Thursday, May 26, 2011

how to spot a psychopath

A Clockwork Orange - Singin' in the rain

Guardian | It was the French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel who first suggested, early in the 19th century, that there was a madness that didn't involve mania or depression or psychosis. He called it "manie sans d̩lire" Рinsanity without delusions. He said sufferers appeared normal on the surface, but they lacked impulse controls and were prone to outbursts of violence. It wasn't until 1891, when the German doctor JLA Koch published his book Die Psychopathischen Minderwertigkeiten, that it got its name: psychopathy.

The consensus from the beginning was that only 1% of humans had it, but the chaos they caused was so far-reaching, it could actually remould society. And so the urgent question became, how could psychopaths be cured?

In the late 1960s, a young Canadian psychiatrist believed he had the answer. His name was Elliott Barker and he had visited radical therapeutic communities around the world, including nude psychotherapy sessions occurring under the tutelage of an American psychotherapist named Paul Bindrim. Clients, mostly California free-thinkers and movie stars, would sit naked in a circle and dive headlong into a 24-hour emotional and mystical rollercoaster during which participants would scream and yell and sob and confess their innermost fears. Barker worked at a unit for psychopaths inside the Oak Ridge hospital for the criminally insane in Ontario. Although the inmates were undoubtedly insane, they seemed perfectly ordinary. This, Barker deduced, was because they were burying their insanity deep beneath a facade of normality. If the madness could only, somehow, be brought to the surface, maybe it would work itself through and they could be reborn as empathetic human beings.

And so he successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD, hand-picked a group of psychopaths, led them into what he named the "total encounter capsule", a small room painted bright green, and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world's first ever marathon nude LSD-fuelled psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Barker's sessions lasted for epic 11-day stretches. There were no distractions – no television, no clothes, no clocks, no calendars, only a perpetual discussion (at least 100 hours every week) of their feelings. Much like Bindrim's sessions, the psychopaths were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for each other, even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time, "in a state of arousal while doing so".

My guess is that this would have been a more enjoyable experience within the context of a Palm Springs resort hotel than in a secure facility for psychopathic murderers.

Barker watched it all from behind a one-way mirror and his early reports were gloomy. The atmosphere inside the capsule was tense. Psychopaths would stare angrily at each other. Days would go by when nobody would exchange a word. But then, as the weeks turned into months, something unexpected began to happen.

The transformation was captured in an incredibly moving film. These tough young prisoners are, before our eyes, changing. They are learning to care for one another inside the capsule.

We see Barker in his office, and the look of delight on his face is quite heartbreaking. His psychopaths have become gentle. Some are even telling their parole boards not to consider them for release until after they've completed their therapy. The authorities are astonished.

Back home in London, I felt terribly sorry for Tony. So many psychopathic murderers – fortunate to have been under Barker's radical tutelage – had been declared cured and freed. Why couldn't Broadmoor adopt some of his ideas? Of course, they seemed dated and naive and perhaps overly reliant on hallucinogenics, but they were surely preferable to locking someone up for ever because he happened to score badly on some personality checklist.

Then I learned that two researchers had in the early 90s undertaken a detailed study of the long-term recidivism rates of psychopaths who'd been through Barker's programme and let out into society. In regular circumstances, 60% of criminal psychopaths released into the outside world go on to reoffend. What percentage of their psychopaths had? As it turned out: 80%.

The capsule had made the psychopaths worse.

"They had psychopaths naked and talking about their feelings!" Bob Hare laughed, shaking his head at the idealism of it all. It was an August evening and we were drinking in a hotel bar in rural Pembrokeshire, west Wales, at one of Hare's three-day residential courses for psychiatrists, care workers and criminal profilers. It was exciting finally to meet him. While names such as Elliott Barker have all but faded away, Hare is influential. Justice departments and parole boards all over the world have accepted his contention that psychopaths are quite simply incurable and everyone should concentrate their energies instead on learning how to root them out using his PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised), which he has spent a lifetime refining.