“You say tomAto and I say tomAHto, you say sociopath, but they say psychopath…”
Ever since I first read Thomas Harris’s brilliant Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs and then followed it up a week later with Brett Easton Ellis’s equally memorable, although for entirely different reasons, American Psycho, I’ve been left wondering, What exactly does qualify someone as a psychopath?
In the old days, it was easy. Hitchcock’s check list in the seminal Psycho seemed to be pretty straightforward. You needed to be a:
a) creepy guy
b) with creepy hobbies, like spying on girls and then trying to turn those girls into sushi
c) all because you had a creepy Mom who treated you badly (but who comes good in the end, by turning out to be a really great person to live with, once she’s dead).
A simple enough formula then. Bad childhoods equalled bad, mad adults.
Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs made matters a little more complex, however. No surprise there. Thomas Harris was a crime reporter and, like any decent reporter, he did his research and tried to make what he wrote feel real. One of his most memorable characters, Special Agent Jack Crawford, was inspired by John Douglas, who helped set up the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.
I’ve read and re-read Douglas’s biography, Mindhunter, over the years, part as a horror story to frighten the heck out of myself, and part as research – because I’ve written a couple of serial killer characters myself. Douglas has his own list of what turns someone into a murderer and what turns a murderer into a serial killer. He’s interviewed a whole bunch of serial killers and the commonalities – a lack of empathy, early behavioural problems, and superficial charm – are terrifying and striking in equal measure.
A great book and one well worth reading if you haven’t already.
Anyway, having digested it about as thoroughly as Hannibal Lecter might a supper of liver, fava beans and chianti, I felt I knew all I needed to about why someone might become a psychopath and how a the police might spot one and stop one, or even capture one alive.
And that is how I thought of psychopaths for several years. As murderers. As serial killers. Because that’s what psychopaths were, right?
Wrong. Because then comes along Jonny Come Lately, or Jon Ronson, anyway. He’s the guy who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats (made into that Clooney movie). His latest book is called The Psychopath Test: A Journey into the Madness Industry, and it presents a whole different take on the psychopath / sociopath debate.
Shrinks believe that psychopaths are more of an us problem, than a them. By which I mean they think there are a lot of them. In fact, according to the folk Ronson spoke to, they reckon a whole one percent of the general population are psychopaths. Even more perturbing, they’re not at all easy to spot. Partly because most of them are not out there slicing and dicing people in motels or living with their dead Mom’s. But mainly because most of them wear a ‘Mask of Sanity’, meaning they’ve learned to fit in and hide their core lack of empathy for other human beings.
Kind of a scary thought, particularly when you consider the fact that a lot of these ‘others’ regard the rest of their species as no more deserving of sympathy then ants. But what’s even scarier is when you start to wonder whether you know any yourself. And scariest of all is when you start to wonder if you’re one too (although the good news on this is that if you do have the insecurity and self-doubt to wonder, then you’re almost certainly not).
A shrink called Bob Hare came up with a 20 point checklist to determine whether or not someone can be classified as a psychopath. In many countries around the world, including the UK and the US, a citizen who’s committed no crime at all can be locked up in a mental hospital indefinitely if they score too highly in this test - in other words if they’re deemed to be a psychopath and therefore potential danger to society.
Go take a look. It certainly makes for interesting reading. I came up with at least three people I know who fitted the mould. (But I’m not saying if one of them was me.)