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Mauri-Lynne Heller on Infancy, Empathy, and Psychopathy

"Empathy, Ethics and Morality" at (May 8, 2009).

It is facile and erroneous to believe that some people are born evil and must be destroyed. The pretty blonde demon-child, Rhoda, featured in the 1960’s kitsch movie, “The Bad Seed,” was an amusing caricature. A fortuitous lightening strike might have concluded the movie, but it shed no light on a very complicated social concern. It is much more painful to acknowledge that a great deal of sociopathy might be preventable. While individuals suffering from criminal illness must be removed from society, it is imperative to remember that the cause of their pathology is very complex. ¶ Devoid of humanity, these people are grossly damaged. Because they never experienced secure interpersonal attachments as infants, they are incapable of forming any relationships defined by mutual concern or reciprocity. Their empathy software is missing. While the damage inflicted by sociopathy on a nuclear family is tragically unquantifiable, the emergence of these character traits in our social midst has tremendous import for society, government and culture.

While most of us lie from time to time, we usually feel guilt. People with antisocial traits do not. In fact, they are aroused and thrilled each time they “get away” with a transgression. In effect, they are relentlessly punishing the environment that disappointed them as infants. Jeffrey Dahmer, who also engaged in cannibalism, was enacting a distorted form of breast feeding, actual human flesh symbolically representing nourishment he did not receive as an infant. But gratification is fleeting, just as it is with binge shopping, because the emotional hunger is never sated. The inner wound is never exposed and healed.

What are the implications for all of us? The seeds of both sociopathy and morality are sown in infancy. A baby who received empathy can bestow it. A child whose mind-body needs were not met adequately will live the remainder of his life like a machine, devoid of the traits that make us most human. While a massive government bail out may preclude the immanent implosion of our financial system, it will not prevent the next one. To accomplish that, we have to repair the emotional potholes in our own streets.