Cautionary Note: I wrote this before I had done thorough research. I may have misdiagnosed my ex-boyfriend. He may not have been a psychopath.
My ex-boyfriend Brendan took his life 13 years ago and, in some ways, I've been living with his ghost all these years. Deep inside I think I knew that he was a psychopath, but I never stuck the label on him until a few days ago when I read a list of traits of a psychopath. It's been a shock to me to finally wake up out of my denial. The problem with the list is that it is only part of the picture, albeit the most damning part. From what little I've read on the internet, those who have studied psychopaths say that they are hopeless, without any redeeming characteristics, worthy only of being shunned by society or being put in prison or even killed. While I certainly understand the reasons behind this condemnation, having lived with a psychopath for over 5 years, I know in my heart that it is an unjust attitude and position.
Certain studies have shown that there are brain abnormalities in psychopaths. This makes them lack empathy, which in turn makes them not pick up on signs of fear and distress in others. I witnessed this type of apparent callousness in Brendan at the climaxes of his abusive cycles. At those points no amount of begging or sobbing could reach him. In my eyes at the time this made him a temporary monster. I know I called him evil to his face at least once and in my mind I compared him to the stereotype of a Nazi. It's natural for some people to learn to become callous towards others in reaction to having been abused, but what if physically, in your brain structure, you had a predisposition to it even before ever being abused? And then what if you had been abused in one way or another, as Brendan said he was by his father, and went on in reaction to this to cultivate that budding abusive personality? By the time I met Brendan at the tender age of 18 he had made his abusiveness part of his identity, though I didn't know it at the time. I didn't know that he had a reputation for being a skillful fighter and that some of his friends even admired him for it. One of his best friends once called him "a lean, mean fighting machine."
So Brendan was born with a disability that got exacerbated by environmental conditions, primarily by having been abused by his father. This disability led him to show signs of behavioral problems when he was only 4 or 5 years old when he got kicked out of either nursery school or kindergarten for being repeatedly aggressive towards some of the other students. When a little child can't read the faces and body language of other little children, he (or she) can't follow the cues to modify his (or her) behavior. Children naturally have a lot of energy and curiosity and all that enthusiasm can easily get out of control. Hence the need for good role models, usually parents and teachers, who firmly guide the children towards basic forms of self-discipline. Children are naturally self-centered, but when you take away the ability to empathize with others, an ability that normal children have, you are left with a pathological egocentricity much of the time. Unfortunately, egotism is arrogance and arrogance leads to testing limits and testing limits with others often involves crossing the line into aggressiveness.
Children learn by mimicking language and behavior, but if you take your heart out of it, it becomes a lesson in learning to manipulate people and situations in order to get what you want. Brendan was taught to be manipulative by his family, friends and teachers. Initially, I really don't think he knew any better. He knew he had to survive and in order to do that he mostly followed the group. The group taught him the value of being charming and it helped that he was attractive, physically agile and good at athletics. Not only are human beings intelligent and therefore manipulative, we focus on a reward system for learning new behaviors. Overtime Brendan learned that if he was courteous, attentive, perceptive to the cues that he initially kept failing to see in childhood, people would be nice to him, give him things, do things for him. And in his case, they did. This was due in part to his living in a wealthy suburb with other kids who had stuff to offer. He learned to get drugs, sex, people to do his school work, places of refuge from home. He played the role of a popular, though sometimes out of control, jock, the star soccer player on his high school team.
But despite his popularity in some circles, he invariably crossed the line into anti-social behavior. Part of that behavior had to do with the ease with which he could lie, especially to authority figures like his parents and teachers and cops. He started drinking alcohol when he was 12 and by the end of high school he was an alcoholic. He experimented with all sorts of drugs and because these drugs are all still illegal, he began to identify with the subculture of dealers, especially inner city dealers who were often African Americans living in poor neighborhoods. Like a typical wealthy suburban kid, he was drawn to the city and looking for drugs gave him a reason to go there. Not all drug dealers are stereotypical, but I'm sure Brendan came across quite a few who were. In order to be a successful criminal you have to have to be good at lying and manipulation of people and situations. Charm can help, but knowing how to defend yourself is a necessity. Criminals have to be tough or non empathetic towards the people that they are trying to con. Maybe he thought it was a challenge to deal with these dealers. Maybe he recognized them as being similar to himself in some ways. But ultimately, he couldn't deny where he had come from, a place that valued status and there was little status in becoming a criminal and, for the most part, he didn't become one, except later on in the way he treated me.
Brendan didn't get the guidance he needed from a role model he respected at an early age. From what I can gather his father started being tough on him early on, probably when he began showing behavioral problems. Unfortunately tough love on a psychopathic child does nothing to teach him about empathy. Instead it teaches the child about resentment, hostility, aggression. It teaches him the need to be manipulative and to lie, especially to authority figures who misuse their power. It also teaches the child exactly how to be abusive to others. I really believe that when Brendan abused me, he was imitating some of his father's attitudes and behaviors towards him when he was young. Unknowingly I think he used me as a scapegoat. I became a symbol for his father, whom he very much wanted to punish, despite his ambivalence, and a symbol of himself as a child. In a weird way Brendan sometimes abused me to toughen me up to the realities of the world, the way his father had done to him.
The last thing Brendan needed was to be taught more about the value of aggression. He knew quite well about it from an early age. His father paid for him to be trained as a boxer in a misguided attempt to direct his son's aggressive urges into something somewhat socially acceptable. Though Brendan could be a skilled street fighter, he didn't make it in the ring where he had to follow certain rules. But some of his friends still admired his ability to fight and this gave him a wider reputation. All of this was poisonous to his spirit, but fairly natural because of the abnormalities of his brain. It's not just that he slid into what was natural for someone with psychopathic tendencies, but he was actually encouraged to do so. Some people seem to say, don't be violent except under certain circumstances like for police officers or soldiers or defending yourself, your loved ones and your property or putting violent criminals to death. And in some television and movies, the heroes have to be tough, that's part of what makes them "cool". Fantasy films abound in violent behaviors and conflicts. Many video games, the same thing. Sort of an eat or be eaten mentality. To someone with an emotional deficit of empathy this is extremely counterproductive. It's a mixed message coming from all over the place and fosters ambivalence.
The truth was that though Brendan could fight well, he confessed to me that he really didn't like it. And interestingly enough, when he moved in with me the incidents of him getting into fights was nearly nonexistent. I never even saw Brendan fight someone else. He would terrify and humiliate me and do other things, but he didn't punch me, except for once when he gave me a black eye. I think he knew very well that he could really damage me that way, so he reigned it in even when he got into a hateful mood. One thing he didn't reign in was his verbal abuse, that would go on for hours along with physical threats and acts of humiliation. During those times he was often drunk and definitely psychotic. His psychosis was temporary, but focused on jealousy. This was not normal jealousy; this was malignant jealousy and it ate him up inside and it made me extremely vulnerable to sudden attacks.
He had told me early on that he could get very "insecure". I had no idea about the extent of what he meant. And it is very likely that it was he who was sleeping around and once again transferring his guilt onto me and punishing me for an imaginary infraction, thereby avoiding taking responsibility for his actions.
End of Part One.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.