Recently, I watched an old 48-Hours segment on the conman David Michael Pecard, which proved to be a most fascinating, educational case study of a textbook sociopath.
Pecard is the kind of sociopath (or psychopath) psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, MD, so brilliantly grappled with in his classic, “The Mask of Sanity—”that is, he was glib, persuasive (could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge today and tender a convincing deed of sale); charmingly disarming, imperturbable, thrill-seeking, audacious, deceptive, emotionally superficial and indifferent to the suffering he caused others.
Peter Van Zandt investigates, and offers compelling interview footage with Pecard, who was free as the segment aired, and involved in litigation against Joe Arpaio, then Maricopa County’s (AZ) infamous sheriff.
Pecard alleged in his lawsuit that Arpaio who, at the time, ran Arizona’s notorious Tent City prison, had mistreated him when Pecard was an inmate in that facility. Pecard alleged that Arpaio had had an axe to grind: Earlier, Pecard had conned Arpaio into giving him a cushy, powerful security position at the prison for which Pecard, of course, was fully unqualified. Properly ensconced in his new sinecure, Pecard, exploiting his utterly unsupervised status, released certain female prisoners and reportedly sexually abused them off the prison’s property.
This is how, ironically, Pecard ended up incarcerated in the facility to which Arpaio had, earlier, effectively handed him the keys. Pecard alleges that Arpaio, outraged to have been embarrassed and exploited, seized the opportunity of his imprisonment to make Pecard’s life in his facility extremely and, ultimately, illegally unpleasant.
I choose to dispense with the long history of Pecard’s deviousness which, trust me, is as spectacular and improbable as case histories of particularly gifted conmen so often are. Suffice to say that he managed to coopt more than 20 separate identities in his adult life, using each of them to advance his agenda at a particular time.
That “agenda” was rarely complicated: most often Pecard would shed his identity and “disappear” when exposure loomed, then reappear, sooner than later, in a new identity—that is, with new name, new act and, of course, a set of new, impressive and false credentials.
Pecard married six times and, with several wives, had seven children, abandoning every one of them usually sooner than later; that is, he was here one day, and gone, abruptly, the next, without explanation, and permanently—as though he’d never existed, leaving a trail of bewildered, stunned, frightened ex-wives and shattered families.
What made the story especially compelling for me was Pecard’s willingness—indeed his eagerness—to talk; in so doing, he provides us with, as I said, an education in the machinations of the psychopathic conman.
There is also something sad in his story, and not just for his victims, who deserve the bulk of our compassion, but even, I think, for Pecard himself. I was left, somehow, by the story’s end, disquieted by the revealing—by Pecard’s revealing—of the profundity of his “self” disturbance; by the profoundity, that is, of his self-vacancy, and disconnection from others, and himself.
And this chilling thought crossed my mind: Had Pecard been more murderously motivated, one cringes to imagine the numbers his victims might have reached, given his prodigious capacity to deceive.
But for me, as the story unfolded, the most captivating aspect of it was the access it afforded to Pecard’s emotional poverty. The more Pecard spoke, the more it was revealed. He does not see it, and Pecard doesn’t expect you to see it; but as great a con as he was (and one can see how), the more he spoke, the more the mask slipped off.
Immediately, I was struck by the seductive, familiar tone he struck with reporter Van Zandt, referring to him, for instance, from the outset, as “Peter—”that is, familiarly and comfortably. This is one way sociopathic personalities ingratiate themselves with and disarm others, affecting an easy familiarity that hasn’t been earned, yet which can feel hard to resist.
As Pecard tells his story, you see a micrososm of the man as he surely navigated the world—seemingly incredibly comfortable in his own skin, and apparently assisted by the absence of a hindering self-consciousness. One senses that the interview, for him, is just another interesting challenge to demonstrate how he can turn anyone’s dubiousness into credulity; and also trust of, and sympathy for, him.
But Pecard, as I say, can’t help himself from letting his mask slip. All Van Zandt has to do, and he does it well, is get enough out of Pecard’s way to let Pecard reveal himself.
You shake your head for instance in amazement at how Pecard handles a dramatic homecoming scene, in which he’s reunited (thanks to 48-Hours) with the family he abandoned for decades—abandoned as son, sibling, husband, father.
And so, with his family gathered curiously and skeptically around him, Pecard holds court like a slick politician at a town hall meeting of restive constituents, confidently inviting them to ask him the questions they’ve had for so long, promising earnestly to answer them fully, to their fullest satisfaction.
Regrettably, there’s too little footage of this important scene. But there’s enough to observe the the sociopathic self-confidence, as I’ve written about elsewhere, which is steeped in the sociopath’s confidence in his glibness—specifically, his confidence that his glibness will carry him through yet another tricky situation or challenge.
One senses in other words that, for Pecard, these aren’t so much family standing before him in hopes of getting, finally, a true explanation for their victimization, as much as an assembled group of “objects” who happen to be his family, who merely pose for him a chance to perpetrate a new con—this con consisting of persuading them not to resent him, to believe him and even to sympathize with him?
One of his sons sees right through him, telling Van Zandt in a separate interview that Pecard failed grossly to answer the questions as promised; that instead, he talked in circles and emptily; exhibiting (my words) the sociopath’s classic linguistic feints, decoys and diversions, and all with the sociopath’s expectation of being convincing and believable.
When Van Zandt confronts Pecard on the legacy of pain he’s inflicted on his family, Pecard replies pleasantly, “Peter, every day people leave relationships.”
Van Zandt then cooly, levelly says, “But they pay child support, and they stay in touch with their children,” to which Pecard, seemingly momentarily stumped (and as if searching his database for a response that mimicks appropriateness), answers weakly, “Then I guess I’m guilty.”
I note, again, the liberty Pecard takes at continually calling Van Zandt by “Peter,” in the seductive, insinuating style of the charming sociopath. And as I’ve stressed, there is the emotional poverty of Pecard’s responses, among them—“Peter, every day people leave relationships”—yet which, as I suggest, Pecard asserts with the confidence (and grandiosity) that they’ll be found persuasive, convincing, and acceptable.
And not least, there is the database scan for mimicked responses aiming to appear authentic and effective, but which, in Pecard’s case, prove merely to highlight his sociopathic orientation.
Note how, to Van Zandt’s challenge, Pecard says, “Then I guess I’m guilty.” He doesn’t say, I am guilty, but I “guess” I’m guilty. He “guesses” because he doesn’t feel guilty, so the best he can do is “guess” what a normal person is, or would feel, in this circumstance. He doesn’t feel anything; it’s evident that not for a second does he grasp what he’s subjected his victims to, and least of all does he feel “sorry” about it.
After all, he could have said “I guess I’m sorry,” but of course he doesn’t feel “sorry” and “sorry” is also a more emotional word than “guilty,” so that “guilty” comes up before “sorry” in his word-search for the closest, most convincing response that a human being with a conscience would give in this situation.
And so he comes up with “I guess I’m guilty.”
Pecard’s shamelessness is so deep that he can refer to himself as a “chameleon” with apparent pride. Effectively, he is calling himself a sociopath with pride. And this is a highly sociopathic quality—the sociopath’s absolute lack of shame over his lack of shame.
That is, the sociopath just isn’t embarrassed, worried, or frightened by his lack of shame; while he may have awareness of his shamelessness, it simply doesn’t disturb him. Pecard experiences his “chameleon”-like orientation as a badge of honor, not, like a normal person would, as a troubling sign of his emotional disturbance.
I’ve written elsewhere that for many sociopaths, every day is like Halloween, a chance to decide what mask to wear. Pecard illustrates this point well. He is all mask; there simply is no “real self” for him to be. And so he’s plucked “selves” as out of thin air, over the years, as someone plucks their shirts off the coat hangers in the morning.
Having no core, “real” identity, Pecard manufactured fake identities and, with the talent of a gifted actor, distinguished himself as a fraud.
At the end of the show, Pecard suggests to Van Zandt that perhaps he’ll take up acting in a future career, recognizing the acting skills he’s honed in his life. Van Zandt struggles with a wan smile that reflects, I suspect, a mixture of pity and disbelief. For this was another moment in which Pecard, master con he was, couldn’t disguise the depth of his personality disorder.
I imagine that Van Zandt must have felt, in that moment, precisely the shame, pity and embarrassment of which Pecard was incapable. And so the aching, awkward aspect of this, Pecard’s last disclosure to Van Zandt, wasn’t that he, Pecard, was being ironically humorous; it was that, with his sociopathically deficient appreciation of the irony, he expected to be taken seriously.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW)