On September 27, 2006, “Curious” wrote the following letter to advice columnist Cary Tennis on salon.com:
“My parents are obsessed with dead people.
“No, not ghosts. Genealogy.
“They are baby boomers and have been tracing their lineage for several years now. They are obsessed with their new hobby. This is strange because they are not the type to have obsessive interests. Every time I see them, they tell me about Great Great Uncle Jonas who died of smallpox or Great Great Grandma Enid who campaigned for the mayoral candidate of New York. At our last get-together, my mom talked so much I wondered if she was manic (although she has never had a mood disorder). I have never, at any point in my life, seen her this enthusiastic, even about anything that had to do with her children. This sounds like an exaggeration. Trust me, it’s not.
“I find it sad that they appear to have no desire to cultivate their relationships on this earth (including with me), and instead spend their time tracking down people, regardless of what they have accomplished, they will never meet in the flesh. It’s not that they don’t socialize, it’s just that they don’t enjoy it and have no desire to become closer to the people around them. They used to be more tolerant, but now they don’t like anyone and make no attempt to pretend otherwise.
“Why would healthy adults who are barely in their 60s become so attached to the past? They have the wealth that would allow them to travel and indulge in any other type of interest they desire right in the present. I’m sure plenty of seniors out there have expectations and dreams for the future, but not my folks. Is this something I’ll understand when I’m their age? Or is this somehow a sign of sickness?
“Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, but I have limits. Any polite attempts I make to turn our conversation back to the present day so I can participate are rebuffed.
“It isn’t my business how they live their lives, but it’s thrown me for a loop seeing that they actually do have the capacity to care deeply about something. Why did it take this long?
Cary Tennis responded:
“This sounds like a classic case of relative narcissism, a projection disorder in which the ego, unable to countenance its own narcissism, projects onto ancestors all the idealized qualities it would otherwise take onto itself; it is harder to diagnose than traditional narcissism because its sufferers do not act grandiose and superior. Rather, they adopt a humble air in deference to their great aunt or uncle. It’s not they who are draped in glory but long-dead forebears (who, through genetic association, nevertheless give proof of superiority). It can be paired with a deep, melancholy longing for an idealized world and a sense that today’s world can never measure up to this mythical past. It is often found in baby boomers who didn’t attend Woodstock but had a cousin who did.
“Of course, you don’t find “relative narcissism” in any diagnostic manual.
“It doesn’t exist in the literature yet. I made it up.
“But if it did exist, it would exist because the psychiatric community would recognize that when an interest in one’s ancestors becomes more than historical, when it seems to take over one’s emotional life, then some need other than mere curiosity is being met. What is that need? What are they really getting out of it?…To contemplate the long line of people who preceded you might give you a sense of how vast time is, which is something like contemplating the ocean or the forest, something larger than oneself…
“The key question is: What are they getting out of it?