NARCISSISM NOTES #3–Meta Issues in Writing a Book Review

 

This is a composite of what I posted March 1st on social media, with a few edits and additions.

I’m on Chuck DeGroat‘s launch team, and learning a lot from his perceptive, accessible writing. I’ve finished a third of #WhenNarcissismComesToChurch, and already know that this volume goes on my list of top 10 must-reads for abuse survivors, advocates and others in their support network, and church leaders who take seriously our ministry mandates for safety, healing, and justice — intervening to correct past and current situations of abuse, and preventing them in the future. Will post my full review in a week or two …

I appreciate @chuckdegroat‘s clear concepts, perceptive implications, and practical applications. He gives wise counsel to correct past situations of abuse, identify/intervene in present ones, and prevent them in the future. Preorder from InterVarsity Press or your fave bookstore!

P.S. If you’re wondering how I could “know” this should be on my top-10 list … When Chuck was in kindergarten, the church I was in during college was ramping itself up into a 3-year conflict that ended in a 4-way split. When you’ve wrestled with questions on narcissism and spiritual abuse for 45 years, you know quality answers when you read them! (And yes, I’m that old …)

And, as a futurist, I seek to point people toward hope. Grateful for a next generation of women and men who use their experiences and giftedness to research, write, counsel, and care for the wounded of every generation so that, together, we may find healing as individuals and healthiness in our institutions. This is some of what it means to live in the way of Jesus, and make a difference in the world around us. Chuck DeGroat is part of that next wave.

Some may find it weird that I would have such a strongly positive opinion after only reading a third of a book. It does make sense to me, though. I think it’s more a function of an intuitive, gut-level processing style where you’ve reached a conclusion all in an instant, and then have to post-analyze it to figure out how to explain your take to someone who processes in opposite ways. They build toward a conclusion from bits and pieces; I deconstruct my conclusion into the bits and pieces.

Questions were my side of the equation in figuring out this deserves to be a top-10-list book. In this post, I’d like to share some “meta” observations about what I see as Chuck’s side of the equation — big-picture features that have more to do with who he is and how he put the content together than with the content itself. I used descriptions like “clear concepts, perceptive implications, and practical applications” and “wise counsel.” What did I mean by all of that?

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“Meta” Observations on Why This Book is a Top-10 Read

Many readers may find big-picture meta issues too esoteric to be of interest, but I find them meaningful. All of us bring assumptions and values to the table when we review a book. Here are core ones of mine.

When I prepare to review a book, I look at not just the content and the author’s on-paper expertise. I want to get a sense of how practiced they are in ministry, and how practical they are.

  • Do they know enough about the field to write about it competently?
  • Do they plant seeds for advanced-level future personal research and reflection, even if writing for beginners?
  • Are they “solutions-focused,” as my educator friend Kathy Koch from Celebrate Kids, Inc., terms it, or just concept-oriented?
  • Do they allow nuance and flexibility in practical applications, or are they “fix-it formula fixated”?

These kinds of observations help me determine who might best benefit from the book. Is it for novices as an introductory text? For those who need  intermediate material to expand their knowledge base? Or for professionals looking for advanced-level/technical materials?

In doing a review, I bring my own set of personal experiences and professional skills to the table. In this case, the most relevant elements are these:

  • My having survived five severe spiritually abusive church and ministry situations — as early as 1975 — that tainted 20 of the last 45 years (i.e., my entire adult life).
  • Over 35 years experience in writing and editing, including on technical topics and working with others on structuring their material for publication.
  • Pattern recognition skills, which are core to my training in both linguistics and futuring (strategic foresight).

With all that in mind, here are my observations, a third of the way through Chuck DeGroat’s book, When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.

PROBLEM PATTERNS IN CURRENT CULTURE. Chuck’s raising and responding to typical objections to revelations of abuse shows his awareness of what actually happens “in the field” and typical tactics abusers and enablers rely on. This shows me he listens to individuals and to institutional responses, and develops enough of a database over time to be able to discern patterns. These are major skills that futurists rely on in doing “cultural scans,” so I know when I see people in other professions apply similar processes.

KNOWS WE NEED CONCRETE GUIDELINES. His use of specific, vivid words to describe narcissistic attitudes and actions, patterns and profiles, gives us a list of qualitative indicators to identify narcissism in action. When we have a set of such specific points, it is easier to justify that we are conducting an assessment on reportedly abusive individuals or institutions by applying concrete guidelines — not launching an attack from some vague notions. (As a do-it-yourself project, make note of the words he uses to describe narcissistic behaviors in general, as well as the specific features more common in particular faces of narcissism that he details in Chapter 3. I did this by circling the words with pencil to make them stand out on the page.)

GREAT-FIT EXPERIENCE BASE. Chuck’s ministry practitioner background includes church planting, pastoral leadership and care, counseling, and teaching. From what I’ve learned about the social dimensions of spiritual abuse, these are all domains where situations of abuse and advocacy for survivors arise. I don’t know that an author could be any better placed to see the broad range of abuse concerns, and write an accessible introductory to intermediate book on the subject.

KEEPS UP WITH PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENTS AND DISCUSSIONS. I do not have formal training in psychology or counseling. However, as a research writer and technical editor, I’ve had to delve into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual many times to understand particular topics. So, I’m aware of there being debates about key elements in diagnostic criteria for personality disorders and a range of views on how best to categorize them.

Chuck adds in hints here and there which show that he’s taken these professional issues into consideration. In fact, they were crucial to creation of what he (rightly) sees as a unique contribution on narcissism, by cross-pollinating it with the Enneagram. All of this contributed to what I found to be a well-reasoned case for how his framework for nine faces of narcissism from a threefold base of heart, head, and gut makes for a good fit with the three parallel core sources of narcissism discussed by professionals: shame, anxiety, and anger.

ACCESSIBLE WRITING. It’s difficult to translate professional-level concepts into understandable form for laypeople. But Chuck describes technical terms on the Enneagram with language and illustrations that even a complete novice like me could grasp. (I have not read more than a couple articles on that topic before.) He provided a base knowledge on the Enneagram that I sense I can work from over time to go wider and deeper.

And he makes judicious use of quotes from other writers — another indicator that he absorbs and reflects on quality literature relevant to his topics of interest. For instance, I found his descriptions on the basics of narcissism clear and concise, and he probably could not have made a better choice of quotes to interpret the myth of Narcissus than the passage from Terrence Read he selected. (Over my years of working with a range of writers, it seems that strong writers develop “quotation radar” that alerts them to when someone else has described a topic in such a masterly way that it’s unlikely to be improved upon — so just quote them and attribute that source!)

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS. I find that Chuck is demonstrating to me that he’s really good at “translational research” — a skill I learned about from my public health and counseling friend SD Shanti at the Global Alliance for Violence Prevention. It involves taking technical concepts from academic research and making the core of that material understandable and applicable to the everyday person or specific populations. And that’s what we need as a base for a stellar book at the introductory to intermediate level — translate ivory tower technicalities into asphalt walkway realities!

The above are the kinds of issues I’m typically keeping my finger on the pulse of, all the way along as I go through a book. When I write my final review to post, I may not even talk about the technical criteria I used. But it will be in the infrastructure of what I write, just as Chuck has a solid infrastructure of personal and professional sources for what he has written.

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