It’s hardly a surprise, I suppose, to find yourself reading about psychopaths in the week following the conviction of Graham Dwyer for vile, unspeakable crimes, and yet I felt a little sheepish if I needed to put down Jon Ronson’s book in the coffee shop or the pub. I might place it upside down. I might turn it so that the spine wasn’t visible. I might place something over it or beside it to obscure the title.
Why? That’s hard to know, but perhaps it’s a reluctance to be labelled. I didn’t want anyone thinking, There he is, reading a book about psychopaths just because that fucking nutter was convicted.
Why do I care what anyone thinks? I don’t know, but I suppose it proves, in a loose unscientific sort of way, that I’m not a real psychopath. After all, what sort of psychopath would care what anyone thinks of him?
Oh wait. Most psychopaths are obsessed with their own grandiose self-image, so maybe I am a psychopath after all. Shit.
Jon Ronson has an easygoing, self-deprecating style, much like Louis Theroux though not quite as laid back, a style that seems to work, since he manages to persuade everyone from Haitian murder-squad leaders to Canadian psychiatric gurus to open up and share their innermost thoughts. I nearly said feelings, but many of the people he interviewed seem to have no feelings, unless you regard self-interest, anger, contempt, greed and lust as feelings.
Wait a minute. They are, aren’t they? These things are feelings. We all experience them, so what exactly is it about the feelings of sociopaths that sets them apart?
Is it simply a linguistic trick? Is it the elision of the word feelings with its shadow-twin, feelings? Identical emotional planets pivoting on a shared centre of gravity as they wheel through a greater emotional solar system?
This is where popular culture sets us wrong, since we’ve all adopted the word feelings to mean something benign, something admirable, something magnificent.
I have feelings for you.
Share your feelings with me.
How wonderfully Paganini expressed his feelings.
Feelings can be as raw and murderous as they can be gentle and loving. Feelings can include a hatred of Jews, a desire to exterminate all Palestinians or a savage desire to exclude gay people from parenthood. Feelings can hate all women, or all men. Feelings can burn heretics at a stake, metaphorical or real.
Sociopaths don’t experience such feelings, or if they do, the feeling is as transitory as the sudden slipping of a knife between ribs and its urgent removal. The feelings of sociopaths, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, run the gamut of emotions from A to B. Now I like you, now I want to fucking kill you, now I’m wondering what all the fuss was about.
It’s all about empathy.
Sociopaths, psychopaths, call them what you will, have little understanding of situations external to themselves. They know in a kinematic way that, for example, their mother is dying, and they know that certain behaviours are appropriate in such circumstances. Maybe they’ve seen it on TV or observed it in friends who have been bereaved, but they don’t know it in a visceral, bleeding, raw, puke-on-your-shoes-in-grief sort of way.
Does that make them evil?
No. It makes them cold people. It means they’re deprived of a vital human experience.
Many people who experience this condition know it full well. Many of them don’t like what they are. Many wish they could participate in full at the banquet of human emotions and oddly, most psychopaths are not evil, murderous or even overwhelmingly manipulative, though of course, manipulation is one of the defining characteristics of this way of being.
I call it a way of being because it isn’t a treatable disorder in the way that some illnesses are.
Psychiatry isn’t highly regarded in our society, and with good reason. Its practitioners have invested it with an image of the occult and by doing so have caused huge damage to its credibility. Feudian. Jungean. What sort of bollocks was that? Who’d choose a heart surgeon on the basis of which guru he believed in? The field has moved on quite a lot since Freud and Jung have been exposed as dilletantes on a par with homeopaths, but the damage is done, and their heirs have hardly covered themselves in glory, gifting the world such horrors as lobotomy.
The field has moved on but the sociopath remains a mystery.
Ronson, in his book, outlines the Hare test for psychopathy, a checklist based on the work of Professor Bob Hare, which has become the worldwide standard for diagnosis of this tendency. Hare, incidentally, was less than complimentary of Ronson’s book, with considerable justification, since Ronson chose to undertake a jocular journey through the world of cold-blooded insanity, as if any other way existed to descend into the darkness of sociopathic thinking. For myself, I didn’t read the book as a scientific treatise, but more as a bewildered meander into the sleep of reason.
Having said that, Hare wasn’t slow to charge Ronson a hefty fee for learning about his PCL-R checklist. (PCL stands for Psychopath Checklist – Revised, rendering the final Checklist somewhat tautological but such is the madness business for you).
Here it is.
Glibness / superficial charm
Grandiose sense of self worth
Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom
Cunning / manipulative
Lack of remorse or guilt
Shallow affect, blunted emotions
Callous / lack of empathy
Poor behavioural controls
Promiscuous sexual behaviour
Early behaviour problems
Lack of realistic long-term goals
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Many short-term marital relationships
Revocation of conditional release
Now. What do you think of that?
These are things, according to Professor Hare that characterise sociopaths or psychopaths, using the terms interchangeably.
How many of these sins are you not guilty of? That was the first thought that crossed my mind. Have I not at times tried to turn on the charm? Have I not been a little puffed up in my own self-importance? Have I never lied? Have I been manipulative?
The truth is I’ve been and done all these things and almost everything else on the list as well, just as we all have, but does that mean we’re all psychopaths?
No, it doesn’t. In order to qualify as a sociopath, you have to do a lot of these these things a lot of the time, and yes, it’s true that somebody has to decide what a lot means. Psychiatrists, in other words. Those people for whom the jury is still out in deciding if what they do is really a science.
And yet we have obvious psychopaths who are alleged to cause mayhem in society. Murderers, rapists, sadists.
Don’t they fit the profile laid out by Professor Hare?
Yes they do, but that leads us to the overwhelming question: do the murderers, the rapists and the torturers really cause mayhem in our society? For all the damage they create, and all the pain they inflict, do they really make the slightest impact on society at large, apart from stoking a salacious desire to buy newspapers? The Sunday Independent sold out this week following the Graham Dwyer trial. It seems there’s no limit to the public need for angry, disgusted semi-pornographic articles by Paul Williams.
Do they cause mayhem in society?
No, they do not.
A low-level psychopath will react in a low-level way, killing or hurting an unfortunate victim, but not all psychopaths are violent thugs.
If you possess glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self worth, if you’re prone to boredom and pathological lying, if you’re cunning, manipulative and lack remorse and empathy, if you have a tendency to be a parasite, if you’re impulsive and irresponsible, if you won’t accept responsibility for your actions, there’s no point becoming a murderer when you could become …
… a banker.