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The Mask Of Sanity

Written By

Hervey Cleckley

Presented Here By

Bonnie M. Wells

In contrast with others, the psychopath requires impulses of scarcely more than whimlike intensity to bring about unacceptable behavior in the sexual field or in any other. Even the faintest or most fleeting notion or inclination to forge a check, to steal his uncle's watch, to see if he can seduce his best friend's wife, or to have a little fling at fellatio, is by no means unlikely to emerge as the deed.

The sort of repugnance or other inhibiting force that would prevent any or all such impulses from being followed (or perhaps from even becoming conscious impulses) in another person is not a factor that can be counted on to play much part in the psychopath's decisions.

The activities of a typical patient of this sort whom I once studied are highly illustrative. This 27-year-old man, honor graduate of a college despite great irregularity in his studies, had for a number of years followed a career so similar to those of the other patients cited that there is no point in going into detail. He showed no indications of ordinary homosexuality in manner, dress, physique, or in personality features. He had been rather active in heterosexual relations since about fifteen, his partners being professionals, girls of respectable family, and married women.

All of these relations had apparently been to him more or less equivalent and entirely without personal significance. He admitted having once or twice, and more or less experimentally, submitted to the wishes of a homosexual and also to a couple of blundering ventures into deviated activity while drinking with others apparently more like himself. These did not seem to give him any particular satisfaction, and there is reason to believe that he distinctly preferred what he did with women. To the patient, any idea that he might be a homosexual seemed absurd.

In the absence of any persistent or powerful urge in this specific direction, the patient, apparently without much previous thought, hit upon the notion of picking up four Negro men who worked in the fields not far from his residence. In a locality where the Ku Klux Klan (and its well-known attitudes) at the time enjoyed a good deal of popularity, this intelligent and in some respects distinguished young man showed no compunction about taking from the field these unwashed laborers, whom he concealed in the back of a pickup truck, with him into a well-known place of amorous rendezvous. At the place he chose, "tourists' cabins" were discreetly set up in such a way that women brought by men to them for familiar purposes could enter without the possible embarrassment of being identified by the management. Despite these facilities suspicion arose, and the patient was surprised by the man in charge of the resort while in the process of carrying out fellatio on his four companions. He had chosen to take the oral role.

When seen not long after this event, the young man was courteous but a trifle impatient about how long he might have to be hospitalized. He showed some concern with what use psychiatric examination might be in helping him avoid the term of imprisonment that would, according to the law, befall him if he should be convicted of the charges made by the proprietor and which he did not deny. This possibility did not, however, greatly alarm him.

He had often evaded penalties for antisocial acts in the past, and he had a good deal of easy confidence. Although he expressed regret and said his prank was quite a mistake, he seemed totally devoid of deep embarrassment. On the whole, his attitude might be suggested by such phrases as "Well, boys will be boys," or "Now wasn't that a foolish damn thing for me to do." These were not his literal words, but they are congruent with his behavior. By some legal step, his family, whose members were wealthy and influential, succeeded in having him avoid trial. Finding himself free, he left against medical advice within a few days.

As might be expected, in view of their incapacity for object love, the sexual aims of psychopaths do not seem to include any important personality relations or any recognizable desire or ability to explore or possess or significantly ravish the partner in a shared experience. Their positive activities are consistently and parsimoniously limited to literal physical contact and relatively free of the enormous emotional concomitants and the complex potentialities that make adult love relations an experience so thrilling and indescribable. Consequently they seem to regard sexual activity very casually, sometimes apparently finding it less shocking and enthralling than a sensitive normal man would find even the glance of his beloved.

None of the psychopaths personally observed have impressed me as having particularly strong sex cravings even in this uncomplicated and poverty stricken sense. Indeed, they have nearly all seemed definitely less moved to obtain genital pleasure than the ordinary run of people. The impression one gets is that their amativeness is little more than a simple itch and that even the itch is seldom, if ever, particularly intense.

The male psychopath, despite his usual ability to complete the physical act successfully with a woman, never seems to find anything meaningful or personal in his relations or to enjoy significant pleasure beyond the localized and temporary sensations. The female, whether or not she has physiologic orgasm, behaves in such a way as to indicate similar evaluations of the experience. Even these sensations seem to wither precociously and leave the subject a somewhat desiccated response to local stimuli. Sensations so isolated are, no doubt, peculiarly vulnerable to routine and to its justly celebrated antidotes for excitement.

What is felt for prostitute, sweetheart, casual pickup, mistress, or wife is not anything that can bring out loyalty or influence activities into a remedial or constructive plan. Nor do sexual desires always seem to compete successfully against such trivial impulses as wanting to hang about street corners or idle in juke joints where the psychopath may, by tampering with slot machines or cheating at dice or cards, pick up a little change and demonstrate his cleverness to the other fellows. So little is apparently found in heterosexual experience that deviate impulses (even when weak) are sometimes accepted and acted upon largely because of reasons like the reason why all cats look gray at night.

For the person who has ever known even one mature and normal erotic fulfillment, it is impossible to imagine turning by choice to a biologically inappropriate partner or placing partial or deviated aims above what has been so obviously well designed for the purpose. What the human organism shows anatomically is scarcely more clear than the emotional evidence, at physiologic as well as at broader interpersonal levels of reactivity. Even from more remote and less tangible sociologic aspects, nature has left no room here for doubt. It is difficult, without postulating an extremely dulled or otherwise inhibited sensual response in heterosexual experience, to account for the psychopath who can drift into deviate pranks as approximations or acceptable novelties in the same field. It has been said that "the thalamus outdid itself in devising pleasures to go with the conjugating act itself."982 Without great support from ethics or convention, it seems these would suffice for normal choice in the intact personality.

The familiar record of sexual promiscuity found in both male and female psychopaths seems much more closely related to their almost total lack of self-imposed restraint than to any particularly strong passions or drives. Psychopaths sometimes seem by preference to seek sexual relations in sordid surroundings with persons of low intellectual or social status. Often, however, the convenience by which what is little more than a whim can be gratified may play a greater part in this than specific preference. Another and more serious kind of sordidness also seems to constitute real inducement.

Entanglements which go out of their way to mock ordinary human sensibility or what might be called basic decency are prevalent in their sexual careers. To casually "make" or "lay" the best friend's wife and to involve a husband's uncle or one of his business associates in a particularly messy triangular or quadrilateral situation are typical acts. Such opportunities, when available, seem not to repel but specifically to attract the psychopath. Neither distinct appeal of the sex object nor any formulated serious malignity toward those cuckolded or otherwise outraged seems to be a major factor in such choices. There is more to suggest a mildly prankish impulse such as might lead the ordinary man to violate small pedantic technicalities or dead and preposterous bits of formality as a demonstration of their triviality.

Sexual exploits often seem chosen almost purposively to put the subject himself, as well as others, in positions of sharp indignity and distastefulness. The male psychopath who goes through legal matrimony with the whore he has picked up for the evening furnishes a clear example. And so does the well-born woman who submits to several men in rapid succession, none of whom takes the least trouble to conceal his contempt for her. I have seen psychopaths who seriously attempted to seduce sisters, mothers-in-law, and even their actual mothers. One boasted to his wife in glowing detail of his erotic feats with her mother and with his own. His excellent talents at lying lead me to doubt the truth of his claims. I have little doubt, however, that he would have hesitated to carry out all that he boasted of if the ladies had allowed him to proceed.

Beneath his outwardly gracious manner toward women and his general suavity and social charms, the male psychopath (or part psychopath) nearly always shows an underlying predilection for obscenity, an astonishingly ambivalent attitude in which the amorous and excretory functions seem to be confused. He sometimes gives the impression that an impulse to smear his partner symbolically, and even to wallow in sordidness himself, is more fundamental than a directly erotic aim, itself hardly more to him than a sort of concomitant and slightly glorified back scratching.

The psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be one regarded as good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. This is entirely applicable to the full psychopath. On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life.

By some incomprehensible and untempting piece of folly or buffoonery, he eventually cuts short any activity in which he is succeeding, no matter whether it is crime or honest endeavor.

At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly. In the more seriously affected examples, it is impossible for wealthy, influential, and devoted relatives to place the psychopath in any position, however ingeniously it may be chosen, where he will not succeed eventually in failing with spectacular and bizarre splendor.

Considering a longitudinal section of his life, his behavior gives such an impression of gratuitous folly and nonsensical activity in such massive accumulation that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that here is the product of true madness - of madness in a sense quite as real as that conveyed to the imaginative layman by the terrible word lunatic.

With the further consideration that all this skein of apparent madness has been woven by a person of (technically) unimpaired and superior intellectual powers and universally regarded as sane, the surmise intrudes that we are confronted by a serious and unusual type of genuine abnormality.

Not merely a surmise but a strong conviction may arise that this apparent sanity is, in some important respects, a sanity in name only. When we consider his actual performance, evidence of mental competency is sorely lacking. We find instead a spectacle that suggests madness in excelsis, despite the absence of all those symptoms that enable us, in some degree, to account for irrational conduct in the psychotic.

Bonnie M. Wells

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Pure Coincidence Books

This page posted: December 2007 // BMW