The latin etymology for persona translates into “mask”. The word eventually evolved to subsume the entire oeuvre of a person’s socially modified disposition: an entity sunken into the diaspora of demands the environment exerts upon the individual. This antithesis often assembles itself into a well placed feint, psychologically in the very least: an inflexible desire to be accepted for who you are while simultaneously concealing what makes you so. It is often precarious and susceptible to a full-fledged schizz out that can’t be predicted; a collation of dominoes, perhaps. Right from Jung’s labyrinthine archetypes to the love song of J Alfred Prufrock, the amplifying radius of this mask tends to stitch itself into the very face of the entity till, sometimes, the guise denatures identity till the identity has emptied itself out.
For a former Jungian who has transcended the infinite realms of analytical psychology in order to root herself within the uneven terrain of forensics, the question hovers like an impatient vulture: how much of personality is embowered in persona?
“Your next roll will be two men short.”
Robert John Maudsley’s cell was immortalised in its mythical representation as Lecter’s holding area in Silence of the Lambs. The confinement chamber at Wakefield prison is a perspex enclosure with fiberboard fittings. Half a dozen sentinels stonewall the perimeter of his movements when he gets his stag hour in the exercise yard. He has been in solitary confinement for over 2 decades. He is also the original “Hannibal the Cannibal”; thus named for eating a fellow inmate’s brains with the cafeteria spoon.
Wakefield was notoriously conferred a rather cloying sobriquet: “Monster Mansion”. On the flip side it also makes an innocuous appearance in the nursery rhyme “mulberry bush”. The reference quickly sheds its innocence when viewed in context of its origin: the imposed exercise routine for female inmates who were expected to time after time go around the mulberry bush in the yard as a measure to keep centered their chaotic minds.
If we were to compile a macabre catalogue for this correctional facility, it would enlist the whos who of violent sex crime deviants; a quintessential horn of Amalthea for highest risk sex offenders within England. Yet, even in this precise purgatory, Maudsley’s name inspired the kind of terror that congealed the calcium coating the spines of inmates and prison officials alike. Guards quit their jobs and went into prolonged psychiatric counseling in his aftermath. The crucial differentiator: this man made the unenviable transition to becoming a serial killer once inside the slammer.
In 1978, Maudsley, then serving a life term for homicide, strangled an inmate and kept this body hidden in his own cell while trying to rustle up a ruse to lure another inmate for a repeat performance. After his gambit failed to materalise, he stabbed a random prisoner before handing over the shank to a guard with the calm announcement [tinged with repressed laughter] about two inmates being decimated from the roll call.
Bloodlust can be unrelenting. The mask is now sewing its dimensions into the skin. Veins are bound to rupture.
Robert Maudsley’s initial kill occurred during his days as a drug addled rent boy in London; his first was a man who tried to solicit sex from him. Upon being shown pictures of children this man had abused previously, Maudsley garroted the prospective client. His subsequent kills were slightly more complicated despite retaining his principle signature. They all occurred after his incarceration and involved overt torture prior to death. All his “victims” were pedophiles and/or sexual offenders. Originally sent to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital for the Clinically Insane after his arrest from the first murder, he was later transferred to Wakefield to carry out the remnant of his life sentence, a move he resented deeply.
His relocation was not askew. At Broadmoor, he found himself hemmed into a space filled with pedophiles & child sex offenders; it served him his specific typology on a platter. In 1977, partnering with another willing inmate, he cornered a third confined patient – a convicted pedophile – brought him to his own cell and held him captive for an hour; ab initio his intent was murder. In this duration, displaying his penchant for evolving and explicit sadism, he first broke all of the internee’s limbs followed by castration and then proceeded to kill him by smashing his head against the wall. He maintained an unusual sense of calm through the episode and even made attempts at eating the victim’s brains post butchery.
For the present moment, we put a pin into the entrapping slant of “villain v/s vigilante” and instead travel to Maudsley’s past to possibly decode the rune that impelled the irregular language of his psychosocial composition.
He was born to a family of a dozen children and spent his early childhood abandoned to a religious orphanage. Reclaimed by his parents before the onset of the concrete operational stage of cognitive development set in, he moved from an environment of emphatic religiosity to a household of rampant abuse at the gentle of 8. To quickly paraphrase Piagetian stage theory, this is the onset of the phase where a child starts to eliminate egocentricism and acquires the ability to view things from other people’s perspective. For Maudsley this was also the beginning of pervasive physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of his supposed caregivers. He entered the final state of childhood cognitive development fully cognizant only of various aspects of torture. He came around to equate survival with either learning ways to escape this torture or worse, brutalizing others before they did him. To live was either to hurt or get hurt. A diabolical binary. In his psychiatric evaluation interviews, he claimed being repeatedly raped by his birth father. If you trust causality‘s alliance with these shifting mental variables and would like to connect the dots backwards, you understand the duality of Maudsley’s unambiguously vicious murders as well his specific victim typology. He was killing his own past, repeatedly, and even admitted that had he managed to kill his own parents, the other murders would never have come about. Loosely phrased, these were surrogate kills. You are trying to rid yourself of elements from your own life you can’t quite take apart so you find the closest replacement – a surrogate of sorts – to focus your rage on. However, every kill serves to further fuel your appetite while simultaneously leaving you hungry since none of these people were his parents, the original objects of his wrath & implicit hatred. He was left desperately wanting at the end of each slaughter. His were not crimes of opportunities, they weren’t sporadic despite the appearances; he was a consistent and preferential sadist who had been molded by a set of consistent and preferential sadists. In this case, they just happened to be his parents.
Yet, not every child who experiences constant abuse grows up to torture and exterminate people. Everyone who is tortured does not become a torturer of others and again, for every torturer of others, there has been, more often than not, an evident pattern of physical and emotional cruelty untidily dispersed across the length of their past like single shoes strewn around after a stampede. Maudsley was the exception to the former rule and an exemplar for the latter. For him killing may have commenced with a definitive motive but it eventually transgressed into a no-control-no-motive-no-escape zone that was neither a thrill kill nor a behavioral anomaly but a morbidly consecrated way of life. This is what I do and thereby this is who I am from This is who I am and hence this what I do.
“Look, if you come in here, I’m going to have to kill you. It’s not personal.”
Acts initially construct on very personal sense of past terrors shed their old skin to acquire the new mien of an impersonal yet necessary statement of present [ maybe even future ] behavior. This is the unfortunate universalization of the dissentient traits of what we have clinically christened “Anti Social Personality Disorder “ and what in familiar parlance is often referred to as “Sociopathy”.
Popular culture tropes around sociopathy are so enjambed in common opinion that any process involving an explanation of this condition has to be two fold. One, of carefully deconstructing the mythos, two, of rendering to light the salient features of the disorder that are often skimmed through in favour of more “glamorous” interpretations built solely to arouse public imagination.
Within the fraternity, we take precautions not to fling the word sociopathy during behavioural profiling and for good reason.
Tenet 1 : Sociopathy in itself is not a synonym for ASPD but its subset. To make the terms exchangeable is to erect psychical barriers that limit your eye. While this discourse only concerns itself with approaching sociopathy from the perspective of offender profiling, it is not necessary that everyone who suffers from ASPD may end up as a violent sociopath. Extending the analogy, if we say that a person is born with a specific body type, endurance and agility that qualify them to be a good swimmer but is deprived of the requisite training environment and coaching, the natural bent may never be fully recognized. The lurking propensity notwithstanding, sociopathy’s dark rain is dependent on the social climate that fosters it.
Tenet 2: Sociopathic behaviour scatters itself across a wide spectrum even though its genesis in almost every case is the sundered nucleus of childhood. The presence of conduct disorders is more often than not a pre-requisite for determination of sociopathy. Kids with conduct disorders display an abject disregard for age-normative protocols as well as the emotions and feelings of others. In simpler terms, they lack the ability to relate empathically. Usually subjected to rampant psychological or physical abuse at an early age, their environment has slowly blurred the border between perceived and actual threat in others. Debates around the etiology of conduct disorders fester in multitudes, there is no neat demarcation of percentages we can allot to genetic and social factors that contribute towards the condition. What we do know for a fact is that there is a repetitive streak of violent behavior that can start as early as pre teen years and extend well into post adolescence. These kids are not just curious about criminal activities but display a stunning inclination towards actually performing them. While profiling sociopaths, a veritable rap sheet of early crimes can often stretch from vandalism and petty theft to pyromania on the verge of arson.
Sociopaths do not appear as anomalies on the radar at first, if anything, sociopaths do not appear on the radar at all. They do not stand out as spectacularly different and lack flamboyance. They will kill because they can’t help it. It’s a conditioned response. They have learned early on, by alternating cycles of crime and punishment, that in order to survive and thrive, you must be slightly invisible. The black pulse of those stacked dominoes rises and falls frequently leading them to tiptoe through all social interactions as if they were ghosts. Ironically, every attempt to shroud the mask is what will eventually undo it.
They characteristically are devoid of guilt and remorse. It prefigures all their interactions. This lack is a shortest distance between feeling like you are pitted against a bullying world and exacting revenge on it by becoming a bully yourself. Maudsley’s parents subjected him to repeated and severe beatings and the absence of any subsequent regret in their eyes was later reflected in his chilling utterances of “I don’t hate you but I will kill you.” The bipolarity of having parents who are supposed to love and care for you one hand but who are making your life shame the lowest infernos of hell was a predominant contradiction he could not shrug off. He convinced himself that you did not have to hate to hurt, though in a stark antithesis his mind was ablaze with seething disdain for his victims; his mask induced a feeling of almost zen like detachment from the kill. This was needed if he was to feel satisfied with killing.
The most definitive fact about a sociopath is he is not detached but involved. They are involved with their hate for an object that they view as a ruthless subjugator. There exists an extreme level of victimship, the consequence of being “wronged” all their lives as per them. Its not for lack of trying that they fizzle out of relationships but that by their own admittance they can’t fathom what makes people like or dislike others coupled with a particular dysfunctional entry into the corridors of adulthood. Their disorder in itself is of an affective nature. A sociopath manipulates not because it comes naturally to him but simply that he has successfully convinced himself that this is the best way to relate to others while protecting himself from something that may or may not exist. Is it unhealthy? Yes. Is it rampant? A louder yes. This absence of remorse is a signifier and a modifier. At the same time. The sociopath will be compelled to alter who he is temporarily if his camouflage is purged and then he will start somewhere else in a while. His mask is adaptive because he does not want to be found.
He is disorganized; he will tackle things as they occur. Preparation fails him as much as he fails preparation. He is not always composed of glittering intellect but more frequently than not possesses a keen survival instinct. He believes his mask above others. So, while he attempts to be invisible, his acute inability to adjust functions to impair that very central theme to his life. He sticks out in his attempts to fit in.
Jean Baudrillard said “Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile.”
Except for a sociopath, this indifference is studied and the possibility of the mask refusing the face is slim to zero. Sometimes there is an Ed Kemper who after a slew of slayings calls up the police and gives himself up. Yet, even for this to occur, a half dozen people had to part with their lives in an atrocious manner. In itself it has the same probability of incidence as a casual spotting of the black swan in Monday morning traffic. A sociopath is not a natural predator. He is a habituated hunter who has learned over a period of time how to stake, wait and strike. He will not give up that easily. Like all learned phenomenon, his schemas after gaining strength have minimal elasticity. He is narcissistic, frequently angry and he won’t stop till he is found. Yet, he will do whatever it takes to remain hidden.
3 weeks ago sitting face to face with a well primed sociopath who wanted to know which side of the table I should really be on, I was reminded of Heinz Kohut’s strangely prophetic axiom “ … the maintenance of even the diseased remnants of the self is preferable to not being.”
No longer is the mask a lifeless guise a mere persona, it is now a living, breathing person. Alive. Actual. Active.