Psychopaths are far more commonplace than you would think.
In my last blog, I wrote about a burglary suspect who reminded me of Dennis Nilsen, who was convicted in 1983 of murdering 15 young men. He kept the bodies for weeks, eventually dismembering them, burning some remains, flushing some down drains. He was troubled by the press reaction after his arrest: apparently because no one wanted to see him as ‘an ordinary man’. At the time of his arrest, Nilsen was a civil servant – an Executive Officer in a Job Centre. Nobody suspected this ‘ordinary man’ – in fact, it was only when his neighbours complained of blocked drains and foul smells in the house that his murderous campaign came to light.
In Believe No One, Fennimore & Simms are in the US Mid West, on the trail of just such a serial killer who is abducting young mothers and their children. Sadly, you don’t have to look far to find real life examples of serial killers who evaded justice for many years. Fred and Rose West, Geoffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy – different in some respects, but all the same in this: that they were able for a shocking number of years to abduct, torture, and murder young people without arousing the suspicions of those in their local community, or the police.
In 2009, the International Journal of Law & Psychiatry published a study which estimated that 7.7% of prisoners were psychopaths. Later studies suggest it may be higher in some institutions – it seems that criminality and psychopathy are natural bedfellows. But not all psychopaths are criminals. Professor Robert Hare, the psychologist famed for devising the ‘Psychopathy Checklist’ warns of ‘sub-criminal’ psychopaths in our midst. A 2010 study in the journal, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, found that around 4% (1 in 25) of their corporate sample scored high on the checklist. Surprised? Me neither.
Even those of us who don’t work in corporate finance and big business are sure to have met more than one psychopath in our everyday lives. They are the con men, the tricksters, the self-aggrandizers we meet in social situations; the back-stabbers at work who talk big and will claw their way to the top, leaving a trail of wrecked lives behind them; they are the heart-breakers in love, the controlling abusers in the home.
So how can we spot them before they devastate our lives? We’re all familiar with the Criminal Minds checklist: superficial charm, narcissism, lack of empathy, glibness, pathological liars, without remorse or guilt. The Psychopathy Checklist adds more, including manipulative behaviour, failure to accept responsibility, grandity, impulsivity and thrill-seeking.
Everyone – including the experts – can be conned, Professor Hare warns. But there are a few things we can do to protect ourselves. Be on your guard in the psychopaths’ hunting grounds: singles bars, social clubs, resorts, cruises, airports. Know your own weaknesses – if the nice guy you just met zeros straight in on your most vulnerable feelings, be suspicious. Is his eye contact too intense or intrusive? If you feel overwhelmed, look away, and listen to what he is saying. Are his words at odds with what he does? Is he vague or evasive about his private life? Does he contradict himself, or brush off questions when you point out contradictions? Be warned: he might become enraged at being quizzed. That’s the time you need to be very careful, and keep your wits about you.
Believe No One is the second in the Fennimore & Simms series.