Psychopathy & Sociopathy

The New York Times has an interestingly-timed article on child psychopaths, coming so soon after the news that Michael Murphy will be released from prison this June.

[Now, click carefully – the NYT only allows 20 – or has it been shrunk to 10? – articles to be viewed for free each month, so you don’t want to use up your quota inadvertently. But – this article is worth even one out of ten!]

It is lengthy, with lots of anecdotes, including this brief example:

… one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’ ”

Kind of reminds one of Murphy’s habit of attacking the local fauna with multiple stab wounds…!

First off, the article says, early on, that there is no difference between psychopathy and sociopathy, so I guess psychologists have decided that there wasn’t enough difference in their previous definitions to warrant using separate terms. So, rather than using varied terms, or trying to split hairs deciding which behaviors are more egregious, I am just using “psychopath” throughout.

This paragraph from the middle of the article caught my attention, because even though the writer acknowledges the massive manipulation done by psychopaths, he seems to miss the full extent of it in his startlingly accurate accounting of their first meeting:

When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly, then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions. “Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her. Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the house, capering antically in front of Jake, who was bobbing up and down on his sit-and-ride scooter. When the scooter tipped over, Michael gasped theatrically and ran to his brother’s side. “Jake, are you O.K.?” he asked, wide-eyed with concern. Earnestly ruffling his youngest brother’s hair, he flashed me a winning smile.

Wow – where to begin?

When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly…

He already knows there is to be a visitor: his brother chooses the active, impulsive role of ‘crazyboy’, while Mikey chooses the utter opposite. This makes him more remarkable and memorable in the Audience’s mind (that would be the Visitor/Writer.)

… then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions.

Yep – the complete opposite of his brother.

“Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then

When his mom tries to cajole him out of his calculated ‘shy mode’, thereby increasing his attention-quota as compared to his brother’s (the ever-present sibling rivalry), he first checks the Visitor to see what reaction to choose, and then he picks:

… sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her.

Another polar opposite, again, designed to attract more attention than behaving in a less flamboyant manner. He may actually suspect that this visit has to do with his renowned aggressive, out-of-control behavior, and is calculating every move to contradict that impression. So, first he imitates extreme shyness, and then uncharacteristically cheerful and overblown affection. (His mom reports later that she scarcely gets hugged twice in one week, than twice in one night, as on the night of the visit. Mikey is counting on the writer’s unfamiliarity with his family, to accept this as typical behavior.)

This next section is eerily manipulative. He is still earnestly trying to behave “normally”, whatever he thinks that is, but his curious excesses keep his act from ringing true:

Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the house, capering antically in front of Jake, who was bobbing up and down on his sit-and-ride scooter.

Now, it seems that things begin to get squirrelly after this point, but it actually began when Mikey chose to focus on  Jake’s scooter-riding, as can be seen from the results:

When the scooter tipped over, Michael gasped theatrically…

More attention-seeking.

… and ran to his brother’s side. “Jake, are you O.K.?” he asked, wide-eyed with concern.

Playing the emotionally-connected caring older brother… who incidentally orchestrated the accident so that he could appear caring. There’s a phrase for this in adults: Munchausen (by proxy) Syndrome, wherein mothers cause harm to their children so they can then be perceived as their saviors.

Earnestly ruffling his youngest brother’s hair, he flashed me a winning smile.

And there! is the paycheck for this little vignette: the psychopathic little monster completes the ‘caring’ act, and finishes by looking toward his audience with a “winning” grin. Nice choice of words for the writer; while it appears the child is winning-over his viewer, he is really smiling because, once again, he has caused havoc, and yet emerged as the caring savior, all the while he is submerging traces of his true manipulative self. He has Won! (ooh, now – where have I heard that before….?)

Second Thought

The article details a “summer camp” where a number of children like Mikey are spending 6 weeks of their summer. There is one counselor for every two kids, and from the descriptions, that is certainly NOT enough. What emerges from the telling, is that this is, for these kids, what prison is for adults. No, no – they’re not treating these kids harshly. But they are surrounded by children who are just as badly-behaved as they are themselves… and at least some of them are taking the opportunity to pick up helpful pointers from their peers.

Of course, these are not the kind of pointers their parents wish they were learning, but hints on how to better manipulate people; how to cause more and better mayhem; how to break more rules, and get away with more than ever before. If you do read the article, I am particularly reminded of a certain young girl, referred to as “L.”, who is now (apparently unrestrained,) wrangling a whole faction of these psychopaths to do her bidding!

Final thoughts (for the moment!)

If there is any hope, there might be some new angles in treatment with medication that may restore the missing capacities for empathy and emotion that are apparently lacking in these children. (Of course, they will probably hate the changes these produce in them, and will fight prodigiously to avoid taking their medications!) I have seen wonderful things happen as the result of medications for depression, anxiety, manic-depression, and even schizophrenic patients.

Yet I think all of these ailments are spiritual in origin, and my first reaction, upon reading of the extent of these children’s affliction, was the phrase, “they’re possessed”. I stand by that, but in a culture which has come to overwhelmingly deny the mere existence of spiritual things, their best hope for improvement is probably medication. At an early age.

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