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Radical Narcissist

On Caveh Zahedi

Pinkish nonbinary figure with exaggerated breasts and testicles kneels, presenting a bunch of bananas in front of a stage background that is the same yellow green as the bananas.
Berna Reale, I kneel and you pray. 2019, plexiglass face mounted print on cotton paper. 39 × 59". Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nara Roesler, São Paulo.

Caveh Zahedi. 365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die. Prologue Projects, 2021.

Like everyone, I have a lot of experience with narcissists. Unfortunately, I never recognize it until it’s too late. It unfolds the same way every time: I am totally taken in, we spend a finite period in blissful friendship, and then at some point I realize it’s all out of balance. They are being so demanding—they won’t let me pay attention to anything else. The second I back away, they can smell it and try to pull me in closer. I feel increasingly dirty, physically dirty, like I’m laboring in the coal mines to fuel their emotional engine. I push away. They must think I’m such a bitch, I think to myself. Let them think I’m a bitch. If I had to guess, based on personal experience, I’d say approximately one in fifteen people I meet has a narcissistic disorder: they don’t imagine that other people live lives as full as theirs. US studies seem to put the number higher (in 1989, around 80 percent of teenagers agreed with the statement I am an important person), but I think they’re talking about something different. The way you recognize a narcissist in my definition is by the way they make you feel: the inevitable cycle from intrigue to disgust.

In 2021, episodes of Caveh Zahedi’s 365 Stories I Want to Tell You Before We Both Die podcast were released daily. Each is only a few minutes long, just enough to deliver an unscripted story from Zahedi’s past in the tone of a confidante. Throughout the series Zahedi, a documentary filmmaker who often turns the lens on himself (the show is captioned “An oral history of Caveh Zahedi by Caveh Zahedi”), looks back fondly on his boarding school days in Switzerland and, more carefully, on his innumerable conflicts with exes and colleagues in the film industry. The episodes were recorded in his producer Leon Neyfakh’s closet. In just a couple of weeks I cycled all the way from love—listening to episode after episode on long, meditative walks with a stroller and hearing Zahedi’s voice in my head at all other times of day—to the other side. I managed to get my husband hooked in the process. He continued to listen every day as the episodes came out, whereas when I caught the distinct cadence of Zahedi’s voice coming out of the fuzzy iPhone speaker from the kitchen, I began to feel embarrassed. For me? For Zahedi? For me for once liking him and for Zahedi for being so . . . needy.

The first episode I listened to was “A Slap in the Face,” which aired June 28. I’d found out about the podcast from a short New York Times article I encountered on Twitter and decided to give it a try. The episode is four minutes long and recounts a scene from Zahedi’s college years. He and his girlfriend at the time live in the same house, and she has hooked up with another guy while Zahedi is there. He’s upset and confronts her. “I’m so upset,” he remembers telling her.

“Well, what are you gonna do about it?” he recalls her responding.

“I don’t know, I feel like hitting you I’m so mad.”

“Well, if you want to hit me you can.”

“And I said, ‘Really?’ and she said, ‘Yeah hit me, go ahead.’”

In Zahedi’s recollection, this was permission—even an invitation—for him to break the taboo of a guy hitting a girl; it was her way, he interprets, of acknowledging how seriously she had done him wrong. So he hit her as hard as he could. She was shocked by how hard he hit her, he recalls. Years later, when she told the story back to their mutual friend, she didn’t remember telling Zahedi it was OK to hit her. She just remembered getting hit.

I was impressed by the insight Zahedi had landed on: that people have such different memories of the same events and that this distance is alienating and painful; it prevents us from being totally connected to other people and creates misunderstandings. “I can’t believe she forgot that detail,” Zahedi recalls saying to his friend. “And I was like, wow . . . this is why people don’t get along, they just forget these really important details. And I was like, I wonder what details I’ve forgotten.” How sad, I thought. How true. It was days and episodes later that I realized he’d surrounded the core action of the story—that he’d hit his girlfriend—with layers of narrative padding.

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