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.