Recently, someone posted this comment on my blog:
“I'm always struck by how, after some act of violence, fraud, or sexual abuse, everyone laments: 'Someone must have known! Why didn't they say anything?' And yet, time after time, it seems those who are in a position to see are sidelined, discredited, or disbelieved.'”
My sense of it is this: People who can spot predators are ignored for reasons similar to those that blind many people to these offenders in the first place—distortion and denial. Predators count on it, especially in those rare times when someone is savvy enough to spot them and try to alert others.
The fact is, we're often just not prepared to accept that evil can get so close to us. As frustrating as it can be for those whose warnings fall on deaf ears, it’s normal to interpret the behavior of those we know in the most benign and ordinary frame.
The following paragraphs are excerpts from Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, from a chapter about people who live quite close to predators but fail to see them. Although I focus on serial killers in this blog, I believe the same principles hold for being around sex offenders, con artists, and other types of predators:
Many people believe that serial killers are loners and losers, unable to maintain careers or relationships. They’re supposedly under-educated, narcissistic, and searching for short-term gratification. The public wants monsters to be obvious, and many popular culture productions reinforce the naïve hope that they’re on the fringes of society. But monsters do live among us—easily and with little detection—because the clever ones know how to adapt and to deflect suspicion.
Ted Bundy worked a crisis hotline as he murdered young women. John Wayne Gacy buried boys beneath his house while he ran a business, threw fundraisers, and entertained sick kids. “Eyeball Killer” Charles Albright had a master’s degree, knew several languages, was a former science teacher, and had a seemingly satisfying marriage. Three-time child killer John Joubert assisted with a Boy Scout troop. Andrei Chikatilo had a university degree, had been a teacher, and was married with children. Christopher Wilder was a wealthy contractor and racecar driver. Michael Ross had an Ivy League degree.
Why don’t we spot these offenders, even socially accomplished ones, before they do so much damage?
Many blend in because they’re the type of people who can go through the motions of ordinary living while acting out against others without giving themselves away. In other words, they’re not obviously deranged, and while they’re morally deviant, they can hide it in their bland everyday manner.
Among their most dangerous features are a callous disregard for the rights of others and a propensity for violating norms. They can charm and manipulate others for their own gain, conning with no regard for anyone's feelings.
They look for opportunities—taking a security job that positions them to meet potential victims, for example—and they have no qualms, when the time is right, about exploiting them. We want to spot them, but they usually spot us first.
Predators have the advantage.
Lionel Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer’s father, wrote a book after watching his son’s 1992 trial for the murder of 17 men and realized that the manner in which he'd interpreted Jeffrey’s behavior had been naïve, influenced by his personal fears. "I allowed myself to believe Jeff,” Lionel mused, “…to accept all his answers regardless of how implausible they might seem….More than anything, I allowed myself to believe that there was a line in Jeff, a line he wouldn’t cross…My life became an exercise in avoidance and denial.”
He likened his behavior to creating a soundproof booth over which he'd drawn curtains to prevent him from seeing or hearing what his son had become. Something similar can probably be said about many people who are in close contact with serial killers. But we must credit the killers with the ability to hide their secrets and perfect their acting skills.
As predators get away with their acts, they learn the best ways to deflect others from discovering their secrets, and they enjoy the lack of accountability. They devise different sets of values for different life frames, so that they can speak convincingly about socially-approved venues of right and wrong, yet have no qualms about their socially-condemned behavior.
Robert Hare, one of the world’s foremost experts on psychopathic behavior, believes that people need to know what to do in the event they find themselves involved or associated with a predatory psychopath. Among his tips:
- Be careful of props—the winning smile, the promises, the fast talk, and the gifts meant to deflect you from the manipulation and exploitation that may be occurring. "Any of these characteristics," he says, "can have enormous sleight-of-hand value, serving to distract you."
- Anyone who seems too perfect is. Psychopaths hide their dark sides until they get their target person deeply involved. Too much flattery, feigned kindness, and cracks in grandiose stories should provide clues and put you on your guard. Make reasonable inquiries.
- Know yourself—or you might be vulnerable from your blind spots. Predators know how to find and use your triggers, so the more you realize what you tend to fall for, the more closely you can guard against it.
Hare admits that even with all his experience, he could still be duped by a predatory psychopath. "In short interactions," he says, "anyone can be duped."
Our best defense is to accept that they’re among us, shed our cultural naiveté, take care whom we trust, and understand the mechanisms of their deception and our denial.
This means listening when others try to tell us that something is amiss with a certain person’s behavior. It means at least considering the possibility, if the signs are evident, that someone you care about is exploiting your emotions to dupe you and possibly hurt you or your children.