I wrote this post a long time ago. I didn’t post it for various reasons but it turns out my choice was wrong. Between writing this and today, three people could have been saved a painful experience if information like this had crossed their paths. Who knows who would have read this. So, if it was meant for you, I apologize for waiting.
This information is not meant to diagnose *anything* and it is not about anyone specific (‘cept maybe Warren Jeffs–I think about him a lot when I read this). It’s information. That’s all. Do with it what you will.
One of the chapters on my dissertation deals with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the use of language to maintain order through defining behaviors as “insane.” While writing this chapter, a co-worker whose master’s degree is in Abnormal Psychology recommended that I have a look at Thomas Szasz’s theories. Without knowing it, I was echoing Szasz’s ideas that the power of language concerning “madness” is used to maintain the social order, particularly where politics (and religion as a sect of government) and mental health are concerned. Szasz argued that the use of shock therapy was abused by the state as an Althusserian RSA (repressive state apparatus). He argued that accepting the term “mental illness” as a synonym for “behaviors of which we disapprove,” allows the state to micro-govern individual behaviors.
I say this up front because I want you to understand where I’m coming from. As a Pagan, I am open to folks experiencing the world in a different way—or maybe because of my acceptance of different perceptions, I am Pagan.
While it may be true that there is a larger preponderance of folks who would be labeled as “mentally-ill” within the Pagan community, I suspect that this is because we are more tolerant of idiomatic eccentricities, are more sensitive to environmental factors, tend toward more austere economic factors, and have stronger psychic abilities and openness to “the invisible world.” (Then again, these factors may be what attracted some of us to Pagansim. Chicken or egg?) However, I wonder if, sometimes, our tolerance enables some bizarre behaviors that range from a cry for help to downright predation.
While co-designing a course for Open Path Pagan Seminary’s Ordination track this week, I’ve learned a good deal about differentiating dangerous behaviors from benign “kooky” behaviors. In talking the content over with one of the well-seasoned “Seers” from the local oracular group, she revealed some recent (and a lil frightening) moments of insight. I’m enthralled enough to share some of it with you. You know, just in case there is someone in your community who really needs a closer look.
My inner-lawyer tells me to say:
Keep in mind that my PhD is in English, not Psychology, and that this information is from a ministerial perspective, not from a medical perspective.
When you say sociopath, I think Ted Bundy. When you say psychopath, I think Son of Sam. But I’m learning that sociopaths and psychopaths can be dangerous without being killers. They can destroy the fabric of communities and the cohesion of families and do great damage to the psyches of individuals. In the end, these folks can be pushed to murder—but that’s not the only thing you have to watch out for.
I use the term “subject” to indicate “the topic of this post,” as in “the material being considered in a written composition,” not to “subjectify” or dehumanize someone with a mental illness. *And we are talking about an illness.* We can have empathy for the illness and yet proceed with personal caution.
Are they “above the law”?
Now, as a community, we Pagans tend to defy social norms—many of us as a form of intentional protest. We are also humans who make mistakes and have to choose the lesser of two evils. That is one thing. But take a look at the pattern of behaviors; is there a pattern of “not learning from mistakes” or a sense of “rules are made to be broken” or “that rule/law doesn’t apply to me”? This kind of behavior tends to begin in childhood, but not always—your subject may have a juvie record; what’s more will be entirely unremorseful about it or maintain a lack of regard for accepted social behavior. (They may also teach their own children that they are “above the law.”) Keep in mind that being “flighty” or “accident-prone” is not the same as being steadfastly defiant. This way of thinking or experiencing the world can simply be a sign of immaturity or narcissism, but it can also be a red flag—especially if it comorbid with other factors.
It may seem like “no big deal,” but these folks don’t see any need in even the most simple legal restrictions. This gets dangerous in religious organizations when we are supposed to apply for permits for festivals, file business paperwork, maintain non-comingled accounts, etc. This seems simple, but you can end up in a world of legal hurt if you count on someone to abide by regulations and they just don’t. Yeah, this can be chalked up to absent-mindedness in anyone and is not really a surefire sign of a dangerous mental state. But if you are in a vulnerable position (in a “legally liable” sense) it behooves you to double-check on things when you are dealing with a potentially unstable personality.
Do they have inappropriate emotional responses?
It may be that a lack of emotion is one of the most recognizable symptoms of a psychopath. But considering that some people aren’t as emotional as others, and some folks are emotional but not demonstrative of emotion when in a public arena, I don’t think we can judge by this alone. Nonetheless, there are some situations where an emotional response should be pretty consistent with expectations. If emotions are seemingly non-existent, look more closely—your subject may just be good at “hiding it.” Of course, trying to detect emotion can be difficult since the most dangerous manipulators (like psychopaths) learn how to play “the emotion game.” However, in the long term, you can tell if emotions are incongruous or—and this seems to be more likely—fake. In this case your subject is probably a manipulator and could be a psychopath or have other personality disorders or even a combination of personality disorders.
Using emotion to exploit others is also a dangerously unhealthy personality trait. Some folks will use our emotions against us or—worse—use their own (contrived) emotions to manipulate our responses. Some folks will withhold emotion, withhold acknowledgement or appreciation, and withhold information in order to control our behavior.
We tend to think of predators as male. This isn’t fair at all. There are female sociopaths as well as male sociopaths; the disorder is just manifested differently. It seems that female manipulators have a few extra guns in their arsenal. This article by clinical psychologist, Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, (and its follow-up) points out that a female sociopath “shows no empathy toward her husband, . . . sets out to deliberately rob him of as many of his assets as she possibly can,” including his sense of masculinity or sense of self, “believes she’s entitled to money and other material goods for which she hasn’t worked, . . . robs her husband of the people he loves most, . . . derives pleasure from sadistically hurting and punishing her husband and . . . laughs at her husband’s pain.” Plus, female sociopaths are known to make false claims of rape (and attempted rape) and use pregnancy (and fictitious pregnancies) to control others. Like I said, ask about the police report. In this way, you can potentially avoid hurting someone in your community with false accusations. And, again, you can’t take one “symptom” to mean anything. You could just have an insecure mythomaniac on your hands.
Pay attention to the alcohol, substance, and dietary intake of your subject. Again, you could have a substance abuser on your hands, or you could have something more serious. It seems sociopaths require a good deal of
excitement—they need to be surrounded by sensory stimuli. Of course, they prefer indulgences but will settle for pain. If they can’t get enough pleasurable stimuli, they will self-injure, fight, and engage in more destructive behaviors just to keep the excitement-level “up.” Drugs and alcohol, ironically serve to dull these sensations and, therefore, fuel the subject’s need for “more.” It becomes an insatiable cycle.
A note on animals
It’s fairly well known that one of the first crimes a serial killer commits is against animals. In our community, we tend to be overtly pro-animal-rights. So, someone who advocates “sacrificing” animals would stick out like a sore thumb. This is not in and of itself a “symptom,” but anyone in your community who encourages ritual sacrifice outside of your comfort zone should be carefully scrutinized. While there are some religions where animal sacrifice is the norm, in the U.S. we have regulations regarding animal sacrifice and carcass disposal. See this. Just saying.
It seems that one sign of controlling manipulators, especially the more dangerous ones, claim that other are out to get them, claim that they are persecuted (either by a specific individual or a system: “the man”) and yet simultaneously assert that they are “not victims.” Manipulators want sympathy, but don’t want to be seen as weak. When you talk to someone who you think might be “playing victim” and consider how real victims react; then gauge that against your subject’s reactions to supposed victimization. When a manipulator cries “foul,” they don’t tend to involve the authorities. Someone who’s genuinely been hurt will at least consider it. You’ll never see a police report for the many supposed crimes committed against your manipulator; you’ll never see documentation or a doctor’s bill for injuries inflicted upon your manipulator. If your subject says, “So-and-so did X,” ask if he/she called a doctor or the police or alerted the authorities.
The blame game
Think about the arguments you have gotten into with your subject or arguments you have observed your subject have with others. Psychopaths, sociopaths, and those with various personality disorders don’t take responsibility for their wrongdoings—if, that is, you can get them to admit that they’ve done something wrong. This goes back to the point of being victimized. Everything is someone else’s fault even if there is overwhelming evidence you’re your subject is “guilty.” The worst thing you can do to one of these people is provide a point by point logical exposition of evidence; manipulators prefer to “get off topic” or “change the subject” or reverse the blame: “Well, look what you (or someone else) did.”
Isolate and conquer
In between playing victim and blaming others, manipulators tend to encourage isolation. These people will “split” relationships and play each member against the other and will engage in character assassination. This is a rather intricate practice. For instance, your subject will “come between” Susan and Jane, telling Susan unsavory things about Jane while telling Jane unsavory things about Susan—all the while pretending to be loyal to each in turn. The most skilled manipulator can pick up on subtle “truths” and expound on them so that they become destructive defamations but because they have the smallest grain of veracity, they are confoundingly believable. Manipulators are very good liars. However, in order to keep their machinations “under wraps,” your manipulator will try very hard to keep Susan and Jane from communicating with each other.
But how can you tell if this is psychopathy or if it is just compulsive lying? One thing you can do is look at the pattern of relationships surrounding your subject. Do couples tend to break up? Is there a pattern of “wash-rinse-repeat” in relationships? Do dear and trusted friends tend to become vicious enemies when they are associated with your subject? If so, yeeeeeaaaahhhh, you might have a problem. And you might notice is that folks in their social circle don’t stick around for more than a year or so. The closer the relationship, the shorter the stay. If you notice that folks who were once “bosom buddies” with your subject are now not on speaking terms with your subject—and especially if you notice a pattern of this phenomenon—you’ll want to be careful.
Because of their need for attention and their drive to control others, it’s unfortunate that many of the most skilled manipulators (and, therefore, the most dangerous manipulators) end up in leadership positions. This doesn’t mean that I think you should go out and interrogate your group’s leader to ascertain whether or not he or she is a psychopath. It just means that if you recognize a few or more of the signs listed here and on the other sites I’ve pointed to, you might want to check it out.
Leaders who are also manipulators tend to ask for unquestioning loyalty, they don’t want you to look for outside authoritative sources or seek knowledge on your own, they want to arbitrate all disputes (as mentioned above), control all relationships–even so far as to tell you who you can be with and under what conditions, control all access to [fill in the blank]. They also tend to see others as inferiors and may use terms like “followers,” “minions,” “underlings,” and talk about people in proprietary terms: “my” and “mine.” Where this becomes dangerous is when someone with low-self-esteem (particularly tasty prey for the predatory manipulator) or someone who instinctively (or even subconsciously) seeks approval from authority figures. Sometimes these people are referred to as “needy.” What tends to happen is that your subject will choose one or two particularly vulnerable people to keep by their side. While most folks get “cycled through” as I mentioned above, these folks (the particularly tasty ones) get “recycled.” Watch the relationship over time—it will be “push-pull.” Where this gets scary is that the manipulating psychopath can easily convince others to “do their bidding.” Think about how dangerous Charles Manson was—and he never committed a single murder on his own.
On the positive side
Many manipulators get away with quite a lot because they have some really appealing and desirable positive attributes. Psyco/sociopaths can be highly creative, they use words in an evocative manner, they are very intelligent and have specific talents, they tend to be very funny, they tend to have a sort of magnetic sex appeal, and they can be the “life of the party.”
So what do I do?
Now that you have a few neck-hairs standing up, you might wonder what to do now that you are pretty certain you have a disturbed and potentially dangerous person in your midst. First, don’t panic. Whatever you do, do not turn the situation into a “witch hunt.” If you know someone who has just one or two of these traits, you prolly just have a personality “flaw” on your hands, not a personality “disorder.” This list is meant to indicate that if you see *all* or *almost all* of these traits in a single person, they might need help. And don’t take my word for it, investigate for yourself; look up “psychopath,” sociopath,” and “personality disorders.” You might even like the terms doctors use better than the lay-terms I used here.
And still, don’t panic. Most of the danger these folks pose is “slow burn” rather than “flash-fire.” This is dangerous in and of itself since people in the community don’t tend to “pick up” on cues until the damage is done. But, at least it means you don’t likely have an eminent mass murder on your hands. (*Most likely*—use your gut and your best judgment. Call the authorities if you are really skeered.) The first thing you want to do is write everything down. In the heat of the moment of a discussion with another can make your “mind go blank.”
In the long run, you want to educate yourself and community members about personality disorders. You want to locate resources and know where to find more help if it ends up being necessary.
But you don’t want to do any of this at the expense of the person with the disorder. Because it is a disorder. Be firm, but be compassionate.
Also, STFU. If the “patient” doesn’t want the world to know they have a personality disorder, it ain’t our place to make it front page news, right? However, there are times with personality disorders where it is in the best interest of others’ safety to know that a person has a personality disorder. For example, when an adult child is involved it’s best to enable family members to help out rather than exacerbate potentially dangerous behaviors.
Most of all, remember that every man and woman is a star; each person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
If you are the leader of the community, you might need to take steps to protect the rest of your kindred while working toward getting assistance for the person burdened with a disorder. Your church/grove/hof/kindred/community likely has some sort of procedure in place for dealing with members’ medical/psychiatric needs. Abide by those as closely as is humanly possible. And if you fall short? You can’t guilt-trip yourself. We can’t save everyone. But you should try. Contact the American Psychiatric Association if you find that you are in over your head.
If you aren’t the leader, you should begin a dialogue with your leader. If you suspect that your leader is unstable, or if you r leader is unwilling to listen to your perspective, you may need to just sever ties. There are other communities out there. Find one and start healing.
You want to be honest with yourself about your own needs—can you afford the extra drama and emotional strain that comes of being wrapped up in other people’s mental illnesses—especially when it becomes apparent that they are not going to seek therapeutic assistance. Make sure you are not surrendering your quality of life in effort to accommodate someone who suffers from a personality disorder. Psychologists warn us that most untreated personality disorders preclude open, honest, trusting relationships. If you find that you need to cut off contact, you want to make a clean break. According to this site you should get out of a manipulative relationship right-quick, stay away, “[a]void mutual friends,” and “[r]emain detached” by not responding to messages aimed at manipulating your reactions. When it comes down to it, if the situation is going to stay the same, for your own sanity, you have to get out and stay out.
Be safe and be good to each other.
 Szasz passed beyond just a few months ago.
He was the one who famously said: “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic” (The Second Sin. New York: Doubleday, 1973).
 I used The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. New York: Harper & Row. 1974.
The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. 1997 (1970), Liberation by Oppression: A Comparative Study of Slavery and Psychiatry. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. 2002, and My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. 2006, but Szasz has about as many titles as Stephen King.
 It’s easy to check Online for articles of incorporation (look at the Secretary of State’s page for your state), tax forms (IRS.gov), property records (you can typically find this at your county or parish home page), permit applications, etc. For instance, if you want to check the tax status of a religious organization, the IRS requires that all charities provide paperwork “on request” to all inquirers. All property ownership is a matter of public record in the U.S.; so, despite what the manipulator might tell you, you do have a right to look this stuff up. If there’s nothing to hide, no one should mind. Right?
 For instance, “histrionic personality disorder” (the one that seems to draw “drama”) tends to be indicated by vacillating emotional states, body dysmorphia, and an odd sense of self-esteem—they seem to be very self-confident, yet have a low sense of self-worth—and yet they have great social skills. That’s where the problem comes in; these folks tend to use their “dramatic” and yet self-deprecating personalities to manipulate others. Look here for more information. And you can go here to take a test.