Psychopath, Interrupted

A psychologist once proposed a lasting “cure” for psychopathy.

Posted Aug 24, 2014

In one place, he describes a psychopath as someone who is "incapable of exertions for the sake of others." Wow! That would include a lot more people than just psychopaths!

He goes on to say that a psychopath is “a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program … a religious disobeyer of prevailing codes.” Essentially, the psychopath pleases only himself. So, he’s “infantile.” He’s an “embryonic Storm Trooper.”

Oddly, Lindner seems only vaguely aware of a book published three years earlier by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. The Mask of Sanity was a groundbreaking approach to psychopathy, crystalizing the criteria. Until this time, the condition had been referred to by such labels as "insanity without delirium," "moral insanity," and "psychopathic inferiority." 

Having encountered this distinct personality type during the course of his work as a prison psychiatrist, Cleckley listed sixteen distinct traits that, in constellation, formed a specific pattern of perspective and behavior. Among them were manipulativeness, irresponsibility, self-centeredness, lacking in empathy or anxiety, and likely to commit more types of crimes than other offenders, especially violent crimes. They did not respond well to treatment.

But, back to the cure!

The psychopath on whom Lindner focuses is “Harold,” who began his criminal career at age 12 with a petty theft. He ended up in juvenile detention. It didn’t help. He kept stealing. All of the professionals who assessed him decided he was a psychopath.

When Lindner began his sessions with Harold, it occurred to him that it would be invaluable to have a record of their entire transaction. (Had he already decided a priori that this was a cure?) So he concealed a microphone inside the couch where Harold would lie as he free-associated. A wire led to another room, where a stenographer took down every word.

I won't say this book is scintillating reading. In truth, it’s rather dull. Amid Harold’s droning on and on, Lindner occasionally inserts observations, such as “Had the patient wished his death and is his praise an atonement for the wish?”

And so it goes for about 300 pages. The book probably sold because Harold does admit to killing someone, a rarity in those days. In fact, he expresses considerable concern about it, which is surprising for someone diagnosed as a psychopath. But he apparently believes that he must tell the doctor everything in order to be “straightened around.”

(In fact, the man that he’d stabbed didn’t die, but Lindner decided it was more therapeutic to let Harold believe he was a killer during these sessions.)

By the book’s end, Lindner proclaims that, with hypnoanalysis, he’s been able to obtain meaningful insights about the criminal mind. More grandiosely, he decides that hypnoanalysis has successfully penetrated the psychopathic condition to produce a cure. No other technique has been successful.

“It [the condition] wanted an instrument capable of making a frontal as well as a flanking assault upon the organism,” he wrote. It needed an “incisive” technique to extract “historic scenes” that Harold found too painful to face.

What Harold gets out of these sessions, Lindner believes, is the ability to live with his condition, to accept it, and make the best of it. That is, he’s gained insight. Thus, he can change his lifestyle. “Gone is the sneering sullenness, that arrogant aggression, that Storm Trooper mentality, that disregard for the rights and feelings of others.” Harold now “knows that he needs to be a psychopath no more.”

It’s that simple.

Even better, because hypnoanalysis accelerates the analytic process, it offers a “radically abbreviated method for the investigation of the personality and the treatment of psychogenic disorders.” What Lindner proposes, he claims, is superior to just locking these people behind bars. He predicts that this process will change criminals into useful citizens.

And yet, here we are, 70 years later and not much closer to a “cure” for psychopathy. His optimism, while endearing, was misplaced. If Harold really was a psychopath, as we understand this term today, it seems unlikely that a murder confession under hypnosis would have produced a lasting personality change.

In fact, I’d bet that if Harold discovered he’d been secretly recorded and had been deceived about the “murder,” he wouldn’t be pleased.

In addition, nowhere in this book do we see reports of enduring results across Harold's life or of widespead succes with other cases.

As an amusing anecdote in the history of criminology, this book is a find, but it certainly doesn't present a forgotten cure for psychopathy that we should resurrect.