The Inner Landscape of the Psychopath

The Inner Landscape of the Psychopath

الثلاثاء 9-09-2014


The Inner Landscape of the Psychopath*

Social and Spiritual Suicide

by Hervey Cleckley, “Mask of Sanity”, 5th edition, continued

* Narcissism is considered a less severe form of psychopathy.

Beyond the symptomatic acts of the psychopath, we must bear in mind his reaction to his situation, his general experiencing of life. Typical of psychoneurosis are anxiety, recognition that one is in trouble, and efforts to alter the bad situation. These are natural (“normal”) whole personality reactions to localized symptoms. In contrast, the severe psychopath, like those so long called psychotic, does not show normal responses to the situation. It is offered as an opinion that a less obvious but nonetheless real pathology is general, and that in this respect he is more closely allied with the psychotic than with the psychoneurotic patient. The pathology might be regarded riot as gross fragmentation of the personality but as a more subtle alteration. Let us say that instead of macroscopic disintegration our (hypothetical) change might be conceived of as one that seriously curtails function without obliterating form.

Let us think of the personality in the psychopath as differing from the normal in some such way. The form is perfect and the outlines are undistorted. But being subtly and profoundly altered, it can successfully perform only superficial activities or pseudofunctions. It cannot maintain important or meaningful interpersonal relations. It cannot fulfill its purpose of adjusting adequately to social reality. Its performance can only mimic these genuine functions.

The persistent pattern of maladaptation at personality levels and the ostensible purposelessness of many self-damaging acts definitely suggests not only a lack of strong purpose but also a negative purpose or at least a negative drift. This sort of patient, despite all his opportunities, his intelligence, and his plain lessons of experience, seems to go out of his way to woo misfortune.47 The suggestion has already been made that his typical activities seem less comprehensible in terms, of life-striving or of a pursuit of joy than as an unrecognized blundering toward the negations of nonexistence.

Some of this, it has been suggested, may be interpreted as the tantrum, like reactions of an inadequate personality balked, as behavior similar to that of the spoiled child who bumps his own head against the wall or holds his breath when he is crossed. It might be thought of as not unlike a man’s cutting off his nose to spite not only his face, but also the scheme of life in general, which has turned out to be a game that he cannot play. Such reactions are, of course, found in nearly all types of personality disorder or inadequacy. It will perhaps be readily granted that they are all regressive. Behavior against the constructive patterns through which the personality finds expression and seeks fulfillment of its destiny is regressive activity although it may not consist in a return, step by step, or in a partial return to the status of childhood and eventually of infancy. Such reactions appear to be, in a sense, against the grain of life or against the general biologic purpose.

Regressive reactions or processes may all be regarded as disintegrative, as reverse steps in the general process of biologic growth through which a living entity becomes more complex, more highly adapted and specialized, better coordinated, and more capable of dealing successfully or happily with objective or subjective experience. This scale of increasing complexity exists at points even below the level of living matter. A group of electrons functioning together make up the atom which can indeed be split down again to its components. The atoms joining form molecules which, in turn, coming together in definite orderly arrangement, may become structurally coordinating parts of elaborate crystalline materials; or, in even more specialized and complex fashion, they may form a cell of organic matter. Cells of organic matter may unite and integrate to form the living organism we know as a jellyfish. Always the process is reversible; the organic matter can decompose back into inorganic matter.

Without laboriously following out all the steps of this scale, we might mention the increasing scope of activity, the increasing specialization, and the increasing precariousness of existence at various levels up through vertebrates and mammals to man. All along this scale it is evident that failure to function successfully at a certain level necessitates regression or decomposition to a lower or less complicated one. If the cell membrane of one epithelial unit in a mammalian body becomes imporous and fails to obtain nutriment brought by blood and lymph, it loses its existence as an epithelial cell. If the unwary rabbit fails to perceive the danger of the snare, he soon becomes in rapid succession a dead rabbit, merely a collection of dead organs and supportive structures, protein, fat, and finally, inorganic matter. The fundamental quest for life has been interrupted, and, having been interrupted, the process goes into reverse.

So, too, the criminal discovered and imprisoned ceases to be a free man who comes and goes as he pleases. A curtailment in the scope of his functioning is suffered-a regression in one sense to simpler, more routine, and less varied and vivid activities. The man who fails in another and more complex way to go on with life, to fulfill his personality growth and function, becomes what we call a schizophrenic. The objective curtailment of his activities by the rules of the psychiatric hospital are almost negligible in comparison with the vast simplification, the loss of self-expression, and the personal disintegration which characterize his regression from the subjective point of view. The old practice of referring to the extremely regressed schizophrenic as leading a vegetative existence implies the significance that is being stressed.

Regression, then, in a broad sense may be taken to mean movement from richer and more full life to levels of scantier or less highly developed life. In other words, it is relative death. It is the cessation of existence or maintenance of function at a given level.

The concept of an active death instinct postulated by Freud87 has been utilized by some 8,207 to account for socially self-destructive reactions. I have never been able to discover in the writings of Freud or any of his followers real evidence to confirm this assumption. In contrast, the familiar tendency to disintegrate, against which life evolves, may be regarded as fundamental and comparable to gravity. The climbing man or animal must use force and purpose to ascend or to maintain himself at a given height. To fall or slide downhill he need only cease his efforts and let go. Without assuming an intrinsic death instinct, it is possible to account for active withdrawal from positions at which adaptation is unsuccessful and stress too extreme.

Whether regression occurs primarily through something like gravity or through impulses more self-contained, the backward movement (or ebbing) is likely to prompt many sorts of secondary reactions, including behavior not adapted for ordinary human purposes but instead, for functioning in the other direction. The modes of such reactivity may vary, may fall into complex patterns, and may seek elaborate expression.

In a movement (or gravitational drift) from levels where life is vigorous and full to those where it is less so, the tactics of withdrawal predominate. People with all the outer mechanisms of adaptation intact might, one would think, regress more complexly than can those who react more simply. The simplest reaction in reverse might be found in a person who straightway blows out his brains. As a skillful general who has realized that the objective is unobtainable withdraws by feints and utilizes all sorts of delaying actions, so a patient who has much of the outer mechanisms for living may retire, not in obvious rout but skillfully and elaborately, preserving his lines. The psychopath as we conceive of him in such an interpretation seems to justify the high estimate of his technical abilities as we see them expressed in reverse movement.

Unlike the general with the retreating army in our analogy, he seems not still devoted to the original contest but to other issues and aims that arise in withdrawal. To force the analogy further we might say that the retiring army is now concerning itself with looting the countryside, seeking mischief and light entertainment. The troops have cast off their original loyalties and given up their former aims but have found no other serious ones to replace them. But the effective organization and all of the technical skills are retained.

  1. L. Wells has expressed things very pertinent to the present discussion. A brief quotation will bring out useful points:

The principle of substitutive reactions, sublimative or regressive in character, has long been known, but Kurt Lewin’s (1933) experimental construction of the latter is especially apt, if not unquestionable mental hygiene. A child, for example, continually impelled to open a gate it is impossible for him to open, may blow up in a tantrum, grovel on the ground, till the emotion subsides sufficiently for him to become substitutively occupied, as with fragments of gravel and other detritus he finds there, by which he forgets his distress about the gate. Lewin, perhaps unaware of the status of this and allied observations (and their symbols) in psychiatric history, gives it the name “going out of the field”: the background is that enunciated by Woodworth and by James before him, not to say Adolf Meyer, Janet, Jung, and the psychoanalytic group generally. The human personality has the adaptive property of finding satisfactions at simpler levels when higher ones are taken away, fortunately so if this keeps him out of a psychosis, otherwise if it stabilizes him in contentment at this lower level (“going native”) or if the satisfactions cannot be found short of a psychosis (MacCurdy, 1925, p. 367). All such cases have the common regressive factor of giving up the higher-level adjustment (opening the gate) with regressive relief at a lower level (playing with the gravel).

Another illustration given by Wells emphasizes features of the concept that are valuable to us:

Consider, for example, the group of drives that center about the concept of self-maintenance, the “living standards” of civilization. This means the pursuit of the diverse means to surround oneself with the maximum of material comfort in terms of residence, food, playthings, etc., for the purchase of which one can capitalize his abilities. That the normal individual will do this to a liberal limit is taken in the local culture as a matter of course, probably more liberally than the facts justify. For this pursuit involves a competitive struggle beset also with inner conflicts (e.g., ethical), which by no means everyone is able to set aside. Among regressions specific to this category are those undertakings of poverty common to religious orders, but this regression is quite specific, since these orders often involve their members in other “disciplines” from which the normal individual would flee as far (Parkman, 1867, Chap. 16). It is quite certain, though hard to demonstrate objectively, that many an individual in normal life regresses from these economic conflicts only in less degree. He does not take the vow of poverty like the monastic, nor does he dedicate himself to the simplified life of the “South Sea Island” stereotype, but he prefers salary to commission, city apartment to suburban “bungalow,” clerical work to (outside) sales.

A thought expressed by William James in 1902 and quoted by Wells deserves renewed attention:

Yonder puny fellow however, whom everyone can beat suffers no chagrin about it, for he has long ago abandoned the attempt to “carry that line,” as the merchants say, of Self at all. With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretentions are the denominator and the numerator our success: thus, Self-esteem = Success/Pretensions. Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing the numerator. To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, this is what men will always do. The history of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples, but we meet others in every walk of life. ? How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young-or slender! Thank God, we say, those illusions are gone. Everything added to the self is a burden as well as a pride.

Something relevant to the points now under consideration may be found also in Sherrington’s comment on reactions (or inlaid precautions) against unbearable pain or stress in the human organism. He says:

Again in life’s final struggle the chemical delicacy of the brain-net can make distress lapse early because with the brain’s disintegration the mind fades early – a rough world’s mercy towards its dearest possession.

There are, it seems, many ways for this to occur without signs of any change which we yet have objective means to detect, chemically or microscopically. Such changes may occur under the stimulus of agents that do not have direct physical contact with the brain or with any part of the body.

Withdrawal, or limitation of one’s quest in living, appears in many forms. The decision for taking such a step may be consciously voluntary, but it seems likely that many influences less clear and simple may also play a part. In the earliest years of human life a great deal of complicated shaping may occur, with adaptive changes to promote survival by an automatic refusal (inability) to risk one’s feelings (response) in the greatest subjective adventures. In adult life such decisions sometimes emerge in clear deliberation.

The activity of the psychopath may seem in some respects to accomplish a kind of protracted and elaborate social and spiritual suicide. Perhaps the complex, sustained, and spectacular undoing of the self may be cherished by him. He seldom allows physical suicide to interrupt it.47 Be it noted that such a person retains high intelligence and nearly all the outer mechanisms for carrying on the complicated activities of positive life. It is to be expected then that his function in the opposite (regressive) emotional direction might be more subtle than those of a less highly developed biologic entity. The average rooster proceeds at once to leap on the nearest hen and have done with his simple erotic impulse. The complex human lover may pay suit for years to his love object, approaching her through many volumes of poetry, through the building up of financial security in his business, through manifold activities and operations of his personality functions, and with aims and emotions incomparably more complicated and more profound than that of the rooster. When complexly organized functions are devoted to aimless or inconsistent rebellion against the positive goals of life, perhaps they may enable the patient to woo failure and disintegration with similar elaborateness and subtlety. His conscious or outer functioning may at the same time maintain an imitation of life that is uniquely deceptive.

Perhaps the emptiness or superficiality of life without major goals or deep loyalties, or real love, would leave a person with high intelligence and other superior capacities so bored that he would eventually turn to hazardous, self-damaging, outlandish, antisocial, and even self-destructive exploits in order to find something fresh and stimulating in which to apply his relatively useless and unchallenged energies and talents. […]

The more experience I have with psychopaths over the years, the less likely it seems to me that any dynamic or psychogenic theory is likely to be established by real evidence as the cause of their grave maladaptation. Increasingly I have come to believe that some subtle and profound defect in the human organism, probably inborn but not hereditary, plays the chief role in the psychopath’s puzzling and spectacular failure to experience life normally and to carry on a career acceptable to society. This, too, is still a speculative concept and is not supported by demonstrable evidence.


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