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Patricia Highsmith: How Sublimation Creates Great Psychopathic Characters

Beware of tarnishing the self-image of a psychopath.

Key points

  • Severe narcissism is key to a psychopath's behavior.
  • When a psychopath's grandiosity is tarnished, vengeful destructive consequences may follow.
  • Highsmith's sublimation of unacceptable feelings led to great psychopathic characters.

In 1943, Patricia Highsmith wrote a diary entry, “Am I a psychopath?” Highsmith was aware of a “psychopathic strain in her effort as an aspiring novelist.”

Those of us who have come across people with severe character pathology, or encounter them in books and films, find ourselves particularly fascinated with those without conscience who blithely feel free to do what they want while experiencing no remorse for their heinous crimes.

Highsmith’s similar attraction fueled her prolific writing of characters who were detached, cold, and ruthless while culturally superior and quite rich. Once asked whether they matched the description of psychopaths she read about in the books of Karl Menninger and Hervey Checkley, Highsmith answered, "Yes."

A Highsmith psychopath deliberately encounters another male, who is less aware of his violent longings and passive in curbing them once ignited.

Alfred Hitchcock made Strangers on the Train, Highsmith’s first book, into a film. Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno checked all the boxes on Professor Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Check List. Guy, played by Farley Granger, was easy prey for Bruno. “Sure, Bruno, whatever you say, Bruno,” after an exchange of murders was proposed to Guy, never imagining the consequences of not taking Bruno at his word.

Hitchcock’s great wit visualized how two people, such as Guy and Bruno, could be two sides of the same coin. Guy has unconscious longings to rid himself of his miserable wife, and Bruno, whose overt psychopathy could actualize it, while Guy simultaneously kills his father. “Criss Cross,” said Bruno smartly.

Highsmith’s ability to sublimate forbidden longings into the Ripley character drew other great filmmakers to adapt her books. My two favorite Ripley films are The Talented Mr. Ripley (Mathew Damon), directed by Anthony Minghella, and Ripley’s Game (John Malkovich), directed by Iliana Cavani.

The pairing of men continues, in the first, Tom with Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and the second with Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott). Ripley’s Game, less well known in the United States but no less superior, starkly presents severe narcissism as the core vulnerability of Tom Ripley.

Ripley, the art connoisseur and gourmand newly arrived in town easily throws money around, overhears Trevanny, a man of modest means, making fun of him, an American, calling Ripley of poor taste.

An old score requires Ripley to murder someone. Instead of doing it himself, he offers Trevanny, who is dying from cancer and is suffering financially, $100,000 to do the murder for him.

“Why me?” Trevanny asks. “You insulted me,” says Ripley. Beware, anyone, if you attempt to tarnish the self-image of a psychopath.

Pressures from all sides build. Trevanny betrays his pregnant wife's wishes and accedes. With Ripley’s help, Trevanny earns the needed money but surprisingly steps into the fray and gets killed. As he dies, a waned smile crosses his face as he gazes at Ripley.

What exactly was Highsmith enacting by pairing these men?

Having seen the recent documentary, Loving Highsmith, I suspect Highsmith’s ability to sublimate her hateful and vengeful feelings towards her mother for her abusive childhood and periodic abandonment left her filled with self-deprecating thoughts and behavior. No doubt due to intolerable guilt for Highsmith’s wicked feelings towards her mother.

Highsmith’s imagination created detached, successful murderers paired with weak partners. Was it her mother and herself? I suspect that Highsmith’s lifelong struggles would have been far more intolerable without her vast talent. She has given us Ripley and his many fictionalized descendants; we are free to imagine a remorseless murder or two on demand.


Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us by Robert Hare, Simon & Shuster 1993.

The New Statesman, March 24, 2021, by Leo Robson, “Am I a Psychopath?”

“Loving Highsmith,” a Documentary Directed by Eva Vitija 2022

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