with his reflection in a lake that he drowned while reaching out for his image. In effect, Narcissus’s’ extreme self-love led to his demise.

Narcissism, as excessive self-love, therefore should be distinguished from simple self-interest in that it is an excessive concern for oneself which goes above and beyond what is needed for biological survival. In fact, the myth of Narcissus would suggest that extreme self-love is ultimately self-destructive.

Today, “narcissism” is considered in psychological literature to be a form of pathology. Psychoanalyst Theodore I. Rubin, for example, defined a narcissist as someone who “becomes his own world and believes the whole world is him”(5); similarly, psychiatrist Alexander Lowen identified a narcissist as a person who is “preoccupied with him- or herself to the exclusion of everyone else.”(6) In 1990, the American Psychological Association (APA) included narcissism as a distinct personality disorder: narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). More than that, narcissism is common to the APA’’s “Cluster B” personality disorders, a group that includes narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, and anti-social personality disorders.(7) For that matter, pathological narcissism may extend beyond Cluster B to infect other personality disorders as well. As an example, some of the defining attributes of the conforming personality disorder – specifically those of pomposity, self-righteousness, and harsh judgmentalism – point to a form of moral or spiritual narcissism.(8)

According to the APA’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV)(9), narcissistic personality disorder refers to “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” The disorder is indicated if an individual has five or more of the following characteristics:

  1. “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with her expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends.
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”


Malignant Narcissism and Evil

The term “malignant narcissism” probably was first coined by psychiatrist Erich Fromm in his 1964 book, The Heart of Man. In it, Fromm identified the malignant narcissist as an individual for whom the outside world “has ceased to be real” because he has made himself the substitute for reality by making himself his own “god and the world.” The malignant narcissist is “crudely solipsistic” because he is great not for something he has achieved, but for some presumed quality he has. Consequently, he does “not need to be related to anybody or anything.” Doing so, however, removes him even more from reality: the individual becomes more and more isolated in a fantasy realm of grandiosity and “narcissistic splendor.”(10)

Put simply, Fromm saw malignant narcissism as grandiosity – the narcissist has conjured a false self that is outstanding, magnificent, and grandiloquent. But being grandiose does not necessarily mean that one is evil (or does it?). It took psychiatrist M. Scott Peck and psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg to specifically connect malignant narcissism with evil.

In his book, People of the Lie, Peck identified malignant narcissists to be those who engage in a persistent pattern of scapegoating others. As such, Peck thought them evil. As he put it, “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’ deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception…[E]vil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies.” This led Peck to propose to the psychological profession a new diagnostic category of the “evil personality disorder” as a sub-type of NPD.(11)

Similarly, Kernberg understood malignant narcissism as not only the worst form of narcissism but as evil. In an interview, Kernberg stated that “the evil in the world…is significantly constituted by pathological narcissism…by the most severe forms of it – in which there is a particular malignant development that consists of a return to primitive aggression and an idealization of the self as an aggressive self with power over others. This pathological idealization of the self …is called ‘malignant narcissism.’ And this is very much connected with evil.”(12)

In our time, it has become unfashionable to speak of evil. But the reality of evil increasingly is acknowledged by forensic scientists and psychiatrists who can find no term other than “evil” for certain individuals whose deliberate and habitual savagery defies any psychological explanation or attempt at treatment.(13) More than that, from his experience as a therapist, Peck concluded that evil people are quite common and usually appear entirely ordinary to the casual observer.(14)

Peck also spoke for many when he observed that “It is a reflection of the enormous mystery of the subject that we do not have a generally accepted definition of evil.”(15)

It is here proposed that human or moral evil may be understood as deliberate harm or cruelty toward an undeserving other. The damage may be psychological or physical and can range from control and humiliation to physical pain, bloodshed, and most egregiously, death. Human evil, in other words, is malice or perniciousness(16) – the desire or actual causing of harm, injury, or death to an innocent other in the service of the perpetrator’s self-interest above and beyond that of biological survival.

Hurting another for personal gain, therefore, is intrinsic to the definition of evil. Philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed an ethical rule called the Categorical Imperative. Simply put, to be moral is to treat others as ends, not means. Immorality, therefore, is the adverse: using others as means toward one’s own end. In his disquisition on the principles of morals, philosopher David Hume also employed self-interest to differentiate between virtue and vice. For Hume, acting in one’s self-interest without harming others is non-moral or morally neutral, being neither vice nor virtue. To be considered moral, a motive or act must have the well-being of others in view, with a desire to benefit another. Hume concluded that a selfless act that benefits another is a virtue, whereas a self-interested act that hurts another is a vice.(17) From Hume’’s analytic distinction, we may define the ultimate virtue or goodness as a selfless act that not only benefits an undeserving other but is injurious to oneself, that is, the virtuous act is self-sacrificing.

Given the various meanings of “narcissism” – as instinctive self-interest and as a psychological and character pathology – the word more profitably should be understood as referring to a continuum of self-love and self-image, ranging from a healthy love-of-self founded on a realistic self-conception to an increasingly obsessive self-love rooted in a self-image that is more fantasy than reality. At the extreme of the spectrum is a self-love that is grandiose in its self-regard and malevolent toward others.


Voldemort and Malignant Narcissism

The attributes of malignant narcissism include grandiosity, a charming social mask, secrecy and deception, interpersonal shrewdness, lack of affect, an inability to love, lack of empathy, scapegoating, and amoralism. Voldemort displayed many, if not all of these traits, beginning with the likely etiology of his disorder.

Etiology. The psychological literature is uncertain as to the cause(s) of pathological narcissism: it may be developmental and/or biological. If biological, the source may be genetic, a neurological dysfunction, or some biochemical disorder – none of which as yet has been discovered or confirmed by scientists. To complicate matters, those who hew to the developmental explanation by tracing the roots of pathological narcissism to early childhood conditions(18) are divided as to whether the cause lies in inadequate or over-indulgent parenting.

Over-indulgent parents think of themselves as special and project their own narcissism onto the child: “I’m special and therefore my child is special.”(19) Most psychologists, however, look to inadequate or outright abusive parenting for an explanation. It is said that beginning in their first years of life, children develop their sense of self by interacting with others, mainly their caregivers. If the infant’s “relational matrix”(20) is awry, the development of his sense of self correspondingly is damaged. In other words, the formation of a person’s self-identity is dependent on the kind and quality of parenting he receives – whether his primary caregiver, who is usually but not always the mother, is nurturing and responsive to the infant’s needs.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut believed that what is critical is whether the primary caregiver “mirrors” the infant. By “mirroring,” Kohut meant that glint in the mother’s eye, her verbal and non-verbal communications “that echo or reinforce the infant’s sense of narcissistic excitement.” The baby’’s primary narcissism is reflected or mirrored by his adoring mother – her maternal gaze is the mirror that affirms the child’’s existence and worth, thereby providing the nourishment that enables the baby’’s “grandiose self and the idealized parent imago to be gradually integrated into the psyche.”(21)

Psychological jargon of “mirroring” aside, in these happy cases, simply put, the infants are loved. Through her adoring gaze, the good mother affirms and confirms the baby’s view of himself as being lovable. Being loved, the infant is able to love himself and is secure and at peace with himself. Loving himself, he is able to love others.(22) Confident in his self-worth, the child is now able and ready to venture outside of himself to love others.

Where parenting is indifferent, negligent, unempathetic, unloving, or outright abusive, instead of developing a sure sense of himself, the child is left with a permanent sense of shame and injured self-esteem. The behavioral consequences are generally grouped in the category of rage, a form of aggression Kohut considered to be the by-product of parental failures rather than the essential disposition of humanity. Kohut called the result “Tragic Man” – a new and increasingly pervasive pathology of narcissistic personality disorder. Growing up in a deficient “self-object milieu,” the child feels emotionally abandoned. He fails to create a whole identity and incurs structural deficits that engender lasting feelings of worthlessness and defensiveness.(23) With an uncertain self-identity, the child lacks that sure core that can adequately equip him to negotiate and interact with his environs. He is plagued with insecurities and turns to fantasy in compensation, conjuring an ideal self-image – a grandiose false self – to cope with the world. In Kernberg’’s words, the imagined self is “a defense against an intolerable reality in the interpersonal realm.”(24) In those cases, Freud thought, the infant fails to form attachments to persons outside of himself. He turns inward, selecting his own self as his love object.(25)

Like Kohut, Lowen thought that narcissism is the result of a distortion of development but insisted that it is what the parents did to the child rather than simply what they failed to do. It is Lowen’s contention that children are often subjected to both kinds of trauma: some parents not only fail to provide sufficient nurturing and support on an emotional level, they seductively try to mold the child according to their image of how he should be.(26) As an example, in psychotherapist George Victor’s account, Adolf Hitler experienced both types of defective parenting. His mother, Klara, was the indulgent parent who saw her son as special and encouraged him to regard himself as special; whereas Adolf’s father, Alois, reportedly was physically abusive, which bred in his son an abiding rage, an iron will to not appear weak, and a lasting sense of shame or deficient self-worth. To compensate for that shame – while, at the same time, being doted on by his adoring mother – the boy Adolf increasingly retreated into a fantasy world of grandiosity.(27)

Put simply, common to all three types of dysfunctional parenting is the absence of parental love for the child. A parent who genuinely loves his/her child is not indifferent to the child, nor does the parent neglect, abuse, or torture the child. In the case of the doting parent whose only fault would seem to be that s/he loves the child too much, it turns out that the parent’s indulgence actually stems from his/her own narcissism. Instead of seeing and respecting the child as who he really is, the parent projects his/her own narcissistic fantasies onto the child. The parent’s love object is actually him/herself, instead of the child.

It is their different parenting experiences that best explain why Tom Riddle and Harry Potter, despite their many similarities in background and upbringing, turned out so very differently. Both were orphaned at a very young age: Riddle at birth; Potter at one year of age. Both grew up in an unloving home: Riddle in an orphanage; Potter with the Dursleys, his emotionally cold and abusive aunt and uncle who deeply resented having to care for him. The difference – and it’s a huge difference – between Riddle and Potter is that Harry, in his first year of life, was very much loved by his parents. James and Lily Potter so loved their son that they literally sacrificed their lives to protect him from Voldemort and, in so doing, imparted to Harry an ancient and the most powerful magical protection of all – that of love.

In contrast, not only was Tom Riddle orphaned at birth (his mother had died immediately after giving birth), but more significantly, Riddle was orphaned because both of his parents had abandoned him. In Albus Dumbledore’’s reconstruction, Riddle’’s father left his pregnant wife, Merope Marvolo, within a few months of their runaway marriage to return to his family manor in Little Hangleton, talking of having been “hoodwinked” and “taken in” by Merope. He never saw his wife again, nor did he trouble himself “to discover what became of his son.” Merope was left alone and pregnant in London. There, forsaken by the man she loved with a desperate passion, Merope stopped using magic altogether. Despairing of life, she did not want to be a witch any longer. When she gave birth to Tom Riddle, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life and “chose death in spite of a son who needed her.”(28)

Grandiose false self. At the core of the malignant narcissism syndrome is the individual’s creation of a grandiose false self in compensation for his unacceptable real self and as a way to cope with the external world. Like its namesake, the mythic Narcissus in love with his reflected image, the self that the narcissist loves is not his true self, but a counterfeit version that is superior and perfect. This is due to the self-loathing that is at the root of pathological narcissism. And so the narcissist rejects his real self and, instead, invests excessive love in an illusion. To call narcissists self-loving, therefore, is something of a misnomer because at the root of their narcissism is actually a kind of self-loathing.(29) The paradox is only seeming, for it is his real self that the narcissist loathes, and it is his aggrandized and exalted fantasy self with which he is besotted.

The narcissist’s attachment to his grandiose false self accounts for the first three attributes in the DSM-IV’s checklist for NPD: “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance”; “Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”; and “Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique.” The particular basis of the grandiosity is what the narcissist fancies himself to be, which may be physical beauty, superior intellect, moral virtue, or some other facet of his persona.

Voldemort, or more accurately Tom Riddle, most certainly was grandiose. Though born a commoner, the product of the union between a Muggle and a witch, Riddle conferred on himself the aristocratic title of “Lord.” More than his pretensions to noble birth, John Clute and John Grant noted that Riddle aimed to rule as “the Prince of this world” – over the Wizarding world, if not also over Muggles, though without either’s consent.(30) More than all this, Riddle was so grandiose as to aspire to transcend being human. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Riddle as his false self, Voldemort, declares, “But I am not a man…I am much, much more than a man.”(31) He tells his disciples, the Death Eaters, who flock to him that his goal is “to conquer death.” In The Magical World of Harry Potter, author David Colbert observed that:

This lust for eternal life is the essence of the Dark Lord’s depravity. In every culture, immortality, though desirable, is against the laws of nature. Things must die so other things may be born. This is a constant theme in Rowling’s work: accepting death and not fighting nature. She states it directly at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Voldemort says, “There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” But Dumbledore replies, “…there are things much worse,” adding that Voldemort’s fear of death is his “greatest weakness.”(32)

A contributor to a Harry Potter fan website wrote that, by refusing to accept the very human necessity of death, Tom Riddle also “renounces his humanity.”(33)

Charming social mask. The narcissist strives to maintain and protect his concocted self-image at all costs. The pathological narcissistic syndrome may be likened to a wheel in which the grandiose false self is the hub, to which are affixed spokes. The spokes have a specific purpose, which is to maintain, protect, and sustain the “hub” of the grandiose false self. Attributes 3-9 of the DSM-IV checklist constitute some of the spokes.

To begin with, the pathological narcissist uses people as tools of self-aggrandizement to affirm and maintain his false self – others are used for a perverse kind of “mirroring” to reflect the narcissist’s ostentatious self-regard. This accounts for why the narcissist “requires excessive admiration” (DSM-IV attribute 4), seeks to associate with “special or high-status people or institutions” (DSM-IV attribute 3), and is “interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends” (DSM-IV attribute 6). Like a vampire who must feed on others’’ blood in order to live, the narcissist basks in the admiration, love, approval, and compliments he elicits from others. If the other person ceases to provide him with “narcissistic supply,” he no longer has much use for that person and the relationship will markedly cool, if not end altogether.

To lure people into his web, the skillful narcissist puts on an attractive social mask. The narcissist not only has a counterfeit self-image, he literally dons a false façade of physical appearance and demeanor. He can be charming, gracious, and socially adept. He must also be a consummate actor, skilled at simulating the whole range of human emotions, especially those of love and kindness. The more successful he is at simulation, the greater the circle of friends and acquaintances who can be his primary and secondary feeding sources. Perhaps it is not accidental that some of the greatest villains in fiction are portrayed as charming. A good example is Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. So it is with Voldemort. In Chamber of Secrets, the young Tom Riddle proudly informs Harry Potter that ““I’’ve always been able to charm the people I needed.””(34)

Admittedly, we all wear a public mask of some sort or another, for no human being is without any artifice or is totally honest with other people. What distinguishes the mask of the pathological narcissist is the enormity of the discrepancy between the mask and the person it conceals. Aside from using his charming social mask to attract admirers who provide him with his narcissistic supply, the mask also conceals the narcissist’s contrived false self from scrutiny and exposure. Concealment requires secrecy, evasion, dishonesty, and deception, which means that the pathological narcissist is a consummate liar who habitually lies, even about seemingly small or inconsequential matters. Riddle’s mask evidently was very effective. Indeed, before he remade himself as Voldemort and abandoned all pretense at normalcy, Tom Riddle had impressed those who knew him to be “polite, handsome, and clever,” with “no sign of outward arrogance or aggression.”(35)

Social/psychological astuteness. More than charm, using other people for his narcissistic supply also requires the narcissist to be interpersonally astute and shrewd if he is to be successful at obtaining the “excessive admiration” he so craves. He must be a human emotional radar with the ability to size up those he encounters for their potential to be his “blood donor.” Given that, it should come as no surprise that Severus Snape, in Goblet of Fire, describes Voldemort as “the greatest wizard, the most accomplished Legilimens the world has ever seen.”(36)

To maintain his fantasies, the narcissist’s counterfeit self must be impervious to refutation, which requires him to resist self-examination and introspection. Being introspective might open the narcissist to reality checks and critical reflection – a dangerous undertaking because the false self, by definition, is unreal. As a result, instead of the insecurities of normal human beings, the narcissist displays an impassive and uncritical acceptance of himself. He is curiously disinterested in learning about himself and avoids and resists psychological probing, counseling, or therapy.

Hypersensitivity to criticisms. Freud had described narcissists as consistently managing “to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it.”(37) The maintenance and protection of the false self also requires the pathological narcissist to be constantly vigilant against being “attacked” by others. He reacts to any criticism, no matter how minor or unintentional, with cool indifference (symptomatic of the psychological defense mechanism of denial) or with rage and humiliation. Hitler, for example, is well known for his fits of rage. The narcissist simply will not suffer any disapprobation. He sees any criticism as a hostile attack because, by the very nature of his disorder, he cannot imagine that the criticism is justified, for how can perfection be found to be wanting? Relationship problems, therefore, are never the fault of the narcissist; he blames everyone but himself. Nor does he apologize or admit that he is wrong or at fault. Instead, the narcissist subtly, if not blatantly, turns things around to blame or scapegoat others.

A way for the narcissist to fortify his armor is to get others to conform to his delusions. The narcissist may draw one person into his orbit, forming a folie à deux (literally, a madness shared by two), or he may attract many into his fantasy world, resulting in a folie à plusieurs (madness of many). Hitler exploited the German people’s sense of victimhood from having been defeated and humiliated in the First World War while, at the same time, using fanciful Nordic myths to appeal to their grandiosity. In this manner, Hitler lured the adoring masses into his madness. Voldemort, too, enticed followers and admirers – the Death Eaters – with his promise of power and glory.

Lack of affect. Lowen pointed out that the more narcissistic a person is, the more he is estranged from his true self. Since the self is “a body/feeling entity,” alienation from his true self means a concomitant estrangement from his body and emotions. What results is an overall lack of feelings, except for those of pride, rage, and envy. It is their lack of affect that gives narcissists an impression of unreality, a “lack of humanness” that makes them appear more like machines than people.(38) Consistent with the narcissist’s lack of affect, Voldemort’’s voice is described as “silky” (that is, seductive and manipulative) and “cold” – as “cold as a sudden blast of icy wind.”(39)

Envy. Being hollow inside, the narcissist is jealous of anyone who appears to him to possess the qualities he desires and fantasizes for himself. It is also observed that the narcissist “inflicts damage out of envy.”(40) That accounts for attribute 8 in the DSM-IV checklist: “Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.” As Voldemort says about himself, “greatness inspires envy, envy engenders spite, and spite spawns lies.”(41) In his grandiosity, the narcissist is convinced that people are envious of him, but his conviction may actually be a projection of his own envy onto others.

Inability to love. One of the most important human emotions, arguably the most important, is love. In the case of pathological narcissists, their overall lack of affect includes also an inability to love others. To begin with, since their self-love is all-consuming, as Kernberg put it, “there is not a lot left for loving others.”(42) But the problem goes deeper than that. It takes humility to love another because loving requires a willingness to be vulnerable.(43) Freud had observed that love is ego-deflating because “Loving in itself, in so far as it involves longing and deprivation, lowers self-regard.” A person in love, therefore, necessarily is humble. In loving another, he has surrendered a part of his narcissism, which can only be restored by the other reciprocating his ardor. That is why Freud counseled that “in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if…we are unable to love.”(44) Unable or unwilling to love anyone outside of himself, the narcissist’s interior life is arid and empty, devoid of gratifying intimate relations.(45)

Dumbledore repeatedly described the young Tom Riddle and the later Voldemort as being friendless. Hitler, too, had only one person he could call a friend in his youth. Once he ascended to power, despite the adulation he received from the masses, even his closest associates admitted that they never knew the real Hitler. In Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort is referred to as “one of the most powerful wizards of all time” and “the wizard who was feared above all others.”(46) Unable to love, malignant narcissists such as Hitler and Voldemort choose power instead, preferring being feared to being loved.

Fear of death. Another powerful human emotion is the pain of loss. It is said that only human beings are aware of and anticipate death, and that only human beings mourn and grieve for the departed.(47) That would account for the pathological narcissist’s façade of exaggerated independence, which in turn might account for his friendlessness. He dreads being dependent on others not only because his false self, being superior, needs no one, but also because he fears the anguish of loss, especially the greatest loss of all – his own mortality.

But the narcissist’’s determination to avoid grief comes at a steep price, which is nothing less than the forfeiture of his humanity. Dumbledore observes to Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix that the pain of loss “is part of being human.” Not only is Harry’’s ability to feel pain over the untimely death of his godfather Sirius Black his “greatest strength,” Harry’’s suffering shows his humanity, proving that he is “still a man.”(48) Similarly, Adam Gopnik noted that our ability to suffer the pain of loss “is the price of being conscious and the point of being human.”(49)

In contrast, intent on avoiding the pain of being human, narcissists succeed in achieving a counterfeit life that is a kind of living death. In Fromm’s words, incapable of love and unwilling to suffer the pain of loss, the narcissist is entrapped “in a way of life which is so close to the way of death that the difference…may become hard to distinguish.”(50) The genius of J.K. Rowling is that not only does she understand the psychopathology of malignant narcissism, but she has also created a perfect metaphor for malignant narcissists as the living dead. That metaphor is the Horcrux.

In Half-Blood Prince, we are told that Tom Riddle discovered a very Dark Magic to ensure his immortality. By secreting a part of his immortal soul into a Horcrux – which can be any object, thing, or creature – even if his material body (and the piece of soul within it) is destroyed, he will not die because the piece of his soul in the Horcrux still lives. The problem is that a soul is split into two only as a result of killing another human being. And that is exactly what Riddle did – and more, for he managed to create probably six Horcruxes before the fateful night at Godric’’s Hollow when the Killing Curse he inflicted on the infant Harry Potter backfired and boomeranged, reducing Riddle’’s body to a phantomlike half-life. Before that night, with the creation of each Horcrux (and therefore each murder), Riddle became less and less human looking. From the handsome young man he once was when he was a student at Hogwarts, Riddle eventually became the snake-like Voldemort, with red eyes and a flat nose with slits instead of nostrils.

We know that before Godric’’s Hollow, Tom Riddle killed at least six people in order to create six Horcruxes, his own father and grandparents being his first victims. But Voldemort murdered many more than six. In Goblet of Fire, we are told that he “had performed “the [killing] curse that had disposed of many full-grown witches and wizards in his steady rise to power.”” (51) In Half-Blood Prince, we are told that those whom he murdered probably number “a thousand.” Also in Half-Blood Prince, on the subject of the Inferi – corpses bewitched to do a Dark wizard’s bidding – Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that “Voldemort has “killed enough people to make an army of them.””(52) His soul being split into two upon each killing, Voldemort’’s many murders point to the utterly splintered and profoundly damaged condition of his soul.

Lack of empathy. Anyone who can kill a human being, much less many human beings, in circumstances other than in self-defense, will have to lack empathy. Empathy is the ability to infer and experience another’s emotions. As such, not only is empathy essential for psychological health(53), it is the very foundation of altruism and of human morality in general. Sociobiologists(54) tell us that empathy is a natural trait in human beings. Infants less than a year old already display a primitive form of empathy when they cry upon hearing another baby’’s wails.

The malignant narcissist is the exception to that normal human development. We have seen that the narcissist, being estranged from his true self, concomitantly is also alienated from his emotions. In addition to his inability to love and to bear the pain of loss, the narcissist is also defective in empathy – attribute 7 in the DSM-IV checklist for NPD, that of being “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

It is said that a common attribute of serial killers is that in their childhood and teen years before they graduate to killing human beings, they abuse, torture, or kill small animals. This means that those who become serial killers lacked empathy from their early years. Their lack of empathy and of emotions in general prompted Malachi Martin to identify the essence of evil to be “the opposite of all humanness.”(55)

We are told that Tom Riddle had tortured a rabbit in his youth. We are also told in Half-Blood Prince that as a child, he had bullied and terrorized two fellow orphans in a seaside cave; while still a teenager, he killed his father and paternal grandparents. Worse than lacking in empathy, Riddle enjoyed killing, which is the worst form of evil. As an example, in Goblet of Fire, Voldemort is described as talking about killing Bertha Jorkins – an employee and witch at the Ministry of Magic who posed no threat and had done no wrong to Voldemort – “without any kind of remorse” but “with amusement.”(56)

Scapegoating. The psychological mechanism that enables the malignant narcissist’s lack of empathy is dehumanization. The other person is no longer seen as a fellow human deserving of the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves. When we depersonalize others, we effectively consign them to the status of being animals or mere objects, and the reality is that we slaughter and eat animals for the simple reason that they are not human. When human beings are stripped of their humanity, the normal moral rules and constraints that we accord each other no longer pertain. What can and do result are some of the most horrific deeds imaginable.

Dennis Rader, the notorious serial killer who called himself “BTK” for his preferred method of “bind, torture, kill,” is a striking example of the malignant narcissist’’s lack of empathy and dehumanization. Arrogant and grandiose, Rader taunted the media and police (whom he derisively called “the Keystone cops”) with cryptic messages in a cat-and-mouse game over the course of three decades. Consistent with the malignant narcissistic syndrome, Rader committed his first murders in 1974 in reaction to a narcissistic injury from losing his job, which left him, in his words, “feeling down” and “demoralized.”(57) On June 27, 2005, in Wichita, Kansas, he pled guilty to ten murders, including the hanging of an 11-year-old girl (after killing her parents and brother) and the strangling of a 62-year-old woman. Before the court, he described how he had killed in a matter-of-fact tone without a trace of emotion, even less of compassion or regret. He repeatedly referred to his victims as “projects” to which he had assigned numbers, and of killing them as “putting them down,” as if those whom he had tortured and murdered were animals to be euthanized. When the judge asked why he killed, he replied that he wanted to live out his sadistic “sexual fantasies.”(58)

Typically, before we dehumanize another, we first make that person our scapegoat. Here, it is useful to visit psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of “the shadow.” For Jung, the shadow is a metaphor for “that dark half of our psyche” – what we dislike and refuse to acknowledge about ourselves.(59) Since those elements are incompatible with how we like to see ourselves, they are “swept under the table” and repressed into our subconscious. From these repressed qualities, the shadow is constructed.(60) But the problem is although the shadow has been banished to our subconscious mind, it still exists and will not remain submerged. Instead, our shadow ineluctably bubbles up in the form of projection as we cast our faults onto others, accusing them of the very failings (and more) that we deny in ourselves. In this manner, by projecting our defects onto another, we preserve our self-regard as well as displace our aggression onto a convenient target.(61) This is called scapegoating.

Although psychologists maintain that all human beings engage in projection and scapegoating, narcissists and especially malignant narcissists are particularly prone. Recall that at the root of their narcissism is actually a kind of self-loathing. To compensate for that, the narcissist manufactures an aggrandized and exalted fantasy self, all of which means that the narcissist’s “shadow” must be enormous, which in turn means that the narcissist is even more inclined to scapegoat others.

The most notorious example of shadow and scapegoating was Hitler and the Nazis fantasizing themselves to be the ubermensch (super-race) and identifying Jews to be the untermensch (subhumans), an allegedly inferior and evil race. That justified and led to the “final solution” of the Holocaust, in which an estimated six million innocent Jewish men, women, and children were slaughtered between 1941 and 1945. It is George Victor’s belief that Hitler’s venomous hatred of Jews stemmed from his self-loathing because he believed his father, Alois, to be half-Jewish. Rumor had it that Alois was the illegitimate son of a Jewish man. Not only was the culture in Austria and Germany at the time quite anti-Semitic, but Adolf Hitler also hated Jews because he hated his abusive father. His hatred for his half-Jewish father merged with his self-loathing (for being a quarter Jewish) to form a formidable “shadow” that he sought to exorcise through the Holocaust.

Like Hitler, Tom Riddle/Voldemort hates Muggles with what Rowling has called a “racist” passion because his Muggle father abandoned his mother. Rowling has said that Voldemort’’s obsession with “pure” wizard bloodlines is like the Nazis’’ Aryan ideal. She directly connected Voldemort’’s mixed parentage to the case of Hitler who fell far short of the physical ideal that he demanded others meet, being short and dark-haired, instead of the Nazi ideal of a tall and fair-haired Nordic. Voldemort, Rowling explains, “takes what he perceives to be a defect in himself, in other words, the non-purity of his blood, and he projects it onto others… He takes his own inferiority and turns it back on other people and attempts to exterminate in them what he hates in himself.”(62)

Amoralism. The pathological narcissist’s lack of empathy is a direct result of his grandiosity. Lowen had a simple definition of the narcissist as someone who has an unwarranted grandiose notion about himself.(63) Grandiosity is an exaggerated conviction of being special and important; it is also considered to be a form of mental illness because it is delusional. Grandiose persons feel that they deserve special treatment and view others as objects to be manipulated. They expect to be recognized as important and talented even though their accomplishments are unremarkable, and are insulted when others fail to acknowledge or appreciate their specialness.(64) All of which would explain the narcissist’s “sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations” (DSM-IV attribute 5), as well as his overall “arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes” (DSM-IV attribute 9).

J.R.R. Tolkien once described Sauron, the chief villain and “Dark Lord” in The Lord of the Rings, “as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible” because he wanted to be “a God-King.” Indeed, if Sauron had been victorious, he would have demanded all of Middle Earth treat him as a god. Tolkien concluded that “Sauron’s evil lies in his desire to usurp God, to assume a place in the world that is not rightly his.”(65) Like Sauron, by elevating himself above everyone and everything, the grandiose narcissist too becomes his own god. And gods, by definition, are above the petty moral laws, rules, and conventions governing those lesser beings called humanity: “Rules don’’t apply to me.” Therein lies not just amorality, but the real potential for evil.

Objective or fixed moral standards act as boundaries defining right or wrong and, as such, impose constraints on our behavior. If the narcissist were to conform to society’s moral rules and ethical standards, it would mean he must submit to an authority greater than himself. Being his own god, however, he will not tolerate being checked or constrained. Instead, the narcissist will make his own rules. In Half-Blood Prince, Snape says to Bellatrix and Narcissa that “The Dark Lord’s word is law.”(66) More than that, Voldemort acts as a god: Through his own and his Death Eater’s’ killings, Voldemort effectively has godlike life-and-death power over other human beings.

For the grandiose narcissist, therefore, morality necessarily is relative, situational, and entirely subjective: “What’s good is that which serves my interest or which makes me feel good.” The narcissist himself is all that matters. Furthermore, it is in the interest of those who are evil to deny the reality and existence of evil. As an example, Charles Manson, the leader and mastermind of the 1969 Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders, was described by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as “totally amoral” and having “no moral boundaries.” Not surprisingly, Manson’s followers were also amoral. The examining psychiatrist of convicted murderers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten found that they had no sense of guilt because they believed there was no right or wrong.(67)Consistent with that amoralism, we have Voldemort, in Sorcerer’’s Stone, also declaring that “”There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”” (68)



It may be that the source of Tom Riddle’’s malignant narcissism is in his early childhood – a lonely childhood in which he was unloved, having been abandoned by the parents who gave him life. But that in itself neither explains nor justifies his evil. Not every orphan grows into a Voldemort, nor does every infant who was not “mirrored” by his primary caregiver become a serial killer or a mass murderer. Many children endured far worse childhoods than Tom Riddle or little Adolf, but none became Voldemort or Hitler.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that ““we have to reckon with the fact that there is a failed freedom.” Those who are evil misuse the freedom of choice given to us. In them – whom Ratzinger called “the irrevocable evil” – is found “a negative entropy of the spirit…which misuses the time that is given to it and leaves it a wreck.” ”(69)

In the last analysis, no matter his orphanage upbringing, it is Tom Riddle’’s choice that made the evil he became. As the wise Professor Albus Dumbledore counsels Harry in Chamber of Secrets, “”It is not our abilities that show what we truly are, it is our choices.”” Such is the enduring mystery of human free will.

The author can be reached at mariac at unr dot nevada dot edu.

  1. Jeffrey Adams and Eric Williams, eds., Mimetic Desire: Essays on Narcissism in German Literature From Romanticism to Post-Modernism (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995), p. 18.
  2.  M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (New York, Touchstone, 1998).
  3.  See Chapers 2 and 3 of Lyall Watson, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).
  4.  Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism, An Introduction,” in James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1962), p. 74.
  5. Theodore I. Rubin, “Goodbye to Death and Celebration of Life,” Event, vol. 2, no. 1 (1981), p. 64.
  6. Alexander Lowen, M.D., Narcissism: Denial Of the True Self (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 6.
  7.  Psychiatrist James Whitney Hicks identified the histrionic and anti-social personality disorders as having “grandiose traits,” and Alexander Lowen claimed that the borderline personality disorder exhibits “a variety of narcissistic disturbance.” See James Whitney Hicks, M.D., 50 Signs of Mental Illness (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 129, and Lowen, Narcissism, p. 10.
  8.  See chapter 14 in Theodore Millon, with Roger D. Davis, Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond, 2nd edition (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996), pp, 505-539.
  9.  W. John Livesley, ed., The DSM-IV Personality Disorders (New York: Guilford Press, 1995).
  10.  Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 65-68, 77.
  11.  Peck, People of the Lie, pp. 66, 226.
  12.  Susan Bridle, “The Seeds of the Self: An Interview With Otto Kernberg,” What is Enlightenment?, no. 17 (Spring-Summer, 2000), http://www.wie.org/j17/kern.asp
  13.  Benedict Carey, “For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be ‘Evil’,” New York Times, February 8, 2005.
  14.  Peck, People of the Lie, p. 47.
  15.  Ibid., p. 42.
  16.  Of the two, Aristotle placed greater importance on malice, insisting that one can be forgiven for a wrong action because we all make mistakes, but never for a wrong desire.
  17.  See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1966).
  18.  In the last analysis, however, we do not really know if the roots of pathological narcissism are in early childhood development because, as psychologist Paul Wink put it, “Direct research on the childhood antecedents of narcissism is sadly lacking.” Paul Wink, “Narcissism,” in Charles G. Costello, ed., Personality Characteristics of the Personality Disordered (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996), p. 166.
  19.  Lowen, Narcissism, p. 13.
  20.  Barbara Ann Shapiro, Literature and the Relational Self (New York & London: New York University Press, 1994), p. 11.
  21.  Adams and Williams, “Introduction,” pp. 5, 16.
  22.  Bridle, “The Seeds of the Self: An Interview With Otto Kernberg.”
  23.  Adams and Williams, “Introduction,” pp. 6-7.
  24.  Lowen, Narcissism, pp. 6-7.
  25.  Freud, “On Narcissism, An Introduction,” pp. 73-75, 93, 87-88.
  26.  Lowen, Narcissism, p. 12.
  27.  See George Victor, Hitler: The Pathology of Evil (Washington: Brassey’s, 2000).
  28.  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic Inc., 2005), pp. 214, 261-262.
  29.  Beneath Narcissism Lie Fear and Self-Loathing,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2002, p. E9.
  30.  John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999), p. 249.
  31.  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2000), p. 15.
  32.  David Colbert, The Magical World of Harry Potter (New York: Berkley Books, 2001), p. 252.
  33.  Lady Lupin, “The Other Trio: Dark, Darker and Darkest,” MuggleNet editorial, December 11, 2005, http://www.mugglenet.com/2005/12/spinners-end-the-other-trio-dark-darker-and-darkest/
  34.  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Scholastic Inc., 1999), p. 310.
  35.  Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, pp. 432, 360.
  36.  Rowling, Goblet of Fire, p. 26.
  37.  Freud, “On Narcissism,” p. 89.
  38.  Lowen, Narcissism, pp. xi, 13-14.
  39.  Rowling, Goblet of Fire, pp. 11, 7.
  40.  Clute and Grant, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 249.
  41.  Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, p. 443.
  42.  Bridle, “The Seeds of the Self: An Interview with Otto Kernberg.”
  43.  Their lack of narcissism may be why pets or companion animals, such as dogs and cats, are capable of such pure and unconditional love.
  44.  Freud, “On Narcissism,” pp. 99, 98, 85.
  45.  Bridle, “The Seeds of the Self: An Interview with Otto Kernberg.”
  46.  Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, pp. 12, 11.
  47.  Our increasing knowledge of animals, however, casts doubt on this long-held belief. There is compelling evidence that some animals, notably gorillas and elephants, are aware of death and mourn for their dead companions. See chapter two of Gary A. Kowalski, The Souls of Animals (Walpole, New Hampshire: Stillpoint Publishing, 1991).
  48.  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic Inc., 2003), pp. 823-824.
  49.  Adam Gopnik, “Death of a Fish,” The New Yorker, July 4, 2005, p. 46.
  50.  Fromm, Heart of Man, p. 36.
  51.  Rowling, Goblet of Fire, p. 20. Emphasis supplied.
  52.  Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, p. 62.
  53.  An axiom of Kohut is that the individual requires a modicum of empathy to maintain psychological health. Adams and Williams, “Introduction,” p. 19.
  54.  See Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology (1975), and Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.
  55.  Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p. 10.
  56.  Rowling, Goblet of Fire, pp. 3, 12.
  57.  Confessions of BTK,” Dateline NBC, August 12, 2005.
  58.  Roxana Hegeman, “BTK Defendant Pleads Guilty,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 28, 2005, p. A5.
  59.  Carl Jung, “Introduction to the Problems of Alchemy,” in Jung On Evil, selected and introduced by Murray Stein (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1995), p. 34.
  60.  Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1995), pp. 4-5.
  61.  Projection” is a defense mechanism “by which characteristics or desires that are unacceptable to a person’s ego are externalized or projected onto someone else.” Mike Cardwell, Shaum’s A-Z Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), pp. 192, 213.
  62.  Colbert, The Magical World of Harry Potter, pp. 250, 252.
  63.  Lowen, Narcissism, p. 15.
  64.  Hicks, 50 Signs of Mental Illness, p. 128.
  65.  The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000), pp. 243-244.
  66.  Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, p. 32.
  67.  Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1974), pp. 225, 224, 232, 443.
  68.  J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic Inc., 1998), p. 291.
  69.  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “The End of Time,” in Tiemo Rainer Peters and Claus Urban (eds.), The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking About God (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), p. 23.