Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wisconsin--Beleaguered but Great

It was a comment that nagged at me, though perhaps “statement” is a better word, since Susan had written it and not spoken it (though I’m absolutely sure she’d be willing to say it, as well). But she had written, “I think the man is a psychopath,” and she was referring, yes, to the current governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

It was interesting, I felt, on many levels, not the least of which was that when I was practicing as a psychiatric nurse—OK, three decades ago—the theory then was that true psychopaths are so rare that you might spend your professional career in psychiatry and never meet more than a handful of them. How rare was psychopathy? Well, am I wrong in thinking that we actually renamed the disorder as something like, “antisocial personality disorder?” I could look it up, if it mattered….

Oh, they were out there, and we were told: Beware of any friendship between a borderline personality disorder—of which the population was saturated—and that odd psychopath. Because the mix was supposed to be deadly. Here’s the way it might play out:

Borderline (to be known herein as “B”): Oh Jack, I know I can trust you, because you’re the ONLY person who understands me! (This was called splitting: setting one person up as the savior, versus the whole wide wicked uncaring world). And you’re so smart, and so kind (manipulation). And I feel so alone, and so helpless (play for empathy). I’m just so helpless, and I’ll never get better! That’s why I going to tell you: I’m going to KILL MYSELF (drama queen!) Yes, I’ve been cheeking my meds, and now I have enough! So between PM and night shifts, I’m GOING TO SWALLOW THEM ALL!

Psychopath (“P”): OK

Here, it’s not what happened but what didn’t happen, since the borderline was on a completely different train—and track—as the psychopath. Because the borderline assumed that the psychopath would run straight, although covertly, to the nursing / medical staff, to alert them. Then, the borderline would swallow the pills, arrange herself like Violetta in the last act of Traviata, and wait for the tenor—garbed in scrubs or whites—to come in at the last scene.


So I had been aware, in my forays through TED talks and YouTube, that we had all been seeing psychopathy wrong. Now… well, consider this quote:

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person's psychopathic or antisocial tendencies.  It was developed in the 1970’s by Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian professor and researcher renowned in criminal psychology, who has spent three decades studying the concept known as the psychopath and based partly on Hare’s work with prison inmates in Vancouver.

For those interested, there’s a documentary below. And so I watched it, since a novel is looming on the horizon, the central question of which is whether there is higher than normal levels of psychopathy in conservatories, and if so, why? And how does it play out on both the faculty and the students?

And I knew that there were some professions that attracted, or maybe selected for, psychopathy. And that’s adaptive, in a sense: Confession—I give injections very well, to the point that I have had to show the empty syringe to the patient all to convince them that, yes, I gave the shot, though he or she didn’t feel it. I do this by caring not in the least about the patient, or whether he or she will feel it. Oh, and I absolutely do NOT say: “Now this is going to hurt, so take a deep breath, and I will tell you when I’m going to give the injection….” Duh, guys?

So am I a psychopath?

Wrong question, according to the documentary, since there are very few pure, 100% psychopaths: It was Ted Bundy, if I remember correctly, who got “only” 39 out of a possible score of 40. So maybe I would score a 1 or a 5 or even a 15: It doesn’t qualify me to play in the big leagues.

Well, one of the researchers interviewed in the documentary was actually from the University of Wisconsin, so that meant my problem was solved, right? Hey, just call the guy up—people in Wisconsin tend to pick up the phone, or at least answer message (might be that lingering duty towards the Wisconsin Idea…)—ask if Walker was a psychopath, and report in to all you Concerned Readers. Whew—my job done for the day! Beach time!

This tells you, perhaps, that my psychopathy is limited to piffling affairs like giving shots, because it took me several games of Sudoku (during which I mull things over) to realize: No amount of tenure would be enough to get a shrink to diagnose anyone he hasn’t met over the phone to a stranger. Oh, and if the patient is Governor Walker? Well, in his case, I fear that we’ll never know if nice guys finish last….

Right, so that wasn’t happening. And then I began to mull what I began to think of as the theory of historical inevitability. I give you the old question: How could Germany, the center of culture and scholarship, the homeland of Goethe and Schiller, have fallen prey to Adolph Hitler?

There’s one answer—and no, by the way, I’m not comparing Walker and Hitler—and that is that if it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been somebody else, just as bad, just as totalitarian. The period—with its humiliation over the defeat in World War I, its massive inflation, it anti-Semitism—selected the dictator. And his name happened to be Hitler.

I’m on the fence on this, but it did stir me to wonder: Why did Minnesota, a state so similar to Wisconsin, go one way, while Wisconsin went the other? OK—let me rephrase the question: How many people know the name of the governor of Minnesota, versus the governor of Wisconsin? I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t, until Mary Jane, a very nice woman from Minnesota told me: The name is Layton, he’s very unassuming, completely inept at giving glib answers, and totally committed to the state. OK—maybe we now do know about nice guys finishing last….

But was it just coincidence? I had figured out that the rise of Walker coincided with the subsequent boom in fracking sand mines in Wisconsin, and who had put Walker in office? Right—The Koch brothers, and so I had written a post last year, entitled something like “Oil Barons Buy the State of Wisconsin.” But the question still nagged: Why Wisconsin, not Minnesota? Just bad luck?

Then it dawned on me: What are the characteristics of the victims of psychopaths, and could a state be a victim, as much as an individual? Here, I have no answer. But the documentary made very clear: Psychopaths are predators, who study their victims as a lion studies a herd, looking for the weakest victim. And here I checked on the website—and could I make this up?—and discovered what I had suspected: Victims tend to be trusting, loyal, caring, sentimental, and committed to helping others meet their goals.

Sound familiar?

And so I resolved another problem I had been having, since I’ve been feeling massively guilty about having elected Walker in the first place—true, a bit irrational, since I’ve been living out of state for 25 years, now—and especially guilty about possibly inflicting him on the rest of the country. Because guess what? Victims of psychopaths feel guilty, much like abuse victims. Gee, wonder why that could be?

Right—so I’m working on it. All of the things that made Wisconsin go for a good guy like Fighting Bob La Follette also made us perfect victims for Joe McCarthy and Walker. What makes us great makes us weak.

Oh, and the theory of Historical Inevitability?

…think I know which way I’m leaning now!