Good or Evil?

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Jodi, Joran and Casey: On the Psychology of Evil

How are the Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony and Joran van der Sloot cases similar?
Dr. Dale Archer
This post is a response to Jodi Arias — Guilty, Murder 1: A Psychiatric Analysis by Dale Archer, M.D.

 



Jodi Arias has been convicted of brutally murdering, with extreme cruelty and premeditation, her boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008. Today, the jury was declared hopelessly deadlocked regarding whether to recommend death or life imprisonment. Ms. Arias will have to face a second jury this summer unless the prosecution and family decide to offer a plea of life in prison with no possibility of parole. Having previously posted multiple times on both the Joran van der Sloot and Casey Anthony cases (see some of my prior posts), it is difficult not to note certain similarities in the demeanor (if not alleged crimes) of these three attractive young murder defendants. How can we make sense of their seeming lack of profoundly human, universal feelings like empathy, guilt, remorse or shame? Though I (nor any other mental health professional) cannot provide a detailed and accurate psychological evaluation of defendants (or former defendants) without having first formally examined them myself, there is clearly much to learn from observing these tragic cases. So let us sum up what little we do know and consider what these murder cases might have in common and what they can tell us about human nature and criminal psychology.

Fellow PT blogger, psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer, diagnoses Ms. Arias as being "evil." Dr. Archer appears to suggest that defendants like Ms. Arias do not merit a psychiatric diagnosis beyond being deemed "evil." And that they are irredeemable. He is, of course, correct that in the current DSM system there is no diagnostic category called "evil"--though some, like the late psychiatrist M.Scott Peck, argued for its inclusion. (See Peck's [1983] People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.) I have also called for the appropriate use of the the term evil in psychology and psychiatry, suggesting in my own writings spanning the past few decades that we need to much better understand the perplexing problem of human evil, cruelty and destructiveness. (See, for example, my 1996 book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.) 

The obvious and potentially very serious downside of labeling destructive, violent, and antisocial people "bad" or "evil" are chiefly the dangers of scapegoating, dehumanization, demonization, segregation and persecution. However, the advantage in employing a psychologically powerful term like evil  is that it distinguishes those labeled from other run-of-the-mill or garden variety violent offenders by emphasizing their chronic or pervasive interpersonal cruelty, callousness and brutality. It also forces us to confront the depraved, excessive and extraordinary nature of their destructive behavior, and the terrible and terrifying reality of such evil deeds.

Perhaps most frightening to face is the fact that such evil could potentially be committed by anyone, given the right or wrong set of circumstances. (Recall, for example, the classic psychology experiments by both Milgram and Zimbardo demonstrating this frightening fact.) Each of us harbors the innate capacity for evil. Yet we prefer for obvious reasons to deny that disturbing reality, choosing instead to unconsciously project that potentiality for evil behavior-- the shadow or daimonic--onto others rather than consciously acknowledging it in ourselves. For some, a consciously chosen religious or spiritual attitude can conceal an unconscious dark side. (See my prior post.) Perhaps this is how Ms. Arias attempted to deal with her psychological demons. By denying them. But this is both futile and dangerous. (See my prior post.) What differentiates most people from defendants like Jodi Arias is that she acted out the evil we might merely furiously fantasize about at times. But dismissively calling someone "evil" can serve as a simplistic substitute for trying to better comprehend, and therefore, potentially identify, treat and prevent the complex, enigmatic and dangerous states of mind that precipitate it. (See my prior post.)

Sociopathy, psychopathy and severe pathological or "malignant" narcissism are perhaps the closest we can currently come to formally diagnosing "evil" individuals. What might someone deserving such a dramatic diagnostic label as "evil"  look like? For instance, would the commission of one "especially cruel" violent crime warrant such a diagnosis? Is it the frequency or quality of evil deeds that counts? Or both? To begin with, it is important to note that, by definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder "is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years" (DSM-IV-TR). Moreover, diagnostic criteria includes "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest," "deceitfulness," "reckless disregard for safety of self or others," and, maybe most tellingly, "lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another." Whenever we see some chronic pattern of illegal behaviors combined with the absence of remorse and appropriate affect, we are likely witnessing, at the very least, what psychologists call "antisocial traits."

As I have proposed in prior posts, there is a close correlation between antisocial behavior and pathological narcissism. So much so that I have previously employed the term psychopathic narcissism to describe such selfish and unscrupulous individuals. Defendants like Casey Anthony (now acquitted), Joran van der Sloot (now convicted), and Jodi Arias (now convicted) typically tend to be so detached and dissociated from their own humanity that they are clueless as to what they really feel and how their inappropriate and selfish behavior is perceived by others. They appear to be heartless, depraved monsters devoid of all human caring and decency. Bad seeds. But behind their extremely effective facade, mask or persona, hides a hurt and angry little girl or boy running destructively amok in the world. Sociopaths are, as I have elsewhere argued, primarily made, not born. (See my prior post.) 

Another striking similarity between Jodi, Joran and Casey is their cunning and native intelligence. We saw this clearly demonstrated, for example, in Casey's creatively elaborate lying behavior to police, her parents and others. (According to experienced prosecutor Jeff Ashton, "she was the best liar I`ve ever seen.")  We also saw this in her possible complete conning of a seasoned forensic psychologist (see my prior post). And in Joran's impressive talent for telling conflicting tales designed to confuse, control and manipulate others. According to the prosecution, and a jury of her peers, much the same may be said about Jodi Arias, who told police at least three different versions of Alexander's death, initially totally denying any involvement, then that they were attacked by two ski-masked men who killed Travis, and, finally, admitting to the grotesque crime but claiming self-defense. Narcissistic Personality Disorder describes someone who is "interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends," "lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings of others," and "shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes" (DSM-IV-TR). In the case of Joran van der Sloot, it was precisely his cunning--captured, for example, in the evidentiary video in which, having probably already brutally strangled his Peruvian victim, leaving her lifeless, battered body in his bloody hotel room according to his own confession, he calmly and calculatingly feigns, for the security cameras, nonchalently returning there with two coffees, knocks on the door, and then has the staff unlock the door, acting convincingly as though all is well and he has absolutely nothing to hide--coupled with a barely controlled rage that makes him such a dangerous person. The ability to deceive and manipulate others toward one's own self-serving ends is one of the hallmarks of sociopathy and an expression of the profound pathological narcissism and anger underlying it. 

The defense teams for both Joran van der Sloot and Jodi Arias suggested that each suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the time their crimes were committed. According to one expert witness at Jodi's trial, clinical psychologist Dr. Janeen DeMarte, Arias suffers not from PTSD, as a different forensic psychologist testified for the defense, but from Borderline Personality Disorder. (These two diagnoses are often conflated, and can certainly co-exist, especially when one considers the role that childhood trauma tends to play in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder and so many other psychiatric syndromes.) Whether Ms. Arias does indeed meet full diagnostic criteria for BPD, I cannot say. But I do not doubt it. The fact of the matter is that BPD covers a broad spectrum of disturbance and symptomatology, ranging from mild symptoms (with relatively high functioning) that are almost undetectable by most untrained (and many trained) observers to severe and chronic dysfunction, debilitation and life-threatening behaviors. Two of the core diagnostic criteria for BPD involves "frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment" and "inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger." Manipulative behavior is also commonly part of the clinical picture, though it does not necessarily manifest itself in lying per se. BPD is a very real and devastating phenomenon. According to DSM-IV-TR, the prevalence of BPD is estimated to be about 2% of the general population, 10% among individuals seen in outpatient psychiatric clinics, and 20% among psychiatric inpatients. Indeed, I believe BPD to be much more prevalent than presently believed, especially in men (currently about 75% of BPD patients are women) primarily because it can be covered up by the co-occurrence of other disorders, like depression and addiction, while at the same time can mimic and be mistaken for those same "major" mental disorders. For example, the intense outbursts of rage, impulsivity, and affective instability and reactivity of mood that commonly accompany BPD can look a lot like Bipolar Disorder and are regularly misdiagnosed as such.

Does this mean that patients suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder are evil? Not typically. But what I can say is that, in my experience, antisocial, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders do share something basic in common: a core of repressed anger and narcissistic rage. Individuals with these diagnoses, which frequently co-exist, have been deeply and consistently wounded during childhood in some way, and harbor tremendous and commonly unconscious resentment, anger and rage about this mistreatment as well as a profound dread of rejection or abandonment. According to the testimony of Ms. Arias, both her parents were regularly physically and emotionally abusive to her as a child, though this is still unconfirmed. When, in adulthood, rejection or abandonment does actually happen, which appears precisely to be what transpired between Alexander and  Arias, this chronically repressed rage can be triggered, sometimes with terrifying, terrible and tragic results.

However, much more so than in borderline personality disorder, a sense of "narcissistic entitlement" is characteristic of both narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder. And both share in common a distinct lack of empathy with their fellow man, being unwilling or unable to feel compassion toward, nor identify with, the emotions and needs of others. Such grossly inhumane attitudes and behaviors stem mainly from a combination of compensatory grandiosity and a schizoid-like detachment from their own feelings. The primary difference between narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder is one of degree, differentiated largely by the relative strength or weakness of what Freud called superego, as well as by the severity, type or intensity of past narcissistic wounding. The boundary between these two personality disorders is blurry, and sometimes indistinguishable. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg (1992) describes certain destructively aggressive, antisocial patients as suffering from "malignant narcissism," which is akin to what I am here calling "psychopathic narcissism," a toxic cocktail of borderline, narcissistic and antisocial traits. Such severe characterological disturbance typically underlies and drives the destructive behavior we traditionally refer to as "evil."

Having said all that, neither I nor any forensic psychologist or psychiatrist can accurately or ethically diagnose a defendant from afar, without having ever examined him or her. But I believe that these horrific cases dramatically demonstrate and, indeed, exemplify certain manifestations of  psychopathic narcissism. Indeed, this would be my proposed hybrid diagnosis for defendants with symptoms similar to those we see in individuals like van der Sloot, Anthony and Arias. We seem today to be witnessing a proliferation of psychopathic narcissism--what I perceive as pathological narcissism in extremis--as seen in cases like the so-called "Craigslist Killer" Phillip Markoff, Christopher Coleman (the minister's son convicted of murdering his wife and two children in their sleep), Scott Peterson, and many, many others. Narcissistic wounding underlies and drives borderline, narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, which are, in my opinion, best understood as anger disorders resulting from the chronic denial or repression of rage since early childhood. (See my prior post.) 

As Joran van der Sloot's now public psychological evaluation from prison suggests, the person suffering from and cruelly causing others to suffer from what I call psychopathic narcissism is fundamentally an immature, selfish, self-centered, resentful and raging child inside a powerful adult body. They are angry with their parents, angry with authority, angry with God, angry with life. They have been hurt, abused, emotionally wounded, deprived, overindulged, spoiled, abandoned or neglected in various ways--some grossly and some much more subtly--and are still bitterly lashing out against life. Against society. Against authority. When you have a pissed-off, impulsive five or ten-year-old in an adult body, with the freedom to do just as he or she pleases, you have an extraordinarily dangerous person capable of the most heinous evil deeds. Such angry, vindictive, embittered, opportunistic, impulsive and sometimes predatory people see the world as their personal playground, and for some, everyone in it as their potential next victim. To quote convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, the poster boy for such evil or antisocial tendencies : "I'm still a little five-year-old kid." And an extremely angry one.

The immense narcissism of defendants like Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias and Joran van der Sloot convinces them that they can ultimately outsmart the system. This narcissistic grandiosity can be seen in Jodi's seemingly arrogant pre-trial proclamation that "no jury will ever convict me." In the same way that van der Sloot's reported compulsive gambling reflected a grandiose, narcissistic overconfidence that he could beat the casino system. When van der Sloot told investigators during his recanted original confession that he was intoxicated, "did not want to do it," became "angry," "lost control" "wasn't thinking clearly," recalled his actions but not his motive, and didn't know what he was doing when impulsively killing Stephany Flores, was he deliberately lying in such a way he believed would help his legal situation?  Or, could he have been telling the truth? Could he have acted purely impulsively, flew into a furious frenzy, without premeditation or malice, perhaps out of frustration of sexual rejection or fear of Stephany exposing his possible culpability in the Natalee Holloway case? Could this conceivably have been a crime of passion as he claims? Or was Joran a calculating, predatory sexual psychopath who knew exactly what he intended to do with both Stephany Flores and, five years earlier, Natalee Holloway from the start? Similar troubling questions had to be considered by the jury in the Jodi Arias case: Did Jodi coldly carry out her diabolical plan to killl Travis?  Had she been abused, rejected or threatened by the victim, killing him impulsively in self-defense, as she claimed? Was she carried away by a fit of jealous rage in the heat of the moment? Or was she methodical, cold and calculating? According to the jury, based on an abundance of physical and circumstantial evidence, Jodi Arias acted with premeditation and extreme cruelty in the savage slaughter of Travis Alexander. Yet, clearly, both Jodi and Joran's self-confessed evil deeds were, to some degree, also crimes of passion fueled by narcissistic rage.

Classic psychopaths (see my prior post) are typically described as being "cold-blooded." But, in the case of someone like Joran van der Sloot, how can the vicious brutality of beating a young woman to death with his bare hands be construed as anything but an impassioned rage killing? (Unless it was deliberately staged to look this way.) Why the totally excessive overkill? One must ask oneself the exact same question regarding the Jodi Arias case, in which the unfortunate victim, her lover, was stabbed dozens of times, shot in the face, and had his throat slashed nearly to the poiint of  decapitation, very reminiscent of the multiple slashing  injuries resulting in the gory deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994 for which O.J. Simpson was criminally acquitted but ultimately found civilly liable. Were these similarly gruesome slayings not violent expressions of intense hatred and uncontrolled rage? If so, what is the source of that murderous rage? This, to me, is the essential question we should be asking ourselves regarding the psychology of these evil deeds, as well as the escalating epidemic of mass murders over recent decades. (See my prior posts.)

If violent offenders like Jodi Arias or Joran van der Sloot are the spoiled brats, the self-centered, manipulative, narcissistic individuals many make them out to be, and the bloody killers they both eventually admitted to being, what might have made them so?  Are such individuals evil incarnate? Neurotic? Mad? Or merely angry? In the case of van der Sloot, could his privileged, protected and permissive upbringing have been the primary root of his psychological problems? Extremely negative, traumatic childhood experiences are typically part of the psychopathic narcissist's family history. The severe childhood neglect, abandonment and abuse of Charles Manson is one textbook example. Yet, we must remember, as Sigmund Freud made clear, that during the most crucial phases of personality development in childhood, profound damage or "fixation" can be done not only by getting too little love, attention, gratification of needs, but equally by receiving too much of these necessary positive influences. Children naturally need love, affection, support, attention and recognition. But they also need firm limit-setting, boundaries, appropriate and consistent consequences for bad behavior, discipline, and what developmental psychologists call "optimal frustration." Optimal frustration is how children learn to delay gratification, persevere at tasks, develop inner strength and independence, and adapt to what Freud referred to as the "reality principle." When such structure, limit-setting and discipline is lacking, the seeds of psychopathic narcissism find fertile ground in which to grow.

The crucial question psychologically speaking is: What type of person or personality reacts to rejection (or possibly the perceived or actual threat of physical abuse) in such an excessively violent fashion? We have all felt the sting of romantic rejection at some time. Yet, fortunately, relatively few of us become murderers. Did Jodi Arias, a bright, pretty, then twenty-seven-year-old woman with no formally documented prior history of criminal or violent behavior, willfully commit this especially cruel and evil deed simply because she was being dumped by the victim with whom she was madly in love? This can sometimes be a hard sell to juries. Especially when the perpetrator is female. But it happens. Rage is a powerful passion. Women are generally far less physically aggressive than men. However, national surveys of domestic violence indicate that women assault their partners at about the same frequency as do men. As psychologist Anne Campbell (1993) notes, "Maleness and aggression have become linked to the point where it is easy to forget about women's aggression. It takes place far less often than men's, and it rarely makes headlines. It is private, unrecognized, and frequently misunderstood." 

So, in the final analysis, this case is not really about gender. It is about anger, rage, jealousy, vengeance and the inherent human capacity for evil. Fascinatingly, in at least one very recent media interview, Ms. Arias outright denies ever being angry with Travis Alexander. Evidently, her level of dissociation is massive. And this total denial of her own inner rage speaks to the very heart of her disorder and so many like her: the dissociation of the dark side, the daimonic or the shadow. This also may be one reason why the public feels so angry with her: She evokes in others the angry feelings and hostility she chronically represses in herself, a primitive defense mechanism known psychoanalytically as projective identification. According to the evidence based on which she was convicted, Jodi Arias butchered and shot her lover in what was most likely a state of jealous rage, and then calmly and deliberately lied about it, even after being arrested. There are almost always psychological reasons for such obscenely destructive behavior. Was she truly in a state of total denial and dissociation after the crime, as one expert witness, psychologist Dr. Richard Samuels, suggested? Or was she being consciously and deliberately manipulative? Is Jodi Arias evil? Or is she mentally disturbed? Can someone be both? And what is the relationship between the two?

Psychiatric diagnosis is our modern day attempt to make sense of and possibly mitigate evil. It is not enough to superficially and dismissively pronounce someone like Arias "evil" and be done with it. We must learn to more deeply understand what motivates such evil deeds.The term evil cannot become a substitute for proper psychiatric diagnosis. It is, rather, when used appropriately, an acknowledgement of the profound destructiveness, cruelty and depravity of extremely evil deeds stemming directly from some underlying emotional or neurobiological problem. But does that make  Ms. Arias the very embodiment of pure, irredeemable evil? No. Not unless we want to turn back the clock to a time centuries ago when such aberrant behaviors were deemed the diabolical work of the Devil, demons or witches, and those who committed them were ceremoniously tried, tortured, stoned to death by frenzied mobs, and burned at the stake. (Perhaps this is partly why this jury could not unanimously agree to put Ms. Arias to death as the price and punishment for her hideous evil deed.)

When we speak in terms of evil, it is more accurate and humane to talk of evil deeds rather than evil people. Yet when severely destructive behavior becomes a pervasive and repeated interpersonal pattern in certain individuals, the descriptive or even diagnostic term evil (often veiled in the overused clinical label of "psychopath") may be phenomenologically appropriate. Evil is, and always will be, with us. Though the problem of human evil clearly has spiritual, moral and ethical implications, I see it primarily as a psychological rather than theological, philosophical or metaphysical phenomenon. It is an existential reality we can ill afford to deny, both personally and collectively. Indeed, it may be on the rise in recent decades, and is, in my view, integrally linked to the chronic repression of anger or rage. Evil--and the pathological resentment, embitterment, hatred and rage underlying it--must be more carefully studied and psychologically dissected in depth if we wish to more effectively treat, contain and, at least to some extent, prevent it in the future.

 

 

Good or Evil?