Psychopaths: Not so romantic

Originally published in the Journal Inquirer July 17, 2012
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
Psychopaths fascinate us. If they didn’t, Hollywood wouldn’t make such a killing off them, and there would be no Investigation Discovery, an entire cable channel dedicated to documenting their murderous exploits in shows with titles like “Wicked Attraction” and “Cold Blood.”

But why are we so interested in them?

Forensic psychiatrist Ronald Schouten, director of law and psychiatry services at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the book Almost a Psychopath, believes we’re drawn to stories about psychopaths for the same reasons we’re drawn to horror movies.

“There’s something inherently frightening about them,” he says. “We want to look at it and be close to it, it’s kind of exciting, but we can be separate from it.”

“Exciting” is probably the last word Texas author Kathleen M. Rodgers would use to describe the 1982 stabbing death and rape of her 17-year-old step-sister, Barbara Ellen Begley, whose murder (among many others) was later claimed by confessed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.

Her words? Terrifying. Horrifying.

The killing changed Rodgers, who was 24 when Begley’s body was found on a pile of rocks in an oilfield just outside of Hobbs, New Mexico. Afterward, she felt less safe, less trusting. Anyone she met was someone who could be a potential rapist or serial killer.

“A dark anger surged through me for a long time,” Rodgers says. “I had the urge to track this monster down and kill him myself. I wanted revenge. Not just revenge for Barbara’s murder, but revenge for what her murder did to our family.”

Although Rodgers doesn’t fault people for being interested in psychopaths, she does find fault in glamorizing or glorifying them and explains that, too often, the “creeps” make the headlines while their victims are nothing more than a name logged into a case file.

Romanticizing psychopaths effectively minimizes the gravity of the damage done to their victims, and this is true not just for murder victims and their families, but for the victims of those psychopaths who score on the lower end of the psychopathy spectrum.

Not all psychopaths are violent, full-blown psychopaths, says former federal prosecutor James Silver, now a criminal defense attorney and co-author with Schouten. Using the Hare psychopathy checklist, where 1 indicates psychopathy is somewhat present and 40 is the highest possible score one can receive, anything around 30, professionals say, is evidence that a person is a true psychopath.

Most normal people score around 5, Silver says, and those who qualify as almost-psychopaths score between 10 and 25 and have “tendencies that are troubling.”

The accepted percentages, according to Silver, place 1 percent of the population as true psychopaths, and anywhere from 5 to 15 percent as almost-psychopaths.

“If we take the middle figure at 10 percent ‘almosts,’ that’s 30 million people,” Silver says. “So, you very likely know, work with, or are in a relationship with an almost-psychopath.”

There’s reason to be concerned about almost-psychopaths. Even if they aren’t violent, they will do their share of damage to the people in their lives.

“They have a parasitic lifestyle,” Silver says. “They may be dating someone, but they’re doing it for a place to live or for money. They may befriend you, but it’s to get something they want.”

At work, an almost-psychopath might habitually steal from the office or take credit for a colleague’s efforts. In a relationship, an almost-psychopath will use, manipulate, and lie, and has the potential to become physically abusive.

It might be tempting to assign a fraction of the fault to anyone who would get close enough to a psychopath to be hurt by one. Even those who are fooled by them take a healthy share of the blame upon themselves, often feeling mortified for having been conned.

But anyone can fall victim to what Silver calls a psychopath’s glib, superficial charms, and Schouten doesn’t want people in such a predicament to feel any shame. Psychopaths are very, very good at what they do.

“They fool people all the time – judges, police, social workers. If you get fooled by a psychopath, it’s probably an indication that you’re a good person. They rely on us to believe them, and they use our goodness against us,” he says.

Regularly engaging with someone who has psychopathic traits is far from exciting or romantic; instead, it can be confusing, consuming, and emotionally draining. If you suspect you’re in a relationship with an almost-psychopath, Schouten says, it’s time to get out.

There is a situation, however, in which it could be advantageous to know an almost-psychopath.

“There’s an argument,” Schouten says, “that they are, from an evolutionary standpoint, pro-social and helpful.”

For example, if there’s a food shortage that results in a threat to the group, requiring someone to act remorselessly and without empathy on behalf of the others, he says, “the group with the psychopath is going to survive.”

Only a professional can diagnose psychopathy, and in a relationship, it is something that won’t be immediately evident but will reveal itself over time and through patterns. However, Silver and Schouten outline a few telltale signs that may indicate a problem along with helpful information.

  • Almost-psychopaths experience less remorse and more callousness, Silver says. They have no interest in how others feel and will use people to get what they want.
  • Psychopaths are indifferent to the negative feelings of others.
  • Aggressive narcissism is one of the core factors of psychopathy, according to Schouten. A romantic relationship will revolve around the psychopath, who reasons, “Of course, why wouldn’t my partner sacrifice everything for me?”
  • Psychopaths are impulsive and tend to have many short-term relationships, because they’re eventually discovered. Upon being found out, psychopaths don’t change their behavior, but their targets.
  • When confronted with a lie, a psychopath will deny, and then tell lies on top of lies.
  • A psychopath doesn’t recognize his or her own psychopathy and can not be “fixed” by a co-worker, friend, or partner.

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel Pretty Much True and the short story collection Carol’s Aquarium.

5 thoughts on “Psychopaths: Not so romantic

  1. How can they really not know? They are so obviously doing things on purpose – I know a couple and it’s awful to be around them. Feels like a black hole next to you.

    • Warren –

      I just took a look at my notes from the interview, and Schouten is quoted as saying, “There’s clean evidence that there’s psychological differences in the brains of psychopaths than in “normal” people.”

      Silver says, “Psyhopaths, in studies, react the same to a sad face, neutral face, or happy face.”

      I wish I had more for you, but that wasn’t necessarily the topic of the article, so my questions didn’t go there. I’m sure you can find a lot of info about that, though.

      Lee –

      I also looked through my notes for an answer to your question and found this, from Schouten:

      “True psycopaths tend to feel pretty good about themselves. The difficult thing about it is that it’s difficult to treat. They score pretty well on levels of anxiety and depression – they’re not anxious or depressed. They don’t feel bad about themselves. They don’t put themselves into therapy. When they’re in, it’s because they’ve been forced in.

      “‘Almosts’ probably do recognize their life doesn’t seem to be the same as other people’s lives. I don’t think they’re going to feel bad about it to the extent that they’re sad all the time. Should we feel bad for them? They do lead lives with shallow emotions and don’t have what we consider the full range of human emotions, love and support and nurturing. Doesn’t seem to me to be the best human experience. On the other hand, I don’t think they’re suffering the way a person might who is otherwise rejected by society and feels isolated.”

  2. Hi my name is Kathy and I was born and raised in New Mexico. I was friends with Barbara, and one of the first who was questioned, about who she was with and talked to, we all was hanging out on the dirt lot on Broadway, there was so many parked there. There was an older guy who was handing out Malt Duck liquor to everyone, whom was a suspect for awhile Johnny Hill who was murdered by his friend. We all went from car to car or sitting on the hoods, I walked by a vehicle and noticed Barbara sitting in the passenger seat. I even went up to the window and asked her what she was doing, I didn’t sense fear, back in those days we did that, we had no fear. I seen he was an older guy, they even asked if I wanted to go party, it was Friday night and 11:00 pm I had to be home at midnight so I declined, I was 16 at the time. I had just started a new job, they had just built a new Dairy Queen and it wasn’t open yet but we were training when I found out Monday mid morning. two detectives came in and told me then came to my mom and dads house that evening. I have never forgot her, I am 48 now and I still think of her. Yanno what if I could of done something. I will always have her in my heart and prayers. I thought she knew him. This needed to be told and I agree with you!! I have a 26 year old and I was very protective and told her that there are some bad people in this world, I was scared for her all her teenage years, it was hard for me! She is marrying a Bryan Texas Police officer this coming Saturday and Is a licensed to carry woman. I am more at ease now. I am also a license to carry, because I spent alot of time afraid of people! God Bless you!!

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