Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
Back to Index of Criminal Profiles
Commentary on Dave Cullen’s “The
Depressive and the Psychopath”
July 30, 2004
Dave Cullen’s article “The Depressive and the Psychopath” in Slate (April 20, 2004) is subtitled “At last we know why the Columbine killers did it” (Appendix). I'm inclined to disagree. The article does little more than provide clinical diagnoses for Harris and Klebold. Cullen’s account of Harris’s diagnosis (citing Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist, and FBI lead Columbine investigator Dwayne Fuselier, a clinical psychologist) offers little information that was not available in my “Indirect Evaluation of Eric Harris” (April 30, 1999) prepared for U.S. News & World Report (May 2, 1999). In that report I wrote, “Eric Harris emerged from my assessment as a primarily aggressive (sadistic) personality with secondary antisocial, narcissistic, and paranoid features. This personality configuration is consistent with the severely disturbed personality syndrome that psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg (1984) called malignant narcissism.”
In saying that Harris had secondary antisocial features, I acknowledged that he was a psychopath. However, it is clear that I viewed him as primarily sadistic. In this regard, I should note that the absence of sadistic personality disorder from the standard psychiatric nomenclature (see Stone, 1998) forces diagnosticians to collapse sadistic personality and psychopathy (or sociopathy) into a single entity, namely antisocial personality disorder. For example, in Cullen’s article, it is clear that Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist encompasses both antisocial and sadistic traits. The point is that when Hare or Fuselier categorizes someone as a psychopath, their diagnostic criteria are sufficiently broad to account for both psychopathy and sadistic personality. Thus, their diagnosis of psychopathy is not inconsistent with my diagnosis of sadistic personality disorder — or, more broadly, the syndrome of malignant narcissism. As will be evident in the discussion below, Fuselier clearly includes some narcissistic traits (e.g., superiority, grandiosity) in his psychopathy framework. (Note: Narcissism is one of the four cornerstones of malignant narcissism — the other three being unconstrained aggression [sadism], a lack of conscience [psychopathy], and a paranoid [insular, distrusting] outlook.)
In my commentary on Cullen’s article, below, extracts from Cullen (2004) appear in red font and my comments in blue.
But Harris was cold, calculating, and homicidal. “Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people,” Fuselier says. Harris was not merely a troubled kid, the psychiatrists say, he was a psychopath. (Cullen, 2004)
“… Harris wanted to hurt people …” is indicative of a sadistic personality disorder, included in the Appendix of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) DSM–III–R (APA, 1987) but excluded from DSM–IV (APA, 1994).
These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but “It’s more about demeaning other people,” says Hare. (Cullen, 2004)
“Superiority complex” is associated with narcissistic personality disorder.
“… out to punish the entire human race …” suggests sadistic personality disorder, as does “It’s more about demeaning other people.”
Narcissists exploit other people; it’s only when they also have sadistic personality traits that they will actively demean other people and derive satisfaction from such humiliation of others.
A second confirmation of the diagnosis was Harris’ perpetual deceitfulness. “I lie a lot,” Eric wrote to his journal. (Cullen, 2004)
Deceitfulness and lying are characteristic of antisocial personality disorder (i.e., psychopaths). However, narcissists also lie, sometimes to con others but also more benignly to present themselves in a favorable light or to inflate their ego (Millon, 1996), which is less characteristic of the inherently malevolent psychopath.
Harris married his deceitfulness with a total lack of remorse or empathy — another distinctive quality of the psychopath. (Cullen, 2004)
Lack of remorse is most closely associated with antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy); however, narcissists, sadists, and paranoid personalities also lack empathy. In other words, unremorsefulness is not exclusive to psychopaths.
“But he wrote that strictly for effect,” Fuselier said. “That was complete manipulation.” (Cullen, 2004)
Using words instrumentally for effect rather than meaning is more indicative of narcissists, as is clever interpersonal manipulation. This is not to say that psychopaths do not display these tendencies. I’m suggesting that, to the extent that someone excels at conning others, they have narcissistic qualities in addition to their psychopathy. Pure psychopaths are more likely to use extortion and intimidation/threat of force. Narcissists believe they are special, smarter than anyone else, and tend to use cunning and subterfuge to attain their objectives.
Harris’ pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath. (Cullen, 2004)
Grandiosity is associated primarily with narcissism.
Glibness is associated primarily with narcissism, though more intelligent psychopaths and those with coexisting narcissistic tendencies can also be “silver-tongued devils.”
Contempt is associated primarily with sadism, though it is also found in psychopaths, who are contemptuous of society’s conventional values and mores.
Lack of empathy – narcissism, psychopathy, sadism (discussed earlier).
Superiority – narcissism (discussed earlier).
It begins to explain Harris’ unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. (Cullen, 2004)
True, psychopaths are callous; however, callousness is even more diagnostic (indicative) of sadistic personality disorder. The point, simply, is this: with increasing degrees of callousness, the presence of concurrent sadistic traits becomes increasingly likely. It is not clear from the text of the article if Fuselier is basing his assessment of callousness on the index event (the Columbine shooting itself) or if this is an extrapolation or inference by the article’s author (Cullen). In my opinion, it is not diagnostically legitimate to use Eric Harris’s actions on the day of the shooting as the basis for a psychological assessment; Harris needs to be evaluated on the basis of pre-massacre information, including his diaries.
Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (Cullen, 2004)
… unfettered by conscience – “Without conscience” is good shorthand for psychopathy; in fact, it’s the title of Robert Hare’s (1993) authoritative book on the subject.
… living for their own aggrandizement – This, in fact, accurately captures the essential life goal for psychopaths — their driving motive.
“Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling,” Hare writes. “For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.” (Cullen, 2004)
Torture and mutilation are characteristic of sadistic personalities. I would not expect a pure psychopath to torment his victim any more than necessary to achieve his instrumental purpose. In the case of sexually motivated homicide, for example, a psychopath might strangle a victim to prevent her from testifying against him. A sadist, however, might use a garrote and revive a victim repeatedly to terrorize and humiliate her before finally strangling her to death.
The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force. (Cullen, 2004)
This is not quite accurate, in my opinion. Here’s what I wrote in Explanatory Note #6 of my “Indirect Evaluation of Eric Harris” prepared for U.S. News & World Report in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shooting:
Concerning Dylan Klebold, I have little to go on, but at an intuitive level I don’t have the sense that his personality profile is consistent with what one would expect in a mass murderer. This may be of some relevance at the policy level: whereas Harris may have been biologically wired for disaster, Klebold could have been a victim of social influences and group dynamics. At the level of public policy, this is the only context in which the current debate about Hollywood, film violence, video games, the Internet, the “Goth” subculture, religion, and even parental responsibility makes any sense (in my opinion). For someone like Harris, the only useful preventative measures may simply have been stricter gun control, better school security, more effective law enforcement interventions and follow-up, and a system in place at Columbine High for reporting and dealing with suspicious activity (i.e., measures to protect society from his violent inclinations).
Although I do not specifically address Klebold’s personality in the assessment I conducted for U.S. News & World Report, I think it’s clear from my initial evaluation in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that I did not regard this lethal dyad as an equal partnership. I stated explicitly that “I don’t have the sense that his [Klebold’s] personality profile is consistent with what one would expect in a mass murderer.” In other words, I implied that he was not a psychopath. Instead, I characterized Klebold as “a victim of social influences and group dynamics.” Stated differently, I suggested that Harris was the mastermind and driving force and that Klebold was his compliant partner. (Indeed, in Explanatory Note #3 I wrote, “Dylan Klebold … apparently was the more reticent of the two.”) Sadistic killers occasionally have compliant partners. A recent instance is Lee Boyd Malvo, compliant partner of DC-area sniper John Allen Muhammad. The Slate article does not specify the source of “earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners.” I would question the accuracy of this statement, because I think it’s highly unlikely that any expert on violent crime seriously would have thought that Harris and Klebold could have been equal partners.
Their view of Harris is more reassuring, in a certain way. Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. (Cullen, 2004)
This is consistent with my April 1999 report, in which I wrote: “Evidently, some personalities are biologically ‘hard-wired’ to be aggressive, in the sense that parental hostility can be prompted by a difficult to manage infant born with a testy, sullen, crabby, prickly, fractious, or choleric temperament.”
American Psychiatric Association. (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., revised). Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Cullen, Dave (2004, April 20). The depressive and the psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it. Slate.
Hare, R. D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: Pocket Books.
Kernberg, O. F. (1984). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Millon, T. (with Davis, R. D.). (1996). Disorders of personality: DSM–IV and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Stone, M. S. (1998). Sadistic personality in murderers. In T. Millon, E. Simonsen, M. Birket-Smith, & R. D. Davis (Eds.), Psychopathy: Antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior (pp. 346–355). New York: Guilford.
Streisand, Betsy; & Cannon, Angie (1999, May 2). Exorcising the pain: Littleton buries its dead and tries to understand. U.S. News & World Report.
The Depressive and the Psychopath
At last we know why the Columbine killers did it.
By Dave Cullen
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2004, at 8:59 AM PT
Five years ago today, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School. Most Americans have reached one of two wrong conclusions about why they did it. The first conclusion is that the pair of supposed “Trench Coat Mafia outcasts” were taking revenge against the bullies who had made school miserable for them. The second conclusion is that the massacre was inexplicable: We can never understand what drove them to such horrific violence.
But the FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists have reached an entirely different conclusion. They believe they know why Harris and Klebold killed, and their explanation is both more reassuring and more troubling than our misguided conclusions. Three months after the massacre, the FBI convened a summit in Leesburg, Va., that included world-renowned mental health experts, including Michigan State University psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg, as well as Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist. Fuselier and Ochberg share their conclusions publicly here for the first time.
The first steps to understanding Columbine, they say, are to forget the popular narrative about the jocks, Goths, and Trenchcoat Mafia—click here to read more about Columbine’s myths—and to abandon the core idea that Columbine was simply a school shooting. We can’t understand why they did it until we understand what they were doing.
School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as “collateral damage.”
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting “the most deaths in U.S. history.” Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn’t been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn’t just “fame” they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the “worst school shooting in American history.” They set their sights on eclipsing the world’s greatest mass murderers, but the media never saw past the choice of venue. The school setting drove analysis in precisely the wrong direction.
Fuselier and Ochberg say that if you want to understand “the killers,” quit asking what drove them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were radically different individuals, with vastly different motives and opposite mental conditions. Klebold is easier to comprehend, a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems.
Harris is the challenge. He was sweet-faced and well-spoken. Adults, and even some other kids, described him as “nice.” But Harris was cold, calculating, and homicidal. “Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people,” Fuselier says. Harris was not merely a troubled kid, the psychiatrists say, he was a psychopath.
In popular usage, almost any crazy killer is a “psychopath.” But in psychiatry, it’s a very specific mental condition that rarely involves killing, or even psychosis. “Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders,” writes Dr. Robert Hare, in Without Conscience, the seminal book on the condition. (Hare is also one of the psychologists consulted by the FBI about Columbine and by Slate for this story*.) “Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.” Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.
Diagnosing him as a psychopath was not a simple matter. Harris opened his private journal with the sentence, “I hate the f---ing world.” And when the media studied Harris, they focused on his hatred—hatred that supposedly led him to revenge. It’s easy to get lost in the hate, which screamed out relentlessly from Harris’ Web site:
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? Cuuuuuuuuhntryyyyyyyyyy music!!! . . .
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who say that wrestling is real!! . . .
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who use the same word over and over again! . . . Read a f---in book or two, increase your vo-cab-u-lary f*ck*ng idiots.”
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STUPID PEOPLE!!! Why must so many people be so stupid!!? . . . YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? When people mispronounce words! and they dont even know it to, like acrosT, or eXspreso, pacific (specific), or 2 pAck. learn to speak correctly you morons.
YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STAR WARS FANS!!! GET A FaaaaaaRIGIN LIFE YOU BORING GEEEEEKS!
It rages on for page after page and is repeated in his journal and in the videos he and Klebold made. But Fuselier recognized a far more revealing emotion bursting through, both fueling and overshadowing the hate. What the boy was really expressing was contempt.
He is disgusted with the morons around him. These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he’s not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but “It’s more about demeaning other people,” says Hare.
A second confirmation of the diagnosis was Harris’ perpetual deceitfulness. “I lie a lot,” Eric wrote to his journal. “Almost constantly, and to everybody, just to keep my own ass out of the water. Let’s see, what are some of the big lies I told? Yeah I stopped smoking. For doing it, not for getting caught. No I haven’t been making more bombs. No I wouldn’t do that. And countless other ones.”
Harris claimed to lie to protect himself, but that appears to be something of a lie as well. He lied for pleasure, Fuselier says. “Duping delight”—psychologist Paul Ekman’s term—represents a key characteristic of the psychopathic profile.
Harris married his deceitfulness with a total lack of remorse or empathy—another distinctive quality of the psychopath. Fuselier was finally convinced of his diagnosis when he read Harris’ response to being punished after being caught breaking into a van. Klebold and Harris had avoided prosecution for the robbery by participating in a “diversion program” that involved counseling and community service. Both killers feigned regret to obtain an early release, but Harris had relished the opportunity to perform. He wrote an ingratiating letter to his victim offering empathy, rather than just apologies. Fuselier remembers that it was packed with statements like Jeez, I understand now how you feel and I understand what this did to you.
“But he wrote that strictly for effect,” Fuselier said. “That was complete manipulation. At almost the exact same time, he wrote down his real feelings in his journal: ‘Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I’m free, I can’t deprive a stupid f---ing dumbshit from his possessions if he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his f---ing van out in plain sight and in the middle of f---ing nowhere on a Frif---ingday night. NATURAL SELECTION. F---er should be shot.’ “
Harris’ pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.
It begins to explain Harris’ unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they’re actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they’re facing one. It’s like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)
None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn’t grasp what they feel. The truly hard-core psychopath doesn’t quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.
“Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling,” Hare writes. “For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force. The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers—murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold’s fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.
The psychiatrists can’t help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.
Their view of Harris is more reassuring, in a certain way. Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. If he had lived to adulthood and developed his murderous skills for many more years, there is no telling what he could have done. His death at Columbine may have stopped him from doing something even worse.
Correction, April 20, 2004: The article originally identified Dr. Robert Hare as a psychiatrist. He is a psychologist. Return to the corrected sentence.
Dave Cullen has written for Salon.com and the New York Times and maintains The Columbine Almanac. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman
Last updated November 24, 2007