Two Lovefraud readers brought an article in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine to my attention. It’s entitled Suffering Souls—the search for the roots of psychopathy, by John Seabrook.
The article starts off describing the work of a researcher, Dr. Kent Kiehl, who is using an fMRI machine to study the brains of prisoners in the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, searching for physical indications of psychopathy. The author provides a brief history of the evolution of scientific understanding about this personality disorder, and describes today’s conflicting opinions about it. Seabrook reviewed the literature and interviewed experts, including Dr. Robert Hare.
All in all, the article provides an excellent summary of the state of scientific research about psychopathy. If you want to understand how the researchers think about this personality disorder, I recommend that you read it.
Never met a psychopath
Although the story is comprehensive, one of the points made me think that we at Lovefraud have a better understanding of psychopaths than researchers.
“Unlike most academic psychopathy researchers, Kiehl has spent many hours in the company of his subjects. When he meets colleagues at conferences, he told me, “they always ask, ‘What are they like?’ These are guys who have spent twenty years studying psychopaths and never met one.” Although the number of psychopaths who are not in prisons is thought to exceed the number who are—if the one-per-cent figure is correct, there are more than a million psychopaths at large in the United States alone—they are much harder to identify in the outside world. Some are “successful psychopaths,” holding down good jobs in many types of industries. It is generally only if they commit a crime and enter the criminal-justice system that they become available for research.”
This is scary—many researchers in psychopathy never met one? We should consider ourselves better informed, because we’ve all had extremely close encounters with these predators. And we know exactly how the ones who are not in jail behave.
More information is needed about psychopaths in the community. That’s why our contributions to the study, Victimizations, coping, and social support of adult survivors of psychopaths, are so important. If you haven’t yet filled out the survey, be sure to do it.
Parents and children
According to the New Yorker article, Dr. Robert Hare does not approve of using his Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) in child custody disputes. Although I can understand where Dr. Hare is coming from—his test was designed specifically to predict recidivism among offenders—it is still the gold standard in identifying psychopaths. As we at Lovefraud know, psychopaths make terrible parents. Unfortunately, there is no scientific documentation—yet—of what we know to be true.
This points to the need for more research on psychopaths who are not in jail. First of all, we need to be able to identify them, especially in family court cases. Secondly, we need research documenting that psychopaths do, indeed, harm their children. I know this cause is very important to Dr. Liane Leedom, and we hope to contribute to more thorough understanding of these problems.
The article also touches on the issues of children with psychopathic traits. On the one hand, it states that psychologists don’t want to label children as psychopaths. On the other hand, there is some evidence that children with psychopathic traits can be helped, “if you catch it young enough.” That means they need to be identified.
It’s a circular problem. There is a very strong genetic component to this personality disorder, so it is crucial to identify psychopathic parents, because their children may be at risk of also becoming psychopaths. We also need to identify children who have inherited the dispostion to the personality disorder and are, in fact, at risk. That means diagnosing them so we can try to help them.
The issue of at-risk children is not one in which we should be squeamish or politically correct about identifying the disorder. Lives are at stake.
In scanning prisoners’ brains, Dr. Kent Kiehl hopes to find a biological cause for the psychopathic personality disorder. By finding a cause, there is the chance of developing drugs to treat the disorder.
This raises philosophical and ethical questions. What if he succeeds? What if he proves that psychopathy is a form of mental illness? But what if people are diagnosed and treatment doesn’t work? If psychopathy is a mental illness, does that mean that these predators aren’t responsible for their crimes?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do know that here at Lovefraud, we are building a valuable knowledge base beyond that of the scientific researchers. We know how psychopaths behave when they are free, out in the community, and doing what predators do.