Psychopaths inhabit a special place in the popular imagination, and for good reason: Psychopathy is the perhaps the closest science has come to “explaining” evil — or at least one sometimes gruesome, difficult-to-fathom manifestation of it. Psychopaths lack empathy and cannot connect emotionally the way most humans do. Disturbingly, some prove particularly skilled at faking genuine grief or contrition or whatever else — all while exuding a charisma that allows them to take advantage of unsuspecting family members, lovers, victims.
Kent Kiehl, executive science officer of the New-Mexico-based Mind Research Network and a leading researcher on the diagnosis and analysis of psychopaths (and their brains, given that his career has been built in part by rolling prisoner after prisoner into brain-imaging machines to test for the telltale signs of psychopathy), is exactly the sort of guide one would want for an inside look at the condition: He’s funny, engaging, and knows a huge amount about the subject.
Unfortunately, his new book, “The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience,” falters. Yes, it has its moments, particularly when Kiehl is relating some of his many, many interactions with psychopaths, but it is beset by so many writing and editing issues — some of them truly strange and amateur — that the reader is left feeling rather unsatisfied.
The book is part professional memoir, part scientific explainer based in part on Kiehl’s interviews with psychopaths, whose utter inability to truly understand why their crimes were wrong is chilling. The book loosely tracks Kiehl’s career, but is interspersed with digressions related to things like best childhood diagnostic practices and a segment in which he “tests” the assassins of presidents Lincoln and Garfield — John Wilkes Booth and Charles Julius Guiteau, respectively — for psychopathy.
Despite the rich subject matter, Kiehl’s writing frequently comes across as robotic. In one stretch, consecutive sentences begin with the words “We planned,” “We also planned,” and “We also planned.” And when Kiehl recounts remembered dialogue, which he does frequently, it’s often used to explain key concepts, but the conceit doesn’t work, leaving Kiehl and his colleagues sounding less like real people than expository devices (maybe some researchers simply talk that way, but that doesn’t mean these quotes should have made the final cut for the book).
Some of this may sound nitpicky, but these problems crop up throughout the book and distract. There are stretches of “The Psychopath Whisperer” in which it frankly fails to come across as a title that was professionally edited, stretches in which one can almost randomly pick a sentence and find that part of it — or even the whole thing — should have been cut: “After using the bathroom, I entered the auditorium to find four people eating their lunches.” Or, describing an office: “There was a seating area with two couches across from each other and two comfortable chairs at either end.” Why would readers possibly want such granular details surrounding Kiehl’s negotiations with three competing MRI machine suppliers?
This lack of focus and attention to the writing leads to a book that, while providing fascinating individual moments and insights (learning that psychopaths can’t understand metaphors, for example), fails to answer most of the big questions about psychopaths in a substantive way.
And the structural issues persist throughout. Just about every nonfiction book like “The Psychopath Whisperer” that I’ve ever read has included a concluding section that sums up what’s been covered and nudges the discussion forward, beyond the contents of the book. Not this one. The final chapter is two paragraphs and is followed by an epilogue of less than a page.
It’s all very frustrating because if this book were assembled more carefully and thoughtfully it could have told us a lot more about a profoundly interesting subject.Jesse Singal is a senior editor at NYMag.com.