Thursday, April 22, 2004

THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF THE PSYCHOPATH: Jason Malloy leads us all to Dave Cullen's article on Slate about the post-mortem psychiatric diagnosis of the Columbine killers. It appears that Klebold was your garden-variety depressive-suicidal type, while Harris was an actual high-functioning psychopath. Together, they were trouble:

The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force. The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers—murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold's fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.

Jason points out the limits of this theorizing:

I should note that despite the conclusive language of the article, it still doesn't really explain what it purports to. For instance psychopaths are about 1% of the population (or 3 million people!), and the article admits that most psychopaths aren't killers. So we have the necessary raw psychological materials, and a plausible interaction effect and that's good but . . .

Right--it still isn't enough to explain Columbine. It does lend substantial detail to the killings, and dismisses the Trench Coat Mafia/jocks vs. geeks analyses that were so common at the time, but it doesn't prove that mixing your depressives with your psychopaths is a sure way to mass murder.

Here's this great Ian Pitchford review of theories of psychopathy that Jason linked to, which is full of interesting stuff:

It is difficult to appreciate just how different the functioning of psychopaths is compared to that of the non-psychopath. After killing a waiter who had asked him to leave a restaurant Jack Abbott denied any remorse because he hadn't done anything wrong, and after all 'there was no pain, it was a clean wound' and the victim was 'not worth a dime' (Hare, 1993, pp. 42-3). The psychopathic serial killer John Wayne Gacy murdered thirty-three young men and boys, but described himself as the victim because he had been robbed of his childhood. Kenneth Taylor battered his wife to death and then couldn't understand why no one sympathized with his tragic loss. One woman allowed her boyfriend to sexually abuse her five-year-old daughter because she was too tired for sex, but then was outraged that social services should have the right to take the child into care. Diane Downs murdered her three children, wounding herself in the process in order to provide evidence for story of an attack by a stranger. Asked about her feelings regarding the incident Downs replied 'I couldn't tie my damned shoes for about two months… The scar is going to be there forever… I think my kids were lucky' (Hare, 1993, p. 53 quoted from The Oprah Winfrey Show, September 26, 1988). Clinicians refer to the emotions of psychopaths as proto-emotions, that is, primitive responses to immediate needs. Hare remarks:

Another psychopath in our research said that he did not really understand what others meant by "fear". However, "When I rob a bank," he said, "I notice that the teller shakes or becomes tongue tied. One barfed all over the money. She must have been pretty messed up inside, but I don't know why. If someone pointed a gun at me I guess I'd be afraid, but I wouldn't throw up." When asked to describe how he would feel in such a situation, his reply contained no reference to bodily sensations. He said things such as, "I'd give you the money"; "I'd think of ways to get the drop on you"; "I'd try and get my ass out of there." When asked how he would feel, not what he would think or do, he seemed perplexed. Asked if he ever felt his heart pound or his stomach churn, he replied, "Of course! I'm not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight" (Hare, 1993, pp. 53-4).

The Cullen article, by the way, did not deserve the sneering dismissal it got from Brian Doherty, which seemed an excuse just to put REASON's general Szasz-driven anti-psychiatry on display.