“I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?” Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test.
Jim Hayman: While I suppose it wasn’t exactly holiday appropriate reading, this year I entertained myself between Christmas and New Year’s Eve with a book called The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by a British writer named Jon Ronson. Ronson’s most famous previous book The Men Who Stare at Goats (which I haven’t read) was made into a major movie starring George Clooney (which I haven’t seen.)
Those of us who write suspense thrillers are inherently interested in the characteristics of the breed I’ll call Psychopathis Americanus. They are often the most interesting characters in our books. The villains. The cold-blooded killers who murder the innocent and the vulnerable, often in horrible ways, without feeling even a trace of conscience or remorse.
Among the most celebrated fictional psychopaths of recent years are Michael Connelly’s The Poet and Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon (who, according to Amazon’s blurb for the book, “slips into (women’s) homes at night and walks silently into bedrooms where (they) lie sleeping, unaware of the horrors they soon will endure.”) Of course, neither The Poet nor The Surgeon for all their sadistic, murderous ways can match the stomach churning antics of the most famous fictional monster of them all, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lechter. The killers in my books The Cutting and The Chill of Night, while pretty nasty, don’t even come close to Lechter’s cannibalism for sheer imaginative evil.
I picked up The Psychopath Test because I wanted to learn more about real life psychopaths to see if knowledge of the condition would help me create more believable villains. The book turned out to be easy reading and, oddly, given the subject matter, quite a lot of fun. Among the things I learned was that psychopaths are far more numerous than most of us imagine.
According to Dr. Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and generally considered the leading expert on the subject, approximately 1% of any given population (or a little more than three million people in the US alone) show clear psychopathic tendencies. Naturally, these people make up a large percentage of the prison population. But they are not just serial killers and other criminals. They are also well-represented among our political and military leadership, CEO’s of major corporations and leaders on Wall Street, not to mention well known figures in the arts.
Professor Hare provides a checklist of twenty items which is described in the book as “the gold standard for diagnosing psychopaths.” To qualify as a psychopath one doesn’t need to exhibit all the tendencies, just a fairly high percentage of them. Here’s the list. As you go through it ask yourself what faces and personalities pop into your mind in this presidential election year. If you’re like me, I think you’ll find some of the images pretty scary.
Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm
Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
Item 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Item 4: Pathological lying
Item 5: Conning/manipulative
Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt
Item 7: Shallow affect
Item 8: Callous/lack of empathy
Item 9: Parasitic lifestyle
Item 10: Poor behavioral controls
Item 11: Promiscuous sexual behavior
Item 12: Early behavior problems
Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals.
Item 14: Impulsivity
Item 15: Irresponsibility
Item 16: Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Item 17: Many short-term marital relationships
Item 18: Juvenile delinquency
Item 19: Revocation of conditional release
Item 20: Criminal versatility