a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour.
synonyms: madman/madwoman, mad person, deranged person, maniac, lunatic, psychotic, sociopath; informalloony, fruitcake, nutcase, nut, nutter, nutjob, cuckoo, psycho, schizo, head case, headbanger, sicko, crank, crackpot; informal, radge; informal, screwball, crazy, kook, meshuggener, nutso; informal, wing nut…
“Rick was a dangerous psychopath who might kill again”
an unstable and aggressive person
This generally accepted definition is very much the generalisation though and continued research and thought open up a far more complex condition. Among my many mental health diagnoses, I lack that of psychopath: it’s a badge I am yet to have stitched upon me. It hadn’t actually occurred to me until someone commented during conversation recently that it takes one to know one. I was talking to a psychopath. I know her to be a psychopath.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time reading: newspapers, magazines, novels, short stories, reference material; and a lot of research reading which is specific to a particular topic. Just recently, I’ve been researching the specific mental condition which is psychopathy, as I build a particular character for a specific story. When I research a subject, I delve far below the information which is generally available, sometimes going so far as to read speculative theories on a subject. My research into psychopathy has included in-depth reading into papers written by psychologists including Kevin Dutton, who recently wrote a piece for the Guardian: How psychopaths can save your life. The embracing suggestion made by Dutton and others is that psychopathy can be directed.
A psychopath in the traditional definition of the word and the general imagination is someone who kills without remorse. For the psychopath, the act of the killing is utter concentration and satisfaction, to the exclusion of all else. How could a psychopath save a life then? If we take away the specific act of killing, psychopathy is a blind focus on an act which carries risks but the psychopath will dismiss those in order to concentrate on the job in hand. Some sort of mental barrier shields the psychopath to dangers around them. Two very good examples of psychopathy for the good are given in the Guardian article, one of whom is Andy McNab: on occasions when his job required him to kill, he simply did so; his emotional detachment enabling him to do his job better and not dwell emotionally. Another example is that of a neurosurgeon: when performing brain surgery, he is often fractions of a millimetre from rendering a patient paralysed for life, or worse. A psychopath’s determination to get a high risk job done is what allows him to block out all distractions: both the neurosurgeon and McNab are diagnosed as clinically psychopathic. For the purposes of the article, the neurosurgeon retained anonymity.
What prompted my opposite number to say that it takes one to know one? Blessed as she is with even less than the official dictionary definition of a psychopath, she is convinced that because I’m a horror writer, I read and watch dark materials, I’m a psychopath. Not only do I know that she is one herself – because she is actually brilliant at some of the manipulative things she does, while ensuring that her destruction doesn’t reflect on her at all badly – but I know she’s in denial: the most dangerous kind of psychopath, at least in my writing.
So I got to thinking of what my undiagnosed psychopath said of me being one because of what I do, alongside the examples cited by Kevin Dutton in the Guardian article: those two people are able to concentrate on tasks in hand which others might be distracted from. It is these two individuals’ psychopathy which makes them so effective in what they do.
As I’ve said in previous posts, often a writer – especially one who seeks to disturb his audience – needs to remove themselves from their personal comfort zone and write material which they themselves find disturbing. In order to make that writing effective, it needs to be focussed and the writer has to describe in great detail, that which others would recoil from looking at for so long, so as to have an effect on them. It’s not detachment, it’s focus: concentrating on something for longer than most. Writers live this stuff, only feeding their readers scraps. Writers are deeper into all this. Does that make them psychopaths, or just good at what they do?
Most writers have techniques which help them to write more effectively. I have my own methods and one which I use frequently is one which I’ve found to be surprisingly little-used among my writing peers: I call it “relatively speaking”, where the unpleasantness of something is easier to convey as one is more able to relate to it. This translates to readers of course. It boils down to greater effectiveness being gained from writing in more detail about relatively minor things. A good example is something I often apply this method to: personal injury. It just so happens that I can accurately describe being shot because I once was: it fucking hurts. But hopefully, most readers won’t have been shot in their lives. The downside of this is that they can’t relate to how it feels. Just like any decent writer, I can convey a feeling onto the reader but it’s not likely they’ll connect, as they’ve never been shot. Far more effective is to describe in greater detail, something which more readers might be able to relate to, not necessarily because they’ve had first hand experience but because the inner psychopath can imagine the deed described given; and therefore received. Which is more disturbing a thought: being shot in the stomach, or having paper cuts repeatedly inflicted on your glans or clitoris? The latter is a far less extreme physical trauma but easier to disturb with the thought of. To be effective, I have to write in great detail about such a fist-clenching, leg-crossing subject.
Am I a psychopath? I enjoy writing. Some of my current and future projects don’t go into minute detail on genital mutilation. Instead, they variously deal with a Sweeny Todd-esque pizza parlour which uses human faces as bases: pizza face; a place where those who have left widows or widowers are considered murderers (try to find the reasoning behind that); and The Rumpelstiltskin Incident, in which a tailor cuts evermore exquisite outfits from the skins of young girls. The psychopathy spectrum is broad but essentially leads back to the dictionary definition and aspects of my past would place me within the spectrum.
As Paul Auster said: “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.”