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What Makes a Psychopath?

Recently, Josef Fritzl, the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in an underground enclosure and fathered all seven of her children, was sentenced to life imprisonment himself. Ironically he was to receive the same sentence that he had hoped to give to his child and grandchildren for many more years. Thankfully he was discovered by health authorities due to an illness in one of his incest-created children.

Realistically, we will never know what drove this man, or indeed other psychopaths, to do what they do. Their behavior, by definition, goes beyond the norm and therefore becomes difficult for us to understand.

But there are characteristics that many of these male psychopaths have in common, and in the case of Josef Fritzl, he followed the typical pattern. The problem usually begins in early childhood, although it is impossible to identify a man of Fritzl’s behavior early in life and predict from his childhood behavior what he would go on to do in adulthood. Typically men like him were already loners by school age, failing to socialize with their peers due to a lack of positive socialization skills in the family home.

In Friztl’s case, his psychiatrist identified his relationship with his mother as being at the root of his behavior. Mothers are typically blamed for the psychological ills of their offspring, and I do have a problem with mental health professionals ignoring the role of the father in cases such as these. Certainly Fritzl’s father is as culpable as his mother in creating a home environment which fostered the bizarre world of Josef Fritzl in later life.

There is little doubt that the home environment provided by the parents has a strong bearing on the final outcome on the child’s eventual behavior. Fritzl’s mother was described as “cold” and “punitive” which gave Fritzl a lifelong hated of domineering women. He developed early in his life a need for a sense of power and control that his mother denied him. Hence by 1967, he found himself in jail on rape charges.

Rape is a crime of power not of sexual satisfaction and so Fritzl as a young man exerted his need for control over women in a most violent way. It was no wonder that when his daughter Elisabeth ran away from his rigid regime three times in her teens, his final solution to controlling her was to imprison her and then repeatedly rape her. This situation would undoubtedly have lasted the remainder of her life if circumstances had not occurred to expose the horror that was going on beneath the seemingly normal upper stories of this typical Austrian home.

Fortunately, true psychopathy is relatively rare. But where is does exist so much psychological and physical damage is done. Hence these cases become sensationalized. What we do no is that while we are all born with an in-built personality type, we don’t go on to become psychopaths even when extreme stress is place upon an individual. That is, being treated cruelly as a child does not result in psychopathy by default.

It is these individual differences in people that fascinate the general public when cases such as these come to the attention of the masses. Thankfully there are relatively few in number.


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