Have You Hugged a Psychopath Today?

Growing up, I often heard my father denounce people of faith as either fools or hypocrites, or worse. Anyone who needed to believe in God was intellectually inferior, he thought, and coincidentally or not, his view of humanity was fairly dismal. I am not a religious person myself, but it is the duty of every generation to defy its predecessor. So as a typically rebellious teenager, I held out hope for everyone.

As an adult I wanted to work in counseling; to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” was my aim, and at the time I thought that covered all the bases. But my theory hit a snag when I discovered there are people in this world who are disturbed in such a way they do not care how much discomfort they cause others. Some call it “anti-social personality disorder”. Some call them sociopaths, or psychopaths, but no matter what the latest phrasing is, they run the gamut from the merely disingenuous to the morally repugnant. My idea that there was hope for all was based on an assumption that the capacity for empathy and remorse, while it may lie dormant in some few, exists in everyone.

But it doesn’t.

There are people in this world who walk like you and talk like you, who eat, drink, sleep, and brush their teeth like you, but the similarity stops at those essentials. Doctors and researchers and writers may disagree whether nature or nurture is responsible, but no matter what the cause or causes of psychopathy, psychopaths exist. And somehow, we must live with them.

Common characteristics of the psychopath include:

  • Grandiosity
  • Superficial charm
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
  • Impulse control problems
  • Irresponsibility
  • Inability to tolerate boredom
  • Pathological lying
  • Shallow affect
  • Deceitfulness/manipulativeness
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of remorse
  • A sense of extreme entitlement
  • Lack of or diminished levels of anxiety
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior, sexually deviant lifestyle
  • Lack of personal insight
  • Inability to distinguish right from wrong

It is one thing to sit in the comfort of one’s home reading a descriptive passage about psychopathy, and quite another to be alone in the room with it. In his article “Are You Involved With A Psychopath?”, psychologist Dr. Michael Conner states, “I have known several psychopaths in my life. The clearest case involved an older teen who had no sense of guilt. He could learn the rules, but he had no sense of conscience. The only thing that saved him was a mother who loved him, took him to counseling for years and spent a great deal of time patiently teaching him right from wrong. I remember a conversation where he told me, “People know when something is wrong because it feels wrong. I have to remember or be reminded that stealing from someone is wrong. I don’t feel bad if I take something.”

As I’ve said, I wanted to work in counseling. I wanted to help others, but on this point I was torn: what is the basis for caring about people who lack the capacity to care for anyone but themselves–how do we live with monsters in our midst, without becoming monstrous ?


At the trial of serial murderer and necrophile Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer, time was allotted for the family members and friends of Ridgway’s victims to make a victim impact statement; if you are not familiar with Mr. Ridgway, suffice it to say he roamed some of the same hunting grounds as Theodore Robert Bundy, and at times there has been some confusion as to whose handiwork was whose. Gary Ridgway only escaped the fate Ted Bundy was ultimately unable to avoid by pleading guilty to a total of 48 murders, and it cannot be overemphasized, these are only the ones we know about.

That day at the reading of the impact statements, the friends and loved ones of the victims had some rather pointed remarks for the Green River Killer. Imagine yourself, facing not just your daughter’s murderer, but the man who savagely tore the life from your little girl, who wasn’t content to rape her once while she was alive but returned to her grave to rape her again in death—given the chance to address this monster, whom your tax dollars will go toward housing and clothing and feeding, and for whom there is currently no known treatment or cure of whatever it is that brought him to the place where he stands before you now, when your chance comes to speak–what will you say, to Gary Leon Ridgway ?

It has been previously stated that psychopaths run the gamut from the merely disingenuous to the morally repugnant, but “morally repugnant” might even be too charitable, for the likes of Gary Ridgway.

Most everyone at the reading of the victim impact statements thought so. As favorite aunts and brothers and best friends stood one by one and cursed his name with everything, everything they had, as you can well imagine you yourself would under the circumstances, as each of them stood and wished him the longest and most painful existence imaginable since they could not see him die, Gary Leon Ridgway sat impassively through it all without a moan or sigh or a crack in his façade, as you can well imagine a man capable of what Gary Ridgway was capable of, could.

There was one notable, quite notable, exception, though.

A large, white-haired gentleman stood to address the court and Mr. Ridgway that day, and after showing his daughter’s murderer a photograph of a smiling, clear-eyed girl, that gentleman said these words:

Mr. Ridgway—that’s my daughter. That was my baby girl, she meant everything to me. If I judged you the way men judge, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair right now. But I’m a Christian, I believe what the Bible says, and the Bible says, we’re supposed to forgive people who do us wrong. I don’t think that’s something you’re just supposed to say but something you’re supposed to live. So I came here today to let you know, Mr. Ridgway: I forgive you.

And with that, serial killer and necrophile Gary Leon Ridgway, burst into tears.

Some of the difficulty of living with psychopaths in our midst might be our expectations, or lack thereof; if a man is psychologically prepared for you to think of him as hopelessly wicked, the only way to disarm him is to treat him as if he isn’t. The story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller is an excellent example of how powerful expectations can be: because she was deaf, dumb and blind, Helen Keller’s family didn’t expect her to toe the line as they would have another child. They let her run wild, and thought that was the most they could hope to expect.

But with Annie Sullivan’s guidance, this almost feral child grew up to become quite a remarkable and accomplished young lady. What made the difference was that Annie Sullivan placed new expectations on Helen Keller, and expected more of her instead of less; think of the psychopath’s condition as the moral and psychological equivalent of being deaf, dumb and blind, and you begin to see that punishment, for the most part, is beside the point.

As a long-term strategy, punishment is ineffective. It teaches either the wrong lesson or none at all. The window of opportunity in which punishment is corrective is limited; beyond that, for psychopaths and non-psychopaths alike, punishment is only suffering without purpose.

I’m not suggesting we fling open the prison gates, nor am I offering any particular formula by which society might remedy this ill. I am speaking only in terms of what certain individuals have done. Most professionals will tell you it is idealistic and naïve in the extreme to believe a psychopath can change, and that may well be so. But we are speaking here of what as individuals, we can do, and of what we may do yet.

The man who stood up in that courtroom and forgave Gary Ridgway wasn’t being idealistic or naïve; don’t get me wrong, Ridgway cried only for himself. But in that moment, perhaps it occurred to Gary Ridgway that if he’d challenged his instinct to hate and lash out, as the man who forgave him did, he wouldn’t be in this “predicament”; perhaps at that moment he saw a kind of power in that man he’d been searching for all his life, and both envied and admired it. Considering he was facing his daughter’s killer, that man’s refusal to give in to his baser nature was an incredible example of power and control—and from the merely disingenuous to the morally repugnant, all psychopaths seek power, and control.

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever, as the saying goes: if we misunderstand what the proper relationship to power is, we will naturally abuse it. Inasmuch as psychopaths seek power and control over others, each victim can only bring the equivalent of a fish a day. Real power and control means not giving in to one’s baser instincts but mastering them. And were the psychopath to learn this simple principle, it would be the psychological equivalent of teaching him to fish.

I am also not suggesting anyone telephone their local prison or state hospital and ask if any psychopaths would like to come along up to the lake this weekend. But you may already be fishing, or golfing or entering into a relationship or a legal covenant with a psychopath. And anyone who has had this experience will tell you, in hindsight of course, it would behoove you to be aware there are such people in the world, and to keep an eye out for them.

I do not personally turn to the Good Book for guidance, but there is at least one biblical injunction which seems especially pertinent to the matter of how best to deal with the psychopaths in our midst. Before you find you’ve been taken in by some smooth operator who cares not a whit what you suffer as a consequence of your association with him–see that you walk circumspectly; not as fools, but as wise.

When circumstances reveal the psychopath for what he is, and what he isn’t, there is generally a sense of betrayal; we tend to assume everyone is operating under approximately the same moral constructs we are. Once we’ve learned there are indeed people who lack the capacity to feel remorse, for whom consequences are meaningless, most of us are left hoping that if there is none in this world, some retribution or revenge lies waiting for the psychopath in the next.

But it may not. We can’t be certain, and since psychopaths do not have two heads and three eyes and a tail to distinguish them from non-psychopaths, love your neighbor as you love yourself, but see that you walk circumspectly. If you believe in doing unto others as you would have them do, by all means, follow the Golden Rule. But even the Bible says, you don’t have to be a shmuck about it.

I am not a religious person, and certainly, I am no Biblical scholar. I am also not above citing an appropriate parable. Everyone is familiar with the image of Jesus dispersing the crowd with the admonishment, whoever among you is without sin, cast the first stone. It is the latter part of the story which concerns us here: after saving the woman an eager crowd would surely have destroyed, Jesus says, go, and sin no more, and as with Helen Keller, this story is also about the importance of expectations.

If your boss comes to you and says, I’m giving you this project because I expect you can handle it, you feel good. And if he says, I thought of giving it to you but I’m giving it to Jenkins, there, instead, you feel badly, and not merely because of the bonus you may have lost.

When Jesus tells the woman, “Go and sin no more”, he is placing new expectations upon her, just as Annie Sullivan did with Helen Keller. Implied in that act is the message she is capable of living up to those expectations. Because he sees her not only as she is but also as she’s capable of being, Jesus is, in essence, telling her to have hope, that something more than what is now, is possible.

Hope is not starry-eyed idealism, or merely a warm fuzzy feeling which strikes capriciously at the odd moment; hope can, and should be, an exercise of the will.

When that large, white-haired man stood to address him, you can be certain Gary Ridgway was quite prepared for another recitation of all the fiery torment most everyone wished upon him; the need to punish is something Gary Ridgway understands.

But the man who stood in court that day, bested his daughter’s killer with his few and simple words.

We get the world that we expect, or the world that we deserve. Either way is reason enough to hold out hope for everyone.