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Mental Disorders

Narcissus and the Grizzly Bears

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

I set my Tivo to record the film "Grizzly Man" on the Discovery Channel a week or so ago and had the opportunity to watch it the other night. What a great film! I liked it so much that I have decided to interrupt my ongoing series of essays regarding the nature of psychotherapy technique in order to comment on it. I'll return to the psychotherapy material soon, but for today, I'll share my sense of this wonderful film. Warning – I'll probably have spoilers in the content below here. If you haven't seen the movie and want to experience it with pristine eyes, then stop reading, go see the movie (It is probably out on DVD by now) and THEN come back and read.


Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent thirteen long summers of his life living with (communing with, filming, photographing) grizzly bears in Alaska. Grizzly bears are not your average brown or black bear – they are behemoths of the bear world and every inch wild carnivorous apex predators. Some are 10 feet tall on their hind legs and may weigh over a thousand pounds. They are a natural marvel in many ways; huge, powerful, fast, bloody and beautiful. Most of all, they are predators. It is quite dangerous for an unprotected, unarmed human being to be near a grizzly bear. Tim Treadwell knew this of course, but he made a lifestyle out of living in very close and unprotected proximity to these creatures for over a decade, filming them and doing what he could do to protect them. The bears didn't understand him or his complex motivations. Mostly, they seem to have ignored him. Ultimately, one of them started thinking of him as a food source and then ate him and his girlfriend.

Grizzly Man is not really about Treadwell's death at the paws and jaws of a large bear, however. His death is a central event for the film but also quite incidental to the heart of the film which is the exploration of who this man Treadwell was and what his motivations were in living and dying the way that he did. This is a story about the personal psychology of Timothy Treadwell, and it is a fascinating story at that.

By all accounts, Treadwell's early adult life was "troubled", meaning he was alcoholic (at least). I gather he was also someone with a temper; both passionate, and impulsive in the manner in which he approached life. He was not an academic sort of person. Instead, he wanted to be an actor and had moved to southern California to pursue an acting career with little real success. As is the case for many alcoholics, he seems to have had some arrested social development. His film clips show him to be simultaneously charismatic and painfully vulnerable and awkward. In terms of emotional maturity, he comes across as a young man (like a teenager still struggling with how to pick up chicks) even though he was in his late 30s when most of the film clips were shot.

At some point in his early 30s, Treadwell experienced a life-changing epiphany; a conversion experience of almost religious intensity. He became born-again, but instead of finding Jesus, he found the bears. The bears seem to have represented many things. They were endangered, and thus needed a champion to help keep them safe. At the same time, they were wild and formidable predators and simply being near them was taking his life into his hands. The thrill of this danger seems to have been very exciting. The longer he was able to pull off surviving this danger, the more potent the allure of the bears seems to have become. The bears met multiple needs, then: 1) a need to care for and protect something larger than himself, 2) the ability to be a spokesman for something larger than himself (the bears) and to bask in their reflected glory, 3) the thrill of danger that an impulsive sort of guy given to extremes of behavior craves, and 4) a sense of special toughness at being able to survive bear encounters. That the bears live in a physically gorgeous and pristine setting (near Kodiak Island in Alaska), one that is nearly eden-like in its beauty could only contribute to the allure of the bears. It seems to have been love at first sight; and the alcohol could not compete. He gave up drinking and started living with and for the bears every moment he could.

Now, the typical person who goes up to Alaska to work with bears would be an environmental scientist, a biologist or something like that. Someone with a professional background who was interested in studying bears, in the sense of measuring and recording what they do in a systematic, detached and "objective" manner. Treadwell's approach to bears was not detached or objective in the slightest. His connection to the bears was instead extremely subjective: personal, emotional and highly impressionistic. Treadwell literally identified with the bears, seeing in their inhuman perfection the perfection of his own identity. He anthropomorphized the bears, reading sentimental human motives into them that probably weren't there. He spoke to them as a lover, telling them that they were beautiful. He told them he loved them. To watch him interact in his gorgeous footage is to watch a man who both knows that he is completely in danger and who is also so enraptured by the gorgeousness of it all that he doesn't care. He cared about the bears and the foxes and the land with a depth and a passion that would be pathetic if it weren't so poignant and true. I couldn't help but like him for this expressive and exuberant quality.

On the whole, though, Treadwell is not a particularly easy guy to like; at least not in the manner he is portrayed in Grizzly Man. Watching Treadwell engage with the animals is both fascinating and anger-inducing for many people I've spoken with. You can't help but be impressed with his energy and enthusiasm, but being far more detached from the scene, you also can't help but recognize the danger that the guy has put himself in. You yell at him in your head for taking such unnecessary risks, for putting himself so blatantly in harm's way. It is completely like he has made himself into a human sacrifice to the bear gods, and you can't help but curse him for being a fool taking foolish and unnecessary risks.

You also yell at him for being so clearly grandiose and so out of his element. He's getting off on thinking of himself as a "protector of bears", when really he isn't helping things. The film cuts from beautiful footage of Treadwell with the animals to interviews with people who are supposedly bear experts in order to make it clear that probably the very last thing the bears of Alaska ever needed was an on-site, unarmed "protector". What the bears do seem to need is a good lawyer (to fight back arctic oil drilling proposals so popular among the corrupt politicians running the country today), and an armed guard (to guard against poachers who kill the bears for sport and folk-medicine sex remedies). What the bears seem to need most of all is to be left alone. Though clearly well meaning, what Treadwell seems to actually accomplish is to get bears familiar with humans, who are of course the most dangerous predators of all. This is a bad outcome because when bears start getting used to humans, they may seek out places where humans live, resulting ultimately in their needing to be destroyed. As a Native American museum curator from the area suggests in one of the interviews in the film, it is best if bears and humans live separate lives, and no people from one group get too familiar with the other. When such familiarity does occur it typically ends tragically. Treadwell's case is no exception.

"There's something vaguely creepy about this guy, something off with him, but I don't know what it is", said my wife who had also seen the movie. "I'd say he's a just a jerk, but what do you think?" I replied, "Oh – the guy's a narcissist." To me, one of the major things that makes Treadwell's behavior so anger-inducing is the way that he uses the bears as objects (as cast members in his own private movie about Treadwell) rather than respecting their actual needs (to be left alone). When you really care about someone else in a mature way, you act towards them in a manner that will enhance their well-being as much as your own, rather than ignoring that other person's needs in favor of your own. This is a tricky point to make, because it is amply clear that Treadwell does care about the bears and thinks he is doing the right thing by them. However, he views the bears through a narcissistic lens which makes them revolve around himself. What is good for them must be that he be present with them, becuase that is what he wants. He does not see that they are better served with him absent entirely. Consequently, Treadwell's efforts are ultimately more about doing things that make Treadwell feel excited to be alive then they are about actually protecting and venerating bears. This is the central mark of the narcissist. In Grizzly Man, all the other characters (bears included) revolve around Treadwell . Whenever in life you meet someone and it's all about them, you've met a narcissist.

The DSM defines the following criteria for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

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, as indicated by five or more of the following:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.

  • 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).

  • Requires excessive admiration

  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.

  • Is interpersonally exploitive, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

To be very clear, Treadwell doesn't meet every one of these criteria. Based on the information we get in the movie, there is no sense that he is especially interpersonally exploitive, for example. While he does come across as socially immature, it is not in a mean spirited way. He seems more insecure than envious. There is, however, clear grandiosity present (as evidenced by the unique manner in which he understood his mission to "save the bears"). Treadwell does believe he is special and unique (e.g., safe from predation because he has special knowledge of how to handle bears). He does seem preoccupied with a fantasy of ideal beauty and love even if it is in relation to bears in their eden rather than the more conventional love of self scenarios. We can also check the "excessive admiration" box simply by noting that this is a man who filmed himself and only himself interacting with bears with the intent to become a movie star (and succeeded posthumously in an ugly twist of fate). There is also a case to be made for his "sense of entitlement" although I won't elaborate on that here. Finally, I've already noted the manner in which I think Treadwell lacked true empathy for the bears in the larger sense of understanding their predicament in the context of the modern world. He sought to join their world rather than simply to venerate and protect it, and in so doing probably harmed them more than helped them. That's five criteria met, so I'm content (playing the armchair psychologist game) to say that this particular shoe fits.

Or does it? It fits the portrayal of Timothy Treadwell in the film Grizzly Man, but there is no way of knowing if it would have fit Timothy Treadwell, the human being without having been able to know him personally. I certainly never met the guy, and have only a carefully edited and selected samples of his behavior to go on in making my assessment. My data is suspect too. It is almost certain that the film's director carefully assembled film segments to paint a particular and biased picture. In reality television otherwise boring situations are edited so that they become compelling and melodramatic story lines (I'm thinking of "The Bachelor"), and there is no reason to think that this movie is anything other than (high quality) reality television. It's a fun exercise to identify personality patterns, and a guilty pleasure to psychoanalyze others (admit it!), but I would not lean heavily on a biased snapshot assessment based on a film portrayal if Treadwell were to have come to me for help prior to his death. In that case, I'd want to suspend judgment as best I could and get to know him on his own terms.

I said above that it was the "It's all about me" aura that Treadwell radiates in the film that first alerted me to the narcissistic aspects of his persona. There was another part too that also tipped me in that direction. Treadwell's ex-girlfriend (Jewel) noted that she found a mirror and/or a comb in every article of clothing she inherited from him. As she related this to some of Treadwell's other friends, they all broke into smiles, noting that Treadwell's blond hair, styled into a Prince Valiant sort of bowl cut, was always carefully in place in his films; He was always hyper-aware of being on camera and the center of his own attention. That was part of his charm. That sort of detail also rang the narcissist bell for me loud and clear. The fact that his friends missed him so much also signified to me that, as narcissists go (self-centered people by definition), this one would have been a pleasant guy to have known.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the movie, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in nature, physical landscape beauty, bears or personality. What do you think?