Janet Malcolm on the moral evasion of psychological language

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer:

“The book’s [Harry Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity] thesis…is that there is a kind of evildoer called a psychopath, who does not seem in any way abnormal or different from other people but in fact suffers from ‘a grave psychiatric disorder,’ whose chief symptom is the very appearance of normality by which the horror of his condition is obscured. For behind ‘the mask of sanity’ there is not a real human being but a mere simulacrum of one….

“Cleckley’s ‘grave psychiatric disorder’ is, of course, the same disorder that afflicted Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and a host of other wonderful literary creations. The attempt to solve the problem of evil and perpetuate the Romantic myth of the innate goodness of man through the fanciful notion that the people who commit evil acts are lacking in the usual human equipment—are not ‘real’ human beings at all but soulless monsters—is a familiar topos of Victorian Romantic literature….To McGinniss, the concept of the psychopath did not so much offer a solution to his literary problem of making MacDonald a believable murderer as give him permission to evade the problem—just as the concept itself evades the problem it purports to solve. To say that people who do bad things don’t seem bad is to say something we already know: no one flaunts bad behavior everyone tries to hide it, every villain wears a mask of goodness. The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil—it is merely a restatement of the mystery—and only offers an escape valve for the frustration felt by psychiatrists, social workers, and police offers, who daily encounter its force.”


  1. Lawrence Houghteling June 26, 2021 at 10:06 pm | #

    The use of psychopaths as protagonists and antagonists in popular literature, especially of course mysteries and thrillers, is preposterously prevalent. You’d think there were as many psychopathic persons in real life as there are lefties. The great advantage of creating a psychopathic character is that the writer can have her (or more likely, him) do all sorts of unlikely things, which spices up the action endlessly. Sometimes these characters are in effect given superpowers, and escape from destructions that would fell Godzilla. I always think of this “fooling around with psychopaths” as, simply, literary cheating, and I can’t think of a single book which was made better by having such a figure. Except, maybe, for Moby Dick and the Bible.

  2. Stephen Vernon June 26, 2021 at 10:23 pm | #

    …” solve the problem of evil and perpetuate the Romantic myth of the innate goodness of man ” … We do not have to solve the problem of evil(‘s existence) in order to know the innate goodness of people. We have the very same rational mind that creates the false problem to understand the Evolutionarily developed need to support each other in our drive for continued existence. It is when this is removed from consciousness and culture that we are apt to drown ourselves in our own sewage.

  3. John MacLean June 26, 2021 at 11:40 pm | #

    I just encountered the term “simulacra” in CJ Hopkin’s “Trumpocalypse.” He writes: “Simulacra serve a vital purpose, namely, to conceal the absence of something. Religious icons and other representations of monotheistic deities do not conceal the existence of those deities; they conceal the non-existence of those deities.” He writes about the pathologization of resistance and how this conceals how “it is normality that does not exist…” I was thinking that talk of the filibuster is like this as it hides that our institutions often serve corporations and not us. At the moment I’m also getting through “They Thought They Were Free” by Milton Mayer. He follows the lives of ten rank-and-file Nazis in a small conservative town in Germany. This Janet Malcolm book seems worth a read.

  4. Ed June 27, 2021 at 12:58 am | #

    I agree with the gist of the chosen quotes but disagree that the term “psychopath” exemplifies the avoidance of “evil”- or good.
    Rather our preoccupation with political strategy, markability, persuasion, polls and other smart analysis substitutes for higher moral understanding
    Comparatively, “psychopath” is well understood in relation to morality.

  5. Jonnybutter June 27, 2021 at 7:15 am | #

    I’ve actually read Cleckley’s book and not Malcolm’s, so I couldn’t speak to her larger argument. I gave away my copy of Cleckley, so it’s not easy to go check. But I am pretty sure she’s being intellectually fair to neither Cleckley nor Attempted Psychiatry in this passage.

    Knowing a lot about being glib my own self, I’ve noticed that a good sign of it is when a debunking explains less than the theory being debunked. It’s not the salutary ‘raises more questions than it answers’. It explains less. A psychopath is actually nothing like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula, nor any other made up, inhuman monster; the psychopath is all *too* human, and all too real. Whether Cleckley is a clear writer or successful theorist or not, I don’t know how one could read all those case studies – the heart of his book – and conclude that such a distinct thing (or even pathology) doesn’t exist, however well developed its attendant theory. Malcolm’s insight has to supersede Cleckley’s (or any other shrink-type) not just debunk it. Maybe it does in the whole book, but not here, and this kind of gloss makes me suspicious. Suggesting that psychopathy is simply moral evasion seems itself to be an evasion.

    FWIW, Cleckley’s psychopaths are not what you would call ‘villains’. They often wreak havoc, but they aren’t quite hiding their evil intentions the way we supposedly all do because they don’t conceive of what they’re trying to get away with as evil. The usually hurt other people, but even more surely they destroy themselves, or try to do. They don’t have a concept of evil or health or any number of things we non-psychopaths dissemble about. That, and not the mask of sanity, is their pathology I think.

  6. Benjamin David Steele June 27, 2021 at 10:43 am | #

    In technical terms, psycopathy is clearly defined. The main feature is lacking or stunted affective empathy, although they can have normal levels or even highly developed cognitive empathy. The opposite pattern is found among those on the autism spectrum disorder who are deficient in cognitive empathy. These forms of empathy can be measured in people. There is nothing particularly contentious about this in psychiatry and the social sciences. But there is no doubt that, in our society, the term ‘psychopath’ is often used loosely and incorrectly. This is understandable, though, as there is an actual increase in many psychiatric illnesses, from mood disorders to psychoticism. The difference in traditional societies is that they would often intentionally banish or kill anyone exhibiting psychopathic behaviors. That doesn’t happen in our society.

    Also, for all the obsession with fictional psychopaths as intelligent supervillains and serial killers, most psychopaths are otherwise normal people with normal IQs and normal lives. They simply are incapable of fully feeling what others feel, although a well-adjusted psychopath will still be able to cognitively understand the emotions of others and act accordingly. Most psycopaths don’t commit horrendous crimes or seek to harm people. Like anyone else, the average psychopath holds down a job, pays bills, goes shopping, and maybe has a spouse and children. Reality is more mundane than fiction. Lacking affective empathy doesn’t make one evil. It does make social relating difficult, but actually lacking cognitive empathy can be much more of a hindrance. In fact, lacking affective empathy can be an advantage in some careers such as being a surgeon.

    But it is true that the data shows psycopaths are disproportionately found in prisons and in positions of authority and power (politicians, upper management, etc). Our modern bureaucratic political and economic system is the perfect conditions that rewards psychopathy, as opposed to punishing them, much less banishing or killing them. Sometimes sociopathy is used as a term to differentiate those who develop the same kinds of traits, rather than having been born that way. One suspects that most people who spent long enough time in the highest positions of government and corporate capitalism would take on such traits or else they wouldn’t likely last long. That goes for the Dark Triad or Tetrad in general. It’s the way our system is organized, the kinds of incentives it creates and the moral hazard that results.


    • Benjamin David Steele June 27, 2021 at 10:53 am | #

      By the way, I see the emergence of the post-traditional reactionary mind as being relevant to the discussion here. Modernity not only led to a new kind of reactionary politics. It also simultaneously led to an increase of mental illness (vapors, nerves, nostalgia, neurasthenia, etc) that has repeatedly led to moral panic. This has long obsessed the reactionary mind. This sense of something severely having gone wrong became most apparent in the post-revolutionary period, although there was already fear-mongering earlier such as about the emerging mass media of romance novels. Over recent centuries, many have noted the worsening of mental health.

      “The alarming increase in Insanity, as might naturally be expected, has incited many persons to an investigation of this disease.”
      ~John Haslam, 1809
      On Madness and Melancholy: Including Practical Remarks on those Diseases

      “Cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization.”
      ~Stanislas Tanchou, 1843
      Paper presented to the Paris Medical Society


    • Benjamin David Steele June 27, 2021 at 11:03 am | #

      I’ve long thought that journalists, political scientists, economists, and people in general need more familiarity with the social sciences. It should be a requirement of secondary and higher education. Before people criticize something like psycopathy, they should have some basic grasp of the social science theory, research data, and historical background behind it. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding in areas like this.

      And that could relate to misapplication of otherwise meaningful psychiatric labels. For example, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to portray Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster as psychopaths. Count Dracula is essentially a separate species that is preying upon humans. And Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t seem to lack affective empathy, but instead is overwhelmed by all-too-human emotion in not being allowed to be a part of normal human society.

    • Benjamin David Steele June 27, 2021 at 1:06 pm | #

      I thought of a great example of fiction about psychopathy. It’s a regular theme of the writings of Philip K. Dick. The most famous example of his work that explores this deeply is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” He writes about such issues with great nuance, specifically in terms of what it means to be human and inhuman. I highly recommend it. The movie adaptation, Blade Runner, is good but leaves out a lot.

      To emphasize a point made in a previous comment, there has been scientific research on the rates of psychopathy. In an Australian study, around 30% of CEOs were found to be psychopaths. I imagine it’s even higher in the United States and even higher still among the ruling class, such as DC professional politicians. For comparison, the rate of psychopaths in prisons is around 12-25% and in the general population only 1%. So, that is a vast difference that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed as fictional rationalizing away.

      Another thing to keep in mind is geography. Research has also found that psychopathy is more common in urban areas than rural areas. Similarly, psychosis is also follows the same residential pattern. In fact, as urbanization increases, so does psychosis. And it’s specifically among where rates of psychosis is increasing the fastest. What makes the young stand out? They are more urbanized than any other generation before. It reminds one of the rat studies where rats were crowded together until they became anti-social, aggressive, and violent.


  7. Donald Pruden, Jr. June 28, 2021 at 2:13 pm | #

    “And that could relate to misapplication of otherwise meaningful psychiatric labels. For example, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to portray Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster as psychopaths. Count Dracula is essentially a separate species that is preying upon humans. And Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t seem to lack affective empathy, but instead is overwhelmed by all-too-human emotion in not being allowed to be a part of normal human society.”

    This is exactly correct.

    As a person interested in movies, I noted a strange phenomenon in 1980s Hollywood horror movies. The character of the pscho-killer never seemed to be motivated by evil so much as that character was a conjuring by a culture that could never feel secure. That may one reason out many as to why the Hollywood version of the murdering psychopath almost always took place in all-White middle-class suburban settings.

    In other words, the Hollywood psycho-killer was NEVER a “bad” guy, he was only deranged, and always had an obscure/only half-told origin story. I had always chalked this up to a failure of imagination due to the filmmakers’ inability to grok what being a bad person motivated by anti-good imperatives actually meant. Simpler just to make the psycho-killer nuts, and we can avoid all that philophizin’ about “goodnevil”. There are thrills to be had, shrieks to inspire, and an orgasmic destruction to deliver before the credits roll. One would hope that sequels would offer a chance to consider the nature of evil. Nope, just more of the same. There closest to an exception was the Scream series: it did not deal with evil; it dealt with storytelling.

    Add to this the fact that the vast majority of persons with mental health disabilities and personality disorders are non-violent, and are far more likely to be victims of violence.

    In movies, the psycho-killer genre showed that the problem of evil could not be solved and that such a character merely personified evil’s (essential?) mystery. Indeed, it could not even be addressed as an issue. Maybe that was the point all along?

    • Jonnybutter July 22, 2021 at 4:12 pm | #

      Hi Donald, I don’t believe any of the psychopaths in Cleckley’s book are murderers or are of that kind of fiendish cruelty you see in the movies. They are just people who don’t have a clear concept, stable overall criteria, for why they should or shouldn’t do things or the consequences thereof, especially after alcohol. They understand that people are trying to *prevent* them from doing things, but don’t seem to quite know why. There’s a lot of semi-frantic forward motion, and they’re often really good at talking people into stuff, but they don’t see the chain of events stretching before them. They wreak havoc, especially financial, and STDs, but I’m pretty sure they don’t usually murder. I think psychopathy (not a great name for it) is idiomatically human. Cheers

  8. Russell Scott Day June 30, 2021 at 7:21 pm | #

    Who is the most famous psychopath? We are told 1 out of 100 people are within this spectrum. We are interested since they are dangerous to us in that without shame they will use us. I would say that while we are here led to think of psychopaths the same or more dangers exist from sociopaths. I’d say off the top of my head that Trump and his family exist in the sociopathic spectrum. I wanted to make some money and poetry wasn’t doing it for me. I got myself hired as an advertising and marketing copywriter. Afterwards I said “Poets and copywriters have the same skills but the copywriter has no sympathy, feelings.” What was Don Draper? In his case he was sociopath at work and deeply vulnerable otherwise. One facet fed the other.

  9. LFC August 3, 2021 at 6:58 pm | #

    A small correction to the OP: the first name of the author of The Mask of Sanity is Hervey, not Harry,


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