Photo via Vermin Inc/Flickr (CC-BY)
Psychopathy is so hot right now—or so popular culture would have you believe.
In the past 15 years, public awareness of psychopathy and other antisocial personality disorders has rocketed. From the lethal-yet-likeable serial killer we saw in Dexter to the now-iconic Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, it seems both the media and public are drawn to the image of the “elite psychopath.”
The popularity of the elite psychopath trope has preserved the idea that psychopaths are almost a kind of anti-hero; they are crafty, attractive, charming savants, always one step ahead. But the reality of psychopathy is far from glamorous.
Psychopaths lack conscience, remorse, or empathy toward other human beings. Underneath their carefully constructed veneer of charm, they are deceitful, manipulative, narcissistic, and callous. A recent survey found that 95 percent of women involved with psychopathic men experienced emotional abuse.But what about the child of a psychopath? Put simply, psychopaths are incapable of loving their children the way they deserve to be loved. They cannot instill empathy, morals, or restraint. They can’t teach what they don’t understand.
And yet it is more complicated than that. If you grow up in an environment devoid of parental love and encouragement, where do you find support? Why is it so hard, in the age of the social-media overshare and blogging anonymity, to find a community online? And without these resources, how do you cope when the person you’re supposed to trust most in the world is trying to sabotage your life?
“By the time I turned 18, I’d lost count of the number of ways I’d been betrayed, manipulated, or used,” says 24-year-old Katie, who recently cut off contact with her mother, Joan, completely. (All names have been changed for anonymity.)
“So much of my childhood was spent feeling worthless, invisible, or frightened, but it wasn’t until I actually broke contact with my mother last year that I could finally see the effect her behavior had had on me.”
The first time Katie knew that her mother was different was when she was 10. “She told me I wasn’t worth living for,” she says. “That stuck with me. But there were so many instances of control and abuse while I was growing up that I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal.”
Katie tells me of one early traumatic incident when, at age six, some friends came over to play. Once they arrived, however, Joan locked Katie in the basement, telling her friends not to talk to her. “I could hear them playing above me and I knew she was punishing me, but I didn’t know what I’d done wrong,” Katie says. “It was like I was the child she had but didn't want. That was how I felt for most of my childhood: confused, guilty, and afraid.”
Katie never knew what would set her mother off—it could be the smallest thing. “I remember one occasion when we were moving into our new house in France. My mother threw me down the stairs because I had ‘a boot face’ and had bumped her with a box.”
Katie says it never mattered what she did or how she behaved because “it was never about that,” she says. “It was about control. Any time she felt like she was losing control over me, that’s when it escalated.”
It often isn’t until a person engages in criminal behavior and enters the prison system that they're diagnosed as psychopathic (and that's because nearly all inmates receive mental-health evaluations). Thus, law-abiding psychopaths are almost never diagnosed, allowing them to utilize their characteristic cunning, charm, and ambition without reserve. (As a matter of fact, figures suggest that 4 percent of business leaders are psychopathic, compared to 1 percent of the general population.)
“It was about control. Any time she felt like she was losing control over me, that’s when it escalated.”
Having not been to prison, nor having sought help herself, Joan has never had the opportunity for a clinical diagnosis, yet her behavior shows multiple signs of psychopathology.
Of the 20 accepted psychopathic traits within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool used to rate a person's psychopathic tendencies, Katie scores Joan high in many categories, including manipulativeness, pathological lying, lack of empathy, superficial charm, and an enduring failure to accept responsibility for her own actions.
In the same way that the elite psychopath is able to construct an entirely convincing mask of sanity, Joan too is able to give the illusion of normalcy. She holds down a job teaching children and is, according to her daughter, “perfectly capable of being lovely and hiding her nasty side.”
The idea that psychopaths can’t feel sadness, shame, or pain is widely held but incorrect. Psychopaths are capable of feeling all the same emotions as a nondisordered human being, but generally only as it applies to themselves—not other people.
The part of the brain that controls emotions is less active in psychopaths, meaning they don’t experience emotion the same way we do. They are more emotionally flat, and when they do become emotional, the purpose of their outbursts is usually to gain control.Psychopathic individuals feel they have “ownership rights” over their children. They don’t see their child as a separate human being but as their possession, or an extension of themselves.
This unquenchable desire for control means letting go is nearly impossible for psychopaths. Katie believes it was when she showed her first real signs of independence that Joan to tried to destroy her life.
“I was 16 and had gone to Canada to be a counselor at a summer camp,” Katie says. “She couldn’t bear not having me under her control and started sending me abusive and degrading emails. When I didn’t reply, she began emailing the camp director, telling him I was a terrible person who shouldn’t be in a position of trust with children and should be removed from the camp. It was awful. Mortifying.”
Katie recalls these stories dispassionately, as though she’s told them many times before. But she hasn’t. Shame is an effective silencer, and it’s moments like this that the detachment Katie developed as a coping mechanism becomes more evident.
At 18, Katie thought she could finally escape her mother's hold by attending college in a different country. But this only made Joan more resentful and eager to infuse herself into Katie's life.
Katie got several jobs in bars to support herself, and once Joan discovered this, “she took it upon herself to call each of these bars to try to persuade the managers not to give me a job,” Katie says. “She tried to ensure I couldn't be independent and would need to come crawling back to her for money."
An email to Katie’s boss reads:
Katie’s inability to be honest, to follow orders and to behave appropriately has led to her being forcibly removed from several schools. With this in mind, and because her reasons for taking this job are solely to hurt me, I ask that you kindly terminate her employment.
The ease with which psychopaths lie is another one of their trademarks. Free from the constraints of guilt or shame, the most outlandish lies can be communicated under the guise of candor.
This was the second time Joan had attempted to destroy her daughter’s independence. But it would not be the last.
While there is much online about relationships with psychopathic partners—and even psychopathic children—there is little on parents with the same disorder. Support groups and forums for people recovering from this type of abuse are relatively widespread, but the coverage given to parental relations is minimal. This is something lamented by Katie, who tells me how long it took her to grasp what was wrong with her mother.
“I was in my early teens and didn’t know anything about personality disorders,” she says. “Maybe that’s why there’s so little online—because young people in the position I was in just don’t know enough about it. Unless you already have that knowledge about different personality disorders, you can’t begin piecing it together.
"It wasn’t until I read an article about the warning signs you may be dating a psychopath that I began to understand," she continues. "The person they were describing was my mother. Even though the dynamic was different, it was still our exact relationship—the one we’d always had, down to a T.”
“Maybe that’s why there’s so little online [about psychopathic parents]—because young people in the position I was in just don’t know enough about it."
Websites like Psychopaths and Love and Love Fraud may be excellent at highlighting the telltale signs of abuse and supporting victims, but there appears to be a gaping chasm online when it comes to how these issues apply to parents.
“Were you in an emotionally abusive relationship or marriage with a psychopath?” asks Psychopath Free, an online victim support forum. If yes, then “this is your place for support and recovery.” And here was Katie’s problem: If the relationships presented on these sites are almost always romantic, how does this “support and recovery” translate to parental relationships?
Even in the ‘Families and Parenting’ section of Psychopath Free, the coverage on disordered parents, and the subsequent advice for their children, is nearly nonexistent. Discussions instead center around having children with a psychopath. This absence of information for children is especially troubling when you consider that they are usually far younger and more impressionable than those in serious romantic relationships.
But, as Katie states, while romantic psychopathic relationships have been studied in much greater detail than parental, many of the same patterns appear in both relationship cycles.
In their book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, psychologist Paul Babiak and psychopathy expert Robert D. Hare (creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) outline the three stages in any psychopathic relationship. These three stages are often repeated over and over within the same relationship: idealize, devalue, discard.
According to Babiak and Hare, the idealization stage is a form of “love bombing,” where the psychopath appears so appealing and attentive that their target truly believes they are the best thing in their life. Katie recalls occasions when Joan would spend thousands on her during shopping trips and shower her with attention. This stage, while extremely believable, is a façade designed to create the psychopathic bond—and make the target susceptible to later manipulation.
The devaluation stage comes next. The psychopath gradually pushes the victim’s boundaries, slowly making them feel worthless and destroying their self-respect. This relationship cycle can last for days up through years, but the end result is the same: The victim will be discarded.
Babiak and Hare claim that “once psychopaths have drained all the value from a victim—that is, when the victim is no longer useful—they abandon them and move on to someone else.” However, with a parent and child, these three stages can be repeated indefinitely.
A psychopath’s child may never be definitively discarded.
When Katie finally broke all contact with her mother last year, she was subjected to a yearlong, relentless campaign of abuse. Despite countless statements from Katie asserting that their harmful relationship was over, she continued to receive unwelcome and distressing phone calls, emails, and letters.Often, Joan would attempt emotional manipulation, sending her daughter old baby photos with notes attached saying, “Remember these happier times?”’ Other times, she would be more overtly cruel.
In one email titled "You Ridiculous Little Slut," she writes:
Dear Katie, I have nothing ever to say to you again, thank you for dumping me as a mother. You are a sick pervert, I would be ashamed to still be called your mother. After meeting you last year, the baby girl I had given birth to, I felt no connection with you at all. You are dead in my heart… a guilty, ashamed, vulnerable wreck hiding in a dark underground flat with your sad and ugly cat.Though they stung, Katie ignored these emails, letters, and calls. She blocked Joan’s phone number and email, but Joan’s desire to punish her daughter for breaking away was unshakeable. Unable to control, manipulate, or even penetrate Katie’s wall of silence, Joan turned her attention elsewhere. Her new aim? Derailing her daughter’s career.
“She couldn’t bear that I was getting on with my life, that I was independent, that I wasn’t even giving her a response,” Katie says. “So she dug up some old photos from when I was a teenager—I was drunk and fooling around, just being silly with friends. She tried to email those photos around my office to discredit me.”
That wasn’t all. Joan sent abusive emails to Katie’s friends and colleagues. She contacted the CEO of the company claiming Katie was harassing her during work hours. She responded to Katie’s cease and desist letter by announcing she was suing her daughter for all the money she’d spent on her throughout her childhood.
Katie is now taking out a restraining order against Joan, because otherwise “she won’t stop.”
Children of pathologically disordered parents already have much to overcome, but because they often don’t recognize what a healthy relationship looks like, children of psychopaths may be more likely to become involved in abusive partnerships. Such a dynamic appears normal to them.
At age 18, Katie entered into a four-year relationship with a man who was also psychopathic. His control over her was not dissimilar to her mother’s; neither was the vitriol she would receive when things didn’t go his way.
Joan was one of her boyfriend’s biggest fans. When Katie finally broke it off with him, Joan lashed out. She wrote to Katie in an email that she had "more feelings for him than you, and I always will."Katie says when she tried to approach her mother about having a personality disorder or mental illness, it ”didn’t go down well. She says I’m the one with the problem. In her last email to me she called me her ‘schizophrenic daughter.’”
Katie says even if Joan were diagnosed, she still couldn’t forgive her. “I know there’s something wrong with her, but not to the point it absolves her,” she says. “She’s not crazy. I’m the only one she targets—it’s malicious, calculated behavior.”
Whether or not psychopathy can be regarded as a “proper” mental illness is hotly debated. Personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism have no significant effect on mood, neither do they affect judgment or cause psychosis. Yet if someone is physically hard-wired to have a deficiency of empathy, how much can they be held responsible for what would normally be deemed callous or cruel?
It is also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that aside from lacking empathy, Joan also lacks the cognition to fully comprehend the devastating effects of her actions. Her daughter may reject these notions, but in truth there are no definitive answers to these questions yet. Nonetheless, recent studies suggest that people suffering from empathy-deficit disorders like psychopathy are actually able to feel empathy—they just don’t want to.
New research by Ohio State University and the University of Toronto found that this empathy deficiency stems more from a lack of motivation to care about other people, rather than an actual lack of ability to do so.
To Katie at least, it is this lack of motivation that's especially painful; not that her mother can’t, that she won’t.
Considering her upbringing and what she’s endured in recent years, Katie today seems a remarkably level-headed young woman. She has a good job, an active social life, a new, supportive boyfriend. She doesn’t seem damaged. But it would be foolish to minimize the effects of such a childhood.
“I certainly had and still do tend to have very low self-worth. My own mother says I wasn't worth living for, that she has no maternal connection to me, that she loves and respects my abusive ex-boyfriend more than me,” Katie says. “I can’t forget those things, but I’m getting better at moving past them. Every day that goes by is a reminder that I’ve survived this. I feel at peace, for the first time in my life.”
“When it comes to other people’s personal issues, I often think, ‘For God’s sake, get over it.’ And then I get so upset that I think these things. I’m not like her.”
But there are other ways it’s affected her. Katie believes she now lacks empathy and can sometimes feel numb to things that require an empathic outlook. “When it comes to other people’s personal issues or illnesses and things like that, I often just think, ‘For God’s sake, get over it. We’re all dealing with shit.’ And then I get so upset that I think these things. I hate it. I’m not like her.”
Katie says if she could tell one thing to a person in the same position, it would be to “get out. Get as far away as possible and get on your own two feet. Know that they’ll never change. They can’t. Never allow anyone to hold you captive psychologically.”
Though it’s been many months since Katie communicated with her mother, cutting her out entirely is harder than she anticipated. Just this month, Joan set up her fifth Twitter account to send her daughter a series of bizarre and ostensibly random tweets. Unable to contact Katie by phone, email or even letter, Joan’s dogged pursuit of her daughter has moved on to social media. Blocked four times previously, she shows no sign of stopping.
To Katie, these newest tweets—while seemingly innocuous—are like a wound that won’t heal. They are Joan’s way of proving that she’s still around, that Katie has not won. “Here I am,” is what each tweet is really saying. “You tried to escape me, but here I am. I’m still here.”