The American Nightmare: Psychopaths and Sociopaths

…this account suggests that genetic anomalies give rise to a disorder where there is reduced responsiveness of the amygdala to aversive stimuli in particular. This specific form of reduced emotional responsiveness interferes with socialization such that the individual is more likely to learn to use anti-social social behavior to achieve goals.

—James Blair, The Psychopath

American Culture has a fascination with evil, with the sociopaths and psychopaths among us. In film, fiction, or true crime – or its non-fictional fiction such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Why? What is it about serial killers, rapists, and terrorists that keep us glued to the ongoing trials of celebrities like O.J. Simpson, etc.? What do we see mirrored in these dark minds? Do we fear that lurking in the depths of our own being is this same monstrous impulse to murder, mayhem, and rapine? Do we believe we can tame the beast by exorcising it, purging it in a drama of blood on the screen or theatre? Are we after all shaped by the tragic vision of ancient Greece but in a starker and more realistic vein? Do we identify with these dark figures or with their victims? Think of the many serial killers: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Zodiac Killer… the list seems interminable.

“I knew both of them were psychopaths. This country is turning out more of them than any other place on the planet. They come in all shapes and sizes, all races and creeds and genders. That’s the scariest thing of all.”
― James Patterson, Along Came a Spider

Is it fear that drives us to suffer such images of madness on the screen or in a book? The Gothic, Horror, Weird, Crime and Punishment, the noir depths of modernity as the city of hell or Dante’s Inferno become all too real in our own lives enmeshed as they are in drugs, alcohol, and various forms of sado-masochism in the lingering dependencies of love and war? We seem to thrive on lunatics in the hinterlands as well – David Koresh, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, David Miscavige among others. Are we fascinated by these strange psychopathic sociopaths who with a certain charismatic appeal manipulate and coerce average run-of-the-mill Americans into their dark narcissistic dreamlands of horror? Some may think of characters from the movies: Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs, Norman Bates from Psycho, and Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. These larger-than-life creatures of nightmare that stalk us from the flickering screen. Who are they?

I began writing what would eventually become the book Puzzling People: the Labyrinth of the Psychopath. This was an earnest attempt to try and alert other members of the human family that we were under attack from something hidden in plain sight within our own species, an entity very different from us indeed, a predatory parasite that was not just another product of poor families, unfortunate social conditions, structural brain damage or some other ‘diagnosis’ from the increasingly contradictory and bizarre world of psychiatry but a thing apart from humanity.

—Thomas Sheridan, Defeated Demons: Freedom from Consciousness Parasites in Psychopathic Society

Are we becoming alien to ourselves? Is there something outside the human that is mimicking our ways of being in the world, but are creatures from the outside invading our humanity from within? In the epigraph a professional dry report is offered of this dark condition so contrary to the normal socialization of humans in our society. The psychopath and sociopath seem to lack the ability to fear or show empathy that most of us have. This lack of empathy or fear allows them to respond to anxiety about life and others in ways that on the surface distort their view of the world and human relations. One makes a difference between the psychopath and the sociopath only in the sense that the one has that little sense of moral conscience (although weak) while the other does not. In the actual literature they are discussed under the term APD (Anti-Social Personality Disorder), often victims of severe abuse, they are bereft of all human connection, unable to tell truth from lies, charming and manipulative for a few minutes at most but with no real ability to formulate meaningful goals.

“Similar to the organic parasite, a consciousness parasite has always managed to find hosts within the Psychopathic Control Grid; their ultimate aim being to control the destiny of their enablers to serve their own ends.”
—Thomas Sheridan

Adam Kotsko in his book on our fantasies and fictionalization of these creatures in American Society says “there is something new going on in this entertainment trend that goes beyond the understandable desire to fantasize about living without the restrictions of society. The fantasy sociopath is somehow outside social norms—largely bereft of human sympathy, for instance, and generally amoral—and yet is simultaneously a master manipulator, manipulator, who can instrumentalize social norms to get what he or she wants.”1 Is this just the American Dream, the Horatio Alger story of rags to riches somehow turned inside out, revealing the true state of capitalist culture as a sociopathic world driven by the need for success?  As Charles Derber asks: “Is the United States—the world’s most powerful nation—already a sociopathic society?”2 He continues saying,

“the United States, with a long history of sociopathic institutions and practices, is now evolving toward a full-blown sociopathic society. We still have a chance to change course. But our society is increasingly structured to turn people and institutions toward sociopathic behavior that harms other individuals and entire societies, including our own. The United States is beginning to socially unravel, haunted now by the specter of war with weapons of mass destruction, economic meltdowns, and uncontrolled climate change.”

In the Age of Trump we’re discovering just how sociopathic we’ve become as well as how divided or even schizophrenic we’ve become as well. The political divide has become so extreme that both sides seem on the verge of absolute disintegration into madness, war, and sociopathic darkness.

“A scene like that wouldn’t normally interest me, but there was something very special about this one—something abnormally crazy in the way he was talking. There was something very familiar about it. I listened for a moment and then recognized the Neal Cassady speed-booze-acid rap—a wild combination of menace, madness, genius, and fragmented coherence that wreaks havoc on the mind of any listener.”

—Hunter S. Thompson,Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72

In our age social media and the mainstream media have become the greatest tool of social manipulation or social engineering-hacking. Political figures have learned this lesson well, and those who are sociopathic turn it toward their constituents and enemies alike. As Steven Hassan informs us,

There is a method to the madness. Cult leaders may look and behave differently, but even the craziest, most chaotic ones follow a similar pattern. While they usually have no academic training, they are masters of human psychology, especially social psychology. They understand that human beings are social creatures who, at some level, are wired to follow leaders and powerful members of their group. They know that they can confuse people with false information and lies, and then sow doubt by claiming that they never said what they said in the first place. People like to think they are rational and in control, but the lessons of history and social psychology demonstrate, time and again, that simply isn’t so. We go about our days, and our lives, using unconscious mental models. When cult leaders manipulate those models, in subtle and overt ways, we can be persuaded to believe and do things we might never have considered without such systematic psychological influence.3

Chomsky once stated that there were two conceptions of democracy, on in which the vast majority was in control of its own affairs, and the other in which the “public must be barred from managing of their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled.”4 This was written before social media and the twisted world of algorithmic governance that erodes all control turning it into a sociopathic game pitting extremes against each other in an ongoing twitterfest of disinformation and hype. Watching Twitter, Face Book, Tik-Tok, and so many other social media platforms one discovers right away that the sociopaths are winning, that the great drift of social interaction is about manipulating the public opinion with each blip in the electronic void. As one contemporary author suggests we are being modulated by our false sense of freedom,

Strategies of control license and sanction the subject as autonomous only in that their choices are regulated through their relation to the devices that enable them to exert control. Strategies of control do not focus on a subject’s ability to use various devices (recall they do not have to be used) or seek to impose restrictions on the subject’s possibilities (the means of control multiplied). They govern, rather, through the regulation of choice. Choice becomes objectified through the modulations of control: like the body in disciplinary societies, choice is “subjected, used, transformed and improved.” In this sense choice is a normalizing “object”; its strategy is to become the only acceptable condition for the discipline of freedom. The multiplication of devices for control-the multiplication of the means of governance-enables objects for choice; it provides highways upon which “to drive infinitely and `freely’ without being at all confined yet while still being perfectly controlled.” In return, control devices make operational a series of practices that provide assurance that some action is being taken to further maximize choice while extending it as a self-regulation across media. As practiced in the porous constrictions of technologies of control, choice is enabled continuously and freely.5 [my italics]

Our mobile phones are such devices which appear to give us absolute freedom of choice, but are in fact modulating our choices, manipulating us through a very careful ‘ai’ driven world of algorithmic governance. As he suggests the ‘discipline of freedom’ enables us to choose what has been normalized for us through a series of choices that provide safety, security, and control all under the banner of self-regulation. We are controlling ourselves through our own need for security in an unsafe world, and we are doing it oblivious of the fact that we are being governed and manipulated, modulated by the very notions of freedom and security that are socially engineered.

“Psychopaths… people who know the differences between right and wrong, but don’t give a shit. That’s what most of my characters are like.”
― Elmore Leonard

There is also the other side of the coin in which those who are seeking safety and security in an unsure world turn toward authoritarian figures, figures who offer a plain and simple vision of life based on some of the oldest myths of the American mythology. Trump has mastered this world of sociopathic insight, turned the mythos of the American West – Manifest Destiny and its sense of outlaws and gunmen into the modern fight to save America form all those external threats of immigration, perversion, and political corruption. Of course, his main target is progressive democracy with its openness to immigration, abortion and women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, and all the other well-known aspects of reform ideology. Of course, the democrats for their part demonize the right as fascist, authoritarian, nationalistic, gun-loving country yokels. So, the cycle of accusation and recrimination go on and on as the political charade marches onward. Rather than dealing with real issues both sides deal with fantasy, fiction, and cartoon worlds of American pulp and superheroes-villains.

“It’s a pretty big shock to realise that the only people you can identify with are psychopathic killers.”
― Dan Wells, Mr. Monster

In our age we wonder where the truth of it all begins and ends? Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism told us: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” I remember reading an article a few years back in which the author (I can’t remember now who?) said: “It’s a posttruth world, and victory belongs to those who understand that reality belongs to the person with the best stagecraft.” This seems to revise and repeat Arendt’s notion about the mass leader, the authoritarian individual who through the sheer power of charisma, deception, and stagecraft presents a version of reality – a fictional reality that supervenes on the actual one, replacing it with his own fantasy world. George Orwell gave us a bleak and terrifying world based on such a post-truth society, a sociopathic society engineered and built of lies, deception, and self-deception:

He had no difficulty in disposing of the fallacy, and he was in no danger of succumbing to it. He realized, nevertheless, that it ought never to have occurred to him. The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak.

He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions — ‘the Party says the earth is flat’, ‘the party says that ice is heavier than water’ — and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them. It was not easy. It needed great powers of reasoning and improvisation. The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as ‘two and two make five’ were beyond his intellectual grasp. It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”
― George Orwell, 1984

In our time stupidity is no longer hard to attain, it seems to be the normal course of action in our sociopathic society. Our post-truth society is an absolute sociopathic world bound to a totalized system of disinformation, manipulation, and modulated corruption. We are creatures of deception and self-deception, bound to our needs for love, acceptance, and security we allow ourselves to be manipulated, modulated, and controlled by those parental-like figures of psychopathic and sociopathic natures. We thrive on the fantasies of madness seeking to purge ourselves of the fears and horrors of the actual world and its literal manifestations. We are becoming less and less able to define the difference between the actual and unreal world which is becoming more and more sociopathic every day. As M.E. Thomas a sociopath once said,

“I’m an ‘intelligent’ sociopath. I don’t have problems with drugs, I don’t commit crimes, I don’t take pleasure in hurting people, and I don’t typically have relationship problems. I do have a complete lack of empathy. But I consider that an advantage, most of the time. Do I know the difference between right and wrong, and do I want to be good? Sure. … A peaceful and orderly world is a more comfortable world for me to live in. So do I avoid breaking the law because it’s ‘right’? No, I avoid breaking the law because it makes sense.”
― M. E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

D.H. Lawrence contemplating the American literature of his day and the creatures that inhabited both its pages and the pages of our news once suggested that the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Like ice frozen in a sea of affectlessness we seem to wander among each other’s lives like isolated ghosts, passionless and full of that disquieting anxiety of the dead.

  1. Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (p. 2). Zero Books. 2012.
  2. Derber, Charles. Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States . Taylor and Francis. Routledge. 2019.
  3. Hassan, Steven. Cult of Trump : A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Free Press. 2019
  4. Noam Chomsky. Media Control, Second Edition: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. Open Media. 1991.
  5. Raiford Guins. Edited Clean Version: Technology and the Culture of Control. University of Minnesota Press. 2009.

2 thoughts on “The American Nightmare: Psychopaths and Sociopaths

  1. I grew up next to a psychopath. He was starting fires and killing animals from very young age. He went on to get job working with mentally disabled children who he abused. His favorite game was getting people to trust him, then he would betray or hurt them, and then getting them to trust him again. These people should be diagnosed early and treated or put down. Other interesting books on this subject are by John Douglas, an early serial killer profiler for the FBI. He came out with some books after The Silence of the Lambs. Or if you are in the mood for a different kind of mental illness, the book They Shall Expel Demons by Derek Prince is entertaining. It’s kind of like the movie Frailty. (which I recommend)

    Liked by 1 person

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