The new Fennimore & Simms forensic thriller, BELIEVE NO ONE, features Sheriff Launer, a ‘My rodeo, my rules’ kind of guy. He’s part of an Interstate Task Force investigating a series of murders. He tells the forensic psychologist, ‘I guess it’s your job to try to understand people. I’m a cop – it’s my job to catch this guy – and I don’t see how all this talk gets us any closer to getting that done.’ But psychopaths do not emerge, fully formed, into the world. A normal, well-adjusted teen does not metamorphose into a sadistic serial killer, and studying the childhood behaviour, obsessions and aberrations of psychopaths-in-the-making can help to solve serial crimes.
At events, readers often ask, ‘Why would anyone do such awful things?’
It’s pointless asking why. Psychopaths don’t think like normal people do – they do terrible things because they want to. They don’t care what you, or anyone else thinks; they don’t give a thought to their victims or their families. As I worked on this blog, news came in that a 16 year-old boy with “psychopathic tendencies” had been jailed at Leeds Crown Court for a minimum of 20 years. Will Cornick was just 15 years old when he murdered his Spanish teacher, Ann Maguire, as she helped another pupil in the High School where she had taught for forty years. Cornick stabbed the 61 year-old seven times with a kitchen knife, then sat down at his desk, and said, ‘Happy times.” He later told a psychiatrist: “I wasn’t in shock, I was happy. I had a sense of pride. I still do.” Asked about the impact of his actions on Mrs Maguire’s family, he said, “I know the victim’s family will be upset but I don’t care.” That is what sets psychopaths apart: he really doesn’t care, and that’s a hard concept for the average person to understand. I mean, how do you imagine not having a normal emotional response to another person’s suffering? Which is why readers will always ask again, ‘But why?’ When many of us worry that a carelessly chosen word might have unintentionally wounded another – why is it different for the psychopath?
Professor Robert Hare has spent a lifetime studying the psychopathic mind. The academic who devised the Psychopathy Checklist includes narcissism as a core personality trait of the psychopath – scratch a psychopath, expose the narcissist beneath.
Psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, summed up narcissistic types: only he, and what pertains to him, has significance, ‘[W]hile the rest of the world is more or less weightless and colourless.’ —It’s all about them. The paradox is, that while they don’t care a jot how much they hurt others, the narcissist under the skin of the psychopath can feel wounded by the mildest reproof – and a wounded narcissist is a dangerous beast. Fromm warned that when things go wrong – if a narcissist is criticised or defeated or feels slighted – he reacts with extreme anger, even rage.
It is dangerous to underestimate what these destructive people are capable of, when their fragile sense of self feels threatened. Friends of 15 year-old Cornick said that he resented Mrs Maguire “pressuring” him. Of course, any normal person would see that in fact, she was being a good teacher, trying to help him achieve what he was capable of in his studies. But Cornick is not normal – he is a psychopath, and the narcissistic part of his personality perceived her perfectly reasonable and helpful corrections as an insult, and a threat. To his thinking she had made him look bad and he hated her for it. Of course, many teens hate school, their teachers, their peers, their parents, and will seethe quietly, but will never act on their destructive feelings – because they also have empathy. But add the psychopathic traits of thrill-seeking, callousness, impulsiveness, a low stress reaction, a lack of remorse or guilt – and, that seething rage can explode into terrifying violence.