Whatever you call it, it’s not good! There are people among us who make our skin crawl, whom we might, at certain moments, consider “evil.” They are dangerous in any situation but especially in situations where they have power over others. We do not need a degree in psychology to recognize or be affected by them, if we know what to look for. Some of the terms that apply to this type of person are psychopath, sociopath, or antisocial personality disorder. It is vitally important at this point in our nation’s history to take a look at this disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the “bible” of psychologists and psychiatrists. Long ago in my life I had occasion to consult this volume, when I realized that I was encountering people that were wreaking havoc not only with my life but with the lives of others around them. I wanted to know why these people seemed so different from the rest of us, why they were mean to others, untrustworthy, erratic, irresponsible. The men I encountered who had these traits were making sexual advances at me (and others), even though they were married; the women were self-absorbed and unethical. I finally found what I was looking for, and it was extremely disturbing…
The current edition of the DSM, number 5, in section 301.7, assigns the diagnosis Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) “to individuals who habitually violate the rights of others without remorse.” There is no cure for this condition…
Other professionals have tackled this subject, and there are articles all over the internet and many good books in print. Here is a helpful summary of this disorder’s traits, using the term “psychopath.”
“Dr. Robert Hare, who is one of the most experienced researchers in psychopaths, who has studied them in prisons and other institutions for upwards of 40 years, and has written the book, Without Conscience, and also developed the ‘Psychopath’s Check List, Revised’ which is the ‘Gold Standard’ in criminal courts for determining if an offender meets the criteria for being a psychopath.
“The qualities of a psychopath, as listed by Dr. Hare are:
- Glib and superficial charm
- Grandiose self worth
- Need for stimulation, prone to boredom
- Pathological lying
- Conning and manipulating
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallowness of expressions
- Callousness, lack of empathy
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioral controls
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Early behavioral problems such as lying, fire setting, stealing etc.
- Lack of realistic long term goals
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Many short term marital relationships
- Juvenile delinquency, crimes and acting out between the ages of 13-18
- Revocation of Conditional Release
- Criminal versatility
It’s important to note that these types of individuals are not restricted to prisons or psychiatric hospitals; the people in my life who met these criteria included at least two Harvard professors, a high school teacher, and a neighbor who taught piano lessons. I have a cousin who was trained as a neuropsychologist, and he told me that he always knew when he was dealing with a psychopath: that patient would most likely not pay his bill.
Dr. Keith Ablow analyzed convicted murderer Scott Peterson. Peterson no longer wanted to be married to his wife, Laci, or become a father to the son Laci was carrying in her womb. Rather than divorce her, Peterson killed her, weighted her body down, and threw it in San Francisco Bay. Outwardly Peterson was, for all intents and purposes, the “guy next door.” He was good looking and could be charming, but Ablow’s examination of him from childhood through conviction and incarceration showed how Peterson’s psychopathic traits were always there.
Some of Ablow’s observations about Peterson can be made about others who fit the APD criteria:
- Over time, at least in part because of the way the psychopath is parented, “He will slowly kill himself off, and become a person imitating a person, a hunter-gatherer of the ‘emotions’ and facial expressions and ideas that will receive the best reception, that will get him some of what he needs from a world he has learned is unfeeling and unpredictable and cruel and potentially lethal” (Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, 66).
- Speaking about Jackie, Scott Peterson’s mother, Ablow quotes a Peterson family friend: “You could get different answers to the very same question at different times. And if you ever brought that up, or made any other wrong move, you knew you were going to fall out of her good graces” (69).
- The psychopath develops a “mask of sanity.” “They become slowly, quietly, increasingly paranoid, secretive, and very, very angry.” The psychopath becomes “extraordinarily good at intuiting ‘thoughts and wishes of other people’” (71).
- A “sociopath may believe he can lie convincingly, even when caught red-handed. Cut off from real emotions, he assumes others lack emotional intuition, that others will believe what he tells them, not what they sense and feel and know in their hearts” (90, italics in original).
- The psychopath/sociopath imitates a complete human being. Sexual excitement becomes a substitute for real emotional warmth. The rage of others would intrigue him or her, and the “appearance of being a financial success would be an important distraction” (92-93).
- The psychopath “is nearly always free from minor reactions popularly regarded as ‘neurotic’ or as constituting ‘nervousness.’… Even under concrete circumstances that would for the ordinary person cause embarrassment, confusion, acute insecurity, or visible agitation, his relative serenity is likely to be noteworthy” (139-40).
- “No empathy. No feelings of guilt. . . the hallmarks of sociopathy” (141).
- The “sociopath believes there is no God. . . he is his own savior” (142).
- Finally, “Without the ability to feel, [Peterson] could not empathize with the suffering of others. He could not consider others fully human, for he did not feel human himself. He was, therefore, able to lie without remorse, and to kill without conscience” (320).
It is a travesty of our current national moment that one of the candidates running for President of the United States meets the criteria of APD/sociopath/psychopath. (Hint: that person’s initials are not HRC….) What is vitally important is that, once we know about APD and how it manifests in someone’s character, nearly all the answers to our questions about why that person acts the way s/he does – what motivates him or her – become crystal clear. The diagnosis answers the questions.
I did not want to write this blog, but I feel compelled to do so, for the sake of the nation we all love. Every eligible voter in this country needs to send a signal to the world that we have no intention of electing someone to the White House who has a severe personality disorder.
Ablow, Keith. Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005.
Hare, Robert D. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us. New York: Guilford, 1999.
Stout, Martha. The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Broadway Books, 2005.