Monday, November 19, 2012

Psychopathic romance. Last week I read a fascinating feature article about child psychopaths – or, more precisely, children with 'callous/unemotional' tendencies. There was also a story about it on Catalyst recently.

The theory is that these kids lack a connection to the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes social emotions including shame. They just don't feel bad when they disobey or transgress. (As an aside, I wonder if I have a hyperactive amygdala, since I live in a prison of humiliation.)

My first reaction was that we all owe Eva Khatchadourian a massive apology, because her son Kevin is a textbook example of a CU kid. We fear these children because of their calculation and knowingness that makes them seem much older. They don't behave badly on impulse; they judiciously do anything to get what they want, impervious to fear, compassion or shame. They're the 'evil kids' in films such as The Bad Seed and The Good Son who are more terrifying because there's no supernatural or demonic explanation for their actions.

I was especially chilled by some of the scenes described in the NYT article at a 'summer camp' where a dozen of these kids were being studied. Basically they behaved appallingly and egged each other on, ending up much worse at the end of the program than before.

There is a certain dreadful romance we associate with kids being experimented on. For example, the sinister Bolvangar research lab in Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights, or Return from Witch Mountain, a Disney movie that now strikes me as incredibly corny, but which fascinated and troubled me as a kid when I saw it at the Box Hill library. It was about siblings with paranormal powers imprisoned in a shadowy scientific research facility and subjected to a barrage of tests.

Another foundational childhood text for me was Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, filmed as the animation The Secret of Nimh, which was about rodent test subjects from the National Institute of Mental Health who had engineered their own escape.

Also, the image of Michael the child psychopath reminds me of books such as The Secret History and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which an intelligent outsider falls in with a group of hyper-intelligent, calculating peers. Surely it is a thousand times more dangerous to put a bunch of budding psychopaths in an environment where they bond and identify with each other.

Michael, the child who is the focal point of the article, was one of a number of participants who vied for the favour of a female participant, L.
Charming but volatile, L. quickly found ways to play different boys off one another. “Some manipulation by girls is typical,” [the researcher] Waschbusch said as the kids trooped inside. “The amount she does it, and the precision with which she does it — that’s unprecedented.” She had, for example, smuggled a number of small toys into camp, Waschbusch told me, then doled them out as prizes to kids who misbehaved at her command. That strategy seemed particularly effective with Michael, who would often go to detention screaming her name.
Another kind of romance – did Michael genuinely like L, or did he only do her bidding because it let him get power over the other, disfavoured children? Can a callous/unemotional kid love? The literature says psychopaths prefer dogs because, in the words of Jon Ronson, "that's the only kind of love they can handle."

It is dangerous for us to romanticise psychopathy, but that is our cultural response to the phenomenon. We like the idea of your Dexter Morgans and Hannibal Lecters and your Bond or Die Hard villains and so forth – either clever psychopaths whose ability to manipulate others is elegant, or spectacular, grandiose psychopaths whose callous ambitions are bold enough to admire.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Site Meter