The Psychopath Next Door:
The Prevalence and Function of Psychopathic and Dissociative Tendencies

By Robert Scharf, April 2001

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a "psychopath" as "A person with antisocial personality disorder, especially one manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior."

I would stress "aggressive" and "perverted" and would qualify "antisocial" as being particularly normative, though all of these terms are normative.

I will illustrate this with a few examples. A behavior which is both aggressive and antisocial is drunk driving. We are perhaps moving towards a view of it as psychopathological and, in any case, it has become criminalized and proscribed. Less than thirty years ago, people drove drunk with relative impunity and no one seemed to care about the fatalities and injuries.

In the 19th Century, and for much of the 20th Century, men beat their wives and parents beat their children, not in violation of the law, but in accordance with the most cherished traditions. We can easily view these behaviors as aggressive and people of that time might even have conceded that they were aggressive. We might also consider them perverted, which our forebears would have had more difficulty with. Indeed, they would have thought that to abstain from such behaviors was perverted. However, today, they are also criminal and antisocial.

I do not make these observations as a prelude to arguing the case for relativism. Rather, I am going to suggest that if we focus on behaviors which are aggressive, violent, and destructive, we will notice that as we go back in time, fewer of them were considered antisocial. The same personality that today beats up and slays a hooker may have beaten and slain a wife with impunity one hundred years ago. Our sensibilities have clearly changed.

Our sensibilities have changed because this type of personality has become more rare and more repressed. As you go back in history, the amount of brutality increases as does its social acceptance. When you get back into prehistory and stone age culture, cannibalism was the norm (La Barre). It is customary when looking at primitive cultures to depsychologize their behaviors and explain them with economic explanations or some other non-psychological explanations. However, such explanations do not hold up under close examination. According to the psychogenic theory of history developed by Lloyd deMause, these primitives were cannibals because they had the same personality type as say, Jeffery Dahmer (only worse). A society of cannibals was, in effect, a society of serial killers.

It is well known today that the violent adult has had a violent childhood. (See the woks of Alice Miller and her website See also Gilligan, Rhodes, Lewis, and Mott.) Our sensibilities have evolved as childrearing has improved. We have only recently reached a point where child beating is illegal (in some venues and if only in the letter of the law). Lloyd deMause has chronicled this evolution in works like The History of Childhood and "The Evolution of Childrearing"

As I suggested above, it is the "personality type" which is psychopathological because of the propensity for violence, regardless of the issue of social sanctioning. In antiquity, a parent could beat a child to death or dash an infant against the rocks because a child had the status of property. Yet we are not restrained from these acts today because we accord more rights to the child (though we do), but because we have more compassion for children and less psychopathology.

If we are to measure psychopathology by the propensity for violence, regardless of the presence or absence of social sanctions, we are saying that, in virtually all circumstances, violence is psychopathological. (I do not insist upon the term "psychopathology," I am more concerned to stress that virtually all violence has its etiology in childhood trauma.)

If we pursue further the notion that sanctioned violence is still pathological, then we cannot exclude warfare or other state sanctioned violence. The soldier who kills in battle (and maybe commits a few atrocities along the way) and then returns home to a tender relationship with his wife or girlfriend and bounces his child upon his knee, may not be so different from, say, the bank robber who is in effect a serial or spree killer like Clyde Barrow. We might also note that society considers the soldier a hero, just as people like Clyde Barrow and Jessie James become folk heros. Even "Hannibal the Cannibal" of movie fame is a folk hero.

If violence is sanctioned by society in some circumstances, then the people who commit violence are sometimes the delegates of society.

The need for ritual sacrifice and the sacrificial nature of warfare was more explicit in the past, for example among the Aztecs (La Barre). An Aztec soldier might give his life in a ritual sacrifice or in battle, and would make sacrifices of his vanquished foes. This was explicit and there is no need to search for underlying economic motives (though people do). In our own time, warfare still serves a sacrificial function, though our economic theories of war greatly obscure this.

Now let us consider how a soldier (or anybody)--either a run of the mill soldier or a war criminal--who kills can go home, be affectionate with his family, and then return to duty and kill again.


People who have dissocaitive identity disorder (DID, formerly multiple personality disorder or MPD), have alter personalities which are usually unaware of each other. The host personality will experience periods of blackout when the alters are manifest.

Most of us are not so extreme in our dissociation, but we do experience dissociative states. For example, driving to work on "automatic pilot." When you arrive at work, you hardly remember the drive. Our language is full of expressions like, "I wasnít myself; Iím a different person at work; my mind wandered," etc.

Martha Stout gives a classic example of this:

"Many of us find it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to stay in one `mode,í to be constant and recognizable, even to ourselves. One of the most universal examples of this is the experience of returning `homeí to oneís parents. After a family visit, the commonest revelation, sometimes private and sometimes voiced aloud to friends, is `I turn into a different person. I canít help it. I just do. All of a sudden Iím thirteen again.í We are completely grown up and may even consider ourselves to be rather sophisticated. We understand how we ought to act, know what we want to say to our mothers and fathers. We have plans. But when we get there, we cannot follow through--because suddenly we are not really there. Needy, out-of-control children have taken over our bodies, and are acting in our stead. And we are helpless to get our `realí selves back until well after we have departed from our `homesí once again."
Since these dissociated states do not involve alters in the classic sense, I prefer to use the term hypo-alters and speak of hypo-dissociation. Clinicians are increasingly seeing the connection between trauma and dissociation, the universality of dissociative (or hypo-dissociative) states, and their importance for understanding human behavior in general.

Stout puts it this way:

"Over the years, what my trauma patients have taught me is that this compromise with reality and its traumas is simply not sanity at all. It is a form of madness, and it befuddles our existence. We lose parts of our thoughts in the present, we sabotage the closeness and comfort in our relationships, and we misplace important pieces of ourselves.

"All of us are exposed to some sort of psychological trauma at some point in our lives, and yet most of us are unaware of the misty spaces in our brains left there by traumatic experience, since for the most part we experience them only indirectly. Seldom do we ponder the traumatic events in our lives, let alone the frightening hardships and life-or-death struggles that were the daily lot of people as close to us, in terms of time, as our great-grandmothers, or even our grandmothers.

"But we do feel crazy, and a little silly, when from time to time we cannot remember a simple thing we ought to be able to remember...

"And we feel our insanity, and sometimes a near frantic sense of being out of control of our lives, in the misunderstandings and rifts in our most cherished relationships, in the same emotionally muddled arguments that go on for years and years. The conflicts never quite kill the love we feel, but they never quite end either. And as a society, we feel incompetent, and sinkingly helpless, when we reflect upon the greater-than-half failure rate of marriages in genral."

Collin Ross, a leading expert in the area of DID, considers that multiple personality disorder

" the most important and interesting disorder in psychiatry... I believe it to be the key diagnosis in an impending paradigm shift in psychiatry, because MPD best illustrates the characteristic response of the human organism to severe psychosocial trauma, and because trauma is a major cause of mental illness, from a public health point of view. Trauma, I believe, is a major underlying theme in much mental illness, including depression, eating disorders, personality disorders, substance abuse, psychosomatic illness, and all forms of self-abuse and violence. Biological psychiatry might obtain more clinically meaningful results if it focused on the psychobiology of trauma and abandoned the search for causality in genes and endogenous chemical derangements. Since MPD patients have experienced the most extreme childhood trauma of any diagnostic group, they exhibit the psychobiology and psychopathology of trauma to an extreme degree."

Fredric Schiffer has discovered that trauma is stored in one hemisphere of the brain and that we all have a part of our brain which is traumatized and regressed.

Lloyd deMause observes in "The Psychogenic Theory of History"

"Although few people are diagnosed with dissociative disorders, most people have nevertheless organized, dissociated persecutory personalities whose function it is to punish themselves or substitutes for themselves as `object lessons' óin order to remind them that growth, pleasure and success are dangerous and might precipitate trauma or rejection. Child psychologists have recently suggested that perhaps `all children have dissociative-like states' and that abuse and neglect leads to the `establishment of centers of experience external to the core self during transient hypnotic-like states' that act as early alters."

It is dissociation and hypo-dissociation which explain the ability of a soldier to commit an atrocity in the field, then go home and be affectionate with his family, then return to the field. It explains how a man can go from playing with his children to voting for measures which cut medical programs for children. It explains how a Nazi doctor can be a family man at home, an urbane and charming companion in society, and a butcher in a concentration camp. It explains how Ted Bundy could be a crisis counselor, political activist, and charming neighbor while also being a serial killer. It also explains why Hannibal the cannibal is so attractive to people.


At this juncture, I would like to consider how the violent individual may be acting as a delegate of society.

We have already observed how the Aztecs would make sacrifices. This was done in times of prosperity because prosperity induces guilt. During the process in which an infant individuates from its mother--particularly in antiquity when childrearing was more brutal--the child becomes conflicted over individuation and reexperiences this conflict later in life. In times of prosperity, people fear an avenging mother and seek to propitiate her with sacrifices.

The individual soldier is a delegate of the group, expected to sacrifice himself for the good of the group, and the leader who takes the group to war is a delegate of the group expected to take the group to war.

Consider this quote from Lloyd deMause in "Restaging Early Traumas in War and Social Violence."

"When Adolf Hitler moved to Vienna in 1907 at the age of eighteen, he reported in Mein Kampf, he haunted the prostitutes' district, fuming at the 'Jews and foreigners' who directed the 'revolting vice traffic' which "defiled our inexperienced young blond girls" and injected 'poison' into the bloodstream of Germany.

"Months before this blood poison delusion was formed, Hitler had the only romantic infatuation of his youth, with a young girl, Stefanie. Hitler imagined that Stefanie was in love with him (although in reality she had never met him) and thought he could communicate with her via mental telepathy. He was so afraid of approaching her that he made plans to kidnap her and then murder her and commit suicide in order to join with her in death.

"Hitler's childhood had been so abusive--his father regularly beat him 'with a hippopotamus whip,' once enduring 230 blows of his father's cane and another time nearly killed by his father's whipping__that he was full of rage toward the world. When he grew up, his sexual feelings were so mixed up with his revenge fantasies that he believed his sperm was poisonous and might enter the woman's bloodstream during sexual intercourse and poison her.

"Hitler's rage against 'Jewish blood-poisoners' was, therefore, a projection of his own fears that he might become a blood-poisoner. Faced with the temptation of the more permissive sexuality of Vienna, he wanted to have sex with women, but was afraid his sperm would poison their blood. He then projected his own sexual desires into Jews-- 'The black-haired Jewboy lies in wait for hours, satanic joy in his face, for the unsuspecting girl'__ and ended up accusing Jews of being 'world blood-poisoners' who 'introduced foreign blood into our people's body.'

"As is usually the case with delusional systems, Hitler's projection of his fears of his own poisonous sexuality into Jews and foreigners helped him avoid a psychotic breakdown and allowed him to function during his later life. He admitted this quite specifically in Mein Kampf, saying that when he 'recognized the Jew as the cold-hearted, shameless, and calculating director of this revolting traffic in the scum of the big city, a cold shudder ran down my back . . . the scales dropped from my eyes. A long soul struggle had reached its conclusion.' From that moment on, Hitler became a professional anti-Semite, ordering Nazi doctors to find out how Jewish blood differed from Aryan blood, having his own blood regularly sucked by leeches to try to get rid of its 'poison,' giving speeches full of metaphors of blood poisoning and of Jews sucking people's blood out and, eventually, ordering the extermination of all 'world blood-poisoners' in the worst genocide and the most destructive war ever experienced by mankind.

"The success of Hitler's ability to use anti-Semitism to save his sanity was dependent, of course, upon there being millions of followers who shared his fantasies about poisonous enemies infecting the body of Europe. Much of Europe at that time shared Hitler's experience of a severely abusive childhood, and many shared his fantasy that the ills of the modern world were caused by the poisonous nature of Jews. When he used metaphors of blood in his speeches, saying the world was a constant warfare of one people against another, where 'one creature drinks the blood of another, 'and that Jews were spiders that 'sucked the people's blood out,' he was cheered on by millions who shared his fantasies."

Hitler was a delegate of the group, chosen to prosecute a shared fantasy of the group. The sacrifice of German soldiers and the scapegoating of other groups served a homeostatic function--a mechanism for the group to cope with it feelings of being poisoned.

Alice Miller concurs with this assessment:

"...Hitler was certainly not an isolated phenomenon. He would not have had millions of followers if they had not experienced the same sort of upbringing. I anticipated a great deal of resistence on the part of the public when I advanced this thesis--which I am convinced is a correct one--so I was surprised to discover how many readers, both young and old, agreed with me. They were familiar from their own backgrounds with what I depicted. I didnít have to adduce elaborate arguments; all I needed to do was describe Hitlerís childhood in such a way that it served as a mirror, and suddenly Germans caught their own reflection in it."


As Readers of this forum have sensed, the psychopathic personality is hardly an anomaly. The propensity for extreme violence, which has its etiology in childhood trauma, has been rife in all ages and places.

It is likely that in prehistoric times and even in antiquity, people were what we would today call DID. In more recent times, they have been hypo-dissociated. A few generations ago, Jim Jones (who led his cult of several hundred in a mass suicide) might have been a Hitler. A couple of millennia ago, he might have been a Caligula.

Today (in most places) there are fewer psychopaths to be leaders and followers. Rather than rise to power, they remain isolated. In the US since the Viet Nam war, politicians have found it increasingly difficult to raise armies and to engage in sustained conflicts. In the past, the flimsiest veneer of an excuse could serve to justify plunging a nation into a devastating war--and if an excuse couldnít be found, there was always "my country, right or wrong." Today, more people are more critical and wary of the stateís propensity for violence.

Of course, a glance at the newspaper tells us that we have hardly reached the promised land. There is plenty of violence, internationally and domestically, systematic and random. The Holocaust is still fresh in memory and the possibilities of mass destruction in the future are far from remote. If we are to continue to make progress towards a peaceful future, we will have to appreciate that the psychopath is not remote and alien. We can see the psychopath in our forebears, in the fellow next door, and in our own rage.

The psychopath will be driven out, neither by exorcism, nor by the police, but instead will become extinct in an environment of compassionate childrearing.

Works Cited

The American Heritage Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.

deMause, Lloyd, ed. The History of Childhood. New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974.

---Childhood and History. Forthcoming. Available in part at:

--- "The Evolution of Childrearing." The Journal of Psychohistory; Vol. 28 (2001): forthcoming.

---"The Psychogenic Theory of History." The Journal of Psychohistory; Vol. 25, No. 2 Fall 1997.

Gilligan, James. Violence. New York: Putnam, 1996.

La Barre, Weston. Muelos. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lewis, Dorothy Otnow. Guilty by Reason of Insanity. New York : Fawcett Columbine, 1998.

Miller, Alice. For You Own Good. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Motz, Anna. The Psychology of Female Violence. Philadelphia, PA.: Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2001.

Rhodes, Richard. Why They Kill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Ross, Colin A. The Osiris Complex. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc., 1994.

Schiffer, Fredric. Of Two Minds. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Stout, Martha. The Myth of Sanity. New York: Viking, 2001.

Return to Table of Contents