Deconstructing Psychopathy?

bookIs there really such a thing as “psychopathy?” Is it a disorder? Is it ASPD or something similar? Or is it, as I believe, something real. There are psychopaths in every culture on earth. And some moral values are universal.  But, according to The Myth of the Born Criminal: Psychopathy, Neurobiology, and the Creation of the Modern Degenerate by Jarkko Jalava, Stephanie Griffiths, and Michael Maralin, psychopaths as we are discussed in public, are mythological monsters. The existence of real-life monsters fulfills a need, either human or cultural, to believe that “evil” can be understood as something existing apart from our humanity. “This shift, which has been the theme of our book, is ultimately a story about a very human wish to believe in an orderly universe. In this universe, evil is its own biological category, readily set apart from the rest of humanity, and revealed in human tissue. The scientific mind in this respect is as loaded with cultural assumptions and imagery as the lay mind is, willing to reach for conclusions well beyond physical data.” What these writers don’t mention is that the very concept of evil, itself, defies definition. There follows the story of James Fallon and his discovery of his own psychopathy. But they find flaws in his narrative. The “warrior gene” is passed down by the mother. So his long list of forebears who were murderers, including Lizzy Borden (who we are reminded was never convicted) were on his father’s side of the family.

How do we assess a disorder that we are hardly able to define? There is little that people can agree about when discussing psychopathy. Most will agree that the PCL-R is the “gold standard” for diagnosis. There has also been a steadily increasing tendency to look towards neurological factors in understanding this phenomenon. Much discussion has occurred about the “nature/nurture” question. In fact, when we draw back and see the larger picture, we find that most of these questions we have about psychopathy have never been completely resolved in psychology, or, indeed, even in science.

natureScience is notorious for changing its findings every 30 years or so. We used to think a new-born infant a blank slate; that whatever s/he would become would come from environment and experiences. The pendulum has swung to the opposite side with ever greater awareness of what an infant already brings with hir. A book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl by John Colapinto, describes the spectacular failure of the blank slate theory when Dr. John Money tried to have a boy who had lost his penis in an accident raised as a girl. The movie, The Bad Seed, showed the confusion of family and friends at the extreme psychopathy if an eight-year-old girl who was just “born bad.” Although few eight-year-olds are serial killers, there are instances of children who show psychopathic traits from an early age and who grow up into adult psychopaths.

Tina Taylor, NoPsychos, is probably the most radical advocate of nature. She says, “Psychopaths are impaired neurologically, and (like drug users) are not fit for positions of leadership. Let’s get all disordered people out of government. fMRI neuroscience testing needs to be a part of the security clearance background check.” Her mission in life is to make all politicians submit to MRIs to weed out the psychopaths from public life. The implicit assumption is that MRIs are reliable diagnostic tools.

brainscanJames Fallon, a neurologist, famously discovered his own brain scan was like the brain scans of murderers he had studied. He began entertaining the idea that he was a psychopath. Looking at his life and questioning his friends, he found confirmation of that possibility and he wrote The Psychopath Inside. Clearly, he stands on the side of those who do believe psychopaths can be diagnosed by scanning their brains. Tom Chivers, talking about Dr. Fallon, said, “he barely draws breath in an hour, in which I ask perhaps three questions. He explains how he has frequently put his family in danger, exposing his brother to the deadly Marburg virus and taking his son trout-fishing in the African countryside knowing there were lions around. And in his youth, ‘if I was confronted by authority – if I stole a car, made pipe bombs, started fires – when we got caught by the police I showed no emotion, no anxiety’. Yet he is highly successful, driven to win. He tells me things most people would be uncomfortable saying: that his wife says she’s married to a ‘fun-loving, happy-go-lucky nice guy’ on the one hand, and a ‘very dark character who she does not like on the other. He’s pleasant, and funny, if self-absorbed, but I can’t help but think about the criteria in Hare’s PCL-R: superficial charm, lack of emotional depth, grandiose sense of self-worth.”

nocountOn the whole, psychopaths are not well liked. Kurt Vonnegut, the scribbler who inflicted that piece of pious cant, The Man Without a Country, weighed-in. “To say somebody is a PP (psychopathic personality) is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot. And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!” I notice this rant is more political than medical, despite his claims. My views about eliminating psychopaths from public life are found in my blog on that subject. But are psychopaths really “sick” at all?

fallon1Psychopathy isn’t listed in the DSM and Dr. Robert Hare isn’t sure if it is really a personality disorder at all. Tom Chivers asks, “But is psychopathy a disorder – or a different way of being? Anyone reading the list above will spot a few criteria familiar from people they know. On average, someone with no criminal convictions scores 5. ‘It’s dimensional,’ says Hare. ‘There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they’re our friends, they’re fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it’s subtle and they’re able to talk their way around it.’ Like autism, a condition which we think of as a spectrum, ‘psycho­pathy’, the diagnosis, bleeds into normalcy.” I’m happy to see Dr. Hare has softened towards us a bit. He used to just say we were “not very nice people.”

funpsyJames Blair defines psychopathy as “a developmental disorder marked by emotional deficits and an increased risk for antisocial behavior. It is not equivalent to the diagnosis Antisocial Personality Disorder, which concentrates only on the increased risk for antisocial behavior and not a specific cause—ie, the reduced empathy and guilt that constitutes the emotional deficit.”

I have heard it said that “every psychopath” has brain anomalies that show up on brain scans. But, to speak of “every psychopath,” one must first have determined that the person is a psychopath. For that, the best tool is still the PCL-R. Whether psychopathy is genetic, developmental or not, the PCL-R can still identify it. A pretty clear picture emerges from all the confusion once the notion that we are all murderers has been put to rest. I think most people understand what a psychopath is and what s/he isn’t. The narrator of the video documentary, The Psychopath Next Door, said it best, I think, when he called psychopathy “a radical emotional detachment.” Everything people love or hate (or love to hate) can be encapsulated in that description.

The Myth of the Born Criminal, ibid is on the other end of the discussion. In this book, the authors seek to deconstruct psychopathy which they believe to be subject to the moral values of Western civilization rather than something existing objectively in itself. They accusingly use the word “rhetoric” a great deal. The book begins with the intellectual gyrations of the Nineteenth Century. He makes a big point of the fact that we don’t really know what causes psychopathy. Are psychopaths what we are because our brains look a certain way or do our brains look that way because we are psychopaths. Correlation is not causality, in other words. Point taken. But, if there is a correlation, can’t imaging capture an aspect of it for an assessment? In Google, only James Fallon seemed to think so. Most experts in the field don’t consider the brain scan a diagnostic tool.

What do We do About it?

reptileThe authors of Born Criminal discuss some problematic public policy decisions based on the psychopath-as-monster paradigm. For example, there is a tendency to prolong the prison sentence of  an inmate who scored high on the PCL-R. Robert Hare says that a high score correlates positively with recidivism. I don’t mind the fact that such a person can be denied parole as parole is really a privilege, not a right. But wanting to extend imprisonment beyond the court mandated sentence flies in the face of our civil liberties. There has been a lot of loose talk of “solutions” which are even more sinister. Some people would isolate psychopaths from “normal” folk for their protection (the protection of the normals, that is—keep the sheep from the wolves). That not only harms psychopaths. It is demeaning to the sheep, oops, I mean the normal folk. Who wants to be keep enclosed and “safe” the way society used to try to “protect” women. Born Criminal talks a great deal about the metaphors comparing psychopaths to animals—wolves, snakes, lizards, etc. Depriving us of our humanity is a step in the direction of depriving us of our civil rights or even our lives. The book also touches on the blogs and websites devoted to exposing the monsters in their midst. “Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy partnerFoundation and” participated in a study by someone working on a master’s thesis at Carleton University. Questionnaires were given to people recruited from Robert Hare’s website and other places which sought to discover if these good people had the misfortune of working with psychopaths. “ was run by Donna Andersen, who according to her website was ‘not a licensed therapist’ and whose qualifications consisted of having been married to a sociopath and having ‘heard from more than 2,800 other victims about their experiences’ (a phone consultation with Andersen cost $65 per hour). One of the findings of this study was to warn employers against hiring psychopaths. Funny how they want to prevent us from contributing to society in a lawful manner.

Demonetization of society’s outsiders has some useful effects for those not demonized, I suppose. It reminds me too much of the witch hunts, Nazism and similar horrors. As a child, I was force-fed The Man Without a Country which nauseated me and made me want to be an outsider. A lot has been said about narcissism. How about the narcissism of a whole society? How about group narcissism?


scannerI think we need to leave the assessment of psychopathy to the experts. Brain Scans don’t seem widely accepted among them. Since M.E. Thomas’ Confessions of a Sociopath, a lot of psychopaths have stood up and told our own stories. Professional labeling is valued by some of us and rejected or ignored by many others. I would like to see a scan of my brain but it’s too expensive and society is not as keen on doing this large scale. The difficulties in defining and assessing us do not prove we are a myth. Of course, we’re not born criminals. We have a choice between criminal and non-criminal pursuits.

I think Born Criminal has done a service by pointing out how society uses us as modern-day monsters. Knowing someone doesn’t “have a conscience” is scary for most people. In the words of Coleridge,

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.




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