Psychopathy and Totalitarianism: A Review of Conquest’s The Great Terror

Psychopathy is usually analyzed as an individual psychological phenomenon. As we’ve seen, the term describes individuals without conscience, with shallow emotions, who are able to impersonate fully developed human beings and mimic feelings of love, caring and other-regarding impulses to fulfill their deviant goals: be that stealing your money,  stealing your heart or both. This phenomenon becomes all the more toxic, and dangerous, when such individuals rise to national power and manage to create totalitarian regimes ruled by mind-control, deception, lack of individual and collective rights and freedoms, and  arbitrary displays of power.

Psychopathic, or at least seriously disordered rulers, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu show what happens when (their) pathology spreads to a whole country. Given that psychopaths are estimated to be, at most, only 4 percent of the population, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage to rise to positions of authority over more or less normal human beings to impose a social pathology in every social sphere: from education, to the police force, to the juridical system, to the media. Few books explain this strange and extremely dangerous political and psychological phenomenon better than Robert Conquest‘s classic, The Great Terror. This book traces both Stalin’s rise to power within the ranks of the Bolsheviks and, concurrently, the spreading of the totalitarian system like a fatal virus throughout Soviet society (and beyond).

The book also exposes the underlying lack of principles even among seemingly ideological rulers like Joseph Stalin. When it suited his purposes, Stalin strategically oscillated siding with the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Kamenev and Zimonev) or the right of the Bolshevik party (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky), turning each side against the other, to weaken them both and consolidate his own power. He surrounded himself with equally ruthless, unprincipled and sadistic individuals who did his dirty work–Yakov, Yagoda and Beria–placing them in positions of power in the NKVD, or Secret Police.

Stalin engaged in arbitrary displays of power, sending tens of millions of people to their deaths in prison or labor camps. Even his army leaders weren’t spared. In a very poor strategic move that showed he cared more about acquiring total control than about his country’s victory, Stalin decimated the ranks of his army elite right before the war against Hitler, when the Soviet Union would have needed them most. Nobody was safe from the gulag; nobody could maintain ideological purity. Anybody could be accused of deviationism from communist principles at any time.

Totalitarianism is a pathological system imposed upon an entire country or area. Like a disease, it spreads through the healthy aspects of society. It conditions even ordinary human beings, through the inculcation of fear and through brainwashing, to lose their conscience, their empathy and their humanity. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror is a testament to human corruptibility. This magnificent book will continue to remain historically relevant  for as long as we allow disordered individuals to have power over us, our families and our social institutions.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

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Evil Jokers: The Dark Knight and Other Psychopaths

Psychopaths often fool others with their mask of sanity. As we know, they appear glib and charming in casual contact, hide their wrongdoings from others and lie smoothly with no compunction. But usually they’re far better at fooling their buddies and professional acquaintances–those they have only superficial contact with–than they are their long-term significant others. For a number of reasons I’ve explored so far–including fear, dependency, a sense of helplessness, PTSD, loyalty and deep emotional attachment–women sometimes stay with known psychopaths. Perhaps a less obvious reason for this that I’d like to discuss today is a self-defeating fascination with evil. Many of us are intrigued by evil, partly because of it’s caused by human beings who are fundamentally different from the rest of us. Just as it’s impossible for psychopaths to relate to what’s good about human nature—they see conscience, empathy and love it as weaknesses–it’s almost as difficult for most people to understand what motivates psychopaths to harm others.

The film The Dark Knight (2008) was a box office hit largely due to the popularity of the evil character. The Joker kills not in order to become richer, as do the other outlaws in the movie, but solely for the sport of it. His characterization as a psychopath is plausible: except perhaps for the unfortunate fact that most psychopaths are much harder to identify. They usually don’t look as repulsive and don’t act as obviously crazy as the Joker does. Yet, fundamentally, all psychopaths are evil jokers. Their idea of entertainment, and of a life well-spent, is duping and destroying others.

Similarly, Dracula novels remain international best sellers for a similar reason. In spite of ourselves, we’re drawn to human vampires who feed upon our lives, to weaken and destroy us. Even crime shows that feature psychopaths are very popular. Evil individuals also tend to monopolize the personal interest and crime stories featured on the news.

Because most of us are capable of empathy and love, and thus can’t identify with those who completely lack these capacities, we imagine evil people to be far more complex and intriguing than they actually are. We may be initially mystified by the contradiction between a psychopath’s apparent charm and his underlying ruthlessness. But once we realize that the charm of evil people is purely instrumental, to get them whatever they want at the moment, this contradiction is resolved and ceases to intrigue us. In reality, normal people are far more interesting and less predictable than psychopaths. The depth and range of our emotions complicates, nuances and curbs our selfish impulses and desires. For psychopaths, however, nothing stands in the way of their absolute selfishness. Each and every one of their actions, including seemingly other-regarding acts, can be plausibly explained in terms of their quest for dominance.

Evil men may appear to be masculine, self-confident and in charge. They seem to know what they want from life and how to get it. Keep in mind, however, that it’s so much easier to know what you want when you’re considering only your own desires and are willing to sacrifice everyone and everything to satisfy them. Even animals manifest deeper emotions. They care about their young and bond with others. Psychopaths don’t. If decent men sometimes hesitate, it’s because they’re more thoughtful and other-regarding. They put other people’s needs into the equation before reaching a decision. Thus, paradoxically, it’s only because of their deficiencies and simplicity with respect to normal, more multidimensional, human beings that we consider evil individuals our “Others” and are intrigued by them.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Why Do Sociopaths Waste (Our) Time?

In reading Donna Andersen‘s book Love Fraud, I was struck by how much time  and energy her sociopathic ex-husband spent inventing phony business schemes which were doomed to failure. Given his intelligence, charisma and powers of persuasion, he could have created enough successful businesses to last him several lifetimes. But he chose not to create a single successful business venture during his predatory scams of so many trusting and loving partners. So the question arises: Why? Why do sociopaths waste (our) time?

The main answer I’ve given before is that sociopaths don’t have any constructive goals in life. On the contrary, they aim to destroy people and their lives however they can: emotionally, physically and sometimes also financially. Their behavior fits into a pattern that destroys human life and its meaning largely by wasting our time. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to who has been involved with a sociopath expresses one main regret: I wasted my life, for x number of months or years, on a fantasy, on a total fraud.

The feelings of “love” a sociopath expresses are never real. At best, they express need for you (or, more precisely, for using you for their purposes) or sexual desire. The  so-called “truths” a sociopath shares with you are largely lies or manipulative bits of truth, intended to sway you in some way that serves his purposes. Often a sociopath will invest an enormous amount of time and energy to construct a web of lies. He will repeat to you the same false information, to lead you to believe that he’s trustworthy; that he shares your life goals; that he loves you. He will even get others to corroborate those lies or half-truths. He will pretend to be interested in your interests. Not only that, but he will mirror you consistently enough and for a long enough period of time to gain your trust. He will sometimes go so far as to ingratiate himself with your family and friends, to gain their confidence as well. He will also take great pains, for as long as you’re useful to him, to hide his bad behavior, including the cheating, web of lies, crimes and/or financial scams. He will put in his best effort to brainwash you into accepting his false version of reality. Even the energy sociopaths invest in demeaning their targets is enormous, given that to be effective they do it gradually, insult by insult, demand by demand, over time. If they became abusive upfront and at once, their victims would be much more likely to be shocked by the mistreatment and reject them.

Because they find no inherent meaning in human life–no higher purpose, no real feelings of loyalty and love–sociopaths perceive life as an empty stretch of time that they must somehow fill up with diversions, schemes and games at other people’s expense. Even most sociopaths who are well-educated and intelligent waste their natural abilities and their lives, on playing constant mind games, pursuing a string of vacuous and ultimately unsatisfying sexual relationships, manipulation, and often pointless deceit. Sociopaths lie to attain their short-term goals, of course. But they also lie when it doesn’t serve any obvious useful purpose, just for the fun of it. Deception fills their empty lives with sadistic entertainment and ephemeral pleasure. As Janis Joplin sings in Me and Bobby McGee, for them “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In that sense, sociopaths are free.

Normal people, however, have everything to lose in becoming involved with sociopaths. For us, time is very precious and life is not something to be wasted. It’s filled with positive desires and goals, with the meaning we find in fulfilling emotional bonds with those we care about, with what we can accomplish for both ourselves and others. Because of the vast difference in our concepts of time, a sociopath has nothing to lose in engaging in empty diversions while we have nothing to gain from them. This is why victims involved with sociopathic predators describe their time together as wasted time: as months or even years that can never be recaptured and were essentially thrown away. Most sociopaths don’t commit actual murder. Wasting our time with their lies, intimidation tactics, manipulation and mind games is the most common way in which sociopaths waste our lives.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

Psychopaths and Psychological Torture

Psychopaths don’t just hurt those around them. They build them up first, so that the fall will be more painful and, preferably, shatter them. The higher a psychopath takes you during the idealization phase of the relationship (when he showers you with flattery, gifts and declarations of eternal love), the lower you can expect to fall in his eyes during the devaluation phase, when he isolates you from loved ones, undermines your confidence and criticizes you both to your face and to others.

I’ll offer an analogy to illustrate the underlying cruelty of psychopathic behavior.  Imagine the following scenario: a boy who gets a puppy for Christmas. He pets him, feeds him, cuddles him, plays with him and even sleeps next to him at night. Then, six months later, after the puppy has bonded most with him and expects only nurture and affection from him, the boy takes a knife and slaughters him just for fun. That’s exactly what a psychopath does, at the very least on a psychological level, to every person who becomes intimately involved with him. He carefully nurtures expectations of mutual honesty and love. Then he sticks a knife into her back through a pattern of intentional deception and abuse.

Let me now offer a second, even more poignant, example. I remember many years ago being horrified when I read in the news about the rapes of Bosnian women by ethnically Serbian men. What troubled me most was a true story about a Serbian soldier who “saved” a Bosnian girl from gang rape by fellow Serbs. He removed her from the dangerous situation, fed her, protected her and talked to her reassuringly and tenderly for several days. Once he secured her trust, gratitude and devotion, he raped and killed her himself. Afterwards, he boasted about his exploits on the international news.

This degree of psychological sadism exceeds that of the brutes who raped and killed women without initially faking niceness and caring. What he did to her was more insidious, duplicitous and perverse. All psychopaths behave this way towards their partners, at the very least on an emotional level. They gain your love and trust only to  take sadistic pleasure in harming you. Each time you forgive their behavior and take them back, they enjoy the thrill of having regained your confidence so that they can hurt you again. Psychopaths engage in psychological torture for the same reason that totalitarian regimes do: to crush you body and spirit; to have you entirely at their mercy and under their control.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction

 

Stringing Women Along: The Psychopath as Puppet Master

Since, as we’ve seen in previous discussions, psychopaths enjoy sex and power–especially when the two are combined–they’re great jugglers of women. They especially relish creating rivalry and jealousy among their partners. They instigate feelings of mutual disrespect and even hatred. Watching several women fight over them validates their ego. It also offers priceless entertainment. To offer one notable example of a famous psychopath, Pablo Picasso unabashedly confesses to his partner, Françoise Gilot, his delight in having women assault each other over him. He recounts how Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar had an altercation over  who was his real girlfriend. Instead of diffusing the tension, he encouraged them to escalate from a verbal to a physical fight. Picasso tells Gilot, “’I told them they’d have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It’s one of my choicest memories.’” (Life with Picasso, 211)

Jealous fights, as well as mutual insults and devaluation, offer an amusing spectator sport for psychopaths. It makes them feel in charge: like they’re the puppet masters manipulating all these women’s emotions. This rivalry also has the additional advantage of creating artificial barriers among the victims. The women’s aggression turns against one another rather than towards their real enemy, the psychopath who is using and mistreating them both, plus several others that they may not even know about.

Psychopaths tend to select trusting and trustworthy women whom they can manipulate and taint. They enjoy the thrill of getting them to collude in their lies and machinations against others, including family members and friends. They resort to emotional blackmail to get their victims, who are often decent human beings, to cooperate. This establishes a link of complicity in the psychopathic bond: something along the lines of, you lied to your family (or my family, or our friends, or your spouse) too, so therefore you’re just as bad and deceitful as I am. Furthermore, psychopaths need to have their sense of power over you constantly reaffirmed. Since they’re at core malicious human beings, the way you help confirm their power best is by colluding with their projects to deceive and hurt others.

By turning “their” women against one another, psychopaths make each of them simultaneously their co-conspirator and their dupe, the deceiver and the deceived. When she deflects her negative emotions towards other women, the psychopath’s wife or girlfriend remains blind to the real threat posed by her own partner. Emotionally, this perspective may be easier to accept than the truth: namely, that your supposed soul mate wants to destroy you and is using you as a weapon to hurt others and vice versa. Only when you’re strong enough to open your eyes and face reality do you begin to see the machinations of the psychopath as puppet master.

Françoise Gilot describes this strategy with incredible lucidity. She compares Picasso’s habit of stringing several women along to a Bluebeard complex and to a bullfight. Although these analogies may seem radically different, they describe the same phenomenon. In this process, the real enemy–the one who gores you in the end–is the man generating all the drama and rivalries among women in the first place:

“Pablo’s many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Thérèse  and Dora Maar, as well as their continuing presence just off stage in our life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum. But he didn’t cut the heads entirely off. He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that it hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. Even though he no longer had any feeling for this one or that one, he could not bear the idea that any of his women should ever again have a life of her own. And so each had to be maintained, with the minimum gift of himself, inside his orbit and not outside. As I thought about it, I realized that in Pablo’s life things went on just about the way they do in a bullfight. Pablo was the toreador and he waved the red flag, the muleta. For a picture dealer, the muleta was another picture dealer; for a woman, another woman. The result was, the person playing the bull stuck his horns into the red flag instead of goring the real adversary–Pablo. And that is why Pablo was always able, at the right moment, to have his sword free to stick you where it hurt. I came to be very suspicious of this tactic and any time I saw a big red flag waiving around me, I would look to one side of it. There, I always found Pablo.” (Life with Picasso, 242-3)

Psychopaths have an uncanny ability to turn even people who don’t know one another against each other through their egregious lies and smear campaigns. After slandering their ex partners to their new partners and vice versa, psychopaths sit back and enjoy the show. Aside from the entertainment value and the sense of being in charge, the psychopath gets something else out of generating conflict among his targets. He also gets back-ups to his back-ups. Given that he’s bound to mistreat every woman he’s involved with, he certainly needs them. It seems as if psychopaths know, through both intuition and experience, that the honeymoon phase won’t last long no matter how exciting and promising a given relationship may seem in the beginning.

Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness

Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction