This blog is not FDA approved
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, but they feed frogs and spiders and birds and fish and apparently are even good for the pollination of blueberries. And spiders are kinda creepy, but they make those awesome webs, and what would life be without the glint of light on their complex octagonal web shapes in the morning dew?
But sometimes when it comes to humans, it can be hard to figure out what all of us are good for.
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 good cardboard boxes. My career as a freelance film and TV 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. And I just didn’t 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 making a film who needed an editor. And 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 keen to get something, anything going… How could it leave me any worse off than where I was?
The brother, Alex, was primarily a painter, living in a ramshackle house in Parkdale with an unhappy looking girlfriend and their young baby. He was intense and charismatic, and just beginning to explore film as a medium but had a great surrealist sense of the underworld 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, 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 the baby was born, back in the days when he was heavy into junk. Late one night, the two of us alone in the edit suite, a tiny dark room at the end of echoing empty corridors, he mentioned some time he’d done in juvenile detention when he was back in Colombia, and how the attending psychiatrist had told him he was a psychopath.
There was something about the moment that felt like a testing of boundaries, a sussing out of how I would react, 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, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of him. Maybe it was seeing him with his baby, maybe because he was my friend’s brother… I just didn’t truly grasp the possible variations on the concept of a dangerous man.
I did notice over the weeks I knew him, how he would screw people over. There was the actress, told to fly in from New York City to reshoot a scene, with whom he proceeded to pick a fight, then refused to pay for her work or even reimburse for the flight. Same thing for the cameraman – a disagreement emerged over nothing, all promises were broken, cameraman disposed of.
These user behaviours are not so uncommon in the world of independent film or even 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 get your project out there?
But Alex was the most crass and complete version of this behaviour I’ve seen up close. And soon enough, for no apparent reason – a whim, an imagined slight, an overheard telephone conversation – he decided I was out. The film was unfinished, the edit was half done, my paycheque was nowhere to be seen, and I was left with the bill for the edit suite rental in my name.
Now make no mistake – he knew I was a single mom, knew about the months of unpaid rent. But this is what they say about psychopaths / sociopaths – no empathy. No conscience. No real concern for other humans. An ability to do just about anything to anyone without a flicker of activity in the amygdala.
A few beloved Montreal friends swooped in and put me and my son on a one-way bus to Montreal where the rent is cheaper and I could pick up some work translating and subtitling. On a Friday night I met up with an old friend, Ximena, also Colombian. We were pretty deep into the wine when I told her the story about Alex. ”No!”, she said. ”Alex the painter?” Turns 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 involving a jealous girlfriend coming at him with a chain, and how he had retaliated by putting out her eye. As in dangling by its optic nerve.
Yikes. I thought of the many hours alone in an edit suite with this man and was suddenly grateful the only damage done had been financial. I thought of his baby and long-suffering girlfriend and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of them. The question emerged in my mind: What was the purpose of this man’s life? Why did someone so parasitic, so amoral, so treacherous, and with this capacity for violence exist?
Many years have passed and my career has flourished and I now have (almost) 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 job with a director from Cleveland I’ve worked with before. She mailed me a hard drive with all her footage on it and I dove in. A documentary about the Cleveland Strangler – a man who murdered 11 women, raped many more.
As I waded through some 280 hours of footage of police investigation and interviews with survivors, with the lost women who’d stumbled into his house lured by the promise of a little booze and crack and had been raped but had managed to make it out alive, I began to despair. What was the purpose of this evil? As a storyteller I could not find the redemption in the tale and lost all sense of the direction it should take. I tried reading books about psychopaths, about their talent as unflinching soldiers, the advantage cold-bloodedness had for surgeons, the lack of conscience useful for criminal defence lawyers, but still I could not find any meaning in this man’s horrific, sordid life. Haunted by nightmares and even the sight of the shiny hard drive holding its evil contents in my living room, I wrote to the director and told her I was not the right person for the job.
With this muck still in my mind I went on a 4-day retreat. And one of the questions I brought with me was: Why do psychopaths exist?
At the darkest moment of the third day, deep into this question, I was brought before the spiritual leader of the retreat to discuss any concerns I might have. It was a long conversation with many stories back and forth, but the essence of her answer 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 naiveté and practice discernment.”
This answer feels helpful, substantial. The lesson is hard as it becomes most relevant precisely when there are vulnerabilities hindering us from paying close enough attention – I was financially desperate and not wary of a dangerous director; the women in Cleveland lost all 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, maybe not so much in the outcasts, the ex-junkies and crack addicts of the underworld, but within corporate, political and banking culture.
But those are stories for another day.
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 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 Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, by Dr. Robert Hare
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For helpful information on identifying psychopaths and / or sociopaths -
Hervey Cleckley and Robert Hare’s lists of symptomatology -
Articles about dealing with personality disorders in various kinds of relationships -
Article on leaving relationships with psychopaths -