Interview With the Psychopath

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I sit down with Professor James Fallon, renowned neuroscientist and author of The Psychopath Inside, to talk about the past, present, and future of psychopathology, the violence of Elliot Rodger, and why these “human predators” might, for better or for worse, be necessary.


“Sitting inside now,” says the short, punctuated text message. I read it at the red light on Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, a block away from the coffee shop where we planned to meet. It is a late, lazy afternoon. The sun is drooling molasses behind the Strip’s low horizon of billboards.

I take a deep breath.

The man I am meeting is Professor James Fallon.

He is a neuroscientist, an author, a husband, a father, and a grandfather.

He is also a borderline psychopath.

In October of 2005, Professor Fallon was looking through a stack of PET brain scans for a study on Alzheimer’s, for which he and his family had volunteered as a control group.

By chance, something caught his eye.

There was a dark, hollow hole in one of the brain scans in his family’s pile–a hole Professor Fallon was intimately familiar with. The areas of the brain responsible for empathy were muddled and dark. When he removed the seal covering the name, Professor Fallon discovered the brain belonged to him. The hole, the shadow, was inside his head.

Upon further investigation, Fallon discovered a deep history of violence carved into his family tree: seven alleged murderers, including the infamous (acquitted) ax-murderer Lizzie Borden.

The darkness in his head was a family legacy.

And now, I am meeting him for coffee.

Professor Fallon is a large man, bearded and shaggy-haired, articulate with a friendly timbre to his voice that belies what is, apparently, his true nature. He looks every bit a professor — and nothing at all like Hannibal Lecter.

Since his macabre discovery, his story has caught fire. He wrote a book about his experience called The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. Fox News, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and numerous others have picked up the story. He’s been interviewed on television (even playing himself in an episode of CBS’ Criminal Minds), and was considered a renowned authority even before he realized how closely related he was to his object of study.

As we take our seats across from one another, I start with what seems like the obvious question. I ask if anyone close to him treated him differently, since they found out about his brain scan. Even before we begin speaking at length, I get the feeling that, for all my effort to appear professional and courteous, I’m sure I’m one of the least experienced interviewers he has encountered. I’m self conscious that it shows. He’s respected, learned, and, just maybe, biologically lacks the ability to feel any empathy for me.

“One person that was very close to me, who was younger, said, ‘I cant see you anymore, I can’t be around you anymore,'” he laughs. He goes on to describe a story, which he details in his book, about a trip to the movies with his wife to see Manhunter, the very first cinematic appearance of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. When Lecter’s rival, the functioning psychopath Will Graham appeared, his wife pointed to the screen and remarked: “That’s you!”

“I didn’t listen — I ignored it, laughed it off,” he says, “but, one thing I’ve learned — When ten people tell you the same thing, you better listen.”

I watch him as we talk, and I hope he can’t tell that I’m looking for it — in his eyes, his body language. The one, tangible part of him that seems out of the ordinary is that he seems a little too comfortable with direct eye contact, and he doesn’t blink much — everything else about him seems perfectly cheery.

“The association level of violence is really, very misleading,” he says of pop culture’s portrayal of psychopaths, “but, y’know, it’s hard to make a person not violent as a psychopath interesting as a character. They always have to have this murderous behavior.”

Professor Fallon cites his upbringing — the coddled child of a mother who, after four miscarriages, never thought he would be born at all — as the most tangible reason he turned out the way he did. His scientific views on nature versus nurture were altered the day he met his “dark passenger” — genetics couldn’t be the whole story, if he had lived such a peaceful, successful life in the midst of his condition.

“In psychiatry there’s no such thing as a psychopath,” he says. He proceeds to describe the controversy surrounding the term — there’s still debate as to whether there even is such a thing, as a matter of categorization. It is a term that is so elastic, and encompasses so many overlapping criteria, that it seems to defy easy filing. There are genetic and neurological correlates, but it’s very difficult to nail down what, exactly, psychopathy is.

“It’s the difference between a categorical disease, and a disorder. Like, you either have this, or you don’t — that’s the categorical idea, versus this idea of a spectrum of traits: levels of narcissism, loss of empathy, how much you manipulate people…” he takes a sip of his drink. He’s remarkably engaging, one of those charismatic teachers that students want to have a beer with after class.

“A lot of what we have in pop culture is based on TV and film, and that is based on criminal aspects of psychopathy. Whereas there’s many more psychopaths who walk around who aren’t criminals, but they still have those traits. One of the perfect Clecklian psychopaths would be Casanova — kind of a nonviolent user, manipulator, and scammer. Imagine the five Olympic rings — so you’re doing Venn diagrams. The thing is, normal people would overlap with all of these to some degree. Even though there’s some people that don’t score anything. A zero.”

“There’s a so-called ‘psychopath riddle’ that gets passed around the Internet a lot,” I say, doing my best to sound above-it-all — I don’t want him to think a pop psych Internet meme fooled me, even for a moment. “It’s a riddle that’s supposed to reveal if you think like a psychopath.”

He asks to hear it.

The riddle, as I paraphrased it, goes like this:

While at the funeral of her own mother, a girl meets a man she does not know. They talk for a while, and the girl falls in love with him immediately. A few days later, the girl kills her sister. Why does she kill her sister?

“The answer is that she wants to see the man again. She figures, if he was at her mother’s funeral, he will probably be at her sister’s, too. Supposedly, if you answer this way, you think like a psychopath because you’re entirely fixated on the goal and how to achieve it, and you’re not concerned with any suffering your actions may cause in reaching your goal.” I finish, and I can’t help feeling the sucking void of a missed opportunity — I probably should have let him answer.

He pauses for a moment. Then he says, “Well, no, of course a single question like that isn’t going to reveal if someone is actually a psychopath. But the logic of it… yeah, that’s a pretty psychopathic way of thinking. In fact — it is treating people completely as objects. That’s defined by the level of empathy.”

I move on. “Why are we so fascinated by psychopaths? Fictional or otherwise, it’s almost an obsession in pop culture. They’re often portrayed as charismatic, intelligent, and at times even superhuman, especially on shows like Dexter and Hannibal.”

He smiles at what, I suppose, was an indirect compliment on my part. “I think one thing is the emotional separation that a human being can have from other people. Someone who is purely predatorial… they just see you as an object. It is your ultimate fear. And you want to get near things that you fear.” He leans forward on the table, now, and looks me more directly in the eye. “The chances of inheriting all of one type [of gene] are very low. But they’re there — you’re always gonna get outliers. It’s inevitable. What good is it, in evolutionary terms, in having these outliers?”

He pauses. I shrug.

“Well, it’s because in times of great biological stress, these people save the species — they’re the ones who climb over the mountains to have sex with everybody they can, and kill whoever they have to. If you take a look at the development of human cognition, the greatest explosion of brain size occurs during periods of great climate change. In this sense, the worst thing would be to breed out all warrior genes — because this makes us so susceptible, when the heat is on. Once the environment changes drastically, what’s considered moral and normal changes.”

“So we needed psychopaths, at one point. Maybe we might need them again, someday,” I say, with an astonishment I don’t attempt to hide from him.

“That’s right. You need that person. When the asteroid hits, there’s nobody to take the ball and run with it. Nobody has the energy or the charisma. By opening up normative behaviors (and moral behavior is really just normative behavior; it’s the average behavior) psychopaths teach us how much our limbic system and our sense of morality compromise our efficiency. The average person takes a moment and says, how is this going to affect the person in front of me? You’ve got to pass it through the orbital cortex, and the amygdala — this takes time and slows you down. Psychopaths don’t need to pass through that. It’s like perfect pitch — it’s a very short pathway. You can think of the psychopath, because they don’t have to worry about how things affect other people, as having perfect pitch for cold, cognitive behavior. They are master predators.”
“Perfect pitch…” I’m immediately impressed by the analogy.

“That’s why the idea of a world without war and aggression is quite na├»ve — we just have to manage this stuff. We do not want to get rid of these genes. That’s the cost of doing business as a human being — we have these people that are going to do, apparently, awful things.”

We decide to move to the burger joint next door. We sit by the window, and chat less formally as the food arrives. I discreetly beg the waiter to turn the music down, so my memo recorder can capture everything. I ask Professor Fallon, as a casual aside, what it’s like to be “someone like him.”

“I’ve always cultivated my persona as a regular guy.” He says, and the word choice — cultivated my persona — strikes me as significant. “Y’know, I was a truck driver, a teamster, a bartender… but what I found out from everyone around me, is that my level of manipulation was so out of control, so instinctual. I didn’t reflect on it. Now I have to tell myself, ‘don’t try to create this little magical world where you’re just messing with people because you can.’ It’s just something I always did. Some odd adult would notice every now and then. There’s always been one a year that said ‘there’s something really evil about you.'” He laughs again, jovially, contagiously, and once again seems anything but evil. “I think that was because they could see that I could talk people into doing almost anything… into following me anywhere. Even into danger. I think the amount of control, power, and leadership that I was given by my peers really bothered some adults. They saw some manipulation, which they thought was potentially very “evil.” I think that was part of it. At the time, of course, I’m just laughing this off.”

“So it’s less hand-wringing, pre-meditated, and more just…something you didn’t notice?”

“The manipulation — I just automatically do it. I don’t make that decision, ‘I’m now going to try and make this person do this.’ I just do things, instinctually. I’m just now, in the past couple years, trying to recognize, and stop myself for a moment, and say, ‘you’re doing that thing.’ So I had to just slow down for ten milliseconds each time I had an interaction with a human and say, just be straight with him. It’s quite difficult, actually.”

I stop, now — I’ve been typing furiously, trying to get it all down. He waits for me. I look at my notes, the questions I’ve prepared. I realize, it’s time.

“I hate to jump on a bandwagon, but I’d feel wrong not asking about this,” I say.

He seems to know where I’m going.

“Elliot Rodgers,” I say, “The UCSB killer.”

He nods.

I tell him that, prior to our meeting, I had read numerous articles about Rodgers, the so-called “Virgin Killer” who shot six people and then himself in May. Each commentator and pundit seemed to be arguing with each other — each telling the other that he or she was missing the point. “It’s about mental illness,” one would say; or “it’s about gun control,” said others. Some asserted that to analyze Rodgers’ recorded rants about women and his virginity, and to call him a misogynist, is ridiculous, because he was just mentally ill. The takeaway for them seemed to be: “you can’t take a crazy person’s word for it.”

I pause.

“I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But, that video he posted… it was so explicit. It sounded so… it sounded really familiar, actually. I know guys like this.” I look at my notes, my prepared wording of the question: “So, what I want to ask is, ‘can a culture or environment enable psychopathic behavior, or can the blame truly be gathered at the feet of neurochemistry alone? Would this guy have exploded anyway, for another reason, or did misogyny in our culture play a specific role here?'”

Professor Fallon looks away from my eyes, to think for a moment. I realize this is one of the few times his eyes have left mine. Then, he looks resolved, and begins:

“Well, the first thing is, nobody knows,” he says, frankly, and taps his head, which I take to mean that, of course, no one knows what it was like to actually be Rodgers except Rodgers himself.

“But when I hear that video… it sounds like those are his motivations. This is a smart kid. He wasn’t not deranged — there’s some paranoia and some narcissism in there. But the fundamental logic… if you said, does he have a reason? Well, yeah. It’s not one we accept for his behavior, but you can see the connection. It’s not like he’s disconnected in an illogical way.”

He stops to think, again, as if deciding how much he should say.

“I think that, that drive is a very exaggerated form of what exists in a lot of guys. It’s not a novel thing. Even though it sounds awful, I think it’s irresponsible not to understand the logic of what he’s saying. You don’t agree with it — but you say, well yeah, he’s putting those two things together. And what he fails to see is that his behavior contributes to it, and that you don’t do those things. That’s why these manifestos — and I’ve read a number of them — they’re logical. In that narrow, important sense. To ignore the logic, the narrative, is pure folly. This is a dangerous thing to be in denial about. First of all the biology, second of all the logic of it. You gotta understand the source of this stuff, how somebody really gets to this position.”

After the media cacophony that followed the shooting, Fallon’s answer is edifying. It wasn’t my imagination. There is more than one monster at the end of this story, and it is not just the old bogeymen of the psycho killer and the gun. It is a far more insidious, far more familiar creature that has little to do with mental illness or psychopathy, but can embolden both — it is the phantom of misogyny. It is the feeling young men get, because it’s been drilled into their heads, that women owe them their bodies.

And here, from the mouth of a neuroscientist and self-diagnosed psychopath, comes the cold, logical answer: though he may have been mentally ill, this killer got his ideas about women, and what they owed him, from somewhere. It seems so obvious–and yet, that very morning, I had doubted it myself. People I knew had dismissed it as “feminist bullshit”. I had almost believed them.

He smiles, and gets up to shake my hand.

“I think we see eye-to-eye.”

“Well, I’m not a scientist, just a science enthusiast,” I look down, away from his eyes, to gather up my laptop, my bag, and check the bill. It seems anticlimactic. I realize I had been expecting something to happen — what, I do not know. I feel reassured, but also slightly disappointed. That stereotype, that word — psychopath — carries so much cultural baggage, I’m not sure what would have satisfied me.

“But you think like one.”

I stop. For a moment, a distracted moment, I forget what I had said before. I said scientist, didn’t I? I think like a scientist? Or did he mean…

I look at him, and he looks at me. An awkward moment of silence passes. Then I laugh, a little flustered, and tell him, “Oh boy, you said ‘you think like one’, and I just thought…”

He laughs, and I laugh with him.

“Well you’re quite open, and not judgmental. If you’re a scientist, you can’t be judgmental. Some people kind of doubt why I wrote this book. I was driven by the scientist in me. I want to know what is really going on. And of course, narcissism.”

“I have a bit of that myself,” I say.

He smiles, and nods. He tries to get the check, but I insist he did me a favor by letting me interview him, and refuse to let him pay. He relents, and of course the thought occurs, for a brief moment — was I just manipulated into paying the bill? No, that’s silly. He was being very polite by offering. I’m projecting, clearly.

I walk out into the parking lot. It’s a landscape of forgettable, urban pedestrian types sitting in chairs sipping frappucinos or walking through the parking lot. I wonder about their inner states, their squirming brains. I wonder what a city-block-sized brain scan might show if I could take a snapshot of this scene around me. I wonder if there are predators near me. Here. Now. I wonder if they’re violent, or simply manipulative.

I meet eyes. I can’t read them. I wonder if they can read me. And I wonder what choices they will make. Like storms, people’s brains seem concocted by a combination of neurochemistry, chance, determinism, and outside influences. Winds from foreign lands, local pressure systems in their heads, all conspire to create them. I wonder how much choice we have in this creation. The tempest whirls in a widening gyre. Sometimes, the storm explodes. But not here. Not today.

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