A short essay on the subject of psychopaths, which makes fascinating reading.

At one of our book group meetings we talked about the American author, Linda Fairstein. Someone had read the latest novel in her series about the New York Assistant District Attorney, Alexandra Cooper, and found it middling-good. I, too, have enjoyed some of these novels. But I also knew that Linda Fairstein has published a number of non-fiction titles, and decided to read one of these to see how it compared.

Until she retired, Fairstein was a prominent New York prosecutor and was, for many years, the head of the Sex Crimes Unit in Manhattan. Her fact-based, non-fiction works are mostly on the subject of sex crimes and crimes against women.

Killer Charm – The Double Lives of Psychopaths is an essay that was published in 2012. It’s written in a very straightforward manner, easy for a lay person to follow and understand. In that sense it differs from her fiction, which can be quite convoluted and complicated. At our book group meetings, we have sometimes discussed how most of the crime novels we read are about how a woman is victimised or killed by a man. This book shows that these story plots are rooted in reality and are not just a way of creating tension in fiction.

The first point she makes is that most psychopaths hide their true selves under what she calls ‘a mask of sanity’. In other words, in their everyday lives they seem absolutely normal and ordinary. To illustrate this point she gives several examples, most notably the serial killer, Ted Bundy, a handsome, clean-cut and respectable young law student, who was finally executed in 1989 following a murder spree across the USA.

Another is the so-called ‘Craigslist Killer’ who committed a number of brutal attacks and killed a number of young women in the early 2000s. When he was eventually caught, having been seen on CCTV sauntering away from the crime scenes checking his phone, he turned out to be a handsome 23-year old medical student from a good family, with no criminal record.

Fairstein goes on to consider ‘A Psychopath’s Mask’, namely what these men – and they are, by far and large, men – hide under their ‘mask of sanity’. According to the author they almost entirely lack empathy; they can (and often do) appear perfectly normal, even charming; and they are often highly intelligent. They use their intelligence to mimic normal behaviour and are, in a sense, both great actors and heartless predators who can easily gain a woman’s trust.

The author describes how sometimes the spell of such a man is broken, and the people in his life (girlfriend, parents, friends) begin to realise that the signs were always there, even though they couldn’t bring themselves to see them or act upon them. She tells how when training new young lawyers investigating sex offenders, she always advised them to speak to ex-wives and girlfriends. These women would often have invaluable information, and once the mask [of sanity] has been ripped off, the people who have glimpsed behind it come forward.

Interesting an illuminating
I found this essay extremely interesting and illuminating. In many of the psychological thrillers I read the perpetrator is called a psychopath, although he often presents as a limited human being with no social skills, living in straitened circumstances and with an obvious grudge against the world. This essay gives rather a different view – and a pretty frightening one. Men like Ted Bundy, the Craigslist Killer and others are virtually impossible to spot and avoid.

This was only a 20-page essay, but it was fascinating and gave some useful tips on how to recognise one of these charming psychopaths. If you’re interested in the subject it’s well worth reading and I’d give it 4-Stars.
Review by: Freyja