Thursday, July 31, 2008

Broken brain, maimed mind

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths, social predators

The year before I married, I rented a bedroom from a family with two young boys. The parents were strict with them, but basically cheerful and, I think, pretty good parents. They did practice corporal punishment, based on the Biblical verse to "beat with a stick", on occasion. Both boys were mainly cheerful and sweet, but I soon learned that the younger one, age seven at the time, had a criminal disposition. I know he stole from me, for example. He also committed petty vandalism and had set a fire or two. When confronted with a crime, he usually openly defied anyone who didn't actually have a stick in hand with which to spank him...and sometimes even then. Decades later, his father informed me that he'd spent most of his adult life in prison. At the moment, that is where he is. The older boy has had no scrapes with the law. To my observation, the two were raised as much the same as possible, but they turned out very different.

Over time I have encountered people who simply cannot be wrong...that is, they never admit to being wrong. It is clear that they cannot imagine wrong in themselves, so they shift blame, they "gaslight" others, and commit emotional blackmail instead. I know a woman who threatened a lawsuit against her daughter and son-in-law to prevent their moving further from the "family base", which would reduce her "access" to the grandchildren she actually had nearly no time for.

Troublesome people range from simple jerks to totalitarian dictators. If we consider the human race an ecology of similar "species", they are the parasites and predators of the ecology. To me, they seem to share four characteristics:
  • They can be both charming and horrific, and their emotional expression can switch in an eye blink.
  • They thrive on attention, and will take steps to get as much adulation as possible.
  • They may seem to know right from wrong, though some seem to have no conscience at all. The key is, they don't care for the distinction and can severely abuse someone or even kill without compunction.
  • Their world really does revolve about them, and they eliminate any elements that don't or won't comply.

Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin are probably the third- and second-worst (in that order) leaders in all history. Hitler supervised the killing of twelve millions, or more, and Stalin at least twice that number.

This cartoon by David Low appeared in the September 1939 issue of Life. It was already clear to many people that these guys were monsters. Yet they were at the same time being praised by many. Here the cartoonist brings out a key characteristic: outwardly charming, they revile one another.

And who, by the way, is number-one most evil? My vote goes to Mao Tse-Tung, who is responsible for the deaths of at least fifty million Chinese, and perhaps twice that many. Historical monsters such as Nero or Caligula are far, far behind. As long as we're on dictators, "Who's the Worst Dictator?" by Nicholas D. Kristof lists, among the living, Kim Jong Il of Korea, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, and Than Shwe of Myanmar/Burma. These three also top this Top Ten Dictators list at Parade Magazine.

There may be reasons for all this, buried in our evolutionary history. In Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, researcher Barbara Oakley gathers the social, psychological, and biological evidence that underlies psychopathy and the clinical designation of borderline personality disorder.

I found it disturbing to read the book, both disturbing and fascinating, just like the people whom it examines. Evolutionarily, there is a clear reason for the persistence of genes that underlie predatory personalities: in most settings predators have reproductive success. To add another example, we have a good friend in Asia, whom we met when she was a student here, who is raising her beloved son, the offspring of a man who stayed married to her only long enough for a healthy son to be born. His serial polygamy has resulted in a dozen or more offspring, and an equal number of broken hearts.

The four characteristics I mentioned above can be abbreviated as Machiavellian manipulation, Narcissism, lack of Conscience, and utter Ruthlessness. All four of these are exaggerations of normal traits that convey fitness. For example, a good negotiator can use both charm and warnings to secure a favorable deal; some folks can twist your emotions until you let them steal you blind, and thank them for doing so. I learned long ago to beware of people who try to make others feel guilty for their virtues. By reading Oakley's book I was appalled to find how broad and deep the syndrome really is. No wonder Jesus said we must be "wise as serpents, but harmless as doves"! It seems to me it is necessary to forgo the harmless part sometimes, to escape the coils of the serpents!!

I know that I like to be liked. I've learned to be civil with those I can't like, or who can't like me. Some of the people I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, however, will cut a person off cold, or even kill them, to remove themselves from dislike or disdain.

Dr. Oakley has a personal reason to study Machiavellian personality: her sister Carolyn. The book is also a memoir of that disturbed life. The brain of such persons works differently than ordinary (I hesitate to use the word "normal"). Brain scans reveal that key brain areas are larger or smaller than is usual. Also, the polio that Carolyn had at age seven may have attacked key parts of her brain, for she seems to have had a change of personality (As a polio survivor, I feel lucky that I had it before I was one, as it doesn't attack the brain at that age). Carolyn had a sad life, and made those around her unhappy with her predatory ways. She really did steal her own mother's boyfriend, but it didn't do her much good.

Her studies reveal that the brains of such people really are different, and most people would call them "broken". Of course, they think they are the normal ones, and the rest of us are passive cattle to be harvested as required. The author speculates about gene treatment to "cure" young psychopaths and BPD subjects. I don't agree; it is more likely that the predators will suborn such technology to make the mass of humanity even "better" passive victims.

One great benefit of reading Evil Genes was being steered to the book Stop Walking on Eggshells by Mason and Kreger. It has practical advice for coping with a Borderline person that you can't escape (sibling, parent or child, spouse, boss...). As a church leader, I can't just throw people out of the church, so I have a pill or two that I cannot escape! I'll post a review once I've read the's three or four down in my stack. Meanwhile, do take a look at the authors' website BPDCentral.

Oakley's book is useful to begin to raise awareness, to arm us, the potential victims. The discussion of business and political cycles shows an ebb and flow of predatory persons in such organizations. New organizations may soon gain a manipulator or two in or near the top ranks, but are relatively "pure" to start. Systems can be gamed, however, and predators naturally flock to power. Over time, seemingly minor changes in policies and practices can throw a cloak of secrecy over the workings of the executives, and then it is free-for-all time. The predators produce an Enron-like setup in which massive fraud is the norm and non-predators need not apply for any position of power. Finally the whole structure collapses, often toppled from without by a newer, leaner competitor, or by a (perhaps slightly) more law-keeping power structure such as the Justice Department in the US.

I have another word for these predators: Vampires. They are probably more damaging than the mythical Dracula ever could be. Let us not be their willing victims.

1 comment:

kh123 said...

Interesting article, and well written.

I disagree with the selfish gene hypothesis. After reading enough Dawkins, it seems to me that it's no less faithful or metaphysical an explanation than "devils made me do it".

And, the whole selfish gene school of thought disallows itself any recourse to labeling actions "good" or "bad", since it all becomes subjective... subject only to imagined genetic imperatives - Stalin's "good" was to collectivize the Soviet sphere at any cost; Hitler's "good" was to preserve the German genepool over all other competing genepools (which oddly enough, falls more in line with what Dawkins advocates at any other time in his evolutionary scenarios, esp. his selfish gene stories).

When one resorts to inegalitarian "laws of nature" or "my genes made me do it", one can do as one pleases while being logically consistent within the selfish gene worldview. Hence, Enron. Or Nuremberg (if the Nazis had been hep enough to Dawkinese and claimed that their genes were the real culprits).

I think what's telling is that for the top 3 mass murderers of all time, they're all strongly bureaucratic, strongly atheistic in policy, and strongly rooted in Darwinist thought. And even Dawkins - who promotes atheism and Darwinism as the cornerstones of his world view - admits that when logically followed through, the end result of such a philosophy can only leave the door wide open for such disasters as The Purge and The Holocaust.

..And all while being completely consistent within the selfish gene philosophy/world view.

I think the only way we can prevent victimization by such adherents of that world view is to see that world view for what it is: A logically wanting, atheistic religion invented my misanthropes, criminals, and pissed off na'arim; a world view that touts scientific credibility while denying the obvious landmarks of a created (and since cursed) world.

Murderers can only be murderers if we recognize that true evil is the absence of good, and that this metaphysical good is not an invention of humanity (as Hitler thought), but rather it transcends humanity and originates with a Law Giver.

Res ipsa loquitor.