Psychopaths and Conscience

“Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”  James Madison, Essay on Property, 1792

It has been said all too often that the psychopath has no conscience. Having a mother and sister who were psychopaths, I grew curious about conscience—what was it and does everyone have one?  I read books about conscience and wondered, did my mother and sister have one?  When I wrote my book, Born to Destroy, I searched for an answer.  As part of my research, I interviewed Father James, a theologian and priest-exorcist. His opinion was that some people suppress their consciences.  They were given one, but they suppress it.  Dr. Hare in his book, Without Conscience, expresses that psychopaths don’t have a conscience.  I read his book many times to decide for myself.  Are some people born without a conscience?  Or as Father James said, do some people suppress their consciences?

What is Conscience?

Winifred Rule

I was mulling over this question one night several years ago when I went out to dinner with my family to a Chinese restaurant.  Sitting at the table waiting to be served, I asked my high-school aged son what he remembered about conscience from his religious education in his parochial grade school?  My son answered, “We learned that conscience is a gift from God.”  When he said this, it jogged my memory.  I had also learned this years ago as a child in school.

That evening after dinner, the waitress brought out a dish with four Chinese fortune cookies—one for each member of my family.  We each opened our cookie and read our fortune.  My son read his fortune aloud.  It said:  “Conscience is a gift from God.”  My jaw dropped.  The coincidence was startling. That was hardly what I had expected a fortune cookie to reveal. I tucked these thoughts away in my mind about conscience.

The Origin of Born to Destroy

In the ensuing weeks and months, I began rummaging through dusty boxes that were stored in my basement.  They contained things I had taken with me from my childhood home when I married years earlier.  I was not seeking anything in particular, but what I found triggered deep emotions and thoughts.  When I think back, it is pretty amazing that I even had these few boxes.  My mother had prevented me from taking my belongings once I left the house.  She guarded all things that I left behind as if they were hers.  She even stopped me from going into my old bedroom, as if there were a secret hidden there that I must never know.

As I dug through school photographs, notes that I had written and clothes that I wore as a child, my memory was stirred. Incidents and events from my childhood entered my mind.  My mother and sister were different from any of the parents or children who lived in our neighborhood.  There was something eerie or ominous about them that I could not pinpoint.  Did they have a conscience or were they lacking?  Such thoughts circulated in my mind.  Putting my thoughts into perspective, I decided to write about my mother and sister, to get a clearer picture of what they were like. That was the genesis of my book, Born to Destroy. I wrote salient experiences as vignettes — snapshots of incidents and behavior.  There was no shortage of material about either my mother or sister. As I wrote, the obvious unfolded right before my eyes–the accumulated damage my mother and sister did in my lifetime. The title flew off the page of my work in progress.  My mother and sister were born to destroy others, especially those closest to them or those they could exploit.

I spent 13 years writing my book. The childhood notes were a keen reminder of the pattern of traits that were hard-wired in their personalities.  They never learned from their experiences and repeated the same behavior though it posed a danger to others.  Being around them was chaotic and their behavior was unpredictable. I never felt safe around them.  My mother would boisterously complain that my sister, Dee, had always been a problem.  Dee was headstrong, uncontrollable and willful.  Interestingly, when I was about eighteen, my grandmother confided in me that my mother was also cold and willful from when she was a young child.  My grandmother said she never liked coming to visit us because, “Your mother always made me feel bad and she made me cry.”

From when I was young, I could never figure out my mother and sister, but I wrote down my feelings and experiences in my diaries. They were an enigma to me.

Psychopath Diagnosis

As I carefully observed my mother and sister, I could see the callous unemotional traits rooted in their personality.  In many ways, the two were exactly alike.  My religion taught me that my mother and sister had a free will, and it was clear they did as they pleased.  No one else mattered. Observing the parents of my friends who lived on our block, I noticed how different they were. They were family-oriented people who followed rules.  My mother and sister were rebels who did the opposite of what “good people” did.

In attempting to understand my mother and sister, I read one psychology book after another.  My sister was very rebellious against my mother, and my mother was rebellious against her own mother.  An insightful and renowned therapist who I trusted identified what they were: psychopaths.  Whose fault was that?  Was my grandmother that terrible?  Was this the result of a dysfunctional household?  I found my grandmother to be a loving person who had a generous heart and gave of herself, though she had very little.  This thought was dispelled by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, a pioneer of psychopathy analysis , in his seminal work, The Mask of Sanity.  He wrote:

“During all my years of experience with hundreds of psychopaths…no type of parent or of parental influence, overt or subtle, has been regularly demonstrable.  He further noted that a very large percentage of his psychopathic patients came from backgrounds that appeared to be conducive to happy development and excellent adjustment.”

This quote is particularly meaningful for those parents who feel guilt ridden because they produced a child who was later diagnosed psychopathic.

Dr. Cleckley also evaluated the siblings of psychopaths, noting that the other children in the family were well adjusted, normal individuals.  The problem child, the psychopath, was different from the other children. The concerned parents of the psychopath could not comprehend what had gone wrong to produce such a problematic child who turned out to be nothing but trouble.

One of the traits of a psychopath is that they have an incapacity to love.  Put simply, a psychopath cannot love.  When I first heard this, I was especially frightened.  I could not face the fact that my mother had never loved me or anyone else because she could not love.  I hashed and rehashed all of the facts concerning my mother and sister.  It all seemed clear to me that they were the way they were from their earliest childhood years.

Is Psychopathy a Spiritual Glitch?

James Madison had written that conscience is sacred. Did my mother and sister suffer from some spiritual glitch that caused them to be the way they were?  My mother hated church and criticized the people who went there.  When my father dropped off my sister and me at church on Sunday, no sooner he drove away, my sister would skirt out the back door, and smoke cigarettes with the boys.

Father James said there are some people who suppress their consciences.  My mother and sister were both willful and headstrong, and they knew right from wrong.  They often gave good advice to people—but they never followed it themselves.  Were they suppressing? Or were they bereft?

Dr. Hare wrote the psychopath is without conscience.  My mother and sister acted conscienceless when they attacked me for defending my elderly father after they wrongfully attempted to commit him to a psychiatric hospital.  My mother even tried to have me and my family arrested for interfering with her plan which was only intended to secure control of his assets.  She and my sister wanted his money.  She would stop at nothing to attack me and my family. The two of them even went to the media with an ugly, untrue story to implicate my whole family in their web of lies.  They demonstrated no conscience.

My son and I had learned long ago in religion class that conscience is a gift from God.  Were my mother and sister not part of God’s chosen?  But I thought God loved everyone?  He does.  But the psychopath cannot love back and he cannot repent for his sins because he has no remorse.

But conscience is sacred.  Do we all get one?

Having lived with two psychopaths and been exposed to every aspect of their personality, I saw firsthand their raw, brutal side as well as their chameleon ways.  To secure peace, I distanced myself from them, yet they still sought me.  They would leave nasty telephone messages, or send threatening notes or phony legal papers.  They were not pleased that I lived happily with my family.  They were dangerous.

The Psychopath on her Deathbed

Is the psychopath without a conscience?  After nearly ten years of separation, I was on winter vacation with my family when my mother left a pleading message on my husband’s cell phone.  She said : “I am sick.  My lungs are bad. Could you come back to see me?” She was crying.  I had not spoken to her since she tried to have me arrested, and now her voice sounded conciliatory.  I hesitated.  Was this another scheme to lure me back, only to push me away?  I was dumbfounded by the call.  My husband thought going back to see her would be the right thing to do.  After all, she was crying and sounded distraught and maybe even remorseful.  We decided to acquiesce.  Travelling for many hours with our two children, we received another phone call as we were getting close to arriving.  It was my mother.  She asked, “Could you come another day?  My bereavement group is coming.”  I felt the jab.  We were already driving for hours and were a short distance away, now she had changed her mind.

On arrival, my mother was in bed–attached to an oxygen tank.  She looked wan and her face was thin, showing age spots.  She had aged considerably since I had last seen her nine years ago.  Her voice was weak.  I greeted her kindly.  A neighbor was sitting in a chair, introduced herself and then left.  My mother made no eye contact with me and did not make a fuss over her grandchildren.  She was reserved.  Her eyes looked large in a shrunken skull. I began to speak and was eager to talk.  She interrupted me and said: “Can we talk about Trump?”

As we sat in her bedroom, her telephone kept ringing.  She monitored who was calling, and whether or not she should pick up the telephone.  She had all her papers and telephone right on top of her bed. Then she blurted out that her bereavement group was coming to bring her flowers and cake.  I could see that she kept a busy calendar of people coming and going.  All were entertaining her, bringing food and waiting on her.

She told me she joined the bereavement group after my father died.  I asked her do you ever feel daddy’s presence?  “No,” she said.  “I don’t want to feel his presence.  Who wants to feel him?”

A home health aide who stayed with her informed me as I was leaving that my mother had been given a bad diagnosis and that is why she called me crying.

After that day, I visited a few times and found her always to be uncomfortable with me.  She said that she would tell no one of my visits.  When I asked her if she wanted to be anointed, she told me she did not believe in that stuff.  “Not now.”

The last time I saw her, my aunt, uncle and cousin were present.  They were sitting around her in her bedroom.  They were hostile at my arrival.  “Where were you all these years?”  I quickly told them that  there was much more to the story than they know and to please not judge me. My cousin piped up,  “We know all about you!”  I went over to take a close look at my mother.  She was skin and bones.  I kissed her gently on the forehead in front of the relatives and could see her eyes fire into a rage.  “Go home,” she then said over and over.  “Go home!”  Her bony hands clenched into fists and she had a tantrum.  I could not comprehend why she was saying this, and then it hit me.  She had poisoned everyone against me, and now she resented that they were seeing another side—the side she had kept hidden so that she could play the victim and get people to feel sorry for her.  She had painted me as the bad daughter–and they must never know the truth.

That was the last I saw of my mother because she died a few days later. She died as she had lived … without any semblance of conscience.