Archives for 2010

Lying in Family Court

by Bill Eddy, Esquire, L.C.S.W.

When I became a family law attorney/mediator after a dozen years as a therapist, one of the biggest surprises was the extent of lying in Family Court: lies about income, assets and even complete fabrications of child abuse and domestic violence. Why would people lie so much, I wondered? How did they get away with it? The following is my psychosocial analysis of what I believe has become an epidemic:

Men Lie
It was a sad phone call from a relatively new client. He informed me his father had just died. He had quit his job and was moving back east to wrap up his father’s affairs. He asked me to tell his wife’s attorney that he would not be able to pay child support for their three young children for a long time. (There was no support order yet.)

The next day, his wife’s attorney called me back and described how upset his wife was to learn of her father-in-law’s death. So upset, that she had called his father — and had a nice chat!

Women Lie
A mother involved in a custody battle told the court in dramatic detail about physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She even submitted reports of visits to doctors and emergency rooms for her bruises.

However, a court-ordered psychological evaluation determined the allegations were false. The court agreed and awarded custody to the father. A few weeks later the mother picked up the children from school and disappeared for a year. She was caught, sent to jail for parental kidnaping, and the children returned to the father.

Societal Increase in Lying

Surveys show that lying has increased over the past decade. In 1999 alone: the President was tried in Congress for perjury; a popular journalist in Boston was publicly fired for fabricating heart-rending stories; and a scientist was exposed for falsifying research on a high-profile safety issue.

We have become a society of individuals. Personal gain is more important than community values. In this mobile “information age,” we rely on strangers and are easily fooled. In business, politics, and the movies, winning is everything. Successful manipulation and deceit are admired. In court, lying is often rewarded and rarely punished.

No Penalty for Perjury
Divorce Courts rely heavily on “he said, she said” declarations, signed “under penalty of perjury.” However, a computer search of family law cases published by the appellate courts shows only one appellate case in California involving a penalty for perjury: People v. Berry (1991) 230 Cal. App. 3d 1449. The penalty? Probation.

Perjury is a criminal offense, punishable by fine or jail time, but it must be prosecuted by the District Attorney–who does not have the time. Family Court judges have the ability to sanction (fine) parties, but no time to truly determine that one party is lying. Instead, they may assume both parties are lying or just weigh their credibility.With no specific consequence, the risks of lying are low.

Personality Disorders and Patterns of Lying
Family Courts see everything: from small deceptions about income to the complete fabrication of abuse. The increase in lying seems to correspond with the rising number of people with personality disorders, as I described in my Spring 1998 newsletter. They often have internal distress, less empathy for others, a highly adversarial world view, an intense and manipulative nature, and a sense of victimization which they use to justify harming others. Studies show they have identifiable and predictable patterns of lying:

A party with a Borderline Personality Disorder may lie out of anger or even self-deception in an effort to maintain a bond with their child or spouse–or to retaliate for abandonment. Battles over custody and visitation are common.

One with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder may lie to boost themselves or to put other people down. They enjoy manipulating the truth and other people’s lives. They may experience excitement and a sense of power by successfully fooling the court and dominating the other party. An Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by deception, manipulation, and disrespect for authority. Commonly known as “con artists,” they are skilled at breaking the rules. They fabricate detailed events and use the courts to get revenge or money. Their lack of empathy makes them constant liars — and often violent.

A Histrionic Personality Disorder is often highly dramatic and demanding, with superficial charm and seductiveness. They are skilled at lying and self-deception. Fabrication is also common.

William A. (”Bill”) Eddy is co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute, LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona and Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is a Certified Family Law Specialist in California with fifteen years’ experience representing clients in family court. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years’ experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.

He is the author of several books, including “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes” (Janis Publications, 2006), and “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist (Eggshells Press, 2004). Bill has become an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons and others.

Purchase Bill Eddy’s books:

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes

* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

How Personality Disorders Drive Family Court Litigation – Part 3

by Bill Eddy, Esquire, L.C.S.W.

How Family Court Fits Personality Disorders

Family Court is perfectly suited to the fantasies of someone with a personality disorder: There is an all-powerful person (the judge) who will punish or control the other spouse. The focus of the court process is perceived as fixing blame — and many with personality disorders are experts at blame. There is a professional ally who will champion their cause (their attorney — or if no attorney, the judge). A case is properly prepared by gathering statements from allies — family, friends, and professionals. (Seeking to gain the allegiance of the children is automatic — they too are seen as either allies or enemies. A simple admonition will not stop this.) Generally, those with personality disorders are highly skilled at — and invested in — the adversarial process.

Those with personality disorders often have an intensity that convinces inexperienced professionals — counselors and attorneys — that what they say is true. Their charm, desperation, and drive can reach a high level in this very emotional, bonding process with the professional. Yet this intensity is a characteristic of a personality disorder, and is completely independent from the accuracy of their claims.

What Can Be Done

Judges, attorneys, and family court counselors need to be trained in identifying personality disorders and how to treat them. Mostly, a corrective on-going relationship is needed — preferably with a counselor. However, they usually must be ordered into this because their belief systems include a life-time of denial and avoidance of self-reflection.

Family Code Section 3190 allows the court to order up to one year of counseling for parents, if:

“(1) The dispute between the parents or between a parent and the child poses a substantial danger to the best interest of the child.

[or] (2)The counseling is in the best interest of the child.”

Therapists, in addition to being supportive, need to help clients challenge
their own thinking: about their own role in the dispute; about the accuracy of their view of the other party; and about their high expectations of the court. Further, therapists should never form clinical opinions or write declarations about parties they haven’t interviewed.

Likewise, attorneys need to also challenge their clients’ thinking and not accept their declarations at face value. More time should be spent educating them to focus on negotiating solutions, rather than escalating blame. The court should make greater use of sanctions under Family Code Section 271 for parties and attorneys who refuse to negotiate and unnecessarily escalate the conflict and costs of litigation.

The court must realize that the parties are often not equally at fault. One or both parties may have a personality disorder, but that does not necessarily mean both are offenders (violent, manipulative, or lying). A non-offending,  dependent spouse may truly need the court’s assistance in dealing with the offender. The court should not be neutralized by mutual allegations without looking deeper. Otherwise, because of their personality style, the most offending party is often able to continue their offender behavior — either by matching the other’s true allegations for a neutral outcome, or by being the most skilled at briefly looking good and thereby receiving the court’s endorsement.

The court is in a unique position to motivate needed change in personal behavior. In highly contested cases, counseling or consequences should be ordered. Professionals and parties must work together to fully diagnose and treat each person’s underlying problems, rather than allowing the parties (and their advocates) to become absorbed in an endless adversarial process. Because their largest issues are internal, they will never be resolved in court.

William A. (”Bill”) Eddy is co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute, LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona and Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is a Certified Family Law Specialist in California with fifteen years’ experience representing clients in family court. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years’ experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.

He is the author of several books, including “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes” (Janis Publications, 2006), and “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist (Eggshells Press, 2004). Bill has become an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons and others.

Purchase Bill Eddy’s books:

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes

* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

How Personality Disorders Drive Family Court Litigation – Part 2

Personality Disorders Appearing in Family Court

by Bill Eddy, Esquire, L.C.S.W.

Probably the most prevalent personality disorder in family court is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
more commonly seen in women. BPD may be characterized by wide mood swings, intense anger even at benign events, idealization (such as of their spouse — or attorney) followed by devaluation (such as of their spouse — or attorney).

Also common is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) — more often seen in men. There is a great preoccupation with the self to the exclusion of others. This may be the vulnerable type, which can appear similar to BPD, causing distorted perceptions of victimization followed by intense anger (such as in domestic violence or murder, for example the San Diego case of Betty Broderick). Or this can be the invulnerable type, who is detached, believes he is very superior and feels automatically entitled to special treatment.

Histrionic Personality Disorder also appears in family court, and may have similarities to BPD but with less anger and more chaos. Anti-social Personality Disorder includes an extreme disregard for the rules of society and very little empathy. (A large part of the prison population may have Anti-social Personality Disorder. ** The Institute will be writing more about the Anti Social/socio-psychopath in next months article about Anti-Socials in the legal system.)

Dependent Personality Disorder is common, but usually is preoccupied with helplessness and passivity, and is rarely the aggressor in court — but often marries a more aggressive spouse, sometimes with a personality disorder.

Cognitive Distortions and False Statement

Because of their history of distress, those with personality disorders perceive the world as a much more threatening place than most people do. Therefore, their perceptions of other people’s behavior is often distorted — and in some cases delusional. Their world view is generally adversarial, so they often see all people as either allies or enemies in it. Their thinking is often dominated by cognitive distortions, such as: all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, personalization of benign events, minimization of the positive and maximization of the negative. They may form very inaccurate beliefs about the other person, but cling rigidly to those beliefs when they are challenged — because being challenged is usually perceived as a threat.

People with personality disorders also appear more likely to make false statements. Because of the thought process of a personality disorder, the person experiences interpersonal rejection or confrontation much more deeply than most people. Therefore the person has great difficulty healing and may remain stuck in the denial stage, the depression stage, or the anger stage of grief — avoiding acceptance by trying to change or control the other person.

Lying may be justified in their eyes — possibly to bring a reconciliation. (This can be quite convoluted, like the former wife who alleged child sexual abuse so that her ex-husband’s new wife would divorce him and he would return to her — or so she seemed to believe.) Or lying may be justified as a punishment in their eyes. Just as we have seen that angry spouse may kill the other spouse, it is not surprising that many angry spouses lie under oath. There is rarely any consequence for this, as family court judges often believe the truth cannot be known — or that both are lying.


Just as an active alcoholic or addict blames others for their substance abuse, those with personality disorders are often preoccupied with other people’s behavior while avoiding any examination of their own behavior. Just as a movie projector throws a large image on a screen from a hidden booth, those with personality disorders project their internal conflicts onto their daily interactions — usually without knowing it. All the world is a stage — including court.

It is not uncommon in family court declarations for one with a personality disorder to claim the other party has characteristics which are really their own (“he’s manipulative and falsely charming” or “she’s hiding information and delaying the process”), and do not fit the other party. Spousal abusers claim the other is being abusive. Liars claim the other is lying. (One man who knew he was diagnosed with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder claimed his wife also had an NPD simply because she liked to shop.)

William A. (”Bill”) Eddy is co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute, LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona and Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is a Certified Family Law Specialist in California with fifteen years’ experience representing clients in family court. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years’ experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.

He is the author of several books, including “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes” (Janis Publications, 2006), and “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist (Eggshells Press, 2004). Bill has become an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons and others.

Purchase Bill Eddy’s books:

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes

* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

How Personality Disorders Drive Family Court Litigation – Part 1

by Bill Eddy, Esquire, L.C.S.W.

I was first exposed to the concept of personality disorders in 1980 when I was in training as a therapist at the San Diego Child Guidance Clinic at Childrens Hospital. The DSM-III had just come out and Axis II of the five diagnostic categories required the therapist to diagnose the presence or absence of a personality disorder. (The current DSM-IV uses the same approach.) I quickly learned (often the hard way) that the presenting problems on Axis I (e.g. depression, substance abuse) were simply replaced by new ones, if an underlying personality disorder was not addressed in therapy.

Now that I have completed five years as a family law attorney, I have frequently witnessed the same underlying issues in hotly contested family court litigation — yet these remain undiagnosed and, therefore, misunderstood. As those with personality disorders generally view
relationships from a rigid and adversarial perspective, it is inevitable that a large number end up in the adversarial process of court. Since more flexible and cost-conscious people nowadays are resolving their divorces in mediation, attorney-assisted negotiation, or just by themselves, those cases remaining in litigation may be increasingly driven by personality disorders.

The Nature of a Personality Disorder

Someone with a personality disorder is usually a person experiencing chronic inner distress (for example fear of abandonment), which causes self-sabotaging behavior (such as seeking others who fear abandonment), which causes significant problems (such as rage at any
perceived hint of abandonment) — in their work lives and/or their personal lives. They may function quite well in one setting, but experience chaos and repeated problems in others. They look no different from anyone else, and often present as very attractive and intelligent people. However, it is usually after you spend some time together — or observe them in a crisis — that the underlying distress reaches the surface.

As interpersonal distress, fear of abandonment, and an excessive need for control are predominant symptoms of personality disorders, they place a tremendous burden on a marriage. Therefore, intense conflicts will eventually arise in their marriages and the divorce process
will also be a very conflictual process. In contrast to people who are simply distressed from going through a divorce (over 80% are recovering significantly after 2 years), people with personality disorders grew up very distressed. It is the long duration of their dysfunction (since adolescence or early adulthood) which meets the criteria of a personality disorder.

Usually they developed their personality style as a way of coping with childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment, an emotionally lacking household, or simply their biological predisposition. While this personality style may have been an effective adaptation in their “family of
origin,” in adulthood it is counter-productive. The person remains stuck repeating a narrow range of interpersonal behaviors to attempt to avoid this distress.

In the next segment we will discuss the different types of personality disorders and what it’s like to be in court with them.

(All articles are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced, however feel free to put a link to this page.)

William A. (”Bill”) Eddy is co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute, LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona and Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is a Certified Family Law Specialist in California with fifteen years’ experience representing clients in family court. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years’ experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.

He is the author of several books, including “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes” (Janis Publications, 2006), and “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist (Eggshells Press, 2004). Bill has become an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons and others.

Purchase Bill Eddy’s books:

High Conflict People in Legal Disputes

* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

The Pathological: a Child Prodigy-Savant of Human Behavior

People often want to know why people with personality disorders (pathology) often have the worst and most inappropriate behavior indicating they are clueless about others feelings AND YET they are often enabled with the uncanny ability to so know human behavior they con even the most knowledgeable of people.

This ‘savant-like’ experience with human behavior reminds me of the Scripture that says, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Cluster B Personality Disorders no doubt, rack up their miles in huge emotional and behavioral deficits. (The Lord Taketh Away). I’ve discussed this in length in the newsletter and books–that what causes a personality disorder has to do with what DOESN’T happen when the personality is forming from 0-8 years of age.

Deficits = Disorders.

Not getting what a child needs WHEN they need it can be the beginning of a personality disorder. Normal childhood development does not include severe neglect, being raised by a pathological and learning to see the world through the eyes of a narcissist or sociopath, or being abused.

Whatever the ’cause’ of the personality disorder, (exposed to pathological parents or being born with neuro-abnormalities) let’s consider the budding-pathological child for a moment. Let’s put out of our mind just for now the disordered adult he grows into. Here, we have let’s say, a 9 or 10 year old child who through no fault of his own, has a personality disorder.  That means that the child does not have the full spectrum of human emotion, has blunted feelings of love/compassion/guilt/remorse, has impulse control problems, has difficulty being able to know right from wrong, is not motivated by punishment when he does wrong, and is tantalized by risk and reward.

His friend across the street is the same age and not personality disordered. His friend has a full spectrum of emotions, feels bonded, love, compassion, is motivated by punishment so he feels guilt and remorse, he has impulse control over many of his actions, and understands the basic concepts of right and wrong. Although he likes risk and reward, he has enough impulse control not to be led consistently by pleasure.

One day Pathology Pete is over at Normal Ned’s. While playing in the house the boys knock over a vase and break it. Ned knows the story behind the vase: it’s the only thing his mother has left from her mother. His mother got it as a gift on the death bed of her mother. She always prized it and felt her mother’s presence when she looked at it.

Ned’s mother begins to cry and Ned has empathetic feelings that his mother is sad and experiencing loss because of the broken vase. Ned goes to her and tries to comfort her while Pete looks on.

Pete has NO idea why Ned (a) feels bad that the vase was broken (so what, go get another one), (b) why Ned would go to his mother and hug her and pat her (why does she need that?), (c) why Ned offers to replace the vase, (d) and why it was even wrong to be playing with a ball by the vase.

Pete stands off to the side watching this ‘unusual’ reaction and interaction between Ned and his mother.  In comes Ned’s brother, Normal Nathan. He sees his mother crying and goes to her too to comfort her. Pete wonders “Why? He didn’t even break the vase?”

Pete stands awkwardly off to the side watching what is like a Sci-Fi movie to him — all these feelings, actions, behaviors, and motivations he doesn’t understand. Over and over through out his childhood and into his adolescence this incident is repeated over and over again.

Pete witnesses people having feelings he doesn’t experience. They have emotional reactions that he doesn’t understand. They have reactions, behaviors, and motivations that are foreign to him. Pete’s bright–he is a smart child and can’t figure out why he doesn’t ‘know’ what other kids know—how to act, how not to act, how to feel certain emotions and when and why. Pathological child figure out early they are ‘different’–they just don’t know why.

Having a need to appear normal and fitting in like everyone else does–he watches. When someone cries, this is what other people do in response to the crying ___________ (behavior). The person who made the other one cry has a facial expression like this ___________ (I’m sorry look). People appear to cry for these reasons: ____________________ (motivations/consequences).

Children who grow to be pathological are little psychologists by the time they are teens. They have so watched other people that they understand (on a manipulative level) what makes people hurt and how to get out of consequences for having hurt others. These little child-prodigies who have studied human behavior since they were 5 or 6 years old, are emotional savants. On one hand, they do NOT have the full spectrum of emotions and so are sort of emotionally retarded towards the experience of others.

On the other hand, they are so bright and have so honed in on studying others, they have learned how to develop a mask for any occasion. This is the Lord Giveth part—they have such a knack for paying attention to others reactions so they too can learn that they learn to mimic other people’s facial gestures and behaviors and parrot the language and lingo of what others say.

This is why they are a mirror-image of you in a relationship. They watch and listen and mimic and parrot back all you do and say. This is why they feel like a soul mate–because you are essentially looking at a mask of yourself.

These skills are then polished over years of use—using them on his mother, sister, Sunday school teacher, girls at school, bosses…any where he can tweak the manipulation and look normal enough to fit in.

What began as a simple adaptation in a child–learning to understand how normal people relate and behave–turns into manipulation later. At some point, the child/teen must come to the conclusion that they DON’T have these feelings, limits, boundaries, and experiences. What the hell…just gotta go with it is the normal reaction from them.

The adaptation is no longer simply to understand normal people and compare/contrast them to his own experiences. It is now a survival behavior that helps him to get what he wants since his deficits will now give him the skills that others have to get the same thing legitimately.

Pathology Pete simply produces more masks–one for every emotion he doesn’t sincerely have.

Characterlogical Disorders: He is What He Does

Personality disorders are those permanent disorders that mar a soul. They impair a person’s ability for emotional growth, to sustain enduring positive change, and to develop insight about how their behavior affects others. This is the path of pathology–when disorders so affect a personality that it leaves them impaired that it disengages their character switch.

Personality disorders are often referred to as Character Disorders. No wonder! The problems associated with personality disorders largely manifest as inappropriate behavior associated as negative character reflection. We now know some of this inappropriate behavior is associated with poor impulse control. When low impulse control is not managed, the results begin to look like someone ‘characterlogically challenged’ such as lying, conning, manipulation, overt or covert stealing, sex addictions, infidelity, violence, drugs/alcohol abuse, etc. . . These all are reflections on someone’s behavior which can reflect character.

Why would someone want to be with anyone whose character is ‘suspect?’ Finding out about consistent lying or chronic cheating are all character red flags that when heeded could reduce the relational harm you experience. But ignored, it becomes a path of pain. Character red flags are usually related to CHARACTER DISORDERS which are associated with personality disorders which are permanent.

People responding to a two-strike rule about character infractions could help reduce the number of people in therapy today because of pathological love relationships. Behavior is often a reflection of character. What are you accepting as character and why are you shocked when they do more of the behavior?

Over and over again I hear women of all ages say, “There isn’t anyone decent out there.” It seems to be especially said of this current 20-something generation in which “It’s all about me” has become a significant icon of the decade. Women give up and give in to the common dating practices that are prevalent right now only to cycle thru relationship after relationship not only not getting her needs met, but being damaged by the relationship as well. There HAS to be something better out there for women–but is that what you REALLY want?

Why do I ask that? This week I have had painful contrasts…I got a letter from a previous client who discussed the latest relationship she was in. While she was hoping she had overcome her previous relationship choice patterns, she was shocked to find herself in yet another relationship because ‘she didn’t want to be alone.’  It wasn’t a crushing kind of loneliness–but a general ‘wanting to find the right guy.’ She thought it started out well–and when problems arose counseling was sought from several sources. Feeling like she had gotten a handle on what the issues were and he had ‘voiced’ his desire to work on the problems, she stayed trying to find ‘that love’ that she was seeking. But after emotional and verbal abuse, a threat with a deadly weapon, a display of alcohol abuse, and some physical assaults–she decided the relationship was probably ‘dangerous or deadly.’ Another couple of years down the tubes–another guy simply ‘a dangerous man’ and her emotions dashed against the trigger of a deadly weapon.

In contrast, this week was Cody’s birthday. I am reminded of my foster son Cody’s character that died at the ripe old age of 25. He was a young guy who ironically in this day and age, never succumbed to the sex and drug culture.

He was gentle–with nature, with feelings, with people. His integrity was thorough, weaving a rich and deep seam thru his character. In a blazing black and white contrast to what women have been selecting, I wondered why it’s so hard to ‘see’ character. Yeah, yeah, I know they ‘hide’ and ‘mask’ and do all the other subversive types of behaviors that don’t allow you to see. It’s often said that “Character is who you are when no one is looking.” Well, a pathological could careless about that! They only want to fake character when someone IS looking.

But just knowing that character and its glaring deficits are often related to pathology should be enough to make people sit up and take notice. We live in a world that is numbing itself against any moral and behavioral absolutes. This numbing causes people to accept pathological behavior as the norm. “There aren’t any good ones left” is an excuse to accept the pathological culture that is developing before us.

It takes someone like Cody to make us realize that good people are worth waiting for. When you accept bad character, you get bad behavior. When you accept bad behavior, you accept being hurt because it’s inevitable. Thank you Cody for being a teacher to me about what good mental health looks like in a young man. I miss you but always remember what you taught me. Character counts ladies. Don’t sacrifice.

PTSD Study: Kids also Vulnerable to Stress, Depression

Popular wisdom has long held that young children survive traumatic events better than adults do, in part because they suffer less. Being too young to understand fully the nature of what’s happening around them – during war or natural disaster, for instance – they should bounce back with much more resilience.

But new research on child survivors of Hurricane Katrina and witnesses of the 9/11 terrorist attacks suggests otherwise. “There is increasing evidence that kids know what is going on if they are directly exposed and see something like planes crashing into the [World Trade Center] towers,” says child psychologist Claude Chemtob of New York University, lead author of one of several new papers on children and disaster, published in a special section of the July and August issue of Child Development.

Read more…

EMDR and the Lessons from Neuroscience Research

Excerpt from a research paper written by Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D.:

Research in laboratories devoted to elucidating human memory processes have consistently shown that memory is an active and constructive process: the mind constantly re-assembles old impressions and attaches them to new information. Memories, instead of precise recollections, are transformed into stories that we tell ourselves and others, in order to convey a coherent narrative of our experience of the world. Rarely do our minds generate precise images, smells, sensations, or muscular actions that accurately replicate earlier experiences.

However, learning from individuals who have been diagnosed with PTSD confronted us with the fact that, after having been traumatized, particular emotions, images, sensations, and muscular reactions related to the trauma may become deeply imprinted on people’s minds and that these traumatic imprints seem to be re-experienced without appreciable transformation, months, years or even decades after the actual event occurred (Janet, 1889, 1894; van der Kolk & van der Hart, 1991; van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995; van der Kolk, Osterman, & Hopper, 2000).

Read more…

What Happens In An EMDR Session?

Do you ever have present day experiences that trigger  old, extremely distressing memories as if they were stuck in your brain?  Do sights, sounds and smells that remind you of the original event leave you in an extreme state of anxiety, hypervigilance or panic?  When this happens, do you hear the abuser’s ideas in your head, putting you down, criticizing or ridiculing you in some way?  Do you sometimes think you are crazy?  This is a normal response to traumatic material that has not been fully processed.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is used to disconnect emotionally disruptive memories from current life experiences.  Its focus is the resolution of emotional distress arising from traumatic events.  No one knows for sure how EMDR works but through brain imaging techniques, we are seeing its effects. Dr. Daniel Amen M.D., in his book, ”Healing the Hardware of the Soul”, states that, “people who have been traumatized and develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms (such as flashbacks, nightmares, worries, quick startle response, anxiety, depression and avoidance) are frequently overly concerned and worried (anterior cingulate section of the brain-get stuck), anxious and hyper alert (basal ganglia section of the brain), and filter everything through negativity (limbic-thalmus section).”  EMDR calms all of these areas of the brain according to the SPECT brain scans Dr. Amen has been doing for the last 20 years. These scans allow us to see the internal operations of different parts of the brain, allowing us to learn more about which parts do what.

When a person experiences an event that is extremely distressing and overwhelming, it is stored in the brain with all the sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings and body sensations that accompanied the event when it happened.  Think of your brain as a recorder that doesn’t miss a thing, storing all aspects of an experience, whether we consciously remember it or not.

When a scary or extremely painful event happens, the brain is sometimes not able to process the experience as it normally does.  The thoughts, feelings and sensations of the traumatic event can become frozen in the nervous system as if in a time warp.

EMDR helps to activate the brain’s natural processing abilities with efficiency, thereby helping to move the disturbing material through the nervous system, allowing the person to heal more completely.

In a typical EMDR session, a client focuses on a troubling memory.  With a trained psychotherapist, the client identifies the negative belief she has about herself connected to this memory.  The client then chooses a positive, more adaptive belief that she would like to believe about herself.  The emotions and body sensations associated with the memory are identified. The client then attends to the memory as a whole in brief, sequential doses while focusing on an external stimulus that creates bilateral (side to side) movement:  eye movements by watching the therapist’s moving finger or a light or tactile tapping or tones.  After each set of bilateral movements, the client is asked how she feels.  This segment is complete when the memory is no longer disturbing.  The chosen positive belief is then installed, via bilateral movement, to replace the negative one. The result of EMDR is the rapid processing of information about the negative experience and movement toward an adaptive resolution.  This means a reduction in the client’s anxiety, a change from a negative belief about self to a positive belief and more functional behavior in relationships and at work.

EMDR deals with past events that led to present symptoms, current circumstances that trigger distress and future events that can be targeted to help you in acquiring the skills you need for adaptive functioning in the present and in the future.

A typical EMDR session lasts 60 minutes.  The length of treatment depends on the nature and length of time of the problem, the degree of trauma, its complexity and the client’s age when it happened. However, with EMDR, in contrast to traditional talk therapies, treatment time is usually markedly reduced.

The first couple of sessions consist of taking a thorough client history. A Safe Place (a place to go in your imagination to get serenity and peace) is installed with bilateral movement.  A Resource or Skill, picked from a list by the client, is also installed to facilitate the EMDR work that can begin by the third or fourth session.

EMDR can evoke strong emotions and sensations.  This is normal since the method is used to process those uncomfortable feelings and sensations when they come into the clients’ awareness. Usually these unpleasant feelings are experienced briefly and soon fade as the treatment proceeds.

Two suggestions:

  1. Go to to get more information about EMDR and the research studies.
  2. Go to, click on Find A Clinician, put in your city and state, or a major city near you to find a trained clinician, make an appointment and go get some relief!


More on EMDR:  EMDR and the lessons from neuroscience research by Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine

Reality Bytes: A Survivor’s Journey – Part 6

Part 6

Right at the end of our court hearing, the Psychopath did one of his infamous maneuvers. He slipped one by an entire group of us. He asked the Judge to order his child visitation be held at a center where free monitors are provided for low income families. (Part of his tactical plan to avoid paying child support is to pretend he is poor—so much for a ‘doctor’s lifestyle!’)

“I just want to see my daughter. I miss her…,” said the talking head. As it continued, I watched people in the court room begin to float around in a puddle of sympathy as it accumulated deep on the floor. It was so pathetic because I knew if the people saw this devil in action, the pool of sympathy would turn hot molten lava and converge into his empty soul.

The paper he waved in front of the judge to secure the order had several addresses that listed all the centers in our county. We live in a large metropolitan area, so the addresses really meant nothing. Filled with confident conviction, he pointed to and named a particular center of interest that was listed on the sheet.

When the judge asked why he wanted that particular center, he confidently asserted himself, as if this selection was for the good of mankind and fairness to all: “It is convenient for everyone because it is the closest distance. It is only 12 miles away.”

It sounded reasonable, so no one objected. But no one thought to ask 12 miles in which direction? Distracted by the relief I felt about the visits being monitored, I wasn’t alert enough to question his motive. It all happened very fast.

One would think that after four years of the same deceitful and manipulative behavior I would be critical about every request. Every time. Hyper-vigilance (high harm avoidance) has an upside when dealing with a psychopath. But then again, you get diagnosed of being paranoid or delusional.

When I got home I saw that I got hood winked again. I felt shock when I looked on-line and discovered where the Psychopath just got the court (and us) to agree to have his visits.

I saw there was a quarter mile difference in distance to the next center on that list. It was in a much safer area that is famously known for its elegance and beauty. Instead, he picked one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city; probably one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

I printed a crime map for a half mile radius around the center for a one week period and saw there were 38 major crimes that occurred and were plotted out. This included homicide. Felony assault, armed robbery, grand theft auto, etc, etc., etc.

Making matters worse, I had to drag our little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl on two buses and a train to get into that neighborhood and then two hours later make the trip in reverse to get home.

Once I dropped her off at the center, routinely I walked three blocks to sit in a restaurant to wait out the visit. It is always an interesting trip through the bar-protected, graffiti-decorated buildings that lined the streets.

Often in the background, I could hear and feel a loud throbbing base noise. It would pulsate my lungs right into the wall of my rib cage as I walked. As the cars got closer, the metal grating sounds of vibrating trunk lids become part of the migrainish rhythm.

People on the streets looked me up and down and smiled as if they knew a secret that I didn’t. Tension still blanketed the streets from the devastating race riots of years past. It was obvious—I stood out.

When it was time to go get my little girl, I would trek back to the center. One day, as I headed over a cross walk to get to the center, I noticed a car coming toward me. I kept walking figuring it would stop as cars do, yet I locked it into my peripheral vision.

I walked. It came closer. Next it zipped right into the cross walk in front of me, missing me by about a foot. The teen driver looked into my eyes with an expressionless, stone cold face. When she punched down the accelerator, I felt a rush of adrenaline turn my legs into jelly just as the car swerved out of my path.

As much as I wanted to scream in anger, the tears welled up in my eyes AGAIN.

I flashed back to the talking head in the court room and how he man managed to pull this one off. The man who tells the world he is worried about the “well being” of his child, just locked us into a weekly court order that places her and I smack in the middle of a war zone.

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* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

Reality Bytes: A Survivor’s Journey – Part 5

Part 5

Why in God’s name would you want to date so soon after being with a dangerous man???

That was the thought crossing my mind as I listened to the women in our recovery-based conference call. They were interested in learning how to date again.

I wouldn’t do that, I thought. Not again. Not so soon.

I described to the women how my weight has been a safety blanket, protecting me from wanting to be with a man. Being with a man, for me, is like seeing a big plate of food, but having my mouth wired shut. I just don’t get to eat the food. My weight is the wire. It prevents me from indulging.

Until an ordinary trip to the grocery store tilted my illusion of control upside down.

This afternoon a friend drove me to the grocery store (I lost my car in the aftermath of the breakup). Tucked in my purse were my government-issued checks for milk, eggs, cheese and other items.

It has gotten so bad, from a material standpoint, that the last time I heard someone mention identity theft, I started hoping someone would actually steal mine! I thought I could tape my social security number on the outside of the trash can—it would save the thieves the hassle of picking through the stinky garbage looking for one.

I was cruising through the aisle, happy as a lark filing up my cart, knowing I did not have to walk home with the groceries. I looked up and there HE was. The guy from the Laundromat was standing in front of me.

I met him at the laudromat a couple weeks ago. He was very handsome. Oh so handsome! Embarrassed at my jammy pants and a sweat shirt and pushing my granny cart full of laundy, I made a dash for the door. I smiled and waved “Nice to meet you” as I fled by.

Flash forward to the grocery store. I smiled at him and said “Hello, how are you?”

He recognized me and we started talking. I told him my name.

He said “Oh, I will remember that, that’s my sister’s name.”

Then he told me his name.

I said, “Oh, that’s my brother’s name.”

We both started laughing.

As I felt that spark of connection, in the back of my mind, I heard, “DANGER Will Robinson, DANGER!” In my mind’s eye, I could see a robot standing behind him wilding swinging his arms!

We stood grocery cart to grocery cart talking about cream of broccoli soup and clam chowder in a sour dough bread bowl. Suddenly things felt very awkward and silly. The brief spark of connection had been driven away by fear.

He said, “I go to the laundromat on Saturdays, when do you go?”

I replied “When I run out of clothes.” I cast my eyes downward as the line fell flat.

Half comment and half question he blurted out: “You live close by?”

I shot back “Oh yeah,” then randomly threw in “I even use a granny cart to bring my clothes.”

(For a minute I realized I learned a trick from the psychopath, by playing with the meaning of words, because I use the granny cart for the exact opposite reason.) Without a car, the laundromat is too far for me to carry my clothes!!!

Saying goodbye was a funny, uncomfortable moment. I felt like we were in high school. I really thought he was going to ask me for my phone number. Instead, he described his vehicle, and said if you see it in the parking lot, you’ll know I’m there.

When I got to the line with my WIC checks for the milk and eggs, I thought oh crap. I went in a tail spin, praying my girlfriend would come up behind me in the line and not him. “God, do not let him come!” I thought. My face flushed like a hot red desert sun.

My friend did walk up behind me to join me in line. I sighed with relief.

While waiting for the cashier, I scanned the tabloids for quick fix dieting solutions. How fast could I take off 60 pounds?

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* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

Reality Bytes: A Survivor’s Journey – Part 4

Part 4

It was a rainbow day perfect day. I squinted at the sun as it peaked through the dark feathered clouds. I hoped the rain would take a nap for a while because it was time for my most favored activity— a trip to the Laundromat, yeah, yeah, yeah.

A mound of dirty clothes piled high above my granny cart—my newest set of wheels, gave away my agenda for the day.

Realizing it was laundry day, my ninety-year-old landlord volunteered her car. I gratefully accepted; the alternative was than hoofing it down the street like a homeless woman carrying all of her belongings in the rain.

Just then a magnificent cloak of vibrant colors magically spread across the sky. I thanked her for her offer and started our on foot with the cart. As the distance grew between us, I heard my landlord yell, “if it starts to rain and you need a ride call me!”

Judgment used to float around my head when I saw others walking around with one of these carts. It seemed they were either very old or homeless. Yet they were comfortable with their cart. They did not care about image. Man, how perception shifts when you get a chance to walk in another’s shoes, or push another’s cart…

I am now grateful to own this unassuming set of wheels. When I purchased it five years ago, my belly was big and round as it nurtured a very precious, beautiful little girl growing inside me.

I will never forget the blistery hot day. I was walking the one of the largest swap meets in the country. I purchased that blue granny cart to carry all the items I had bought for the “Good Doctor’s” office. I was going to be the doctor’s wife. Alas I thought!


I remember how that cart came in handy that day. As I pushed it around, I never guessed that one day it would become my only set of wheels. And that the “Good Doctor” wasn’t so good.

I admit, I still worry a tad about “image” as I walk down the street with the cart. However, I have come to appreciate an item I wouldn’t be caught dead with a few years ago.

It has become abundantly clear that I have something to give. Actually, it is that knowledge that keeps me going through the murky waters of this battle. I try to find humor. With laughter, the soul cleanses itself.

(All articles are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced, however feel free to put a link to this page.)

* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

Chronic Personality Problems in Problem Relationships

A large portion of emotional and physical abusers (although not all) have some similar identifying disorders, traits, or diagnosis. They are not all created equal. That means, each one of them brings a unique combination of traits, challenges, and problems to the equation of the relationship and even therapy. Therefore, not all abusers treatment is going to be effective because not all psychological problems are treatable. For instance, batterer intervention has often failed to make this distinction and lumps all violent behavior or psychological problems together
as if they are not differentiated by their differences.

Some of the disorders have biological and neurological root causes that are not curable. Ultimately, not all problem relationships have a solution especially those that have biological/neuro problems at their basis. That’s not popular to hear. We live in an Oprah-age of psychology that believes all disorders are curable
and if not curable, at least highly treatable. ‘Law of Attraction’ type thinking pulls many people into believing ‘if they think it, they can make it happen’ (their relationship will work, the pathology will be gone, or something curative will happen that will drive away the symptoms.) Like medicine, psychology faces the same challenges that not all disorders have a satisfactory treatment, or a cure.

If people who are in problem relationships want to avoid future problem relationships, they have to understand what contributes to some of the disorders and the signs within the behavior.  There is no doubt that chronic personality problems wreak havoc in relationships and the worst of these do have commonalities related to impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and violence. (No abuse is mild. I’m not suggesting that. What I am trying to hone on is the chronic and lethal nature of some of the
relationships and what some of the contributing factors can be to those problems).

Some of the more recent research in neuroscience helps us to understand the problems related to what Otto Kernberg (one of the renowned writers and researchers of pathology) wrote about as
‘severe personality disorders’ related to Cluster B disorders (see his books Aggression in Personality Disorders and Perversions; Severe Personality Disorders; Aggressivity, Narcissism and Self
Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Relationships–to name a few).

However, neuroscience over the past few years has helped us understand the additional possible biological and neurological roots of some of these severe disorders as well as the disorders of sociopathy and psychopathy. MRI’s of various Cluster B disorders and sociopathy/psychopath have lead the way noting
similarities in brain formations, brain activity, brain circuitry, brain chemistry and it’s relationship to the severe disorders, impulsivity, poor treatment outcomes, and poor relationship outcomes. Where therapy has spent decades (if not a century)
focused on the very psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches, we have missed the very real potential of neurology and brain functioning challenges.

While the origins and etiology of these disorders has been widely debated for decades, neuroscience is providing many of the answers to biology that we previously didn’t have. This helps us delineate
between the mind as a structure and process and the brain as an organ. The brain as an organ has all the proclivity of being born with differences, challenges, and problems as any other organ in the body. Unfortunately, up until now, the view has been a very
‘psychological’ approach to the brain and its disorders without looking at the possible contributions of ‘nature’ such as being born with physical predispositions. While we don’t question that
when it comes to the heart or immune system people can be born with abnormalities, people certainly have a BIG reaction to that at the thought as psychology being related to brain organ issues and not merely emotional issues.

When looking at the behaviors associated with problem partners with what is referred to as ‘severe personality disorders’ and the problems of sociopathy and psychopath, we have to look broadly at the symptoms, but not so broadly that we find loopholes.
Normally, one symptom off a behavioral list does not constitute one of the ‘severe personality disorders’ or even the no/low-conscience disorders of sociopathy or psychopathy. However, they don’t need to have ALL of these traits in order to be problematic in a relationship.

Those in relationships with problem partners often fail on the side of ‘too much empathy’ and give them more credit for not having these symptoms than what is warranted. Somewhere in the middle of one trait-too-many/and no-they-don’t-have-problems-at-all,
is a snap shot of relationship problems and problem partners. Here are some of the behaviors associated with what is referred to as some of the severe personality disorders and also sociopathy and psychopathy. (Taken from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual–DSM IV)

___Disregard for, and the violation of, the rights of others
___Failure to conform to lawful social norms
___Deceitfulness Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
___Irritability and aggressiveness as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
___Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
___Consistent irresponsibility as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(Above are related to Antisocial Personality Disorder)

___ Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent about having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another
___ Glib and superficial charm
___ Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
___ Need for stimulation
___ Pathological lying
___ Cunning and manipulativeness
___ Lack of remorse or guilt
___Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
___ Callousness and lack of empathy
___ Parasitic lifestyle
___ Poor behavioral controls
___ Sexual promiscuity
___ Early behavior problems
___ Lack of realistic long-term goals
___ Impulsivity irresponsibility
___ Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
___ Many short-term relationships
___ Juvenile delinquency
___ Revocation of conditional release
___ Criminal versatility

(Above are related to Sociopaths/Psychopaths)

___ Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
___ Intense and unstable personal relationships that over idealize and devalue
___ Identity disturbance with unstable self image or sense of self impulsivity in at least two areas (spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
___ Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-mutilation
___ Emotional instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (intense episodic irritability or anxiety)
___ Chronic feelings of emptiness
___ Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger

(Above are related to Borderline Personality Disorder)

___ A grandiose sense of self importance
___ Exaggerates their achievements and talents
___ Expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements
___ Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
___ Believes that he is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other special or other high-status people or institutions.
___ Requires excessive admiration
___ Has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations
___ Is interpersonally exploitative within relationships and takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends
___ Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
___ Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him
___ Shows an arrogant, haughty behavior or attitude

(Above are related to Narcissistic Personality Disorder)

This list is not mild relational infractions or merely what Dr. Phil refers to as ‘deal breakers’. In some of the more chronic features and behaviors, this pathology causes debilitating partner aftermath
symptoms. The Institute is involved in offering recovery to those coming out of relationships with narcissists, antisocial, sociopathy and psychopaths. That’s because the chroncity of their disorders often causes chroncity within their relationships. If that wasn’t true, 60 million people would not be negatively
affected by someone else’s pathology. We wouldn’t have support groups for “Partners of Narcissists” or “Adult Children of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” There wouldn’t be self help books for those harmed by antisocials or psychopaths. The Institute wouldn’t have felt it necessary to write ‘Women Who Love Psychopaths’ and offer coaching for the survivors.

Some of those listed above on the check lists are the abusers who are not created equal, who have permanent neuro, emotional, behavioral and psychological disorders that bypass what psychology
can do for them. Anger management–nope. Batterer intervention–nope. Intensive psychotherapy–nope. The permanent forms of pathology are noted for it’s Three Inabilities (Brown, 2005):

* Inability to grow to any authentic emotional or spiritual depth
* Inability to sustain positive change
* Inability to develop insight how their behavior negatively affects others

These inabilities are the hallmark of chronic disorders that create chronic problem relationships. Lacey, Staci and Nicole bear witness to the un-diagnosed problems of problem partners.

** Footnote: Research articles related to this topic: ‘Neural foundation of moral reasoning and antisocial behavior;’  ‘Into the Mind of a Killer: Brain imaging studies starting to venture into the research of criminal psychopathy;’ ‘Tridimensional Personality
Questionnaire data on alcoholic violent offenders: specific connections to severe impulsive cluster B personality disorders and violent criminality” ‘The Relationship Between DSM-IV cluster B personality disorders and psychopathy according to Hare’s
criteria: Clarification and resolution of previous Contractions;’ ‘Brain imaging abnormalities in borderline personality disorder’ (video)’ ‘Potentials implicate temporal lobe abnormalities in criminal psychopaths;’ Hypomanic symptoms predict an increase in
narcissism and histrionic personality disorders;’ and ‘The Brain and Personality Disorders.’

Reality Bytes: A Survivor’s Journey – Part 3

Part 3

Hello dear friends, I was thinking about the early days and how things began with me and the psychopath. I love those who look at me with crunched foreheads and say, “so why did you get involved with someone like this?”

Well, back then I did not know what I know now. If I had, I would have never been with such a sick person. The issue was that he presented himself drastically different to me.

I remember our early days like it was yesterday-it felt so wonderful. He was so warm, affectionate and loving. I felt like the center of his universe.

There was one night in particular that is so opposite to what I am dealing with today. It was a beautiful moonlit fall evening on a chilly California Beach. Harmoniously, we swayed side-by-side at the shoreline in a mutual state of awe at one of God’s greatest creations: the ocean. I shivered from the cool sensation of the water rolling over my toes so he gallantly draped his leather bomber jacket around my shoulders. Oh, he was charming, gentle and self sacrificing.

His stunning powder blue eyes were hypnotic to me. Later that night, like a child I skipped down my driveway reliving the tingling sensation that came to me during our first kiss. It felt like a stream of butterflies flowed out of my soul into my belly. It was so dreamy. He was older, mature, attractive, a “doctor.” WOOHOO!

Between my moments of elation, I felt sorrow for him. He shared his story with me. He told me he was renting a room from a lady because he just moved back to the area. Some time ago, he said he married and moved away to another state. He wanted a family, but his wife had a miscarriage and refused to try again. He said he would have adopted a child, but she would not even do that. After 10 years of promises with him, she refused to fulfill his dream of being a father. How terrible I thought she must be while I consoled and honored his noble mission.

I thought what more could someone want? Here I am, so over the corporate rat race and completely missing having a family. I believed my chances to meet Mr. Right were slim to none. Just hitting my forties, the best thing to do I felt was to cover up my desire to have a loving man. The white picket fence, the babies, stay at home mom, etc. etc. So because I was making a lot of money and just bought a home, I assured myself things could be a lot worse.

My attitude changed when “he” seemed to have the same dreams as I did. It was a perfect overlap. He wanted a child. He wanted to be the pappa bear supporting his family and felt that moms were meant to stay home with the kids. By the time we made it through our wonderfully romantic holidays, I was just so taken in by him. I still feel him cupping my face with his hands telling me how much he loved me.

The family portrait he visually painted of us and our two children was hanging over the fireplace. He used to drive me around the beautiful tree-lined streets in an exclusive beach town to point out what houses we should consider to live in one day. Of course once he got his practice set up again.

Within five months of that blissful beach evening, he had proposed by sliding a very large diamond ring on my finger. In a few short weeks I found out I was having his baby which was only a few short days after I got a real glimpse into the man I promised to marry. A little too late, but what the heck, love could conquer anything, right?

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* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.

Ponerology 101 – A Wall Street Psychopath

Article used with the permission of

In 1960 Bernie Madoff founded his Wall Street firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. As chairman of its Board of Directors until his arrest in December of 2008, Madoff saw his firm (and himself) rise to prominence on Wall Street, developing the technology that became NASDAQ, the first and largest electronic stock exchange in America, in the process. A multimillionaire with over $800-million in shared assets with his wife and high school sweetheart, Ruth Alpern, Madoff was well-regarded as a financial mastermind and prolific philanthropist. He exuded an aura of wealth, confidence, and connections, and many trusted him as a pillar of the community. Sounds like a great guy, huh?

His humanitarian image was supported by his work for various nonprofit groups like the American Jewish Congress and Yeshiva University in New York, the various commissions and boards on which he sat, and the millions he donated to educational, political, cultural, and medical causes. As his firm’s website made clear at the time (it has now been removed): “Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.” It’s funny how things change with a little perspective and a pattern emerges only in retrospect. It wasn’t until December of 2008 that the public became aware that this “personal interest” was anything but one of integrity, and that image stopped being taken for reality.

In a discussion with Condé Nast Portfolio Editor in Chief Joanne Lipman, Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and Madoff victim Elie Wiesel said: “I remember that it was a myth that he created around him… that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret. It was like a mystical mythology that nobody could understand… He gave the impression that maybe 100 people belonged to the club. Now we know thousands of them were cheated by him.”1

In what has been described as the largest investor fraud ever committed by single person, Madoff defrauded thousands of investors out of just under $65-billion in an elaborate Ponzi scheme, paying returns to investors from money paid by other investors, not actual profits. By moving funds in such a way, Madoff created an image of money that rivaled his own as a man of good character. The illusion of consistent, high returns, lured thousands into a deal too good to be true, offered by a man too good to be true. According to the media portrayal of events, Madoff described the investment fund as “one big lie” to his sons, who promptly informed the authorities. Madoff was arrested the next day and his assets were frozen (as were those of his wife and sons later on). In the aftermath, Madoff had succeeded in ruining the lives of thousands, driving some victims to suicide. He ended up pleading guilty to eleven counts of fraud, money laundering, and perjury, among others. Although Madoff ran his companies with an iron fist and claimed he was solely responsible for defrauding clients, investigators were unsatisfied that one person alone could hide fraud on such a massive scale for so long. Subsequent investigations have so far placed six former associates under criminal investigation,2 while multiple lawsuits are underway against Ruth Madoff and her sons.3

So how did he pull it off? Jerry Reisman, a prominent New York lawyer, described Madoff as “utterly charming. He was a master at meeting people and creating this aura. People looked at him as a superhero.”4 Even when he was scrambling to secure funds to keep up his dead-end fraud, associates noticed no signs of stress. In a 2007 roundtable conversation, viewable on Youtube5, Madoff makes some telling comments. Speaking about modern exchange firms, Madoff coolly says, “By and large, in today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules. This is something that the public really doesn’t understand… It’s impossible for a violation to go undetected. Certainly not for a considerable amount of time.” This coming from a man who had been doing just that for years and possibly decades! No wonder, given his propensity for deceit, that Madoff and his firm were extremely secretive, finding ways of keeping their illegal activities hidden, for example, refusing to provide clients online access to their accounts and ordering employees – against regulations – to delete email after it had been printed on paper, as reported by Lucinda Franks in her piece for The Daily Beast.6

Contrary to his illustrious public persona, in an article by Mark Seal for Vanity Fair7, various family friends and insiders present an image of Madoff as a cold-hearted control freak who not only exploited strangers, but also those closest to him. He cultivated ostensibly close friendships with the late Norman F. Levy and philanthropist Carl J. Shapiro while robbing them blind in the process. Madoff spoke of Levy as his “mentor of 40 years” and always deferred to him. In return, Levy considered Madoff his “surrogate son, a member of his family.” Carmen Dell’Orefice, Levy’s then-girlfriend, remembers, “He always did so much for Norman’s comfort in the smallest details.” She described Madoff and his wife as quiet and inconspicuous and expressed the cognitive dissonance often experienced by victims of conmen like Madoff when the truth behind the image is finally revealed: “I am accepting that what I was experiencing was a projection of a person who wasn’t there… If I didn’t take all the pictures I took all those years, I would say ‘Carmen, you’re delusional’.” Levy’s son Francis said his father believed in Madoff: “If there’s one honorable person,” he said, “it’s Bernie.” Joseph Kavanu, a former law school peer of Madoff’s shared similar disbelief with Julie Creswell and Landon Thomas Jr. in their piece for the New York Times: “It doesn’t make sense… I cannot take the Bernie I knew and turn him into the Bernie we’re hearing about 24/7. It doesn’t compute.” In reality, there were two Madoffs: the carefully cultivated image of the successful businessman and philanthropist and the reality: a ruthless and remorseless criminal who operated behind a mask of sanity, success, and humanitarianism.

One source described to Seal how Madoff ruled his two sons through “tough love and fear. People were afraid of Bernie. He wielded his influence. They were afraid of his temper.” Madoff also ruled his office with an iron fist, controlling the work environment down to the smallest detail. He was obsessed with order and control. A family friend related, “There was a lot of arrogance in that family. Bernie would talk to people who were as rich as he was, but he didn’t want to be bothered with the little people.” Another insider said, “He was imperial, above it all. If he didn’t like the conversation, he would just get up and walk away. It was ‘I’m Bernie Madoff and you’re not.'” Another said, “Peter [Madoff’s brother] is much more religious, more even-keeled. Bernie is more cocky, arrogant, a showman. Shrewd like a fox.”

From the descriptions of those who knew and interacted with him, a picture emerges of Bernie Madoff as arrogant, superficially charming, glib, manipulative, deceitful, emotionally cold, domineering, and heartless, in short, all the hallmarks of a successful psychopath. Unsurprisingly, journalists and experts alike have suggested exactly that. J. Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist and author of The Psychopathic Mind, Florida forensic psychologist Phil Heller, and former FBI agent Gregg McCrary, have all said so in print8 & 9, and several prominent researchers including Adrian Raine suggested the same at the 2009 conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy in New Orleans. In what I’ll show over the course of this series to be typical psychopathic fashion, Madoff fought his way to the top, wooed the regulators, and built his fortune by conning those he saw as worthless, even screwing over his so-called friends. However, as Meloy told Creswell and Thomas, “the Achilles’ heel of the psychopath is his sense of impunity. That is, eventually, what will bring him down.”

What Is Psychopathy?

Until the publication of Hervey Cleckley’s landmark book The Mask of Sanity in 1941 (along with its subsequent editions), there wasn’t much agreement on what exactly psychopathy is. The term had come to describe individuals whose emotional life and social behavior were abnormal, but whose intellectual capacities were undisturbed. In contrast to psychotics whose grip on reality is clearly disturbed, as in paranoid schizophrenia, psychopaths are completely sane. They have a firm grip on reality, can carry on a conversation, and often appear more normal than normal. But at the same time, while talking to you about the weather or the economy, they may be deciding the best way to con you out of your life savings or perhaps get you to a secluded location where they can rape or murder you.

However, while psychopaths may be intellectually aware that their actions grossly violate the limits of normal human behavior, they lack the emotional engagement with others that normally acts as an inhibitor of anti-social acts, like calculated aggression, intentional intimidation, pathological lying and emotional manipulation. In the course of his (or her, as probably one in four psychopaths is female) development, the psychopath’s inability to feel and thus identify with the emotions of others blocks the development of a “moral sense” that allows normal individuals to care for others and treat them like thinking and feeling beings. Psychopaths just don’t care. To them people are things, objects. When they’re no longer useful they can be discarded or destroyed without a second thought.

The jarring disconnect between the absolutely normal (if not more than normal) face with which the psychopath greets the world, and the utterly unfathomable irrationality and inhumanity of his actions has led to their being called “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and “snakes in suits”. Cleckley coined the phrase “mask of sanity” to illustrate the disparity between the image of normality and the psychopath’s essential abnormality. While the label has come to be almost strictly associated with serial killers, rapists and arch-villains, Cleckley was quick to point out that the vast majority of psychopaths are not violent, and “only a small proportion of typical psychopaths are likely to be found in penal institutions, since the typical patient … is not likely to commit major crimes that result in long prison terms.”10 Their actions are antisocial in that they violate the almost universally agreed upon “rules” of social behavior. Of course, this often takes the form of crime, but many psychopaths operate successfully within the boundaries of the law, wreaking havoc interpersonally or monetarily.

After years of frequently encountering psychopaths in clinical practice and witnessing the immense suffering they inflict upon those who happen to fall within their sphere of influence, Cleckley identified several universal traits. On the one hand psychopaths are superficially charming and of good intelligence. They lack any delusions or other signs of irrational thinking and are free of nervousness and anxiety. In other words, they present an image of good “mental health” that can disarm even the most experienced judge of human character. However, a close analysis of their life history and interactions with others reveals some striking deficits beneath the mask. Psychopaths are also notoriously insincere, liberally inserting lies and innuendo into their talkative stream that usually go unnoticed. They are usually impulsive, acting on whims, and seeming to live entirely in the present, unhindered by concerns for past failures and future consequences. As such they often show remarkably poor judgment and an inability to learn from punishments or the threat of future ones (psychopathic criminals have the highest recidivism rates). They are unreliable, often moving from job to job and city to city, finding new victims and living parasitically off of others’ kindness and naiveté. They also have a pathological sense of entitlement. The center of their own universe, they are incapable of love, lack any sense of remorse or shame, and show a general poverty of any deep emotional life. This is the core feature, shared equally by all psychopaths: the inability to feel empathy.

While Cleckley did much to bring light on the issue, in the preface to the fifth and final edition of his book he described “an almost universal conspiracy of evasion” of the topic of psychopathy among North American researchers and clinicians. While institutions exist to deal with illness and crime, when it comes to psychopathy “no measure is taken at all … nothing exists specifically designed to meet a major and obvious pathologic situation.”11 Psychopathy arguably accounts for a grossly disproportionate amount of damage to society. Cleckley was convinced that the first step to deal with this immense problem was to “focus general interest” and “promote awareness of its tremendous importance.”12 Thankfully, significant contributions have been made in recent years towards such a goal by writers like Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, clinicians Martha Stout and Sandra L. Brown, M.A. and popular media portrayals such as the documentaries, The Corporation and I, Psychopath. Unfortunately, even with these efforts, public knowledge about psychopathy still falls far short of ideal, the “conspiracy of evasion” persists, and the problem rages on. For a disorder affecting more people than schizophrenia,13 and causing exponentially more harm to society, the fact that psychopathy is not a generally understood concept is alarming.

Robert D. Hare, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, wrote a book in 1970 summarizing the research available at the time. Since then, he has been at the forefront of psychopathy research, developing the first valid measure of criminal psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), and writing two bestsellers on the subject: Without Conscience in 1993 and Snakes in Suits (co-authored with Paul Babiak) in 2006. Working with criminal populations, Hare further refined Cleckley’s list of psychopathic traits for the PCL-R, settling on twenty characteristics of a prototypical psychopath.

Whereas Cleckley described his psychopathic patients as “carr[ying] disaster lightly in each hand” and “not deeply vicious”,14 Hare’s Without Conscience presents a much more malevolent look into the mind of the criminal psychopath. As he puts it: “Psychopaths have what it takes to defraud and bilk others: They are fast-talking, charming, self-assured, at ease in social situations, cool under pressure, unfazed by the possibility of being found out, and totally ruthless. … Psychopaths are generally well satisfied with themselves and with their inner landscape, bleak as it may seem to outside observers.”15 They see empathy, remorse, and a sense of responsibility – all the qualities usually considered as the epitome of goodness and humanity – as signs of weakness to be exploited; laws and social rules as inconvenient restrictions on their freedom; and antisocial behavior as deliberate “nonconformity”, a refusal to “program” by society’s artificial standards. Love, kindness, guilt, and altruism strike the psychopath as comical and childish naiveties for “bleeding hearts”, and psychopathic serial murderer Ted Bundy even called guilt “an illusion… a kind of social-control mechanism.”16 While they may convincingly profess to love in the most romantic and meaningful verbosity to their partners, these displays are soon replaced with domination and exploitation, as Sandra L. Brown, M.A. shows in her 2009 book Women Who Love Psychopaths.

Psychopaths see normal life as dull and boring, a dog-eat-dog world in which potential enemies (i.e. you and me) are to be manipulated, and aggression used as a tool to establish their superiority and take what is rightfully theirs – to satisfy their grandiose sense of entitlement. Naturally, in a universe of one, Hare observes, “Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths. … They do not honor formal or implied commitments to people, organizations, or principles.”17 They may very well ask, “What’s so bad about being articulate, self-confident, living a fast-paced life on the edge and in the now, and looking out for number one?” And in our decaying society, many would not disagree. But what the psychopath sees as a carefree life of excitement and entitlement usually amounts to little more than the pursuit of immediate moments of pleasure and feelings of power, whether fleeting or more long-lasting.

With Hare’s work, the psychopathic “mask” of sanity and normality acquires a sinister and Machiavellian tone. That’s because psychopaths are conscious of being different. They see normal people as inferiors – “others” – to be used and discarded when they are no longer needed. But like a predator among its prey, psychopaths must disguise themselves to evade detection. If they made their motives known, others would be horrified. So, from an early age they learn to fit in by copying normal human reactions and behaviors. They learn when it is appropriate to cry, show grief, guilt, concern, and love. They learn all the facial expressions, common phrases, and social cues for these emotions they do not feel. And as such, they deceive others with false displays of sadness, grief, guilt, concern, and love, and they manipulate our reactions to get what they want. That’s how a psychopath is able to con you out of money by playing on your sense of pity and compassion. Normal people, unaware of the differences between psychopaths and themselves, assume that these displays of emotion are evidence of actual emotion, and so the psychopath succeeds in going unnoticed, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “[T]he truly talented ones have raised their ability to charm people to that of an art, priding themselves on their ability to present a fictional self to others that is convincing, taken at face value, and difficult to penetrate.”18

This “practice” at appearing human is expertly portrayed in Mary Astor’s novel The Incredible Charlie Carewe, which Cleckley recommended “should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician” because of its remarkably accurate portrayal of a psychopath.19 This “act” is a matter of survival for a psychopath, lest their “inhumanity” be discovered. After all, most people do not react positively to a child or adult who potentially can, as Hare put it, “torture and mutilate [a human being] with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey.”20

Psychopaths also keep up their “psychopathic fiction” by being charming conversationalists. They expertly tell “unlikely but convincing” stories about themselves, easily blending truth with lies. Not only can they lie effortlessly, they are completely unfazed when caught in a lie. They simply rework their story, to the befuddlement of those who know the truth. They may feign remorse, but are equally skilled at rationalizing their behavior, often portraying themselves as the victims (and blaming the real victims). One female psychopath complained that no one cared about how she felt, having lost both her children. In fact, she was the one who had murdered them. In cases like this, the mask slips ever so slightly, as when the less intelligent psychopath attempts to use emotional concepts he cannot understand. One inmate told Hare, “Yeah, sure, I feel remorse [for the crime].” However, he didn’t “feel bad inside about it.”21

Even their violent outbursts of “rage” are carefully controlled displays. One relatively self-aware psychopath revealed, “There are emotions – a whole spectrum of them – that I know only through words, through reading and in my immature imagination. I can imagine I feel these emotions (know, therefore, what they are), but I do not.”22 Another, confused when asked how he felt, was asked about the physical sensations of emotion and responded, “Of course! I’m not a robot. I really get pumped up when I have sex or when I get into a fight.”23 Capable of only the most primal body-based feelings, the psychopath has no intense emotions to be in control of; any display of such is an act with the intent to manipulate.

As to the causes of this disturbing disorder, researchers are now confident that, contrary to the once common belief that psychopathy must be caused by childhood trauma, there is a substantial genetic and biological basis for psychopathy. In his 2007 update on the last twenty years of psychopathy research, Robert Hare comments: “I might note that the early results from behavioral genetics research are consistent with the evolutionary psychology view that psychopathy is less a result of a neurobiological defect than a heritable, adaptive life-strategy.”24 Or, as he put it in Without Conscience:

I think [childhood experiences] play an important role in shaping what nature has provided [i.e. “a profound inability to experience empathy and the complete range of emotions”]. Social factors and parenting practices influence the way the disorder develops and is expressed in behavior. Thus, an individual with a mix of psychopathic personality traits who grows up in a stable family and has access to positive social and educational resources might become a con artist or white-collar criminal, or perhaps a somewhat shady entrepreneur, politician, or professional. Another individual, with much the same personality traits but from a deprived and disturbed background, might become a drifter, mercenary, or violent criminal. … One implication of this view for the criminal justice system is that the quality of family life has much less influence on the antisocial behaviors of psychopaths than it does on the behavior of most people.25

In line with this understanding, psychopathy can be detected at an early age. By the age of 10 or 12, most psychopaths exhibit serious behavioral problems like persistent lying, cheating, theft, fire setting, truancy, class disruption, substance abuse, vandalism, violence, bullying, running away, precocious sexuality, cruelty to animals. One psychopath smiled when he reminisced to Hare about tying puppies to a rail to use their heads for baseball-batting practice.26 However, the exact causes (and possible steps to prevent it in infancy and early childhood) are still unknown. Children predisposed to psychopathy who do not show obvious signs later in life probably become successful at avoiding detection because of such factors as increased intelligence and abilities to better plan and control their behavior. While the vast majority of research has been conducted on prison populations, because of the relative ease of research opportunities, the concept of the successful psychopath (whether that means he is not criminal or simply doesn’t get caught) is a relatively recent topic of interest for specialists and is not yet clearly defined or publicly understood, just as the term “psychopath” was in the early twentieth century.

It is these psychopaths – the ones who avoid detection – who become successful and ruthless politicians and government insiders, as was the case with Hermann Göring and Lavrentiy Beria (who will be discussed in future columns) and is probably the case with contemporary politicians like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, American ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. These men achieve the heights of power, and they are dangerous.


  1. A transcript of the talk is available here
  2. “Ex-Madoff Operations Director Arrested by FBI”, Reuters, February 25, 2010
  3. “Participants in the Madoff investment scandal,” Wikipedia, accessed March 17, 2010
  4. Tim Shipman, “Bernard Madoff: how did he get away with it for so long?”,, December 20, 2008
  5. YouTube video
  6. Lucinda Franks, “Madoff Employee Breaks Silence”, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2009
  7. Mark Seal, “Madoff’s World”, Vanity Fair, April 2009
  8. Julie Creswell and Landon Thomas Jr., “The Talented Mr. Madoff”, New York Times, January 24, 2009
  9. Katy Brace, “Psychologist calls Madoff a psychopath”,, January 29, 2009
  10. Cleckley, H. 1988 [1941], The Mask of Sanity (Augusta, Georgia: Emily S. Cleckley), 19, PDF available here
  11. Ibid, viii
  12. Ibid, ix
  13. Goldner et al. (2002) put the prevalence of schizophrenia at 0.55% of the general population, and while accurate studies of psychopathy in the general population have yet to be done, recently a few limited studies show that the low limit for psychopathy is 0.6% (Coid et al., 2009). Some estimates go many times higher than that figure, factoring in successful psychopaths.
  14. Cleckley, 33
  15. Hare, R. D. 1999 [1995], Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us (New York: Guilford Press), 121, 195
  16. Ibid, 41
  17. Ibid, 63
  18. Babiak, P. & Hare, R. D. 2006, Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work (New York: ReganBooks), 50
  19. Cleckley, 326
  20. Hare, 45
  21. Ibid, 41
  22. Ibid, 52-3
  23. Ibid, 54
  24. Hare, R. D. 2007, ‘Forty Years Aren’t Enough: Recollections, Prognostications, and Random Musings,’ In Herve, H., and Yuille, J. C. (eds) The Psychopath: Theory, Research, and Practice, pp. 3 – 28 (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 14. However, recent studies have shown distinct differences in the brain functioning of psychopaths when compared to normal individuals. See Oakley, B. 2007, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
  25. Hare (1999), 173 – 4
  26. Ibid, 66 – 7