Ideas

Creating Conscience, Part 2: A history of treating the psychopath

For decades psychiatry has been asking: what makes a psychopath? The list of possible explanations stretches back over centuries: demonic possession, trace metals in the body, bad mothering, violence on television, birth trauma. In Episode 2 of this series, IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell returns to an interview she did with a serial killer 20 years ago, to understand what motivated him and explores what insight experts can give us about the modern-day psychopath.
(Sean Howard)
Listen to the full episode53:59

For decades psychiatry has been asking: what makes a psychopath?  The list of possible explanations stretches back over centuries: demonic possession, trace metals in the body, bad mothering, violence on television, birth trauma. In Episode 2 of this series, IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell returns to an interview she did with a serial killer in 1998 to understand what motivated him and explores what insight experts can give us about the modern-day psychopath.     

**This episode originally aired May 22, 2017.


For the last forty years, Russell Johnson has resided inside the Waypoint Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario.

Waypoint sits close to Midland — a boat in every driveway kind of community. Russell Johnson is here because he was found not criminally responsible for the murder of seven women and the rape of ten others throughout the 1970's in southwestern Ontario. His case file is more than three feet thick. That's because Russell Johnson has been diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to psychosis. He's been diagnosed as a psychopath but some believe he doesn't score high enough using certain psychiatric metrics. More recently, Russell Johnson is considered to have a personality disorder — a euphemism for psychopathy.

Some people see psychopaths as cold-blooded super predators. But they're just like us really only they have a dysregulation of brain structure.- Joshua  Buckholtz , Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

In 1998, Russell Johnson talked to IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell. She is the only journalist ever to have interviewed him. Mary returns to this interview combining it with the theories and ideas of experts today, to present a new portrait of Russell Johnson.

The serial killer grew up dirt poor in a home with two brothers and mentally ill parents. Russell's father didn't allow his sons to celebrate Christmas. He believed the stores were owned by Jews who simply wanted to drain Christian pockets of money. Religious observances were heavily enforced. Russell went to church every day and confession once a week. He says the overall message was, "you could do wrong, but just don't get caught". At the age of 13, he came to the attention of police for stealing women's underwear off clotheslines and for being a peeping tom. Like many psychopaths, he quit school early.  Psychopathy expert Kent Kiehl says: "despite their intelligence, education is considered a waste of time because there are many other ways to assert dominance". Russell Johnson married young and had a child, and left his family, he claims, when his wife cheated on him. He says he channelled his anger into body-building and, often at night, would consume a steady flow of diet pills and alcohol. That's when the rapes started.

By 1973, Russell Johnson had escalated his crimes to murder.  

Jennifer Skeem is an Associate Dean of Research in Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She says there are secondary personality traits that most psychopaths exhibit, like boldness, meanness and disinhibition — traits that Russell Johnson appears to have displayed in the way that he raped and killed. According to police, Johnson would sometimes scale apartment balconies, up to 14 stories high. He would often leave the crime scene tidied up and meticulously cleaned. He was so good at leaving no traces behind that police in London, Ontario believed the first three murder victims died of natural causes.    

Russell Johnson comes across as intelligent, soft-spoken and often uses the jargon of therapy. According to Kent Kiehl: "this is common and psychopaths do this for a reason: it's called impression management." Russell Johnson also exhibits a level of grandiosity that does not incorporate his actions.  He confides in the interviewer: "I was named #1 in charge of security here because I'm good with people and they trust me. And you know, some of the psychiatrists here are off-the-wall, nuts, eh?"    

Joshua Buckholtz is Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard, 0:47

Forensic psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon encountered the same trait of grandiosity when he interviewed American serial killer, John Wayne Gacy.  "He was an incredible huckster. He would write letter after letter saying that the media had portrayed him unfairly. He cranked out paintings all the time… often they were of these distant mountain ranges with icy peaks. He said it symbolized the idea that you can overcome any obstacle in your life if you try hard enough. This continued up until he was extinguished by lethal injection."     
 

Guests in this episode:

  • Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon is a forensic psychologist, Columbus Ohio.
  • Kent Kiehl is Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Law at the University of New Mexico.
  • Jennifer Skeem is Associate Dean of Research in Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Joshua Buckholtz is  Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Further reading:


**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.

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