Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test, begins with a visit to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, the high security facility for the criminally insane, where the state puts people like Peter Sutcliffe, if it ever captures them. Jon meets Tony, a charming young man in his late 20s who had contacted Jon to tell him his story. Tony was arrested at 17 for beating up a homeless man. He considered his options, and decided a lunatic asylum would be cushier than prison, so he faked insanity.
He was confined in the dangerous and severe personality disorder (DSPD) unit of Broadmoor. He “took one look at the place and realised he’d made a spectacularly bad decision”. He tried to convince the psychiatrists that he wasn’t really ill, he’d just been faking. They didn’t believe him. He tried acting scrupulously polite and ‘normal’, but the doctors only interpreted this as symptomatic of his pathology. “It is an awful lot harder, Tony told Ronson, to convince people you’re sane than it is to convince them you’re crazy.”
When Ronson met Tony, he’d been in Broadmoor for 12 years. Ronson took the matter up with Tony’s doctors, who sent him an email. “Tony,” it read, “did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison. Most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy.” Faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence, the doctors explained, is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you’d expect of a psychopath.
So what exactly is a psychopath? Ronson meets Robert Hare, the psychiatrist who has done most to define and promote the term. Hare has built a psychometric test of psychopaths, complete with a checklist of psychopathic symptoms, which include:
1: Glibness/superficial charm
2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
4: Pathological lying
6: Lack of remorse or guilt
7: Shallow affect
8: Callous/lack of empathy
9: Parasitic lifestyle
10: Poor behavioural controls
And so on. It’s items 1,4 and 5 that makes psychopathy so fascinating and so frightening to the popular imagination: psychopaths are skilled at fitting in and appearing normal. It’s fairly easy to spot someone with manic depression, for example, or paranoid schizophrenia. Their symptoms are florid, obvious. But the psychopath, supposedly, is a genius at masking their insanity, and according to some theories can even possess superior intelligence, social skills and ability to manipulate others. So one of the prime symptoms is an ability to disguise the symptoms behind a ‘mask of sanity’. They could be anyone! This aspect of the phenomena taps into a peculiarly modern, urban anxiety: the stranger who lives next door to you, who ‘seems so quiet and normal’, could actually be a full-blown psycho killer.
Of course, this unusual feature of ‘psychopathy’ means you can start seeing psychopaths everywhere
, which is what happens to Ronson. Any person who is somewhat glib, manipulative and selfish (ie just about every successful politician or businessman) could be a secret psychopath.
This, for example, is a famous description of a psychopath from Hervey Cleckley’s 1941 classic The Mask of Sanity, about a psychopath he meets called Stanley, who is highly intelligent, and a complete liar: “When Stanley said, “My wife knows I’d never be unfaithful,” there was in his tone what seemed to be the very essence of truth and sincerity. There was pride in his voice that seemed rooted in this essence. Could it be that for the moment he lost awareness that he was lying? Perhaps even awareness of what truth is?”
Does this remind you of any recent prominent British politicians? I’m not saying Tony Blair is a psychopath – I’m just saying the definition is so broad and nebulous, it could fit anyone, certainly much of the political elite.
Hare has tried and failed to get psychopathy included into the DSM registry of ‘official’ mental disorders. ‘Psychopathy disorder’ was also dropped from the UK’s Mental Health Act in 2007. There seem to be some contradictions in Hare’s checklist. For one thing, the ability to read others’ emotions and to manipulate them skillfully seems to clash with the supposed lack of empathy. Take the most famous psychopath of popular imagination, Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal actually possesses unusually high empathic skills. That’s what enables him to manipulate others. You could also say he has the ability to care about others: what is Silence of the Lambs, if not a love-story between a psychopath and a young FBI agent?
I watched Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film yesterday. It’s an incredibly good film – both mainstream, and also in some ways arthouse. I guess it was one of those films, like Blue Velvet
(also about a psychopath) or Reservoir Dogs
about a psychopath), which heralded the return of indie cinema to Hollywood after the creative drought of the 1980s.
Three things struck me in particular about Demme’s film. First, the beautiful depiction of Clarice Starling. She’s in the FBI behavioural science unit, tracking predatory males like Buffalo Bill. And yet, notice what Demme does in the film – how often men stare at Starling, in a highly predatory way. One of the first shots, for example, is her getting into a lift full of macho FBI men, who just stare at this fragile, beautiful woman. Demme seems to be suggesting that, to be a woman in our civilized world is partly to be in a world full of predators. This was Jodie Foster’s first major film after The Accused, we remember, in which she plays the victim of a gang-rape.
The second thing that struck me was Demme’s use of close-ups. The camera goes really close into the faces of his main characters. The shots of Foster, in particular, remind me of the loving, almost reverent close-ups you see in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc or Bergman’s Persona. Is this just another example of the ‘male stare’? Maybe not, maybe it’s an exploration of Clarice as a person, rather than just a piece of meat, which is how Buffalo Bill sees his victims (and how many of the men in the film see Clarice). Hannibal, of course, sees his victims as both persons and pieces of meat. He falls for what I’d call the cannibal fallacy – the idea we can absorb someone’s soul by eating their body. (We all fall for this fallacy somewhat…that’s why we bite our lovers. We try to merge our souls with our mouths.)
The third thing that struck me (yes, there was a lot of striking going on) is author Thomas Harris’ vision of criminal psychopathology. Lecter talks of Buffalo Bill’s ‘transformation’ as a killer. The career of a serial killer is seen as a work of artistic self-creation, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or moth. This is how Buffalo Bill sees himself – an artist, creating himself out of the material of other people. It’s also how the villain of Red Dragon sees himself.
The criminal psychopath, in Harris’ vision, seems to be like the evil twin of the philosophical sage. In Aristotelian philosophy, the sage is the ‘great-souled man’ who has made of their life a work of art and beauty. They have moulded their psyche
into perfection, and the imagery is also of the transformation into a butterfly (both psyche
are types of butterfly or moth). They have been born again out of the pupa of social conventions to follow the law of their higher nature. Now in Aristotle’s vision, that fulfillment is moral: the sage becomes one with the Divine Cosmos. But in Nietzsche, say, the transformation into the superman is amoral. The superman becomes a ‘law unto themselves’, a hunter, a predator, who exerts his pitiless will onto the world, and onto other people. The superman could easily be a psychopath, couldn’t he?
Lecter, of course, would say that the whole ‘psychopath’ checklist invented by Hare and other psychiatrists is simply “fumbling at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle” as Lecter put it. It’s a clumsy attempt to fit the personality into neat boxes, to try and define them and know them – and so to assert our own power over them, as his ‘nemesis’ Dr Chiltern tries to do. We first meet Lecter when Clarice is sent to him armed with a questionnaire – that great instrument of the rational state. Lecter looks at it disdainfully, and delivers the wonderful line – which I think we should all say when someone from the Office of National Statistics comes round and asks us how we are feeling: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
The tagline for the sequel, Hannibal, is Unspeakable Evil. Perhaps there is something ‘unspeakable’ about the human personality, particularly the personality of ‘monsters’ like Lecter. You can’t fit them into neat boxes. Artists can try and imagine their way into others’ minds, to use the material of others’ lives for their creations, but even then, there is a darkness, mystery and uncertainty at the heart of the psyche. That’s what Joseph Conrad explored in novels like Heart of Darkness. It’s what Shakespeare tried to explore, I think, with the character of Iago in Othello. Why is Iago so filled with malice? What is the “peculiar end” he speaks of following? Is he a psychopath? When his evil is exposed at the end of the play, the audience turns to him, hoping he will reveal his inner motives. Instead, he says: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak a word.” That’s a great retort to social science’s attempt to pin down the human psyche like a butterfly on the anatomist’s table.
In other news:
Talking of how the animal within us resists control and classification by the rational state, check out the first episode of Adam Curtis’ new documentary (Curtis makes a cameo in Ronson’s book, by the way), about cybernetics and the doomed attempt to control human society through perfectly rational technology. It has the glorious title, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
How The Light Gets In
, the UK’s leading philosophy conference, starts today in Hay-On-Wye. The London Philosophy Club is holding a workshop on Street Philosophy on Tuesday 31st at 10.30, where I’ll be speaking. Hope you can make it.
If you like your philosophy a bit more participatory, there’s the first Philosophy In Pubs conference in Liverpool on June 10th-12th. I’m going, let me know if you are and we can meet up.
Here’s a video interview I did with the philosopher Julian Baggini about his new book, The Ego Trick.
Alasdair MacIntyre, probably the greatest living British philosopher, is speaking at a conference on Aristotle and his relevance to modern politics and ethics next Friday. Not to be missed.
My friend Tommy Karshan is organizing what promises to be a great two-day conference on the essay in July, in collaboration with the London Review of Books cafe.
Finally, some good news: I think I got a book deal for my book on ancient philosophy and how people can use it in modern life, at last, after a few years of trying. Terms have only been verbally agreed so I can’t give more details yet, but I’ll keep you posted and will hopefully be able to officially announce soon. As Richard Bach once said, ‘A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’
Hope you have a great weekend,