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Psychopathy

October 16, 2006

Some juxtapositions are uncomfortable to think about: glass bottles and the beach, anchovies and pizza, libraries and fire.

As reported in the media last week, the library had a small fire in the basement stairwell outside the library. It was started by a group of four boys, three of whom had been kicked out of the library earlier that day.

We heard from a lot of people who were (i) angered by the actions of the boys and (ii) miffed at the report that we didn’t want to file charges. Somehow, the library staff, the police, and the newspaper ended up playing a version of the Telephone Game, in which someone tells someone
something, who tells someone else, etc. At the end of the line, the story is different.

I was out of town, so I missed the excitement. When the police came to take a report, the staff was under the impression that the boys had disappeared and that there was no immediate pressure to file a report. They said they’d wait for me to return. Later, a policeman apparently
did find the boys but was told that we didn’t want to file charges, which was not strictly the case.

That would have been the best time to do something, of course, causing maximum inconvenience to the boys … and their parents. I think if the staff had understood the procedure and that the boys were indeed found, they would have made the necessary report.

Now, the investigating officer is on vacation, so we’ll sort things out later. I just want readers to know that while we’re patient to a fault at the library, we’re not cavalier about behavior like this — which is overtly foolish and dangerous.

It’s hard to guess how much forethought went into the decision of a group of four boys. Group decisions are a challenge even for adults. My guess is there was a leader, and the leader I have in mind is capable of forethought — so much so that he is quite manipulative.

Combine that with a peculiar lack of empathy and inurement to negative consequences, and what do you have? A psychopath? I don’t know. I read a new book called “The psychopathy of everyday life: How antisocial personality disorder affects all of us.”

The book was hard to read, and not just because of phrases like these: Factitious Disorder with Predominantly Psychological Signs and Symptoms, versus Factitious Disorder with Predominantly Physical Signs and Symptoms.

Halfway through the book, I realized that describing a psychopath is like describing any of us, only with frequent use of the word “too.” As in too much or too little. Psychopathy is a functional concept and where the line is drawn between the merely psychopathic and the diagnosed “psychopath” is somewhat arbitrary.

The book asks the question — “Is psychopathy abnormal? Or is it normal to be a psychopath?” — but does not answer it, except to offer advice in the last chapter on dealing with it in everyday life.

Psychopaths tend toward criminality, perhaps by definition, and what’s criminal varies from society to society. However, some core features are interesting: narcissism, lack of empathy, anger with an impoverishment of other emotions, all of which is enough to create another feature — incomprehensible motivation.

The book goes further and discusses behavior in such detail that eventually the waters were muddied so that I couldn’t always see what’s psychopathy and what’s human frailty.

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