“Dexter” and the Truth About What Makes a Psychopathic Personality

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While so many things are chillingly accurate, there is one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of psychpathy in US television drama Dexter: it’s the way the writers seem to explain how such people get to be the way they are.

Recently, someone introduced me to the US TV series Dexter, based on the novels of the same title. It’s about a psychopath (alt: sociopath) who works as a forensic scientist analyzing blood splatter patterns for a police department. The series has won several awards and garnered unusual viewer support for an independently-produced drama series.

The main character, Dexter, is an intriguing study. He is no doubt a psychopath, and he is also a ritual serial killer who has managed to elude detection for his heinous acts. Because I’ve dealt with so many psychopaths in the past, I’m not of a mind to become invested in this series. But the writers certainly have captured many of the essential features of psychopathy in Dexter.

While so many things are chillingly accurate, there is one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of Dexter’s character. Psychopaths do lack normal human empathy and a sense of “connection” to others. They can feign emotion and fake normal human empathy-based interaction patterns. And they have an uncanny ability to read others, to know what makes them “tick” as it were. But they’re not really bonded to the rest of us. That fact makes them potentially so very dangerous. The depictions of Dexter as a person who has to feign almost every aspect of normal human relating are so accurate, it can and should make your skin crawl. But it’s the way the writers seem to explain how such people get to be the way they are that bothers me more than a little.

People have long assumed that persons who are so heartless and do heinous things to others must have come from backgrounds that were filled with abuse and neglect. And in the case of “Dexter,” his childhood trauma is remarkable. He witnessed his mother murdered by drug dealers and was tutored by his police officer adoptive father to bring justice to evil-doers who escaped sanction by killing them in a ritual manner. “Is it any wonder Dexter is the way he is?,” a person must ask him or herself. This portrayal is great for the series because it makes the main character endearing in a way, which is one likely reason the series is so successful. But the reality about psychopathy is even more chilling. That is the fact that many psychopaths don’t have horrendous histories in their past that “made” them the dangerous folks they are. So as chilling as it is to watch the character Dexter, knowing the realities about psychopathy is even more chilling. We know how different they are, but we’re only beginning to learn why they are so different. And what puts most people at such risk to be victimized are two assumptions we’ve long made: that most of us are essentially the same, and that people who do cruel things to others must have been severely mistreated in their formative years. Psychopaths know very well how most people think, and so it’s easy for them to manipulate others into making false assumptions about them and into a false of sympathy for them when they exhibit their heartless behavior.

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Those seeking to understand psychopathy and sociopathy will not be disappointed for a lot of reasons by the character portrayals in Dexter. But those really seeking to understand the origins of this strange condition will not be done any real service by continuing to assume that childhood trauma explains what’s so different and so dangerous about these predators among us. As chilling as that thought is, the whole truth, once finally uncovered, is likely to be even more chilling than that.

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