Just when you think you’ve watched enough Law & Order: SVU to be a bonafide detective, a real life 20-year veteran of the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit (BAU) comes to the Smithsonian Associates and completely proves you wrong. The following recap of the Criminal Minds discussion is not for the faint of heart…
After a long and very successful career in forensics, Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole was just the person to set the record straight on psychopaths and the characteristics that connect serial killers and politicians. Yes, you read that right: many politicians possess the calculating charisma that murderers have. It was comforting to know that Capitol Hill was merely a brisk walk away from where the audience was sitting at that very moment.
Mary O'Toole in 2006
To begin the lecture, O’Toole stated that one in 100 people is a cold-blooded psychopath, meaning that one person in the auditorium shared personality traits with the likes of Gary Leon Ridgway and Ted Bundy.
To put that into perspective, that’s about one percent of the population. In prison, about 15 percent of people have psychopathic traits. So what exactly does it mean to be a psychopath? Could anyone reading this right now secretly be a psychopath and not even know it yet?
It’s unlikely. O’Toole states that psychopaths do not have the same emotional repertoire that regular folks do. They won’t fret over being a psychopath because in their mind, the extreme measures they take are completely necessary in order to survive. A psychopath’s life motto is “hunt or be hunted,” and their prey can include anybody, including family members.
Individuals who carry the traits of psychopathy do not vary across cultures and the characteristics generally manifest themselves in men. These people, according to O’Toole, are narcissistic and have a grandiose sense of self; they lack the feeling of guilt as they do not have a conscience, and they are impulsive and constantly seeking the next thrill. Even when they are at their most angry, which could be during an act of extreme violence, they show no signs of anxiety or turmoil.
Frank Underwood from House of Cards
Psychopaths are really charming. In personal video interviews that were shared with the audience along with clips from movies and TV shows, O’Toole was able to specifically highlight certain gestures and phrases that made all of the psychopaths featured in the program seem eerily similar.
The first clip was of the crooked politician, Frank Underwood, who is played by Kevin Spacey on the wildly popular Netflix series House of Cards. In various clips, Underwood looks into the camera and says things like “shake with your right hand, but keep a rock in your left,” and at one point, describing an impending political meeting, he says “and the butchery begins.” Even though Underwood is an esteemed and respected man to those who don’t know him well enough, if he were a real person he could easily enjoy the company of some other infamous names like Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer, who committed atrocious crimes against at least 30 women each.
The similarities lie in the fact that to a psychopath, whether their crimes are violent or not, people are objects to be used and abused. This includes family. For example, in an interview that O’Toole conducted with the aforementioned serial killer Gary Ridgway, he admitted that he used his biological son as a ploy to get women to trust him, and if his son were to ever question him, he would not think twice about getting rid of him.
Gary Ridgway before his conviction
It is true that the traits of psychopathy could serve you well on Wall Street, as seen in the successful businessman Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but O’Toole says that there are different dimensions of psychopathy, as measured by the PCLR (Psychopathy Checklist). The highest (or lowest) score is 40, deeming the tested person as entirely psychopathic and lacking any emotional depth. The average person will score a 6 or a 7, but in O’Toole’s career, she encountered mostly people who scored in the high 30s, and once, an even 40.
I warned you: the facts aren’t so pretty. But if you are a fan of all things sick and twisted, O’Toole recommends books such as Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us and Snakes in Suits. O’Toole warns that psychopaths are master manipulators and come off very charming. However, in her years of experience, what spoke to her most was “snake eyes,” or eyes that lack any glisten behind them. To ensure that you sleep tonight, I will also let you in on another secret that O’Toole told us: Hannibal Lecter isn’t a real person. He was merely a combination of three other serial killers. For more information, you can also visit Mary O’Toole’s personal website.
Written by Danielle Fogel, social media intern at the Smithsonian Associates