Monday, December 17, 2012

The parenting-a-sociopath question

So everyone has decided to share an essay by a mother about her 13-year-old son and her fears that the boy will* commit one of these notorious shootings. Whereas normally, such a shooting must actually happen (and, often, the killer must have already offed himself) for there to be an accompanying photo, this mother takes pains to change the first name of her son (but not her own name), yet provides a sweet photo of the boy, a photo that's now made its way around the entire Internet. (The Gawker version does not include this photo, so that's the one I'm linking to.) [Fixed!] All this boy has done is shown himself to be a very troubled kid.

Will Baude sees this story as fitting in with my running theme of "dirty laundry" - parents writing tell-alls about their still-minor children. The parent (almost always the mother, although there's every so often a father really miffed that his son can't get into Harvard) will be congratulated for her bravery, and everyone will forget that the person whose story is being told by definition had no say in the matter.

Anyway, I've said before and I'll say again that I don't think parents have the (moral, legal of course they do) right to hold forth about their real-life children for a mass audience. I make the following exceptions:

-The child is very young and seriously ill, or severely mentally disabled, and will never read the thing in question. Plus, the parent is doing a particular service to others in the same situation, who must feel quite alone. The same cannot be said for mothers who write about how their daughters struggle with a stubborn extra ten pounds.

-Names and details were changed, other children discussed as well, such that the parent isn't writing about her own child directly, even if one might infer this entered into the research.

-Fiction.

-Small-scale online sharing (emails, parenting forums, Facebook, etc.), where a parent imagines a tiny audience, but there's always the remote possibility that something gets reposted somewhere big.

This latest is, I suppose, an ambiguous case. We don't get the kid's real name, which, along with the great possibility he doesn't have the same last name as his mother, makes it at least a bit of a research project to figure out who he is. (I haven't, at any rate, tried.) The photo, though, might be worse, faces being that much more unique than names. And I know nothing of "The Blue Review," whether this is a mass-audience sort of site or not, nor whether the author herself wanted the story to get as huge as it has. And finally, being the mother* of an apparent sociopath would seem to be an unusual-enough situation that other parents in that boat would need support. One can't help but feel for the author. On the inevitable spectrum of self-promotion to cry-for-help, this is a piece of parenting-writing that falls closer to the latter.

Ultimately my take on the article has less to do with the dirty-laundry angle - present and problematic as it is - and more with the conclusions the author comes to in it. First, there's her assumption that mass murder should be regarded as a "highly visible sign of mental illness." As if no killer is ever just, you know, bad news. Then, of course, there's the stigmatization (in a piece ostensibly against stigmatization!) of the mentally ill, exceedingly few of whom are going to do anything like this. Oh, and there's this: "In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness." I understand why this mother is thinking about mental illness, but in what way shape or form is it easy to talk about guns, in the let's-have-a-national-conversation sense?

As for the "meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health" the author would like... again, let's remember that she is launching this conversation by telling us that her son seems like he'll go and kill a bunch of people any minute now. And this is supposed to convince us not to want him in jail, assuming he committed a violent crime that got him there? But the author's argument, buried under the let's-have-a-conversation gloss, is that people like her son should be institutionalized, and that the state should pay for it. Is that what 'have a conversation about mental illness' is a euphemism for? Isn't forced institutionalization problematic as well? Or do we think if society were just more aware, these extremely troubled kids would magically find the answer to their psychiatric woes, and a problem that has plagued humanity since the get-go - really messed-up individuals bent on destruction - would vanish? Isn't it far more likely that if we decide that this is about mental illness, not guns, communities are going to engage in more of a witch-hunt than they already do for strange but innocuous behavior? Sure, an expert might be able to tell the difference, but it takes a village to locate subjective and imprecise Warning Signs.


The Gawker commenters who make this a race-and-gender issue have a point - why do we-who-are-not-this-particular-boy's-mother care if he ends up in prison? Is it because he is, as the photo reveals, approximately the whitest person imaginable? Is it because he's a genius, a category that, in discussions of children, tends to have less to do with ingenious accomplishments and more to do with our apparent collective desire to label those lacking in social skills (esp. if male) as paradoxically superior to those of us quite capable of making small talk? Ugh, too much to think about, could go on, must do practical non-blog things instead. The comments, though, are open as always.

*Typos fixed.

40 comments:

caryatis said...

Judging from the article, this kid has been drugged, sent to a reeducation program, a psychiatrist, and now a mental hospital. What makes the mother think that more mental health care is the answer, since the mental health care he’s gotten hasn’t worked?

I also think it’s odd she recognizes jail is not likely to be a sanity-inducing environment, but she has no hesitation about committing her son to an asylum he describes as “hell.”

If he’s 13 and smart, he almost certainly has read this article (or will when he gets out of the asylum), and it’s only going to make him angrier.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think it would take about 10 minutes to find this kid's identity, especially once he's on FB (she already is, complete w/ family photos). And he's not too young to read the internet himself. Given what this woman is suggesting about him - not that he's academically average or kind of high-strung and fretful - things that are hardly deal-breakers for future employers, roommates, girlfriends, etc. - but that he is on the verge of being a mass-murderer and needs to be locked up pronto, I'd think this is a clear example of crossing the line. When everyone in America w/ a computer knows that the oldest son of Liza Long of Boise, ID is a sociopath, privacy has clearly been violated. I'd also go farther than you in your skepticism about her ability to "start a national conversation" - it's not that she's gotten it off to a poor start, it's that there is no such thing as a "national conversation" about anything - just mass orgies of grandstanding pundits and internet snipers focusing on the same general topic for two days at a time, while there is a real kid whose reputation has been sacrificed for the sake of creating short-lived fodder for the variously vicious and useless desire of people on social media to gossip and pontificate about something.

Moebius Stripper said...

I figured you'd be on top of this. And, yeah.

I got into a few arguments about it on Twitter, taking your side, arguing against the who-are-we-to-judge-this-brave-mother-who-only-wants-to-help side. One father was SO SURE that putting this kid on Gawker would ultimately help him, because it's part of "destigmatizing mental illness", which, I can't even...anyway, I commented that this kid's mom obviously isn't shy about exposing the details about her kid's life, so how about we make a bet? I bookmark the mom's blog, and follow it for a year, and see if, within that year, Mom posts anything about how much better things are going now that she's told the entire internet everything there is to know about her child. For everyone's sake, I hope that that IS the outcome, but I'm quite willing to bet money against it.

But most infuriating about the "who are you to judge" argument is the insinuation that there is not a single parent of a difficult child who has deliberately opted not to air the kid's dirty laundry. By definition, anyone who takes issue with what this mother is doing, doesn't have a dog in the fight. Whereas, personally, though I'm not a parent of a difficult child, I do have some personal experience with a related issue. But, being morally opposed to violating people's privacy, I'm not about to violate the relevant parties' privacy just to gain credibility, even under a pseudonym.

Moebius Stripper said...

Another thing that rubbed me very much the wrong way: the mother in that article says that she doesn't have a diagnosis for her son; armchair psycholgists notwithstanding, we don't have one for Adam Lanza, and we had an even flimsier picture of him when "Michael"'s mom wrote her post; Adam and his mother were apparently quite isolated and none of the neighbours seemed to know either of them very well, so we don't know much about their home life beyond the fact that their house contained a bunch of guns (and video games, apparently); and yet, "Michael"'s mom is so confident that "Michael" and Adam have a lot in common that in the very title of the blog post, she declares solidarity with the latter's mother, who of course is in no position to argue, so who the hell are WE to disagree?

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

Yup - it's unclear what it would mean for the author for mental illness to be addressed. There are indeed undiagnosed mental illnesses, but what her son is suffering from sounds undiagnosable.

MSI,

I was on the fence, but you've convinced me. Looks like we're not alone (if you scroll down...) What if - as is possible - this kid is a weirdo at 13 but will straighten out when he gets older? Few of us are our best selves at that age.

Moebius,

Agreed with you as well. This idea that we should speak openly about mental illness... I mean, maybe if you talk about your own mental illness. But it's not OK to do so about the mental illness of your child.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hanna Rosin also agrees, although since she believes this would be best addressed by the "children's rights movement," I suddenly feel very inclined to jump off the bandwagon and out of the way of any oncoming "rights movements."

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, Andrew Stevens at A&J offers the "I was Adam Lanza, but then I straightened out" account.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

Hanna Rosin needs to come to WWPD! I've been holding forth on this since forever. But I disagree with her that spilling dirty laundry not about mental illness is OK. It's just problematic for different reasons.

Andrew Stevens said...

MSI: Nonsense. I was saying "I was Liza Long's kid." I was never Adam Lanza and never likely to be Adam Lanza. But then, I suspect, neither is Liza Long's kid.

caryatis said...

Agreed, Andrew. There seems to be a tendency for parents who have problems with their children to go way overboard in describing the potential dangers they face. Normal parental neuroticism usually takes the form of "he'll get himself killed!" but throw in a diagnosis and it quickly becomes "he'll kill us all!" (Just as teenagers in drug treatment programs are often told they'd be dead if they weren't in treatment. Maybe, but very unlikely.)

Megan McArdle thinks we shouldn't fool ourselves that there is a legislative solution:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/17/there-s-little-we-can-do-to-prevent-another-massacre.html

PG said...

I don't think just any diagnosis or atypical behavior makes sensible people think someone is a potential physical threat. I have plenty of friends who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, with depression, OCD, and other problems. One of my best friends was recently hospitalized and may need to go on disability because her condition is keeping her from work. But I've never heard of any of them being treated as a threat to others.

No doubt part of the lack of concern is due to most of these friends being female. But it's probably also because while several have threatened or enacted self-harm, they've never threatened harm to others, not even those (such as sexually abusive relatives or acquaintances, or mentally abusive co-workers and superiors) who have caused or triggered their problems. And when they have threatened self-harm, it's not been in reaction to a minor, everyday loss of privileges like losing access to video games for a day, but because they were forced to continue attending school with their rapist or because they were being sent to "pray away the gay" camp.

Andrew says in comments "I never had elaborate revenge fantasies or any desire to kill people." That makes him different from "Michael," who "pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books."

It's unfair to parents who are struggling with really scary children to compare a kid who threatens serious physical harm to a kid with an autism or ADD diagnosis. I agree that Long should not have written something like this under her real name, using her kid's photograph, but that doesn't make her a bad person for being afraid of what her son might do.

PG said...

As for McArdle, most of that longass essay was perfectly reasonable and not terribly interesting. Then she had to do this for the page hits:

"I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once."

I've been semi-defending this on Facebook, because I actually do think it has some basis for adults. We've changed our reaction to attempted airplane hijackings since 9/11 (the folks on United 93 are recognized as having done the right thing), where we now assume that instead of the old pattern of holding people hostage, the perpetrator is going to end up killing you all, so you're better off with a few of you dead by box-cutter, than all of you dead plus 2000 people on the ground. Subsequent terrorist attempts have been met with passengers and crew jumping the guy. Thus, it seems reasonable that American adults might change our reaction to terrorist threats away from planes as well.

But you wouldn't get the page hits and earn your keep at The Daily Beast if you didn't go full-crazy by saying that 6-year-olds should be encouraged to rush at gunmen.

Phoebe said...

PG,

A couple things:

1) Indeed, autism spectrum didn't used to be listed among "warning signs," but once it's been somehow anecdotally decided that that's what the issue was with this latest killer, communities are going to be on the lookout for actual autism, for behavior-that-seems-like-Aspergers, etc. In principle, it would probably even be possible for a non-expert to say with some accuracy who's got the potential for violence and who's just odd, but once it's decided that odd=scary, there's bound to be confusion. Indeed, it's likely that autistic girls will not be feared in this way.

2) In terms of Long specifically, her credibility appears to be so-so. As in, it's unclear what's the kid's mental illness and what's the kid mimicking mentally-ill or just severely troubled parents. But in terms of parents more generally, yes, dangerous children are a real thing, and yes, they're different from otherwise-troubled kids. Even among the subset of kids who lash out physically at their parents, I'd imagine those who go on to kill anyone, let alone outside their families, are a tiny minority. But yes, a violent kid is legit Warning Signs. As for what to do about it, other than make sure this kid doesn't get anywhere near a gun, it's unclear. There's no definitive mental-health answer to this, as far as I'm aware.

caryatis said...

PG, I think it's unfair to the kid to assume the mother is telling the whole truth. Even if she thought she was being honest, we're not getting how the situation looked from the boy's perspective. (What happened in between asking him to return the library books and pulling the knife? What does 'pulling a knife' really mean, and if he did have a knife, was it meant for aggressive or defensive purposes? What is the history of this relationship?)

Because, as I said above, when someone has a diagnosis of any kind, it warps others' perceptions of him and very little can trigger their fears of violence. I have a friend whose parents called the police on her (as a teenager) because she used a knife to cut some herbs in the garden.

caryatis said...

Sometimes children seem very violent and very crazy, but somehow, remove them from their family and they magically become normal. Circumstances change people's behavior.

Sure, there may be a subset of truly dangerous children, but we shouldn't assume any child who ever hits his mother or grabs a knife is in that category. And we definitely should not believe everything parents say about their children.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG: I never said I never threatened people (or myself). I said I never had any desire to harm people. And I doubt Michael does either. Presumably she has given the worst stuff he's ever done. At no point does she say he has, for example, harmed his siblings or any pets or even set a fire or something. He has attacked his mother, but A) he wasn't really able to harm her and probably knew he wouldn't be able to going in and B) arguably, he was acting in self-defense (trying to stop her from institutionalizing him). I'm not trying to diagnose the kid from afar. It's quite possible that there's something seriously wrong with him, just not that I can tell from her blog post. In any event, I haven't said she's a bad person for any reason.

Britta said...

PG

Not to mention, adults DID rush the gunman as soon as they found out about him, but we've known since WW1 that rushing a person with a semiautomatic or automatic weapon is total suicide. There's no way to stop or even survive long enough to get close to someone who can release a continuous spray of bullets, rather than someone who must aim, shoot, and then reload.

The Hannah Rosin article immediately became suspect when I read some of her links and they appeared to be blog posts which were willful misreadings and purposeful character assassinations of Liza Long. No matter what someone's issues are, if the critic has to lie, twist someone's words, or take things in obvious bad faith to make the argument against them then in my mind they don't really have a valid point. Long may be melodramatic and high strung, but her son seems to have legitimate issues. It appears he was expelled from school and is already in the legal system, so clearly it's not just the mom who thinks he has problems.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

Glad things worked out well for you!

Britta,

There's a lot I disagreed with in Long's post, even apart from the question of, her son's a real person who had no say in the matter, whose photo the entire nation (and I believe it's made the Belgian news as well, so, world) has seen, and will now equate with a mass murder that this boy, however troubled he might be, has nothing to do with. In terms of those who'd judge Long's parenting, this is, alas, one of the problems with parental overshare. One is allowed to comment only to praise. And one only gets the parent's side. If one responds wondering how the kid (who has no voice) feels, one is accused of, I don't know, concern-trolling, or being insufficiently sympathetic to the author.

Anyway, it hardly seems mutually exclusive that this kid is troubled and that his mother is as well. But it's not character assassination to question this mother's choice to put up a photo of her identifiable-enough son and equating the boy with a mass-murderer. Questioning this and sympathizing with her predicament: also not mutually-exclusive.

Britta said...

Andrew,

I don't think questioning Long's decision to write about her son and post presumably a real photo shouldn't be criticized. It's rather that some of the blogs Rosin linked to were purposefully misreading Long and taking her out of context. See this. Every claim in this post is either a lie or a borderline trollish interpretation of normal parenting exasperation. If anything, I'm more sympathetic to Long after reading this.

This isn't Rosin's claim, but she quotes a lot from it, and even linking to stuff makes me question the validity or impartiality of anything else she mentions. It may very well be the case that Long is unstable and a terrible parent, but this isn't the way to go about showing that.

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew: Yes, sorry, fair enough. My point was simply that this is an example of publicizing your own story rather than your children's.

mark jabbour said...

Best discussion I've read/heard yet. There are places, residential treatment centers (RTCs) for kids. I worked 5 yrs in them. Are they effective? Sometimes. Expensive? Not considering the long term. Confidentiality is as much of a problem as it is helpful. Drugs sometimes help, a little. Professionals are guessing, too. The system as it is, is a "dysfunctional pipeline." You would not believe how violent some of these kids are - and there are thousands of these kids. I had no idea until I got into it. The pay for the caregivers, staff, professionals is pathetic. Family dysfunction is always a factor - abuse & neglect, poverty. Sometimes brain damage.
It's a mess. One thing I know for certain - shooting guns is not helpful therapy for troubled kids. What were the adults thinking? All of them.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

That was me (Phoebe), not Andrew, I think. Anyway I just looked a bit more closely at the offending post, and I'm not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, the author (Sarah) seems to be missing altogether the tone of Long's blog, which was not so far from standard-issue parental venting. But even so, I do think it's valid to point out that when parents say the kinds of things they would in private, but on the internet, the equation changes. The tone changes, even, because not everyone will be in on exasperated-parent-mode. I'm sure all parents have reason to complain, and by all means ought to vent, but once the venting goes online, where the kids themselves can not only find it but find it and realize just how many others have as well, it's a different story.

Mark,

I was wondering what you meant here: "Confidentiality is as much of a problem as it is helpful." Do you mean that it's a problem that staff can't tell police who's a threat?

Andrew Stevens said...

Britta: Phoebe is correct. I haven't had any criticisms for Ms. Long. I have far too much sympathy for her plight, given what I put my own mother through. And, yes, there is no question that my mother and my sister were frightened of me at times.

PG: Got around to reading your link on the 9 year old psychopath. He's not that disturbing or scary to me either. (Some of the kids mentioned by Paul Frick in the article were genuinely disturbing, but the main kid in the article was not.) I think there's an excellent chance he'll grow to be able to control his difficulties just like his father did.

I think this might be a gendered thing. I am simply not frightened of a 13 year old boy with a knife or a 9 year old psychopath as I suspect many women, quite understandably, are. Regardless of which one of them is right, I note that the mother is much more concerned for and frightened of her 9 year old son than the father is. I suspect that's the typical dynamic.

Psychopathy is a scary word, but a great many psychopaths develop into perfectly pleasant and upstanding people. Empathy is not the only route to morality; it's not even a particularly good or reliable one. You often see unempathic people behave with a sort of super-morality as they develop an intellectual code that they rigidly follow. This is seen frequently in Asperger's and also in psychopaths.

MSI: An easy misunderstanding. Sorry if I sounded a bit curt above. Don't know if I was publicizing it exactly, but I thought I had a perspective on her blog post that many people lack. I have the luxury of not having to be too concerned about what people think of me, so I tend to be pretty open about such things. I'm much more circumpsect about my wife and daughter.

PG said...

caryatis,

if he did have a knife, was it meant for aggressive or defensive purposes

That you think he may have had it for "defensive purposes" implies that you believe Long is a physical threat to her kid. Not sure of the basis for such a belief. If it's that in the kid's own mind, being told to return library books is a threat against which he must defend himself with a knife, I think this is a sign that the kid has serious problems, not that "very little can trigger [Long's] fears of violence."

Sometimes children seem very violent and very crazy, but somehow, remove them from their family and they magically become normal. Circumstances change people's behavior.

If that were the case for "Michael," then presumably this wouldn't have happened: "Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school."

I definitely know kids who misbehaved only at home and were largely fine at school -- some of my relatives were just like that. But with a kid who is threatening both to family and at school, I don't think you can say he's of this "Circumstances change people's behavior" type.

Andrew Stevens,

I never said I never threatened people (or myself). I said I never had any desire to harm people.

Given the inability to judge what other people's actual desires are, and the resulting necessity of going by their manifested words and actions, I don't think your mother or sister would have been somehow unjust to you if they said, "Andrew wants to kill me," if you had, in fact, said you wanted to kill them.

arguably, he was acting in self-defense (trying to stop her from institutionalizing him).

That would be true in the instance where she was driving him to the mental hospital. It does not explain or justify grabbing a knife when told -- even meanly, naggingly, "if you don't you're gonna be in trouble mister" -- to return library books.

My mother and I fought plenty, but I never physically threatened her. That's what makes the difference. I did all kinds of awful things to her: said I hated her, even once cut her out of a family photo that was in my bedroom. That expressive behavior probably would have been interpreted as a sign of a serious mental problem, rather than "my adolescent daughter is kind of a bitch," if I'd ever physically threatened her. Maybe someone who has done such a thing can explain it, but at the moment it's pretty incomprehensible to me that someone would go after her mother with a knife, even if she didn't plan to use it, if that mother posed no physical threat to her. (Incidentally, my parents believed in corporal punishment, so arguably I could have physically threatened my mother in non-delusional self-defense.)

PG said...

Regardless of which one of them is right, I note that the mother is much more concerned for and frightened of her 9 year old son than the father is.

That seems to be the case for the family in the NYT article, but not for all families. For example, Long says her husband had "Michael" incarcerated and an older son put in a mental hospital. Also, the way the father in the NYT story describes himself is basically as a Springsteen song or James Dean movie: “I didn’t listen to adults. I was always in trouble. My grades were horrible. I would be walking down the street and I would hear them say, in Spanish: ‘Ay! Viene el loco!’ — ‘Here comes the crazy one.’” He doesn't say that he was randomly violent (eg biting people, as his son did to a camp counselor).

It may just be that men are more likely to see violence as not that big a deal. However, in a gender-equalized culture, where there's no longer a traditional dynamic in which a son comes to blows with his old man while still treating his mother chivalrously, the violence isn't going to be contained only among those who don't see it as a big deal.

Psychopathy is a scary word, but a great many psychopaths develop into perfectly pleasant and upstanding people.

Perhaps, yet according to the NYT they're also more likely than non-psychopaths to be criminals: "Psychopaths are estimated to make up 1 percent of the population but constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the offenders in prison and are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutal crimes and murders." I'm also skeptical of assessing whether any given pleasant, upstanding, super-moral person is a psychopath without looking at whether they have the distinctive brain anatomy or actually test on Hare's Checklist as psychopaths rather than merely anti-social. In particular, I'm curious as to how someone could be upstanding and super-moral while engaging in pathological lying and failing to accept responsibility for her own actions. (The "pleasant" is no difficulty for a psychopathic personality.)

Andrew Stevens said...

That you think he may have had it for "defensive purposes" implies that you believe Long is a physical threat to her kid.

Actually, no, Caryatis did not so imply. All she's implying is that she believes he might have believed himself to be using it defensively. (Even if it was a "I don't want you coming over here and physically forcing me to do something even though you might not be planning to hurt me.") There is a strong basis for the belief that "Michael" believed he was using the knife defensively and that is her silence on the subject of any attempt to use it offensively. If I'm picking up a knife to use offensively, there's no reason not to start stabbing and slashing right away. If I'm using it defensively, there's no reason to do so. This isn't saying that his defensiveness is rational; it probably isn't, but brandishing a knife does not make one Jack the Ripper.

Given the inability to judge what other people's actual desires are, and the resulting necessity of going by their manifested words and actions, I don't think your mother or sister would have been somehow unjust to you if they said, "Andrew wants to kill me," if you had, in fact, said you wanted to kill them.

I never said that Ms. Long was acting or speaking unjustly. I am saying that it is my considered opinion that "Michael" is more likely to be fairly harmless, if not provoked than the reverse. The basis of this belief is the lack of evidence that he has ever harmed anyone and is otherwise statistical in nature. He is not exhibiting violent behaviors; he is exhibiting threatening behaviors and there is quite a bit of difference between the two. Now the latter can escalate to the former, but future serial killers are by his age usually slaughtering animals and setting fires, not merely threatening to do things.

Maybe someone who has done such a thing can explain it, but at the moment it's pretty incomprehensible to me that someone would go after her mother with a knife, even if she didn't plan to use it, if that mother posed no physical threat to her.

I never pulled a knife on my mother either, but I certainly did physically threaten her and my older sister in, as you say, "non-delusional self-defense." It didn't take very long after my physical superiority became apparent to them that I no longer had to do this and pretty much all attempts to discipline me ceased. By the time I was 13, my mother would never have dreamed of insisting I return an overdue library book or change my pants because they were the "wrong color." (I am not saying that Ms. Long is not perfectly well within her rights to ask these things of her child, of course. I am not endorsing my mother's parenting style. She is a very good woman, but there's no question that she made a lot of mistakes.) Ms. Long does not give her stand on corporal punishment, but I would not assume that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It is possible "Michael" viewed her as a physical threat. It is also possible that he did not and simply didn't want to be forced to do something he didn't want to do. Keep in mind, please, that in no sense am I defending "Michael"'s behavior. What I am saying is that, based on her blog post, I would hardly be willing to write him off as a lost cause.

Andrew Stevens said...

That seems to be the case for the family in the NYT article, but not for all families. For example, Long says her husband had "Michael" incarcerated and an older son put in a mental hospital.

I have read enough of Ms. Long's blog to be very sure that I can't trust her on the subject of her ex-husband. She doesn't even make a pretense that she is giving anything like an objective account of him. But, of course, statistical probabilities are just that. Even if Ms. Long and her ex-husband didn't qualify, I'm absolutely certain you could find a case where the man took these sorts of things more seriously than the woman. I am, forever and always, only talking about statistical probabilities, not universal laws.

It may just be that men are more likely to see violence as not that big a deal.

No, I don't think that's it. I'm not saying you're not right here. I'm sure men do on average take violence less seriously than women do. But I think there's more to it. Men know what it's like to have been teenage boys. Now, we can pretend that the two sexes are exactly the same in every way from the neck up all we want, but any pre-op transsexual will tell you how important sex hormones are to moods. Teenage boys are suddenly flooded with androgens and have to learn how to handle them. A great many of them act out in all sorts of inappropriate ways. Most of them are easily civilized, some of them take longer, and some of them die before they get there. I'm sure not all of this difference in the behavior of teenage boys and teenage girls is biological in nature. I have no doubt some or much of it is cultural. I also have no doubt that some of it is biological.

However, in a gender-equalized culture, where there's no longer a traditional dynamic in which a son comes to blows with his old man while still treating his mother chivalrously, the violence isn't going to be contained only among those who don't see it as a big deal.

I am totally in agreement here. I have no blame or judgment to attach to Ms. Long if she eventually decides her son is too big a risk to her and her younger children. I'm much more likely to judge a strong, capable man in the same situation harshly if I believed he was giving up on his child too early. But for Ms. Long, I have nothing but sympathy. Even if, you might be surprised to learn, "Michael" pulled a knife on her because he rightly believed she was a physical threat to him. Many parents succumb to corporal punishment, sometimes very harsh punishments, simply because they are at their wit's end with a child. I have sympathy for these parents as well.

Andrew Stevens said...

Perhaps, yet according to the NYT they're also more likely than non-psychopaths to be criminals: "Psychopaths are estimated to make up 1 percent of the population but constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the offenders in prison and are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutal crimes and murders." I'm also skeptical of assessing whether any given pleasant, upstanding, super-moral person is a psychopath without looking at whether they have the distinctive brain anatomy or actually test on Hare's Checklist as psychopaths rather than merely anti-social. In particular, I'm curious as to how someone could be upstanding and super-moral while engaging in pathological lying and failing to accept responsibility for her own actions. (The "pleasant" is no difficulty for a psychopathic personality.)

You are misunderstanding what I'm saying here. I am saying that many people who would be diagnosed as psychopaths in their youth grow up to be non-psychopaths in their adulthood. Because the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy is a moral diagnosis, as virtually all psychological diagnoses are, the person would cease to meet the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath. I was diagnosed with psychopathy as a child and I don't think the diagnosis was necessarily inaccurate at that time (using Hare's checklist anyway). I still would score relatively well on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, which avoids using criminality as an indicator. Of its three major scales, I would still score very highly on "Fearless dominance" (social influence, fearlessness, and stress immunity) and "Coldheartedness." In my youth, I would have scored very highly on the third scale, "Impulsive Antisociality" (Machiavellian egocentricity, rebellious nonconformity, blame externalization, and carefree nonplanfulness) as well, but, with maturity and moral philosophy, this is no longer the case.

I have an older brother who is nearly my exact opposite in all these things. Generous, kind, loving, empathic to a fault, and generally marvelous. Everybody loves him. All my happy childhood memories are of him and a lot of my troubles started when he went off to college (though this was also the time my father was removed from the house, so who knows what the cause was, if any). My mother still doesn't like me very much. And yet, when she's in trouble, which is not that uncommon, she never calls my older brother or my other older brother or my older sister. She always calls me. For all his empathy and kindness, my brother is fairly useless. He may want to help, but his general ineffectualness and laziness means he's rarely actually able to. My sister who is similar to my brother, though not nearly so nice, is also useless, terminally flighty and irresponsible. My other brother, who is much more like me, has the ability to help, but can only be bothered if it's convenient to him. But my mother knows that, because of my sense of duty, I will move heaven and earth to make her life easier and more comfortable. Even though I know that she rather resents me for it, granted because my help comes with nagging and lectures. And it is because of my lack of empathy that I don't care or mind that she resents me and doesn't like me much. I simply note these things; they do not make me want to help her less.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to be clear, by the way, the argument that lack of empathy can often lead to supermorality comes from Simon Baron-Cohen, in his observations of autism and Asperger's Syndrome and comes from the systematizing nature of their information processing.

caryatis said...

PG,

With regard to defensive use of the knife, as Andrew said, there are all sorts of reasons the child may have felt threatened by his mother. She’s willing to commit him, for one thing, and we don’t know what else she may have done. Or he may feel irrationally threatened. Being 13 is a very stressful time, and having a mother who can’t stand you doesn’t help. You keep mentioning the library books, but as I said, we have no idea whether that was really what triggered the knife. We’re not getting the whole story.

And one instance in which “Michael” didn’t change because of a change in circumstances doesn’t prove he never would. We can’t say he will grow up to be an upstanding citizen, but we can’t say he’ll be a murderer either, both because we only have his mother’s word and because no one really knows what kids will grow up to be.

I question whether psychopathy is ever a useful diagnosis. Apparently no one knows how to treat it, so the diagnosis does no good, and a label like that tends to stick and hurt someone for the rest of his childhood, if not the rest of his life.

Andrew Stevens said...

I question whether psychopathy is ever a useful diagnosis. Apparently no one knows how to treat it, so the diagnosis does no good, and a label like that tends to stick and hurt someone for the rest of his childhood, if not the rest of his life.

I actually hadn't planned on discussing specific diagnoses, but PG provoked me into it. Having done so, I should clarify.

1) Nobody told me this diagnosis when I was young. I found out about it when I requested my psychiatric records many years later.
2) There were at least four separate diagnoses. No two psychologists diagnosed me the same way. In statistical terms, psychological diagnoses are not even reliable, so it's not even clear that they're measuring anything, never mind measuring what they're supposed to be measuring. (I am not anti-psychology. I think psychologists often do a lot of good. But psychology is very, very far from a science.)
3) To the best of my knowledge, none of these diagnoses were even communicated to my mother, though I haven't ever bothered to ask her to find out for sure.
4) The only useful definition of psychopathy that I can think of is making it synonymous with a trait which is highly correlated with psychopathy or sociopathy. To wit, the inability to make the moral/conventional distinction. People without this ability may have been born with an impaired moral intuition. Such people would have very special challenges in life, since we take for granted the ability to distinguish between what is wrong by morality and what is wrong by social convention (even people who deny that there is such a distinction are quite clearly capable of making it). Under such a definition, I would never have qualified for the diagnosis. I have always had a functioning moral intuition and the ability to make this distinction.
5) The statute of limitations on my childhood traumas is long since expired. None of what I say anywhere should ever be taken as trolling for sympathy. Not only would I not know what to do with it if I had it, but I am, I am reasonably sure, the happiest man I know, which is far more than adequate compensation for any difficulties I may have had in my childhood. My father and mother had tragic lives; my own life has been a very long way from tragic. I am one of the luckiest people on the face of the planet.

caryatis said...

I'm glad to hear you are so happy. Certainly agree that psychiatric diagnosis is extremely inconsistent. The DSM is said to have improved diagnostic consistency, but it's still nowhere near scientific. I had eight psychiatrists/psychotherapists and seven diagnoses as a child.

Re psychopathy, I'm not sure how we would tell whether a young child, like the one in the NYT article, had a sense of true morality. Is a young child even sophisticated enough to talk about its concept of morality? Even if it could, a child, as I think you and I have learned, can be so radically different from the adult.

Andrew Stevens said...

No, that's true. You wouldn't be able to diagnose it in children if you accept my definition. Just as well, though. That's one of those diagnoses which the profession needs to do away with. It has become synonymous in the public consciousness with "monster" and it dehumanizes the people who receive the diagnosis. Even if you accept my definition, the name should probably be changed. People without a moral intuition are not doomed to be monsters either. (After all, there are people who pretend, for philosophical or ideological reasons, they can't see the distinction either and they seem to live perfectly normal lives.)

caryatis said...

Agreed.

PG said...

Andrew,

I didn't intend to "provoke" you into discussing psychopathy. I linked the article simply to note that some parents are dealing with really scary children and that they can be concerned that this is the case before those children actually commit a criminal act such as inhumane treatment of animals, or murder, that the state prosecutes independently of family preference. (Brandishing a knife at your mother doesn't make you Jack the Ripper, but it is a crime in most U.S. jurisdictions; however it's never going to be reported, much less prosecuted, without family cooperation.)

I used the phrase "really scary children" because I don't have sufficient knowledge of psychopathy outside the criminal context to refer to a non-prosecutable child as a psychopath. You were the first to mention psychopaths.

I am a bit puzzled as to how you were diagnosed as a psychopath as a minor using the Psychopathic Personality Inventory -- so far as I knew, it's specifically for 18-65 year olds and is a self-report. A psychologist who used it to diagnose you was probably misusing it in any case.

As for whether diagnoses do any good, that debate is played out in the NYT article, with the pro-diagnosis view being that perhaps children with a psychopathic diagnosis will be provided interventions, just as children with other psychiatric diagnoses can be. Certainly if one believes that children are best shifted from psychopathy to upstanding adulthood by being left alone, however, the availability of interventions is not an argument for diagnosis.

PG said...

caryatis,

The Hare scale mentioned in the NYT article has a Youth Version, and I don't think it has anything to do with being able to explain some kind of morality. Most children, particularly young ones, wouldn't have any genuine explanation of morality -- at best they'd parrot back what they'd learned about the Golden Rule, etc. I went to an Episcopalian elementary school and probably parroted Christian morality as necessary despite not being Christian.

My understanding of what Andrew meant when he said, "Because the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy is a moral diagnosis, as virtually all psychological diagnoses are..." is that one intrinsically is making a moral judgment when saying that, e.g., Lying Is Bad, or Impersonal Sexual Behavior Is Bad. It does not mean that the psychologist is evaluating one's "sense of true morality" (whatever that means).

Instead, the child is asked questions like
"Ever physically hurt animals on purpose? how long ago?"
"Think a criminal record will affect your life?"
"Is there anyone close to you whose death would upset you?"
"How long would it take you to get over this death?"
"Did you/do you bully or threaten others often? how often?"

Incidentally, several of the terms Andrew uses to describe his siblings show up on Hare's Youth Version, sometimes with a heavier weight in judging psychopathy than the traits he attributes to himself. For example, Grandiose Sense of Self Worth is weighted .40 and Callous/Lack of Empathy is weighted .53. Yet Lacks Goals is weighted .72, Impulsivity .33, Irresponsibility .59.

And of course the most heavily-weighted factors are those that seem likely to have made one a criminal already: Serious Criminal Behavior, Criminal Versatility.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG, actually the article you linked to was the first to mention it. It's in the title of the article.

Nobody used the PPI to diagnose me. (Most importantly, because it did not yet exist. I also remained completely unmedicated because the modern pharmaceuticals that would probably be used nowadays were non-existent at the time.) I assume they used Hare's checklist, but the criteria used for diagnosis was not included in my records and I don't have very specific recollections of the battery of tests I took. At that age, I would have scored highly on both "Lacks Goals" and "Irresponsibility," though not particularly on "Impulsivity." Even as a child, I was probably less impulsive than normal. By the by, I think it's fair to say that virtually every single person in the world would score highly on at least some of the subtests on the Hare's checklist.

I am not in favor of no interventions, though I am probably in favor of different interventions than we currently have, with more emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapy and less on medications. I was capable of providing a form of CBT for myself eventually. I am fully aware that most children are not.

Your reaction to Caryatis's comments misunderstood what she was responding to. She was responding to my proposed definition of psychopathy as the inability to make the moral/conventional distinction and (correctly) pointing out that this would make it impossible to diagnose in children who may not yet have learned enough to be able to grasp the moral/conventional distinction.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, the "provocation" I was referring to was:

"I'm also skeptical of assessing whether any given pleasant, upstanding, super-moral person is a psychopath without looking at whether they have the distinctive brain anatomy or actually test on Hare's Checklist as psychopaths rather than merely anti-social. In particular, I'm curious as to how someone could be upstanding and super-moral while engaging in pathological lying and failing to accept responsibility for her own actions. (The "pleasant" is no difficulty for a psychopathic personality.)"

The last non-parenthetical sentence in particular made an implicit assumption that psychopathy is a constant, just something you're born with, when clearly the diagnosis includes behavior, not just possibly fixed personality traits. This is why I proposed a new definition which focused on something like the inability to make the moral/conventional distinction. That might indicate an impaired moral intuition and may be something which can't be changed.

PG said...

Andrew,

The headline of the article wasn't in this comment thread. Your remarks about the psychopathy discussion in the article were in this thread.

The last non-parenthetical sentence in particular made an implicit assumption that psychopathy is a constant, just something you're born with

Not at all. On the contrary, I think many psychiatric diagnoses can alter -- whether with the application of therapy, medication, self-will or just time. Otherwise such diagnoses would be fairly useless, mere categorizations without any hope of help. I misunderstood what you said here: "but a great many psychopaths develop into perfectly pleasant and upstanding people." I assumed you were claiming that psychopathy is a constant and that somehow one could be simultaneously a psychopath and an upstanding person.

Your desire for a new definition that would describe only something unchangeable about the person is actually what's going more in the direction of "psychopathy is a psychological diagnosis that offers no possibility of change." Also, it would be problematic to diagnose not only in children, but also in adults who aren't very articulate. That one has difficulty describing the distinction between what is moral and what is conventional may be more about one's verbal intelligence than one's psychological state.

At that age, I would have scored highly on both "Lacks Goals" and "Irresponsibility," though not particularly on "Impulsivity." Even as a child, I was probably less impulsive than normal.

In the absence of seeing the criteria, I wouldn't assume anything about what you'd score on items like those, unless you have clear memories about being criticized for "lacks goals" and "irresponsibility" by people who were dealing with other children of the same age who had difficult home situations. I remember being criticized by family and teachers for some of the noted traits, but I don't recall ever being psychologically tested; my parents interpreted misbehavior as a sign of actual moral failing, in the sense of something one could choose to do differently but consciously and deliberately doesn't, not as a quasi-medical problem. But that view might have changed if I'd responded to my mom's reminders to do things by pulling out a knife as a defense against her nagging.

Andrew Stevens said...

I assumed you were claiming that psychopathy is a constant and that somehow one could be simultaneously a psychopath and an upstanding person.

I'll take your word for it, but in that case your interpretation of what I was saying just wasn't reasonable. Obviously, I could not have been arguing that people could be upstanding super-moral people while still being criminals. I don't want to make too much of this; everybody occasionally makes unreasonable interpretations of Internet comments, but I hope you can see how I came to the conclusion about your beliefs that I did. The only way I could make your interpretation reasonable was to assume that you believed that these diagnoses were fixed and therefore assumed everybody else believed it as well. Otherwise, it makes no sense that you would ascribe to me such a belief. Again, we all on occasion come to conclusions that make no sense and I believe your explanation of events.

Your desire for a new definition that would describe only something unchangeable about the person is actually what's going more in the direction of 'psychopathy is a psychological diagnosis that offers no possibility of change.'

My hope is that psychological diagnoses will one day actually be about what at least might be illness or at least serious abnormality, rather than simply about moral disapproval of how people are living their lives or (particularly in teenagers) coping with the struggles of adolescence. I do not necessarily accept that the inability to make the moral/conventional distinction is unchangeable. Even if so, in normal medicine, we make diagnoses about things which can't be changed all the time. But, if we know the problem, we might be able to figure out a way to ameliorate it, even if we can't cure it.

In retrospect, it is crystal clear that I was never suffering from an illness. (I could always make the moral/conventional distinction as a teenager or older.) I was a victim of the bad philosophy of the surrounding culture and a rational personality which actually took such philosophy seriously. (Most higher empathy people have their emotions override their foolish intellectual beliefs and have no such problems. I had to rely on my foolish intellectual beliefs.) Combine this with the usual challenges of adolescence (particularly for teenage boys) and some traumas which needed to be dealt with and the behavior I exhibited was the result. But it clearly wasn't a disease. A real disease can't be cured by philosophy.

In the absence of seeing the criteria, I wouldn't assume anything about what you'd score on items like those, unless you have clear memories about being criticized for "lacks goals" and "irresponsibility" by people who were dealing with other children of the same age who had difficult home situations.

I never went to school. I skipped 80 days of school my sophomore year in high school and 140 my junior year. I'm not sure I would argue that I lacked goals or was irresponsible, but there's no question this was the opinion of virtually all of the adults (and peers) around me. I cannot speak, of course, for that particular psychologist. Nor do I remember the interviews or what information I might have told her.

In any event, the two siblings I accused of lacking goals or irresponsibility are the two who would never have been accused of these during childhood. Both were straight A students with huge amounts of musical and other extra-curriculars. My other sibling and myself, meanwhile, were both juvenile delinquents and yet somehow both of us adapted much better to life after school. It is quite probable that the experience of my family is fundamentally unusual and this sort of reversal is actually very rare, despite my family being 4-for-4 in that regard. Nevertheless, you can probably see why I am so skeptical of any idea that we can infer the behavior of the adult from the behavior of the child.