For those students of Girardian Theory who have never met a psychopath, it might be shocking to see the parallels between the psychopath’s behaviors and the behaviors described in the myths and rituals of primitive cultures. You might have some reluctance to believe that there walk among us, carefully disguised as charming and lovable human beings, creatures whose behaviors parallel those found in rituals and mythology. The reversal of roles, switching places, dual or multiple identities and substitute victims, commonly seen in myths, are also stock in trade for the psychopath.
Just as Rene Girard noticed certain basic structures and themes in the great works of literature and in ancient myths, victims of psychopaths will often comment on the similarities among their stories. In astonishment, the victims typically exclaim, “It’s as if they all went to the same psychopath university!” In the past, victims were too shocked and ashamed to disclose their stories. Ironically, nobody believes the victim because their story doesn’t sound possible or probable. Now the internet and weblogs allow anonymous disclosure and we’ve discovered that the stories are all too common and all too true. Rene Girard’s theories of mimetic desire and scapegoating, describe behaviors very similar to the actions of psychopaths. The themes, extracted from myth and ritual, correspond to the bizarre actions and thoughts of psychopaths.
Reversing the Truth
There are several common elements between Rene Girard’s theories and an encounter with a psychopath. For example, in Girard’s scapegoat theory the victim’s guilt is reversed when the story is told from the opposing perspectives of the scapegoat or of the murderer. Similarly, victims of psychopaths experience the disorientation when psychopaths falsely accuse and slander them. Curiously, psychopaths don’t only invert the truth when projecting blame, they invert the truth 180 degrees at every opportunity, even when there seems to be no gain.
The 180 Rule
The 180 rule is a term used in video and film production. It’s sometimes called, the rule of line crossing. The 180 rule is about orienting the viewer. It does this by keeping the characters who are facing each other in a scene, with the same left/right relationship to each other. The 180 rule sets an imaginary line from side to side across the scene or subjects you are filming. The rule states that the camera may be placed anywhere on only one side of that line. This leaves 180 degrees around the subjects, to place the camera. Crossing the line makes the characters appear to switch places. This confuses and disorients the viewer. The new shot, from the opposite side, is known as a reverse angle, it looks like a mirror image of the original orientation.
I propose that a psychopath’s purpose for inverting the truth at every opportunity, is to destabilize and disorient the viewers’ perceptions. The chaos serves his purpose of gaining power and control over those he deceives. The psychopath will place the blame for a disruption as far from the truth as possible. Once the psychopath identifies his scapegoat, he incites others to join him in an attack. He wields power because he subverts the truth and controls the perceived reality. When the attack is over, the participants are bound by a common experience. In this mimetic process, the deceived participants, by doing as the psychopath does, become more like him. A new order is created, based on a lie, which the psychopath controls at will.
The Psychopath’s Lies are 180 Degrees the Opposite of the Truth
Frequently, the mirror image of the truth appears in a psychopath’s lies. Most notably, he will accuse you of being guilty of his own transgressions and he will slander others by accusing them of his crimes. In psychological terms, it’s called “projecting”. The term “180 rule” applies to projecting as well as to the myriad of other lies he tells. For example, psychopaths are evasive about where they live and who they are. If they live to the North, they say they live to the South. If they live by the beach they profess to live in the mountains. They perpetuate the lie that’s furthest from the truth. Psychopaths have been known to masquerade as the opposite sex. They infiltrate groups whose values are opposite of what they believe and portray the most passionate fervor for those opposing values. They know they will be crossing your boundaries, provoking your anger and creating havoc in your life. So they always have an exit-strategy and that strategy always involves misdirection. Psychopaths are the definition of hypocrites.
Psychopaths Cross the Line
Psychopaths lie pathologically. Dr. Scott Peck entitled his book on psychopaths, People of the Lie because lying is such a prominent trait of malignant narcissists. When they do admit the truth, their aim is to deceive you about something else. Their stories are so outrageous that you can’t doubt them because nobody would make these things up without being insane. The truth, about what the psychopath really is capable of, is so offensive that you would never believe it, and so you don’t try. Hervey Cleckley, entitled his seminal book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, because psychopaths present themselves to be perfectly sane, yet they seem to operate in a different reality.
Confusion and Chaos: Blurring the Boundaries
This is their modus operandi, to confuse and create chaos because in the end, they do have goals and there is a method to their madness. When a psychopath reverses the truth 180 degrees, they seem to switch places with their victim. Then, when the psychopath remembers how they offended their victim, it is the victim who offended him. The victim becomes the guilty party. In his mind, it is always the victim’s fault. The phrases, “he had it coming” and “she got what she deserved” are common psychopath expressions. Another reason psychopaths create chaos and problems, is so that they can be the one who provides the solution. Girardian theorists might be familiar with this theme. Girard writes, “…the double nature of all primitive divinities, the blending of beneficent and maleficent that characterizes all mythical figures who involve themselves in mortal affairs.” (Violence and The Sacred 265) Victims of domestic violence experience this in the trauma-bond, when the psychopathic partner sabotages his victim’s life, it provides him the opportunity to “rescue” his victim, thus increasing their dependency on him.
Responsibility, in all its forms, is anathema to a psychopath. Nothing is ever their fault or their responsibility. The psychopath is a parasite on society and on individuals. Not only does the psychopath evade responsibility for his transgressions, he dislikes being held responsible for any of the normal things for which adults take responsibility: Their debts, their children, their actions. Scapegoating is a common method for a psychopath to shift responsibility.
Although he evades responsibility, the psychopath is addicted to dominance and control. They are sycophants, ingratiating themselves with anyone who has power, usurping the mantle of authority. They are able to assess their victims’ weaknesses as well as their strengths and they will use both to ensnare their prey. The psychopath looks for a victim who has the resources and the willingness to accept responsibility, but that isn’t all they want. The psychopath sees his victim’s resources as the source of power. Like a parasite, he uses pity to drain those resources until the victim is left powerless.
Mirroring: They Want to Wear Your Skin.
People who have met psychopaths will often describe being mirrored. Psychopaths make their victims think that they are just like them and that they have so much in common. They are experts at flattery and love-bombing. The victims feel that they have found their soul mates. Psychopaths seem to mirror our very souls. By mirroring you, psychopaths appeal to your narcissism while paradoxically negating your uniqueness. At first, it isn’t apparent that this imitation is actually envy, until they have deposed you and taken your place. It is self-esteem that psychopaths envy. They bask in your admiration of their facade. When you esteem a psychopath, he knows it is your self-esteem being reflected in the mirror. He is just a facsimile of the original and his mirror lacks the depth to be an original. The psychopath’s envy is the source of his motto: If I can’t have it, nobody can. Furthermore, he determines to make the victim feel the envy that he feels. He wants the victim to share his shame and become a facsimile of him. The wearing-our-skin is a theme in sacrificial substitution. Rene Girard explains:
“The Aztec god Xipe-Totec, demonstrates the ability of the incarnation of the sacred to assume different roles within the system. Sometimes this god is killed and flayed in the person of a victim offered as a substitute for him; at other times, the god becomes the executioner, flaying victims in order to don their skin.” (Violence and the Sacred, 265)
Sacrificial Preparation — idealize-devalue-and-discard
Girard describes the rituals of the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil in which they assimilated the prisoners of war into the community for months or years before he is killed:
“The prisoner was subjected to two apparently contradictory modes of treatment. Sometimes his sexual favors were sought after and he was treated with respect and even veneration. At other times, he was the object of abuse, showered with insults and blows. Shortly before the date of execution, the prisoner’s `escape’ was ritually staged. Invariably, of course, he was quickly captured and–for the first time–bound with heavy rope around his ankles. His master now stopped giving him food and he was forced to resort to stealing… In short, the future victim was encouraged to violate the laws. Most modern observers agree that the purpose of these indulgences was to transform the prisoner into a `scapegoat’.” (Violence and the Sacred, 290)
A person in a relationship with a psychopath experiences something very similar. The psychopath’s strategy for destroying the object of their wrath is to first put them on a pedestal. It isn’t enough to take away what she has, the victim must also feel a tremendous loss. One psychopath told me, “When I want to destroy someone, first I like to make them really happy. I like to take them up really high because that way, they have further to fall.” It was a psychopathic tell with multiple meanings. Another psychopath I knew, quoted Sun-Tzu from The Art of War. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”, she’d say. Her psychopathic tell was that she was not my friend and I couldn’t know the difference because she will keep her enemies as close as she keeps her friends. She called me daily, several times a day. This is the psychopaths automatic response when they feel envious. It is incomprehensible that hatred for someone can lead a human being to love-bomb the person they hate and extend a false hand of friendship and love to them. Like the primitive cannibals, they will even propose marriage and children. By giving the victim all the happiness and love they ever wanted, the loss of it is ever more devastating when it’s taken away. Only a devastating loss by the victim can avenge the narcissistic injury felt by an envious psychopath. The victim must feel the loss in her very core. A word that victims of psychopaths have used to describe their devastation is “eviscerated”. This feeling of being emptied out completes the transference of the psychopath’s empty core into the victim. The victim feels what the psychopath had felt. Whether the violence is physical, emotional or financial, the psychopath always believes the victim deserved to pay the price. The most satisfying resolution for the psychopath is when he is able to convince the victim to willingly take responsibility for something that the psychopath is guilty of. Victims can be driven to cognitive dissonance by the unrelenting, mind-bending, reality-twisting, of a psychopath and eventually take their own lives. This is the final acceptance of responsibility by a victim, confirming the “fact” that they were guilty.
Analysis of the Psychopath Through the Lens of Girardian Theory
Psychopathic beliefs and behaviors bear an uncanny resemblance to the beliefs and rituals of primitive cultures. In fact, when trying to understand a psychopath, it almost seems like you’ve met someone from a different culture whose values and mores are nothing like your own. Psychopaths don’t actually have any values. Their desires are mimetic and dependent on the current victim, yet the basic structure of their beliefs and behaviors is consistent: They lie, they are driven by envy, they scapegoat, they destroy, they desire control. Girard’s Mimetic Theory is being applied to research in the social and behavior sciences. Applications as diverse as politics, theology, psychology, economics and biology are being investigated. I believe that Girard’s theories can be applied to the process of understanding the paradox presented by the “mask of sanity” which has confounded the medical community and labeled human beings afflicted with psychopathy, as “untreatable”. Psychopathic behavior burdens all of society. Society takes responsibility for restoring order from the destruction psychopaths leave in their wake. This places all of us in the role of the victim each day. Psychopaths have been around as long as humanity. Literary anthropology, when applied to these pathological story-tellers, may unveil the role that psychopaths have played in founding human culture. Or conversely, perhaps it will reveal the role which human culture plays in shaping a psychopath. Copyright © 2012-2018 Skylar