The Secret Trick of the Psychopath's Game
The ability to play roles enables predatory moves.
Posted February 28, 2019
Purposeful predatory serial killers like Ted Bundy and Dennis Rader have received a lot of documentary attention lately. I count at least 6 for each over the past three months. In part, it’s because viewers are fascinated with how someone can pose so easily as a normal person while also committing murder after murder (among other crimes).
Utah-based prison psychologist Al Carlisle, who’d interviewed Bundy before the extent of his crimes was known, noticed this chameleonic talent. He found that Bundy could be friendly while also steaming inside. He lied easily while seeming sincere or acted supremely confident while feeling insecure. Nothing about him indicated the level of violence and perverse sexual behavior for which he would become famous. Often, he was quite charming.
Upon learning more about Bundy's manipulative ways, Carlisle proposed that the ability to repeatedly kill and also function as a seemingly normal person develops through the evolution of three primary processes: fantasizing scenarios for entertainment or self-empowerment, dissociating to avoid difficult feelings, and compartmentalizing to be able to act as different people in different situations.
Serial killers, Carlisle said, can present a public persona that appears to be “good” and also nurtures “badness,” or violent fantasies. This is not dissociative identity disorder. Rather, it’s ego management. The person does not value integrity and has no deep commitment to a given persona, so he can use whichever one works for a given situation.
Carlisle put it this way: “It’s like an actor who rehearses a script so intently that when portraying that role on stage or in a film he has a deep sense of being that person. The actor creates within his mind the world of his character and he can move around within the sphere of the character he is playing without losing the essence of the part. Once he has completed the film or stage production, he can move on to another role… he exits the compartment he has created in his mind for that role…”
In other words, the actor can access the voice, the mannerisms, the behavior and the emotions of the role upon cue as needed, and then step out of the role when it’s not needed. The serial killer has a similar skill.
“The actor steps onto the stage to play out his role. The killer steps from one compartment in his mind into the other. The actor leaves the theater for a day on the beach. The killer shifts from the pathological compartment in his mind back into the socially acceptable compartment but he never completely leaves the theater in his mind. It is with him wherever he goes, 24-hours a day, day in and day out.”
When I was writing Confession of a Serial Killer with Dennis “BTK” Rader, he used a different word for this process: cubing. He described how he'd developed “life frames,” living on a given side of the cube to be a family man, husband, Boy Scout volunteer, church leader, burglar or serial killer (see photo). When he was presenting himself on one side, the other sides – which were still part of him – were invisible to him. They didn’t interrupt his performance. Yet, they were ready-to-hand when needed.
I think that a cube more accurately captures this skill of duality than compartments, which convey a sense of a discontinuous or partitioned experience. As the predators have explained it, there’s something quite fluid about being able to quickly shift from one role to another. The cube allows this.
Rader said that his ability to “cube” kept things separate, buffering awareness of the inconsistency of values in his diverse personas. He could consider himself a good person who did some bad things. It helped to maintain his sense that when he was on one side of the cube, he was fully that persona. The other sides receded. He could be a father and also kill a father... and a child.
The process started early for him. “It started in childhood, as make-believe. Those White Hat fantasies [playing good guys like Roy Rogers] turned dark. They probably started before I can remember. I would cube into a storyteller for my brother, mostly at night. I cubed into a cowboy when we played. As I got darker fantasies, I cubed into [a] lone wolf. I spent endless time inventing my make-believe fort. As I grew up, the mental cubing was [an] escape from a boring class or job. I found time to daydream each day because it was my best time. It always recharged me. When I felt alone, my cubing made me feel better. It was easy to cube into [my] Dark Side as my secret. I wasn’t hurting anyone, only in my mind.”
By adulthood, when he indulged his disturbed fantasies, “cubing” was easy. It was a natural extension of his childhood ability to assume roles. He’d played at being Roy Rogers and other childhood heroes; he could do this as an adult. “I started work at the Coleman plant, doing assembly work on the second shift. I had a stand-alone workstation, and I passed the time by cubing into daydreams about being a hitman and a spy.”
As a “spy,” he followed women and became a voyeur, using his “mission” to justify peering into people’s homes, then to justify breaking in to take things. This evolved into murder, then serial murder. Yet he still went home to his wife, kids, and responsibilities.
“Yes, I was a serial killer,” he said, “but still a loving husband and father. My fantasies were elsewhere. Cubing!”
No matter how one labels this ability, it’s inherent in the human imagination. How far a person will stretch it and how much they will hone it in the service of a double life depends on the person's goals. The facility for lying, a lack of remorse, and the ability to plan and prepare can turn this form of role-playing into something lethal.
Ramsland, K. (2016). Confession of a serial killer: The untold story of Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer. Lebanon, NH: UPNE/ForeEdge.
Carlisle, A. C. (2000). The dark side of the serial-killer personality. In Serial Killers, edited by Louis Gerdes. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.