Nobody Understands Neurosis Like a Psychopath

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It’s our high degree of conscientiousness which leads us to be very careful about the laws we fashion to govern ourselves, especially when those laws might impinge upon the freedoms of others. Psychopaths know it, count on it, and sometimes use it to get away with murder.

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the disturbing characteristics of psychopaths that give them confidence they can engage in the most horrific acts of predatory violence with complete impunity (see “Untouchable: The Chilling Confidence of Psychopaths”). Without making any advance judgments with respect to culpability, I referenced the case of Drew Peterson, who was recently tried for the murder of his third wife, as a possible example of an individual confident that the characteristic conscientiousness of most folks would actually enable someone who had committed unspeakable acts to avoid sanction of any kind. As fate would have it, a jury of his peers did find Peterson guilty of murder, and he will soon be sentenced. But it’s quite likely that the Peterson saga is not yet over. The conviction will almost certainly be appealed, and because there are some very unusual aspects to this case, the newly convicted killer still has fairly good reason to believe he will eventually walk free.

The government could not prosecute Peterson for all the crimes he is suspected of committing. His fourth wife disappeared and has never been found. Peterson insists she probably ran off with another man, and once suggested that she might well be enjoying life “on the beach” somewhere and simply doesn’t want to be found. Police think Peterson murdered her and will never reveal where he disposed of her body. But it was her disappearance that led authorities to re-examine the mysterious death of Peterson’s third wife, who was found dead in an upstairs bathtub. At the time, her death was ruled accidental, but in light of the disappearance of his fourth wife, the case was reopened, the body exhumed, and a more meticulous examination undertaken. That investigation more clearly pointed to foul play. And at Peterson’s recent trial, it was learned that just before her disappearance, his fourth wife had confided to a minister that Peterson admitted killing his third wife, and that she even witnessed him disposing evidence of the crime. Police suspect that’s why Peterson had to make her “disappear.” Jurors also heard testimony from others that before her death, Peterson’s third wife told them she was fearful Peterson planned to kill her. But of course, neither of Peterson’s wives could provide first hand testimony or be cross-examined. And therein lies the real dilemma. Although in the end, the jury believed it “reasonable” to accept the hearsay testimony of second hand witnesses, the fact that it was hearsay that convicted Peterson puts his conviction on some very shaky ground.

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We neurotics are a most interesting lot. Sometimes we bring inordinate distress upon ourselves. That’s because we repress and suppress so many of our instinctual urges and desires. But we really try hard to be more than animals. And although Sigmund Freud is famous for saying that civilization is the reason for our neurosis, as I assert in my book Character Disturbance, it’s much more accurate to say that our neurosis is, for the most part, the reason we have civilization. And it’s the high degree of conscientiousness that comes along with neurosis that leads us to be very careful about the laws we fashion to govern ourselves, especially when those laws might impinge upon the freedoms of others. We go the extra mile to protect the innocent and to give everyone a fair shake. We simply couldn’t bear the guilt of unnecessarily making someone else’s life miserable. And for years, we’ve had rules in place to limit the admissibility of hearsay evidence in courtroom trials. But there was something about the Peterson case that so unnerved the citizens and lawmakers in his home state that they passed new legislation to allow murder victims to “speak from the grave” through the testimony of others to whom they might have confided before their death. And the jurors in the Peterson case were clear: there would not have been a conviction were it not for the hearsay evidence they heard. That’s why Peterson still has reason to hope and to smile.

In my prior article on this topic, I was careful not to anticipate anything prematurely. But I’m now prepared to make a prediction. I predict that civilization will prevail because the conscientiousness associated with maintaining it, as well as the neurosis it sometimes also prompts, will also prevail. And that most likely also means that a superior court will find fault with laws that permit hearsay testimony and strike them down. But the fact that this is likely to happen and will most probably result in the overturning of a murder conviction, is not in itself unnerving. What’s unnerving is that Peterson, if he is a psychopath (not making any assumptions here — just speaking hypothetically), is most likely counting on that very fact. Nobody, but nobody, understands neurosis like a psychopath. And it’s their assuredness that most of the rest of us will always go the extra mile to get things right, while in the process enabling them to literally get away with murder, that lies underneath their deeply disturbing and confident smile.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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