Wondering what it would be like to walk in Patrick Bateman’s shoes? From author Jon Ronson, a letter he received in response to The Psychopath Test, his much-talked-about book published a couple months ago, from a young psychopath (who felt no or guilt or emotion, but an overwhelming urge to prey on others). Can you empathize?
I just saw your interview on Australia’s ABC 7:30 report on ‘The Psychopath Test’ and wanted to share my experience. I hope that it can remain confidential for the time being, seeing as it is quite personal.
But, when I was 19 (I’m 26-27 now) I went into long-term therapy – for psychopathy.
My case was rather unusual in that I self-referred. The mental health agency had not had a walk-in of this kind before. In the lead up, I had found myself becoming overwhelmed with a predatorial instinct that I could not shake – I’d sit, watching crowds of people go by, driven to mania by what I saw as their limitless inferiorities. Plans were set that, once enacted, would be very difficult to walk back from.
Nevertheless, the decision to go to therapy was one I had taken with some considerable agony, given that I saw this as putting myself ‘on the radar’ so to speak, and thus making it considerably more difficult to ‘act out my nature’ as I saw it.
I undertook a lengthy psychological examination, and the psychiatrist conducting it wrote some pretty stark conclusions devoid of any optimistic prognosis.
My initial forays into therapy did not go well. Overwhelmed with mistrust, concerned at being maniuplated, and uncomfortable with the idea of being ‘managed’ rather than ‘cured’, I left on multiple occassions for some periods of time.
After chewing through several therapists, the director of the agency finally took me on herself, and to our mutual surprise we got along extremely well.
To make a long story short, after years of setbacks, frustrations, resentments and suspicion, I began to make considerable progress. Four years later, with sessions no less frequent than once or twice a week, I came out of therapy unrecognizable from when I went into it.
Yes thearapy was transformative, though it is possible to overstate its impacts. I will always see the world through different lenses to much of the rest of the world. My emotional reactions are different, my endowments are impressive in some respects, not so in others, much like other people.
It is also the case that, being ‘normal’ takes a degree of energy and conscious thought that is instinctive for most, but to me is a significant expenditure of energy. I think it analogous to speaking a second language. That is not to say I am being false or obfuscating, merely that I will always expose some eccentric traits.
So why am I writing all this to you?
Well, from someone who is both psychopathic and treated, there are many fallacies about psychopaths with which I am deeply cynical. Unfortunately psychopaths themselves do themselves no favors, as the label given to them plays into their ego over generously – ‘If we are born that way’ psychopaths reason, ‘then it is not wrong for us to be as we are, indeed we are the pinnacle of the human condition, something other people demonize merely to explain their fitful fears’.
We are neither the cartoon evil serial killers, nor the ‘its your boss’ CEO’s always chasing profit at the expense of everyone else. While we are both of those things, it is a sad caricature of itself.
We continue be to characterized that way, by media, by literature, and by ourselves, yet the whole thing is a sham. The truth is much, much more complex, and in my view, interesting.
Psychopaths are just people. You are right to say that psychopaths hate weakness, they will attempt to conceal anything that might present as a vulnerability. The test of their self-superiority is their ability to rapidly find weaknesses in others, and to exploit it to its fullest potential.
But that is not to say that this aspect of a psychopaths world view cannot be modified. These days I see weaknesses and vulnerabilities as simple facts – a facet of the human condition and the frailties and imperfections inheritent in being human.
At the same time it is true that my feelings and reactions to those around me are different – not necessarily retarded – just different. It is the image of psychopaths as something not quite human, along with espersions as to their natures, that prevent this from being identified.
So how to explain these ‘different’ feelings?
Well, lets look at what (bright) psychopaths are naturally quite exceptional at… We are good at identifying, very rapidly, extreme traits of those around us which allows us to discern vulnerabilities, frailties, and mental conditions. It also makes psychopaths supreme manipulators, for they can mimick human emotions they do not feel, play on these emotions and extract concessions.
But what are these traits really? – Stripped of its pejorative adjectives and mean application, it is a highly trained perception, ability to adapt, and a lack of judgment borne of pragmatic and flexible moral reasoning.
What I’m saying here is that although those traits can very easily (even instinctively) lead to dangerous levels of manipulation, they do not have to.
These days I enjoy a reputation of being someone of intense understanding and observation with a keen strategic instinct. I know where those traits come from, yet I have made the conscious choice to use them for the betterment of friends, aquaintences, and society. People confide in me extraordinary things because they know, no matter what, I will not be judging them.
I do so because I know I have that choice. After years of therapy I am well equipped to act on it, and my keen perception is now directed equally towards myself.
Its true that I do not ‘feel’ guilt or remorse, except to the extent that it affects me directly, but I do feel other emotions, which do not have adequate words of description, but nevertheless cause me to derive satisfacton in developing interpersonal relationships, contributing to society, and being gentle as well as assertive.
Such as statement might tempt you to say ‘well obviously you’re not a real psychopath then’. As if the definition of a psychopath is someone who exploits others for their personal power, satisfaction or gain.
A slightly more benign (but still highly inaccurate) definition is that a psychopath is someone who feels little guilt or empathy for others.
In the end, psychopaths need to be given that very thing everyone believes they lack for others, empathy; a willingness to understand the person, their drives, hopes, strengths and fears, along with knowledge of their own personal sadnesses and sense of inferiority…As it is, such cartoon, unchangeable, inhuman characterizations offers nothing but perpetuation of those stereotypes.