Psychopathy and autism have a very curious link. Both offer a peek into the mind of natural influencers, but there is a startling difference.
Would you admit to a crime you didn’t commit?
What if you thought you were guilty?
In 1985, Helen Wilson was brutally raped and murdered in Beatrice Nebraska. In 1989 Ada JoAnn Taylor confessed to the murder. Today she says that sometimes she can still feel the fabric from the throw pillow in her hands as she suffocated the life out of the sixty-eight year old grandmother.
Taylor’s life was anything but average in 1985. She was the product of years of abuse, a failed foster care system. JoAnn suffered with drug and alcohol abuse and was diagnosed by Dr. Wayne Price with borderline personality disorder. She had given up her parental rights to the daughter she had at a very young age at the request of Dr. Price. But with the help of a young, gay, pornographic film star named Joseph White, she was attempting to get her rights back.
During the same time, a hog farmer named Burdette Searcey made a promise to the daughter of Helen Wilson. He promised to solve her mothers murder. Burdette felt the need to be involved and perhaps needed a reason to get off of the pig farm. In two short years, Searcey was deputized in Gage County and took on the case full time.
The department was working from two perspectives.
1. The authorities at the time decided the murderer was a homosexual, because of the details of the rape.
2. They had also determined, from sample taken at the scene, the culprit had type B blood.
In March of 1989 Secrecy had an arrest warrant issued for Taylor and her gay friend Joseph White. The warrant was issued on the basis that White was a homosexual. Also, they had the testimony of a seventeen year old whom the Beatrice Police Department described as “a maybe retard,” who said the friends had talked about committing the murder.
White was arrested. During his interrogation he said the idea that he had committed a murder was, “pure, deep bull****.” The next day Taylor was arrested. During her interview she explained that she, “blocks a lot of bad things out,” and that, “there’s a lot in my childhood I can’t remember.”
It was at this point that her old counselor, Dr. Wayne Price was brought in. He explained to the duo that their recollection of the murder might come to them segmented, a piece here and a piece there. Or that it might occur in dreams. This shift in the conversation is subtle and was a psychological trick to turn the conversation from “did you do it” to “how did you do it.” Taylor said, “In my head and in my heart, I know I wasn’t there.”
But that didn’t persuade Dr. Price or Searecy.
Finally Taylor broke. She admitted to the murder. But there were flaws in her admission. For example, she explained how the event happened in a house. Her description of the house resembled one where she had been abused as a child. Only after it was revealed to her that the murder had taken place in an apartment did she “remember” it that way.
Unfortunately for Searcey neither Taylor nor White had type B blood. After some prodding, Taylor admitted that she thought her childhood friend, Tom Winslow may have been involved. He was also believed to be homosexual. After his arrest, questioning and some unconventional memory recollection, he admitted he may have been involved.
But Winslow had the wrong blood type as well.
Helen Wilsons niece, Debra Sheldon was brought in for questioning. She was acquainted with Taylor and White during the time of the murder. After unconventional interrogations White admitted that she also may have played a role in the murder.
Her blood wasn’t type B either.
An Entire Gang
And so the slippery slope was slid, with one person being coached into a confession. Then the evidence would not line up. So the confessor points to another possible culprit. This pattern was repeated until, all told, 6 people were implicated in the murder and rape of Helen Wilson. They were Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, Joseph White, Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Debra Shelden. 5 of the six admitting to their involvement. Only White proclaimed his innocence throughout the ordeal.
The group was called the Beatrice six. They were sentenced to decades in prison. Joseph White was the only one to go to trial because he was the only one that wouldn’t confess. Three of the other five testified against him as part of a plea bargain to reduce their sentences.
James Dean admitted that he was there during the rape and murder. He offered testimony that was very descriptive of the event. His story was that White and Winslow committed the rape. He said that Taylor held a pillow over the face of Wilson which ultimately lead to her death. Shelden admitted she was there, but tried to intervene. In her description, White struck her and she didn’t remember much after that point. Almost all of the descriptions came from very unconventional tactics with, as James Dean said in a 1989 deposition, 70-90% of his recollection coming from dreams.
But those admissions weren’t the only problems with the case.
The jury that convicted the group was not informed that the fingerprints from the scene did not match any of the alleged participants in the crime or the victim Helen Wilson.
The jury also never learned that the DNA samples taken from the crime scene were possible matches for Gonzales and Winslow, but that one man who was a perfect match had been ruled out by Joyce Gilchrist.
Gilchrist was nicknamed “Black Magic” for her ability to make DNA connections that other forensic examiners couldn’t. She was able to make those connections because they were repeatedly wrong. Michael Blair was sentenced to death for murder based on Gilchrist’s testimony that his hair matched hair found at the scene. This turned out to be false. Curtis McCarty spent 20 years on death row after Gilchrist mishandled his evidence. He was released in 2007 but has not received any compensation. Jeffery Pierce was convicted of rape based on Gilchrist’s evidence despite having an airtight alibi. Peirce was released in 2001 after 15 years in prison when the DNA evidence was re-examined and found to be inaccurate.
If manipulating the truth at the expense of human life is a sign of psychopathy, Gilchrist fits the bill.
Her testimony or evidence led to the execution of 11 people. But in this case, she ruled out a man named Bruce Allan Smith, a name that will become extremely important.
Ultimately White was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Winslow plead no contest as part of a plea bargain and received 50 years in prison. Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden all received 10 year sentences and Taylor received 10-40 years after each plead guilty to their part in the crime.
Sheldon, Gonzales and Dean were released after four and a half years. White and Winslow appealed over and over. They were repeatedly denied until 2007. During that appeal DNA testing proved the murderer to be Bruce Allan Smith, who had been dead for 15 years at the time of the appeal. Gage County eventually was ordered to pay $28 million to the Beatrice six who had almost unanimously admitted to the crime. The group collectively spent over 70 years imprisoned for a crime in which they had no involvement, but admitted to committing.
How is it that not just one, but multiple people remember committing a murder that none of them had commited?
In 1931 a psychologist named Norman Maier may have found the answer with a very simple experiment.
Maier was interested in understanding how people solve problems. He devised a puzzle which has since become known as the “two cord puzzle”.
Maier hung two cords from the ceiling of his lab. The cords were far enough apart that people could not grab each at the same time. Then he asked people to come up with ways to tie the two ends of the cords together.
Most participants came up with solutions that involved using the items in the lab to reach one cord while holding the other. Extension cords were tied to the end of the ropes, poles were used to hook the end and pull the two cords together and other miscellaneous solutions were created. But Maier had another solution in mind. He wanted to see how long in took people to come up with his solution. So he continued asking the participants to come up with new ways to solve the puzzle, until they ran out of ideas.
The Right Solution
The solution Maier was looking for was to swing one rope in a pendulum fashion. Then participants could grab the other rope and catch the swinging rope when it came towards them. Very few participants worked out this solution, until they were given a seemingly accidental clue.
Maier would walk around the lab during the experiment until, when people had run out of ideas, he would brush against one of the ropes and set it swinging. Within a minute of this seemingly careless clue, most people would arrive at Maiers solution.
This experiment showed how easily we can be nudged with a solution to a problem without realizing it. But that wasn’t the interesting part. The fascinating part came after the experiment ended.
Only one-third of participants in Maier’s experiment realized they’d been given a clue when Maier bumped the rope. The other two-thirds explained that they arrived at the solution themselves. They fully believed they had solved the puzzle, without help, even though their own thinking did not instigate the solution to the problem.
The majority of participants were easily persuaded to solve the puzzle Maiers way, with Maiers help. But, in the end, the whole time they thought the solution was their idea.
It happened through a psychological concept called priming.
Imagine I show you pictures of delicious food for 30 seconds. Then blindfold you and expose you to the smells of those same great dishes. Then I quickly remove the blindfold and in front of you is a whiteboard with the letters S-O-_-P. I ask you to fill in the missing letter. Instinctively you will most likely spell the word soup. In fact you probably thought that was the answer before I explained it.
But if I show you images of dishes being cleaned, brooms and clean laundry, then blindfold you and expose you to the smell of lemony cleaners and bleach, then pull off your blindfold to the same puzzle, you will probably spell soap.
It is an example of a heuristic. The context and situations we are in affects our thinking, decision making and even memory. Remeber, heuristics are shortcuts or rules of thumb that our brain uses to speed up our decision making process. They are, for the most part a good thing. But they can be very easily manipulated.
Here is another example of the priming heuristic.
Ray is an eighth grader who wants to play a joke on his little brother Tom. He tells Tom to spell the word white, which Tom does. Then he asks what color paper plates are. Tom says they are white. So far he’s two for two. Ray then tells Tom to spell the color of snow, which of course is w-h-i-t-e. Finally Rays tell Tom to spell what cows drink as fast as possible. Tom thinks he’s being tricked into spelling white again and smugly spells m-i-l-k. Ray laughs and explains to his very primed little brother that cows drink w-a-t-e-r.
I even used it in an earlier chapter of my next book. I wanted the reader to link Hindenburg the man with the Hindenburg blimp tragedy. So I wrote the following.
Hindenburg had a burning dislike for Communism, which drove many of his actions. He was chosen to lead his people often in battle and politics, and his name has gone down in history. His actions sparked a famous, worldwide event and qualified him for the second chapter of this book, but probably not for the reason you think.
Timing, Priming and Psychopathy
Priming is a very powerful, psychological tool. It’s a tool that manipulators can use to influence their victims into thinking that poor choices were their idea. Psychopathy can cause a person to manipulate others with priming. They corrupt the mind of the innocent with thoughts that lead to the actions they are trying to illicit. In a junior high school joke it can be funny. In a book it can bring out the feelings or memories the author wants.
But when lives, prison or even money is on the line it is purely manipulation.
Ada JoAnn Taylor’s black hair is streaked with grey and cut short during her interview. She looks haggard and exhausted. It seems like she has spent years missing sleep. There is one moment during the three minute interview when she appears to twist her face into the closest representation of a smile that she can seem to muster. It happens when she uncovers a ridiculous truth about the investigation. Price, her one time mental therapist, was also a part-time sheriff’s deputy who aided in the interrogations.
The same man whom she had trusted to give her advice about her mental health years earlier was now advising her. “We know you did this,” she quotes Price, “we know you suffocated her. If you’ll just concentrate on your dreams your memories will come back. You’ve just repressed your memories.”
The cord had been set in motion.
Then the interviewer says, “but the suggestion that you may have done it was enough to get you to admit.” Right on cue, Ada JoAnn Taylor begins repeating, verbatim what the interviewer is saying, immediately after she says it. It is almost as if the interviewer is now doing the priming.
Taylor says of Price that being privy to her background and psychological state gave him access into how best to manipulate her. She says that he knew, “if we tell her something hard enough she’s going to listen to it. She’s gonna accept it.” Price helped wrongly convict 6 people of murder.
Psychopathy; Manipulating Others to the Outcome You Want.
She says that Searecy would tell her the police knew she had suffocated Wilson with a pillow. It is the tormenting false memory that still runs rampant in Taylors mind. She says she can still visualize herself holding the couch pillow that choked the life from Helen Wilson.
Unfortunately that false memory is more false than we think. Wilson was not suffocated with a couch pillow. She was wrapped in a blanket that cut off the air around her. But in Taylors mind, that’s not how it happened. Because during the priming from the Gage County sheriffs department, that isn’t what they told her. They told her it was a pillow.
The video ends with Taylor saying, “Wow, they got me to say I did (it). How screwed up was I?”
Manipulating someone using priming is a sign of psychopathy. But reacting to priming isn’t screwed up. It’s normal, even when the person reacting isn’t.
Priming is just one example of a heuristic that effects our decision making. Other examples include:
This heuristic where a person responds to a situation in a way that allows them to remain consistent.
This is an approach to a situation that is very atypical and unlikely – in other words, a situation that is absurd. This particular heuristic is applied when a claim or a belief seems silly, or seems to defy common sense.
This is a heuristic that is applied to a problem based on an individual’s observation of a situation. It is a practical and prudent approach that is applied to a decision where the right and wrong answers seems relatively clear cut.
This allows a person to judge a situation on the basis of the examples of similar situations that come to mind, allowing a person to extrapolate to the situation in which they find themselves.
allows someone to approach an issue or problem based on the fact that the situation is one with which the individual is familiar, and so one should act the same way they acted in the same situation before.
This is used when a particular object becomes rare or scarce. This approach suggests that if something is scarce, then it is more desirable to obtain.
This is when an individual makes a snap judgment based on a quick impression. This heuristic views a situation quickly and decides without further research whether a thing is good or bad. Naturally, this heuristic can be both helpful and hurtful when applied in the wrong situation.
This occurs when someone believes the opinion of a person of authority on a subject just because the individual is an authority figure. People apply this heuristic often in matters such as science, politics, and education.
Psychopathy and Heuristics
Perhaps the most valuable and commonly manipulated heuristic is the authority heuristic. We established earlier that psychopaths share a chemical imbalance with those on the autism spectrum. They both either lack or have rouble processing oxytocin. But the psychopaths use our own heuristics against us to get what they want. Those afflicted with psychopathy position themselves as experts to gain the trust of unwitting victims on a very regular basis.
Buridan’s ass is a philosophical paradox in which a donkey is placed the same distance between two perfectly equal bales of hay. In another version of the problem the donkey is equally hungry and thirsty and is the same distance between food and water. The donkey can’t decide what it wants more. It dies from an inability to choose, not from malnutrition.
In the world of the psychopath, we are the donkey and they control the hay. Only they do not think in the best interest of anyone but themselves. The outcome of any situation must eventually benefit them either socially, financially or by satisfying some urge they have.
It is very difficult to diagnose psychopathy without the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or an FMRI. It is not realistic to perform expensive medical procedures on every criminal suspected of psychopathy. So a system was developed by a man who is now considered the leading authority on psychopathy. Dr. Bob Hare spent decades developing and teaching his now famous psychopath checklist to those who deem it valuable. It is the gold standard for determining if a person/criminal is or is not a psychopath when FMRI isn’t available. Today, authorities decipher average criminals from psychopaths using the Hare checklist. It is called the Psychopath Checklist Revised or PCL-R. The following is an overview of the characteristics from checklist.
- Glibness/superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect
- Callous/lack of empathy
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioral control
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Juvenile delinquency
- Early behavior problems
- Revocation of conditional release
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Criminal versatility
Criminals are judged based on how many of the traits from the list they have and to what degree. The higher a person scores on the list, the more likely they suffer from psychopathy. The list can be highly subjective, because each characteristic is a spectrum, like autism. But once one registers as having a certain degree of psychopathy, they are widely regarded as unable to be rehabilitated by the vast majority of psychologist and criminal justice systems.
The Killer and the Author
Unfortunately we have learned the difficulties of rehabilitating those with psychopathy the hard way. Take the case of Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott.
In 1980 Random House signed Jack Abbott to write his book, In the Belly of the Beast. It was about his time spent in federal prison for charges from robbery to the stabbing murder of a fellow inmate. The book would include excerpts of his letters to pen pal and fellow author Norman Mailer.
Mailer was the popular author of books such as The Naked and the Dead, The White Negro and The Executioners Song which is depicted from the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer was seduced by the writing of Abbott during his research into the criminal life. Abbott not only signed his publishing contract, but was also paroled and set free with Mailers help. He would burst on to the literary scene a newly freed man. His freshly released book, In the Belly of the Beast, was scheduled to launch his new, free life.
On July 19th 1981, the New York Times Book Review published a review of the book shortly after it’s release. The reviewer, Terrence Des Pres, a Colgate University professor, wrote that the book was “awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous; its impact is indelible, and as an articulation of penal nightmare it is completely compelling.”
The positive review of the book was fabulous press that didn’t last long. It would be usurped by another story. A story more intriguing than one of a newly released felon with a knack for writing. On the morning before the review of his book was published, Jack Abbott stabbed Richard Adan in the heart. Mr. Adan was a waiter at the restaurant Abbott and two women were visiting. The fight happened when Abbott asked to use the bathroom. Mr. Adan explained to Abbott that the restroom wasn’t available because the restaurant didn’t have accident insurance.
So Abbott murdered him.
Abbott’s positive book review ran the same day that police announced the manhunt for the murderer. Abbott personified many of the traits from the PCL-R after his capture, . He acted as his own lawyer. (grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity and irresponsibility) He berated Mr. Adan’s widow in court for crying over the loss of her husband. (lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy and poor behavioral control)
In fact, the notes from he trial read like a description of exactly how to prove one’s psychopathy according to the PCL-R. Abbott even had the gaul to publish another book after the murder called My Return, for which he was promptly sued and lost $7.5 million.
But it isn’t surprising that a lifelong criminal is a psychopath. It also comes as no surprise that he was able to manipulate Mailer into assisting his release from prison and his lucrative book contract.
But was Mailer manipulated?
When we peek into Mailers life, the story, as unbelievable as it is, gets even stranger..
In The White Negro, Mailer wrote this about fictional young thugs murdering a shop owner.
“It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act – even by the logic of the psychopath – is not likely to prove very therapeutic, for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.”
It seems Mailer thought that if two strong young men, beat in the brains out of a weak, older candy store owner it was not cowardly, but daring. Perhaps this view of murdering the weak is what drove him to his next stunt.
On November 20th, 1960, Mailer ended an argument with his wife, Adele Morales by stabbing her in the back and chest, trying to force the two and a half inch knife into her heart, and almost succeeding.
Just a Knick or Two
He appeared at the hospital after the stabbing to lecture the surgeons about the dimensions of Adele’s wound. Immediately afterwards he appeared on The Mike Wallace Show to plug his mayoral candidacy. During the interview he spoke of knives and swords as symbols of manhood. Long after the event he would complain that Morales would show off her huge scar to convince people Mailer had used a much bigger knife. After his arrest he served only 17 days in Bellevue for psychiatric evaluation, then probation for the attempted murder.
Mailer lost in his race as mayor of New York City in 1969.
He has been quoted as saying of the stabbing that he only wanted to give his wife “a knick or two.” Then in his famous argument with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavette Show he dismissed the whole thing saying, “we all know I stabbed my wife.”
Mailers silver tongue and manipulations garnered him the support of Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem for his next political campaign. Abzug and Steinem were women rights activists, supporting a man who tried to murder his wife.
When Mailer came the the rescue of Jack Abbott, helping launch his writing career and free him from prison, had he found untapped talent or just someone he understood? Were they brothers in psychopathy? It’s hard to argue against the similarities between the two, except their standings in society. It is also hard to argue the influence both men had over their collective worlds.
The Influence of Psychopathy
Bob Hare explains that typically 1% of the general population are psychopaths. 25% of prison populations are psychopaths, but 60-70% of the violence in prison is instigated by psychopaths. That is an enormous amount of influence and persuasion.
Not all psychopaths are horrible violent murderers. Psychopathy functions on a spectrum like autism. As I explain in my book SWAY, Dr. James Fallon discovered, by accident, that he is a psychopath. He has lived a very successful life.
The defining characteristic of a psychopath is not violence and bloodshed. Dr. Fallon admits that his relationships have little emotion involved. Fortunately for those around him, his urges had more to do with advancing psychology than murder.
So in psychopathy, the person is lacking adequate oxytocin processing capabilities. Those on the spectrum also lack oxytocin processing capabilities. Both wield influence because of their chemical deficiencies. They are not dependent on social outcomes like neurotypicals. But what differentiates the two? How is one form of influence positive and the other negative?
The solution could make up the content for an entire book. But I think the simple answer is laid out in a quote from Dr. James Fallon, who said this,
“People with autism lack theory of mind but not empathy, while people with psychopathy lack empathy but not theory of mind.”
Empathy is the difference in positive influence and destructive influence.