Interview with a Psychopath
Why popular understanding of psychopathy is wrong and what we should do about it?
Andreas’ pet bunny’s name is Cheeto. She is a white, furry, dwarf bunny who has her own room in his house. When I arrived to interview him, Andreas was meticulously cleaning up her cage to put in fresh water and food. He does this three times a week.
Andreas has been battling with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia for most of his life. Three years ago, his doctor decided to send him for a brain scan. The results showed decreased activity in his frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that part controls cognitive skills such as emotional expression, problem solving, judgment, and sexual behaviour. The scan literally showed a shadow over that part of his brain. In layman’s terms, Andreas is what we would call a psychopath.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by impaired empathy and remorse, egotistical traits and by antisocial behaviour.
It is estimated that psychopaths make up about one percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in correctional settings.
Despite being a popular theme in movies, psychopathy is poorly understood. Currently, no psychiatric or psychological organisation has sanctioned a diagnosis called “psychopathy.” Assessments of psychopathic characteristics are mostly used in prisons and other criminal justice settings.
“It amazes me how little we still know about psychopathy,” Andreas says. “They just scan your brain and if there is a shadow at some part of it the say that you are a psychopath. And that part is usually at the back of the brain!”
The way the public understands psychopathy has been almost 100% shaped by popular culture, says Dr. John Edens, a psychologist at Texas A&M University.
Hollywood portrays psychopaths as successful evil geniuses who charm their way into their victims’ minds like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
“Real life psychopaths don’t tend to be cannibals; they don’t tend to be serial killers. Certainly, a lot of serial killers might be highly psychopathic, but it doesn’t work the other way. The garden variety psychopath is not especially sensationalistic, but nobody wants to write a book or a script about a boring psychopath,” Edens says.
According to American psychiatrist Hervey Checkley there are two types of psychopaths: a. people who show a lack of empathy, bold, disinhibited behaviour and general and b. criminal psychopaths which show a meaner, more aggressive behaviour and are likely to be involved in serious crimes.
The latter conceptualisation is typically used as the modern clinical concept.
However, this means that the people who fall into the first definition of psychopathy, are left with no official framework in which to place their life experiences and fall between the cracks of various other mental disorders.
Current conceptions of psychopathy have been criticised for being poorly conceptualised and encompassing a wide variety of underlying disorders. American psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis who did comprehensive psychiatric and neurological evaluations on people labelled as psychopaths in criminal justice systems, found that many offenders who were simply dismissed as psychopaths, showed a multitude of signs and symptoms indicative of mental issues such as bipolar disorder, OCD, depression, schizophrenia, partial seizures and brain damage/dysfunction.
“Psychopaths are not super-villains but when you meet a psychopath, the first thing you’ll say won’t be ‘oh I want you to come work for me.’ We have issues. And it’s not just psychopathy. Usually it comes with other stuff like depression and mood swings,” Andreas says.
Most real-life psychopaths tend to lead lonely, unstable, nomadic lives Edens says.
Andreas has been struggling to get a job, is not allowed to get a driver’s licence, and was released from the army due to his condition. He feels he is an outcast.
As a teenager you would describe him as the type who got in trouble. At 15, he used to get drunk every weekend, got into fights and was briefly involved in a gang. At twilight, they used to go armed with batons and knuckledusters to places where immigrants hanged out and beat them up.
The causes of what leads people to develop severe psychopathic traits has not yet been identified, Dr. Dean Haycock, author and science writer says. However, there is a consensus between psychiatrists that it is a combination of both environmental and biological factors.
“People are born with a predisposition for mental illness and then if they are stressed during childhood, this causes biological effects such as stress hormones to influence their behaviour. But there are a few individuals that come from good homes and have siblings who never got in trouble that develop psychopathy. The speculation is that these people have stronger genes,” Haycock explains.
Andreas remembers that he always sensed “a kind of darkness in his mind.” When he was in kindergarten his teacher told his mother that he drew dead people and spoke a lot about corpses.
However, up until then, his life was stable. He was growing up with his parents in the US, where they were studying.
“The point of transition in my situation was when I moved from the US back to Cyprus, when I was 5,” he says.
His parents remained in the US to study for their final year, while he stayed behind in Cyprus to live with his grandparents. After they got their degrees, his parents split up.
Andreas recalls spending an unusual amount of time with his grandparents and having a very distant relationship with his dad.
“My parents told me that I would make new friends in Cyprus but that didn’t happen. I knew that it wasn’t normal to grow up with grandma and grandpa. All the other kids had a mother and a father.”
Trying to trace how his childhood experiences caused his mental health issues, Andreas says that his parents and grandparents never respected him and were obsessed about his weight, something which was a major blow to his confidence. “They always put me on these very strict diets and humiliated me by taking me to dieticians all the time.”
On top of these, he was bullied at school.
“I was born with some loose screws and what followed later, just tossed them away. When I analyse it, I think that all this darkness came because of my lost childhood and teenage years, thanks to my parents’ choices. I believed that they were criminals for what they did to me. They stole something from me. I wanted them to die, to disappear. The things I was drawing, I was imagining them happening to them.”
In secondary school, Andreas developed an interest in serial-killers. He spent time watching their interviews and life stories on YouTube. He even went to study criminology for this reason.
“I found that I had some things in common with some serial-killers. We came from middle-class families, with a good financial and educational upbringing but our parents ignored us.”
Andreas is 26 now, he never got in trouble again after high school. He says that the turning point was when he accepted his condition.
“You have to accept the problem for it to exist and in a way, it gets stronger after, because you know that it is true. But I think it was the right thing to do. I had the chance to research about my problem and found ways to fight it. If you study and learn what psychopathy is, you stop seeing yourself as a side-show freak that can’t sleep and tries to suicide in the toilet. Your life gets better.
“Being so obsessed with serial-killers helped me. I saw what I could have become. So now, I stop myself whenever I have aggressive thoughts. Until now I think about hurting people, killing an animal, or mugging someone just for the fun of it. But I never do it. I always shut down these thoughts and I think I do it well.”
Psychopathy was first thought to be untreatable. However, in a landmark 2006 study of a treatment program at a juvenile detention centre for young offenders with severe psychopathic traits in Wisconsin, psychologist Michael Caldwell, reported that the youths that he treated were much more likely to stay out of trouble.
Moreover, recent experiments on prison populations discovered that criminal psychopaths had larger than average grey matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex of their brains which is responsible for controlling sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety. The mental impairments observed in psychopaths showed striking similarities with those seen in people with frontal lobe damage.
If we understand psychopaths as people suffering from a partly biologically determined condition, not just as criminals who lack empathy and morality, we can change how our societies and laws treat them.
In the UK, psychopaths who have committed crimes cannot claim the same kind of insanity defence as for example a person with schizophrenia would. At the core of the judicial system is the assumption that someone who appears sane is culpable for his actions.
A law commission on Insanity and Automatism in 2013 stated that:
“Psychopathy does not have the effect that the person’s reasons for acting as he did are in any way “abnormal” or “crazy” or “disordered”. Rather, psychopathic personality disorder has the effect that because of the psychological makeup of the accused he has difficulties, not shared by the ordinary person, in complying with the requirements of the law. But such difficulties do not remove the person in question completely from responsibility for his actions. He appreciates what he is doing.”
In the US, because psychopathy is recognised as a partially biologically determined condition, it usually gives incentive to judges to put people on death row, as it is seen that they are beyond rehabilitation.
“We don’t study psychopathic people the way we should study them,” Dr. Haycock says. “People are more interested in punishing and locking people away. We don’t put enough money or effort in helping people when they are young. Instead of arguing whether psychopathic people are really responsible for their actions, we should think about how responsible we are, for our young people.”
If psychopathy is determined to a point by biology, maybe we will never be able to make psychopathic people more empathetic. Maybe we will never be able to change the fact that they are pre-disposed to behaviour that is damaging to themselves and others.
However, psychopaths will always be born. One in a hundred of us. Instead of locking them up and using their condition to put them on death row, the best thing we can do is to focus on how to help them exist in society with the rest of us.
Andreas has now contained the aggressive thoughts of his childhood and teenage years; however, he hasn’t gotten the grips of his bipolar disorder. He feels suicidal every morning. He recently applied for a job at a bar, but he didn’t get it.
“Nobody is going to get sensitive about us anytime soon. People don’t know enough, and they have more important things to care about. Crazy people will continue to be outcasts for hundreds of years. I don’t care about much anymore but one thing I want is for children who have this problem like me to get help.”