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Evil Genes? An Unconventional Perspective on BPD

"Why Rome fell, Hitler rose, and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend."

Struggling with borderline personality disorder? Or interacting often with someone whose frequent high-intensity emotions impinge on your well-being as well as theirs?

If so, Barbara Oakley’s book Evil Genes is likely to prove provocative, either positively or negatively. A recent article reviewing the research corroborates much of what Oakley writes about potential genetic roots of borderline functioning, Oakley was courageous in quite some time ago suggesting that the hurtful behaviors of some folks with borderline personality disorder sometimes cannot be fixed via individual or couples counseling because these patterns are hard-wired into the person’s genetic makeup.

Subtitled “Why Rome fell, Hitler rose, Enron failed and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend,” Evil Genes may make you mad. At the same time, the book offers a serious scientist's comprehensive review of neuroscientic, genetic and historical studies of borderline personality disorder (BPD). The result is a book that challenges psychologists like myself to consider the possibility that all BPD bad behavior is not necessarily due to childhood traumas alone.

Oakley gives evidence that genes are at the basis of some of the deceitful, manipulative and even sadistic behavior of borderline individuals.

Oakley knows how to research a scientific question. With a doctorate in the integrative discipline of systems engineering, as an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, and as a recent vice president of the world’s largest bioengineering society, Oakley has credentials as a scientist that lend serious credibility to her investigations.

Oakley also backs up her extensive scientific and historical explorations with her personal experience. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Oakley’s BPD sister—frequently stunned the family with outrageously selfish actions that had significantly injurious impacts on other family members.

One of the aspects of this book that I particularly like is that Oakley overcomes the conventional tendency of mental health professionals to use the term BPD to refer primarily just to women. Evil Genes utilizes this diagnosis to cover also the behavior of many men who would typically have been labeled abusive, sociopathic, narcissistic or with the label malignant narcissism without indication of the link between these behaviors and the hurtful behaviors of women who get labeled BPD.

The term BPD is clearly in flux. How much overlap there is between BPD and not only overly-intense emotional reactions but also narcissism, paranoia, sociopathy, and sometimes sadism as well is unclear. Oakley explores the relationship between these multiple factors and how they have played out in the lives are various well-known historical figures whose BPD, when they are men, has typically been characterized as malignant narcissism.

The bottom line is that I generally recommend this book to my clients when they are struggling to understand the behaviors of a mysteriously difficult-to-deal BPD parent or sibling.

The feedback I have received from my clients has been consistent. The book helps them to feel calmer and more accepting of the difficult BPD family member, and yet to be able to deal with them with increased realism.

I, too, like this book. Its comprehensive review of the scientific literature is very helpful. The writing style is so engaging that it reads almost like a novel. Most importantly however Oakley sustains a surprising empathy for borderlines, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their propensity to take actions which others would regard as evil.

I’ll conclude therefore this review of Oakley’s excellent book by quoting a paragraph that for me summarizes Oakley’s dual ability to see the evil clearly that borderline individuals can do, and at the same time to see the person behind the evil with compassion.

Both high-tech neuroscience and Carolyn’s old-fashioned journal entries have helped me to realize that Carolyn [the author’s sister], and people like her, often don’t consciously intend to be evil and certainly don’t see themselves as evil—despite the blindingly obvious and sometimes terrible consequences of their actions. Instead, these are people who are constrained by the quirks of their neural machinery—often carved by both genes and environment—to act in self-serving, manipulative, and deceitful ways. Evil though the consequences of their actions may be, such Machiavellians are still real people, not caricatures—they can become heartbreakingly lonely, monumentally sad, and their eyes can become filled with tears of pity—even if it is only self-pity.

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Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is the author of Power of Two, a book, workbook, and website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships.

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