It seems as though I've written about sociopaths from the time I typed my first lede 27 years ago. I started my journalistic life as a cop reporter and, now 27 years later, I'm still interviewing criminals with at least some passing interest in understanding the "why" of their acts.
But last week, a true-crime reader friend who is even more intensely interested in criminal behavior asked me if I believed sociopaths -- the politically-corrected word for what we once called "psychopaths" -- were the products of genetics or their circumstances. Not having any bonafide psychological training beyond what I've picked up on the street -- and you know what Mom said about picking up things on the street -- I equivocated. I told her I believed criminal sociopaths were the product of a "perfect storm" of nature and nurture ... incomplete souls who are born into poisonously fertile homes or neighborhoods. Some piece is missing in them and they are made worse -- made criminals -- by their families, neighbors or times.
But the fact is, I have no idea.
Smarter people than I have looked at the question, and they disagree. One of the best books on the matter is Dr. Martha Stout's "The Sociopath Next Door." Stout surmises that 4% of us are sociopathic, charmers living without conscience, but with a compulsion to dominate. Not all sociopaths are criminals ... but all criminals are sociopaths.
For all the headiness of the phrase "natural born killers," I wonder if there is truly such a thing. We deal with sociopaths every day in the office, the block, the gym, church ... but what keeps most of them from becoming crime stats?
My most intimate contact with a classic sociopath was rapist-killer Ron Kennedy, who very nearly checks every box on a psychiatrist sociopathy checklist. In 1973, he abducted two young childhood friends of mine, raped one of them and threw both from a dizzyingly high bridge into a remote canyon in Wyoming. One died and one lived ... at least for a while. (The harrowing story is told in my 2007 book, "FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.")
Kennedy was born into mean circumstances on the wrong side of the tracks. By the time he committed the rape and murder that landed him on Death Row briefly more than 30 years ago, he'd already spent more than half his life in jail, reformatory or prison. In 14 hours of prison interviews, he blamed his criminality -- although he wouldn't call it that -- on the world's sundry prejudices against him. But since many people were born in his circumstances and never became rapist-killers, there was clearly more to it.
At the true-crime blog where I first posted this, In Cold Blog, we have some of the most critical observers of human behavior -- especially criminally. I didn't come to answer questions, but to promote a discussion of this topic, which lies at the heart of every true crime we write, read, investigate, prosecute, or mourn. I wanted to know from them -- and now from you:
Is a criminal born or made?