Tag Archives: psychology

The mind of a psychopath

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S33882, Adolf Hitler retouchedQuite a number of psychopaths have made a name for themselves. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin. Ted Bundy is another, more recent, example, as is Hannibal Lecter, featured in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. What about Jeronimus Cornelisz, erstwhile under merchant on the merchantship Batavia, who for a few short months in 1629,  strode his tiny island like a colossus, or a God, dealing out death and destruction on a whim. What makes a person a psychopath? How do you pick them from the rest of humanity?

In my novel To Die a Dry Death, I had to try to get into Jeronimus Cornelsiz’s head and understand – or at least explain – his behaviour. So – to try to understand.

To quote from a handout produced by Oregon Counseling;

The psychopath is one of the most fascinating and distressing problems of human experience.  For the most part, a psychopath never remains attached to anyone or anything. They live a “predatory” lifestyle. They feel little or no regret, and little or no remorse – except when they are caught. They need relationships, but see people as obstacles to overcome and be eliminated.   If not,  they see people in terms of how they can be used. They use people for stimulation, to build their self-esteem and they invariably value people in terms of their material value (money, property, etc..).

A psychopath can have high verbal intelligence, but they typically lack “emotional intelligence”. They can be expert in manipulating others by playing to their emotions. There is a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories (i.e., how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may have felt and why). The lack of emotional intelligence is the first good sign you may be dealing with a psychopath.  A history of criminal behavior in which they do not seem to learn from their experience, but merely think about ways to not get caught is the second best sign.

The following is a list of items based on the research of Robert Hare, Ph.D. which is derived from the “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, .1991, Toronto: Multi-Health  Systems.” These are the most highly researched and recognized characteristics of psychopathic personality and behavior.

  • glibness/superficial charm
  • need for stimulation/prone to boredom
  • conning/manipulative
  • shallow emotional response
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • promiscuous sexual behavior
  • lack of realistic long term goals
  • irresponsibility
  • many short term relationships
  • revocation of conditional release
  • grandiose sense of self worth
  • pathological lying
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • callous/lack of empathy
  • poor behavioral controls
  • early behavioral problems
  • impulsivity
  • failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
  • juvenile delinquency
  • criminal versatility

Michael G. Conner, Psy.D Has this to say.

A psychopath is usually a subtle manipulator. They do this by playing to the emotions of others. They typically have high verbal intelligence, but they lack what is commonly referred to as “emotional intelligence”. There is always a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories. In particular they have difficulty describing how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may feel and why. In many cases you almost have to explain it to them. Close friends and parents will often end up explaining to the psychopath how they feel and how others feel who have been hurt by him or her.

They can do this over and over with no significant change in the person’s choices and behavior. They don’t understand or appreciate the impact that their behavior has on others. They do appreciate what it means when they are caught breaking rules or the law even though they seem to end up in trouble again. They desperately avoid incarceration and loss of freedom but continue to act as if they can get away with breaking the rules. They don’t learn from these consequences. They seem to react with feelings and regret when they are caught. But their regret is not so much for other people as it is for the consequences that their behavior has had on them, their freedom, their resources and their so called “friends.”

They can be very sad for their self. A psychopath is always in it for their self even when it seems like they are caring for and helping others. The definition of their “friends” are people who support the psychopath and protect them from the consequence of their own antisocial behavior. Shallow friendships, low emotional intelligence, using people, antisocial attitudes and  failure to learn from the repeated consequences of their choices and actions help identify the psychopath.

______________________________________________________________

Armed with a description like this, it wasn’t so hard to get into Cornelisz’s head. In some ways it was more difficult to sort out Lucretia, who had to deal with this man at a very intimate level, always conscious that the slightest mistake may have cost her her life.

It still stops me in my tracks to think that this one man was effectively responsible for the deaths of around one hundred people. Put that into perspective. There were about one hundred and eighty people on Batavia’s Graveyard when Pelsaert and Jacobsz  headed for Java. Cornelisz’s thugs killed over half of them. Yet Cornelisz never accepted responsibility, never showed any remorse, always kept coming back to the fact that he himself never killed anybody.

But you know what? The most frightening thing of all was how easy it was for him to recruit people more than willing to carry out his orders.

Ah, the frailty of the human psyche.

Are Voldemort and Sauron good villains?

I’ve just read a blog post about villains and how important they are to a story. If your hero is up against a villain, better make sure that villain’s powerful. And while I agreed with the overall premise, it’s left me thinking; hence this post. Sure, you need conflict to make a story. Or should I say, an interesting story. But the writer of the post in question used Voldemort and Sauron as her two examples of good villains.

Now at this point I should rush in and say that I love the Harry Potter books and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is one of those books on that shelf up there, battered and much loved. The point, however, is that both are fantasy. Sauron, in particular, is an archetype. We never meet him; he is just a flame-ringed eye on the top of a fantastically powerful tower. To be sure he evokes the ultimate evil – for that is what he is; the Devil, if you will. His only purpose is to subjugate and destroy. Voldemort isn’t much different. His only purpose seems to be to destroy Muggles and live forever. Neither has any redeeming features. Not one.

If you want a believable villain in ‘Lord of the Rings’ you could look at Saruman who started off as the wisest of the wise and was inveigled, seduced by the power of Sauron and the lure of the One Ring. As is often mentioned – by Gandalf and Galadriel, for example, the power of the ring is such that people would use it for good; at first, before it consumed their will. I could probably make a convincing case that the REAL villain in LOTR is the Ring.

Those of us who don’t write fantasy, who can’t rely on a faceless, motiveless ‘evil’ need believable villains. Villains don’t see themselves as villains. They have their own motives and they are often couched in the language of ‘the greater good’. If you want your villain to be believable you have to be able to convey to the reader what his/her motives are. And he/she cannot be wholly evil. Hitler loved his dogs and presumably Eva Braun; Napoleon had Josephine.

In my historical fiction novel ‘To Die a Dry Death’ the villain is a psychopath named Jeronimus Cornelisz. The novel is based on a true story, a shipwreck off the coast of Australia in 1629. Nobody knows what Cornelisz looked like. Pelsaert’s journals, the only source of what happened out there, don’t give descriptions of physical characteristics. Research has revealed something of Cornelisz’s background but the history books need to be read carefully, since more than once an albeit plausible story is built on a few facts and a lot of conjecture. But Pelsaert’s journals provide us with enough information to deduce a great deal about Cornelisz’s character.

I’ve written elsewhere about describing a psychopath. But even psychopaths must have motives and they cannot be totally evil. I guess we’ll never know at what point Lucretia consented to a physical relationship with Jeronimus. It has been said that some of the stories about her ‘holding out’ for quite some time after Jeronimus took over were written subsequently, to salve her reputation. I hardly think it matters. Easy enough to sit in retrospective judgement. Although for him, winning the alpha female was part of status, I’m quite prepared to believe he actually did care for her. And that’s how I’ve written him. Even the worst human monster was once an innocent child.