My native country, Romania, is best known for a fictional character, Dracula, which is only loosely based on a historical fact: the infamous legend of Vlad Tepes. Novels that draw upon this legend—ranging from Anne Rice’s genre fiction, to the popular Twilight series, to Elizabeth Kostova’s erudite The Historian–continue to be best sellers. Yet, ultimately, no matter how much they may thrill us, the “undead” vampires we encounter in novels are harmless fictional characters that play upon our fascination with evil. However, real-life vampires, or individuals who relish destroying the lives of others, do exist. We see them constantly featured in the news and, if we don’t know how to recognize them, sometimes we even welcome them into our lives.
What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, Neil Entwistle and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charming, charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody some of the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the fundamental incapacity to love. To such men, other people, including their own family members, friends and lovers, are mere objects or pawns to be used for their own gratification and sometimes quite literally discarded when no longer useful or exciting. In other words, these men are psychopaths.
If there’s one thing helpful to learn from psychology it’s the dangerous characteristics of these social predators, so that we can recognize them more easily and avoid them whenever possible. By definition, a predator is “one that preys, destroys or devours.” Not exactly boyfriend or spouse material, yet psychopaths manage to lure numerous partners into their nets. Most of us are used to hearing the largely interchangeable terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” applied only to serial killers such as Ted Bundy or to murderers such as Scott Peterson. These men made national headlines for remorselessly killing strangers or family members. However, as Robert D. Hare documents in Without Conscience, only a very small percentage of psychopaths actually murder. Whether or not they do is not what makes them psychopathic or dangerous to others. Most psychopaths wreak havoc in our daily lives in more subtle yet sometimes equally destructive “sub-criminal” ways. They may engage in a pattern of deception and betrayal, an endless string of seductions, emotional and psychological abuse of their loved ones, domestic violence or the financial exploitation of others.
As lovefraud.com, the website started by Donna Andersen to help victims indicates, psychopaths are exceptionally selfish individuals who lack empathy. Consequently, they’re incapable of forming real love bonds with others. They establish instead “dominance bonds,” claiming possession of those closest to them rather than genuinely caring for family members, lovers and friends. Their top goal is control, their principal weapon is deceit and their main means is seduction: sometimes physical, but most often psychological in nature. Moreover, it’s not just the naïve and the gullible that get taken in by them. Anybody can fall prey to the psychopathic charm. As Martha Stout illustrates in The Sociopath Next Door, psychopaths tend to be extremely charismatic. They say all the right things to reel you in. They’re also supremely self-confident, highly sexual, have low impulse control and are amazingly good liars. Like real-life vampires, they feed upon people’s dreams, vulnerabilities and emotions. They move from person to person, always for their personal advantage, no matter under what other-regarding pretext or guise. Only the most notorious cases make it into the news or get profiled by popular shows such as Forensic Files, Cold Case Files and Dateline. But there are millions of psychopaths in this country alone who poison, in one way or another, tens of millions of lives.
Unfortunately, their personality disorder often passes unnoticed until they commit a horrific crime. Some psychopaths, like Charles Manson, would appear crazy to a normal person even from miles away. In those cases, psychopathy is probably compounded by psychotic tendencies which render the disorder much more obvious to others. But most psychopaths move among us undetected. Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle appeared to be normal young men even to those who thought they knew them best, such as their spouses, parents, in-laws and friends. In fact, in some respects, they seemed better than normal. According to their family members and friends, they could be exceptionally charming. Nothing in particular led them to kill their wives and babies. The media has ascribed traditional motives to their crimes, such as financial distress, girlfriends on the side and the desire for freedom or promiscuous sex. But these motives don’t even begin to explain the viciousness, gratuitousness and callousness of their acts. Perhaps one can understand, even if not condone, lack of empathy towards strangers. As history has shown time and time again, it may be easier, in certain circumstances, to dehumanize those one doesn’t know more intimately. But these men killed those who loved them most, trusted them fully and were closest to them. They murdered their innocent babies and wives who were either pregnant or had just given birth to their children. They didn’t become “crazy” all of a sudden due to a crisis. In some cases, marital squabbles or financial distress may have functioned as a catalyst. But the underlying personality disorder that enabled these men to commit such vicious crimes was present before, during and after the gruesome murders that rendered it visible to the public eye.
What distinguishes a psychopath who commits murder from one who doesn’t isn’t his conscience, since all psychopaths lack it. What makes the difference may be nothing more than his desires, opportunities, whims and short-term objectives. Most psychopaths choose to dispose of an inconvenient wife or girlfriend in the traditional manner. They divorce or break up with her. A few, like Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking and Neil Entwistle, decide that murder is the better route for them. Such men believe that they’re clever enough to fool the police and get away with their crimes. They commit murder to appear to be grieving spouses rather than risk being unmasked for what they really are even before the crimes: empty souls hiding behind a façade of lies. What a psychopath is capable of doing in order to protect his phony good image or to fulfill his deviant desires can’t be predicted in advance.
For normal people, it’s difficult to imagine such a disordered human being. To most of us, the psychopath represents a distant danger or an abstraction. It’s a concept we can comprehend intellectually, but not on an emotional level. Yet this is precisely what Martha Stout asks us to envision: “Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you have taken…” (The Sociopath Next Door, 1) Her conclusion to this thought exercise is quite clear. Without a conscience, one can do anything at all. No evil act is beneath a psychopath. Once his crime is discovered, people tend to say that they never knew such evil existed. Unfortunately, it does. What’s worse, it’s common and well hidden enough to present a danger to us all.
Dr. Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience, Snakes in Suits and of the Psychopathy Checklist, which is administered in prisons and psychiatric institutions, estimates that about 1 percent of the population is psychopathic. Because this personality disorder ties into aggression and the need for dominance, the percentage tends to be higher in men than in women. What do psychopaths look like? They look, and superficially even behave, just like the rest of us. They come from every social class, every race, every ethnicity, every nationality, every kind of background and upbringing. They tend to be smarter than average. Some become successful businessmen, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, writers, teachers, artists and scholars. They can be exceptionally charming. They say all the right things to get what they want, without fumbling or sounding artificial. Lacking any real emotional ties to preoccupy them, they’re easily bored and crave constant excitement. Having no conscience yet being glib, they’re compelling pathological liars. They rationalize everything they do, including rape and murder. Consequently, they fail to accept responsibility for anything they do wrong. Since they know no loyalty to anything or anyone but themselves, they don’t play by any rules. Like the Joker in the blockbuster movie, The Dark Knight, they don’t even bond with other outlaws. Even that would require having some loyalty and abiding by some subversive principles. Psychopaths, however, are rebels without a cause. Once they reach adulthood, their character solidifies and their personality disorder becomes unfixable.
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness
Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction