Section 3: Cataloging the Material

Part 2: A comparison with other disorders

34. The ordinary criminal



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34. The ordinary criminal

Though efforts have been made to interpret criminalism as a form of mental

disorder and many criminal careers have been expounded as reactions to emotional

conflict,11,12 the sort of person described here shows the following important points of

distinction from the typical criminal:

1. The criminal usually works consistently and with what abilities are at his

command toward obtaining his own ends. He sometimes succeeds in amassing a large

fortune and may manage successfully and to his own profit a racket as complicated as a

big business. The psychopath very seldom takes much advantage of what he gains and

almost never works consistently in crime or in anything else to achieve a permanent

position of power or wealth or security. Mercier long ago made the following statement

quoted by Henderson: 128

There are persons who indulge in vice with such persistence, at a cost of

punishment so heavy, so certain, and so prompt, who incur their punishment for the

sake of pleasure so trifling and so transient, that they are by common consent

considered insane although they exhibit no other indication of insanity.

The man who is essentially criminal may then be regarded as consistently

purposive, whereas the psychopath seems hardly purposive at all in comparison. To

say the least, the pattern of his actions over any fairly long range of time indicates

little that the observer can understand as


what a human being would consciously choose. The patient himself sometimes

convincingly denies any particular temptation driving him toward the situations to

which his behavior repeatedly leads.

2. The criminal ends, though condemned, can usually be understood by the

average man. The impulse to take money, even unlawfully, in order to have luxuries or

power otherwise unobtainable, is not hard to grasp. The criminal, in short, is usually

trying to get something we all want, although he uses methods we shun. On the other

hand, the psychopath, if he steals or defrauds, seems to do so for a much more obscure

purpose. He will repeatedly jeopardize and sometimes even deliberately throw away so

much in order to seek what is very trivial (by his own evaluation as well as by ours) and

very ephemeral. He does not utilize his gains as the criminal does. Sometimes his

antisocial acts are quite incomprehensible and are not done for any material gain at all.51

3. The criminal usually spares himself as much as possible and harms others.

The psychopath, though he heedlessly causes sorrow and trouble for others, usually puts

himself also in a position that would be shameful and most uncomfortable for the

ordinary man or for the typical criminal. In fact, his most serious damage to others is

often largely through their concern for him and their efforts to help him.

4. The typical psychopath, as I have seen him, usually does not commit murder

or other offenses that promptly lead to major prison sentences. This is true of the

disorder as I present it in what I consider a pure culture. A large part of his antisocial

activity might be interpreted as purposively designed to harm himself if one notices the

painful results that so quickly overtake him. Of course I am aware of the fact that many

persons showing the characteristics of those here described do commit major crimes

and sometimes crimes of maximal violence. There are so many, however, who do not,

that such tendencies should be regarded as the exception rather than as the rule,

perhaps, as a pathologic trait independent, to a considerable degree, of the other

manifestations which we regard as fundamental. It is, of course, granted that when

serious criminal tendencies do emerge in the psychopath, they gain ready expression,

and that no punishment can discourage them. Psychopaths who commit physically

brutal acts upon others often seem to ignore the consequences. Unlike the ordinary

shrewd criminal, they carry out an antisocial act and even repeat it many times, although

it may be plainly apparent that they will be discovered and that they must suffer the


Many people, perhaps most, who commit violent and serious crimes fail to show

the chief characteristics which so consistently appear in the cases we have considered.

Many, in fact, show features that make it very difficult


to identify them with this group. The term psychopath (or antisocial personality) as it is

applied by various psychiatrists and hospital staffs sometimes becomes so broad that it

might be applied to almost any criminal. Granting the essential vagueness of the term,

and disputing no one's right to it, I (who am using it only for convenience) maintain that

the large group of maladjusted personalities whom I have personally studied and to

whom this diagnosis has been consistently applied differs distinctly from a group of

ordinary criminals. The essential reactive pattern appears to be in many important

respects unlike the ordinary criminal's simpler and better organized revolt against society

and to be something far more subtly pathologic. It is my opinion that when the typical

psychopath, in the sense with which this term is here used, occasionally commits a

major deed of violence, it is usually a casual act done not from tremendous passion or as

a result of plans persistently followed with earnest compelling fervor. There is less to

indicate excessively violent rage than a relatively weak emotion breaking through even

weaker restraints. The psychopath is not volcanically explosive, at the mercy of

irresistible drives and overwhelming rages of temper. Often he seems scarcely

wholehearted, even in wrath or wickedness. Jenkins,147 in making distinctions between

the dyssocial type of sociopathic personality and the antisocial type, brings out

important points. Criminals, despite the fact that they break the laws of society, are

often loyal to each other and can sometimes pursue a common cause consistently.

Jenkins distinguishes these as dyssocial personalities from the truly antisocial

personalities who cannot maintain loyalty even to each other in a common defiance of

society or in any consistent revolt. A few brief examples may illustrate important


A bright and attractive young man who for some years now has shown typical

features of the psychopath obtained a new job. As so often in the past, he began almost

at once to succeed and to excel his fellow salesmen. Soon he was regarded by the

company as the best man in his line, full of promise for much greater tasks and

opportunities in the near future. He regularly earned a good deal more than any of the

other salesmen, had an ample income for his family, and seemed on the sure road to

high success.

His sales records, already surpassing all competitors, soon began to increase still

more, finally becoming almost unbelievable. A short time later it became evident that

something was wrong. His apparent straightforwardness and his confident explanations

kept the company confused for a while longer. His ingenious methods delayed

discovery that, in dealing with a less brilliant and resourceful man, would have been

made much earlier.

It was eventually established that he had been selling the commodities with which

he dealt at prices below cost. Thus he had sold widely and on a


vast scale, and his commissions had increased proportionately. By intricate and

exceedingly well-planned tactics, both in the field and at the central office, he had

covered up all discrepancies until the company had to sustain a heavy loss in setting

matters right.

To a man far less clever and scheming than this one, the obviously inevitable

discovery and the consequent personal loss to himself would be easily discernible. The

factual aspects were not simply overlooked in his reasoning, but something about them

failed, however, to enter into his reactions, something that would not have failed to

make the ordinary criminal (or the average man) behave otherwise. Such incidents

abound in the histories of these patients. They do not seem to be seeking punishment

or retribution to allay feelings of guilt. I can find no real evidence to support the

assumption that these people are burdened with profound remorse of which they are



A few more brief episodes deserve attention:

A boy in his teens comes into the office. He has been there a number of times

before and realizes that much of his story is known to the physician. On being asked

how he has spent his time, he replies in the most natural manner that he has been

reading Dickens.

As the subject is developed he says that he has devoted most of his leisure time

during the summer months to this literary recreation. He has found it interesting as well

as useful and stimulating. After a good deal more discussion, in which he gives not the

slightest sign of pretense or of uneasiness, he says that he has about completed all the

novels Dickens wrote.

It is very easy to demonstrate by specific questions that he never read one

volume, that he only recalls two or three titles and has no firsthand acquaintance with

any of the material. On being confronted with his idle and unnecessary fabrication, he

casually admits it but seems to feel no need to account for such a falsehood. He

showed no indications of even slight shame or of definite chagrin at being detected.


A man almost 30 years of age whose wife has seriously threatened to divorce him

many times in the past but who has been brought back by his eloquent and extremely

convincing expressions of rare, romantic love, of devotion beyond the experience of

most couples, is now succeeding in his work and apparently has given up all the old

habits which made life with him unbearable.


His duties take him out of town for a number of days each week. It eventually

becomes apparent that he has married a girl in one of the cities to which his business

takes him. Great difficulties arise and violent feelings in the girl's family are

demonstrated. He had represented himself to her as divorced long ago from a shrew

who mistreated him, made off with his property, and who left his heart hungry for real

love. He spoke so casually and convincingly of many things nonexistent that one might

say the new bride knew his entire life in every detail except one - that nothing he had

told her was true!

Before this bigamy and its serious complications can be settled, evidence emerges

that he has also married another young lady in still another city where he spent time

each week. Unbelievable as it may appear, a third bride, also legally married, soon

comes into the picture. All three of these had been wooed with what seemed touching

sincerity and wed within the course of a single month. None of these four women

found him a man of intense sexual passion or judged him as one who might seek so

many wives because of more than ordinary erotic needs. An intentional "despoiler of

women" of the familiar type (perhaps with elements of masked homosexuality) would

probably have seduced the wives of others but scarcely would have let himself be caught

with four ladies legally married to him at one time.


A boy expelled from prep school for many antisocial and delinquent acts is

talking with his father. Where, the father asks, are the clothes which were taken to

school but are not now to be found in his baggage? The son, with no hesitation but

with indications of regret and apology, explains that his baggage fell off the bus while

crossing a bridge. Efforts to regain the baggage were successful, despite the current, but

the suitcases had come open from the fall and all the clothes were lost.

The father has already received information from the school explaining that his

son sold the rather valuable clothing from time to time and often for ridiculously

inadequate sums. The boy had no particular visible need for the money he got.

Sometimes this was squandered on treating a crowd of fellow students to soft drinks

and candy bars. He did not, however, seem either especially generous or eager to

establish himself in the good graces of the others.

I have tried to emphasize the point that most typical psychopaths, despite their

continually repeated transgressions against the law and the rights of others and their

apparent lack of moral compunction, seem to avoid murder and other grave felonies

that remove them indefinitely from


free activity in the social group. Most of these people carry out antisocial acts that

would seem to make it likely for them to be confined most of their lives in penal

institutions but often succeed, through the efforts of their families or through their

equivocal medicolegal status, in escaping punishment altogether or in being released

long before the expiration of ordinary terms of confinement. It should be emphasized,

nevertheless, that there are other typical psychopaths (antisocial personalities) who, in

addition to the usual and familiar pattern of incompetent maladjustment and deliberate

folly, proceed to carry out crimes of the greatest magnitude, including premeditated,

unprovoked, and trivially motivated murder.

When such crimes are committed and he is convicted of them, the real

psychopath usually seems as free of remorse, as unperturbed, and as secure in a callous

equanimity as when he has been detected in forgery, theft, adultery, or perjury-or after

he has squandered in some idle and transient whim all the funds upon which his wife

and children are depending to keep them from hardship and bitter poverty over the next

few years.

The reactions of a young man convicted of murder some years ago are

illustrative. The reports indicate that he had enjoyed the advantages of wealth and a

highly respectable family background but suggest that he had shown capricious

irresponsibility and repetitious, unprovoked, antisocial activities over a long period.

After learning that his mother was going to take a trip by airplane, he made some

careful and rather elaborate plans. These included taking out flight insurance on her life

for a considerable sum of money and payable to himself. He also succeeded in placing a

time bomb in his mother's luggage and set it to explode during the flight. His efforts

were successful. The plane was demolished and all persons aboard, including his

mother, were killed. Some of this young man's reactions, as reported by the press,

suggest that the chance of obtaining the insurance money was perhaps less stimulating

to him than what he took to be the sporting qualities and challenges of the exploit. He

apparently had no grudge against his mother or other reason to wish her ill.

Accounts in newspapers and magazines of this young man's trial suggest an

insouciance and easy equanimity under circumstances that would naturally evoke

extreme remorse, dread, and other desperately serious emotions. He often seemed to be

enjoying his role and to delight in having the opportunity to be at the focal point of so

much attention and publicity. He appeared to be entirely free of sorrow over the death

of his mother and also free of shame at being proved guilty of such a horrible and

unprovoked mass murder.


In Newsweek magazine the following items were reported:226

At times, he watched the proceedings with wide, staring eyes that showed no

emotion; at other times he read a book, The Mask of Sanity, by Dr. Hervey Cleckley.

When the verdict was announced he bit his lower lip, but otherwise remained

impassive. His wife, Gloria, 22, the mother of his two small children, broke down and

sobbed hysterically. (p. 38)

Some accounts of this trial lead one to feel that the murderer might have found

amusement, or some other sort of satisfaction, in what he regarded as an important and

dramatic role and one in which he could display himself to advantage.

Some psychiatrists might say that this young man's apparent nonchalance under

these circumstances should be taken as indicating that he was motivated by an

unconscious sense of guilt which he now found satisfaction in expiating. Perhaps so.

But I remain skeptical of this hypothesis until I see some concrete evidence of its

validity. Evidence, let us remember, cannot be obtained by free surmises and

interpretations based on the projection of mere assumptions into a theoretically

constructed but still invisible unconscious. The attitude of this young man toward his

brutal and senseless crime and toward the death of his mother, it seems to me, is

consistent with the amazing lack of capacity for love and normal human feelings that is

typical of the psychopath. His amusement and apparent satisfaction in his prominent

role in court also impress me as typical of the psychopath's egocentricity, his relish for

many of his uninviting and antisocial deeds, and his feeling of petty satisfaction in

cleverly carrying out acts that would overwhelm others with tragic sorrow and


If there is no positive motivation toward major goals, no adequate inhibition by

revulsion from what is horrible or sordid, it is perhaps more understandable that the

rudderless and chartless facsimile of a full human being may flounder about in trivialities

or in tragic blunders and see little distinction between them.


Next: Section 3: Cataloging the material, Part 2: A comparison with other disorders, 35. Other character and behavior disorders, including delinquency


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Section 3, Part 2


  • Psychopath Hervey Cleckley THE MASK OF SANITY, Section 3: Cataloging the material , Part 2: A comparison with other disorders, 29. Purpose of this step
    Psychopath Hervey Cleckley THE MASK OF SANITY, Section 3: Cataloging the material , Part 2: A comparison with other disorders, 29. Purpose of this step, Some material has been presented in which manifestations of the disorder occur. It is our task to arrange it in such a way that its features can be seen clearly and compared with the features of other disorders. Such a step should be helpful in our efforts to recognize what we are dealing with and to evaluate it. Let us compare these patients known as psychopaths with others showing clinical illness and deviated reactions or patterns of living. Significant details should emerge, differentiation should become clearer, and distinguishing features of our subject should become more apparent at





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