Obviously the Greatest: Diana Nyad and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

In this second of three posts about Diana deceptions, we’ll look at why she can’t stop making stuff up.

Part 1 | Part 2

We know for certain that Diana Nyad lies. She lies frequently, brazenly, and—in all likelihood—compulsively. But why?

Diana Nyad’s favorite word. With Marcia Cross at LiveTalksLA.

An excessive need for adoration drives her deceit. To receive that adoration, Nyad must be the best—must be “epic”—at everything. She must swim epically, play squash epically, even epically wake up in the morning. Since she can’t be epic at everything—no one can—she must act (and write and talk) as if she is.

Why does Nyad require so much adoration? In her 2011 article Less Than Artful Choices: Narcissistic Personality Disorder According to Donald Trump,  Maria Konnikova compares utterances of the not-yet-president Trump to the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association. It turns out that you can plug in”Nyad” wherever you see “Trump” and, voilá, the story still works. Konnikova’s piece presents the best explanation I’ve found for Nyad’s excessive need to be adored: Diana Nyad is a narcissist’s narcissist, an apex egoist in the Trumpian style.

At the time Konnikova wrote Less Than Artful Choices…, she wasn’t sure if the upcoming version of the DSM would retain Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a named condition. Luckily for us, it did. The new criteria boil down to essentially the same ingredients, so I kept the DSM-IV’s more succinct categories. You can find a comparison between the DSM-IV and the DSM-5 here.

Nyad confuses self-absorption with self-examination, and she loves to talk and write about herself. “Each extreme moment,” Nyad proclaims, “demanded that I dissect the mind more carefully and with each new dissection I grew” (OS, p. 152). Nyad’s frequent self-described extreme moments—as well as some tamer ones—lead to multiple incisions, exposing plenty of meat for us to examine for signs of NPD.

Abbreviations:
→ FAW = FIND A WAY, by Diana Nyad
→ MW  = Marathon Woman, by Jane Shapiro
→ OS  = OTHER SHORES, by Diana Nyad

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1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

Nyad believes herself superior to most mortals and has no qualms about saying so.

“In my society, …where people have nearly completely forgotten the beauty of the power that their bodies wield, I stand out as a prime physical specimen.” (OS, p. 102)

“…on August 13th of this year, standing on the Cuba coast about to set off, …I was in the best physical shape of anybody on the face of the earth….” (PBS Interview: clipcomplete)

“When I swim up the North Sea or down the Nile, or across Lake Ontario, I feel like I am the [goddess] Diana who represents freedom to the women waiting on the shore.” (OS, p. 95)

Her Cuba swim (or even just the idea of it) was epic and mythic and something only the incredible Diana Nyad could do:

“A Hellenic feat, an outrageous feat, it fulfills my fantasies! Longest open-water swim ever…. It’s so obviously the greatest endurance feat in history….” (Ms.)

“The Cuba swim is the greatest endurance feat in human history. But if anyone can do it, I can.”(Diana Prepares…)

Livin’ the dream, pure Greek version—with Catherine Opie at the Hammer Museum, Dececmber 2013.

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In FIND A WAY, Nyad describes the results of an experiment that tested its subjects’ ability to cope with physical stress. Guess who won the experiment?

“First, [UC San Diego psychiatrist Dr. Martin Paulus] indicates, very far down on the graph, the dots that represent the control group, thousands of anonymous volunteers…. Most are clumped near the bottom of the chart, indicating these people have done very poorly…. Next, a group significantly above the control group, has done much better; these are the marines. The next grouping is a big bump up from that: Navy SEALS. Then Dr. Paulus points high up to the right, almost off the computer screen. This, he says, is me…..” (FAW, p. 224)

Such an inflated ego necessarily hides profound self-loathing. Nyad battles to repress this, but it occasionally escapes:

“[As] the big [60th] birthday neared, [Nyad] became overwhelmed with regret…. “Just second-guessing everything. It was ruthless….this was just a constantly revolving regret and self-bashing: I really don’t deserve this. I’m really not that good. SOMEBODY’S GOING TO FIND OUT I’M A FRAUD.” (The Swimmer, my caps)

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In 1976, Nyad made three attempts to become the first woman to complete a double-crossing of the English Channel, the difficulty of conquering which, she writes, was “highly overrated.” (OS, p. 123)

Nyad didn’t get across once. After describing the episode in Other Shores, she builds into a manic soliloquy, contorting her failure into triumph:

“I realized that it is mechanically so easy to walk away from victory swelling with pride and optimism, believing unswervingly in yourself. Walking away from defeat the same way is a true challenge. A champion rekindles enthusiasm, regains confidence, and is willing to set difficult goals for herself again, even after defeat.

Late evening, September 7. British Airways from London to Kennedy. My pulse is racing, my adrenaline is pumping, I am smiling uncontrollably and I can’t possibly sit still. Push-ups in the aisle, hyped conversation with anyone and everyone. I feel ecstatically free. The words I am known for quoting to interviewers are flashing through my mind. Life is passing me by. There isn’t much time. I have some seventy-five years to live and a third of them are behind me. I feel pressured to do everything, to know everyone, to explore every potential, to press every extreme, high and low. My fervor is renewed.” (p. 123)

With that, “The Greatest Long Distance Swimmer in the World” waves goodbye to the English Channel and never returns.

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2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love

Nyad begins planning the Cuba swim because she wants to “accomplish the unimaginable”:

“…I want to do something unprecedented in the world of sports—something so outrageously difficult it would go unmatched  for many, many years. I want to bid my love affair with marathon swimming a spectacular farewell. I want to accomplish the unimaginable.” (OS, p. 154)

“To my imagination, this swim has developed in the genre of the old Greek myth—grandeur and excellence lie at its core….” (ibid, p. 174)

In order to accomplish such a swim, her shoulders must be über powerful:

“The power of my shoulders, the über recognition of the mechanics of my efficient stroke, made me giddy with joy…. To feel this superior level of strength, to revel in this exceptional state of fitness, was simply sublime.” (FAW, p. 133)

She herself has become unimaginably more “accepting” (of what, I’m not sure):

“In my sixties, my will is as fierce as it ever was. But I am at the same time infinitely more accepting, this swim laying bare the crux of those two attributes in harmonious concert.” (ibid, pp. 240-41)

Her friendships must, of course, also be “legendary,” residing as they do on the same mythological plane as her athletic endeavors. Of her connection with her best friend, Bonnie Stoll, Nyad effuses:

“It’s a friendship straight out of legendary lore, where the heroics are traditionally reserved for men. Two devoted equals. Each one true to herself. Each one true to the other.” (ibid, p. 233)

“This swim has come to symbolize many things to me, among them the Homeric strength of our friendship.” (ibid, p. 247)

Nyad was not only in the best shape of anyone “on the face of the earth,” but she wants to see herself as the best friend on that very same planet:

“On the people score, I gave myself a high grade…. My relationships are my lifeblood, and I nurture them with all my heart. If only my epitaph will read, ‘The best friend on Earth.’” (ibid, p.  116)

Photo courtesy of Amber Wilkie.

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3. Believes she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

From Jane Shapiro’s “Marathon Woman“:

Nyad likes being with people who are celebrated for doing something large…. Loves going up to Ali and asking him what he feels like when he’s fighting, floating around the ring as in a dream. Loves thinking about Heifetz playing Mozart, spacing out: just like her.

One of her favorite anecdotes is about appearing at some big celebrity party wearing her shorts and her Lacoste T-shirt, and all the elegant people wonder, Uhhh Who’s that? And then, just a little later, she is vindicated. Then everybody recognizes her, and an ironic comment is made on the rules of celebrity, wherein the moment of legitimacy is conferred, you become worthy of admiration even when you’re the same person you were before. Nyad tells this story often and in several forms. In this year’s version, she went to be a minor star at a celebrity fund raiser and Jacqueline Onassis cried, “Diana Nyad!”

According to the DSM-V, someone with NPD makes “excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation.” Nyad knows she is special because the press—not to mention Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama—tells her so:

“There was an empty field across from the cottage, and when I walked outside just after daybreak, it looked like a war zone of correspondents over there. It had rained heavily just before dawn, so they had all pitched tents to cover their cameras; I beheld a semicircle of ABC, NBC, CBS, ESPN, FOX, foreign outlets, et al. Hillary Clinton wrote, ‘Feels like I swim with sharks, but you actually did it!’ Hillary also sent me a handwritten note, signed ‘Onward!’ President Obama tweeted: ‘Congratulations @DianaNyad. Never give up on your dreams.'” (FAW, p. 277)

“This is not just a sports story,” etc. From Nyad’s talk at Philadelphia GEOFest, November 2011.

Lest we think that Nyad swims solely for personal gain, she informs us that she’s not interested in procuring props from the hoi polloi:

“‘I am not doing this to be famous…. I would like to be respected and well paid—maybe recognized in New York, by people who read. Respect. I’m not doing it for street stuff, people saying, ‘Heyyy, you’re on television, right?’” (MW)

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“When it comes to the most daring of Earth’s expeditions,” writes Nyad, “success always seems to come down to four factors.” The third of those: “Surround yourself with brilliant and honorable people” (FAW, p. 225).

From various places in Find A Way:

    • “Rich took his [shark] cage design to a friend who is the best aluminum boat builder in the world….”
    • To help a problem shoulder, Nyad works with “rock-star orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache and superstar physical therapist Karen Joubert.”
    • “I will spend the month of April in Mission Viejo, California, where they host the greatest swimming facility in the United States, along with the greatest amateur swimming coach in the United States, Mark Schubert.”
    • John Bartlett, her navigator, is “a veritable genius.”
    • “The world-renowned shark diver Aussie Luke Tipple captains the Shark Team.”
    • Nyad brings along Dr. Angel Yanagihara, “the world’s leading [box jellyfish] expert. When our Team approaches her for an education, we have no idea what a brilliant mind we are about to encounter.”

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4. Requires excessive admiration

Since Diana sees herself as so special, admiration MUST follow.

“I want to be known as the very best at something and have a reputation for that. I didn’t say be the best because I’ve been that for eight years. I said be known as the best. I feel that pressure very strong.” (Miami News)

    “I want the American public to recognize me. I want to open a women’s fitness center in Manhattan. I’ve written a screenplay. I could make films….”
    [All spring she told people about the Cuba swim:] “…It’s so obviously the greatest endurance feat in history…. I want the American public to appreciate this….
    …NBC has bought the exclusive rights. Everybody will cover this swim.” (Ms.)

Nyad writes that her coach, Jack Nelson, admires her…

“He told me I could be anything I chose in this world, that I was smart and funny and a leader.” (FAW, p. 44)

…and her mom treasures her…

“…I have no doubts that she adored me to the quick. From the moment she first held me in her arms…until her last long gasp,…I rocked her world with delight and pride….” (ibid, p. 114)

…and her nephew idolizes her…

[Tim is] “not much of a crier, but he broke down when he said the thrill of his childhood was when Aunt Diana was coming to play with him. Then he cried again when describing what it was like now, to have this champion he had always read about come to life before his very eyes.” (ibid, pp. 159-160)

…and her step-father exalts her…

“This man told me they went to dinner at Aris’s house a few nights later….There were press clippings and photos of me all over the walls, from my marathon swimming days in the 1970s, and Aris was proud in telling them I visited him there all the time.” (ibid, p. 31)

…and, when she completes a swim, her spectators all but deify her…

“They are always there. The men yell ‘Bravo, Diana!’ ‘Fantastic!’ ‘Brave young woman!’ And the women just stare. Incredulous, awe-filled, envious stares. The utter exhaustion, and the courage it conveys, seems to be an inspiration to everyone who witnesses it.” (OS, p. 15)

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5. Has a sense of entitlement

In the midst of having difficulty getting visas approved for her and her crew—and after having slandered Walter Poenisch, who had a close and friendly relationship with the Cubans and had completed the swim a month before—Nyad declares:

“The Cubans owe me this swim.” (Ft. Lauderdale News)

Of Penny Palfrey’s 2012 attempt, Nyad writes:

“I am anxious. Maybe even miffed. There is no logic to my thinking it isn’t right for someone else to pursue my Dream. After all, it isn’t my ocean. Nevertheless, it’s only natural that our Team, wishing of course no harm to Penny, hopes she will fall short in the end.”

“…Penny was rushed by speedboat to the closest hospital for the sting symptoms, and for that I felt empathy. But I admit I was relieved. As a matter of fact, that is a gross understatement.” (FAW, p. 205)

In June of 2013, before Chloë McCardel’s Cuba attempt:

“As I did with Penny, I talk myself off a cliff. And when I answer the media…I do my best to find grace and sportsmanship.” (FAW, p. 244)

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6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve her own ends

“Nyad’s inability to give up her dream may be less inspiring up close than afar,” writes Elizabeth Weil in the New York Times. “Nyad is a superwoman, but she is also child-like. She can’t cook or hold on to money. She exhausts herself with her own exuberance. She charms other people into taking care of her.” (…Demons of the Sea)

“…to watch Bonnie getting all the gear ready at that same three a.m., to see Mark heading down to the dock at that hour to get the boat prepped, for Angie to slide a pillow under my head that night on the shower floor when I can’t stand any longer and can’t even make it to the bed—their dedication brought me unspeakable comfort.” (FAW, p. 167)

You could easily mistake Nyad’s account of one acolyte as the description of a faithful dog:

“No matter how late we’d sweep up onto the beach, no matter the middle of thunderstorms, standing there would be Kathy, devoted…. Each Mexico swim, at that last quarter mile, I’d look up, and the sight of my sentry, standing loyal at the ready….” (ibid, p. 126)

Jean Goldin is a psychiatric nurse and one of Nyad’s inner circle:

“It used to be, [Goldin] says, that Diana cared for no one; for most of her life people didn’t matter. Then she began to call once in a while; then she began to notice I’d always be there.
…I [Shapiro] see that she is preoccupied with Diana Nyad…. “This woman was sent into my life for a reason.”
In any case, Nyad has here what she requires: nice, patient people who are willing to cook, worry, drive the boat, and be uncomfortable and bored, on her behalf, for long stretches of time; people who are entirely preoccupied with her well-being….” (MW)

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7. Lacks empathy

A genuine narcissist can’t possibly empathize with others. In his or her world, only one person matters.

“[E]ach time a swimmer would make an attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida crossing and fail, I would do a little happy dance, alone in my living room.” (FAW, p. 117)

Diana dances for the the Future Farmers of America, October 2016.

In the midst of a severe storm, the lives of her crew in danger, Nyad valiantly attempts to think of someone other than herself:

“The focus of the mission is entirely on the swimmer, but we are duty-bound to take responsibility for all the people way out here with us. Steve, for all his time out on the open waters of the world, is sincerely afraid this night. No Coast Guard vessel, no helicopter, could make it out to us on this night. I admit I’m not of a mind-setto worry about the safety of the crew….” (FAW, p. 213)

“So now we’re out of the water again on this attempt. …I’m doubled over, rocking, trying to stay sane and warm until the next decision—which for some reason is for the first time in my swimming career out of my hands—is made. The swim is now in the staged category. I’m not even in the water, dictating my own fate. This is an unmitigated disaster. ” (FAW, p. 216)

Nyad uses people as if they’re a renewable natural resource that will return to care for her year after year after year. Some do, but others she mines until the veins give out.

“The Sollingers are on their third year of…sacrifices now. They’ve also taken a heavy hit this year with losses to their water-sports business at the hands of Hurricane Sandy. While they’re working overtime to rebuild their company, they’re also slaving to organize and execute these long days out on the water for me. At some point, Mark has no more to give. I should have seen it coming. Maybe I did but, self-obsessed, I pressed on….” (FAW, p. 233-34)

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8. Is often envious of others or believes others to be envious of her

Like admitting failure, Nyad rarely admits to envy. After all, she’s superwoman. Others should envy her, not the other way around.

Family matters—devoted fathers in particular—sometimes pierce the facade:

“I’ve always been envious of my friends with warm, loving, protective, decent human beings for fathers. Seeing Bonnie’s father, Herbert, tall and strong and yet gentle and sensitive, envelop Bonnie in the warmest bear hug and tell her he loves her, I was mystified as to what that must feel like—that trust, that unconditional affection from a father. Same with Candace’s father, Floyd. His blue eyes sparkled as they tracked Candace crossing a room. What would that be, to experience that kind of abiding devotion from a father?” (FAW, p. 33)

Mainly, however, Nyad revels in the envy that she imagines other women feel towards her:

“…The women seem to envy the adventure, the extreme. They seem to thrill to this one young woman’s courage, as if she were carrying the burden of all womanhood’s ill-spent time. As if she were exploring her potential a thousandfold for the women who can’t yet see how they might explore their own.
One of the strongest sensual memories I consistently have after the long swims is of the women on the shore. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares. Egyptian women, Italian women, Argentinian women staring in wondrous disbelief as if their souls are awakened by the power of my act. The desire is ablaze in their eyes, but they have not yet set themselves free.” (OS, p. 91-92)

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9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes

When it comes down to it, Nyad disdains everyone except for those who will drop everything to care for her. She certainly disdains her devotees: “Her renderings of mystical, spaced-out Nyad fans are impeccable,” writes Jane Shapiro, “types who say I think you’re healing me.” (MW)

“A woman asked me after a speech during the Cuba prep how I could train at this level, with the normal aches and pains that come at my age. I answered, ‘Don’t put your assumptions of what one is supposed to feel at my age on me. I defy those suppositions of limitations. If you feel aches and pains, say so. But I don’t, and I refuse to follow your or anybody else’s controlling and denigrating parameters of mediocrity.'” (FAW, p. 222)

She disdains the press. “Diana tells everyone about her preoccupation, the magnificence of the [Cuba swim],” writes Jane Shapiro. “Nevertheless, some press lose track of the magnificence, which always provokes impatience, and often rage…

‘Time [magazine] asks me, “Lissen, we don’t wanta send anybody ’cause all we want is a picture of the shark cage.’ I just wanta say Fuck you and hang up. ‘Cause I’m not interested in the shark cage. I mean this is one of the great athletic events in history, and they want a picture of the shark cage.'” (MW)

“She has hung out in the water and posed for pictures,” continues Shapiro, “doing a slow crawl back and forth for twelve feet in front of delicate cameras with wide-angle lenses suspended in the water in clear plastic boxes….”:

‘Every photographer who thought of that one,’ says Nyad, ‘was another genius.'” (MW)

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As we’ve seen, Nyad disdains anyone who would dare cross HER ocean. She was particularly arrogant toward Walter Poenisch:

“I’ve been calling the Swimming Hall of Fame about this guy who claims he’s done some ninety-mile swim, and of course it’s illegitimate, ridiculous.” (Ms.)

She disdains her crew…

“It was Ms. Nyad, 28, who first gave up — weeping, swollen and screaming at her trainers Tuesday as they insisted she abandon the 103-mile crossing from Cuba to the Florida Keys.” (Indiana Gazette)

…and Cuba…

“I used to say that I’d never come back here. That it was the most boring place in the world. That it had no culture. I forget how beautiful it is. All these nice houses and trees. The air. It still has no culture,” she laughs. (New York Times)

…and other swimmers. Besides the “highly overrated” English Channel comment from earlier, we have the following episode of über-patronization. During her appearance on the Wild Ideas podcast, Nyad peruses her training logs in the back of FIND A WAY (at 20:10):

Transcript: "There are a lot of people, and I mean this with all due respect, but I'm at the extreme end of the sport. There are a lot of people who train for the English Channel and Catalina Island—very respectable swims! I respect anybody who's done any of them. But they're short. You know, most good swimmers...in the English Channel, they're doing that in eight hours now. So, to do a 16 hour training swim—which is only one of the swims of that week, by the way—is just...way beyond what most people can do...."

Finally, she feels contempt for the people who revere her…

“‘I go up to people all the time and I do usually make friends with them. I’m so gregarious and friendly! And as soon as they call me back I never wanta see them.’
‘I know,’ I say, ‘you just want a moment.’
‘Yeah, I want a moment, but then later I’m rude, I say, ‘Where the fuck did you get my number!’ They say, ‘You gave it to me yesterday,’ you told me, ‘COME OVER. NEVER CALL FIRST!'” Nyad is screaming, a loud, funny, confused whine. ‘And people come with their suitcases, they say, ‘You said stay with me anytime!’
“And I say, ‘DON’T STAY WITH ME! I’m busy….!'” (MW)

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I hope that you’ll stay with me until the third and final post in the Diana’s Lies trilogy. We’ll look at how Nyad mesmerizes the public and the press into embracing her despite her self-absorption and deceit.

Nyad on “The Other Shore,” Timothy Wheeler’s documentary about his aunt. “It’s poetic, it’s deep—what it is is my life.” At post-swim press conference, September 2013.

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