Monday, May 2, 2011

The Movie Star Psychopath

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.

afterthesunsetFilms 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

MaskThese 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.


Anonymous said...

My stepson exhibits a lot of these tendencies. After being divorced from his father for several years he decided that he wanted to be close with me, my now husband and our family. He showed up on holiday occasions (or not) - no phone calls...when he came at Christmas there were gifts from us but none from him in return. His usual method was to show up for dinner, have a few drinks and depart directly thereafter. Sadly, I had to distance myself from him and he's not invited anymore. There are takers and givers. He's a taker. He's in his early 40's and has never been married and no longer has any close friends that I can tell. How sad that nothing can be done for these people.

Anonymous said...

I believe that there must be degrees of this problem. I know people who are not entirely devoid of empathy while still seeming lesser endowed in this area than what I would expect from a "normal" person. Maybe there is something like a scale ranging from "Merciless Psycho Killer" to "Getting Misty During the Spaghetti-scene in Lady and The Tramp" where we can all be graduated...

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Thank you, Anonymous 1 and 2, for your comments. Psychologists don't make a diagnosis based on only one behavior, like the examples I listed above. I'm concerned about those who excuse and rationalize these behaviors without understanding the underlying danger.

FRG said...

Dr. Simmons,

Thank you for the article! I wish there were more movies about psychopaths, and as you mentioned with not happy endings and portraying exactly the way they are in real life.

I am not sure my ex husband has anti social personality. He left me and my son when he was 12 years old and practically abandoned our son which it was heartbroken to me. He barely would come to visit him, always breaking his promisses... He didn't give his address to anyone... Didn't pay child support, those are some of the things he did. I heard he married the Pastor's daughter, the reason he left, of course... Now that my son is recovering from all the pain he suffered, he is 25 now, he decided to befriend my son on Facebook for my surprise. Also learned he is a pastor now, he is trying to connect to some of our friends in common asking for forgiveness and saying that "God" had a purpose for him! I almost fell off the chair when I got to know these things.

Dr. Simmons, I just don't believe a word he is saying even to my son because in my mind forgiveness can be an empty word! For my surprise people may be believing him because he uses a lot of "God's name" and preaches the bible! How come my ex can preach the bible if he could not care less of his own son's well being? Hard to believe it. Maybe he is just a narcissistic person, I don't know. I can't believe he became good now. I don't think people should trust him but this is none of my business, I think he is manipulating people. I am not a doctor though. Thank you for allowing me to share.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about the people (women) who engage with these psychopaths, allowing themselves to be 'victims'. There are those who come from abusive backgrounds but who else? I have stated that I am compassionate to a fault but am I mislabeling something else as compassion?

I feel badly for Gene Hackman's character in The Royal Tenebaums, as calculating and conscienceless as he is, and root for a second chance. What does this say about me? Is anyone capable of remorse and change?

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Thank you FRG and Anonymous for sharing your personal stories. Narcissists and psychopaths have a lot in common. They lack empathy and a sense of responsibility for others. Unfortunately they can become religious leaders, hiding behind holy books and phrases to exploit the innocent. People who do bad things can and do change. It's best to wait for them to really change before giving them your trust. Real change looks like remorse (grief for the pain they've caused) repair (they fix what they broke) responsibility (no excuses).

Anonymous said...

In my high school days we had a saying: It's always the @..hole who gets the girl.

Now, generalization is never a good thing but over the years I have observed a disturbing tendency for these words to ring true. For some reason emphatically challenged men never seem to suffer from a shortage of devoted female companions. More like the opposite really. In the game of love the good guy finish last. I have always wondered about this strange behavior in otherwise intelligent and rational people. Love is hardly a logical decision - true - but surely it works best in an atmosphere of reciprocation?

Maybe it's really all due to some Hollywood-perpetuated romantic dream about 'changing him through my love' as in the movies mentioned in the article? An interesting and unsettling thought.

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Eva Lai, FH ambassador said...

Well-said! the documentary film about psychopaths! It includes content on Nicole Kidman seeking Dr. Robert Hare's advice on psychopathy.

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Thanks Eva. I'll check out the movie.