When we think of psychopaths, we tend to think of men — we find it hard to imagine these character traits in a woman — but women can be just as devoid of conscience as their male counterparts.
For several weeks, a trial has been underway in Phoenix, Arizona involving a young woman accused of the brutal murder of her one time boyfriend. And many of the actions, statements, and tactics of the defendant, Jodie Arias, both prior to and ever since her arrest bear striking similarities to those of another woman, Casey Anthony, who in 2011 was tried for and acquitted of the murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. These two trials have provided a most fascinating, albeit disquieting, glimpse into the nature of evil when it wears a feminine face. And if history is any teacher on the subject, the outcome of the current trial will no doubt depend not only on how the jurors weigh the abundant evidence in the case but also on the kinds of notions they can allow themselves to entertain about the character of the person upon whom they are called to pass judgment.
Psychopathy is the most extreme form of character disturbance and is defined primarily by the incapacity for empathy and, therefore, the inability to form a mature moral conscience. I have written on this topic before (see, for example, “Psychopathy 101”, ““Dexter” and the Truth About Psychopaths”, and “Psychopathy: Is It Really Everywhere?”), as have many others. But almost all of the examples of psychopathic characters referenced in the articles have been men. Similarly, almost all the research done on psychopathy has been done on males. Even the instruments designed to assess the presence of psychopathic risk factors have been designed for use with males. While one can certainly make the argument that males make up a disproportionate percentage of these deeply impaired characters, perhaps a larger issue is that as a society, as badly as it might unnerve us in general to think that there are heartless predators among us, it doesn’t seem to surprise us as much when these notorious characters turn out to be men. We seem to have a hard time believing that females of this very same character type exist. But after many years of working with the most severely disturbed characters among us, I soon came to appreciate that character disturbance respects no gender boundaries. And some of the most chillingly conscience-devoid individuals I’ve come across over the years have been female. Still, while female psychopaths are identical in every respect to their male counterparts except, of course, for their sex, it’s always amazed me how hesitant many are to accept the notion that females can also be so severely character disturbed. It seems that when it comes to recognizing evil, our vision and judgment can get pretty clouded by a person’s gender. That’s why I fully expect a gender bias will affect the jury’s ultimate verdict in the Arias case.
Unlike the Anthony case, there is no doubt Arias killed her victim. But like the Anthony case, Arias has proposed a scenario that introduces doubt as to whether her act was one of premeditated and cold-blooded murder. And because she is on trial for her life, even the slightest seed of doubt planted in the minds of the jurors could easily spell the difference between execution and life in prison. So far, I think she has been successful in sufficiently planting that seed.
One of the key qualities of psychopathic individuals is their penchant for and skill in lying. Lying in psychopaths is not just ordinary lying, but truly pathological lying, often for the pure sake of lying and even when the truth would do just fine. And what really sets psychopaths apart from other disturbed characters is the manner in which they lie. They lie without hesitation or compunction, and without any apparent apprehension. You literally can’t believe a word they say because you never know when something coming out of their mouths isn’t part of an elaborate “con.” Still, remarkably, people listen to these characters, just as I have observed the jury is listening to Arias. And in that listening, a degree of victimization is occurring, whether anyone on the panel realizes it or not. As was the case with Casey Anthony, Arias has told so many lies (fully admitting to many of them when caught) that to catalog them all would fill up another article. And all during those lies she displayed a calm coolness that in itself ought to be frightening. Still, folks listen to her, as if they’re somehow going to learn something from her that would make some sense of the senseless, heinous crime she committed.
If Jodie Arias had the glib, overly self-confident, haughty manner of someone like the serial killer Ted Bundy, and a masculine face to boot, I think there’d be little doubt she’d be facing the ultimate penalty. And I’m not saying that male psychopaths can’t present a deceptively charming and likable facade. But there’s something more sinister in the poise that Arias has displayed, perhaps because folks have a hard time seeing it as sinister. At one point in the trial, it even appeared like she had the jury focusing more negative attention on the prosecutor — who was doing his best to expose her lies — than on her (not a bad job of impression-management for someone who shot someone else in the face, slit his throat and stabbed him 29 times as he fought for his life!). Arias displayed that same poise even as she completely trashed the character of her victim, painting him not only as a sadistic abuser but also as a pedophile whose deviancy so unnerved her when she discovered it, that it drove her to her desperate act. All of this, despite its preposterous character, asserted with a perfectly straight face.
Arias has actually proclaimed with chilling confidence that no jury will sanction her. How could she be so certain, you might ask. Well, a reporter asked her that very question. And her response might really surprise you. Firstly, she asserted, she won’t be sanctioned because she’s innocent of murder (claiming that her actions were unplanned and a necessary self-defense) and secondly, because she will take her own life before anyone else could possibly succeed in imposing sanction on her. So, you see, she is telling us all in no uncertain terms that she alone will decide her fate — no one else. Such an assertion in itself should tell anyone all they really need to know about what kind of person she really is.
Despite her outrageous conduct during the trial and the overwhelming evidence against her, I think Arias actually has good reason to be hopeful. Those of us with consciences and empathy are a very different lot, and Arias knows that. We always want to think that somewhere inside everyone is something of worth and redeeming value. It causes us extreme dissonance to think that there are any among us with no human feeling or conscience whatsoever. And although in recent years we’ve come to a greater deal of acceptance of the fact, especially when it comes to psychopathic men, when evil wears a feminine face we still can’t seem to allow ourselves to believe the worst.