Sociopathy or Antisocial Personality Disorder is a psychological disorder that affects about 4 percent of the adult population. The extreme form of this disorder affects 1 percent of the adult population and is also called psychopathy. Among those with sociopathy/psychopathy, there is a spectrum of severity and the traits/behaviors that make up the disorder are also found in non-disordered people. These observations have led the American Psychiatric Association to consider a prototype approach to diagnosis. I believe the prototype approach is very useful to both professionals and the educated public so I will explain it.
The prototype method of diagnosis involves describing what someone with the disorder is usually like, then comparing a person to that prototype. Thus the degree of sociopathy/psychopathy can be assessed using the prototype approach. In this and later articles, I intend to examine con artists using the prototype approach and both the psychiatric criteria for sociopathy and the PCL-R criteria for psychopathy. You will see that the prototype sociopath and the prototype psychopath are similar, but that psychopathy more closely fits con artists.
Introducing Esther Elizabeth Reed
That brings us to Esther Elizabeth Reed who is 30 years old. She was profiled by Fox News this week because she pled guilty on Tuesday to a host of charges including identity theft. She faces up to 47 years in prison and $ 1million in fines for aggravated identity theft, mail fraud, wire fraud and loan fraud charges. This particular identity theft provoked public outrage because the victim was a missing South Carolina woman named Brook Henson, who disappeared from her hometown of Traveler’s Rest, S.C. on July 4, 1999. When Brook’s family received news Brook had been found, their hopes ignited only to be crushed again.
Interestingly, using aliases including Natalie Bowman and Brook Hansen, Esther who was a high school dropout was able to take the GED where she scored in the 99th percentile and the SAT where she scored 1400 or about the 97th percentile. It is unknown whether these were Esther’s actual scores or if she paid others to take these for her. In any case using these scores Esther was able to attend Cal State Fullerton, Harvard and Columbia University.
All the news stories say authorities at these Universities are still trying to figure out how she could have been admitted using false identification. I was unable to determine what grades she received at these institutions. Though, she apparently did so well that a professor from Cal State Fullerton wrote her the letter of recommendation that helped get her into Harvard.
Esther and the DSM antisocial personality disorder prototype
Now I will discuss the details of Esther and her life as provided by news stories that match the prototypes of antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. Here is the description of antisocial personality disorder as given in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of the American Psychiatric Association: “A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others (antisocial behavior-my definition) occurring since age 15 as indicated by three or more of the following:
1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”
Our first question is whether Esther has a pervasive pattern of antisocial behavior occurring since age 15. In a very well done article written By MARIANNE GARVEY in Townsend, Mont., and LUKAS I. ALPERT in New York, and published Jan. 12, 2007 in the New York Post, individuals who knew Esther during her teen years were interviewed. Her English teacher, Mary Duede, said Esther’s mother encouraged her daughter to be “resistant” and “combative.” Mary Duede is quoted as saying “She had a real snippy attitude. She was passive-aggressive and very complicated. She never came to class. Her mom supported her in leaving. She kept showing up at the school saying it didn’t serve her daughter’s needs. She was one of those moms who always thought the kid was right,” Another teacher said Esther hung “with the wrong crowd.” So there is some evidence that this pattern of antisociality began at least during Esther’s teen years.
Criteria 1 is satisfied by a record that Esther has repeatedly performed criminal acts since 1999 when she was first arrested for theft.
Criteria 2 is clearly present . Esther has at least 2 documented aliases.
Criteria 3 is not really present unless the theft of a coworker’s purse could be construed as “impulsivity.” On the contrary the degree of forethought and planning present in her schemes is quite remarkable. At the age of 19, she said to her father, “Dad, I’m going to be doing things that you don’t approve of – things that are not in your value system.” Esther reportedly had multiple plastic surgeries to help her assume the other identities.
Criteria 4 not present in the news stories.
Criteria 5 not present in the news stories
Criteria 6 may be present but she did apparently sustain some work behavior in the Universities she attended. One Fox News article says this which indicates that she may have lived up to some financial obligations, “According to Investigator Clark Brazier of the Traveler’s Rest police department, Reed has never run up any debt while using Henson’s identity, but instead used it to obtain money from the federal government in student loans and to attend different schools, including Harvard University and California State University at Fullerton.”
Criteria 7 Esther’s lifestyle shows a lack of remorse. If you read the statements by Esther’s family and visit the website her sister set up, you will see several family members have been hurt a great deal by Esther’s behavior and yet she has not acknowledged them. Esther’s attorney claims Esther is remorseful over stealing Henson’s identity, though when she was first caught, she conned police and escaped. (She conned the police and they are really supposed to know better!)
Esther and the psychopathy prototype
Now let’s examine the psychopathy prototype as described by the PCL-R. Look at the chart of the 4 psychopathy facets I put up several weeks ago.
The first facet of psychopathy is the interpersonal facet. It consists of Glibness/superficial charm, Grandiose sense of self worth, Pathological Lying, Conning/manipulative. I find evidence for all of these in the news stories though some said Esther had low self-esteem. In my opinion the fact that she thought she could make it at Harvard indicates high not low self-esteem. This facet best captures the nature of Esther Reed as she is portrayed in the news stories.
Facet 2 is the affective or emotional facet of psychopathy, it consists of Lack of Remorse/Guilt, Shallow Affect, Callous/Lack of Empathy, Failure to accept responsibility for actions. All of these traits are alluded to in the news articles.
Facet 3 describes the psychopathic lifestyle. It consists of Need for Stimulation, Parasitic Lifestyle, Lack of realistic long term goals, Impulsivity, Irresponsible Behavior. I found evidence for all of these in the news stories with the exception again of impulsivity. I can’t rule out Esther has impulsive behavior, it is just that the news stories do not describe much impulsivity outside of sexual impulsivity-to be discussed below. Notice that Lack of realistic long term goals a PCL-R criteria is more descriptive of Esther than is the DSM “failure to plan ahead” which tries to capture the same quality.
Facet 4 is the criminality facet of psychopathy it consists of Poor behavior controls, Early Behavior Problems, Juvenile Delinquency, Revocation of conditional release, Criminal versatility. By the news reports, Esther clearly displays poor behavioral controls and early behavior problems. As for criminal versatility that means- good at a lot of different crimes. She seems to be best at crimes related to theft and fraud, I’m not sure these are that different. As for juvenile delinquency, there is some evidence but not enough. Revocation of conditional release does not apply here.
There are two items of the PCL-R that do not fall into any of the four facets. These are sexual promiscuity and many short term marital relationships. Esther had no reported marriages but is a CNN report says, “authorities are investigating relationships she had with at least four officer candidates at West Point and Annapolis, as well as money transfers she received from outside the country. Officials want to make sure she’s not a spy.”
The nature of sociopathy/psychopathy beyond the DSM and the PCL-R
I don’t have room to go into a detailed analysis here but looking at the above you see that this con artist fits the PCLR-R prototype psychopath better than she does the DSM profile sociopath. There are other aspects to Esther that are discussed in the clinical literature but are not part of either the PCL-R or the DSM.
Some researchers have suggested that psychopathic con artists and pathological liars have high verbal IQs. The CNN story says this about Esther, “She had very poor grades in high school, but she had a high IQ, and her English teacher, recognizing her intelligence, had her join the speech team… Reed won competitions with the speech team, and 10 years later her name is still on plaques at the high school.”
Psychoanalysts have said that a basic disturbance in identity underlies psychopathy. But what is the nature of this disturbance in identity?
According to Mariynn B. Brewer author of the book Self and Social Identity, “Self-concept and identity are what come to mind when we think of ourselves including both personal and social identities. She continues, “Being human means being conscious of having a self and the nature of the self is central to what it means to be human.”
Some argue that those who score high on psychopathy tests are less aware of themselves than are most people. That idea does not fit well with my own observations of psychopaths. If you examine the stories of psychopaths and get to know them, what jumps out at you is the wide difference between their self-concepts and their true social identities. For example, Esther has a self-concept that she is bright, capable and belongs in the IVY league. That self-concept does not match her actual social self. She therefore invented a series of social selves who more accurately reflected her self-concept. My former husband appears to have done the same thing.
In the end, we end up saying, “Esther, you could have done things legitimately.” When I say that about sociopaths/psychopaths, a friend of mine counters with the quip, “That’s too much like work.” But I say, “Isn’t being a con artist a lot more work?” Being a con artist and having that amount of power over people is just the kind of work this group of people like to do. They enjoy it, so it doesn’t seem like work to them.
Many ways to encounter a sociopath/psychopath
Esther’s story also gives us a window into the many opportunities we have to be affected by this disorder. First there are the victims she stole from and all of us who read about Esther in the news. There are the police, prosecutors, judge and her attorney.Then there are the West Point Officer Candidates who had romantic relationships with her and her friends in high school and the universities, including the professor who wrote that letter of recommendation. Lastly there is Esther’s family.
No matter how we are touched by sociopathy/psychopathy we ask why
Why does sociopathy/psychopathy happen? What would cause someone to become a con artist? Many of the people interviewed in the news stories had their own answers. Esther’s father (and school teachers) blamed Esther’s mother, but perhaps this blame is misplaced, since even good mothers have a tough time managing a child who is developing sociopathy. “Esther wanted to do what she wanted to do. When she was living here, I didn’t allow any sex or violent videos. But when she went to her mom’s, that was acceptable,” Esther’s father said. “I don’t know what turned her – maybe living with her mom?” Esther’s father also blames Hollywood, “”Profanity and nudity and things of that nature were not permitted in the house. Videos were banned… My own feeling is the movie industry influenced her – they molded her thinking that wasn’t good,” Teachers also say she didn’t like herself and that she had low self-esteem.
As for me, I see Esther as a very disordered person. It seems there is evidence that both genetics and early environment may have played a role in her developing psychopathy.
The system is trying to help Esther
According to her attorney Fritz, she has gone through counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). “Fitz cited “a lot of things” in Reed’s background to explain her client’s behavior. ‘It was more of a way of life for her,’ Fitz said. ‘It was moving past Esther Reed and who she was.’
I hope Esther will keep working at the CBT. I am one of those who can’t give up hope. Although Esther hurt many people the level of hurt does not appear at the surface to be as great as other con artists. Though with a con artist one can never be sure about what else they have done. Remember “Rockefeller”.
If you knew Esther personally and can give us more information about her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are links to the news stories I used in writing this: