a psychopath in the family
"Sol Negro": Traducción
de María Gowland
Published in Alcmeon, 48, November 2005
The family is
basically a system and any system that sustains itself is
because in some way there’s a benefit for its members.
majority of psychopaths display their psychopathy outside
of the family. To such a point that often the family
doesn’t even know of the individual’s psychopathic
activities. They have a family but they don’t unload their
psychopathy with in it. Only a small percent does so.
Not long a go a
consultant came to see me. The woman had been married for
25 years and she had been separated for two years. She
wanted to know what was wrong with her that for 27 years
she’d never realized she been with a psychopath. She
discovered it by chance. At one point she went through
some things in the house she had shared with this man and
she found a box full of photographs of teenage women in
erotic poses with him. He always went around with a
photographic camera, but she took it as an innocent
hobby. Every once in a while he went out hunting with some
friends. She investigated these friends a bit and found
out they were all into this perverse habit. She said that
on a few occasions he tried to take photos of her in
certain poses and that’s why she recognized them when she
saw the photos. She asked herself how come she could not
detect his psychopathic behaviour. Beside this fact he was
a hard working man, a good father etc.
The Black sun
I have named the
action of the psychopath in the family the ‘Black sun’
effect, because it makes the whole family system evolve
around him/her, as if they were planets around the Sun. In
contrast to the sun that gives light, energy, life and
permits the individual’s development, the psychopath,
takes the energy from everyone, darkens people, prevents
the development of the members of the family, and
exercises an intense power. They’re like ‘energy
vampires’, they devitalize.
Some months ago a
woman who writes plays for the theatre came to see me. Up
to a month earlier she’d been married and she was a part
of a circuit of psychopaths that she’d been in for four
years. This scriptwriter seemed anaemic, in the
medical term of the word. Due to the lack of physical
strength and the mental muddle she found herself in: her
energy seemed completely drained.
She told me she’d
lost all her friends, ( psychopaths, in their aim for
power, separate from all significant people, in order to
concentrate their power over them) and she ended up
without any relationships at a social level, without
contacts. She said that her ex-husband took away her
creative nature, he tarnished her. All her energy was
focused on the way to satisfy him, a pretty impossible
task, there was always something wrong, something missing.
When there is a
psychopath in the family, what’s the first thing that
arrives at our consultancy? The emergent appears, the one
who has been designated as being ‘ill’.
Once a girl came
to see me accompanied by her mother and father, she had
all the characteristics of a schizophrenic syndrome. She
heard voices, had visual, delirious perceptions, ideas of
persecution, premonitions. With this panorama it’s easy to
get carried away and declare schizophrenia. One should
wait before making a diagnostic.
Later on I found
out that the brother of this young, 28 year old woman was
committed in a farm for serious addicts. A second sister
got married very young: she broke away from the system.
The father was a very anxious person, he generated a lot
In contrast to all
this, the mother stoically bore the burden of this heavy
family with a difficult co-existence. A self-sacrificing
mother who bore her cross.
families where there is a psychopath at first you can see
the emergent, at a second view you can see that there are
other members of the family who have psychological or
psychopathological problems, and only in the third
instance, with a lot of research and an open mind, can you
see the psychopath, the Black sun.
So, I’ve come to
the conclusion that when there are several members of the
family with psychopathological disorders you must seek out
the psychopath, he/she is there somewhere.
In this case the
psychopath was the mother, who besides suffered from a
serious gambling. She had clear actions of objectivation;
for example her mother, an old woman of limited resources,
lived on a pension. She had access to that pension, would
draw out that money and would gamble with it. She’d ask
for loans in the company where her husband worked, on
account. She did a whole series of things that are
irrelevant that typify her as a psychopath. However, if
one took her at face value, she appeared to be a
suffering, victimized mother.
traits of the psychopath.
psychopath presents neurotic traits. This is an
observation that I’ve been investigating for some time,
the presence of neurotic traits in psychopaths. This is
important to point out because our formation leads us to
channel the diagnosis through a psychosis or a neurosis
and when we observe neurotic traits we go through a very
direct route to think of neurosis, leaving aside other
possibilities, and that’s where we get lost.
factor prevents the analysis.
The other mistake
that can be made when it comes to detecting a psychopath
is to allow us to be overrun by emotional and ethical
aspects in the face of psychopathic actions. The affective
side annuls the intellectual follow up of the case; we’re
left with the impact and we stop reasoning.
action of psychopathy
We know there are
other dark suns, that in the case of a depressive, one or
more members of the family revolve around him/her. We know
that happens in other conditions too, such as psychosis. A
serious neurotic can also make the whole family revolve
around him/her. However in all cases the family can detect
the illness, he/she is a depressive, he/she is a neurotic.
The psychopathy remains invisible and only we can
gage this through the effects it produces on the family.
You must then
think the following,
the members of those families, especially the younger ones
in the family, are in that atmosphere, they’ve grown up in
that psychopathic atmosphere, so for them it is impossible
to distinguish what a psychopath is and isn’t, what is
right and what is wrong, that’s the way they’ve grown up.
During the adolescent stage the children open up more
towards the community and they try to affirm their
personality and they find an obstacle in the psychopath.
They can then
react in different ways:
a) ignoring the
matter, denying it.
b) submitting to
against it: to rebel is to disobey, it’s to be aggressive,
to oppose tenaciously, but within the system; the system
is criticized from within the system.
is to attack the system from the outside or from rims,
e) escape: is to
distances oneself from the system, like the older daughter
did in the case I mentioned, the one who got married when
she was 17 or 18 and left. It’s to rotate in a much
f) to become ill.
The effects of
the psychopathy isn’t visible, in the sense that it is not
detected like a depression or a neurosis is, it’s seen
through it’s effects.
For some members
there’s something that’s not quite right. And as they grow
up this becomes more evident. In children teachers,
classmates, can detect this. There’s something in that
boy/girl that isn’t functioning properly, we can’t tell
what, but it’s clear that he/she is engulfed in a
situation that isn’t normal.
The wife of the
psychopath is of course a complementary. The complementary
has a special kind of unawareness. Abnormal things occur
and the family or friends tell him/her that what they’re
living in is a mess, everyone points that out, however the
complementary can’t see it, there’s an active
non-awareness, he/she struggles to remain unaware.
Four points to
I would like to
insist on four points. First, that when you suspect a
psychopathy, try to control your emotional reaction, the
psychopath may generate repugnance and negative affective
reactions, once the psychopathic action is known: incest,
perversion, produces a strong emotional shock and nothing
can be analyzed in such condition. It’s important to cool
down and study the case, to help, if requested, the people
who are around the psychopath. Secondly in those families
in which there are several members with psychopathological
alterations, look for the psychopath, you’re likely to
find him/her. Thirdly, do not be misled by the neurotic
traits, the psychopath can present neurotic traits.
Fourth, the psychopath is a great absorber of energy and
exercises a special power over the family.
description and analysis:
Over the phone a
woman requests a consultation. She says her brother-in-law
is a compulsive liar and this generates problems in the
family. Her husband (34 years old), Carlitos’ brother,
comes with her to the consultancy. She’s 30 years old,
Carlitos, the compulsive liar, 27.
liar, lives with his parents. He finished secondary school
with difficulty. He went on to further his studies but
never practiced. He doesn’t work and has never had a
permanent job. His father supports him. He doesn’t appear
to have any projects for the future. He’s very intelligent
They say there are
two aspects to Carlitos, the way he behaves at home,
somewhat subdued and another when he’s outside, where he’s
active and seductive. He’s two faced.
His brother, (the
consultant’s husband), remembers Carlitos as always being
a liar. This ‘always’ aspect, must be taken into account
because it implies a continuity, a trait incorporated in
his behaviour. It’s one thing to lie in a certain
situation, but to always lie becomes a systematic action.
He’d lie about his grades at school, he’d lie to his
schoolmates, he lies constantly now. When he’s confronted
with the truth, with proof that things aren’t the way he
says they are, he looks coldly and says ‘that’s not so.’
In other words, in spite of the evidence, he continues to
sustain that’s not so. These types of people do this;
defend their lie to the very end, even against proof. If
too pressed by the evidence he/she might say ‘I made a
mistake’ with the same coolness. In this matter of lying
there’s a special attitude, it’s not an ordinary lie.
The couple tells
me: ‘ in fact we’re here because something, more serious
than lying is worrying us. Carlitos has started to steal.’
He takes things from the house, be it of economic or
sentimental value and sells them for two cents in the
They tell me the
following anecdote: they tell Carlitos they know he’s
taking things from the house, they ask him who he sells
them to because they’re things they are interested in
keeping and want to get them back. Carlitos lies to the
very last but in the end he admits he sells them to
someone who buys stolen goods. They go to the guy’s shop
and tell him they want certain things and the man, to
their surprise tells them ‘Oh, Carlitos brought this.’ And
he starts talking about Carlitos very fondly, he asks why
they’re doing this, that Carlitos must have been in need;
he speaks so well of him that they’re stunned. How is it
possible that a crook speaks that way of Carlitos? He even
went as far as to suggest what to do so that Carlitos
didn’t feel bad about seeing the things again (that’s how
far the boy’s seduction goes).
When they come
back with the stuff they show him he stole more than he’d
admitted, Carlitos denies it, the same mechanism, the
things are there and he denies it until the very end and
then he admits ‘OK, I did’. Without remorse, or any
gesture or apology.
Giving it some
thought, the brother remembers Carlitos used to steal
since he was a child. He’d steal from his schoolmates,
he’d keep change.
and father are professionals. They try to get him to work,
do everything for him, make the connections at work,
arrange interviews. Carlitos goes, but he either does very
badly at the interviews and hence doesn’t get hired or is
hired and then fired after 2 or 3 days, or he says he goes
but really doesn’t.
for a few months in some business with a friend, they
shared shifts, he’d attend the shop one day, his friend
the next, until he ended up without a job and without a
friend. It’s easy to work out what happened.
Intelligence. Two faces. Seduction. Lies. Manipulation.
Absence of a future project. Objectivization. Unusual use
of his liberty. Theft. Lack of empathy. No remorse for
these atypical actions. It all adds up.
Then his brother
says, “ in fact we have two problems, because this is
affecting my parents a great deal”. The mother is 63
years old, the father 65. They worried because the parents
have become gloomy and revolve around what happens with
Carlitos. It’s the concept of Black sun, he/she
makes people revolve around them and drains their energy.
were lively people, active, they had friends, went out a
lot, on some weekends they’d go Claromecó, where they had
a house. For some years now all that was no longer a part
of their lives, they just revolved around Carlos. And
like the parents, so did this couple, they came to a
consultation over Carlitos, because he doesn’t work,
because he has no projects, because they don’t know what
will become of him when his parents are no longer around.
Carlitos is a
Black sun who makes everyone revolve around him and drains
their vitality. This couple sees how the quality of life
of the parents has changed, how isolated they’ve become.
This is another way these kind of people act, they isolate
to control the situation better. They see how everything
related to distraction and pleasure has gradually become
dulled in their lives, that’s why we say, using the
metaphor, that these people are energy vampires, they
drain the energy of others.
Pressured by the
family Carlitos consults a psychologist. (They often
accept going for a sessions). It lasted three months. At
the beginning he’d go one week and miss the next (he’d
keep the money of the session, that’s why it was
convenient to keep going!) A month later the family called
the psychologist for an interview to see how he was
getting along. However the psychologist said that given
Carlitos was over 21 years old he didn’t accept any form
of family sessions.
Carlitos’ manoeuvres to keep the money and skip sessions
and they changed analyst. After a while they discovered
that the new analyst was fascinated with Carlitos. That’s
how it is. These people are very seductive and they work
at levels that go beyond logic. The relatives reached the
conclusion that this path was not giving good results with
Carlitos feels no
anguish. His relatives see him as someone who feels no
guilt, someone very cold.
take drugs. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke.
The brother lives
in the suburbs and Carlitos lives in the city. Once he
asked the doorman of his building to call his brother up
and tell him he was going to kill himself. He had a knife
in his hand, he asks the man to tell his brother he was
going to slit his wrists. The doorman called. The
sister-in-law and the brother dropped everything they were
doing and rushed into the city. When they got there he
only had some minor wounds. It was a false alarm.
Carlitos had a
girlfriend. At one stage his father freed an apartment he
had for Carlitos to go and live there with her. That’s
when the relationship begins. The sister-in-law comments
that Carlitos’ relationships are temporary and that they
depend on the woman’s attitude. The woman is the one to
seek him and does all the work, Carlitos just goes along
with it. He lived with a girl who was the one to actively
keep the relationship going until she got fed up and left.
What does Carlitos
do with the profits from what he steals? He has no
financial needs. He appears with a new T-shirt, he invites
his friends and relatives out for dinner, he spends the
The couple that
makes the consultation is worried: Carlitos steals. The
parents aren’t well. What’s going to happen with Carlitos
when his parents die?
coordinate a case such as this.
Once the diagnosis
of psychosis and neurosis have been discarded, and the
correspondence between the traits described by the family
and the describer of psychopathy, a psycopathy can be
In this case a
scheme of advice for the whole family is designed:
to the couple who made the consultation: they’re the ones
who presented the problem, they’re the ones to receive the
first information about what a psychopath is. In other
words the initial stage is instructive. It’s not an easy
task given that it’s not a well know matter and it’s hard
to comprehend. It would be easier to think of him as
someone ill like in the case of a neurotic or a psychotic.
However psychopathy is quite different: it’s not an
illness but a form of behaviour, a type of human
being. In this case for Carlitos to become Carlos, someone
who knows the difference between good and bad and can
direct his actions and understand the consequences. For
him to stop being Carlitos, the sick little guy and be
placed in his just role: Carlos the psychopath.
2) Attempt that
the parents come for consultation. Here the instruction is
even more difficult. Generally parents, out of empathy,
tend to minimize their son’s or daughter’s problem. And
once detected, they question in what way they have failed
for their child to have turned out that way. They blame
They also struggle
incessantly to reverse the situation, that is, to produce
some change in their son or daughter. Some parents taking
the point out of the problem as an aggression or the
therapist’s incompetence and they change professional
until they find someone who tells them what they want to
hear: a benign diagnosis. In other words they find it hard
to take psychological distance in order to see the problem
surrendered before the evidence, consult themselves. This
makes advising easier. In this case, with a 27-year-old
son, the series of repetitions of traits, the frustration
and exhaustion, can help in the therapist’s process.
3) Once they’re
informed about what a psychopath is, I tend to work making
emphasis on the impossibility of change. At
the beginning this may seem pessimistic or even
nihilistic, even anti-therapeutic. However experience has
proved that relatives wear themselves out in the hope of a
possible change, they wander from consultancy to
consultancy, from frustration to frustration and all they
achieve is to wear themselves out with illusions and
strengthen the psychopathic system. As a consequence I
tend to explain to them in detail the concept: “a way of
being”. That’s the way they are. They’re not going to
change. They have to be accepted with these differences.
To achieve this I tend to use the same information they
provide me with and point out how the same traits,
attitudes, experiences since childhood, its accentuation
during adolescence and its full manifestation as adults.
To make them remember facilitates greater information and
they become convinced; they can tell their son’s story but
now with the reference of these traits. In this case we
are discussing the trait of lying can be followed
easily, the action of stealing can also: “ he always lied,
he always stole”, says his brother. The parasitical trait
is easy to prove and so on with the rest.
The acceptance of
“no change ”, once the deception has been overcome,
produces the following effect: there’s no energy wasted on
this matter and efforts are oriented in re-dimentioning
the problem and the roles of the family and its members in
the face of a psychopathy. So the attitude of the members
of the system faced with the psychopath changes.
4) To work on
the parent’s guilt. As we said this is an
obstacle, as the parents feel responsible in forming their
child. And this can be valid in the case of some
pathologies, but in the case of psychopathy there are no
grounds to support it.
There is no proof
that a psychopathy is acquired or due to mistakes in the
upbringing of the children or derived from conflicts
during childhood. However the load of guilt on the parents
make them cover up their child’s psychopathic actions. And
psychopaths take advantage of this weakness to manipulate
and aggravate the feelings of guilt, to obtain their
5) Only after this
instance is it possible to work on the psychological
distance regarding the psychopath. This consists
in seeing the psychopath as being different and avoids the
psychological step of empathy. That is to say, the
reasoning: ‘in his/her place I would...’ What could give
results when faced with an equal, fails absolutely when
dealing with a psychopath. The psychopath thinks, feels
and does differently. In a normal mind it’s
impossible to comprehend how that brain works. The attempt
to try to understand can lead to another dead in which
relatives can get tangled. It’s crucial to be very firm on
this point: it’s not possible to understand the mind of a
psychopath. Experts can barely grasp something.
distance is therefore to be able to differentiate you from
the psychopath and to begin to see his/her actions and the
effects of these actions on the rest of the members of the
family. In other words preserve oneself from the
psychopath. It’s important to clarify that these changes
must be made gradually in order to avoid aggressive and
destabilizing reactions from the psychopath that can be,
on some occasions, serious.
distance, the ideal is to keep some distance from
the psychopath’s area of action. This is what I referred
to in 1998 as Zero Contact, no form of
communication, relationship or glimpses. This can be
obtained in the cases of exhausted complementary
relationships, siblings, or adult offspring, rarely in the
case of parents.
sometimes impossible, for parents to keep their
psychopathic child at a distance. Only in the case of
clear unsociable behaviour can this be achieved. But in
the cases of parasitism the relationship with the “guests”
can be very prolonged and we can only hope for the
satisfaction of obtaining a psychological distance, the
understanding of the problem and the adequate education
about it: the seductive traits, the cohersion and
manipulation are often very marked and it’s necessary to
support one another.
Transferring the problem: if a family gets their
psychopath off their back he/she will be received by
another social group. In the case of parasitism, he/she
will stop being a parasite on the family and become a
parasite on another person or group, there’s a
displacement of the parasitism. The psychopath doesn’t
change. That’s why when the couple asked me what would
happen with Carlitos when his parents died, the answer was
simple: he will be a parasite on others, probably them,
(the couple) were the psychopath’s target. The couple
probably suspected as much and that’s what leads them to
make the consultation. So, the “solution” to this
family’s problem consisted in a “transference”: the
family might be able to relieve themselves of the
psychopath but he/she would exercise their psychopathy on
other social niches.
therapist’s attitude in this process: we must
accompany the process, not be in front of it. If it is
possible to be clear about what to do, what the person
should do, the couple, the family, it’s not advisable to
advance over the family. It’s necessary to accompany, and
coordinate the process and not direct it. To be one step
ahead but no more. It’s the family who must assimilate the
adjustments, take in the changes, process the problem.
This will allow the changes to be long lasting and not
merely following orders.
forward one step at a time. For example: before
touching on the matter of distance, it’s necessary for the
people involved to be convinced in what they’re doing,
that they don’t have vague ideas, that they know clearly
what it’s all about.
10) To be
ready for the ups and downs. The result of
advising the family is uneven. There are steps forward and
backwards. Remember that the psychopath is a cunning
manipulator, who grasps the other person’s needs, who
seduces, who exercises an irrational power over them. Do
not feel disencouraged in the face of slim results or
moving backwards. While the family seeks advice, we’ll be
there for them.
we have an interview with the psychopath? No it’s
not necessary. I know this answer will generate a shudder,
become an issue. Yet after having so many liars,
manipulators, threateningly seductive that’s the
conclusion I’ve come to. Of course colleagues have all the
right of not depriving themselves from the experience.
Dark suns and
To have someone
who is mentally ill in the family is very draining. The
family begins to revolve around the person who is ill.
There’s nothing visible, no wound, nothing physical or
concrete. And the patient has those symptoms; the anguish,
that strange pain and the family just observes without
understanding. He/she knows something is wrong but there
isn’t much they can do.
Anyone who has
ever had a serious depressive in their family, not a
melancholic, or a pessimist, or someone with an unrequited
love, or a Melacholoide, but a “major” depressive, will
know how much energy they consume. To see the anguish and
the loneliness in that person, the way they lock
themselves up in the dark, the intolerance to noise,
permanent crying, the complaints, the thoughts of suicide.
So draining. So much impotence. There reaches a point in
which the relative is so exhausted that sometimes he
allies with the notion of suicide as a solution for the
patient. That’s why you, at some stage of your practice,
will be surprised by the surprising distractions that lead
to the suicide of a serious depressive.
I remember the
case of a very wealthy family who’s mother was a serious
chronique depressive. She was committed several times.
Several suicide attempts. In one of the ‘in between
phases’ and due to a religious ceremony she stayed in the
house of one of her children, a duplex on the 9th floor.
They were in the habit of making sure she was not in
contact with dangerous elements; knives, blades etc. The
windows had bars because of the younger children in the
house, which made it safer for the patient to stay. They
were on permanent surveillance.
At one point the
patient is left on the top floor and the others were on
the lower floor making a toast. It wasn’t for long but
long enough for the patient to go into the bathroom to
open the skylight and jump into empty space. An
inexplicable neglect, not conscious or wanted.
relatives of depressives cry over the guilt produced by
the feeling that suicide was a solution. They felt their
lives also held by the depression, that they too had lost
their quality of life, and that nothing could be done to
soothe the cruelty of depressive anguish.
They too revolved
around the depressive, not everyone. There was always
someone, rarely two, who become very attached to the
illness. The others, in their way accompany, or put their
distance from the problem.
arouses sadness and the family’s desire to help. After
this exhaustion comes aggression. Yet the family has full
awareness that they are in front of a sick person. They
can make many reproaches: lack of will power, not
appreciating what he/she has, etc, but they know they’re
dealing with someone who’s sick.
In the case of
neurotics something similar can occur. Yet another form is
drawn in the family dynamics. The neurotic is demanding,
manipulative, aggressive in his/her way, complains a lot,
is often glum. If we’re talking of a serious neurosis they
also make the family revolve around them. In one of my
articles I wrote about an experience: the doorbell rings
in the middle of the night and I have before me a very
dramatic scene. A family is accompanying an 18-year-old
girl who lies fainted in her father’s arms. The mother,
father, brothers, the boyfriend and a neighbour. I
remember those anguished faces, the anxiety and the
features of the fainted girl. The scene was worthy of a
painting by Goya or Velazquez, with Wagner music. The
whole family had dropped everything to help her. It was a
fit of hysteria. But it was in these moments that the
hysteric generated these symptoms that alarmed and made
everyone fussed over her.
manipulators but there is also calm, stages of symptomatic
silence, of latency, in which they can all lead their own
lives. After some time the family can find the neurotics
actions annoying and react aggressively. There is a trait
of something artificial that the family perceive. The
relative leads his/her life and pays his/her dues for
living close to a neurotic.
There are some
serious neurotics and the whole family revolve around
them, yet the concept of illness is present.
In cases of
psychosis, schizophrenia for example, a relative must
devote a part of their life to it. As psychiatrist we
complain a lot when we see that in hospitals many chronic
patients are “deposited” in the wards because their
families have abandoned them. As psychiatrists we
complain: how can they just dump someone in a hospital?
The Head of the Moyano Psychiatric Hospital, in the city
of Buenos Aires, at a congress recently admitted that half
the patients who are there could go home. And all of us
who work at the wards with chronical patients know that
80% or more should not be committed, that they could
perfectly well be at home or in some kind of home, less
strict than a psychiatric hospital. However from the point
of view of the family, to have a schizophrenic, is
to give up a part of their life to the illness: he/she
can’t be left alone, their behaviour is unpredictable. And
often the relative has to make the decision him/her or me,
and they aim for a better quality of life and leave the
person concerned for the state to take care of him/her.
The exhaustion a schizophrenic person causes is quite
intense. However the illness is clear, palpable, there is
no doubt that you are faced with an extreme illness.
In the case of
psychopathy I have observed that what a relative of a
psychopath once said to me is true. It’s been a long time
now since I ceased to find the keys to this profession in
books in English, French or German, instead I listen to
what the patient tells me, what his/her relatives tell me.
Not what the patient should tell me, according to what
I’ve read or translated, but what he/she says, what he/she
does, what they want to tell me. As I was saying, one day
the father of a psychopath said to me: ‘doctor, this boy
is robbing me of my life. Observe how deep this feeling is
and how much truth it carries. He was aware of how
absorbing this abnormal behaviour was, so demanding that
he had to invest his whole life in his son. What he could
not do was to discriminate, as I am doing when I summarize
so many similar cases, that he was revolving around a
Black sun. That he was running like a fireman after a
pyromaniac who was always a step ahead, who had the
initiative. He’d crash cars (a classic among pot-heads),
minor theft, drugs, alcohol, manipulation, lies, lack of
discipline and constance in his projects when he had any
or had them imposed. The father was always there trying to
solve the mess his son would get into, trying to see how
the problem could be solved, in the illusion of a change
that never occurred. Betting on the fact that it was his
son’s wild phase of youth, that he would “mature”.
boy is robbing me of my life”.
He was a Black