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Angela Tilby: Charm and a whiff of sulphur

29 September 2017


OUR image of psychopaths is often derived from horror films. We think of them as highly intelligent, com­bining superficial charm with an astonishing capacity for violence.

The truth is more mundane. Ac­­cording to Horizon: What makes a psychopath?, broadcast last month on BBC2, there is no straight­forward answer to the question what makes one. Instead, psychiatrists have come up with no fewer than 40 character traits that could indicate a degree of psychopathy. Many of us have a few of them. Many serial killers do not score that highly. The typical symptoms in­­clude rest­lessness, ruthlessness, an incapacity for remorse, and a lack of empathy.

So, perhaps, instead of dwelling on the stereotype, we should think more of psychopathic tendencies and recognise that people who have them are everywhere. The most in­­telligent often do well in busi­ness and politics. They can be high achievers and often reach the top.

The downside, of course, is that they make life hard for other people. They create an atmosphere of fear, finding it genuinely difficult to re­­cognise other people’s vulnerabil­ity.

People with psychopathic tenden­cies make decisions with a ruthless logic that is ultimately self-serving. They tell lies as a matter of course; they use others and discard them without scruple. Intelligent psycho­paths rise to power because they can be both attractive and persuasive.

I have worked with people, both in the media and in the Church, whom I now recognise as having had psychopathic tendencies. The com­petitive world of television pro­duced quite a few. I have also known ordination candidates with mild psychopathic traits. Most came good in the end, though one or two went on to create mayhem.

The call to leadership can be attractive to restless clergy with psy­chopathic tendencies. They are ar­­ticulate, plausible, and good at cover­ing their tracks. A desperate par­ish, cathedral, or diocese could easily be persuaded that a high-functioning psychopath is just what they need to turn things round.

I asked a former religious what his community did about would-be monks who turned out to have psy­chopathic tendencies. He said that the community instinctively tried to contain and restrain them, as though to “smother” the toxic atmos­phere that they pro­duced. This took enormous energy and was very costly. Usually, they left in the end, leaving a behind whiff of sulphur and a huge sense of relief.

Most psychiatrists think that psy­chopathy, once established, cannot be changed or cured. This leaves me wondering what God means by psy­chopaths, and whether they can be redeemed. Perhaps they are here to remind us that the struggle with evil is real in ourselves and in the world.

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