Psychopath! Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Millions of Americans Are Total Psychos — Really.

The Sociopath Next Door
By Dr. Martha Stout

256 pages

Broadway Books
February 2005

According to Dr. Stout, the U.S. hosts 11.7 million psychopaths, and New York City is home to 320,000 of them. She knows this because people with clipboards have determined that four percent of the American population are psychopaths. Such a staggering fact obviously raises a host of questions: Who are these psychopaths? Where do they shop? Do they all vote Republican?

Well, I was disappointed to discover that psychopaths (whom Dr. Stout, every bit the Harvard clinician, prefers to term “sociopaths”) do not all spend their days sewing dresses made from human skin. They are unable to forge emotional attachments, and as a result they never form a conscience; that’s it. They are remorseless and shameless, but they are not particularly anything else. Your average psychopath is as average as your average American. Sure, occasionally a superstar like Charlie Manson hits the scene, but he’s the exception. One psychopath may spend his life lazily and shamelessly leeching off others; one may end up a pathetic middle manager whose only joy is abusing her modest power; another is a greedy, lying CEO; another is a carping old hag; still another is Vice-President. You’ve certainly met at least one in your lifetime, because it turns out that “psychopath” is merely the clinical term for the more colloquial “asshole” or “bitch.”

Although psychopaths do not suffer the burden of a conscience, they are not blind to social mores or the emotions of others. They cannot feel, but they can imitate. Consequently, they are able to expertly blend in among us feelers — even to use our feelings against us. Pity, remorse, and love are the poison tipped arrows in the psychopath’s arsenal. Robbed of the deeper human satisfactions, their motivations are basic, animal. They live to win — or if not to win, then to make others lose. With 96 percent of the population distracted from their own self-interest by inexplicable emotional impulses, the able psychopath can manipulate or steamroll anyone in the way. Even the most hardened among us are sometimes inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and all the psychopath requires is an opening and then it’s BLAM! POW! — a broken heart, an empty bank account, a stolen child, or your liver in some guy’s freezer. Afraid? What about that boss of yours? What’s up with the sharp glint in his eye? And that boyfriend who protests his love so fervently… is he overcompensating? Oh, and the lady at the deli: why does she always make the sandwiches out of your view? “Who is the devil you know?” asks Dr. Stout or, rather, the helpful people from the Broadway Books publicity department.

Fear mongering, while good for book sales, is bad for the conscience, and luckily, Dr. Stout (hell, let’s just call her Martha) has one. No doubt at least one psychopath knows where you live — where you sleep, even. But don’t worry! With Martha’s help, you can protect yourself from the conscienceless menace. “Spooky eyes” is a red flag, but one man’s spooky eyes are another man’s colored contact lenses, so you’re going to need more than that. How about a “glib and superficial charm?” Mix that up with extreme spontaneity, and you’ve got the trademark “sociopathic charisma.” But that’s only one breed of psychopath. There’s also the “abrasive sociopath,” who is always out to screw everyone and doesn’t bother to hide it — shouldn’t be too hard to spot, eh? But wait: there’s also the “covetous sociopath,” who is always out to screw everyone, but hides it carefully — and doesn’t even necessarily have spooky eyes! Ultimately, Martha fesses up that there is no catchall tell-tale mark. The closest she comes is the “pity play”; when they’re really in a jam, psychopaths resort to the most shameless histrionics you can imagine. Beyond that, “knowing someone well for many years” is the only way to be sure of that boss, boyfriend, or lady at the deli.  

The main selling point of the book proving somewhat of a sham, readers might not find the remainder of the book much consolation, but here’s where Martha really gets her hands dirty and asks the big questions. What is conscience? Is it necessarily good? What forms conscience? Briefly: “a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to others”; yes; not exactly sure, but I have some ideas. After a learned discussion of historical theories of conscience, in which both Aquinas and Freud furrow their brows and complicate matters, Martha emerges with the warm fuzzies. Intellectualize it all you want, she says, but conscience is based on love. It’s only a heartbeat from there to conjecturing that conscience — “the nexus of psychology and spirituality” — is science’s name for the soul. Since her professional qualifications do not permit her to make pronouncements on metaphysical matters, Martha is skittish about coming out with it, but it’s apparent from this equivalence that psychopaths must be soulless. Science has no cure for such a thing.

Psychopaths are born, not made. Try as she might, Martha has trouble solving the nurture side of the nature/nurture equation for psychopaths. It would be nice to be able to tell parents “don’t beat your kids or they’ll grow up to be psychopaths and then you’ll be sorry,” but while child abuse does increase the likelihood of criminality, it does not lead to remorselessness (only 50 percent of violent criminals are psychopathic). Other possibilities are raised and dismissed until all that Martha’s left with is culture. American culture, with its celebration of individualism (its debauched orgy of selfishness and acquisitiveness), is rich soil for a young psychopath, who is sure to blossom into a mature terror. In China and Japan, where “interconnectedness” is a central cultural concept, psychopathic behavior is less socially acceptable, and as a result, the incidence of psychopathology is less than a quarter of ours. In America, the great melting pot, even psychopaths can be themselves.

Rather than succumb to pessimism about the 11.7 million soulless beasts that stalk the American landscape, Martha has a brighter take on things. Because they are endowed with conscience, humans are generally good; killing makes a conscience sick, and people are only capable of evil under extraordinary circumstances. Accordingly, she dismisses the “shadow theory” of human nature that supposes us all capable of the worst. Psychopaths have no inner restraint and are capable of anything. But that’s them. And like the villains in the movies, they always lose in the end. Sure, they might poison your dog or invade Poland, but eventually they go too far, and humanity prevails. So rest easy. But keep your eyes open.


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