I just finished reading quite a few reviews on Amazon* for the book by James H. Fallon, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and I can’t help but chuckle at the disappointment of a large number of reviewers, including one from none other than Publishers Weekly**, who can’t get over the lack of emotional depth or personal insight, the narcissism, the self-aggrandizing personal tangents etc. that they claim to find his book littered with. These folks really, really dislike this book… and Mr. Fallon. They have also firmly convinced me to purchase the ebook sooner rather than later.
Let me first make it very clear that I do not find psychopathy itself in any way funny. We have all encountered a psychopath or two in our lives, they’re not all that rare, and the destruction even the so-called functional, or high functioning, psychopaths leave in their wake is pretty horrifying. What I find funny is the huge gaping blind-spot these negative reviewers all seem to share. Even when they acknowledge that it’s unfair to judge his book by its lack of emotional depth, they then proceed to do just that, like Publishers Weekly, who pointed out this unfairness, then proceeded to say, a few lines down, “For a quick overview of current theories of brain science and mental illness, Fallon’s book is useful; for insight into foreign mental and emotional territories, look elsewhere. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Nov.).”
But wait a minute. Maybe this book’s lack of insight and emotional depth is actually THE PERFECT reflection of the “foreign mental and emotional territories…” of a psychopath. This lack of a complex emotional landscape is the fundamental impoverishment of functioning that defines the psychopathic experience and the reason psychopaths are capable of so much interpersonal damage. I have to wonder what readers expected to find in a book written by a man whose brain scans show the same pattern as killers, and who apparently fits the criteria for psychopathy. Did they expect emotional depth? Did they expect him not to engage in narcissistic behaviors as an author and expert and likely high functioning psychopath? Why?! Why on earth would they expect to find what they claim to find lacking, and why would they not expect to find what they complain to have found?
Of course a psychopath is going to engage in narcissistic, self-aggrandizement. Of course a psychopath will have little to no insight into the real impacts of his behaviors on those around him, and of course he’s going to come off as callous, disregarding the rights and safety of others. The negative reviewers list off symptoms of psychopathy as criticisms of a book written about psychopathy and the brain by a neuroscientist who has the typical brain pattern AND behaviors AND lack of emotional understanding of psychopaths. Because writing a book was what, supposed to make him not psychopathic? Or suddenly capable of having normal depth and insight? Come on!
I wonder if the real problem here is that, at a fundamental level, people, even (maybe especially?) otherwise intelligent, logical people, really can’t accept that psychopaths really, truly, are that cold, that flat. But they are. And so they go into reading a book by a psychopath, with the understanding that he is probably a psychopath, and deep down what they really want to hear is that the coldness, the emotional flatness, is just a self-protective mask, when the reality is, as even a nerdy student who hopes to be a researcher studying this someday can plainly see, the charming face they are capable of wearing is the mask, the coldness and flatness are the reality. You aren’t likely to look deep inside of a psychopath and see some damaged soul who really just needs a hug and to be shown the way. What you see is narcissism. Lack of emotional insight. Callous disregard for others. Sadism. Precisely what these negative reviews are complaining about.
Personally, I want this look into his mind. I don’t expect to find that he has insight or is remorseful for the bad things he’s done. Because this is a biography by a psychopath. I want to read this because I want to see illustrations of his own psychopathic thinking and behavior, as interpreted by the psychopath himself. I want to see how his status of expert neuroscientist interacts with the trait of grandiosity. If these negative reviews are anything to go by, this book will do an excellent job of illustrating many traits associated with psychopathy, as well as presenting some science, and when taken with the massive grain of salt one really must take whenever a psychopath is discussing themselves, I expect this book to be educational.
Believe me, I do not expect to “like” Mr. Fallon by the end of reading this any more than I did Ian Brady after reading his own book, The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and its Analysis by the Moors Murderer Ian Brady. If you want a good illustration of a serial killing psychopath’s view of himself (a psychopath who is not high functioning), Brady’s is perfect. So long as you read it without expecting this serial killer to present you with anything other than a long, contorted piece of twisted logic, blame shifting, and grandiosity. Because he’s a psychopathic serial killer. That is why it’s worth reading. To examine the distortions. To try to understand the twisted thinking and emotional poverty that is so foreign to the rest of us. This is the value. It is precisely in seeing how all these destructive traits play out when the psychopath is engaged in self-reflection that gives both books value. The point isn’t to get honesty, or sudden displays of hidden emotional depth and understanding, that wouldn’t be an accurate, or even convincing, illustration of a psychopath. The value of Mr. Fallon’s book, like Ian Brady’s, must rest squarely in its poverty, and this is why I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ll write a follow up post once I have (and I’ll re-read Brady’s book too, and write a post on it).