Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

“A LOT OF PEOPLE write him off as an eccentric kind of guy,” says criminal investigator Ed Murphy in Andrew Jarecki’s 2015 documentary series, The Jinx. “’Oh, you know, it’s just Bob being Bob.’ It would be cute, if Bob being Bob didn’t result in three people being dead.”

Actually, cute would be a stretch even if there weren’t any dead people involved, but there’s no denying that Bob combines creepiness and vulnerability to queasily endearing effect. Bob is small, frail, and twitchy, like a woodland animal. He toddles around in Bermuda shorts and tube socks. He can be disarmingly funny. For example, in one episode of The Jinx, Jarecki asks why . . . But I must back up. In 2000, Bob learned that authorities in Westchester County were reopening their investigation into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, whereupon he fled his home in New York City and took up residence in a seedy apartment in Galveston, Texas. He had found it prudent to disguise himself as a mute woman and adopt the alias “Dorothy Ciner,” but his across-the-hall neighbor, a cranky pensioner named Morris Black, saw the signs that Ciner was not who she signed she was. Or at least, that’s what Galveston prosecutors surmise. They think Morris Black dropped hints about what he’d deduced—hints that he had deciphered the cipher that was Ciner—thereby prompting Bob to shoot him, lest it become generally known that Dorothy Ciner was in fact Robert Durst, fugitive and obscenely rich real-estate heir.

I realize I still have not arrived at my example of Bob being funny. Bob defies succinctness. In fact, he is almost uncannily conducive to run-on excess, alliteration, assonance, inane wordplay. Theoretically, it should be possible to craft seemly sentences around any subject. But in syntax, as in everything else, there is a point at which theoretical and practical possibilities diverge, and those who take Bob as their subject will find that he tends to strain the practical possibilities to the utmost. If we understand syntax as a system of rules that govern the creation of meaning, then we could say that Bob strains not only linguistic syntax but also legal syntax, medical syntax, whatever system one might deploy in attempting to fathom him. What happens when syntax breaks down? Entropy, chaos. The collapse of sense into nonsense may be a scary process or a zany one, and sometimes both, as is so brilliantly demonstrated by the agitated half-sensical musings of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. “Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” Dead enough to bury—strange. Dead enough to bury, but not dead enough to . . . what? To stay buried, presumably. This, as it happens, is the absurd problem that haunts Bob. Figuratively, his three dead people wouldn’t stay buried, and corporeally, one of those dead people would not stay sunk.

That irrepressible dead person was Morris Black, which returns me to my example of Bob’s drollness. What Jarecki wants to know is: Why, when he shed his Dorothy disguise and fled Galveston after killing Black, did Bob choose to shave not only his head, but also his eyebrows?

“You look weird when you shave your eyebrows,” Durst explains.

Jarecki: “And that was intentional?”

“Yeah. How do you accidentally shave your eyebrows?”

Bob’s guilelessly deadpan comebacks are part of his charm. This quality—his charm— sneaks up on you, but should not be underestimated. After all, here we have a superannuated trust-fund baby who is, moreover, quite recognizably what my grandfather would have called a landsman, which is a Yiddish word meaning not remotely Texan. And yet Bob persuaded twelve salt-of-the-earth Texans, on the strength of his totally uncorroborated testimony, that the shooting of Morris Black was lawful self-defense, and that the rest of it (dismembering the body with a hacksaw, putting the parts into trash bags, tossing the bags into Galveston Bay, retrieving the bags after they failed to sink, taking the head to another disposal site, and resinking the torso and limbs, which promptly floated up again) was just . . . Bob being Bob! And it’s impossible to argue with this conclusion. All of Bob’s activities satisfy the conditions of Bob being Bob, because Bob is Bob. Yet we have not pried open the closed circle of tautology. Bob is Bob. But what is that?

While there is a label available, to use it is simply to transpose the problem from specific to general terms. Schizophrenia means split mind; bipolar disorder designates an illness that involves two affective poles; but psychopathy just means sick psyche, which is a strikingly redundant name for a psychiatric sickness. The label psychopath does not inform—rather, it is a concession to an unsolved mystery. It says: All we know is that we don’t know. Seventy-five years ago, most people did not even know that much. Psychopathy was obscure within the field of psychiatry and virtually unknown to laypeople. That changed with the 1941 publication of The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Hervey Cleckley.

The Jinx, 2015, still from a six-part miniseries on HBO.
The Jinx, 2015, still from a six-part miniseries on HBO.

THE MASK OF SANITY is a big, garrulous, proto-postmodern wreck of a book, shambolic in structure and promiscuously intertextual. It is tempting to call it the Moby-Dick of clinical psychiatry. It contains a brief life of Alcibiades that is really not that brief, a spirited critique of Mario Praz’s interpretation of Baudelaire, and a long disquisition on the trash-talking styles of teenage boys, to name just a few of the tributaries along which Cleckley diverts his reader’s attention. Yet however peculiar his book, Cleckley himself was no kook—he was a Rhodes Scholar with a distinguished career as an academic and clinician. And despite its quirks, The Mask of Sanity is the most influential book ever written about psychopaths. It altered medical and legal understandings of the disorder and delineated a set of traits that laid the foundation for Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, which has long been the standard diagnostic metric. It earned the admiration of writers including Carson McCullers and Kurt Vonnegut and ensconced itself in popular culture, where the psychopath staked out an enduring role as a secular vampire, a cold-blooded and frequently seductive monster. This sinister figure, as Robert Polito points out in Savage Art, his biography of pulp savant Jim Thompson, was “a negation, a refusal” of postwar consumerism and conformity. In Thompson’s uncompromising oeuvre, the psychopath is a vehicle of negation in the echt-modernist sense of that term: an aesthetic attack on normativity, critique as cancellation. But the psychopath’s disregard for norms would also be romanticized as countercultural rebellion by innumerable authors, first and foremost Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Eventually, Bret Easton Ellis offered a savage riposte to such fantasies in the form of bloodthirsty I-banker Patrick Bateman.

Cleckley didn’t set out to capture the attention of the public—he wanted to do some consciousness-raising within his own field. “The chief aim of this study,” he says, “is to bring before psychiatrists a few of these cases, typical of hundreds more, who have proved . . . so difficult to interpret by the customary standards of psychiatry, and all but impossible to deal with or to treat satisfactorily in the face of prevalent medicolegal viewpoints.” He stresses that “efforts to explain or interpret are . . . tentative and secondary to the real purpose of this volume, which is to call attention to what may be observed about our subject.”

Yet this seemingly straightforward project is actually complicated. Cleckley frames the problem quite chillingly:

In all the orthodox psychoses . . . there is a more or less obvious alternation of reasoning processes. . . . In the psychopath this is not seen. The observer is confronted with a convincing mask of sanity. . . . The observer finds verbal and facial expressions, tones of voice, and all the other signs we have come to regard as implying conviction and emotion and the normal experiencing of life. . . . Only very slowly and by a complex estimation or judgment based on multitudinous small impressions does the conviction come upon us that, despite these intact rational processes, these normal emotional affirmations, and their consistent application in all directions, we are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly.

Furthermore, the “small impressions” that unmask the psychopath are themselves premised on “myriad . . . subthreshold details.” That is, you recognize the psychopath by detecting things that fly beneath the radar of detection. No wonder that “what is most suggestive of this disorder is very difficult to convey.”

Cleckley observes that, when it comes to the epistemological vexations of psychopathy, “it is easy indeed to become unclear, if not to appear actually ridiculous.” Early in the book, he candidly places his enterprise under the sign of futility. “The most satisfactory way in which such clinical material could be presented is, in my opinion, as a series of full-length biographic studies, preferably of several hundred pages each, written by one who has full access to the life of each subject,” he writes. In other words, the ideal form of a book about psychopaths would in fact be an entire library of omniscient biographies. Cleckley is aware that his vaguely Borgesian vision will remain forever theoretical: “The sort of presentation our problem requires is, of course, impossible.” In the spirit of I can’t go on, I’ll go on, he proceeds anyway. Bowing to the dictates of “maximal practicality,” he contents himself with presenting nineteen case studies that recount the life stories of his psychopathic patients in somewhat compressed form. His intention is to set the psychopath against the foil of teeming everyday life: “To get the feel of the person whose behavior shows disorder, it is necessary to feel something of his surroundings.”

Cleckley energetically goes about describing his subjects’ surroundings, which largely consist of “various low grogshops, dancehalls, or ’juke joints.’” Though almost all the patients are from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, they hang out with their “social inferiors,” marry prostitutes, ride motorcycles. As he chronicles his subjects’ adventures, the author provides abundant evidence of the unbecoming characteristics that he will codify later in the book in his seminal list of sixteen psychopathic traits. These include “lack of remorse or shame,” “inadequately motivated antisocial behavior,” “untruthfulness and insincerity,” and so on. His subjects do bad things. They hurt and betray their friends and family and remain callously unrepentant. They mess with people’s minds for the fun of it. They commit crimes, although not homicide. Petty swindles are more their speed: bigamy, passing bad checks, impersonating a naval officer. Cleckley notes that some psychopaths do commit “trivially motivated murder.” Or worse: “The real psychopath who is a real (persistently organized) sadist, of course, ranks as an extremely dangerous person.” But his patients are not persistently organized sadists. They are, in many ways, a roguishly winning bunch. One, a student at a fancy finishing school, plants condoms all over the drawing room where the young ladies receive their suitors. Another talks his way out of a drug arrest by convincing the cops he’s a narc. Etc. In depicting his relationship with his subjects, Cleckley reveals his own irrational indulgence, frankly admitting his tendency to give his patients the benefit of the doubt over and over again while knowing full well that they don’t deserve it. It is perhaps no accident that, in his list of sixteen traits, he gives priority to the psychopath’s uncanny allure. Item No. 1 on Cleckley’s list is “charm.”

“More than the average person,” says Cleckley, psychopaths are “likely to seem free from social or emotional impediments.” They exude the charisma that comes from “easy security.” Cleckley suggests that the ability of psychopaths to deceive and beguile is just short of magical, a claim that will resonate with anyone who has watched the episode of The Jinx wherein a Galveston juror fervently insists that Durst is innocent of any crime, and is simply “the unluckiest man in the world.” “It is indeed difficult to express how thoroughly straightforward some typical psychopaths can appear,” says Cleckley. But however apparently genuine, the emotions expressed by the psychopath, while “not in the simplest sense false,” are “so thin as to be, for practical purposes, merely an academic abstraction.” And in the true psychopath, the “incapacity for object love . . . appears to be absolute.”

This absolute incapacity gives rise to an absolute impasse: “However intelligent, [the psychopath] apparently assumes that other persons are moved by and experience only the ghostly facsimiles of emotion or pseudoemotion known to him. . . . He cannot be taught awareness of significance which he fails to feel.” That is to say, psychopaths may believe that we are all faking it, all pantomiming counterfeit emotion and false “object love”—apparently out of sheer perversity, for, if we’re all faking it, then there is no one to fool and no reason to keep up the absurd charade, except perhaps to amuse our fellow reflex machines.

THOUGH CLECKLEY describes the books in his dream library as biographies, the novel was his real model. Regarding his efforts to convey “the feel of the person whose behavior shows disorder,” he asserts, “Only when the concrete details of environment are laid in, as, for instance, in an honest and discerning novel, can the significance of behavior be well appreciated.” In 1941, novelistic nonfiction was not a recognized genre. Cleckley was aiming for a hybridity he did not have the vocabulary to describe. It was not until the 1965 publication of Truman Capote’s best-selling In Cold Blood, polemically billed by the author as the first “nonfiction novel,” that the type of narrative Cleckley had in mind went mainstream.

Capote may have helped pave the way for today’s “novels from life” (to paraphrase the subtitle of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?), but you still won’t find In Cold Blood in a bookstore’s literature section. You’ll find it in “true crime,” which is itself a peculiar bit of nomenclature. If you look at the other section signs—history, business and finance, and so on—you’ll notice that the word true doesn’t appear on any of them. No other nonfiction genre needs to assert its distinction from fiction. Crime stories tend to pressure the membrane between fiction and fact because crime pushes us to the edge of what our concept of factuality can accommodate. Crime is the territory of the extreme, the bizarre, the melodramatic, and the gothic. And it is the territory of mysteries, which, by their nature, open up holes in mundane reality, creating spaces of speculation and obscurity.

Few mystery stories, in any genre, stretch the boundaries of believability as far as The Jinx. Jarecki’s series, which is structured as a slow, gradual unmasking, offers the kind of hair-raising revelations that would be dismissed as preposterous in fiction. As a true-crime narrative, it is probably impossible to surpass, but it finds its equal in another tale of unmasking, Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision (1983). Near the end of that controversial true-crime blockbuster, McGinniss turns to Cleckley, quoting the “reflex machine” passage excerpted above to help answer a seemingly unanswerable question: How could Jeffrey MacDonald—brilliant, honorable, successful, devoted to his family and his country and beloved by all who knew him—have slaughtered his wife and two daughters in a frenzy of stabbing and beating?

Today, Jeffrey MacDonald is in prison for those murders, which were committed in 1970. He has always protested his innocence. Like many readers of Fatal Vision, I am convinced of his guilt, thanks to McGinniss’s meticulous presentation of the physical evidence, which was so robustly damning as to render the issues raised by MacDonald’s appellate attorneys (and by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose book on the case was published in 2012) immaterial. Indeed, it would have been an open-and-shut case, had it not been so difficult for so many people to even begin to imagine that Jeffrey MacDonald could have committed the crime. The achievement of Fatal Vision is to make this unthinkable idea thinkable. Slowly, gradually, through an accretion of small impressions that cannot be summarized, only apprehended in their full, unruly, and increasingly creepy sprawl, McGinniss shows that MacDonald was capable of these murders because MacDonald was not what he so convincingly, seamlessly appeared to be. Janet Malcolm argued at book length that McGinniss’s journalistic ethics left much to be desired, but Fatal Vision has a positive ethical valence as well. Past a certain point, naïveté becomes culpable complacency. And complacency often takes the form of a belief that monsters will be recognizably monstrous—a conviction that persists despite the fact that the cultural trope of the psychopath has for decades taught the contrary. Him? Her? Couldn’t have done it. Nicest person you’d ever want to meet. Myriad subthreshold details are a solvent that corrodes this willful obliviousness.

Some mysteries remain unsolvable, however. Why do some people turn into, or come into the world as, psychopaths? Virtually all psychopathy research today is focused on locating the disorder’s neurobiological signature. It’s only a matter of time before scientists point to a spectral blotch on an MRI scan and say, “There is the malady, X marks the spot”—an irregularity of the amygdala, or the hippocampus, or the septal nuclei. But is that an answer, or a transliteration of the question? There will still be this abyssal impasse, at any rate. Because it cannot be taught the significance of that which it cannot feel, the reflex machine will remain utterly alien to the creatures it imitates with apparently perfect fidelity; it will always be proximate and impossibly distant; it will always evince its absolute difference as absolute sameness.

It is easy indeed to “become unclear, if not to appear actually ridiculous,” when attempting to describe such an entity. Digressive sprawl, run-on meandering, tongue-twisting absurdities: These and similar literary impulses are perhaps analogous to the deformations in space-time by which physicists detect a black hole—manifestations of an aporetic, entropic drag on meaning. Some writers surf this force with much more virtuosity than others. Cleckley is certainly prone to intermittent ridiculousness, but then, he never purported to possess the artistry of Beckett, or of Herman Melville, whose own excessive magnum opus revolves around the black hole’s blanched negative. The white whale is fearsome, monstrous, but the dread it inspires is not entirely attributable to its capacity to kill and destroy. Groping to pinpoint the source of the terror, Melville writes, “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe . . . ? Or is it, that . . . in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors?”

Somehow, the terror lies in this absence that is also an endlessly overdetermined presence. The same paradox is mirrored in the word cipher, which is a synonym for zero but may also refer to a dense array of occult information. One famous psychopath, the serial killer known as the Zodiac, seems to have been attuned to this contradiction. His so-called 340 cipher has never been decoded. When faced with such a riddle, the cryptographer’s task is to find the algorithm, the hidden rule that unlocks the mystery—the cryptovariable, to use the term of art. People have been poring over the 340 cipher for almost half a century, trying this, trying that, but no one has figured out the cryptovariable. Because there isn’t one.

Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of Artforum.