Psychopaths and morality: Jeremy Renner and Sissy Spacek

Fascinating article called Psychopaths and Rational Morality: The Frontal Cortex, with an even better conversation going on in the comments. Go read the whole thing, it’s very interesting.



It is one of my obsessions: psychopaths, antisocial personalities, whatever name you want to call them, and has been obsessing me for years. I suppose it dovetails with my obsession with cults, brainwashing, and any kind of pressurized groupthink. The function of the brain, perhaps, and what it means when something appears to be “missing” or “altered”.

I’ve been working on something (in my head so far) about Jeremy Renner, based not just on his performance in The Hurt Locker, but also in Dahmer (my review here), Neo Ned (my review here), and North Country – a terrible movie, but he’s wonderful in it.

The character Renner plays in 28 Weeks Later has some similarities to these, although it takes on a heroic feel here – but the underlying emotional apparatus is very similar to the rest of his roles. It has to do with his facility at playing what I would call “antisocial” men. But his take on it is quite subtle, quite intuitive, and I would be interested to hear him speak of it more – but perhaps it’s something you don’t really want to talk about. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. The Hurt Locker is the culminating moment of his examination (in some pretty poor films) of these types of men, and it’s interesting because in that film it shows that there is a place in the world for such individuals, where their talents – and their lack of empathy – are actually essential to their jobs. Most psychopaths are in prison, but there are “successful” psychopaths (I knew one once, and I am pretty sure I recently met another one – dodged a bullet there!) – people who are able to operate without turning into criminals. The character of Sgt. James in Hurt Locker is the classic example of a man who cannot “fit in” to the normal world, and he seems, frankly, baffled by his personal relationships, when he thinks about them at all. His wife, his son … He does not lack feeling, far from it, it’s just that his feelings don’t get in the way of him being who he needs to be. It’s not that he WON’T negotiate, it is that he is unable to. The now-famous moment in the grocery store at the end of the film is a perfect representation of that.


But I will save all of that for the post I want to write about Renner, and the characters he plays – because I feel he occupies a very individual position, not just now, but for all time. I am hard pressed to come up with a comparison – although I have found one. Again, I’ll save that for the post proper, whenever I write it.

That article I linked to above, an examination of morality, emotion, logic, and psychopaths, is exactly the type of thing I have been thinking about, when I have been thinking about Jeremy Renner. However: even without neuroscientists adding to our knowledge of brain function, these individuals are known and recognized, and have been since the beginning of time.

I recently read Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert Hare, the leading expert in psychopaths in, perhaps, the world. His name comes up all the time if you research psychopaths, which I do. His book is fantastic, by the way, highly recommended – and certainly makes me think of two psychopaths I have known (I described the behavior of one of them here. Irony?). An interesting point that Hare makes, repeatedly, is the controversy around the term “psycho” and what it has come to mean in our culture, and why the preferred term (at least legalistically) is usually “sociopath” – because “psycho” has connotations of crazy, off-the-wall, going NUTS, wild-eyed, and not being in control of your faculties. Psychopaths are always in control. They are not “insane”, as “psycho” would have you think.

It’s a really good book, with many fascinating case studies (of “successful” psychopaths – meaning those who have never broken the law, a rare breed – because they fly under the radar, and yet they still destroy lives – and then the more garden-variety “unsuccessful” versions, filling up the prison population) – and Hare resists “diagnosing” people that he doesn’t know. People come to him all the time with “is so and so a psychopath”, and he can’t say, without having studied the individual himself. Hannibal Lecter comes up a lot, as the modern-day version of what people think a “psychopath” is. He cautions against that limited interpretation, because you may miss what is going on right in front of you, because the person doesn’t SEEM like a “psycho”. One of the defining characteristics of a psychopath is “charm”. It may be glib or superficial, but it can certainly work upon you, if you do not pick up on the other signals. Many of them are highly skilled in diffusing suspicion. Their emotions are shallow, they do not understand things such as love or empathy. Hare quotes psychologists J.H. Johns and H.C. Quay, who wrote famously that psychopaths “know the words but not the music”.

Truman Capote in In Cold Blood creates (or, I should say, describes) one of the most indelible portraits of a psychopath that I can think of – not in the delusional damaged Perry Smith, who may seem more openly “insane”, with his visions of a great avenging bird, and his fantasies of scuba-diving for sunken treasure – he seems “nuts” – but, it is really Dick Hickock who is the textbook “psychopath”. Cold, glib (“Matt, Matt, Matt, you’re glib…”), deceitful, and charming as hell. Capote felt it when he was in his presence.

Many people who routinely work with people who score high on Hare’s psychopath checklist report feeling a strange skin-crawling sensation when in the presence of these people. I have no statistics to back this up, but I would warrant a guess that that skin-crawling feeling (reported by multiple people, remember) has some evolutionary purpose. Something deep and survival-based. The feeling Rikki-Tikki-Tavi got when he made eye contact with the cobra, perhaps. Get away from this creature. Either kill it, or RUN.

Gavin de Becker talks about the “gift of fear”. Fear like that tells us when something is wrong. Listen. It is a gift from millions of years of evolution. Take that, Kirk Cameron.

One of the best fictional portraits of a psychopath in the history of literature is Steinbeck’s Cathy (even just the name gives me the creeps) in East of Eden. I was surprised that Hare did not reference it in his book, since he does use multiple examples from literature and film. Steinbeck, in his Biblical allegory, is certainly making a connection between psychopaths and the Devil. Cathy has the Devil in her. She is cool, calculated, gorgeous (the perfect smokescreen), and a liar. She lies indiscriminately (one of the defining characteristics of a psychopath). They lie so often that those listening to them, operating from their own assumptions of sanity, and how normal people behave, sometimes get caught up in it. We are not used to dealing with such creatures (thank God). They have a tendency to fool everyone: parole officers, prison officials, social workers … They are masters of deception. And yet, often, people cannot put their finger on what is “off”, what is wrong. Steinbeck in East of Eden writes:

Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. Samuel had never seen anyone chew that way before. And when she swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips. Samuel’s mind repeated, “Something – something – can’t find what it is. Something’s wrong,” and the silence hung on the table.

This is a textbook response to people like this, according to Hare: Something’s “off”. But what? What exactly is “wrong”? You can’t point right at it, but you know it’s there. A skin-crawling sensation the only indication that perhaps you are in the presence of something quite different from your garden-variety human being.

Steinbeck doesn’t mince words. Here is how he introduces Cathy:

I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.

It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighed, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes more effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.

There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

As though nature concealed a trap, Cathy had from the first a face of innocence. Her hair was gold and lovely; wide-set hazel eyes with upper lids that drooped made her look mysteriously sleepy. Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped. Her mouth was well shaped and well lipped but abnormally small — what used to be called a rosebud. Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette. They were thin flaps sealed against her head.

Cathy always had a child’s figure even after she was grown, slender, delicate arms and hands — tiny hands. Her breasts never developed much. Before her puberty the nipples turned inward. Her mother had to manipulate them out when they became painful in Cathy’s tenth year. Her body was a boy’s body, narrow-hipped, straight-legged, but her ankles were thin and straight without being slender. Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs. She was a pretty child and she became a pretty woman. Her voice was huskily soft, and it could be so sweet as to be irresistible. But there must have been some steel cord in her throat, for Cathy’s voice could cut like a file when she wished.

Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.

She made people uneasy but not so that they wanted to go away from her. Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try and find what caused the disturbance she distributed so subtly. And since this had always been so, Cathy did not find it strange.

Cathy was different from other children in many ways, but one thing in particular set her apart. Most children abhor difference. They want to look, talk, dress, and act exactly like all of the others. If the style of dress is an absurdity, it is pain and sorrow to a child not to wear that absurdity. If necklaces of pork chops were accepted, it would be a sad child who could not wear pork chops. And this slavishness to the group normally extends into every game, every practice, social or otherwise. It is a protective coloration children utilize for their safety.

Cathy had none of this. She never conformed in dress or conduct. She wore whatever she wanted to. The result was that quite often other children imitated her.

As she grew older the group, the herd, which is any collection of children, began to sense what adults felt, that there was something foreign about Cathy. After a while only one person at a time associated with her. Groups of boys and girls avoided her as though she carried a nameless danger.

Cathy was a liar, but she did not lie the way most children do. Hers was no daydream lying, when the thing imagined is told and, to make it seem more real, told as real. That is just ordinary deviation from external reality. I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar — if he is financially fortunate.

Cathy’s lies were never innocent. Their purpose was to escape punishment, or work, or responsibility, and they were used for profit. Most liars are tripped up either because they forget what they have told or because the lie is suddenly faced with an incontrovertible truth. But Cathy did not forget her lies, and she developed the most effective method of lying. She stayed close enough to the truth so that one could never be sure. She knew two other methods also — either to interlard her lies with truth or to tell a truth as though it were a lie. If one is accused of a lie and it turns out to be the truth, there is a backlog that will last a long time and protect a number of untruths.

Since Cathy was an only child her mother had no close contrast in the family. She thought all children were like her own. And since all parents are worriers she was convinced that all her friends had the same problems.

Cathy’s father was not so sure. He operated a small tannery in a town in Massachusetts, which made a comfortable, careful living if he worked very hard. Mr. Ames came in contact with other children away from his home and he felt that Cathy was not like other children. It was a matter more felt than known. He was uneasy about his daughter but he could not have said why.

Nearly everyone in the world has appetites and impulses, trigger emotions, islands of selfishness, lusts just beneath the surface. And most people either hold such things in check or indulge them secretly. Cathy knew not only these impulses in others but how to use them for her own gain.

It is quite possible that she did not believe in any other tendencies in humans, for while she was preternaturally alert in some directions she was completely blind in others.

Now we come to something else, that I have written about before, but which is appropriate enough here to reference again:


Roger Ebert writes in his review of Terrence Malick’s great film Badlands:

She claimed she was kidnapped and forced to go along with Starkweather. When they first were captured, he asked the deputies to leave her alone: “She didn’t do nothing.” Later, at his trial, he claimed she was the most trigger-happy person he ever knew, and was responsible for some of the killings. It is a case that is still not closed, although “Badlands” sees her as a child of vast simplicity who went along at first because she was flattered that he liked her: “I wasn’t popular at school on account of having no personality and not being pretty.”

Badlands is narrated by Holly, but we don’t get much information from her voiceover. Her voice is flat. Tired-out. There is no introspection in her. She appears to be passively reacting to events. The accepted “narrative” of these two spree-killers is that Kit (played by Martin Sheen) was the loose cannon, and she was just along for the ride because she loved him. She had more sympathy, maybe because she was a woman, and maybe because it seemed she was victimized, she got roped into something she wanted no part of. This is how that pairing is often portrayed. Are they in the grand tradition of criminal pairings (like I talked about here)? Or are they something totally different? Kit is painted as the truly bad guy (albeit damaged and blunted by life), but what about her? What is it like to be her? How does she react to things? What is HER damage?

Sissy Spacek (and Malick) work subversively here, leaving most of the script uneloquent on her reasoning, which makes her a pretty frightening character. I WANT to see her as “kidnapped”, almost, but that’s not the case. She participates, even in her ultimate passivity. Doing nothing is also participation, when you are on a killing spree. But her motives remain mysterious. You don’t see evidence of a grand passion (the way you do in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, or even Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers – where it is obviously the alchemy of the two personalities that jumpstarts them) – you don’t see her operating under any kind of NORMAL or recognizable motivation: love, yearning for a home, a partner – even flat-out boredom – none of those things seem to occur to this freckled flat-eyed teenager. In a way, it is Sissy Spacek’s most creepy performance.

In the middle of Without Conscience, which is basically a self-help book (How to Know If You are Dealing with a Psychopath, and How to Get the Hell Away From Them), Hare analyses the character of Holly in Badlands, from his perspective as a psychologist who has worked mainly in prisons. As he mentioned, he is not in the business of long-distance psychoanalyzing, but here, he shares a theory he has about the murderous duo portrayed in Badlands, and I found it startling and unusual. Something that isn’t really in the preferred “narrative” of that particular film, which, as I mentioned, usually sees Kit as the leader, and Holly as the passive follower. Normally, I don’t like film analysis such as this – which is trying to prove a specific point (that has nothing to do with the art of film-making). For example, a cultural conservative saying, “Such and such is a good movie because it presents core values that I agree with, and here’s why …” It’s shallow and uninteresting, and more like an undergraduate thesis paper than actual film analysis. It is interested in things other than movies. But here, at least in Hare’s thoughts on Badlands, I make an exception, because he takes the film at its word, first of all – and appears to be judging it as a work of art, not a case study. He sees its effectiveness, and also perceives an opportunity to illuminate the character of the elusive “psychopath”, by talking about the film. He does it in such a manner that it really got my attention.

It’s a way of looking at the characters of Kit and Holly (but especially Holly) that I have not seen spoken of before, in reviews of Badlands.

Check it out:

Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, loosely based on the killing career of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, is a chilling film fantasy with a coldly realistic core. The fantasy resides in the character of Kit Carruthers, whose irresistible charm and slick patter is absolutely consistent with the psychopathic profile but whose attachment to his girlfriend Holly runs too deep and strong to ring true. One might be tempted to dismiss this movie as the typical Hollywood romance of the psychopath with a heart of gold, but look again. Behind Kit sits Holly, strictly along for the ride. It takes a second viewing for the real case history to pop into the foreground: If Kit is the moviemaker’s conception of a psychopath, Holly is the real thing, a true “other” brilliantly portrayed by Sissy Spacek as a talking mask.

Two aspects of Holly’s character exemplify and dramatize important aspects of the psychopathic personality. One is her emotional impoverishment and the clear sense she conveys of simply going through the motions of feeling deeply. One clue is the sometimes outrageous inappropriateness of her behavior. After Kit guns down her father before her eyes for objecting to his presence in Holly’w life, the fifteen-year-old youngster slaps Kit’s face. Later she flops into a chair and complains of a headache; later still she flees with Kit on a cross-country killing spree after he sets fire to her house to conceal her father’s body.

In another example, with several more murders to his name now, Kit lazily separates a terrified couple from their car at gunpoint and directs them out into an empty field. Casually, Holly falls into step with the frightened woman. “Hi,” she says, in her flat, childish voice. “What will happen?” asks the woman, desperate for some understanding of what’s going on. “Oh,” answers Holly, “Kit says he feels like he just might explode. I feel like that myself sometimes. Don’t you?” The scene ends with Kit locking the two in a root cellar in the middle of the field. Just about to walk away, he suddenly shoots into the cellar door. “Think I got ’em?” he asks, as if swatting at flies in the dark.

Perhaps the film’s most subtle evidence of psychopathy comes through in Holly’s narration of the film, delivered in a monotone and embellished with phrases drawn straight from the glossies telling young girls what they should feel. Holly speaks of the love she and Kit share, but the actress manages somehow to convey the notion that Holly has no experiential knowledge of the feelings she reports. If there was ever an example of “knowing the words but not the music,” Spacek’s character is it, giving viewers a firsthand experience of the odd sensation, the unnamable distrust and skin-crawling feeling, that many – lay people and professionals alike – report after their interactions with psychopaths.

There is a great great compliment to Spacek there, in the simple phrase: “the actress manages somehow to convey …”

It is the “somehow” that contains the compliment. The great mystery of great acting. “Somehow”. Who knows HOW she does it. It doesn’t even matter how.

I think that is a fine analysis of the creepiness (and also deeply insightful nature) of Spacek’s work in that film.

Back to the original reason for writing this post: Great article (and comments discussion) about psychopaths and morality.

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42 Responses to Psychopaths and morality: Jeremy Renner and Sissy Spacek

  1. Desirae says:

    The article made something click for me in terms of the way I thought about sociopathy. Everyone knows that sociopaths lack empathy, but the description of their brain’s total nonreaction to other people’s unhappy facial expressions and the fact that they use entirely different parts of their brain to interpet other people’s emotions, clarified for me how unable such a person is to connect in any human way. They have to use a different part of the brain to “read” emotions because they have no context for it at all – to them it is an alien language. I wonder if we’ll ever find out what causes it. Are they born or made? Is it like schizophrenia, where genetics loads the gun but environment pulls the trigger?

    One of my criminology profs worked within the police and courts system and said that in her whole career she came across only one induvidual who was actually clinically labeled a psychopath. So, of course, she had to meet him. She said he was completely unlike anyone she had ever met. When he was a teenager he tied up two of his friends and tortured them. He set one of them on fire, but the other escaped and that’s how he was caught. His “reason” was that they were making fun of him for not having a girlfriend, asking him if he was gay, typical teenage boy crap.These were kids he’d known for years.

    She said he could tell you about this like he was describing what he had for breakfast yesterday morning.

    One of the comments on the article pointed out that a lack of empathy isn’t a particularly excellent survival trait, which I thought was great. It’s a great explanation for why so many sociopaths flame out instead of becoming king of the scrap heap. After all, and quite apart from questions of conscience, commiting a crime like the guy I described above shows a certain lack of self preservation. It’s not the sort of thing that a person who thinks about consequence is going to do.

  2. Ben says:

    I found this post a bit culturally alienating to be honest. You sound a little too admiring, almost fixated, I am surprised at how extreme this post is and it makes me uncomfortable. Not sure I will be back. Is that what you wanted?

  3. red says:

    Ben (or is it “Bella”) – huh? I don’t “want” anything – I just write about what interests me here. Lots of people enjoy it. I do too.

    Come back if you like, and don’t if you don’t like what you read. I’ve been writing for years on this topic of psychopaths, it’s a long-term interest of mine, as I explained.

    I’m an obsessive when it comes to my interests. I get INTO things. Maybe that’s what you sense. Shrug.

  4. red says:

    Desirae – hmmm, really interesting what you say about your criminal prof coming into contact with only one classified psychopath – // She said he was unlike anyone else …// Fascinating. I have read other reports that sound just like that. Chilling. I know Robert Hare is quite eloquent on that score, from his dealings with these people – and it’s that evolutionary twitch of “something’s off, something’s not right …” that is usually the tipoff.

    And yeah: very interesting about how these are not really good survival techniques (in general) – but it’s all they know, all they can do to survive. The one guy in the comment who talked about a psychopath he knew – is almost a textbook case – the charming gregarious person, the perfect smokescreen, the search for codependent people – all of that – and he victimizes others. Lots of plans, but nothing ever comes through – he can’t stick to anything long enough.

    This doesn’t quite hold true with the Jeremy Renner character, the Special Forces guys – but there is a certain something required of them in their jobs that makes that brand of coolness an asset. Still working on my thesis about it.

    I was very interested in the part in the article about recognizing facial expressions of fear, terror, sadness – and how normally it gets a response, which is the definition of empathy – you automatically step into someone else’s shoes. But for whatever reason, that functionality is missing here.

  5. Bruce Reid says:

    John Simon’s reading of Holly was similar, though if I recall he believed Malick would have disagreed with the assessment.

    I don’t know your attitude towards crime novels, but if it’s favorable I’d recommend the works of Charles Willeford. He had a remarkable eye for sociopaths, and his deliberately flat, affectless style captures the terror they instill better than any other prose I’ve encountered, gliding along without a bump from the most mundane, even boring activities to horrifying violence, with neither receiving particular emphasis. The grocery store robbery in Sideswipe or The Woman Chaser’s* narrator dealing with his girlfriend’s pregnancy are particularly strong examples of how Willeford’s meticulous forthrightness can snap you from your moorings without warning. And The Shark-Infested Custard is possibly the scariest book I’ve ever read, never bothering to judge or correct the actions of its back-slapping, joke-sharing good old boys.

    (No quotes to provide, unfortunately–a burst of drunken proselytizing some years ago had two friends leave my apartment with practically my entire collection.)

    Looking forward to your Renner piece.

    *Over the weekend I saw Murder by Contract for the first time, and wonder if it was tickling at the back of Willeford’s mind when he wrote this one. Not just the electric guitar score, or the paralleled scenes of removing a tie while a woman plays the piano (suspenseful in the movie, satirically perverse in the novel, pulp-Freudian in both). More the sinister figure killing time under the L.A. sun; lazy, drifting menace like a water snake keeping its prey in the corner of its eye.

  6. red says:

    Bruce – I will have to check out Simon’s review, I don’t recall it. I am sure Malick has spoken on this topic before, when asked about Badlands, I should have done a bit of research to back up that part of it!

    And holy crap, I MUST read those books now. i love crime novels. You describe them so well, it is thrilling – when you find an author who can not just get into the minds of such people, but inhabit them – make us see what it is like to be them – who knows … but I am so excited to read some of them.

    What would you suggest I start with? They all sound phenomenal!

  7. alli says:

    Let me just say, I don’t know what “culturally alienated” means… but I’m pretty sure its a compliment. At least, any culture that is uninterested or fascinated by the sheer ‘otherness’ of sociopaths isn’t a culture I’d want to be a part of.

    Also a book entitled “The Shark-Infested Custard”? You could’ve said nothing else, that alone was enough to add it to the ol’ Amazon wish list.

  8. red says:

    I have a friend who is studying neuroscience right now, so the whole new technology in that field, our greater understanding of brain function, and all that – is really changing the game. Their brains do appear to actually work differently – (there’s a great conversation about criminality and prosecuting such cases in the comments section to the post I linked to). Not that it’s excuse-making, it’s not at all – but it’s INTERESTING.

    Another good book about this topic is Evil Genes, which combines new breakthroughs in genetics with good old-fashioned case studies and character assessments. Who knows where it will all end up – there was a huge piece in The New Yorker recently about one of Robert Hare’s proteges, who has taken Hare one step farther, and is determined to somehow give brain-scans to all the most violent criminals incarcerated in the country, to try to study them. If you google “New Yorker psychopath”, you’ll find the article. It’s controversial, all of it, but that’s part of the interest of it.

  9. Bruce Reid says:

    Sheila and Alli: Shark-Infested Custard and The Burnt Orange Heresy are probably my favorites. The latter may not fit any clinical definition of sociopathy–it’s a brutal satire on the art market and critical reception first and foremost, though when it does get bloody its chilling.

    For movie lovers, it might be best to recommend the three Willeford novels that have been adapted to the screen–each film quite fine and striking, but each also watering down its source: Cockfighter, the aforementioned Woman Chaser, and Miami Blues. The latter drops a fine scene that captures Willeford’s deadpan humor and underlying menace, where Freddy Frenger (Baldwin’s character), released from prison and remembering how much fun other inmates (black ones, it’s especially noted) had tossing frisbees in the yard, buys several and goes to the top of a parking garage to throw them off. And fails to see what the appeal could be, despite a passing notion that maybe you need someone else to throw to, whatever.

    I hope you enjoy; I’ll understand completely if you wind up throwing them across the room instead.

  10. red says:

    Oh, okay, I saw Miami Blues! I haven’t seen the other adaptations, however.

    I just ordered The Shark-Infested Custard – going on yet another short vacation next week, and would love to have a new book to bring with me (since I’ll be finishing the David O. Selznick one this week probably).

    Looking forward to reading it.

  11. Cara Ellison says:

    Ben, Sheila’s post is “extreme”? What does that even mean? I find your comment hostile.

    And perhaps extreme.

  12. red says:

    Please, let’s not address “Ben” anymore – I handled “Ben”. He’s taken up enough space as it is. He left another comment under another name in the Machiavelli post, so I imagine he’s being mischievous and it bores me. So let’s move on and talk about psychopaths!

    Besides, I adore “culturally alienating” people. I live for it!!

  13. Ken says:

    Reading this made me think of some of the other things you’ve written over the years. There’s a whole spectrum of “not being able to fit into world.” At the extreme end are the psychopaths you’re talking about here, but somewhere back along the line are men like Ethan Edwards. When I read that line in this post, that was what jumped into my mind: that still of John Wayne standing on the porch, back to the door.

    Those “antisocial men” (not the psychopaths, I stress again) are often the ones who push back the frontier. Fifty years from now, if we are spared, you’ll find omnicompetent cranks like those scratching around on Ceres and Enceladus and Titan.

  14. red says:

    Ken – you have just come very close to writing my post about Jeremy Renner for me. I mentioned I found one appropriate comparison in cinematic history – but only one – and yeah, you just mentioned it.

    That shot in the doorway is a companion piece to the shot of Renner in the grocery store – and I cannot believe that is an accident. I am sure Bigelow was aware of the comparison she was making.

    PSYCH!!! I think we’re onto something!

    Now I need to freakin’ write the thing before someone steals it!!

  15. Ken says:

    I will employ my elephantine memory ;-) and testify that this conversation took place on this date, conferring ownership of the idea on you.

  16. red says:

    hahahaha No! It’s mine, all mine!!!

  17. beth says:

    Two things stand out to me from this post: the phrase “a talking mask” — shivers. Also, your shout-out to Kirk Cameron — LOL!

  18. Ben/Bella (does it matter?) says:

    I apologize. There seems to have been a mistaken identity issue on my part. I actually thought you were referring to something or someone in particular, when it seems you were not. (Internet fiasco – minor). Simply I had read some of your earlier writing (about NY and your ideas on beauty) and really enjoyed it, so I meant that I was surprised by this as it is as in depth on the dark side as you are on the other (and maybe I have a tendency to fear the darker side of things. Perhaps, rightly or wrongly, I feel that even by categorizing this type of behavior into purely scientific terms as opposed to some which include the emotional and ethical perspective, one inadvertently excuses it somehow? It is scary to think that there are people out there like you describe and that might make me naive, but I worry that society and its interest in serial killers and so on perpetuates the conditions that create them. I was not intending to be extreme, but to reflect how the topic made me feel. I admit that I have not thought about it as carefully as you have and perhaps I should have kept my reaction to myself. But I came back and I enjoyed reading the article so that says it all really. Perhaps I am the hypocrite?

  19. red says:

    It doesn’t matter if you are Ben or Bella but when someone leaves 2 comments in one day (their first comments on my site), using two different names, with the same IP address and same email address, it leaves me suspicious. That’s all. I’ve been doing this a long time.

    I have been writing about evil for a long time, Stalin is another one of my obsessions, and believe it or not, your response is quite typical. I have come to expect it. It pushes people’s buttons. I get that, but that is the main reason why I like to discuss psychopaths, antisocial personalities, serial killers, dictators, etc. If that one post made you uncomfortable, your brain would possibly explode if you looked at my Stalin archive.

    I fear the dark side as well, which is why I am drawn to it. I’m an artist, an actress and a writer – psychology and all of its manifestations are like blood to a vampire to me.

    It was the “not sure if I’ll be back” comment at the end that I was really responding to. Seriously: this site is free, and this is basically a hobby for me, so if you don’t like the content, you are free to move along. Or scroll on past things that don’t interest you, or what have you. I am under no obligation, obviously, to please one person – or to assure someone that I didn’t mean to make them feel uncomfortable. In general, I enjoy taking on topics that make ME uncomfortable – that’s the way I like to look at things and examine them.

    I would caution you thus: Don’t be “surprised” by the eclectic and varied nature of the content on my site. You have been reading me for 2 days. I write about what interests me, with almost no consistency – it’s not a one-topic blog. Don’t judge me by one post and be “surprised” when I change direction in the next post. This is basically the nature of my blog and has been since I started.

    If you look at my comment policy, you can get an idea of the type of conversation I look to cultivate here – and I guess one of the things that I like in commenters is an ability to SEGUE. Not all people can do it. But since this is not a blog catering to one specific audience, it’s really the best possible way to look at it, and to look at how I like to talk here.

    I protect conversations here, I protect the environment and the community I have created. Some people have been reading me for literally years. I am truly grateful to everyone who shows up, and participates. Join in if you want, don’t if you don’t want, and that’s pretty much it. Scroll past things you don’t like, and be surprised by nothing.

    Thanks for commenting again.

  20. red says:

    Beth – “shivers” indeed. Martin Sheen may seem more frightening because he’s killing all these people, but seen in this light, Sissy Spacek is WAY more frightening.

    I live to give shout outs to good ol’ Kirk and his crazy ass!!

  21. beth says:

    I think I’m being a word geek about the ‘talking mask’ part — I love short phrases that pack a punch like that. It’s why I can hardly read Roger Angell, one paragraph and I have to throw the book down and breathe deeply, lol.

    As for Kirk, you tell him. You tell him good! :)

  22. red says:

    Beth – yeah, it’s a very evocative simple phrase. It’s one of those things I’d love to steal.

    Roger Angell!!! totally know what you mean.

  23. Bella says:

    Thanks for your response – I am certainly a new person to your blog but I spent several hours reading it. I actually like it more than most. You write so well and you have a great ‘eye’. So thanks, I am after this likely to be a regular (reader anyway!) I will be sure not to take the topic as an indicator of your disposition. Reading the ‘about you’ section you seem like someone very similar to me (no insult intended and I am now following you by RSS) so thanks again for your generosity in taking my thoughts seriously. Also I have had a difficult time with someone with mild sociopathic tendencies which would explain why it triggered the response it did! Such is life.

  24. beth says:

    Reading Roger Angell is like eating semi-sweet chocolate. You can’t just devour pounds at a time. In fact, sometimes a few bites and you’re overcome with it, you’re done. I have rarely gotten through more than a few pages at a time before I feel like my brain is full.

  25. red says:

    Beth – I know. I am trying to think of a writer who has the same effect on me. Cormac McCarthy does, but that’s in another way entirely. Every sentence in Blood Meridien is so brilliant, so awe-inspiring, that I want to shout at him, “LET ME CATCH UP PLEASE. GIVE ME A SECOND TO CATCH UP, DAMMIT.”

  26. red says:

    Bella – as I mentioned, I have experienced that type of reaction before when I write on this topic – it really rubs some people the wrong way – They want me to come out CLEARLY as “condemning” it and get very annoyed when I do not – but … that’s not how I like to talk about evil. To me, “condemning evil” is the LEAST interesting aspect of the subject. I’m not on Cross Fire. I’m not battling it out on shock-radio where I need to be positional. I’m examining things that interest me. It pleases ME to grapple with these topics in the manner that I see fit, and plenty of people (as evidenced by the other commenters in the thread) get a lot out of it – so I’m just gonna keep on keepin’ on.

    This actually dovetails with my comment to Beth in this same thread about writers – Cormac McCarthy, in Blood Meridien, with the character of “The Judge” has created one of the most purely evil characters I have ever encountered in literature ever – he truly makes my blood run cold … and, in the end, it is a mystery why he is the way he is. Similar to Steinbeck’s Cathy, there is a Biblical element to his evil – almost as though he is so “other” that he must be demonic, the devil incarnate … I have been lucky that I have never met or encountered such an individual, but I know they exist.

    McCarthy, without ever going inside the Judge’s head – all we see in that book is what he DOES – gives such a clear example of random evil that only wants to please itself – for no other reason – that he has totally stayed with me as a character.

  27. red says:

    Beth – Joan Didion’s another writer like that for me, although for different reasons than Angell or McCarthy. I have a hard time sometimes even absorbing more than 1 or 2 pages at a time. It’s not that she’s dense or difficult – it’s just so damn good and thought-provoking that I can’t take it all in. At least I think that’s what it is.

  28. red says:

    Speaking of psychopaths and morality, a blogger friend of mine sent me a link to this site today. We have talked a lot about the Special Forces guys, and how that “cool under pressure” thing which can actually be a detriment in civilian living is an asset in the world these guys face – I know a couple of Special Forces guys like that. Anyway, she knows my interest in this topic, she shares it too – so sent me that link, and it looks so interesting that I am afraid of the hours of my life that will be swallowed up by reading that site.

    This is all personal for me as well, since the lead character in the script I’m writing right now – well, she’s not a sociopath, but she is anti-social, and most probably on some sort of autism spectrum – so I’ve been researching it.

  29. beth says:

    Now that I’m finally getting around to reading the article at the link you posted…

    Sometimes I wonder if there’s an evolutionary element to our understanding of psychopathy. I was watching this Deadliest Warrior show over the weekend that pits, for example, Attila the Hun against Alexander the Great, etc. They had to bring in a professional UFC fighter to have anything like the equivalent of Alexander’s physical strength and prowess. And their descriptions of their conquests clearly show brutal, sadistic behavior, behavior that today we would label antisocial. But today’s world relies on socialization in a way the former world — where some people’s genes come from — did not. That former world, the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ one, may have selected for what we now see as psychopathic characteristics in certain areas, before socialization evolved to the place it has today. Kind of like the theory that fat-storage genes that helped some people’s ancestors survive in, say, Siberia, now comes back to bite them in a world of Mickey D’s drive-thrus.

    Eat your heart out, Kirk Cameron, if you’re still reading. :)

  30. red says:

    Beth – oh my God, that Deadliest Warrior show sounds fantastic. I need to see it! It is really amazing when you look at what those old tyrants and conquerors did – Genghis Khan and Alexander – these were handson guys, obviously – and yes, it is interesting what you say: that TYPE of person (which is why the Jeremy Renner character interests me so much) is long long out of style. Civilization must be civilized and all … but Renner plays a “warrior”. To him, it’s not personal. The war is not personal. It’s just that he has found something he is good at. It’s the only thing he’s good at. It’s not really that he’s a throwback – it’s that that TYPE is always going to be relatively rare. The majority of the people on the planet are NOT warriors, not of that kind – and so it’s a really fascinating psychological study, that movie. More about HIM than about the war. I don’t want to write my post before I actually, you know, write my post – but that’s kind of along the lines of why I think it was such a startling performance.

    Another really fascinating tyrant was Tamerlane (or Timburlaine, or Timur the Great, he had a bunch of names) – he terrorized Central Asia, raping, pillaging, laying waste, but at the same time, he protected the artists – and had them all imported to the cities he wanted to build up – Samarqand in particular – which became a medieval hot-spot of learning and beauty, with astronomers and scholars and artists flocking there, via the Silk Road. He was terrifying (Tamerlane), but also loved art, and wanted, above all things, to create beauty wherever he went.

    Now how on earth to explain that??

    Christopher Marlowe tried, and his play about Tamberlaine is a pretty damn good one!

  31. beth says:

    Yes, I actually have become desperate to see more of that show after seeing a few episodes this weekend. I even mentioned it on my sports blog this morning in the context of Kevin Youkilis. LOL.

    I am not as familiar with Marlowe as I am with ol’ Billy. I should really branch out more.

  32. red says:


    Well, Billy can be quite bossy.

    Don’t hog the spotlight, Bill. Marlowe was there too!!

  33. red says:

    One of my favorites of Tamburlaine’s monologues – goin’ crazy with the cut and paste over here:

    Now clear the triple region of the air,
    And let the Majesty of Heaven behold
    Their scourge and terror tread on emperors.
    Smile, stars that reign’d at my nativity,
    And dim the brightness of your neighbour lamps;
    Disdain to borrow light of Cynthia!
    For I, the chiefest lamp of all the earth,
    First rising in the east with mild aspect,
    But fixed now in the meridian line,
    Will send up fire to your turning spheres,
    And cause the sun to borrow light of you.
    My sword struck fire from his coat of steel,
    Even in Bithynia, when I took this Turk;
    As when a fiery exhalation,
    Wrapt in the bowels of a freezing cloud,
    Fighting for passage, make[s] the welkin crack,
    And casts a flash of lightning to the earth:
    But, ere I march to wealthy Persia,
    Or leave Damascus and th’ Egyptian fields,
    As was the fame of Clymene’s brain-sick son
    That almost brent the axle-tree of heaven,
    So shall our swords, our lances, and our shot
    Fill all the air with fiery meteors;
    Then, when the sky shall wax as red as blood,
    It shall be said I made it red myself,
    To make me think of naught but blood and war.

  34. beth says:

    I am embarrassed to say that most of what I know of Marlowe comes from Shakespeare in Love. But, um, Joseph Fiennes. Come on.

    Those last four lines are killer.

  35. red says:

    I know, right?

    Marlowe is even more interesting than Shakespeare because we know more about him. He was a spy. He was killed in a bar fight that erupted over who would pay the check. He was brilliant.

    My favorite moment in Shakespeare in Love is the slow pan through the pub, with all the actors, and the camera passes by the big burly actor playing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and he is saying to some unknowing person, “The play is about this nurse …”

    The actor’s life has never EVER been described so succinctly.

    If you’re playing the nurse, then Romeo and Juliet is about the nurse. Hilarious!

  36. beth says:

    LOL. I remember such random lines from that movie. “Not the billing, the bill!” This is because I saw it approx. 800 times when I worked at the movie theater.

  37. red says:

    I love how we are carrying on two totally different conversations right now – here and on Facebook. and yet we are managing the segue-functionality perfectly. I am proud of us!

  38. beth says:

    Yes, we are demonstrating how THE SEGUE is done. :)

  39. Lucy B says:

    I find all this stuff so FASCINATING. As someone who cringes with empathetic anxiety just overhearing awkward work colleagues stuck on the train together with not quite enough conversation to last the journey, I find people who simply don’t react to fear etc. in others to be astonishing. And scary, of course.

    That sociopath blog is going to absorb me too; I’ve only glanced at it, but this jumped out at me (from a sociopath reader of the blog):

    “But I wonder, do you think we are “bad” people? I hate using that word because it seems so black and white. But there are times I almost think I do feel genuine sympathy or sadness, or what I imagine it would feel like, but then again this could be me fooling myself into trying to believe I am normal. ”

    Wow. That would be horrible.

    I can’t wait for your Renner post, Sheila.

  40. Lucy B says:

    By the way, sorry, I kind of just launched into my comment, which doesn’t exactly follow on from yours, Sheila and Beth – by “this stuff”, I mean the psychopath stuff! Not ‘Shakespeare In Love’ (although I love that movie, and the nurse line is one of my favourites too).

  41. red says:

    Lucy – yes, it seems when such people are interviewed, and sensitively – not like a police interrogation, but with thoughtful questions – they are fully aware of their “differences”. The smart ones learn to approximate “normal” behavior so they can “pass” – but there has to be a baffling element to the whole enterprise for them. Like, what is the point to act so completely against their own nature?

    It’s one of the reasons why therapy doesn’t work for out-and-out psychopaths. The really dangerous ones. Because, through therapy, they get a line on what is expected of them, what a normal and accepted response is to these pesky human beings who actually FEEL things, and so they just perfect their “act”, THROUGH therapy. Robert Hare (the psychopath expert I keep mentioning) talks about this a lot. He gets a lot of letters like, “I think my brother-in-law is a psychopath – what do I do?” or “I think I might be married to a psychopath – what do I do?” His advice is always the same: Get away from them. Cut ties.

    His is a pretty bleak outlook, but it comes from years of experience.

    It is amazing to me, the more I read on this subject, just how much Steinbeck gets this. Without all the psychological mumbo-jumbo, without neuroscience, without any knowledge of damaged amygdala. Cathy is textbook. Anyone who wants to know what “they are like”, need look no further than Cathy in Steinbeck – although she is a very extreme case. She’s on a Ted Bundy level of psychopathy. Ruthless, charming, dangerous, and good-looking – beauty is often a key factor, because these people are more easily forgiven. People are drawn to beauty. She’s one of the scariest characters in literature that I know of.

    He describes how she would weep when she was sad, and it was so convincing that people were touched, but if you looked closer you’d see that there were no tears. He also describes her calmness, that strange calmness that comes without having empathy (and empathy leads to other things – like an ability to feel fear, or guilt, or any other human emotion like that). Amazing portrait – I am again amazed that she is not mentioned more in the psychopath literature.

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