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.