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Elizabeth Schambelan on psychopaths


For Bookforum, Elizabeth Schambelan writes a very entertaining text about Robert Durst, The Jinx, and the landmark 1941 book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. An excerpt below, the full read via Bookforum.

THE MASK OF SANITY is a big, garrulous, proto-postmodern wreck of a book, shambolic in structure and promiscuously intertextual. It is tempting to call it the Moby-Dick of clinical psychiatry. It contains a brief life of Alcibiades that is really not that brief, a spirited critique of Mario Praz’s interpretation of Baudelaire, and a long disquisition on the trash-talking styles of teenage boys, to name just a few of the tributaries along which Cleckley diverts his reader’s attention. Yet however peculiar his book, Cleckley himself was no kook—he was a Rhodes Scholar with a distinguished career as an academic and clinician. And despite its quirks, The Mask of Sanity is the most influential book ever written about psychopaths. It altered medical and legal understandings of the disorder and delineated a set of traits that laid the foundation for Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, which has long been the standard diagnostic metric. It earned the admiration of writers including Carson McCullers and Kurt Vonnegut and ensconced itself in popular culture, where the psychopath staked out an enduring role as a secular vampire, a cold-blooded and frequently seductive monster. This sinister figure, as Robert Polito points out in Savage Art, his biography of pulp savant Jim Thompson, was “a negation, a refusal” of postwar consumerism and conformity. In Thompson’s uncompromising oeuvre, the psychopath is a vehicle of negation in the echt-modernist sense of that term: an aesthetic attack on normativity, critique as cancellation. But the psychopath’s disregard for norms would also be romanticized as countercultural rebellion by innumerable authors, first and foremost Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Eventually, Bret Easton Ellis offered a savage riposte to such fantasies in the form of bloodthirsty I-banker Patrick Bateman.

Cleckley didn’t set out to capture the attention of the public—he wanted to do some consciousness-raising within his own field. “The chief aim of this study,” he says, “is to bring before psychiatrists a few of these cases, typical of hundreds more, who have proved . . . so difficult to interpret by the customary standards of psychiatry, and all but impossible to deal with or to treat satisfactorily in the face of prevalent medicolegal viewpoints.” He stresses that “efforts to explain or interpret are . . . tentative and secondary to the real purpose of this volume, which is to call attention to what may be observed about our subject.”

Yet this seemingly straightforward project is actually complicated. Cleckley frames the problem quite chillingly:

In all the orthodox psychoses . . . there is a more or less obvious alternation of reasoning processes. . . . In the psychopath this is not seen. The observer is confronted with a convincing mask of sanity. . . . The observer finds verbal and facial expressions, tones of voice, and all the other signs we have come to regard as implying conviction and emotion and the normal experiencing of life. . . . Only very slowly and by a complex estimation or judgment based on multitudinous small impressions does the conviction come upon us that, despite these intact rational processes, these normal emotional affirmations, and their consistent application in all directions, we are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly.

Furthermore, the “small impressions” that unmask the psychopath are themselves premised on “myriad . . . subthreshold details.” That is, you recognize the psychopath by detecting things that fly beneath the radar of detection. No wonder that “what is most suggestive of this disorder is very difficult to convey.”

Cleckley observes that, when it comes to the epistemological vexations of psychopathy, “it is easy indeed to become unclear, if not to appear actually ridiculous.” Early in the book, he candidly places his enterprise under the sign of futility. “The most satisfactory way in which such clinical material could be presented is, in my opinion, as a series of full-length biographic studies, preferably of several hundred pages each, written by one who has full access to the life of each subject,” he writes. In other words, the ideal form of a book about psychopaths would in fact be an entire library of omniscient biographies. Cleckley is aware that his vaguely Borgesian vision will remain forever theoretical: “The sort of presentation our problem requires is, of course, impossible.” In the spirit of I can’t go on, I’ll go on, he proceeds anyway. Bowing to the dictates of “maximal practicality,” he contents himself with presenting nineteen case studies that recount the life stories of his psychopathic patients in somewhat compressed form. His intention is to set the psychopath against the foil of teeming everyday life: “To get the feel of the person whose behavior shows disorder, it is necessary to feel something of his surroundings.”

Cleckley energetically goes about describing his subjects’ surroundings, which largely consist of “various low grogshops, dancehalls, or ‘juke joints.’” Though almost all the patients are from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, they hang out with their “social inferiors,” marry prostitutes, ride motorcycles. As he chronicles his subjects’ adventures, the author provides abundant evidence of the unbecoming characteristics that he will codify later in the book in his seminal list of sixteen psychopathic traits. These include “lack of remorse or shame,” “inadequately motivated antisocial behavior,” “untruthfulness and insincerity,” and so on. His subjects do bad things. They hurt and betray their friends and family and remain callously unrepentant. They mess with people’s minds for the fun of it. They commit crimes, although not homicide. Petty swindles are more their speed: bigamy, passing bad checks, impersonating a naval officer. Cleckley notes that some psychopaths do commit “trivially motivated murder.” Or worse: “The real psychopath who is a real (persistently organized) sadist, of course, ranks as an extremely dangerous person.” But his patients are not persistently organized sadists. They are, in many ways, a roguishly winning bunch. One, a student at a fancy finishing school, plants condoms all over the drawing room where the young ladies receive their suitors. Another talks his way out of a drug arrest by convincing the cops he’s a narc. Etc. In depicting his relationship with his subjects, Cleckley reveals his own irrational indulgence, frankly admitting his tendency to give his patients the benefit of the doubt over and over again while knowing full well that they don’t deserve it. It is perhaps no accident that, in his list of sixteen traits, he gives priority to the psychopath’s uncanny allure. Item No. 1 on Cleckley’s list is “charm.”