As many people know, not all psychopaths are violent murderers who kill without remorse. Granted, psychopaths who are violent murderers do kill without remorse, since they lack even a soupcon of empathy, but not all psychopaths kill. There is a psychopath test, and a scale, and many people who achieve top marks on the psychopath test never kill anyone.
Take Jim Fallon, an affable neuroscientist who describes himself as a hobbit. He studied the brains of numerous psychopaths, both mass murderers and corporate CEOs, and speaks convincingly about what separates the killers from the highly functioning confident, bright, driven, remorseless psychopaths who climb to the top of corporate hierarchies and amass fantastic fortunes.
According to Fallon the gene for violence in a brain configured for psychopathy is activated by a three-dimensional experience of unspeakable violence at a young age. Being the victim of, or witnessing, traumatic violence triggers this gene and it is only a matter of time until the time bomb goes off. Many with brains identical to mass murderers never express violence, except perhaps as ruthlessness in the board room, where it is admired as one of the traits of a winner.
I’ve probably written about Fallon here before, and his fascinating talk can be heard here. Fallon, well into his distinguished career, learns of his family history of murder and discovers that his brain has the same damage in the orbital cortex that is the hallmark of psychopaths.
The mild-mannered, avuncular Fallon subsequently asks everyone he knows if they can see the defining trait of the psychopath, lack of empathy, in him. To his surprise they all see it. “You don’t really listen after you ask how I am,” notes one, and the others all echo some variation on this. He realizes they are right, he doesn’t really care. He thinks of parties he attended instead of going to the funerals of close friends and family members. He sees a pattern of genuine disinterest in himself. He then has that moment of clarity when he realizes he really doesn’t care that he’s a psychopath.
I’ve found myself wondering lately, as the frail bark of my program, kept aloft by optimism and faith, sits almost abandoned now on the seaweed covered rocks, if I perhaps possess something like this trait. In a year of operation I have not recruited a single reliable ally. It will require a piece of luck I am hard-pressed to imagine at the moment to move things in a good direction. If the next stop of this successful program is the end of the line, it’s no mystery that I find myself a bit distressed as I try to imagine Plan B.
Take the sad facts of the case. I didn’t want to exploit young people who might be interested in working in the program by making them “interns” or volunteers. I was determined to pay them for what I (alone, apparently) consider important work. I paid them generously out of a small donated fund that is now almost gone. These payments did not result in loyalty.
One assistant “forgot” to tell me she couldn’t be at the last session, even as we made plans to discuss it, even as she hugged the kids for the first and last time. I was touched to see her getting hugs, since she often complained that some of the kids were mean to her. I had no idea they were saying goodbye, since she “forgot” to mention to me that she wouldn’t be back until an email a day or two before the last session. Another assistant didn’t show up for the final session, nor did he contact me before or after, and another was 40 minutes late for two out of four sessions over the summer. My grant writer has vanished from the face of the earth.
“Maybe I am a psychopath or something,” I muse to myself, because there needs to be an explanation for what otherwise seems like plain bad luck. “Maybe people sense that I genuinely don’t give a shit about them, are only using them to try to make my program succeed. Maybe they realize that they are only tools, and they resent it. As much as I try to make nice, they see through it and realize they are dealing with a psychopath.”
Sekhnet comforts me when I raise this troubling idea. “You’re an outlier,” she says soothingly, scratching my back tenderly. By this, of course, she means I am that rare psychopath who is neither dangerous nor effective.