Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD.
She spent her career studying the criminal mind. She was one of the most senior profilers of the FBI until her retirement in 2009. She has helped capture, interview, and understand some of the world's most infamous people and she is recognized as the FBI's leading expert in the area of psychopathy and psychopaths
R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Sponsored by opednews.com. My guest tonight is Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD.
She spent her career studying the criminal mind. She was one of the most senior profilers of the FBI until her retirement in 2009. She has helped capture, interview, and understand some of the world's most infamous people and she is recognized as the FBI's leading expert in the area of psychopathy. Psychopaths. Welcome to the show.
M.O.: Thank you so much. My pleasure to be here with you.
R.K.: Well as I emailed you, I have been doing a series of articles and interviews about psychopaths and I was delighted to find you when I discovered an article on the FBI website titled, The Corporate Psychopath which you co-authored with Paul Babiak and even more delighted once I found out that you're the trainer who trains the people at the FBI about psychopaths. Tell me a story about psychopaths. I like to start off my interviews kind of throwing it out to you out of the blue. Tell me a story about psychopaths.
M.O.: Well I think this is a good story and it's not fiction. There was a serial killer operating in the northwest for a little over twenty five, probably even closer to thirty years and he was approaching women on the street and convincing them that he was safe to go with. They would get into the car, despite their street savvy and their knowledge that there was a serial killer operating, and they would go with him because he looked so normal and he came across as very non-threatening.
In the end, Gary Leon Ridgway was identified as the Green River Killer and he pled guilty to forty nine murders of women in one county, ONE county, in the state of Washington. I had the opportunity as we were investigating the case and attempting to locate all of the victims to interview Gary over a period of weeks.
And I can tell you, having interviewed a number of these individuals, he was, he came across as very normal, he's not out of touch with reality, knows right from wrong, had a sense of humor, a pleasure to talk to. He was very proud of being the Green River Killer, but absolutely had no remorse for what he did to the victims, or their families. He was a thrill seeker. He was very grandiose. He had all of the markings, all of the traits of psychopathy.
As I sat across the table and next to him, I thought no wonder you were able to elude law enforcement for more than thirty years. You look just like us.
R.K.: Yeah. That's the way it is with psychopaths, isn't it?
M.O.: It is the way it is. We're looking for people that Hollywood creates as monsters. Someone that we can just look at physically and tell that there is something very malevolent about this person, or ominous. Or if I meet a psychopath I know the hair on the back of my neck will stand up. Well guess what? That doesn't happen.
R.K.: So, reading, from what I've learned, psychopaths, it's the opposite of that. Psychopaths are turn-ons. They're charismatic, they're attractive, that's part of their camouflage, natural camouflage, like a chameleon changes colors, they make themselves look attractive.
M.O.: That's a good word that I use as well. Chameleon. For your audience, here is a thumbnail overview of someone who is a psychopath, or psychopathic is the disorder. These are individuals who are glib and charming, but they're very grandiose. They believe the world revolves around them. They are not crazy, it's not a mental illness. They are thrill seekers and attention seekers. Their hallmark is that they have no empathy. They don't bond with other people. They don't bond with their children, their spouses, and that's okay with them. They're not distraught about the fact that they don't bond. In fact, they view feelings like you and I have as almost a weakness.
Psychopaths exist in every culture, in every country in the world and always have. Most psychopaths are males. They're intelligence reflects the intelligence of the average person so most are average in intelligence, some are married some are single, some have families, some do not. Some live on the street homeless and some, as you read in the White Collar psychopath, can run a company.
They can be in politics, they can be lawyers, they can be drawn to law enforcement or medicine. Any career, so psychopaths exist among us and they always have been but, the beauty of the research that's been done on psychopathy which has been spearheaded by Dr. Robert Hare, spelled like the bunny, is that the twenty traits of psychopathy exist in every psychopath, so if you meet a psychopath from, let's say Ireland, (I say that because of my last name), that person will have the same traits as a psychopath who lives in Philadelphia.
So, the beauty about this empirical research now is that we know a lot about these individuals and when we use the word psychopath, scientist to scientist, person to person, we know exactly what that means and we've come so far in our understanding of these individuals that it's amazing but we can now really do, I think, a much better job even in predicting what they will do next just in terms of really their life and the damage to the people around them.
R.K.: So, you've worked with the FBI and you teach the FBI. What is the goal of the FBI in terms of understanding and dealing with psychopaths?
M.O.: Well ,as everybody knows, the FBI is a law enforcement agency and I, not only do I teach interviewing psychopaths over at the FBI, or have in the past, I also teach law enforcement throughout the country and on psychopaths because even though the majority of psychopaths are not violent, a large percentage of our especially violent crimes are committed to people who manifest traits of psychopath,y so to understand them is critical before you walk into that interview room. And let me give you just an example.
When a detective, or FBI agent, walks into an interview room where someone who manifests traits of psychopathy, they have got to understand that a psychopath is a predator and the prey-predator relationship exists. So, that officer, that detective, that FBI agent is walking in and that is the prey and the psychopath will read them better, read their body language better, read their behavior better than the detective, or the law enforcement person will.
So, it's very important, since law enforcement probably has more contact with psychopaths because of the work that we do than even mental health folks. Because our mental health professionals don't come into this degree of contact with psychopaths, because in a psychopath's world they don't think there's anything wrong with them, so they don't seek out mental health treatment. But they will come into contact with law enforcement which is why we need to know what the traits are and why they behave differently in their crime scenes and why they behave differently in court, and I can give you some examples of that and why they will be such a challenge to interview.
R.K.: Okay, so let's start with crime scenes. How do they behave differently in crime scenes?
M.O.: Well, in their crime scenes, and most of the crimes, I'm also an FBI agent so my expertise comes from an investigator and then on top of that being a behavioral scientist, I've studied hundreds and hundreds of, for example, serial murder scenes and consulted on serial murder cases. If you commit a crime like a serial murder, over and over again, and you even learn how to do it better and you learn how to do it much like Gary Ridgway, so you don't get caught, the inference from that is that there is no empathy for the victims and there's no empathy for the society where you're doing it. So, that's number one. You will see behavior with the victim that shows no empathy for the victim or the victim's family.
R.K.: What would that behavior look like?
M.O.: Committing it over and over again. It may also include, for example, torturing the victim before the victim is dead. It could include postmortem mutilation. It also can include something I've seen regularly in a series of murders where there are no defensive injuries on the victim and I look at that and say, why are there no defensive injuries on these victims? Especially if the victims are very streetwise people, male or female, very streetwise, smart people. They know not to open their front door. They know not to get into a car. Why is it that these people over and over again would let their guard down?
If the person is psychopathic, they can come across as incredibly glib and charming and you look at them and they don't look threatening. In fact, they can use that ability to be, as you call it, charismatic to convince you that they're not going to hurt you. So, when I'm looking at a series of crimes I look for the absence, for example, of defensive injuries which tells me whoever approached that woman, that man, must have had some sort of good verbal camouflage, I love that word, or persuasiveness that allowed that person to put their guard down.
So, when I look at crime scenes I look at the whole crime scene. I don't pull out one or two traits, but look at the lack of empathy, how he was able to access the victim, what he did to the victim, and then I also look for what's the evidence that's left behind, what's the amount of planning that went into the crime? If you're dealing with someone who lacks empathy, they may put a lot of planning into their crime scene because they're not overwhelmed by what they're about to do, but in fact they want to carry it out successfully, so you may see a lot of planning in their crime scenes as well.
R.K.: Okay. Now, well, how about, you say they behave differently in court. How do they behave differently in court?
M.O.: Well, I'll give you a perfect example. Recently, we were all I think very troubled to watch the case out of Cleveland with the man, Ariel Castro, who kidnapped the three girls and kept them for ten years in his home in Cleveland very close by to where the vigils would be held for the girls and fliers would be handed out and where the girl's families were.
So, that's very arrogant and grandiose to think that you can live in the same area where you've actually committed these abductions but, if we recall what he did in court, I think it was very stunning. When the judge asked him if he wanted to make a statement, that statement went on for pretty much close to an hour and in that statement to the courts,as it was filmed on television, he blamed the victims.
He made himself... it was not his fault. He did not take responsibility for it. He blamed law enforcement. He talked about how they were so happy in that household that that's the happiest that he has ever been. So, he completely twisted everything around and it's not because he was crazy, in fact, there was a noted absence of any mental health issues. He was just going to make himself look better and blame the victims and he took over the courtroom because the courtroom is a stage for a psychopath where they can be on the international stage and that's exactly what he did and his final words were absolutely amazing to me. Little hard to hear, but his final words were, had to do with making arrangements to view his baby daughter, the daughter that he had with one of his victims. And when you think about the context of that, here's a man who kidnaps three girls, fathers a child by one of the victims, and then as he's basically walking out the courtroom, he wants to know, or is making a statement about having visitation rights to his daughter. Really? Are you kidding me? And that's shocking and yet he does not care about the fact that all of the world is listening to him and they're shocked by his lack of empathy, or his lack of compassion.
But he made it all about him and I think that to me is a very good recent example about how they view the courtroom.
R.K.: And how would you summarize that a little bit further when you advise, let's say, a prosecutor. Do you advise prosecutors too?
M.O.: I do.
R.K.: So what advice do you give to prosecutors?
M.O.: Well ,the same traits of psychopathy, the traits fall together, like a cluster of grapes. So, these are individuals who are manipulative and cunning, they love high risk situations, they bring that into the courtroom. So, they may represent themselves instead of having a defense attorney. They may be very disruptive in court so that all the attention is focused on them.
We've had cases where the offender, who is representing himself as his own attorney, stops the courtroom and wants to get married to his girlfriend in the courtroom, or in other cases, we've had the psychopathic defendant come into courtroom singing, or I've had them in courtroom where they should be focused on what the proceedings are and they turn around and, you know, they're just staring and being very disruptive towards the victims, or the people in the courtroom.
So, it's a whole range of behavior, but they're, again, very grandiose people. The courtroom is a great place to get attention, so whether it's malingering, which means feigning a heart attack and using that to get attention, all the way up to representing yourself. All the way up to singing in the courtroom. They will take that opportunity to get the attention that they want and, at times, I've had some psychopathic people that stand up and they're so indignant about how they could ever be accused of committing this kind of crime in the face of massive amounts of forensic evidence.
So, it's a range of things, but it all comes back to that; it's all about me. It has nothing to do with the victims because victims don't matter to a psychopath.
R.K.: So what do you advise the prosecutors to do?
M.O.: It depends on the case. It really does and most of the time it's educating prosecutors to what the disorder is. That it's a personality disorder and here are some of the things that you might expect and here are some of the behaviors that you might anticipate and if this happens, here are a list of things that you can do to respond.
So, it's more educating the prosecutors to psychopathy and what it means and what kind of behaviors that you can expect and that also means in some cases helping the jury to understand what psychopathy means as well because juries come in and they don't have background and training in psychopathy. So, in some cases it's helpful to them to know if it's related to the case and the judge allows it for them to understand what psychopathy is as well.
R.K.: So, is it possible for a prosecutor to accuse somebody who is being tried in court of being a psychopath and what would a defense attorney say about that?
M.O.: That would never be allowed in court. It's a great question, but that would never be allowed in court. The only way to formally assess a person for psychopathy is to administer the assessment called the PCLR, Psychopathy Check List Revised, and that's a test that's been based on forty five years of empirical research, again, that's been spearheaded by Dr. Robert Hare, and this assessment tool requires a one on one interview with the individual that you're assessing and then a review of collateral information.
So, you may be reviewing other files, or talking to family members following your face to face interview with the person. So, that's the only way where you can formally say, if they score high enough on this test, a perfect score is a forty which means that would be like the poster child for psychopathy, and then the research cut off score is thirty, but not to get too technical. The only way to be able to say that someone, to give them that label, is that they score high enough on this test.
It is a very serious label to put on someone and you don't do it lightly. So, a prosecutor would never be able to call someone that. The courts would never allow that.
R.K.: But, they might be able to bring in an expert witness to test the accused and the witness may be able to say that the witness scored over thirty on Hare's test?
M.O.: Well, if they brought it in it would more than likely be in the sentencing phase where the prosecution is bringing in testimony that shows that this person is, for example, a very violent offender, or a recidivist, but unless it has some other connection to the substantive case, which means the case in chief, it's not likely to come in there. Now, it can come in, for example, if you do bring in an expert witness who talks about the behavior at a crime scene and what that behavior says to that expert witness, someone like me who would come in and say, you know, the behavior at this crime scene, in my opinion, manifests traits of psychopathy.
Notice how I said that- it manifests traits of psychopathy. It doesn't call that person a psychopath because it's not likely that I would have been given the okay to sit down across the table from that person and do an assessment and, again, that kind of testimony is not likely to come in to the case in chief, but more likely to come in in a sentencing phase.
R.K.: I see. And in Hare's book he talks about how people use it for cases of parole.
M.O.: Well, you're right, and that's a different matter. That's a different matter. In civil cases, a different situation and some states have civil commitments, which means an offender has done their time in prison for a particularly violent sexual crime, and the state feels that individual still needs to be incarcerated, they will have what's called a civil commitment hearing in which case that often includes an assessment for psychopathy because psychopathy is used and considered very important when you're doing risk assessments for re-offending. And I think that will make sense to your audience because if someone has no feelings of guilt, or remorse; if you're trying to decide if someone could act out violently again; if you have no remorse, or guilt, that takes away the barriers that would keep you from acting out violently. So, the likelihood of your choosing to be violent in the future if you're psychopathic would increase those risks, that risk level. Psychopathy assessments can be brought in then. They can be brought in to, say, child custody hearings. Certainly whether or not someone is paroled, particularly, again, based on the type of crime for which they were incarcerated. There are others times it can be brought in, but if you're talking about a criminal case, where it's not part of the substantive crime, then it's not likely it's going to be brought in. At least in my experience.
R.K.: Okay. Now, so it sounds like the legal system really makes it difficult to bring up the idea of psychopathy in hearings and I wonder how hard is it to talk about psychopathy even during investigations?
M.O.: Right. It may sound like that, but, you know, the prosecution can bring in behavior at the crime scene and they can bring in the behaviors through the investigator's experience and they can bring in behavior at the crime scene and point out the lack of empathy, the gratuitous violence, the lack of concern and compassion for the victim.
They can point out those kinds of behaviors through testimony and you don't have to sit down and have someone label an individual a psychopath and to me that's really important because if you look up the eighteen traits and characteristics of psychopathy, there's nothing in there that says one of those traits is a trait for violence.
So, it may be even more confusing to the jury for them to hear, okay, but none of these traits say that this person is, or won't be more violent, so it has to be put in context in terms of the crime scene behavior. So, you can really bring it in that way and, that way, it kind of elucidates for the jury, for the courts, what we mean by a lack of empathy in a crime scene, the impulsivity and the need for thrill and excitement, and you back that up with here are the behaviors which are manifested by these traits and characteristics.
R.K.: Now, in reading your article it mentioned that sociopath is kind of an obsolete word which confuses me because I am still finding doctors who talk about it and then you refer to the idea that psychopath is not, was not, in DSM IV. Did it make it into DSM V?
M.O.: No, it did not.
R.K.: Okay, so, it's not even a diagnostic category. How would somebody who is a psychopath show up in DSM V?
M.O.: There are several ways that it could show up in the DSM V and that's through their, it's really through their symptoms and that's what DSM V is. It's really a recognition of symptoms, or behaviors, that generally are causing the individual who goes to the psychiatrist, or a social worker, or a counselor, some kind of distress in their life and so it could show up that way and could show up through, again, the symptoms and not necessarily the label.
So, for years, for example, one of the personality disorders that have been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is antisocial personality disorder, otherwise known as APD. If you go back and you look at APD, it will talk about the behavior, antisocial behavior, robbing banks, stealing cars, you name it, but what's absent from that diagnosis is what really causes psychopathy to stand out, which is this very profound, stunning lack of affect, or emotion. You don't see that in the diagnosis of APD and so, when people are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, that doesn't mean that they're psychopathic. It's very distinct because I have actually had dealings with people who probably are very antisocial, but kind of scrape it away a little bit after you talk to them for hours and you find out that, yeah, they grew up in a gang family. They grew up in a family that dealt with drugs, or organized crime and they learned how to be very criminal, but they, actually, they love their children and they love their parents.
It takes a long time to get to that point because emotions have to be sort of subjugated when you grow up in an environment like that, but they're still there. When you're dealing with someone who is psychopathic, on the other hand, yes, they can be very antisocial and you spend hours with them and dig into what makes them tick and you're looking for that emotion, that emotional attachment to another human being. It will not be there.
That's a big difference and that's the most significant difference and the reason that sociopathy was thrown out in the late 1960's, in DSM. In the DSMs that come up every number of years you will see remarkable changes, but sociopathy really was a disorder, not a mental illness, but a disorder, that really dealt more with the socialization of someone who grew up more in a crime family, or in a criminal venue, than it refers to someone without these feelings of empathy and compassion for other people.
So, it was more like learned behavior. Now, here's something that I'm going to say that may be very disturbing to people, because the current research does suggest that with psychopathy there are some genetic links to it; that we have no such research for the term sociopathy. We have no such research, really, for APD, but because of the brain scans and the functional MRIs that are being done by our scientists in the area of psychopathy, we know that it does have a genetic link to it.
R.K.: And how is that link manifested, biologically, or psychophysiologically?
M.O.: Well, right now, what we know is that the brains of people who are psychopathic are different from non-psychopaths and what they're looking at are those areas of the brain that light up with emotion. Which they do. So, if you and I are feeling compassion and love for our family members, we're talking about good memories of, let's say, the holidays and somebody is doing a functional MRI a certain part of our brain is going to light up to show, you know, that empathy that we have, that part that makes us able to bond with other people.
You don't see that part of the brain lighting up with psychopaths. So it's true, this kind of brain scanning that we've learned so much about the distinction between psychopaths and non psychopaths. However, it's important for us to know that, let's say, they did a brain scan on you and those parts of the brain that show empathy, for example, didn't light up for some reason. You can't say, because that part of the brain does other things, too, not just dealing with emotion. So, I can't say just because of the way your brain lit up, or didn't light up, that you're absolutely psychopathic which is the reason that Dr. Hare and his colleagues, who did a lot of the original imaging on the brain, have developed this test which, again, involves the one on one interviews and then the collateral interviews, the test that really gets to the heart of being able to assess someone as being psychopathic.
You have to be somewhat careful about the brain scanning because it's like anything else, you can go in and gave a chest x ray and there's a mark on your lungs, well, there could be multiple reasons for that. It could be scar tissue, it could be cancer, it could be something else. So, we have to be very careful about putting people into boxes because they've got something that shows up on their brain and, ergo, the reason for the test and the reason for being as thorough as you can in doing an assessment. It's very damaging, very damaging, to use the word "psychopath" on an individual.
Big consequences for that and so, for those of us who work in the science, we're very careful about using that term and how we use it.
R.K.: So what part of the brain is involved?
M.O.: Right now we know it's the frontal part of the brain, the front part of the brain that is where your emotions seem to dictate where your emotions, but it's also a part of the brain that does a lot of executive leadership as well. Executive decision making as well, so it's the frontal part of the brain and if you read the article on the white collar psychopath, which is actually part of a series of articles that we did in the FBI's law enforcement bulletin which, by the way, is available to the public if they want to read more about it.
Some of the traits of psychopathy actually do very well for people who need to run a corporation, or run an agency, or run a government. So, and I think we point that out in that article that not most psychopaths are violent and again some of these traits can be very helpful until they're not. I say this to the classes I've taught over at the FBI and I've put up the traits of psychopathy and people will look at those traits and you can see the expression on their face and I say, if you're worried about being one, chances are you're not.
Because it's not stress-inducing for psychopath to look at those traits and say, holy cow, maybe I'm a psychopath. In fact, it's the exact opposite. In my interviews with many psychopaths, I've asked them do you think that you're psychopathic? Fully expecting them to tell me, I don't even know what that word means, Mary Ellen. Oh no, they know what it means. Even if their education level is very low. And I'll ask them what do you think about that? And I've had them tell me repeatedly, well, I think it's a good thing.
So again my classes will look at the traits and I'll remind them of a couple of things, some of these traits are essential if you work in my profession which is law enforcement. You have to have some of these traits, but the distinction is that the traits of a psychopath, just like anybody's personality, it's with them all the time.
It's just not job-related, or job-specific, so, when I would go to work every day as an FBI agent and look at the brutality of the crime scenes as an FBI profiler, I'd have to suspend my empathy because I have got to look at some horrible cases in order to assess the case, analyze the case, and help the agencies come up with some suspects. So, if I sat there and allowed my feelings to come through I'd be weeping all day long and I couldn't do my job. When I would come home-
R.K.: How many psychopaths have you actually interviewed? And talked to?
M.O.: Well, in the beginning of my career, which started in 1977, I didn't know about psychopathy. I knew about sociopathy and APD, but not about psychopathy and so all of those interviews that I did prior to really coming in and becoming an FBI agent and then ultimately an FBI agent profiler, I'm sure I interviewed a lot, but didn't realize it and it probably did affect my interviews, but once I really began to develop an understanding and started to work closely with Dr. Hare and do some of this research I would say as far as serial killers, I went back once and counted, probably about fifteen which may not sound like a lot, but when you're talking about the most egregious of offenders, it's pretty high and then serial rapists and kidnappers and child molesters and pedophiles the numbers are really quite high and not all of them were psychopathic.
We think the estimate right now is about 1% of the general population has psychopathic traits. So that's 1% of the general population and the estimate right now is about 15% of the prison population are psychopathic which means basically that 85% of the prison population are not psychopathic. So we have to think in terms of, okay, but how many people are not psychopathic, as well? But those are general figures for the presence of psychopathy in the general public as well as in a prison population.
R.K.: I understand that the recidivism rate for psychopaths are much higher.
M.O.: They certainly can be, especially if you're talking about a sex crime. Now, if you're talking about someone who goes to prison and, lets say, they do score high on the psychopathy check list, but they're not a sex offender, then their recidivism rate may be lower.
Part of what powers, or fuels, the recidivism rate for a psychopathic individual is the co-morbidity which means the co-presence of other disorders and when you see a psychopath who also is a pedophile, or a psychopath who is a rapist, or a psychopath who is a serial killer who kills for sexual purposes, then there's a sexual pathology that's also part of their psychopath and that actually increases their dangerousness and it certainly would increase the likelihood of recidivism. So, again, these things can become very complicated and people don't fall into, well he's a psychopath so therefore you can make all these predictions. You have to drill down much deeper than that.
R.K.: Okay, so I wanted to take this in another direction now. We've got a million psychopaths. One percent of the population. That's over three million psychopaths in American then, right?
M.O.: I'd have to do that math, but I think that's correct.
R.K.: There's about three hundred and fifteen million Americans, it's about three million. Now, if only fifteen percent of people in jail are psychopaths and there are about two or three million people in jail that means that most of the psychopaths are not in jail. They're out there.
M.O.: Mmh huh.
R.K.: Where I've been really going with this, once I get started thinking about this is what do we do? What does law enforcement do? What do corporations do? Because, I'm very interested in corporate psychopaths. That was actually the title of the article, wasn't White Collar, it might have been White Collar at one point, but the title of the article on the FBI website is 'The Corporate Psychopath."
R.K.: So, my question is what about the ones who are not in jail, who are not murderers who are smarter and more strategic. What is done to deal with them and to protect the public from the ones who get away with it? The ones who are so good that they're running corporations, or maybe even in politics. Maybe even behind a badge.