“The Psychopath Next Door”

Here is a very interesting but disturbing documentary featuring Dr. Robert Hare, the forensic psychologist who developed The Psychopathy Checklist (which is used routinely in courts of law and police departments to identify psychopaths.) Here, the focus is on the non-prison population of psychopaths, which includes a high percentage of financially successful people in business.

Psychopaths tend to rise to corporate stardom quickly because the qualities they have (ability to focus on a goal, risk-taking, cunning, ruthlessness, etc.) are valued in business, while the ones they don’t have (empathy, guilt, caring, love, etc.) are not. High-functioning psychopathy was behind the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s said here that many banks were actually using Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist to hire new employees!

The video also discusses psychopaths in relationships, how psychopathic brains differ from normal ones, and the causes of psychopathy.

I’ve often noticed how dead-looking the eyes of some of our CEOs and politicians are. It’s like they have no soul. It’s very scary that these are the people who have the most power right now. They are like reptiles. Snakes in suits.

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Ferris Bueller, Psychopath.

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One of my favorite 1980s movies (which I have probably watched at least 50 times, because it’s always on TV) is John Hughes’ humorous 1986 study of teenage narcissist Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) and his plot to gallivant about Chicagoland with his girlfriend and his nervous, codependent friend Cameron in hopes of getting him to loosen up and live a little.

Ferris Bueller is a likeable character, who certainly doesn’t seem like a psychopath, only because his intentions are generally good (or seem to be), but the way he goes about achieving his goals flirts with lawbreaking and causes a lot of other people an awful lot of trouble. Ferris, for his part, seems too good-hearted to qualify for malignant narcissism or psychopathy, but given that this is a movie that was made in the Reagan era–the beginning of America’s love affair with narcissistic and psychopathic behaviors–its narcissistic hero must be likeable, while its real hero (Principal Rooney) is portrayed as a foolish villain with an extremely unlikeable personality. Then again, many psychopaths have considerable charm, and Ferris can shovel on the charm with the skill of a cult leader or a used car salesman.

Ferris is the most popular kid in school, because he’s just so cool. He’s not afraid of anyone or anything. He’s not a jock, so the geeks and nerds like him. He’s not a great student, so the troublemakers don’t mind him. He’s not enough of a dork or a geek to be disliked by the cheerleaders and football stars, so they like him too. Ferris has no enemies among the student body and offends no one–except the school’s staff, who see the psychopathy and narcissism behind Ferris’ outgoing, friendly, slightly eccentric but cool persona. They know he’s really just a spoiled brat who cares only about his own self-gratification.

Ferris is almost cloyingly nice, lies constantly, cons his friends, and is generally full of shit most of the time, but you can’t help liking him, even with all his over the top narcissism and psychopathic behaviors. He drives all his teachers insane. His principal Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) hates Bueller so much that a large part of the movie’s plot involves his quest to “get back at” Ferris for being truant yet again (apparently truancy is a bad habit of Ferris’s), chasing him all over the Chicago suburbs, and of course, failing miserably and looking like a pathetic fool by the film’s end for even trying. Ferris Bueller always wins.

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Ferris Bueller, psychopathic hero.

Back at home, Ferris’ family is clearly dysfunctional. His mother (Cindy Pickett) is an ’80s-style malignant narcissist who has chosen Ferris as her Golden Child. In her eyes, Ferris is perfect and can do no wrong, even when the evidence to the contrary is right in her face. Ferris’ sister, Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), always gets the blame for everything that goes wrong and takes the punishment for Ferris’s shenanigans. Their mother obviously hates her guts. These two women are both as evil as they come, and I would bet that’s the reason they can’t stand each other. The mother obviously sees her daughter as competition.

While Jeannie is a nasty piece of work and an envious, spiteful malignant narcissist not much different from her mother, she’s clearly the family scapegoat so you can’t help feeling a little sorry for her in spite of her repellent personality and plot to destroy her brother, who she envies and hates with the white hot heat of ten thousand suns. Mr. Bueller (Lyman Ward) barely has a personality at all. As is typical of these kinds of movies and television sit-coms, Mr. Bueller is a slightly bumbling one-dimensional background character who always submits to his wife’s iron-fisted will. Clearly he’s codependent, but we don’t find out much else about him, except that he holds some sort of high paying white collar job, given the sort of upper-middle class neighborhood the family lives in.

Bueller’s best friend is the highly neurotic, schizoid/avoidant and obsessive-compulsive uber-geek Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), a kid who’s so tightly wound you’re afraid just watching him might cause him to blow a gasket. Ferris only means well for poor Cameron, and takes on “rehabilitating” his jittery, schizoid friend by convincing him to skip school for a day for a wild joyride through downtown Chicago, in (what else?) Cameron’s psychopathic dad’s brand new red Ferrari. (We know his dad is psychopathic even though he’s never on screen because of Cameron’s visible terror over the prospect of his dad finding out there were additional miles on the Ferrari at the end of the day). One can be pretty certain that Cameron is the scapegoat of his dysfunctional family. In addition to what seems to be severe OCD and schizoid traits, Cameron seems like he may be suffering from severe PTSD as well. The kid just isn’t right in the head.

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Cameron, Ferris’ schizoid/avoidant codependent friend.

Ferris’ day begins with an elaborately feigned illness set up so that he doesn’t have to go to school, and of course his adoring mother believes his bullshit and even starts talking baby talk to him. Ferris plays the part of the adored infant, making cute faces and noises for his mother’s benefit as he lies “sick” in bed. This is an adolescent who is still his mother’s “baby.” He never has to grow up or take responsibility for anything.

Ferris sets out to “rehabilitate” his nervous, paranoid friend Cameron, by convincing him to take the day off school and cons him into borrowing his father’s brand new expensive red Ferrari. He arranges for his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) to get out of school too by pretending to be her grandfather, telling the school that she has to attend her grandmother’s funeral.

And off they go. It’s hard to imagine how these three teenagers could get so much accomplished between 8 AM and 3 PM–attending a baseball game at Wrigley Field, dining at an expensive French restaurant (and enraging the snobbish maitre’d in the process), attending the Chicago Art Museum, and finally a huge parade through downtown Chicago, in which Ferris, naturally, steals the show by lip-synching the Beatles while dancing on a float. Like many skilled narcissists, he has irresistible charm and endless charisma. He’s an anti-hero for the Reagan era.

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At the museum.

As the day nears its end, the kids lounge by the poolside. Cameron asks Ferris if he checked he miles on the Ferrari, and the bad news is that there’s no way to hide the number of miles they used from Cameron’s psychopathic father. Cameron blows a gasket at the news and enters a catatonic state of terror, while Ferris and Sloane go skinny dipping in the pool.

Feigning concern and empathy for his friend, Ferris talks Cameron out of his catatonic fog (which may have been feigned since he admitted he saw Sloane nude in the pool) and tries to roll back the miles on the Ferrari by running it in reverse. It doesn’t work, and Cameron loses the last shred of composure he may have had and throws a tantrum, ranting about his cold, unloving father and how he only cares about his car and wealth and cares nothing for his son. He begins to kick the Ferrari, which becomes loose from its anchors (it has its own private house), and the kids watch as the car crashes through the plate glass windows, and speeds off the hillside into a ditch below, becoming a smoking, totalled hulk. This is the only part of the movie that’s somewhat serious, and it’s hard watching Cameron realize just how abused and unloved he is. You worry what might happen when his father finds out his car has been totalled, but for Cameron, his rage was cathartic and he assures Ferris and Sloane that “No, it’s good.”

Meanwhile, Principal Rooney is on a quest to find Ferris and make him pay for his truancy and glib lies. Although possibly the only character in the movie with the slightest sense of morality, Rooney is made out to be a bumbling and spiteful fool who himself breaks the law by trespassing on the Buellers’ property and eventually breaking and entering.

Rooney, enraged by Bueller’s continued truancy, leaves the school for the entire day to stalk Ferris, even going to his house, where the Bueller’s dog attacks him. Meanwhile, sister Jeannie is on her own quest for retribution, but upon finding Rooney in their house, screams and runs to the police station to report an intruder. While there, she recruits a stoned juvenile delinquent (Charlie Sheen) to help her in her plot to exact revenge on Ferris. Of course it turns out that Sheen is another one of Ferris’ best buddies.

Mrs. Bueller, finding her daughter at the police station, flies into a rage and drags her home, berating Jeannie the entire time. As hateful as Jeannie is, her mother is more so. When questioned why she wanted to get her brother in trouble, Jeannie’s answer is, “why should HE get away with everything? I would get caught.”

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Jeannie Bueller, envious malignant narcissist.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is uproariously funny, but the dark truth is that it’s also a movie glorifying narcissism and psychopathy. It’s a movie about two disturbed boys (one probably psychopathic, the other codependent and probably suffering severe PTSD), and their dysfunctional, abusive families, with a subplot about incompetent school staff who break into students’ homes.

In 2009, Ruthless Reviews wrote an article, “Ferris Bueller, Psychopath,” which describes exactly how Ferris fits the criteria for Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. Pretty fascinating stuff here.

Only Rooney recognizes Bueller as a pernicious force that will certainly create great suffering and perhaps death later in life. A lone crusader, Rooney goes well beyond the duties of his job in an attempt to hunt down and destroy a budding monster. He is the Van Helsing to Ferris Bueller’s Dracula, the Dr. Loomis to his Michael Meyers. That’s because Bueller is a textbook psychopath. Let’s use the esteemed criteria of Robert D. Hare, the man who largely fathered the modern diagnosis and study of psychopathy.

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Edward R. Rooney, the “villain”: lone crusader against psychopathy.

NOTE: The PCL-R is a clinical rating scale (rated by a psychologist or other professional) of 20 items. Each of the items in the PCL-R is scored on a three-point scale according to specific criteria through file information and a semi-structured interview. A value of 0 is assigned if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. In addition to lifestyle and criminal behavior the checklist assesses glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behavioral controls, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions and so forth. The scores are used to predict risk for criminal re-offence and probability of rehabilitation.

I have copied Ferris’ psychopathy scores here; read the linked article for detailed descriptions of why Ferris fits all these criteria. The articles’s too long to reprint here. It’s a great read.

Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism”

Glibness/superficial charm: score 2/2

Grandiose sense of self-worth: score 2/2

Pathological lying: score 2/2

Cunning/manipulative: score 2/2

Lack of remorse or guilt: score 2/2

Shallow affect: score 2/2

Callous/lack of empathy: score 2/2

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: score 2/2

Promiscuous sexual behavior: score 0/2 (This is the only low score in the “aggressive narcissism” factor)

The fact that Bueller scores so highly on the first factor, aggressive narcissism, tells us that he is probably a case of primary psychopathy, meaning psychopathy is his root condition and probably biological, as opposed to being caused by other disorders or a poor environment.

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Ferris Bueller, pathological liar.

Factor 2: “Socially deviant lifestyle”

Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom: score 2/2

Parasitic lifestyle: score 1/2

Poor behavioral control: score 2/2

Lack of realistic, long-term goals: score 0/2

Impulsivity: 2/2

Irresponsibility: 2/2

Juvenile delinquency: score 2/2

Early behavior problems: score 1/2

Revocation of conditional release: score 1/2

Traits not correlated with either factor

Many short-term marital relationships: score 1/2

Criminal versatility: 1/2

Total Score (for psychopathy): 31/40

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Bueller’s score is impressive. A score of 30 is considered clearly psychopathic and, from what I can gather, is pretty uncommon. Erase the ease and privilege of his environment, and his young age, and he might score even higher in categories like “parasitic lifestyle” and “criminal versatility.” Rooney might be kind of an authoritarian prick himself, but then so was his doppelganger, Dirty Harry. Only Rooney can see the danger Bueller poses, especially as he has established a strong influence over other students. I’ve already mentioned it, but Ferris seems like a natural for politics (especially in Illinois) and the idea of him holding a powerful position is terrifying.

While Bueller cavalierly risks life, limb and jail for his own gratification, Rooney does the same in order to thwart and stifle a young psychopath. He would have succeeded too, if only Bueller’s dingbat sister hadn’t caved in at the end. Now Ferris will continue unimpeded and, by 2014, he will be voting to escalate drone attacks because of campaign contributions from Lockheed Martin. And he won’t lose a wink of sleep over it.

Sam Vaknin: Narcissist or narcissist wannabe?

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Who in their right mind would want to be a narcissist?

Sam Vaknin evidently does. Vaknin, a self-identified narcissist, is a bit different from the average narcissist. He seems to fit the profile in many ways, but he is surprisingly introspective and in 1997, wrote a self-help book called “Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. It can be purchased through Amazon or through his own site, but you can also read free excerpts from the PDF version which is also available through his website.

I have read the PDF full version and while it’s extremely long, verbose, and often repetitive (the published version may have better editing but I am not sure), Vaknin tells you everything you want to know about narcissism (and a few things you may not have known) and offers advice to “normals” on how to deal with narcissistic people like himself. He does not glorify narcissists and in fact is quite critical of them. While it appears he wants to help people handle or even cut themselves off from narcissists, one can’t help but wonder if he wrote the book as a way to promote himself and if he might not actually take pride in having the disorder. After all, narcissism has become Vaknin’s claim to fame and he purports himself as an expert on the disorder (which I can’t argue with, despite his lack of professional credentials). It was Vaknin who coined the term “narcissistic supply,” which is now used by bonafide professionals in the field who specialize in NPD.

Most books about narcissistic personality disorder or malignant narcissism are written by doctors, psychologists, or other professionals who deal with them in their practice, so reading such a book by a self-proclaimed narcissist is an odd experience but gives the reader an entirely different perspective about what really makes narcissists tick–and in a way, perhaps a more accurate one.

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Vaknin with a copy of his book.

Vaknin also differs from the garden variety narcissist because of his brutal honesty. Pathological lying is one of the narcissist’s calling cards, but in 2009 Australian filmmaker Ian Walker made a fascinating and somewhat disturbing but at times extremely funny documentary about Vaknin called I, Psychopath. (I highly recommend watching this film, the extended version of which can be viewed on Youtube (I have linked the first section). In the film Vaknin lies about nothing, and in fact he’s as brutally and cruelly honest as Simon Cowell used to be when judging American Idol contestants (I definitely suspect Mr. Cowell is himself a narcissist, but I digress). That being said, there has been some controversy about Mr. Vaknin’s educational credentials. During one of his interviews with a psychologist, she questions him about his degree–he had written on the questionnaire that he has a Ph.D, but it turned out that doctorate is actually from a diploma mill and its validity is questionable at best. So dishonesty is not unknown to Sam Vaknin (as it isn’t unknown to the rest of us).

In the film, we are treated to interesting and slightly creepy, oddly lit stills of Vaknin superimposed over things like clanking machinery (hinting at how the narcissist is more machine than human), strange landscapes, and time-lapsed highways at night.

Vaknin was born in 1961 to a Turkish mother and an Israeli father. We find out that Vaknin has an extremely high IQ and he is in fact a genius. In his native Israel, he became extremely wealthy at a shockingly early age through clever (and probably dishonest) financial wheelings and dealings, and was a successful dot-com entrepreneur until he was busted for securities fraud in 1999, and lost all his money. He also postulated a scientific theory on chronons and time asymmetry.

At the tender age of 21, Vaknin was living the high life, flying around the world in a private jet, eating in the most expensive restaurants, visiting exotic locales all over the world, and raking in enormous amounts of money. The film describes how the most successful entrepreneurs and corporate bigwigs tend to possess three important traits that make them so successful: good looks, high intelligence, and most importantly, a high level of psychopathy (determined by giving the tycoons Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, which is most commonly used to make sentencing decisions for criminals.). Sam Vaknin possesses all three of these traits.

One of the psychologists who tests Vaknin during the film finds that while he does score high in traits that signify NPD, he scores even higher in traits that indicate Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Paranoid Personality Disorder, and bizarrely, scores highest of all in AvPD (Avoidant Personality disorder–a common disorder in narcissists’ victims). This psychologist does not think Mr. Vaknin is actually a psychopath, but that he may be narcissistic. Vaknin, for his part, seems petulant, insulted and almost angry that he is not more of the big, bad psychopath that he believed he was.

Later, his wife, Lidija, is also tested to find out if she is a typical “victim” (highly empathic, sensitive, putting other’s needs ahead of her own) and it is found that she is. And yet, although Sam and Lidija argue frequently, their relationship (at least on film) seems to work for them and Vaknin doesn’t seem excessively abusive, although he insists he has no capacity to feel love the way his wife does. It’s possible he may be more abusive toward Lidija off screen, but this is another thing we are left wondering. One issue that is raised is she wants a baby, but is unsure if her husband would make a good father, due to his narcissism.

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Vaknin with his wife, Lidija.

Vaknin gives his filmmaker, Ian Walker, a difficult time, and while we don’t see an excess of bullying on screen, in Walker’s commentary, he frequently discusses the way Vaknin abuses and calls him terrible names when the camera is off. So to try to capture Vaknin’s alleged abusive behavior on screen, he has Vaknin take over the filming and film Walker. Indeed now we hear Vaknin hurling insults and abuse at him. Walker, for his part, seems hurt, but could this just be the two of them acting out a part for the sake of giving the film more credibility of making it more interesting? There’s no way to tell, but the experiment is entertaining enough.

During the film, well known professionals who specialize in psychopathy and narcissism are interviewed and give their opinions about these character disorders, and their opinions about Vaknin himself. Vaknin, for his part, seems irascible and easily angered (and sometimes acts like a petulant child), but he also is oddly likeable (which could just be his narcissistic charm doing its work) and occasionally is extremely funny. Vaknin’s high intelligence is obvious and he speaks English extremely well too, although it’s not his native tongue.

Vaknin gifts each of the doctors and psychologists who interview him a complimentary copy of his “Malignant Self-Love,” which could be a gesture of courtesy or it could be narcissistic.

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Vaknin is an enigma. During the documentary I sometimes wondered whether he is actually a narcissist at all. He certainly doesn’t seem psychopathic (although I’m not going to say it’s impossible), but if he’s a narcissist, I don’t think he’s a particularly malignant one. My own opinion of Sam Vaknin is that he has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which shares a number of traits with NPD because they are both Cluster B character disorders but differ in important ways. I think Vaknin has strong narcissistic, paranoid, and schizoid traits, but he is no psychopath. Clearly, Vaknin isn’t the easiest person to spend a lot of time with, but that doesn’t make him evil or a psychopath. However, he does say he was diagnosed with NPD twice–in 1986 and 1995.

I do wonder if he wants to be a narcissist more than he actually is one, and if so, why? Whatever the case, Mr. Vaknin has written an excellent and highly readable (if a bit verbose) book about malignant narcissism. I don’t personally care if he doesn’t have the right “credentials,” either as a professional or as a person with the actual disorder, because his book has helped so many people deal with the narcissists in their own lives better.

Update 11/20/14
I added a new post honoring Mr. Vaknin’s requests in the comments section, and also made the requested changes in this article. After viewing the links he posted, I’m much more convinced he’s really the narcissist he says he is.
https://otterlover58.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/sam-vaknin-read-my-post-and-has-a-few-corrections/