Serial Killers and Sociopaths

Despite fads and new genres, serial killers endure as a favorite villain for writers and readers alike, though I lost my taste for such books years ago. For one thing, too many writers use killing as a cheap way of escalating tension, with each murder upping the ante. For another thing, too many writers perpetuate the serial killer myth of the white, middle-class, intelligent, charming male about thirty-five years old.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, debunks this stereotype in a guest post she did for this blog: Serial Killers and the Writers Who Love Them: Facts about Popular Myths. As Ramsland points out, “Serial killers are not all alike. They’re not all male. Some have been as young as eight or older than fifty. They’re not all driven by sexual compulsion. They’re not all intelligent, nor even clever – often, they’re just lucky. They’re not all charming. A single killer may choose different weapons or methods of operation, although they will tend to stay with whatever works best. Even with rituals, the basis of a ‘signature,’ they often experiment and change things. They might be profit-driven, in search of thrill or self-gratification, or compelled by some other deep-seated desire, fear or need. Occasionally, serial murder is about revenge or it’s inspired by a delusion. In most cases, the killer does not wish to be stopped or caught. Yet a few do intentionally undermine themselves or stop of their own accord. Some rare killers have even professed remorse or killed themselves.”

Far more fascinating to me are the sociopaths who don’t kill. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand mindpsychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. (Some professionals use “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangably as I am doing and some argue there is a difference, but oddly, no one seems to agree on what those differences are.)

So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Probably many politicians and scientists. Possibly even you.

(In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Peter Jensen says: “I have a theory, entirely unproven, that a lot of psychopaths gravitate to the sciences, biology especially, where they can hide behind that famed scientific detachment. They can also torture animals in the name of science, and no one calls them insane.”)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They can be charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. (Sounds like a politician, doesn’t it?) Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, no need to conform to societal standards, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

In a relationship, such manipulation might be intolerable, but in fiction, it makes for a interesting character, even if the character isn’t a killer.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I

A few months ago, another woman who had lost her mate and I were talking about how unstoic we’ve been about our grief. We cried when we needed to, screamed it to the heavens, flung it into the blogosphere. We admitted to feeling a bit childish, because in earlier days, people just accepted death and moved on. We decided that if we had lived in an earlier age — pioneer times, for example — we might have acted the same as they did, but since we live in the times we do, we have the luxury of letting grief take its course.

This conversation niggled at me. How do we know pioneer women just accepted death and moved on? How do we know they didn’t cry themselves to sleep when they lost a child or a their husband? How do we know they didn’t scream their loss to the heavens or suffer a crisis of faith?

So much of what we know about earlier times is from men — probably sociopathic men who have no feelings or sense of empathy for another’s suffering. (Not all sociopaths are serial killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. What makes a sociopath is lack of empathy, conscience, and remorse.) Most pioneer women didn’t read or write. (Which could be another myth?) If so how would they ever be able to convey to future women (us) how they felt?

Last night online I tried to find out the truth about the way early American women grieved, not just as dictated by their societal and religious mores, but how they really coped.

I didn’t find out much. Since grief is such an individual process, I would presume they grieved much like anyone today who has to work from morning to dawn. In other words, they found themselves crying at odd moments of privacy when no one could see them. Grief at the loss of a child or a partner is endemic. The show of grief is what changes from culture to culture.

In my online search, I came across an article in Time Magazine that had been published at the beginning of the year: “New Ways to Think About Grief.” The article started out great, debunking Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. They agreed with what I’ve been saying all along, that what we bereft mostly feel is a yearning to see our loved ones again. The Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t hold true for most of us, and why should it? Those stages were conceived as a way of showing how people came to accept their own dying, not how people learned to deal with the death of others.

Then the article entered a gray area: One study of 66 people by George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who specializes in the psychology of loss and trauma, suggests that tamping down, not expressing, or avoiding negative feelings, known as “repressive coping,” actually has a protective function.

Another 60 person “study conducted by the husband-and-wife research team Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe of Utrecht University found that widows who avoided confronting their loss were not any more depressed than widows who “worked through” their grief. As to the importance of giving grief a voice, several other studies done by the Stroebes indicated that talking or writing about the death of a spouse did not help people adjust to that loss any better.”

I don’t know who those people in the studies are or how they were chosen. All I know is that in life and on the internet, every one of the bereft I have encountered found comfort in talking about their grief, or in writing a grief journal or letters to their mates. But what really helped all of us was listening to others tell their story. Grief is so isolating that it’s important to know we are not alone. It’s possible some of those people in the study weren’t deeply connected to their spouse — not every spouse is a soul mate — and so it didn’t feel as if they’d had part of them amputated. It’s possible some of those in the studies had young families to care for. Like the pioneer women mentioned above, they would have no time for grief. It’s also possible those in the study had large families or many friends to surround them with love and give them needed hugs. Those at the grief support group I went to were mostly alone and lost, with no one to hang on to. So we hung on to each other. That is the benefit of grief groups. The connection.

Interestingly enough, in not a single discussion, online or offline, did any of the bereft I encountered indulge in negative thinking. We were all trying to find a way through the morass of physical pain and emotional shock. We were bewildered by what had happened to us and our mates, and though some had unresolved issues with their mates, they never gave in to bad mouthing their relationship. It was all about the love that once was there and now is gone.

(This rant of mine was so long, I’ll post the other half tomorrow.)

Your Mother-in-Law, the Sociopath

Anyone who writes crime fiction, especially novels about a serial killer, is familiar with the sociopathic personality. But not all sociopaths are killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Maybe even the psychologists who came up with the sociopathic profile. Possibly even you.

Abused children who were not born with a sociopathic personality usually grow up to lead normal lives. Sociopaths who were not abused usually grow up to lead normal lives or lives that mimic normalcy. Sociopaths sometimes become killers because of childhood abuse, and sometimes they become killers simply because they want to. (The killer in the Dutch version of The Vanishing was a classic sociopath who killed to see what it would feel like.)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They are charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

Other characteristics of the sociopath are shallow emotions, egocentricity, lying for no reason, no need to conform to societal standards, the skill to detect and exploit the weaknesses of others. They are also well satisfied with themselves, never looking back with regret or forward with concern.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

Sounds to me like an interesting character. With or without the killing.

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