I start with a bit of humor. Photo not my own, but taken by a friend. K Street, NW, in Washington, DC. My old stomping grounds. You can’t trust signs. Cannot resist a bit of humor to start off a very serious topic. The following photo, real, and taken by ME several years:
Please read this article before or after you read what I have to say:
A friend I’ve been corresponding with asked me a question: How do you identify a psychopath? For whatever it is worth, my response was as follows (edited slightly):
Quick question, ha!! So I will ramble…
Identifying a psychopath is one of the hardest things to do until you understand psychopathy from lived experience, and even then, it’s not easy. (My opinions only.) Even with my book-learning, I found myself involved with and living with the woman who was DIAGNOSED with NPD (and Histrionic Personality Disorder, with Schizotypal Tendencies). She was *very* bad, and the experience was *very* bad. I didn’t learn of the diagnosis until after I’d already moved in with her. Even then, I didn’t link the diagnosis with the bad behavior. I was fortunate — got a swift and final discard, so no struggles with trying to establish no contact. You would have thought that that one experience would have clued me in and I would have been on high-alert with my wife. But I had not put all the pieces together. I filed it away as a one-off thing that hurt me badly, and was done with it.
My views on psychopathy, pre-Paula, were largely shaped by my world view and certain opinions I’d developed along the way. The factors are inter-related. One of my armchair interests is linguistics, and words, and categorizing people and things. I remember reading about a time during the Vietnam war when talks were going on to end the war, and there was a huge disagreement about … the table to be used in the talks. Round, square, how big, who seated where, etc. What is a table? There are those little plastic things that people put on their patios. There are the huge conference room tables like must have been used in the Vietnam talks. There are folding card tables. There are tables with 3 legs and table with 4 legs, and end tables, and all sorts of tables. What gives a table its “tableness”? Similar problem with, say, dogs. How can it be that a chihuahua and a dachshund and a Great Dane and a St. Bernard are all the same thing? Big, little, some with tails, some without, some very hairy, some hairless. Wolves, coyotes…
Even if you take race, and I’ve read this metaphor many times…. If you put all the human beings on the planet in a line from the most pale-skinned to the most dark-skinned (and never mind complications like albinism), where would you draw the line between Caucasian, Hispanic, Arab, African(-American)?
It’s again like the astronauts viewing the earth from the moon. They don’t see the national boundaries so firmly implanted in our earthly minds.
Our brains *must* categorize things to function and survive. We must be able to distinguish what is edible from what is poisonous. I call it digital thinking in an analog world. Sit in your room, whatever room you are in, and think about all the “objects” around you. If you were instructed to write an essay describing every single object in your room, it would be *impossible*. You can’t even perceive the entirety of what’s in the room as a whole. You focus on a few items of immediate relevance. Your mouse, your computer screen, perhaps a cup of coffee or Coke or tea next to you. Maybe a stack of papers waiting to be filed. But the dust bunny in the corner? A bug on the wall? The particular shade of the light emanating from your light bulb? You can switch your focus to different objects or groups of objects, but you *cannot* take in the room in its entirety simultaneously.
And the objects themselves… are they real, or did your mind create them? If you know a little bit about chemistry and physics, you know that “atoms” are made up mostly of “empty space.” Your butt is sitting on your computer chair. What is the demarcation between your butt and the chair? At the “atomic” level, the empty space and the tiny particles are commingling — you and the chair are ONE.
We have the 5 sense organs, but the range of our eyesight is only a small portion of the light spectrum. We have devised special instruments to see infrared and ultraviolet rays in the light spectrum. What “objects” exist beyond even the limits of our instruments? Elephants, whales, hummingbirds, and even dogs, hear things we can’t hear without instruments. Dogs can detect cancer through smell. The “real” world is ANALOG!! And how do we know what is beyond our 5 senses? There are probably whole dimensions we can’t conceive because we lack the sense organs to detect them.
Given all that, how does one identify a psychopath!!?? When I got my degree in psychology, hoping to become a therapist, help people, and make a difference, of course, I’d learned the basics of psychopathology, and I believe it was still the DSM-III that was in vogue then. I finished my BA and wondered, “Where’s the magic wand where they teach me HOW to help people?” With these notions of digital minds in an analog world, I concluded that the “mental illnesses” were largely the most specious of categorizations. Nothing as “concrete” as dogs and tables. For the most part, people who are mentally ill are largely people who have been hurt or damaged in some way — except the ones that have some kind of strong genetic of biological link. So, I guess I didn’t view “personality disorders” as “real.” Just other ways deep hurt and trauma have manifested in particular people in particular circumstances.
Then I met my wife!!!! Social services *did* diagnose her as having Emotional Intensity Disorder — the British equivalent of BPD. But my second partner had been diagnosed with BPD, and my wife was *WAAAAAY* worse than my second partner. Pinning the label “psychopath” on my wife was the hardest thing I ever did. She told her pity stories, which were all lies, but I didn’t know that until much later. I could see that she was broken, and even severely broken, but I thought my love for her would “fix” her. And I knew I was broken in many ways, and so who was I to judge? I put up with A LOT of abuse due to that thinking.
I’ve possibly included it in some of my posts, but for me, psychopaths were sort of like werewolves and vampires. (I don’t believe in werewolves and vampires, but I suppose I should remain agnostic.) In any case, I could not conceive that there are people who do evil, and do it with malice a-forethought, calculating from the beginning the harm they will do. It’s alien to me. The few times I’ve killed a BUG, I feel guilty. We *all* tell lies from time to time and misrepresent things. But for me personally, my problem has been the exact opposite — too trusting, too open and honest to the point that I share things I ought to keep closer to my chest for my own well-being. I could NEVER set out to PURPOSEFULLY lie to misrepresent myself. So getting involved with my wife was like getting involved with some kind of alien creature.
The thing that helped me most is grasping that psychopathy is REAL is reading other people’s stories. The patterns are unmistakable — every time I’d read someone else’s story, I could see the differences between my wife, and the similarities, and there were TOO MANY similarities. So I had no choice but to conclude that such an entity (psychopathy) existed. It’s rather like beagles and rottweilers both being dogs.
I think it’s near impossible to come up with a list of traits or characteristics that will apply in every case. Some want money, some want fame, some want to be feared, some want to be pitied, some want to become CEO’s of major corporations or president of the United States. Some want the facade of eye candy on their arm. Most thrive on the chaos and drama, and just enjoy hurting people, no conscience. They *like* their psychopath games, and they enjoy “winning.” The bigger the lie they can pull over on someone, the more glee they have.
If you read the books by the self-avowed psychopaths and narcissists, like say Sam Vaknin, you get some insight. Most of them seem to have written that they made a CHOICE to be what they are. I believe this is one of the key factors. I experienced this myself as a young child, after some of the things my mother did to me and after being molested for the first time by my mother’s boyfriend. It “felt like” I had to make a choice of what to do with the pain. And I CHOSE to do good, to the extent I was able. Every night, I prayed, “Please, God, let me be a good person.” My wife made the opposite choice.
The one and only common trait I’ve seen in my experiences and in all the survivor stories I’ve read is the lying and deception with the INTENT to deceive for whatever their personal goal is, and DESPITE the harm, or perhaps exactly BECAUSE OF the harm they know it will do to the person they are targeting. For their own gain and pleasure, and nothing else.
From there, there is the smorgasbord of traits and characteristics that experts and survivors list, most of which agree, but some of which conflict. Some are cheaters and some are not (most are cheaters). Some will go after the most vulnerable targets (my wife) because they are “easy pickings.” Some will go after targets who “have it together” because it’s more of a challenge and the game is more fun. It seems to me that the various traits typically listed all emanate from the deception, and whatever their particular goal is. There are those who go for the fast buck and become petty criminals. There are those who enjoy the pain they inflict, and the worst of them become Ted Bundy. Others rein in their violent impulses and become CEOs and politicians.
Then we have the “gut instinct” we feel when we meet one. I could FEEL evil coming from the pores of my wife’s skin, but her love-bombing was so refined, I ignored the feeling.
In the end, there is only some kind of gestalt, where the pieces fit together. You don’t get this until you’ve finally had that last experience where you KNOW the person is a psychopath, and you somehow make the analog person into a digital psychopath in an analog world with your digital mind. Just like you look at someone with cream-colored skin, and conclude, this person is African-American. It’s hard to do if you only know the person casually and you’ve had little interaction with them. Perhaps even harder to do if you care about the person and have had a modicum of interaction with them. Where is the demarcation point between your butt and the computer chair? Easier if you’ve been through it a 100 times before, and you see the same pain and the same patterns unfold. Short story — if you are being abused, hit and beaten, lied to, gas-lighted, triangulated, and given a diet of word salad, you need to run, regardless of whether the person is a psychopath or not.
Pinning labels has been extremely HARD for me because I’m transgendered. Am I a man? My soul is more masculine than feminine, but not 100%. I grew up with female socialization. I lived as a lesbian. I have transitioned. I have no more female body parts, aside from my presumed XX chromosomes, to the extent that medical science can make me male. My non-driver’s ID lists me as male. My birth certificate has been amended to list me as male. My passport lists me as male. Social Security lists me as male. My spousal visa issued by the UK Border Agency lists me as male. No person who saw me would say that I was female, or even guess that I’d been born female, except perhaps for my short height as a clue to anyone familiar with transgendered people. I am legally male, and anyone who disagrees with it can take it up with both the United States government and the government of the United Kingdom. Do my Bible-thumping transphobes think I’m a guy? Probably not — but my mother’s minister told her I was hell-bound when I was a lesbian, but my place in heaven is secure now that I’m a man. Do I think of myself as a man? Yes, but maybe not 100% because I know my life trajectory has been different from cisgender males, and because I do have my gentle, romantic, nurturing side, and I cry at sappy romance movies. Labeling anyone anything is a tricky business. Coming to label my wife as a psychopath was HARD. It went against my whole world-view.
But now I know that psychopaths exist. My views on good vs evil have changed. Evil exists, and it exists on this planet in the form of psychopaths who CHOOSE to do and be who they are.
I don’t know how to summarize this in a list of identifiable traits!!! Except for the lying and deception…
Did that answer your question, or have I given you a headache? 🙂
Be sure to read the blog article I referenced for additional thoughts.
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