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The Psychopath Next Door
Reviewed By: Avraham Azrieli
Avraham Azrieli writes books and screenplays. His website is: www.AzrieliBooks.com

Watching the news makes one wonder what illicit steroids some of our politicians ingest to build up their Olympian capacity for lying. They deny financial or sexual misconduct despite irrefutable evidence, trade stocks for personal gain while millions of Americans dig into retirement savings to survive, perpetuate paralysis when legislative action is desperately needed, and pollute our living rooms with deceitful TV campaign commercials. If uttering falsehoods with a straight face were a recognized sport, our national team would comprise exclusively of Washington politicians, jetting off to London with excellent prospects of winning gold.

As a novelist, I am always on the prowl for insight into how seemingly normal people could engage in pure malevolence. A great book on the subject is “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us,” by Robert D. Hare, PhD. Summarizing three decades of global research by multiple psychiatrists, the book presents chilling examples of real-life psychopaths, who coldly describe their shocking actions – without remorse.

For lovers of horror films and scary novels, the image of a psychopath is immortally soiled with blood and gore. Dr. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. But Without Conscience illuminates how prevalent the phenomenon really is. Between one and two percent of the population could be afflicted, men and women who wear a cloak of normalcy as they live and work among us. They might not dine on human liver with fava beans and nice Chianti, but they are nonetheless actively ruining the lives of family members, business associates, or large groups of unwary victims. But how can you tell a psychopath from a ‘normal’ narcissist?

Unlike other troubled individuals and criminals, psychopaths enjoy a special gift of convenient aberration: they have feelings only for themselves. Their view of the world is dominated by total egotism and lack of remorse. They are blind to others’ feelings, are unburdened by personal responsibility, and are free of society’s rules and morals. Their pathological lying is aimed at achieving selfish goals, justifying bad acts, and shifting responsibility to others, often to the victims—how convenient!

This one-dimensional perspective of total egocentricity, of caring only for Number One, is the reason psychopaths cause so much agony to others—family members and strangers—but experience no regrets or guilt. Psychopaths’ mental makeup is missing a component—the human ‘weakness’ of empathy. They are blind to other people’s pain. But leave it to the psychopath to put on a credible show of heartfelt regrets or even tearful contrition in order to regain a righteous image and continue taking advantage of gullible victims.

Because they don’t feel love or hate as normal people do, psychopaths coldly use others as tools in furtherance of selfish goals, as sources of goods and services – money, power, sex, etc. Often charming and intelligent, psychopaths know the right things to say. Their lies fit together nicely, forming attractive puzzles that dazzle their victims. And because psychopaths defy the rules without embarrassment, they appear forceful, authoritative, decisive—even inspiring. Consequently, victims are often mesmerized, wholly enamored with ‘their’ psychopath, and willingly provide all that the psychopath asks of them.

Without Conscience unmasks those ruthless charmers. Dr. Hare provides checklists for examination and tools for diagnosis. But the first indication is brazen lying. A psychopath often says things that are clearly untrue and self-contradictory, yet speaks with total conviction and earnestness. And when confronted with the truth, a psychopath will change the subject, come up with new lies to defend the earlier ones, or claim to be a victim of a conspiracy.

While most psychopaths victimize others on a personal basis, Without Conscience points to another group, which in a way is even scarier than Hannibal Lecter. Could it be that our elected representatives aren’t locked in paralysis merely because of inflexible ideology? Could it be that they are not just grandstanding, self-serving, insider-trading opportunists, but something much worse? Could it be that their audacious disregard for the truth and chronic lack of shame are symptoms that require clinical examination by Dr. Hare?