Can Psychopaths Be Rehabilitated?

The complications of sentencing psychopathic criminals
Matti Mattila/flickr

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about psychopaths.

It started when I covered the trial of a sadistic kidnapper named Cameron Hooker, who grabbed a hitchhiker and held her captive for seven years, most of the time in a coffin-sized box. He tortured her in every way he could devise.

This was my first close encounter with a living, breathing psychopath. I tried on the heavy ‘head box’ he used in her abduction, visited the basement where he kept her captive, and had nightmares long after he was sent off to prison.

I thought nothing so vile would ever hit headlines again. But I was naïve. Perhaps you’re nodding your head, remembering Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, three women rescued last year from an Ohio basement, and a recent case of slavery in London.

Over the years, I’ve become obsessed with this type of crime. I’ve researched psychopaths, studied captivity syndromes, and thought a great deal about punishment and retribution. Nietzsche warned that we gaze into the abyss at our peril, but it’s a primal necessity. We analyze terrible crimes in much the same way we heed other means of escaping death. We automatically put ourselves into the shoes of survivors. We scrutinize an airplane’s charred wreckage, amazed that anyone walked away, because, yes, that really could have been you or me.

Elizabeth Smart uses her experience as a cautionary tale. She recently published her memoir, My Story, and she speaks extensively, promoting a self-defense program for children called RadKids. The core message is that, no matter what your age, yelling, kicking, and fighting back is the best way to foil an abduction.

Finding other lessons in these crimes is trickier, but just as important. The victims of these criminals deserve more than a startled gasp and a breathless news cycle. And basic public safety demands that we ask how to stop those who are driven to commit such extremely heinous crimes. Kidnapping and imprisoning victims is not a rash act. It requires an extraordinary amount of dedication, planning, and effort. And the captive’s misery is either of zero consequence or is a source of pleasure.

Cameron Hooker—the sadistic kidnapper I researched years ago—is set for release in just a few years, several decades shy of his 104-year sentence. It’s galling to imagine his name simply added to a registry of sexual offenders. Such was the case with Phillip Garrido, who served a fraction of a 50-year sentence for rape and kidnapping. Shortly after Garrido’s release, he kidnapped 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard, whom he held captive—under the noses of his parole officers—for 18 years.

There’s constant deliberation over whether such men (and they are overwhelmingly male) ought to be classified as psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, or some subset of mentally disordered sex offender. Forensic experts analyze brain imagery and administer tests, grasping for clinical diagnoses. But whatever terminology is used, the criminal justice system is tasked with confining such criminals amid ongoing controversy over the length and conditions of their confinement.

What causes their behavior? Is it willful, or is it a symptom of mental illness? Professionals who face these criminals daily disagree.

An authority clos­e to the Hooker case blames the kidnapper’s behavior on “an accident of internal wiring.” Dr. Paul R. Lees-Haley, a forensic psychologist, confides that the most apt definition for these types of criminals is “evil.” And Dr. Bruce Gage, chief of psychiatry for the Washington Department of Corrections and clinical associate professor at the University of Washington, compares psychopathy to colorblindness, explaining that, just as some individuals cannot see the color red, others are blind to human emotions such as sympathy and compassion.

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Carla Norton is a novelist and true crime writer. She is the author of The Edge of Normal.

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