This post originally appeared on the collective blog Black Box Warnings, which is now no more.
I was listening to this song, and thought of it, decided to resuscitate it –
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I have this existential thing about needing to believe everyone, every thing on the planet, has a purpose. Like mosquitos and blackflies are really really annoying, and as you’re losing your mind swatting them away from your face, your ears, your nostrils it’s hard to believe they have any redeeming quality at all, but fact is they feed frogs and birds and fish and spiders and apparently are even good for the pollination of blueberries.
And sometimes with humans too, it can be hard to figure out what purpose we serve, why we exist, what good we bring to the world.
For example, some years back I was really really broke – as in I hadn’t paid my rent for 3 months, and I would see stories in the newspaper about families living in cardboard boxes underneath the Governor’s Bridge and tremble. I didn’t have any really good cardboard boxes. My career as a freelance film editor was still a fledgling, nascent little sprout – I hadn’t cut many films and didn’t have many connections, not enough to stay employed for a significant amount of the year. But I didn’t really know how to do anything else. My son was about 4 at the time, and I’m a sole support parent. Times were tough.
I knew this guy, he was Colombian, he said he had a brother who was making a film and needed an editor. But when he said, “Don’t let him owe you money”, I didn’t really hear it, didn’t register the warning cause I was so eager to get something, anything going… And how could it leave me any worse off than where I was?
The brother, Alex, was primarily a painter and lived in a ramshackle little house in Parkdale with a depressed scruffy blonde girlfriend and their young baby. His garish paintings covered the walls of their house – it was hard to believe he sold many. The girlfriend had a day job and seemed to be the main breadwinner in the house.
Alex was just beginning to explore film as a medium but had a great surrealist sense of the underground scene – of drug dealers and back alley scrambles, guns and beautiful lost women, and how it can all go really really bad. His footage was moody and dark, shot from lots of interesting angles – a cross between Truffaut, Cassavetes and Christopher Nolan.
We’d sit in the edit room and as I worked he’d talk and talk, telling me his life story, how he hadn’t even made up any of these crazy scenes, how all the guns and cars and dark alley madness with desperate men snorting any shit they could get their hands on was all stuff he’d lived before he met his girlfriend and had the baby, back in the days when he was heavy into junk. Late one night, the two of us alone in an edit suite, a tiny dark room at the end of echoing empty corridors, he mentioned some time he’d done in juvenile detention while he was back in Colombia, about how the attending psychiatrist he was obliged to see had told him he was a psychopath.
There was something about it that felt like a testing of boundaries, a sussing out of how I would respond to this, or a desire to hear me say, “Oh, but you’re not a psychopath to me…” In fact, the term didn’t mean much to me at the time. No doubt I’d heard it in connection to the Jeffrey Dahmer’s and Paul Bernardo’s. But as much as I didn’t trust Alex, I was not afraid – it just didn’t occur to me. I did not truly grasp the concept, the potential disguises of a dangerous man.
I did notice, over the weeks I knew him, how he would screw people over. He needed to reshoot a scene and convinced the actress to fly in from New York, promising to pay her back for the flight, but once the scene was in the can he picked a fight with her and didn’t pay a cent. Same thing for the cameraman – a disagreement emerged over nothing, all promises were broken, cameraman disposed of.
These behaviours are not uncommon in the world of independent film, or even of commercial television at its more mercenary levels – in fact, there is a kind of romance around it, as in, How far will you go to make your film? How many people and bridges are you willing to burn to show your dedication to your vision?
Alex was the most extreme I’ve seen of this behaviour up close. And soon enough, with tension building and finances dwindling, in the middle of the edit, suddenly everything turned sour. For no apparent reason but a whim, a mood, an overheard telephone conversation, an imagined slight, he decided I was out. The film was nowhere near finished, everything was in disarray, my paycheque was of course never to be seen, and there was a $400 bill for the edit suite rental in my name.
Now make no mistake – he knew I was a single mom. He knew I was struggling. He knew about the 3 months rent owing and the first of the month looming. But this is what they say about psychopaths or sociopaths. No empathy. No real concern for other humans. No conscience – an ability to do anything to anyone without a flicker of activity in the amygdala.
Having forseen that he would try and screw me over, I’d hidden the film negatives in a locker at the equipment house for leverage, but they began to receive angry and threatening phone calls from Alex with talk of lawyers and a lawsuit. I was forced to hand over the negatives and pay the outstanding rental fees.
It was somewhere in here that I began to feel afraid, that I began to understand the degree to which this person might be far more dangerous than I realized. One night, out on my bike, I saw him and one of his actors – a sycophantic sidekick type – out on the street at Adelaide and Spadina. I began pedalling away quickly, breathless and desperate. They screamed obscenities and incoherent accusations into the night. Several nights found me lying in the dark on the sofa listening for sounds outside the window, afraid this person might seek a more active and violent revenge.
A few beloved Montreal friends got together to put me and my son on a one way bus to Montreal to have a go at things there for a while, where the rent was cheaper and I could pick up a few gigs doing translation and subtitling for some quick cash. On a Friday night I met up with an old friend of many years, Ximena, also Colombian. We were pretty deep into the wine when I told her about Alex.
“No!”, she said. “Alex the painter who lives on Argyle?”
Turned out they were from the same town in Colombia. Had been roommates early on when they first arrived in Canada. And she had a long story that remains blurry in my mind thanks to the wine, that involved the sound of a chain a girlfriend wielded at Alex one morning in a jealous frenzy, and how he had defended himself by putting out her eye. As in dangling by its optic nerve.
Yikes. I thought of the night on my bike at Adelaide and Spadina, the many hours alone in the dark of the edit suite with this man. I thought of his baby and the long-suffering girlfriend and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of them. I was suddenly grateful the only damage that had been done to me was financial.
The question emerged in my mind: What was the purpose of this man’s life? Why did this parasitic and violent weasel exist?
Many years have passed and my career has flourished and I now usually (almost, sometimes) have enough employment to keep my head above water most of the time. But things are always tight, so over the Christmas holidays I took on a moonlighting job – I was working on a TV show by day, but a bit of extra cash from an independent documentary is always welcome, so when a director from Cleveland I’ve worked with before contacted me about cutting something new for her, I agreed, sight unseen. The hard drive and transcripts for her latest doc arrived in the mail and I dove in. It was about the Cleveland Strangler and his victims (do yourself a favour and don’t google him) – a story I’d missed, though not surprising as I usually avoid the rapist / serial killer stories. But as I delved into the some 280 hours of footage of police investigation, interviews with survivors, with lost women who’d gone into his home lured by the promise of crack and had jumped out of a third story window after he’d raped them, I began to lose my way. What was the purpose of this evil? As a storyteller I could not find the redemption in the story, was unable to find the purpose of the tale and therefore the direction it should take. I read many books about psychopaths, about their strengths as remorseless soldiers, the advantage cold-bloodedness could give them as surgeons, but still I could not find any purpose to this man’s horrific life. Haunted by nightmares and even the sight of the hard drive holding its evil in a corner of the living room, I wrote to the director and told her I was not the right person for the job.
With this much muck still in my mind, I went on a 4-day fast, an existential type quest. And one of the questions I brought with me was, Why do sociopaths exist? What is their purpose? At the darkest moment, when I was deep into this question, I was brought to the spiritual leader of the retreat where I was to discuss any concerns I might have.
It was a long conversation with many stories and examples back and forth, but the essence of her answer to my question was, “The darkness exists to challenge us as human beings. To teach us discernment. Because evil can come in many disguises – the disguise of employment, the disguise of friendship, the disguise of love. But we must lose our naivete and practice discernment.”
To teach us discernment. And if there is a naivete or a vulnerability, we may not be paying enough attention – I was too financially desperate to be wary of the dangerous director; the women in Cleveland had lost their sense of caution to a crack addiction. It is not a happy lesson, but it does speak to the world we live in, a world that encourages psychopathic behaviour not just in the ex-junkies and crack addicts of the underworld, but even within corporate, political and banking culture.
He will choose you, disarm you with his words, and control you with his presence. He will delight you with his wit and his plans. He will show you a good time, but you will always get the bill. He will smile and deceive you, and he will scare you with his eyes. And when he is through with you, and he will be through with you, he will desert you and take with him your innocence and your pride. You will be left much sadder but not a lot wiser, and for a long time you will wonder what happened and what you did wrong. And if another of his kind comes knocking at your door, will you open it?
From an essay, “A psychopath in prison.” Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us. -Dr. Robert Hare
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Being able to identify the indicators you may be dealing with a psychopath or sociopath is vital for self-protection. Although it is important to remember accusations are not helpful especially if one is not a clinician, the fact remains that an estimated 1 in 25 amongst us are sociopaths. Awareness for personal safety is key.
Good authors on the subject include Martha Stout, Robert Hare, Kevin Dutton, among others.
Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare’s lists of symptomatology –
Articles about (primarily female dealing with primarily male) personality disorders –
Lovefraud on the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath”
Good article on women in relationships with psychopaths