The initial idea for writing a Young Adult take on William March’s The Bad Seed (1954) came from one of my favourite novelists, Tayari Jones. She was tweeting about the book—or was it the movie—and got me thinking about evil children. What would it be like to be the older sibling of a psychopathic child? I reread the book, which was as good as I remembered,1 and made me wonder how much the research on psychopaths has changed since the 1950s.
At the same time I was noticing people using the term sociopath as if it were not a synonym for psychopath. What was that about? I wondered. How did it connect to the third synonym antisocial personality disorder, which is the term used to refer to the condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
So what is psychopathy/sociopathy/antisocial personality disorder? Whatever you call it this disorder refers to a cluster of attributes that include things like lack of empathy or remorse or feelings of guilt, being a thrillseeker, having an inflated sense of self worth, being charismatic, lying, being promiscuous, and impulsive. Being diagnosed as a psychopath is not like being diagnosed as having chicken pox. It’s not clear cut. There are disagreements about what it is, even whether it exists, who fits the description, and who doesn’t. Different experts will diagnose people differently. One expert’s psychopath is another’s narcissist.2
I’ve been thinking about psychopaths for a long time. For as long as I’ve been reading True Crime books, which is a really long time. What? I was one of those kids who liked weird, creepy things and being scared. When I was eleven or twelve I came across a battered paperback of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry about Charles Manson and his murders. It ignited my fascination with psychopaths. How could Manson be so evil? How could his followers do what he said? How was any of it possible?
Soon afterwards I was reading Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me about Dahmer and working my way through her other books. I read all of Brian Masters’ books about serial killers. As well as the obvious classics like Truman Capote’s highly fictional In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. More recently I’ve inhaled books like, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal and Under the Bridge by Rebecca Godfrey.
Closer to home, I read Julie Clarke and Richard Neville’s The Life and Serious Crimes of Charles Sobhraj just as Sohbraj escaped from an Indian jail and was all over the news again. I hadn’t really thought about psychopaths living in Australia. My reading made me think they were more of an American thing. Next I read Who Killed Leigh Leigh? by Kerry Carrington, a book that was even closer to home as it looked closely at a brutal murder in my own state of New South Wales.
Psychopaths, I was beginning to realise were everywhere. I might even know one.3
At the same time I was also inhaling fiction about psychopaths, especially the novels of Patricia Highsmith, which are pretty much all about psychopaths.4 I won’t list the many, many other psychopath novels I’ve consumed over the years because none of them are as good as Highsmith’s.
Then there were all the bad seed novels. I was obsessed with William March’s book as a kid. How could a child be so evil? Was it real? Were there other kids like that? As a child I encountered a few kids I thought were evil incarnate. But I was a pretty hyperbolic child so they were probably run-of-the-mill mean not burn-the-janitor-to-death evil. Some of the other bad seed books that kept me up at night were Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the novelisation of The The Omen by screen writer David Seltzer.
As I started to write My Sister Rosa I read The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality by Hervey M. Cleckley. First published in 1941. It’s an incredibly influential book and has been through many editions. I read the one that’s been made available free online. Cleckley’s work was with upper class psychopaths at a posh asylum, who were usually committed into his care by their families. These patients were not usually violent. Many of them were fraudsters and confidence tricksters. Later treatises on psychopaths tended to stem from work largely done with prison populations where the psychopaths were often violent.
I also read The Handbook of Child & Adolescent Psychopathy, Edited by Randall T. Salekin and Donald Lynam. Not an easy read for anyone who hasn’t studied psychology or psychiatry, like me. I soon turned to popular non-fiction books on psychopathy, including The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon, Without Conscience by Robert D. Hare and all his other books, The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout and Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas.
After all that reading I was left with the conclusion that the answer to nurture versus nature is BOTH. Psychopaths, like all humans, are a product of their genes, their environment and their brain morphology. None of those things are fixed.
The shape of our brain changes as we grow, and can be shaped by our environment, by malnutrition, by accidents. Recent research in the field of epigenetics is showing us that our genes aren’t fixed either. And, of course, no one’s environment is fixed. We are affected not just by the obvious stuff like where we live, our family, school, friends, but also, it turns out, by where we travel, what we read, and many other variables. Which is how two siblings growing up in the same family can be radically different despite their shared environment and genes.
Lili Wilkinson and Anna Grace Hopkins sent me down down the path of reading about empathy. I read all of Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz’s books on empathy, starting with The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. I also looked into some of the various philosophical debates around empathy.5 My reading of the case studies of deprived children left me amazed by how resilient humans are. Children can grow up under horrific circumstances: abused, neglected, brainwashed and unloved yet still develop empathy and grow up to be loving, caring adults. It’s remarkable that the majority of people emerging out of such horrific conditions aren’t psychopaths.
Lastly, I was inspired by watching my fantabulous niece learn to laugh, walk, talk, and become a little empathetic, loving person. Watching my niece helped me imagine all the ways in which Rosa is nothing like her.