The psychopath is the most fascinating of killers, inordinate individuals free from penitence, heedless to consequence: Jeffrey Dahmer and his English equivalent Dennis Nilson, Ted Bundy, the “Green River Killer,” the “Acid Bath Murderer,”… Barbosa… and of course Pedro Alonso Lopez, having the highest body count of the bunch, 300.
As a young girl, I vividly remember the 1984 murder of Stephanie Roper, a university student on break who was abducted, repeatedly raped, tortured, then killed and mutilated, just fifteen minutes from our home. Her murderers were at large then later apprehended after bragging about what they had done to the young woman.
At that time, families of violent crimes were kept from trials and disallowed a victim impact statement. Consequently, Roper’s mother, Roberta Roper became a victims’ rights advocate and a key player in the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004.
Psychopaths command more press then their less cunning, weaker-stomached cohorts. But are they brainy, calculating sordid executioners or simply unapologetic criminals with brain abnormalities previously mistaken for genius?
Last Saturday, I spent the day getting to know Rico, Frank J. Fleming’s main character in his recently released novel, Superego. I read it straight through.
Then I spent much of Sunday hyperanalyzing my reasons for finding Rico likable despite his selfish disdain for others, pitiless killing, and lack of compunction in his role as a hit man. I was laughing out loud, entirely occupied with Rico’s inner monologue. But me liking Rico, an obvious psychopath, was exceedingly worrisome.
Rico’s prodigious body count and austere appetite for combative prey vs. duck-in-a-barrel style killing was disturbing yet engrossing. And his lines, deployed with quick wit and a dry jocularity appealed to this self-professed Anglophile. But my own snickering prompted simultaneous guilt for finding tallied murder so entertaining. I was unabashedly rooting for Rico, a grouchy egotistical thirty-something loner and prideful intergalactic death machine. Does that make me a psychopath too?
a person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.
A more simplistic definition of psychopath: One who may or may not know right from wrong, but either way doesn’t care.
Brain scans illustrate physical abnormalities and therefore differing thought processes for clinically diagnosed psychopaths. One psychiatrist describes symptoms as “having no brakes” when presented with an opportunity to get a brutality fix. Like a drunk to hooch.
But drunk drivers are held responsible for poor choices and accidental killing of an innocent unlike the psychopath who is deliberately cruel and kills for sport, the high achieved through inflicting slow death upon another.
Movies impart the truly disturbed as infinitely clever and conveniently charged with superhuman strength or Houdiniesque evasions. Hannibal Lector for instance, could not be contained, constrained, or stopped from “having a friend for lunch.”
Worse yet is the psycho villain that just won’t die. A bloody tub sequence comes to mind here—The Glenn Close “Alex” character thoroughly drowned by Michael Douglas who magically resurfaces just to die again via gunshot wound in Fatal Attraction (post bunny boil).
But unlike the fictional psychopath superpowers beget by Hollywood, I assumed that nonfiction psychopaths are genuinely above average intelligence as portrayed on screen, a widespread assertion based on Hervey Cleckley’s 1941 benchmark study and subsequently published results entitled “The Mask of Sanity.”
But in recent years the assumed relation between high I.Q. and psychopaths has been countered with evidence suggesting otherwise. According to the Journal of Personality Disorder (August 2005), a Swedish study well disputes Cleckley’s findings after thorough analysis of institutionalized clinical psychopath and non-psychopath males. This new data concluded that high intelligence in psychopaths simply predicted an earlier start in offenses and enhanced destructive potential but that intellectual acumen and psychopathology are not necessarily correlated. In other words, intellectual psychopaths indulge their dark side earlier and are more deviant than average psychopaths, who are just, well, average.
But being the dull knife in a drawer full of psychopaths may prove advantageous. Perhaps one of the few situations when ignorance trumps intelligence because if you are a violent criminal, being short on wits could save your life. Psychopaths with significantly lower than average intelligence are by law, not considered for the death penalty. So, intellectual aptitude can be a hindrance if you violently murder someone and get caught. That is, unless you are smart enough to fake being an “empath.”
An “empath” is someone with psychotic tendencies who chooses not to act on them or at the very least feels remorse after a violent offense. They are as it sounds, “empathetic” to victims. Empaths get brownie points in court for feeling remorse for actions committed. And the term “empath” offered me some relief because the fact that I felt guilty for liking Rico (the psychopath) means that I am absolutely not a psychopath myself.
A quick sketch of an empath might go like this:
You have a burning desire to mow down every Jihadist in Syria. So you do it, all the while smiling, then somehow manage to escape and get home. Yes, you murdered a ridiculous amount of people but that does not make you a psychopath. You are more likely an empath and here’s why—Because after you disposed of the Jihadists, Al Jazeera America posts a photo of a weeping child orphaned by your offense. You see the photo and feel remorse. That remorse makes you an empath, not the psychopath who would feel nothing for the crying child. You were in fact a crazed killer but felt remorse for leaving a child without a parent, albeit a lousy one.
So there you go. If you are intellectually above average then you are indeed smarter than a standard psychopath. Better yet, if you possess a strong strain of crazy but can feel remorse then you are not a psychopath, you are simply an empath. Which compared to Rico and his 700+ kills, really isn’t so bad.
Check out this series of four excerpts from Superego recently serialized weekly at PJ Lifestyle: