October 2011

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich


The Writer and the Psychopath

For the past several years, I have been writing about a murderer, an occupation of mine that has led to many cocktail party conversations. These conversations all share a similar shape, which goes something like this: the cocktail party attendee (usually cradling a glass of wine or a gin and tonic) inquires what I do. Oh, I say, I’m a writer. And what do you write, the person asks. I’m working on a nonfiction book, I say. (Note the slight evasion, for I know very well that the person is asking for the story. We are story-seekers.) About what, she says. Well, I say, it’s a memoir, but it’s also about a murder. After this unspools a series of questions that I try to avoid answering, based on my belief that revelers at cocktail parties don’t actually wish to be informed of the graphic murder of a child. But usually my questioner persists in asking, and assuring me that she really does want to know over my demurrals, and eventually we get to the bare facts: the murderer is a pedophile, I say. He strangled a small boy, I say, and give a basic outline of the crime.

At this, the listener’s face recoils. She shifts her drink; sometimes she takes a sip from it. There is a period of silence and unease, during which I wait. Then her face settles, determined, having found the missing explanation. “He must be a psychopath!” she says.

“No,” I say, “I don’t think so.” Psychopaths are generally charming, manipulative, and smooth. The man I write about appears, in the thousands of pages of public records covering his crime, to be none of those things.

“But to do such a crime…” she muses, and then usually follows determinedly, “He must be a psychopath.”

I think I know what this woman and others like her mean. She means, what you describe is evil. It is so evil it must be other, the man must be sick, there must be an explanation. He must be a psychopath.

Psychopathy is hot right now, hot the way legitimate diagnoses sometimes become. For a while there, it seemed like every third person I knew claimed their ex suffered from borderline personality disorder. A couple of year ago, the hot self-diagnosis was Asperger’s syndrome. I was in graduate school at Harvard at the time, and many of my friends went to school just up the road at MIT. They were mathematicians and scientists. Asperger’s meant there was a reason for your social awkwardness at parties. It also meant that you had what people used to call a claptrap mind for calculations, and that you could be obsessive about your area of expertise, an advantageous quality in an academic. Some of the people who claimed to have it no doubt did, but the incidence in the population could not match the hordes of the self-diagnosed. Amongst my cohort, Asperger's broke out like a rash, then went away just as quickly a few years later, when people started stumbling into longer-term romantic relationships and proclaimed awkwardness was no longer seen as advantageous.

I was reminded of this phenomenon recently when Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, was published to instant bestseller status. (Jonathan Crowl reviewed the book for Bookslut last May.) In the book, Ronson describes learning how to administer a psychological test developed by a researcher named Bob Hare that Hare claims can be used to quickly identify psychopaths, even from casual conversation. Ronson becomes giddy with this new power, diagnosing a touch of psychopathy in just about everyone he meets. His glee has been shared by others who’ve encountered the test. "Quiz: Is Your Boss a Psychopath?" asks a headline on the business website Fast Company, helpfully providing an eight-point Hare-derived checklist with which one imagines the frustrated cubicle-dweller reassuring himself. And since the diagnosis correlates with power, charm, and manipulation of others, it offers bragging rights in certain circles. The website Experience Project features an “I am a Psychpath” forum and message board, with topic posts like, “When did you figure out you were a psychopath?” and “What do you like best about being a psycho?” Elsewhere on the Internet, posters offer up their self-calculated scores on Hare’s checklist, seeming pleased by the way the score confirms for them that yes, they are charming, and yes, they are uniquely skilled at taking advantage of others without remorse. (Could there be a more appealing and reassuring diagnosis to the teenage boy alone in his room?) The trend shows no sign of abating: As I worked on this piece, I received an email announcing the forthcoming publication of a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

Like any other diagnosis, a diagnosis of psychopathy offers an explanation. Because of the nature of that which it describes, it seems to offer an explanation for the unexplainable. Suddenly, the person you have trouble accounting for isn’t just mysteriously ruthless, he’s a psychopath.

“At the criminal trial, the prosecution had argued that it did not have to show that MacDonald was the kind of person who could have committed the crimes -- it had only to show that he had indeed committed them -- but this was precisely what McGinniss, the nonfiction novelist, did have to show,” wrote Janet Malcolm in her famous book The Journalist and the Murderer, neatly summarizing the difference between the disinterested bounds of codified law and the human impulse, present in both the writer and her reader, to understand the story, to make both the crime and the person who committed it make sense. When the cocktail party attendee says, “He must be a psychopath,” she says it with relief. There is a reason, a cause, the unexplainable explained.

One imagines that no writer has these cocktail conversations more than Janet Malcolm. Malcolm, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, has written about Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but The Journalist and the Murderer is her most famous book, and these days it seems to be the topic of murder that most readily catches her attention. Her newest book, the slim volume Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, began life as a series of articles Malcolm wrote for the New Yorker, covering the Queens, New York murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a thirty-five year old physician and Bukharan Jew accused of hiring a man to kill her estranged husband. As its subtitle suggests, the book hews closely to the trial, reporting it in precise detail. At the center of the trial and at the center of the book is Borukhova, a long-haired, long-skirted figure who Malcolm describes as looking like a “nineteenth-century woman-student revolutionary.” From the start, Borukhova presents an enigma for Malcolm. “She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it,” writes Malcolm over and over again, speaking into the silent pause I heard at the cocktail party, speaking into the problem that drives the appeal of the psychopath test. What drives inscrutable people?

Without the enigma -- if Borukhova was an obvious murderer -- there would be no reason to write the book, no urgent need to find (to make) a story. And yet if Malcolm will not address the enigma, if she will not plunge into it -- the job of the writer, as she herself as written -- there is also no reason to write the book. She must take this character, this accused murderess, and find -- or make -- the story of her action.

“You’re like a medieval monk,” one of Ronson’s friends chastises him, “stitching together a tapestry of people’s craziness. You take a little bit of craziness from up there and a little bit of craziness from over there and then you stitch it all together” into a story about who someone is and why they are that way. If these objections sound familiar, they should: we’re all doing that, all the time, spinning our stories out of the world. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion. Malcolm is usually one who plunges into this tension, this need, this problem. In the Journalist and the Murder, she took both the journalist MacDonald to task for writing about the murderer MacGuinness and then herself to task for writing about them both. The book is about competing narratives, of which Malcolm’s is only one. She acknowledged the moral complexity of what she was doing in that work (a journalist herself, she opens the book with the line, “[e]very journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”), but she didn’t shy away from doing it. It was Malcolm’s willingness to foist herself on the same roasting spit on which she cooks others that made that book a classic.

But in Iphigenia, she falters, and contents herself with repeating that Borukhova “couldn’t have done it” and “must have done it” over and over, as though the statement of the enigma were sufficient. Borukhova couldn’t have done it -- because it’s unthinkable that she would have. Remember the response of my cocktail party conversationalist, who seized upon the psychopath explanation. A defining feature of psychopathy is the inability to feel remorse. Her assumption was: if you had the ability to feel remorse, you would never murder a little boy. And of course that would be a clean and simple way to understand the world, a preferable one. Harder to understand is the person who does feel remorse, and still murders. (For Ronson, analyzing businessmen, harder is the person who does understand what being laid off means to workers, and still pursues relentless profit at the cost of others’ lives. How do such people sleep at night? No, really: How do they?)

While Malcolm describes a woman who seems, by Malcolm’s own account, to feel absolutely no remorse for the murder she is accused of having hired someone to commit, or even simply sadness for the fact that her child’s father is dead, Malcolm never once muses that the woman might be a psychopath, or seeks any other explanation. I haven’t been privy to any of Malcolm’s cocktail party conversations, but I’d wager a bet that no one ever responded to her description of the case by declaring that the woman must be a psychopath. We just don’t. Women are presumed to be capable of empathy -- it is a part of mothering, after all. We do not envision the male pedophile murderer as tormented, as contrite. But we imagine the female hirer of a hit man to be so. Malcolm can’t seem to bring herself to remark on the woman’s apparent lack of contrition. When she reports on another character musing that the oddly blank Borukhova is a sociopath (for Ronson and many others, and often colloquially, the terms sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable, though some scientists argue for a subtle distinction), she notes the accusation but never makes the intuitive leap she was so quick to make in The Journalist and the Murderer, the speculation about Borukhova’s inner life that makes that book come to life the way Iphigenia in Forest Hills never does. We want to see into each other’s hearts. It is for this that we tell ourselves stories. It is for this that we read them.

In the case I am writing about, the murderer’s sister, on the witness stand, refuses to give into the defense attorneys’ constant attempts to insist that something was wrong early on with the murderer, he was clearly insane. “He was just our [brother], you know,” she says, using the man’s name, and when I read that statement I see countless dinners, childhood bickering, the struggle to put a child’s arm into the sleeve of a winter coat. Even murderers are ordinary to their families. They are people, people who must not have done it. Murder remains unimaginable. But they are people, people capable of action, people who must have done it. When Malcolm ends the story here, she fails Borukhova and she fails us. There is humanity -- there is story -- inside all of us.

The popularity of the psychopath concept right now is a sign of our hunger for stories, for a reason, for an explanation. But blunt as it is, it can also be a way to shut down the story. Into that tension is where we must write.