15 March 2007

Psychopathy and writing

I had dinner last night with a good friend who's a forensic psychologist. We were talking about psychopaths (as you do) and got onto Tony Soprano. I've only watched a couple of episodes of The Sopranos, but think I might have to have another look.

It's claimed one of the common characteristics of psychopaths is their lack of empathy and remorse. Some also say they don't experience shame. My friend and I wondered about that. We've both worked in the prison system and came across many people who could be considered psychopathic, but have quite a significant emotional life. Their emotions are chaotic, and fall into that general anti social personality disorder range, but the main thing they had in common with other people was their ability to feel shame. It's their reaction to it that sets them apart.

When most people feel shame, it's unpleasant. Maybe they've done something to hurt someone and they feel ashamed. Generally their reaction would be to feel guilt and then remorse and mostly want to make it up to the person they've hurt. They may not act on those feelings but they do feel them.

The people I worked with in the prison system felt shame if they did something hurtful to another person, but their immediate reaction was to fall into rage. They blamed that other person for their unpleasant feeling and wanted to punish or destroy them. They didn't feel guilt or remorse and certainly didn't feel the need to make reparation to the other person.

We've all come across people like that in our lives. They may not be criminals, but they have a tendency to blame others and want to punish them for making them feel ashamed for their own bad behavior. It's the reasoning behind the violent man blaming his wife or girlfriend for his violence. She bought it on herself for making him feel ashamed.

Why am I writing about this? It's good to have well rounded characters in your work, including villains. A cardboard cut out psychopath is less interesting than a psychopath who loves his mother and is fiercely protective of his family. His bad behavior is all the more shocking if we can see him as someone having complex emotional reactions that make him sympathetic.


At 11 April 2007 at 5:50 am , Blogger Suzanne said...

I am a little concerned with your description of psychopaths having feelings of shame, or emotions. There are some very good books out by Dr. Robert Hare - Without Conscience; Dr. Martha Stuart - The Sociopath Next Door; and Dr. Hervey Cleckley - The Mask of Sanity. They have shown that psychopaths have no conscience, nor do they show genuine emotions. If they show emotion - or shame - it is a mimicked emotion. Something that they have seen other people do. They study these emotions shown by other people to better be able to act like other people. But, a true psychopath does not love his family, does not love anyone other than himself, does nothing for anyone unless it helps him further his career, agenda, crime, etc. And he certainly has no shame for anything that he has done.

There is an article written about a book called Political Ponerology that describes what is happening in this country, and the world, right now. It is very relevant that this article be read for everybody so that they can understand what is going on here on the Big Blue Marble. You can find the article here:


This is a very serious situation. Not something to take lightly. I urge everyone to read this article.

At 11 April 2007 at 2:52 pm , Anonymous Sariade said...

Thank you for posting on this subject, Keziah. Another thing to consider is that according to leading researcher Robert Hare, the criteria established for distinguishing a psychopath from antisocial personality disorder is "fuzzy". He contends that it allows those that ought to be catagorized as true pyschopaths to slip into a more benign "slot". It could be that some of those you have worked with who felt remorse were indeed suffering from ASPD. But as Suzanne pointed out true psychopaths are master mimics. Hare's book, "Without Conscience" has several stories of very experience clinicians still being fooled by their clients. A sobering warning.



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