The Brains of Maniacs: A Q&A with ‘Psychopath Whisperer’ Author Dr. Kent A. Kiehl

Dr. Kent A. Kiehl/Photo © Mark Peterson Photography
Dr. Kent A. Kiehl/Photo © Mark Peterson Photography

In 2005, a Kansas man named Dennis Rader was convicted of ten counts of murder. Rader may not ring a bell, but you might recall his moniker of “BTK Killer,” so-called because of his signature “Bind, Torture, Kill.” During his sentencing, the serial killer gave a long rambling speech that included the line, “I actually think I may be possessed with demons. I was dropped on my head as a kid.”

Demonology aside, the BTK Killer may have been on to something. There is a strong chance his brain is abnormal. This vein of science is the subject of The Psychopath Whisperer by Dr. Kent A. Kiehl, who has dedicated his life to figuring out what makes the maniacs among us tick. He found his calling as a twenty-three-year-old graduate student who would go on to spend seven years interviewing inmates in a Canadian prison.

Kiehl is a pioneer in the field of psychopathy; his focus on brain development barely existed before the 1990s. His career has taken him all over the world, given him access to the finest scholarly minds and resources available, allowed him to help build a multimillion-dollar mobile MRI unit, and delivered him to coffee and causal conversation with people who store body parts in the freezer. Today, Kiehl is a professor in the psychology department at the University of New Mexico and heads up the The Mind Research Network, an organization in Albuquerque, “dedicated to the discovery and advancement of clinical solutions for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness and other brain disorders.”

Dr. Kiehl joined us for a conversation about neuroscience, his former neighbor Ted Bundy, what Dexter gets wrong, and what his studies are getting right.

Signature: In 2008, you were the subject of a New Yorker profile by John Seabrook. What was that experience like, and did it influence you in writing The Psychopath Whisperer?

Kent Kiehl: It was flattering. To have the quality of a writer like Seabrook telling my story was an honor. He followed me around for a couple of weeks and was thoroughly interested in the research and science. It was my first big experience working with the media. It was great because they fact-checked everything to get it right. Scientific accuracy isn’t always important to reporters. It was a genuine, thoughtful, intellectual article, and I used its mix of science and storytelling as a model for my book.

SIG: The Psychopath Whisperer digs into the brain, both literally and figuratively. Was it a challenge for you to get the right balance of science and stories in the overall equation?

KK: I wouldn’t have written a book that was just horror stories, but my original chapter on the history of psychopathy was a hundred pages long, which my editor suggested I cut down. The science is what engages me, and what I hope will engage readers, but I can’t explain it without describing a handful of the characters I’ve come across. The two work hand-in-hand and enabled me to correct a lot of the disinformation and misinformation that’s out there, which was a driving force in writing the book.

SIG: You mention in the book you grew up a couple of blocks from Ted Bundy in Tacoma, Washington, in the 1970s, and that’s what planted the seed to study psychopaths. I had a similar experience in college, living close to Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s interesting how proximity to evil incarnate, as it were, makes it that much more intriguing.

KK: My father would come from writing and editing stories in the Tacoma News Tribune and we’d talk about how someone from our sleepy middle-class suburb could do such horrific things. Having Bundy in my neighborhood made it personal, but there’s a common human tendency to want to understand abnormal behavior. Whenever there’s a school shooting, people want to know why or how someone could do that, to have some understanding of tragic events.

SIG: The book basically covers those twenty years during which you worked on your thesis that psychopaths’ brains are abnormal – so are they?

KK: Yes, psychopaths’ brains are different from the rest of ours, and we have to come to some understanding about how abnormal brains play a role in abhorrent behavior. It doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior from a moral or legal perspective, but we really need to figure out how to treat it if we are to prevent it. We also have to understand that brains change over time, and even the worst brains can change.

SIG: Mass killings seemingly happen every week in this country. Do you find yourself connected to them as a scientist and clinician?

KK: Yes, absolutely. My connections run deep. For example, I sit on the science advisory board of the Avielle Foundation, which was founded by two parents who lost their daughter in the Newtown shooting. The Avielle Foundation is designed to help prevent violence through brain research, and I believe we can make a difference through treatment and education. Here’s an example of the common misconceptions I mentioned before: Adam Lanza, and James Holmes in Aurora, are not psychopaths. They suffer from psychosis – things like delusions, voices, or hallucinations – but not psychopathy. Other killers have anger or relationship issues, but the point is, it’s related to mental health. We need to mediate and address these issues. More and more young men are choosing to go out with a bang, what they consider to be justified killings. That’s not good. We need to do better.

SIG: How can we do better?

KK: Prevention, prevention, prevention. People tend to think that psychopaths can’t be treated, but the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center [MJTC] in Madison, Wisconsin, has had great success in helping high-risk young offenders. One study found a more than fifty percent drop in violent crime, and zero murders over a five-year period among treated kids, relative to untreated peers. We need to invest in mental health research for young people. It just hasn’t been a priority at the National Institutes of Health to reduce violence.

SIG: It’s interesting you use the word “invest,” because there’s a compelling economic component to preventative mental health care as well.

KK: Huge financial savings. The economic benefits of prevention treatment are enormous. This is one aspect where I’m really trying to educate the public, and where politicians will actually listen. For every $10,000 Wisconsin spent in prevention, it received $70,000 in cost-savings over a four-year period. Economists generally estimate a person’s lifetime societal contributions to be $1 million. Members of the control group were convicted of killing sixteen people; the MJTC-treated youth killed none, so add $16 million in losses – not to mention the emotional costs. It is a huge windfall for Wisconsin. Plus, the program saves lives.

SIG: One of the problems in educating people is the perception that since a psychopath’s brain is abnormal, it can’t be fixed, and why should we try?

KK: Brains change over time. We learn every day how plastic the brain can be. Neuroscience continues to show how adaptive the brain can be with treatment. We need to do the science. I believe we should not give up on anyone – we can change even the most damaged brain for the better.

SIG: Not only is America reactive, it also doesn’t let science get in the way of policy.

KK: The scientific community respects the work we’re doing, and there are always private foundations, but like I said, there’s no massive governmental push into studying violence. There will always be people and politicians who prefer the “Lock ‘em all away” approach, no matter how much it costs.

SIG: On a totally different note: Are there any pop culture portrayals of psychopaths that have some validity beyond entertainment value?

KK: It’s funny, I’ve never been asked that question before, but I’ve also never spoken to an undergraduate class where someone didn’t bring up Dexter. And the funny thing about Dexter is that he wouldn’t score that high on the Psychopathy Checklist because he’s way too controlled, with a steady job. He’d probably fall in the twenty-point range, so well short of the score most psychopaths I work with in my career.  However, twenty on the Hare PCL-R is still high, and as a colleague of mine says, “You don’t need to know if someone scores over thirty (the diagnostic cutoff for psychopathy). Over twenty is bad enough, and I don’t want to date them!”

Movie and television producers frequently want me to vet the scripts, to give them scientific cover. Someone from "House" called and wanted me to say that a scene with a female psychopath character was correct. I told them the science was the exact opposite, and the scene was poorly done [laughs]. They didn’t listen to me. Hollywood, and most media, really just want the rare attention-grabbing sensationalistic version of psychopathic behavior.

SIG: I was struck by the banality of serial killer Brian Dugan’s thoughts about his own crimes. He was totally blasé about them.

KK: I’ve sat across the table from plenty of guys who are sadists, who get off on killing. And there are those who said they wanted to see what it was like, or who did it for revenge, or just: “That’s what I do.” Brian Dugan was very different. He had no understanding and no answer for why he raped and killed a woman and two young girls. No excuses for the murders. They were motiveless.

SIG: There was a recent This American Life episode in which a blogger talked about how her young son’s mental illness is causing so much chaos and violence in their home. What do you say to parents in that situation?

KK: One thing I recommend for older children and teenagers is a positive reinforcement schedule, because punishment isn’t always the solution. I know that can be hard for parents to understand, but punishment can be regressive. Another simple thing is to keep your kids busy. Whatever programs you can get them in, do it. The vast majority, eighty percent, of kids diagnosed with conduct disorder grow out of it between eighteen and twenty. So don’t let them have any free time. Kids don’t develop at the same pace, so keeping them engaged and busy is the best way to keep them from acting out.

I’m not as well versed in little children, but I would steer them to the work of Dr. Paul Frick at the University of New Orleans, and Professor Mark Dadds of University of New South Wales.

SIG: Lastly, does continually dealing with psychopaths ever get to you?

KK: Rarely. I guess I’m like members of law enforcement, in that you develop ways to shield yourself. I don’t go to crime scenes or look at photos, so it’s not necessarily as visceral as it would be if I were an investigator. I just listen to stories.

However, there have been a couple of times I’ve cut interviews short. Years ago, back in Canada, I listened to a man whose crimes were so awful it affected my driving. I got pulled over, and I explained to the cop what I’d just heard, and how I needed to go home, open up a bottle of wine, and curl up with my dog. He understood. I didn’t get a ticket.

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