In a writing class, you’ll hear something like this: the villain is the hero of a different story. The point being that no character thinks of himself as evil.
As a psychiatrist, the clinical version of this is to realize that we each go through life doing the best we can while fighting a brain that won’t behave the way we wish it would, and an environment that rarely offers up what we want most. Stuck in the middle, we all annoy our neighbors, ruin friendships, and make stupid decisions in love. That is our fate.
Shows like CSI or L&O:SVU love to dramatize serial killers. How do they create “believable” psychological constructs? They take a genius, add in a twisted fetish and a well-earned grudge. Voila! A compelling serial killer is born. Or so we’re told.
Mostly, these characters are just foxes to be hunted. Occasionally, we come to empathize with them because they carry out an extreme morality that we secretly envy. Hannibal Lecter hates rudeness. Jason hates sex-addled child minders. Jigsaw pushes people to carpe diem, or something.
So then, what are these characters doing their best at that murder is the answer? For that matter, what are extreme psychopaths trying their best to resolve, that murder (or rape or routine, cold-blooded harm) is the compromise?
I’ve had the opportunity to meet the real-life versions of these characters: the sexual sadist, the serial killer, the psychotic murderer, and the garden-variety psychopath. (Each had been caught and was being detained for their behavior, so I didn’t have to worry about safety or retribution. I’m no Clarice Starling knocking on doors.) I evaluated them, and tried to characterize what made them so dangerous.
Here’s what I’ve found repeatedly: they don’t get it.
And here’s what else: they never will.
Get what? Humanity. Connection. Love. Words that sound like a Hallmark card, until you find someone staring blankly at you. Or giggling. If they aren’t psychotic, then this is a chronic state of detachment honed over decades, with bases in genetics, delivery, childhood infection, development, trauma, and probably a dozen other areas we’ll discover in a few decades.
Shockingly, that’s where I have found pity.
It’s not uncommon for someone after a hemispheric stroke to not recognize their body as theirs. You hold up their hand and they say it belongs to someone else. They’re so convinced that there is no explanation, no rationalization that will suffice. When you’re in the presence of a severe psychopath my reaction (and please note, it’s mine, I’m not necessarily proud of it, just honest) is to feel deeply sad. Try as I might, I hold up their own humanity in front of them and they just keep batting it away as something extraneous.
But their behavior is so cruel. They are so angry, so despicable, you might say. Yes. But if you’ve ever met someone living their life from outside human connection, it is a dark, dark place. And there’s no escape.
It’s about standing outside on Christmas morning, peering in someone else’s window. It’s not just not having presents, it’s never being invited in. Ever. Here there be rage.