Monday, May 2, 2011
I love movies. Action films, chick flicks, mock-umentaries, I love them all. One kind of film really troubles me, though. Picture a handsome leading man with a great sense of humor and eyes that seductively penetrate. He appears to understand the leading lady's every emotional need. His only flaw? The guy just happens to kill people for a living.
The plot to these films goes something like this: Boy meets girl. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy kills people for a living and for obvious reasons has to keep it a secret. Girl finds out secret. Boy gets a conscience because of love for girl. The End. Films like Gross Pointe Blank show a handsome, witty, bright, socially skilled John Cusack growing a conscience after attending a high school reunion party and meeting his love interest (Minnie Driver).
Of course, filmmakers vary the theme. In the 2005 comedy, The Matador, the astonishingly handsome Pierce Brosnan plays the hit-man with a newly discovered conscience. He's transformed by his relationship with a "normal" guy, played by Greg Kinnear. Sometimes the girl is the sympathetic psychopath. She usually hides a background of severe abuse (the sympathy factor) with predatory sex appeal (to sell movie tickets). La Femme Nikita and The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo fall into that category. In another variation on this theme, the 2005 film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, shows the two most attractive people in the world playing serial killers for hire. The couple rekindle their love while trying to assassinate each other.
Films that portray attractive killers can psychologically liberate us from conventional morality. We get to imagine what it would feel like to place no limits on our behavior. Free from a conscience we can play god and enjoy limitless control over others. When the killer finds his/her conscience, we feel redeemed. The killer's redemption gives us permission enjoy the psychopath, because he's charming, smart and deep down inside, a good guy. We can laugh at a dark comedy about a sexy serial killer and the absurd predicaments he navigates because we suspend our sense of right and wrong for a time, only to get it back in the end.
The troubling concern I have about these films stems from the wreckage I see in the lives of some of my patients. These men and women find themselves in love with a psychopath, hoping for a happy ending. Some films show more realistic portrayals of psychopathic killers. The Godfather's Michael Corleone, the mental patient, Bushman, played by J.T. Walsh in Sling Blade, and Nicole Kidman in To Die For, capture the lack of empathy and emotional coldness of a true psychopath. I worry for those in relationships with these anti-social personalities. These cold-blooded individuals don't get better, grow a conscience, or become caring people. Instead, psychopaths:
Lack insight and judgment
At the funeral for your beloved mother, the psychopath leans over and whispers, "This speaker is boring. I'm going to take a walk." Later when confronted by the insensitivity of that behavior, he says, "Why should I have to sit there just because your mother died?" These people cannot imagine how the feelings of others matter at all.
Lack guilt or shame
While shopping, the psychopath notices a beautiful necklace lying on a counter. She puts the necklace on and leaves the store. Horrified, you demand she put it back or pay for it. With a calm smile, she says, "Take a chill pill." The psychopath feels no remorse, regret or shame.
Lack anxiety or fear
Your parents visit from out of state. After dinner, everyone goes into the living room to relax and have a cup of coffee together. The psychopath motions you to come into the kitchen. While in the kitchen, he tries to have sex with you on the table. You say, "Not now, not here, we have guests!" The psychopath experiences no embarrassment or anxiety about inappropriate behavior.
Lack love and capacity for empathy
You just suffered a double mastectomy and while recovering in the hospital your psychopathic husband says, "I'm just not attracted to you any more." He pulls out divorce papers and asks you to sign them now because he has a plane to catch. These people don't love and cannot feel the emotional needs of others.
Are unreliable, irresponsible and insincere
Your psychopathic husband drops you and the baby off at the pediatrician's office and says, "I'll be right back." Three months later your car and husband are still missing. You get the bills for the credit card showing hotel and entertainment charges he's made all over the country. These people lie, cheat and steal without regret
These above examples are true stories from people both unknown and famous. See if you can spot the famous ones. I see too many good people in relationships with these predatory sharks. They forever feel surprised when the psychopath doesn't understand feelings and doesn't seem to care. They operate under the assumption that everyone possesses their capacity for emotional connection. This lack of awareness leaves people defenseless targets for an opportunistic psychopath. While these anti-social characters operate under a "mask of sanity," if you pay attention you can quickly spot the deviant behavior.
Researchers find both structural and chemical dysfunction in the brains of psychopaths. One difference is an overactive dopamine system. Dopamine regulates our pleasure and reward centers of the brain. This over-activity may explain why psychopaths appear most concerned about their own pleasure and lack fear while attempting to obtain rewards.
Psychology and modern medicine offer no cure for these human predators. Our best defense against victimization is awareness. The next time you see a movie where the self-centered, dead-beat, child-neglecting father comes back after screwing up the protagonist's life and does something nice (Wall Street 2, The Royal Tenenbaums), I hope a little buzzer goes off in your head. Wrong. This script needs a rewrite.
Photos courtesy of hot rod, Mika Stetsovski and Ben Fredericson.Tweet