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Joran, Casey and Psychopathic Narcissism: A Forensic Commentary

What do Casey Anthony and Joran van der Sloot have in common?

Friday the 13th turns out to have been unlucky for murder defendant Joran van der Sloot. The latest installment in the notorious case of the now twenty-four-year-old Dutchman consisted of his self-serving and disingenuous confession in a Peruvian courtroom this week. By dint of delivering this brief formal statement, van der Sloot pled guilty, and hoped to save himself from serving a far longer sentence than he would have without confessing under Peruvian law. However, today, those hopes were dashed. He was sentenced, fittingly by a panel of three female judges, to 28 years in prison. His affect during his courtroom appearances this week was inappropriate to the austere circumstance. Not psychotically inappropriate. But definitely inappropriate. He grinned and yawned frequently, giving the impression of being bored and unfazed by the proceedings. But today he seemed defeated, anxious, sad and very angry after hearing his sentence.

Having previously posted multiple times on both this and the Casey Anthony case (see some of my prior posts), it is hard not to note some similarities in the demeanor (if not alleged crimes) of these two young people. How can we make sense of their seeming lack of profoundly human, universal feelings like empathy, guilt, remorse or shame? Though I 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 studying these two tragic cases. So let us sum up what little we do know and consider what these cases have in common and what they can tell us about human nature and criminal psychology.

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 pattern of potentially illegal behaviors combined with the absence of remorse and appropriate affect, we are likely witnessing, at the very least, what clinicians 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 employ the term "psychopathic narcissism" to describe such individuals. Defendants like Casey Anthony (now acquitted) and Joran van der Sloot (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 big world. Sociopaths are, as I have argued elsewhere, primarily made, not born. (See my prior post.)

Another stunning similarity between Casey and Joran is their obvious cunning and native intelligence. We see this clearly demonstrated in both 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.") As well as in her apparently 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. 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 van der Sloot, it is precisely his cunning intelligence--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.

Having said all that, neither I nor any forensic psychologist can accurately or ethically diagnose a defendant from afar, without having ever examined him or her. But I believe that both of these cases demonstrate and, indeed, exemplify certain manifestations of what I call "psychopathic narcissism." This would be my proposed hybrid diagnosis for defendants with symptoms similar to those we see in individuals like van der Sloot and Anthony, a pathological and potentially deadly combination of narcissistic and antisocial traits.Today, we seem to be witnessing a proliferation of psychopathic narcissism--what I perceive as pathological narcissism in extremis--as seen in recent cases like the so-called "Craigslist Killer" Phillip Markoff, Chris Coleman, the minister's son who may have murdered his wife and two children in their sleep, Scott Peterson, Joran van der Sloot, and Casey Anthony, now acquitted of killing her own daughter in Florida. Narcissistic wounding underlies and drives both 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.

As Joran van der Sloot's now public psychological evaluation from prison reportedly suggests, the person suffering from and cruelly causing others to suffer from 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 the world. Against society. Against authority. And, perhaps, in van der Sloot's case, lashing out against women in particular. When you have a pissed-off, impulsive five or ten-year-old in a big, strong body, with the freedom to do just as he pleases--drive a car, drink, gamble, travel, have sex, do drugs, exploit, intimidate and bully others and generally get his own way--you have an extraordinarily dangerous person capable of the most evil deeds. Such angry, vindictive, embittered, opportunistic and sometimes predatory people see the world as their personal playground, and everyone in it as their potential next victim. To quote convicted mass murderer and poster boy for such antisocial tendencies, Charles Manson : "I'm still a little five-year-old kid." Being unconsciously controlled and driven by this hurt, selfish and enraged inner child is an exceedingly dangerous state of mind.

At his hearing, van der Sloot's lawyer suggested that Joran was suffering at the time of Ms. Flores' murder from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from both the Natalee Holloway case and the sudden and untimely death of his father. Was this yet another cynical effort by van der Sloot, via his lawyer, to cleverly manipulate the Peruvian justice system? Malingering--the conscious and intentional effort to make oneself seem more mentally or physically ill in an attempt to manipulate the external system one is dealing with--is an ever-present pitfall in the practice of forensic psychology and psychiatry. It can be extremely difficult to distinguish between "faking bad" (exaggerating or fabricating symptoms) or "faking good" (some defendants don't wish to be seen as mentally ill, as, for instance, in the case of convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski.) Most forensic clinicians rely primarily on their extensive training and, especially, prior experience (and often on the results of standardized psychological testing, such as the MMPI-2) to detect the presence of feigning, manipulation, dissimulation, lying, defensiveness, secondary gain, and the like. For me, however, the most important clues to whether someone suffers legitimately from a serious mental disorder or is faking or exaggerating his or her symptoms, come from a composite of history, current context and clinical presentation. Major mental disorders such as Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Antisocial or Narcissistic personality disorders, etc. seem to stem in part from archetypal patterns of potentiality embedded deeply in the human psyche. By archetypal, I mean universally present in each of us. It is not so much a matter of certain individuals being born with a specific predisposition toward a particular mental disorder as what takes place after birth (and possibly even prenatally) in the interplay of temperament and environment to trigger some particular pathological archetypal pattern. Schizophrenics have very similar patterns of pathology. So do sufferers of bipolar or unipolar depression. As do psychopaths and serial killers. Which is why they can be profiled to some extent. In this rather Jungian perspective, they each have their archetypal or universal patterns of behavior and experience, notable cultural differences not withstanding. With sufficient forensic experience, clinicians become familiar with these common patterns, and can compare the defendant's complaints, symptoms, behavior and history with what they know to be typical (or atypical) in similar cases.

For example, suppose van der Sloot--who has already been evaluated and described by a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist in Peru as demonstrating a low threshold for frustration tolerance, emotional immaturity, superficial relationships, need for constant stimulation, and a hostile, dominating attitude toward women--turns out to be officially diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, the American Psychiatric Association's (DSM-lV-TR) official term for sociopathy, psychopathy, amoral or dissocial personality? The possibility, indeed likelihood, of malingering must always be considered in forensic evaluations of defendants with possible Antisocial Personality Disorder or traits. Such defendants can be quite sophisticated (and some only think they are) in their knowledge of both psychology/psychiatry and the legal system. One classic example would be convicted serial killer Kenneth Bianchi, the "Hillside Strangler," who tried unsuccessfully to convince evaluators that he suffered from multiple personality disorder, now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. And some sociopaths are cunning and proficient enough to fool standardized psychological tests like the MMPI-2, which may be exactly what occurred in Ms. Anthony's case. (See the forensic evaluations of Casey coincidentally made public this week.)

The immense narcissism of such defendants convinces them that they can outsmart the system. In the same way that van der Sloot's reported compulsive gambling may reflect 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? How much had he learned from his father, Paulus, a lawyer and judge in Aruba, about issues like mens rea, irresistible impulse, and mental mitigation under the law? Or through his own research? 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 have been a crime of passion as he claims? Or is 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?

If he is lying, this would be par for the course for the antisocial or psychopathically narcissistic defendant. Lying, deceitfulness, conning, manipulation, deflection of responsibility, rationalization and malingering come with the territory. If he is telling the truth, if he did kill the victim or victims in a murderous rage rather than as part of a premeditated plan or predatory behavioral pattern, then forensic evaluators would have to consider the possible presence of some other or additional mental disorder, an impulse-control disorder such as Intermittent Explosive Disorder or maybe even Bipolar Disorder. Or what might better be conceptualized as an anger disorder. According to Joran's own mother, Anita, he is "sick in his head," had been "traumatized" and "depressed" since the Natalee Holloway case and the death of his father, suffers from an "addiction," and was behaving bizarrely in the weeks prior to the crime. Indeed, Joran was, according to his mother, scheduled to enter a psychiatric clinic or hospital for treatment in the Netherlands just days before he abruptly took off instead to South America. And there is some reported history of problems with impulsive anger and aggressive behavior going back at least to age fifteen or sixteen, suggesting the possible pre-existing diagnosis of Conduct Disorder--a prerequiste for the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder after the age of eighteen. Such a finding of some diagnosed major (Axis 1) mental disorder other than Antisocial Personality Disorder, could, here in California, for instance, qualify a defendant for a possible insanity defense, which, under the law, cannot be utilized solely on the basis of the presence of a personality disorder like APD or NPD. In other states, and perhaps in Peru, it could conceivably be used to gain him consideration for reduced sentencing. Is this what Joran was craftily considering all along, prior to ultimately deciding to plead guilty to this evil deed? If so, it illustrates his extraordinary Machiavellian cunning and uncanny ability to intelligently anticipate, plan and manipulate calmly and calculatingly on the fly. Even in, what for most others, would be intensely distressing and disorienting circumstances.

The synchronistic fact that this atrocious killing occurred on precisely the same date as the Holloway disappearance, seems more than mere meaningless coincidence. Like the still missing and now presumed dead eighteen-year-old Natalee, van der Sloot reportedly met the twenty-one-year-old Stephany at a casino at night and was seen returning to his hotel room with her around 5 AM Sunday morning. He was witnessed leaving the hotel room alone several hours later with his bags. And, evidently, Stephany's money, credit cards and car. Three days later, on Tuesday, the victim's lifeless, half-naked body face down, was found by hotel staff in his blood-spattered room. Could Joran van der Sloot be more than merely a selfish, spoiled kid who callously covered up the accidental death of an intoxicated sexual partner in Aruba? Could he actually be a predatory serial killer of two young women, including Natalee Holloway? And might he have murdered more women along the way?

I have commented extensively on the Natalee Holloway case in a previous post. At that time, there was no known prior history of violence attributed to van der Sloot. Holloway's body has never been recovered. (In another eerie coincidence, Natalee, still missing, was declared legally dead just this week.) No forensic evidence of homicide had, at least to my knowledge, been found. Since then, Joran confessed publicly and privately to several accidental versions of involvement in Holloway's death, but almost immediately denied the veracity of his own statements. His father, a judge in the Aruban legal system who may well have helped his son illegally cover up Natalee's death, suddenly collapsed and died while playing tennis several years ago. He was relatively young. Had the chronic stress of the Holloway case and his own possible illegal involvement taken its fatal toll?

Joran, while briefly re-arrested since Holloway's disappearance, had been free to travel around the globe, and was secretly videotaped recruiting young women in Thailand to work in the Netherlands as prostitutes. In addition, he was charged with allegedly attempting to sleezily extort 250,000 dollars from Natalee Holloway's mother in return for telling her the location of her daughter's remains and details of her death. Van der Sloot was in Lima, Peru participating in a poker tournament. He apparently fancies himself a player. There are recent reports that his victim, Ms. Flores, won a significant sum of money that evening at the casino, all of which was missing from the horrific crime scene. Some sources suggested initially (though I don't think this proved true) that the victim may have been slipped GHB or Rohypnol, so-called "date rape" drugs--something the Holloway family has long suspected happened to Natalee that terrible night in Aruba.

Gradually, a chilling and telling pattern appears to take shape in the Joran van der Sloot case: Involvement in prostitution. Gambling. Extortion. Willfully concealing, according to at least one of his stories, a young American woman's death. And quite conceivably, rape, robbery and multiple murder. A pervasive disregard for and violation of the rights of others. Repeated illegal activities. Deceitfulness. Skillful lying. Conning. Physical aggressiveness. Sadistic cruelty. Irresponsibility. Impulsivity. Grandiosity. Absence of empathy. Exploitation of others. Apparent total lack of remorse for having hurt, mistreated or stolen from someone. This classic constellation of symptoms and suspected evil deeds in any defendant would demand that a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist carefully consider the presence of sociopathy, psychopathy, dyssocial or antisocial personality disorder. Or what in cases like this might be more descriptively termed "psychopathic narcissism." But what causes such selfish, antisocial attitudes and behaviors?

Little is known publicly about Joran's childhood and family history. He appears to have grown up in a middle to upper middle class, well-to-do family, the eldest of three sons. His father, Paulus, was a prominent lawyer. His mother, Anita, a school teacher. However, there have been unsubstantiated stories that in the year before meeting Natalee Holloway, Joran, then perhaps sixteen, pushed a classmate through a plate glass window, and was supposedly described by some who knew him as having "anger management" problems. There is another unconfirmed report that Joran may have severely beaten up his brother at one time. From a forensic perspective, it would be important to learn whether the defendant did indeed have a history of physical aggression, fighting or assaults prior to the alleged crime or crimes. If Joran van der Sloot is the spoiled brat, the arrogant bully, the self-centered, manipulative, narcissistic, misogynistic murderer many make him out to be, and the killer he now admits to being, what might have made him so? Is he an embodiment of the proverbial "bad seed"? Evil incarnate? Demonic possession? Or could his privileged, protected and permissive upbringing have been the primary root of his problems?

Extremely negative, traumatic childhood experiences are typically part of the psychopath's family history. The severe childhood neglect, abandonment and abuse of Charles Manson is one textbook example. At this point, we have no way of knowing what type of psychological environment young Joran was exposed to early on, and have very limited information on the personalities and problems of his parents during that time. But 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.

Children must be taught by and learn from their parents or caretakers that the world does not revolve around them, and that there are some behaviors that are wrong and won't be tolerated. When a child does not receive such an education at home, he or she is ill-prepared to deal with the world at large. In such cases, we see an unchecked infantile egoism or narcissism never sufficiently socialized, and therefore, never moderated. Eventually, their bad behavior accepted at home intensifies into evil deeds, landing them in big trouble in the big world. It is quite possible that this was the situation for Joran van der Sloot. He may have come from a home where his healthy narcissistic needs were overindulged by his parents, and hence, became unmitigated and pathological. Strange as it may seem, such overindulgence, lack of discipline, and overprotectiveness on the part of sometimes sincerely well-meaning parents can be as deeply wounding and destructive as its polar opposite: neglect, abandonment, abuse, deprivation. It is in itself a traumatizing type of deprivation and abandonment in which the child's basic needs for structure, guidance, limit-setting, consequences, reality testing, supervision and parental authority are ignored, neglected and frustrated. In a sense, the child feels that the overindulgent, overpermissive parent doesn't care enough to provide the limit-setting and structure he or she needs. And the child is at first hurt by, and then angered at this parental failure and lack of responsibility. This anger, having no real outlet (how can a child be angry with such ostensibly loving, nurturing and indulgent parents?), tends to be repressed and fester, turning over time into toxic resentment, embitterment and narcissistic rage. But the psychopathic narcissist masks this rage masterfully in most situations.

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 border 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."

Traditionally, classic psychopaths are described as being "cold-blooded." But how can the vicious brutality of beating a young woman to death be construed as anything but an impassioned rage killing? (Unless it was deliberately staged to look this way.) Why the totally excessive overkill? Joran told police that he killled Stephany in anger when she snooped into his "private life" on his laptop. Had she found incriminating evidence regarding the Holloway case? Did van der Sloot kill Stephany to silence her? Another possible explanation for such cases would be that the killer was trying to mutilate the body so as to make post mortem identification difficult or impossible, clearly a cold, deliberate calculation. "Jack the Ripper," who terrorized nineteenth century London, mutilated his victims, female prostitutes, not to conceal their identity, but in part as an expression of a suspected rabid hatred of women. His (or her) identity was never finally determined, but one of the most likely suspects was reportedly an American with a well-known animus toward the feminine gender. In a fairly recent sensational New Zealand murder case (see my prior post), a university tutor allegedly stabbed his twenty-two-year-old ex-girlfriend more than two-hundred times, severely mutilating her lips, breasts and genitals. It was evidently all about narcissistic rage. Was van der Sloot sexually rejected by Ms. Flores? Did he fly into a violently narcissistic rage? A homicidal adult temper tantrum? Or was this possibly a robbery gone horribly wrong? Or something else?

As I have suggested elsewhere (see my article "Violence as Secular Evil"), repressed anger, rage, resentment and hatred are at the heart of psychopathic narcissism as well as so many other serious and dangerous mental disorders. So what might the confessed murderer Joran van der Sloot be so enraged or embittered about? What do van der Sloot's reported behaviors say about his feelings toward women? The extremely violent nature of the alleged killing of Stephany Flores suggests that this was, to some extent, a rage killing. Such vicious anger, rage and hatred toward women is typically rooted in tremendous unconscious hostility toward the mother, and a devaluation of the feminine in general. For psychopathic narcissists, it may also have to do with women being more vulnerable to victimizing with their sadistic, cruel, hostile impulses, much as animals, insects or younger children tend to play this victim role for severely troubled adolescents diagnosed with Conduct Disorder-- often a prelude to adult psychopathy. Indeed, in the case of a defendant like Joran van der Sloot, it would not be surprising to find during forensic evaluation that, as a boy or teenager, he at some point manifested at least some of the symptoms of Conduct Disorder.

Now that van der Sloot has chosen conveniently to plead guilty to his crime in Peru, he will likely serve at least half of his 28 year sentence. He has thus far fairly skillfully manipulated the Peruvian justice system, in much the same way many believe Casey Anthony successfully manipulated the justice system in Florida. And he may only be getting started. Ultimately, I believe that van der Sloot's incarceration in Peru will eventually lead to a resolution of the Natalee Holloway case. And he may be holding onto that information as his trump or "get out of jail free" card. In fact, it appears he will be extradited to the U.S. soon to face Federal extortion charges here. But if he does serve and survive his prison sentence and eventually regain his freedom, Joran could conceivably be released before he turns forty. If he is a prime example of psychopathic narcissism, a vicious serial killer, that is a very scary prospect. And many observers feel equally queasy about Casey Anthony's newfound freedom. Who knows? Fate can be funny. Maybe those two are really made for each other.

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