Last month I was in a law firm. Not because of a legal issue—I was there to discuss writing the content for their new websites. Two lawyers, who had been part of one firm, were setting up independent practices. One lawyer hired me. The other wasn’t sure, so he wanted to meet me. A week later I learned that the second lawyer decided he would write his website himself.
On Saturday, I was shocked to see a story in the local newspaper: The second lawyer, Seth A. Fuscellaro, who was also a public defender in Lower Township, New Jersey, was charged in a $15 million mortgage fraud scheme. The FBI actually arrested him in municipal court and escorted him out in handcuffs.
The lawyer was one of 11 people charged in the scheme. One man was also charged with attempted murder—he allegedly shot a witness multiple times. (The witness survived.)
As I read the article for the second time, I still couldn’t believe my eyes. When I met Fuscellaro, I saw absolutely nothing that might indicate any inappropriate behavior, let alone fraud on the scale reported in the newspaper. I had no reason to think the man might be anything but a busy lawyer.
Colorado movie massacre
People are having the same reaction, on a much larger scale, to the news that James Holmes, a shy neurosciences student who was working on his Ph.D., was arrested in the shooting massacre in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater.
People who knew Holmes, and knew his family, are stunned. Neighbors and teachers described him as “smart” but “quiet.” According to an article on CBSNews.com, “In high school, Holmes won a competitive position at a rigorous science boot camp and an internship in neurobiology at the prestigious Salk Institute.”
A video has emerged showing Holmes as an 18-year-old making a presentation to fellow students at a science camp, explaining “subjective experience—what takes place inside the mind, as opposed to the external world.”
Watch: James Holmes: First video of alleged killer released, on ABCNews.go.com.
Obviously, people want to know, “Is Holmes delusional? Does he have a mental illness?” It’s certainly too soon to know. But reporters are already asking the question:
Was this killer mentally ill?
“It says a lot about the type of prejudice we have when we automatically go to the presumption that a clinical mental illness was the cause,” says Praveen Kamban, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles. “Even the surgeon general of the United States has said there’s very little risk of violence or harm from a stranger who has a mental disorder.
“Not all bad behavior comes from mental illness. Sometimes it can simply be bad behavior.”
Read Probe of shooting suspect James Holmes intensifies, on USAToday.com.
Syndrome of sociopathy (psychopathy)
Here is the point of today’s post: Just because someone behaves badly, even murderously, it does not prove that the person is a sociopath (psychopath).
Sociopathy is a pattern of behavior in which individuals manipulate and exploit others. It is a syndrome, which means the disorder is associated with several recognizable features, symptoms or behaviors.
As I explain on the Key Symptoms page of Lovefraud.com, Dr. Robert Hare identified the traits of a psychopath as:
- Glib and superficial
- Egocentric and grandiose
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Deceitful and manipulative
- Shallow emotions
- Poor behavior controls
- Need for excitement
- Lack of responsibility
- Early behavior problems
- Adult antisocial behavior
Although James Holmes has yet to be charged in the Colorado shootings, let alone tried and convicted, he was caught at the scene and his apartment was booby-trapped with explosives. I think it’s fair to anticipate that he will go to prison.
Obviously, his actions were massively evil. Holmes planned his assault in a cold, calculated way. But is he glib, egocentric, grandiose or impulsive? Does he have a need for excitement? Did he have early behavior problems? Look at the video—does this guy at all resemble the human predators that we were involved with? No.
In my opinion, as heinous as this man’s actions were, he probably is not a sociopath (psychopath).
Here on Lovefraud, there was also a raging debate a few days ago about Joe Paterno. This case is a bit muddier, because we have learned, through the Freeh Report, that Paterno did lie, at least in reference to his knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior with young boys. We’ve also learned that he wielded incredible power at Penn State, used his power to protect his turf, and was willing to throw innocent children under the bus in order to avoid negative publicity and a stain on the shining image of Penn State football.
This is reprehensible. It is a betrayal of everything that the coach supposedly stood for. Still, based on what has been published about this affair, I doubt that any competent clinician would diagnose Paterno as a sociopath.
Keep in mind that not only is sociopathy a syndrome, it’s also a continuum. That means that a disordered person can have any of the traits listed above to a greater or lesser degree. To qualify as a sociopath, an individual needs high enough scores on enough of the traits to meet the threshold.
So perhaps Paterno would have scored high on “egocentric and grandiose.” But would he have scored high on all, or even many, of those other traits?
Quite honestly, I don’t know for sure. I never went to Penn State, never met Joe Paterno. I only have access to media reports, and they may be incorrect or biased. Many, many sportswriters have been coming out with articles saying, “I believed Joe Paterno and I was wrong.”
Here at Lovefraud we’re learning about sociopaths, which is important not only for us as individuals, but for all of society. Millions of these predators live among us; they are incredibly destructive; and we need to watch out for them. The more people who are aware that they exist, the better.
Still, we need to guard against seeing a sociopath behind every bush. Not everyone who is power-centered, lies and steals, or even commits mass murder is a sociopath. As the psychiatrist quoted above says, sometimes bad behavior is just bad behavior.