On First Reformed, Narcissism, and Being a Beautiful Soul
My favorite scene in First Reformed might also be the funniest. We’ve watched the main character, Reverend Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), slowly disintegrate mentally, physically, and emotionally. In this scene he sits at his desk. It’s still dark outside. He empties what remains of a bottle of whiskey into his glass as he intones in voiceover, “I suddenly feel much better. I awoke early, clearheaded, and immediately set about my daily tasks.”
Physically, Toller may be 46, but psychologically, he’s more like 13 or 14. And like many adolescents, he suffers from what English professor and eco-theorist Timothy Morton calls beautiful soul syndrome.
Simply put, beautiful soul syndrome is an attitude toward nature that sees nature as Other, as an object “over there” to be admired and consumed. This is a form of objectification—a sentimental way of viewing the natural world that is inherently destructive.
I recognize my 14-year-old self in Reverend Toller—the painful lack of self-awareness, the self-absorption, the obsession with telling the truth.
But in the break between appearance and reality, he also reminds me of my mom. Sometimes—probably due to their own unresolved trauma—parents never really grow up. They’re stuck at an earlier developmental stage where good and bad are rigidly defined and inconsistently applied. In that gap between how things are and how they appear, there can be so much pain and denial.
Is Paul Schrader’s film a parable about religion or a treatise on the dangers of climate change? Maybe it’s both. For me, however, First Reformed helped me come to terms with the covert emotional abuse of a narcissistic parent and how unintegrated trauma perpetuates both individual and social harm.
Hero vs. Villain
Reverend Toller is the pastor of First Reformed Church, a historical landmark with a tiny congregation financially supported by Abundant Life Church, a local megachurch. He’s sick and depressed, spending his days drinking, writing, and trying to pray. After a young, pregnant parishioner asks him to counsel her eco-terrorist husband, Toller slowly becomes radicalized, increasingly adamant and passionate about climate change and saving the earth from industry and pollution.For the narcissistic beautiful soul, the only correct response is the extreme response.
In his righteous crusade against Balq Industries, Toller finds renewed hope and purpose. And he’s not wrong about either the environmental harm being perpetrated by Balq Industries or the complicity of Abundant Life.
That’s the problem—he’s absolutely right. He sees himself as the hero of the story, and by a certain logic, an act of terror is the right thing to do. For the narcissistic beautiful soul, the only correct response is the extreme response.
So much of both narcissism and emotional abuse could be described as “a lie in the form of the truth.” As my parents’ marriage fell apart, my mom became seemingly preoccupied with conserving things like water and toilet paper. On the surface, conservation is a good and beautiful thing. Wielded as a weapon to shame and control others, however, it becomes abusive.
For Toller, it’s less about saving the environment and more about the thrill and energy he gets from being the lone voice of reason, a voice calling out in the wilderness, “Will God forgive us?”
In an interview at Fuller Seminary, Paul Schrader implies that Reverend Toller’s obsession with saving the environment has nothing to do with the environment at all. Rather, this turn to environmental activism gives his suffering a context. He is already sick and dying, killing himself with alcohol or possibly aggravating a pre-existing condition. His newfound activism is merely a way to give his own suffering a deeper meaning.
Schrader asks rhetorically, “Is he dying because he’s an ecological warrior, or is he dying because that is the pathology of a certain form of Christianity?”
There is a perverse joy and energy in wanting to be nothing, in the desire to take up as little space as possible, to contract to the point of extinction. First Reformed captures this zeal unto death—the Christian thought-virus of suffering as salvation that infects Toller and paradoxically gives him a reason to live.
What Paul Schrader captures so well is how self-sacrifice is also a kind of narcissism—that there can be a sense of glee in sacrificing yourself, an energy, a feeling of being alive.
When we are immature or in trauma, death can feel a lot like life, because there is an energy and a drive that doesn’t feel like depression or despair.
Good vs. Evil
There’s a scene in First Reformed where Toller confronts his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and tells her in so many words that she is burden, a “stumbling block,” that he hates her because she reminds him of his own failure.
The cracks are starting to show. In his own mind, he’s on a hero’s journey—he’s saving the world! But in reality, he’s suffering from an acute emotional, mental, and spiritual breakdown.
The movie sets up an opposition between the two primary female characters, Mary—pretty, young, pregnant, and blonde—and Esther—a woman who actually knows the truth about Toller. Esther is the one who sees him as he is.
With Mary, Toller can live out his fantasy of himself as seen through her eyes: He is the perfect pastor, caring, attentive, wise, helpful, present, and, shockingly, able to pray. With Esther, Toller feels exposed as weak and flawed, the sick and dying man with an alcohol problem. He splits the two parts of himself—weak and strong, perfect and imperfect, human and godlike.
It’s not uncommon for narcissistic people to split in similar ways. They see everything bad, unacceptable, or weak as outside of them, while they are actually good and perfect. I wonder if what we call “victimhood culture” is actually beautiful soul syndrome. When the beautiful soul is confronted with reality, it lashes out and claims that it is being persecuted. It’s the kind of purity that is impossible to challenge or confront.
I feel like we know instinctually that a person can be kind to animals and cruel to human beings, that the same person can raise money to fight sex trafficking and also sexually harass a subordinate at work. We know that appearing good and being good are not the same thing, something the beautiful soul doesn’t quite get or acknowledge, preferring to buy only cruelty-free mascara and abstain from plastic straws.
Morton sees this kind of anti-consumerism as peak consumerism, or peak beautiful soul syndrome. In his conception, evil is not something “over there,” something that can be objectified, destroyed, or projected onto another person. No, the evil is within us as an inescapable consequence of being alive.
The narcissist can both buy only slavery-free chocolate and be emotionally abusive or neglectful to their children. These things are not incompatible; in fact they go together like sunscreen and a day at the beach.
Appearance vs. Reality
One of the hardest things to accept about hidden abuse is that it served a purpose, that it made logical sense at the time. My own suffering from a narcissistic parent may have been a direct reflection of my mom’s frame of reality. There was a truth to it—it made a kind of horrifying sense. Like Toller’s final act of self-annihilation, it was the right thing to do, the only sane choice in the face of madness.
According to Tara Westover, author of the memoir Educated, all abuse is mental abuse—so text and subtext. She says in an interview with NPR:
“I think if you’re going to abuse someone, you have to invade their reality in order to distort it and you have to simultaneously convince them of two things, one, that what you’re doing isn’t that bad, which means you have to normalize it. And, two, that maybe they deserve what’s happening.”
For me, I feel like my internalized map of reality reflects an externalized system of shame and control—I can see how my inner landscape was shaped and formed by my mom’s emotional abuse, by an economy of scarcity that ruled my home life. In this economy, the worst thing you could possibly do was take up space. And so I tried as hard as possible to not exist.
And in this I can see my own complicity.
After all, to turn inward, to turn away from the world, is that not also a type of violence? There are so many ways to lose your life; not just in sex or drugs or work or a glass of Drano, but in God, religion, church, a relationship, in the conviction that you will never be good enough, no matter how hard you try.
It’s unbelievably painful to come to terms with hidden emotional abuse as an adult, to realize that your parents abused or neglected you not because of their Christian beliefs, but in spite of them. That my narcissistic parent didn’t try to control how much water or toilet paper we used because of the environment, but in spite of the environment.
It’s not so much the abuse itself, but the gap between appearance and reality that makes it so hard to disentangle from my own sense of self.
Hope vs. Despair
The problem with hidden abuse is that if you don’t name it, then you continue to suffer—because your reality is distorted.
Sometimes growing up and out of trauma means deconstructing the mental and emotional landscape we were given by our parents. I’m trying to redraw my inner map, to embrace hope instead of despair in the form of hope.
At the end of First Reformed, Toller doesn’t go through with his plan to suicide bomb the church because Mary is there, the representation of his idealized self. In the last scene of the movie, she interrupts him mid-suicide, and they passionately embrace and kiss in a swirl of light and movement. Is this hope? Is he really saved? Or is this an ecstatic vision Toller has on the brink of death, a last moment of divine grace?
I tend to think that this vision is not real. But perhaps this fantasy is the reality that Toller deserves.
Forgiving the Beautiful Soul
In his lecture on the beautiful soul, Morton concludes with the twin concepts of responsibility and forgiveness. Rather than objectifying the beautiful soul or attempting to disavow it (which would also be beautiful soul syndrome), the only way forward is to accept our own hypocrisy and complicity in climate change.
For me, forgiving the beautiful soul means forgiving myself for embracing a singular, limiting narrative. Forgiveness is not the same as denial—it means owning my vulnerability and my violence, accepting my own inconsistencies and imperfections rather than projecting them outward. It means accepting that I am weak and vulnerable and choosing not to hate those parts of myself.
After all, if I disown the beautiful soul, I disown my own virulent joy, my will to suffer and make myself nothing and everything.
I can only choose to turn toward life, to the kind of life where every hour is not “the darkest hour,” where my pain does not define me. I feel for the beautiful soul, I really do. My pain was there for me when nothing else was, when I felt so profoundly alone and abandoned.
My struggle as an adult—I’m not a teenager anymore, brooding in my room alone—is to move beyond the emotional map of my parents, to move toward interdependency instead of running like hell for the hills every time someone gets too close.
I can’t be complicit anymore. I can’t accept a distorted reality as my own. I’m asking myself, how do I make sure I don’t make other people suffer because of my own trauma?
I can feel myself moving beyond my own self-definition into something new. And I think that’s what Toller was doing too, at the end of First Reformed. His move toward Mary signified a move toward life, toward rewriting his inner map that was leading him to a self-destructing end. It’s a step of faith to go a new direction, away from what we think we know to be right and righteous, to yield ourselves to the God who sets a new course for us that leads to real life. In Toller’s final ecstatic vision, he moves toward light and life, toward love and connection and away from self-righteous self-annihilation. Maybe in the same way, I can move beyond my own self-definition into something new.
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