Exploring the Spectrum of Sociopathy*
“[C]onscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness.”
– Stout Ph.D., Martha. The Sociopath Next Door, p. 126
By Shannon Kirk
I take this quote from Dr. Stout’s highly readable and incredibly informative book, The Sociopath Next Door, as a direct and personal challenge. (You should also read this article as my ***** FIVE STAR***** review for Dr. Stout’s book; frankly, I think it should be required reading in schools and certainly for any thriller writers writing about sociopaths.)
So, Doc, sociopathy is LOVELESS? Always?
This is where it’s better to be a fiction writer and not a respectable and highly-trained doctor. I’ve got the advantage over you this time, Doctor Stout. Because in my fictional world, the sociopath just might upend this rule. I can make S up. You can’t.
Recently, Alex Dolan (author, podcaster, and “collector of canned goods”) interviewed me and author J.J. Hensley for a blogtalkradio Thrill Seekers episode, to air January 23. I think in the course of that interview, or at least I’m attributing this memory to that interview since I’m shamelessly promoting it, Alex asked how I came up with the serial killer character who hunts victims in our fictional flooded Pennsylvania town in The Night of the Flood.
March 2018, Down & Out books, please pre-order HERE.
The serial killer’s name is Carter Hank McKater. I’ve written about him before on Murderers’ Row. Perhaps I first conjured him in trying to come up with content for my assigned week by interpreting “Murderers’ Row” in a literal sense. Or perhaps I’m just obsessed with the psychological study of the sociopathy spectrum, having come off my debut about a sociopathic girl who CAN experience emotions, when she chooses. Perhaps Carter Hank is just the next iteration of me trying to explore, or exploit, this spectrum.
Carter Hank’s profile is that he’s an escaped serial killer who infiltrates the International Thriller Writer’s conference in NYC. After eluding capture there, Carter Hank gets the bug to live in plain sight as a famous writer. Far-fetched? Perhaps. But so is the whole idea of corralling a geographically-disperse group of 14 thriller writers, each of whom have stylistic nuances true only to them, and getting this basket of cats to agree to stick to one subject matter, time frame, town, and several deadlines to create a novel in short stories. We also had to agree on little details, like whether it was raining, the size of the moon, and so on. The stories have connecting threads, some thin, like a withering spider string, some thick, like a galvanized chain; consistent details here and there, scattered throughout, to make for a whole cohesive unit out of fairly distinct individual stories and writing styles. Takes an impossible amount of faith or coordination or both. But we did it. We pulled it off. Or Ed Aymar pulled it off—the corralling and editing of it all. Or Sarah Chen did. Or my supremely masterful Googledocs organizational skillz did (I’m being sarcastic, Ed, chill). Pretty unbelievable to me as I sit here today, but, we did it. So yes, I do think a serial killer could infiltrate ITW and exist therein in plain sight as a famous author. Also, there’s this true story that broke after I first wrote of Carter Hank: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/16/guilty-secret-chinese-writer-arrested-cold-case-murders. Real life is modeled after fiction.
Back to Carter Hank. Carter is the bad version of Dexter. He’s a serial killer and he’s not in it for any altruistic or benevolent vigilante reasons. He’s a rough and tumble man, who, if you didn’t know he was a pathological psychopath, you might find him hot, or maybe you still find him hot, even though he’s brutally killed a ton of innocent people. He’s very sexual. He swears a lot. He doesn’t give a F. He’s pure-grade Rated R. Perfect for an HBO binge series (hint, HELLO HINT!!!!). I’m not interested in character arcing Carter Hank into a consistently tamer version of himself. Definitely would never domesticate him; he’s rabid. Instead, I’m trying to character arc into the depths of him, because, scientifically speaking, he can’t be cured.
According to Dr. Stout, there is no cure for true sociopathy. This is the problem. In fact, in Dr. Stout’s opinion, the most critical division in society is not race or gender or socioeconomic factors, it is this dichotomy: those with conscience and those without. Those without do not experience or interpret emotions, and, according to her, they never will. This inability to identify with emotions is down to a granular level in the very fibers of the brain. Stout explains how in testing, sociopaths do not have a “evoked potential” to even emotional words, like non-sociopaths do. “In sociopaths, the evoked potential for [the words] sob or kiss is no larger than the one for [the words] sat or list, very much as if emotional words were no more meaningful, or deeply coded by their brains, than any… .” To me, this means a clinical sociopath could never be an author, much less a poet, and yet, Carter Hank claims to be both. I do note the Guardian story of the real author accused of killings that I cite above, but those murders were the result of a robbery, and the arrested author is quoted as stating, “Now I can finally be free from the mental torment I’ve endured for so long.” A sociopath wouldn’t have given the murders a second thought. There must be a reason then for Carter Hank’s claimed grasp of literature and prose. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he stole stories, stole poems. Maybe he did write them. It’s worth exploring someday, I think, so I intend to continue following Carter Hank around in future short stories. For now though, Carter Hank has an opportunity to kill some stranger in the flooded town of Everton.
How do you write about a sociopathic character in a way that is a) relatable, and b) with depth? The glory is that, amongst sociopaths, as with all humans, there is a wide spectrum of psychology and behaviors. Of course not all sociopaths are killers. Some are your bosses. A colleague. A family member. That cretin of a neighbor boy who stares at you with his dead eyes, arms limp to his sides, body in a forward lean like some bloodlust creeper. You know the kid I mean. He can’t feel snot running down his own face, much less any sense of inhibition. There’s one in every neighborhood. In fact, according to Stout, 1 in 25 people is a sociopath. Such an incidence rate is about one hundred times higher than the rate of colon cancer, according to Stout.
In chapter 7, Stout walks us through the causes of sociopathy. And this is where I think I get the most ideas on how to exploit the spectrum of sociopathy, and thus, the ability to try to build a bunch of backstory and depth into a serial killing psychopath. According to Stout, about 35-50 percent of sociopathy is hereditary, a “born with” tendency. The rest may be environmental (what you’re born into, your circumstances, experiences, etc). There’s a labyrinth of factors and pathways for sociopathy to develop into many different forms.
Dr. Stout quotes Voltaire: “Minds differ still more than faces.” I read this as her personalized permission to me that I can basically make up whatever I want about Carter Hank’s particular sociopathic profile. She also states, “Even the profoundly unscrupulous are not all the same. Some people—whether they have a conscience or not—favor the ease of inertia, while others are filled with dreams and wild ambitions. Some human beings are brilliant and talented, some are dull-witted, and most, conscience or not, are somewhere in-between. There are violent people and nonviolent ones, individuals who are motivated by blood lust and those who have no such appetites.”
But back to Dr. Stout’s line in the sand about the lovelessness of sociopathy. I want to pick at that a little bit.
Carter Hank travels to Everton, Pennsylvania, in The Night of the Flood as an opportunist; he’s read the news about a woman who was raped there, and yet she’s the one up for the death penalty. Carter Hank senses vast corruption, and so he smells targets in Everton he can off in order to sate his rage and even, bonus, build himself a thriller plot with a socially acceptable motivation, as his editor requires. In the course of his week in Everton, hunting for a perfect victim and the perfect time to strike, it turns out, there’s a bit more to Carter than being a vulgar, sex-craved, opportunistic killing machine. As I explore his character with each short I write for Murderers’ Row, I discover more about what makes Carter Hank tick, and really where he is on my non-trained idea of a sociopath spectrum. In Everton, he becomes connected, in a way only Carter could, with a young boy, who reminds him of himself in youth. We see Carter Hank admit to struggling against his own rage with respect to this boy, and although it is not resolved whether that instinctive struggle is born of love for other or love of self or protection of ego, I found in writing more of this struggle, I’d plumbed into Carter’s brain a little more. I started wondering if this struggle in Carter was at least a shimmer of him grasping the emotion of “love,” even just a miniscule pebble of it. Thus, could it be that a sociopath, straining the neurons and pathways of his mind, might light the processing center of the brain that identifies love? Is his existence truly incapable of love?
I do wonder where Carter Hank will go next, what else will unfold in his mind, after the flood. But that is a story for another day.
The spectrum. I’m obsessed with this idea of a sociopathic spectrum. In a recent Humans of New York post, I was captured by a gentleman’s profile in which he describes himself as a sociopath. A self-labeled sociopath who, to me, is self-aware enough of his condition to seemingly fight against it. Is he entirely loveless? Or is he on the less extreme end of the spectrum?
“I’m pretty sure I’m a sociopath. Or something close to it. My parents were pilots, so I spent most of my early childhood on a small island in Tunisia. The only other kids were the children of a local hotelkeeper. I was so isolated that I even invented my own words. By the time I got to high school, I was a monster. I only cared about being the best. I was a bully. I’d argue just for the sake of arguing. I would destroy any belief, just to be right. My behavior is different now. But I think I’m still a sociopath. I’m not sure I feel empathy. But I do always try to make the empathetic choice. It’s an intellectual thing for me. I’m intellectually convinced of the need for empathy. I choose to help other people. I choose to be a reliable friend. I have a wonderful wife who judges me by my actions, and not my reasons for them. Sometimes I feel like Pinocchio. Was he a real boy? Yes, because that’s what he always strived to be.” (emphasis added)
Is consciously trying to feel love any different from feeling it innately? I don’t know, but this is the very core of what I’m trying to explore with characters like Carter Hank McKater and how I believe I came up with him in the first place. At the beginning of The Night of the Flood, Carter Hank is floating down a flooded street and is fixed on three things: the debris floating around him, the fat-ass quality of a beautiful full moon, and sating his rage. He seems, to me, sort of happy in this stew of thoughts, almost like he’s loving life and his place in it. Is that so loveless? Who is the arbiter of love? A psychiatrist? The poets? Who?
* I’m not a licensed psychotherapist or psychiatrist, but who cares about actual credentials these days?
Shannon Kirk is the award-winning author of the debut psychological thriller, METHOD 15/33 (THE METHOD in UK, NZ, and OZ), which has garnered three starred reviews, won the National Indie Excellence Award for best suspense, was selected by the School Library Journal as one of the best 17 adult fiction books for teens, and was the Gold winner of the Benjamin Franklin IBPA award. METHOD 15/33 has been optioned for a major motion film and has sold into sixteen foreign territories. Ms. Kirk’s second novel (not a thriller), THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF VIVIENNE MARSHALL, was published in September 2016. Read more about Shannon Kirk, her books, and short stories at www.shannonkirkbooks.com and www.thegoatmancometh.com.
To learn more about THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF VIVIENNE MARSHALL, click on the cover below: