“I believe in Harvey Dent” – psychopathy, synchronicity, and the splitting of self, part 1
some thoughts on monsters
wanting something else.
As a side note, although there is a detailed technical distinction, I’ll be using the terms “psychopathy” and “sociopathy” quite interchangeably in this piece.
In one of the final interviews before his execution, serial killer Ted Bundy was asked if he ever felt a sense of remorse for any the crimes he had committed. Bundy was a man of movie-star good looks who nearly always held about him an air of composed charisma, compelling charm, and self-effacing allure.
He was known to occasionally make sparse eye contact when discussing the more grisly aspects of his crimes, even going so far as to keep his eyes closed in certain cases. Today, however, Bundy kept the room lit with a killer grin…until he heard the interviewer’s final question.
“Surely Ted,” prodded the reporter, “you’ve felt some sense of shame at what you’ve done? You’re human, aren’t you?”
Though the two had shared a joking, friendly rapport just minutes earlier, any trace of that prior amicability suddenly disappeared. Bundy sighed as something deep inside him shifted and the air in the room grew thick as his guards nervously bristled where they stood. Bundy’s chains held fast as he leaned slowly across the table. His eyes flickered open to meet the reporter’s now-unsteady gaze and, in a rare moment of dark, honest lucidity, he spoke some of the truest words he had ever said.
He was a man of his word.
|Superficial charm (or glib charm) is “the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile,” but otherwise disingenuous, lacking an actual sincerity. Such superficial charm can be likened to “a storefront that’s attractive and lures you in, but… inside…the merchandise is sparse.”
The phrase often appears in lists of attributes of psychopathic personalities, such as in Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity and Robert Hare’s Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
Associated expressions are “turning on the charm” and “superficial smile”.
I can’t help but cringe whenever I stumble across the chilling transcript of a serial killer’s death-row interview. Even minutes before their own executions, they do not betray any sign of genuine remorse or an actual understanding of the true depth of their culpability. Their victims’ names and faces, among other frightening statistics of wanton brutality, do not seem to faze these men and women in the slightest.
But the rest of us cringe and grit our teeth and shake our heads because we don’t understand them. It doesn’t make sense. Who could do something like this?
That’s the reason I’m so fascinated by these monsters.
Because I don’t understand them.
And this odd interest extends beyond my own experience; I know that many other people are simultaneously horrified, perplexed, and intrigued by them.
This is natural. We can’t help but wonder how is it that someone can appear to look, talk, and act so much like us but be SO different than us on the inside, so absolutely…other.
Most of us, thankfully, simply don’t understand how a fellow human being can – while acting under the disarming guise of normalcy – develop, encourage, and capitulate to the call to callously and repeatedly murder innocent life. Like I said, it doesn’t make sense.
But no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, men like Ted Bundy are not merely the stuff of terrible daytime crime shows. We cannot deny that there are humans who, though they appear to be very harmless, are in reality the flesh and blood incarnations of a slick, smooth-talking, cruel and calculated evil.
The FBI estimates that there are anywhere from 35 to 50 serial killers active in the United States today. That’s anywhere from 35 to 50 very-real murderous enigmas operating in our churches, our schools, our offices, and our families.
Such slaves of wickedness are consistently marked by a lack of guilt or sorrow when reflecting on their deeds. They don’t feel bad for the bad things they’ve done. They don’t even know why we consider these things “bad.”
But it is important to note that not all remorseless, morally-skewed men and women are murderers.
Many of these individuals will never even commit a serious crime.
See, the traits I’ve just described to you are those of a sociopath.
And there are a lot more of them than there are actual serial murderers.
Researchers speculate that an estimated 12 million Americans (~4% of the population) suffer from some form of moderate to severe Antisocial Personality Disorder. ASPD, a blanket term that describes a condition apparent through a set of personality traits including “callous unconcern for the feelings of others” and “a low threshold for discharge of aggression [including] violence,” is a disorder diagnosed almost unanimously among serial killers.
Still, only a startling .000004% of those living with this condition eventually become serial killers.
The rest, it seems, make perfectly prolific lawyers, businessmen, lawyers, policemen, and politicians.
On the cover of her 2005 national bestseller “The Sociopath Next Door,” Dr. Martha Stout advances this provocative statement:
“1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty. Who is the devil you know?”
It’s a good question.
How many times have we been disappointed by the severe moral failure of other members of our society?
Community leaders, respectable businessmen, assistant general managers, and elected public servants, even at the highest levels of government.
Policemen, public school teachers, successful college graduates and PHD candidates.
On every level.
The most successful people are often those who have pushed the hardest, smiled the largest, spoken the most ambiguously, and worked the hardest to keep their appearances up.
Even if there’s nothing real underneath.
Psychopaths are excellent at this. They enchant without substance. They were born to manipulate.
Consider the following study, which found a startling number of undiagnosed psychopaths operating in high levels of management in the business world. Additionally, experts also believe many politicians fit the bill for sociopathy.
In the high-octane environments of business and politics, we are often rewarded for showing stark initiative. Competition fosters not amicability but a thick and ferocious drive to triumph over neighbor and our God-given, Darwinean drive-to-survive is terribly amplified by such competition.
Results are emphasized more than methods and, as a result, brutality is often rewarded.
Covetousness becomes a virtue.
Although few would claim to condone such values, it’s often the case that whoever has the least moral reservations in a firm rises to the top.
Skilled psychopaths probably don’t have many negative marks on their performance reviews; although their coworkers may have seen some frightening cruelties, their superiors are more than likely to scribble footnotes like “charismatic leadership” and “management potential” at the bottom of their files.
“Part of the problem,” says psychologist Paul Babiak, “is that the very things we’re looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic.”
But sooner or later, we catch on. The charm only gets them so far.
They are exposed.
And it’s nasty when we see people, “ordinary people,” for what they really were all along.
Because we kind of knew it all along, didn’t we? I mean, we’ve always had our suspicions.
We quietly note the ferocity of an otherwise-tranquil senator’s fierce anti-gay polemic, and then we kind of chuckle when we find out he had been soliciting anonymous sex in an airport men’s bathroom.
We had always seen a hint of something fake in their smiles and charitable assurances, and so we’re a bit surprised but not entirely shocked when we hear candidates making disparaging remarks at closed-door fundraisers or when we catch state governors making illicit extortions during what they thought were private conversations.
Being politic is masking your true intentions for the sake of social benefit. But calling it being “two-faced” is a little harsh. Acting with diplomacy. “Playing Switzerland.” That’s how we have come to describe it.
Authenticity is rare these days.
However, the public presentation of self versus the image of the real self isn’t a struggle limited to sociopaths and manipulative politicians.
We all choose how much of ourselves, and how much of our true desires, to reveal to people at any given time.
We cannot be 100% honest 100% of the time, or at least if we were, it should be very awkward.
It wouldn’t be appropriate, for instance, to tell every boy or girl that you were attracted to how attracted you were to them every time you saw them or thought about them and had the thought that you were attracted to them.
Similarly, making a good first impression, we all know, is very important. Do we not take extra care to censor ourselves during these encounters, so as not to say something foolish?
Turning on a disarming superficiality is often the key to accessing some of life’s greatest opportunities.
So we can admit that this isn’t always an evil struggle.
But it is, by definition, also never completely honest. So we have to be careful.
Choosing what to say and when to say it can be as innocent as a husband assuring his wife that she looks great in her new dress, as questionable as not telling your daughter that her grandparents have died because she is training for the olympics, as dark as pretending you are interested in a girl romantically when sex is the only thing you’re really after, as heartless as convincing a woman to take a car ride with you that you know she will not come back from.
The masking of our true motivations and desires is unavoidable, but we should guard against living a complete lie, making others utterly alien to who we really are.
Trust me: if high school has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing lonelier than hiding your problems and pretending everything is okay.
If people don’t know what is wrong with you, you can’t accept their help. You can only reject others’ acceptance.
“We accept the love we think we deserve,” says the narrator of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
I’m not saying that all Bundy needed to do was open up and he wouldn’t have attacked all those women.
It couldn’t have hurt his chances. Although the research on treating those suffering from sociopathy is relatively sparse, some new studies indicate that progress is possible.
Listen, if you’re feeling something that you think no one else has ever felt before, I can guarantee that you are wrong. Talk to a friend or family member about whatever it is. If you’re not comfortable with that, post to the web anonymously and watch the support come rolling in. Ignore the trolls.
I promise you that whatever you are keeping secret, hidden, dark on the inside…the world has seen it before.
Personally, I think what helps is somehow being able to laugh at myself, in spite of it all. I’m crazy. And maybe you are too. But I love it.
You’re not alone.
Don’t think you are.
Hiding our pain, and our true motivations, from everyone is a dangerous compartmentalization that leads to what I call the splitting of self.
I’ll talk about this soon.