Psychopaths and the Rest of Us

Searching for empathy with those society deems unforgivable.

November 1, 2018
Laura Smith is a journalist based in Berkeley, California. She’s written for The New York TimesThe Guardian, and Slate among others. Her...

I lurked on the psychopath forum for three days before contacting anyone. It is, unsurprisingly, a scary place. People have usernames like CoiledSnake and PowerShark. The forum was hosted by a now-defunct social networking site called Experience Project which allowed people to communicate anonymously through forums or private messages on everything from divorce and depression to, in this case, psychopathy. Someone would post an “experience” in the relevant forum and members would comment underneath. One day, someone posted in one of the psychopath forums, “Who wants to play a game?” Someone else responded, “I do.” They private messaged each other and were never heard from again. Other people messaged back on the main thread: “So, what happened?” No response.

Another day, a man posted a message that it was his dream to gut a woman with a fish hook while having sex. Someone naively replied, “Who would agree to that?” The response: “She wouldn’t have to agree.”

Fish hooks and gutting women are probably what one expects from a psychopath. The television and movie industries have long promoted the idea that all psychopaths are blood-thirsty killers, but as Dr. Kent Kiehl, a leading psychopath researcher, told me, the Hollywood version of psychopathy bears little resemblance to reality.

The DSM (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines psychopathy as a personality disorder characterized by a total lack of remorse and empathy. Robert Hare, one of the most famous psychopath researchers and Kiehl’s mentor, describes them as people “without conscience” and developed a diagnostic tool, the Psychopathy Checklist, known as the PCL-R. An average American non-psychopathic male might score a four on the PCL-R, whereas someone scoring between thirty-seven and forty is considered an extreme case.

Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no cure for psychopathy and that the condition is congenital. Other traits they’ve identified include “grandiose sense of self- worth,” “pathological lying,” “parasitic lifestyle” (think: someone who always takes money but never pays it back), “impulsivity,” “proneness to boredom” and “early behavioral problems.” Psychopaths can be very charming. They hide their psychopathy by studying people’s behaviors and learning to emulate them. Therapy appears to be ineffective because it teaches them to better conceal socially unacceptable behaviors. They are dangerous. The commonly accepted estimate is that just under one percent of the population is psychopathic. This means you probably know at least one. Robert Hare wrote in his book Without Conscience, “the best strategy [for protecting yourself] is to avoid becoming entangled with a psychopath in the first place.”


At the beginning of Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick’s book about the fall of the Soviet Union, Remnick decides he wants to pay a visit to Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich, the man who “annihilated the peasantry and left the villages of Ukraine strewn with an endless field of human husks.” What did Remnick want from Kaganovich? “Mostly, I wanted just to sit in the same room with Kaganovich, to see what an evil man looked like, to know what he did, what books he kept around.” The question of what a mass murderer reads is a question of relatability, what part of you is like some part of me?

The answer is complicated. In 2012, Dr. Kiehl made a startling discovery: people who scored high on the Psychopathy Checklist have reduced levels of gray matter in the paralimbic system of their brains, making their brains fundamentally different than the average person’s.

“It’s very easy for me to pick out someone who scores in that clinical range,” Kiehl told me. “The eyes are very different, they have a very flat—I don’t like to say it, but—they almost have a reptilian effect to their eyes.” In one passage of his book, Hare calls them “human predators.” But to a non-scientific eye, all that separates us is something that could seem almost insubstantial. A little gray matter, like dust under the bed.

And yet, many have declared psychopaths unworthy of explanation or probing. There is no higher truth to be gained—they just are this way. But what if this failure to understand comes from a failure to ask the right questions, a lack of imagination, or even a lack of empathy?

In Hare’s famous book, Without Conscience, he writes: “A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings … Psychopaths often give the impression that it is they who are suffering … Don’t waste your sympathy on them.” He is adamant: “their problems are not in the same league as yours. Theirs stem primarily from not getting what they want.” The only safe course of action is avoidance. Detect the signs early, look for vagueness about family, friends, and employment, and get out while you can. There is no reforming. They are, Hare says, “human predators.”

But that perspective seemed lacking in empathy. Psychopathy is, after all, considered a congenital mental health problem. “Their brains are different,” Kiehl told me, “the neuroscience confirms it.” Being a psychopath is not a choice, and I couldn’t imagine reacting with that much callousness to someone with a different congenital mental health problem like, for example, schizophrenia.

It seemed the ultimate test of empathy—to inhabit the perspective of a supposedly unimaginable consciousness, one plagued by the darkest impulses, and to try to see the world through their eyes.  Empathizing with the grotesquely blameworthy—rapists, murderers of children—is challenging.  But the uncomfortable truth is that most of us fall somewhere between murderer and innocent child. In considering the two ends of the spectrum, I realized that this was not an investigation of psychopathy, but the negative space around psychopathy: the rest of us.


I selected four self-proclaimed psychopaths to message on the forum based on the fact that they had said something interesting in one of the chatrooms. Three of the four responded. All of the people I spoke to described suffering from extreme boredom and told me that most of the things they did were attempts to alleviate boredom’s dull ache. One told me he thought psychopaths are the next stage in human development—people liberated from the burden of feeling.

One of them was a woman, and she interested me above all the others. When I pictured the people I was chatting with, I saw Christian Bale, in American Psycho, wearing a tuxedo in a sleek, impersonal penthouse—not a woman. This woman was a suburban stay-at-home mother with three kids. She had taken great care to decorate her home with earth tones and dark wood because she wanted it to be “castle-like.” She told me she spends most of her days alone, trying to stimulate herself emotionally by finding men in internet chat rooms, saying alluring things to them, then verbally abusing them once they grew attached to her. “The hunt and seduction makes us FEEL excitement,” she told me. “Like a drug. The feeling soon wears off and we leave to find another fix. It has nothing to do with the targets, personally. They are just a tool. I can’t help it. But nothing is more victorious than having someone obsess over my absence.” 

Her mother and grandmother were the same, she said. Family outings are excruciatingly boring to her, as are most things. She feels only “a void. The only pain I feel is when something is taken from me. Everything else is a flatline.”

This woman, like everyone I spoke to on the forum, was a self-professed psychopath. This self-diagnosis meant that their beliefs about their mental health are not professional opinions. I called Kiehl on the phone one morning and told him about the forum. He didn’t think my psychopaths were necessarily psychopaths, especially not the woman, since psychopathy in women is extremely rare. These people could be imposters and the internet was a very impersonal way to communicate with them. I wanted to talk to someone who had been diagnosed by a doctor. I asked Dr. Kiehl for a recommendation. He suggested I get in touch with a man I will call Arnold.

Arnold is a serial killer and a rapist, serving a life sentence for raping twelve women and raping and murdering another three. Two of his rape/murder victims were under ten years old. He had kidnapped one of the children while she was alone, home sick from school, after spotting her in her living room window.

Several years ago, Dr. Kiehl testified in Arnold’s defense. Kiehl had found abnormally low gray matter in f-MRI scans of Arnold’s brain. He was on the extreme end of the psychopathy spectrum, scoring thirty-seven out of forty on the checklist. Kiehl argued that Arnold could not control his psychopathic impulses and that for this reason, he should not be given the death penalty. The jury was unmoved by Kiehl’s arguments, but the issue became a moot point when the state where Arnold was tried abolished the death penalty several years later.

Ultimately, Kiehl’s defense of Arnold doesn’t really seem about Arnold at all, but is instead a challenge to the premise of the criminal justice system: what factors, biological and circumstantial, make certain behaviors beyond our control, and if they are beyond our control, should we be held accountable?

I looked up Arnold’s information in the Department of Corrections inmate register. An image popped up—an aging man with slicked back gray hair and a Cheshire cat-like smirk. I wrote him a letter.

Two weeks later, I got a response. It was just before the 2016 presidential election. “I hope like Hell Clinton wins. Women need empowerment,” he wrote. He proceeded on a tirade about income inequality, justice, and sexism. He told me he is an avid listener of Democracy Now, a progressive news program with a focus on human rights. “I don’t blame the voters for Trump. I blame the Democratic Party’s focus on coronating Clinton,” Arnold went on. He ended another letter, “Please send me the address for the national headquarters for the Democratic National Committee in Washington. I have a few suggestions for them.”

I knew—more strikingly, he knew—that he did not care about the lived experience of income or gender inequity, or any of the things he had elected to champion. I imagine his interest in politics is much like the interest one might have in a Rubik’s cube. He is tinkering with a meaningless logic problem.

“Science and reason drive my beliefs,” Arnold wrote. His most cherished books are a pocket Oxford American and Roget’s 21st Century thesaurus, the second edition. When he is in his cell, he works on legal briefs (he has three lawsuits against the Department of Corrections), studies theoretical physics, and does Sudoku puzzles (“hard and challenger”).

Arnold told me that when he feels disappointed about the way his life turned out, he takes comfort in the story of Dr. James Fallon. Fallon is a neuroscientist. In 2006, he was working on a study of Alzheimer’s patients and used a scan of his own brain in the control group. When he was going through the scans, he noticed that one of the scans looked similar to a psychopath’s brain. It turned out to be his own. Fallon is a rare breed: a successful psychopath. He attributes this success and his impulse control to the fact that he was loved and supported as a child.

Arnold claims his childhood wasn’t like that, saying of his family, “my experiences were more negative than positive.” When it comes to one’s own family, there are no reliable narrators. But what is known from trial records and Dr. Kiehl’s analysis is that Arnold’s father was an alcoholic. His mother, a slightly more functional alcoholic, abused him physically and emotionally. A chronic bed wetter, his mother forced him to sleep in his soiled sheets as punishment. 

Early in his life, he may have sustained two brain injuries, which could relate to his later problems. Both accounts are unverifiable—the hospital records no longer exist. The first comes from Arnold’s sister. When his mother was pregnant with him she went into labor before a doctor was available. The nurse pushed his emerging head back into his mother and strapped her legs together, in theory damaging his brain. Arnold told me the other story, saying that his mother had told him: When he was an infant, a cat sat on his face, smothering him. When his mother found him, he was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital and was fine, but he wondered if the lack of oxygen to his brain caused damage.

Arnold argues that, had he grown up in a loving and supportive home, he may have been able to overcome whatever was wrong with his brain. “I could have been a productive member of society,” he wrote. “How do I know? I don’t. But it’s what I believe.” It is what Arnold wants to believe, and it was also what he wants journalists to believe. He could have been a good person.

Arnold spends twenty-four hours a day locked in his cell except for Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays when he spends two and a half hours in a concrete enclosure playing basketball or “pushing iron with a few convicts.” He gets three fifteen-minute showers a week. In one of my letters, I suggested “scheduling a call.” He patiently explained to me that, “due to the vagaries of prison life—lockdowns, emergencies… etc. I might not be able to always meet a schedule.” It was cruel to remind him of his lack of freedom, especially since he had written of it to me so longingly. “If I were free, I’d love to be on a sparsely populated island in the Pacific” or “a farm with a stream running through it or with a pond/lake next to it.” I was, in spite of myself, beginning to feel a little bad for Arnold.

Arnold told me a story about something that happened twenty years ago. He was in his cell watching another inmate deceive a man in the cell next to him. The “gallery troll,” as he called the man, disgusted him. But then—recognition: he was no different than this man. He was a gallery troll too. “What a low life piece of shit I turned out to be,” he said he thought. He was so stricken by this realization that his knees buckled and he had to grab onto the bars of his cell to keep himself upright. 

Kiehl and Hare’s analysis often gave the impression that psychopaths were inhuman, alien, other. But that moment in Arnold’s cell was so human. If I believed his story, he was saying he wanted to be a better version of himself, to have a life that was a better version of his. Presumably his victims felt similarly about their lives, which is what makes their murder tragic. They had believed that if they went to school, worked hard at their jobs, cared for their friends and family and found ways to improve their less appealing traits, their lives should only get better and better. Arnold killed them before they had a real chance.


I arranged for a phone call with Arnold. He explained that when he called, there would be an automated voice asking if I would accept charges from “Cheeseburger.” Cheeseburger, he explained, was his prison name. One Sunday afternoon, a few weeks later, my phone rang. It was Cheeseburger. 

His voice surprised me. I had expected it to be flat, but he was gregarious, even funny, and disarmingly frank. “I have to intellectualize the things that you guys feel,” he said. He comfortably referred to himself as a psychopath and seemed relieved to have the moniker. “I always wondered why I didn’t connect,” he said. In that phone conversation, he told me a story about how many years ago, before he was in prison, his father died. His siblings were gathered around their mother crying in the hospital. He sat on the couch across from them, watching them. He felt nothing, but had the sense that this was the wrong response. “I was looking at them wondering what was wrong with me.” Now he had his answer. 

When I asked him if he thought he was capable of love, he said no, probably not. He said he has enjoyed the presence of other people before, but mostly it was because they were able to talk about the topics that interest him: law, politics, or science. He told me he spends a lot of time meditating or training himself to consider the implications of his actions and he thinks this “makes me a little more human I think than I used to be.”

It was hard not to be seduced by his pageantry of introspection and proclaimed self-improvement schemes. But his suggestion that he is different now should be regarded dubiously, if you believe most contemporary scientific research. As Kiehl told me many times, there is no cure for psychopathy. “You can't TALK people INTO feeling and/or understanding what love is,” one self-proclaimed psychopath told me on the forum. But, while he couldn’t make himself feel, it seemed possible that he could train himself to behave as a feeling person would.

When I called Kiehl on the phone, I had asked him if he ever felt sorry for the psychopaths he encountered. He paused, considering my question. “Yes,” he said finally. “I’m not a bleeding heart, but I do feel they are really missing something that the rest of us take for granted. The pure enjoyment that I get from listening to my daughter’s voice: it sets off something in my brain. It’s unbelievable. Psychopaths don’t get that.”

I asked Arnold if it felt good to kill people. “No,” he said quickly. He explained that he wanted to rape people. He speculated that he was drawn to rape because he was young when he committed his crimes and feeling a lot of sexual desire, but since he exists in an “emotionless landscape” his sexual impulses manifested violently. He only killed his victims, he told me, so they wouldn’t be able to identify him later. After he said this, he let out a strange groan. I don’t know what it meant. 


Arnold’s crimes were all disturbing, but there was a more mundane scene from his life that nagged at me. The sister of one of Arnold’s victims had requested to meet him in 1985. I looked up the details of the murder. Arnold had noticed his victim at a stoplight, rammed her car off the road, raped her, and then drowned her in a quarry. Why had her sister wanted to talk to Arnold after that?

Perhaps she wanted relief from the unknowns, to understand how much her sister had suffered. Without specifics, all grisliness is possible. All manner of screaming, of crying, pleading, the wildest look of animal terror could have happened. Good horror film directors know this: don’t show the monster because the ever-mutating images in our minds are worse than any one thing you could show us. Perhaps the sister was asking to be released from her imagination. Arnold had refused.

I asked him why. He said he remembered only vaguely. “I was a punk ass coward,” he added dismissively.

I had the sense that there was a magic question I could ask Arnold that would unlock some barrier of understanding between us. He seemed eager to embark on this challenge too. He told me he hardly ever feels anything but that he did when one of his victim’s parents spoke at his sentencing. He said that they were in such obvious pain that when he got back to his cell, he burst into tears. I told him I thought that sounded like empathy to me, which was something I was under the impression he could not experience. He explained that he could feel sorrow and regret, but not empathy. I asked him what the difference was. He didn’t seem to know. What does sorrow feel like? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know how to describe it either. Instead of explaining the feeling, he described the process by which he brings himself to feel it. He said he has to sit down and think about something terrible, meditate on it, and imagine the ramifications. 

If felt as though sorrow, to him was like a place he sometimes chooses to go—not something that happens to him. And then it dawned on me. His story didn’t add up. If he had to meditate on the ramification of his actions in order to “feel” them, then it seemed unlikely that he had burst into tears. Bursting into tears is something one does when suddenly overcome by an uncontrollable wave of emotion. I realized then that he was probably lying about his reaction to hearing his victims’ parents speak. If he had cried spontaneously, he had cried for himself because he realized that other people had been moved by the parents’ testimony and that he was royally fucked.


When Remnick was writing about the fall of the Soviet Union, he went to the mass murderer’s apartment and knocked on his door. He went often. Some days, he could hear rustling inside. Kaganovich was right there on the other side of the door, as were his books and his entire life, waiting to be probed, if only he would let Remnick in. But no one ever answered. Remnick kept knocking.

After speaking with Arnold, I realized Remnick’s knocking was hopeful. Asking why presumes there is an answer.

Arnold sent me one last letter imploring me to send him books, lamenting his debt, and telling me how improved he is. Reading through the letter, I felt a spontaneous shudder. I didn’t even want to touch the paper, as though it was infected with some pathogen that might leech decency and wellbeing from my life. I folded it up and put it in a file that I keep in the back of my closet. I never responded. I never spoke to Arnold again.

Laura Smith is a journalist based in Berkeley, California. She’s written for The New York TimesThe Guardian, and Slate among others. Her nonfiction book, The Art of Vanishing, was published by Viking in 2018.