The Genetics of Psychopathy and Why it Matters in Child Custody

“The last scan in the pile was strikingly odd. In fact it looked exactly like the most abnormal of the scans I had just been writing about, suggesting that the poor individual it belonged to was a psychopath—or at least shared an uncomfortable amount of traits with one….When I found out who the scan belonged to, I had to believe there was a mistake….But there had been no mistake. The scan was mine.”

Oops.

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Brain scans of Dr Fallon and family

You are a world leading expert on brain imaging for violent criminals and psychopaths and you find that your own brain image is that of a psychopath. YOU are a psychopath. That has to be hard.

Wrong.

That is what a normal person would think; we have empathy, we have emotions. The psychopath doesn’t, (s)he will look how to turn this into a personal gain. And so did Dr Fallon; without empathy for what this public knowledge would do to his immediate family, he turned his discovery into a book about entering the dark side of the brain of a psychopath, included his family history of violent murderers and psychopaths. To top it off he then sought publicity with a huge media campaign. Book sales = money.

And I’m hopping on the band wagon, because his story is of extreme importance for child custody and there are 4 reasons why;

  1. Psychopathy has a genetic link; it passes on from parent to child. A child of a psychopath is at risk.
  2. Psychopathy is in the brain, it is not curable. Forced joint custody, parenting coordinators, therapy, etc will not improve the situation.
  3. Hitler vs Dr Fallon; Society’s misconception about the violent vs socially ‘adapted’ psychopath.
  4. Make or break the child; Influences in the early years.

1. The genetics of psychopathy

Yes, psychopathy passes on from parent to child through genetics. Dr Fallon in his book talks about several violent (and infamous) murderers that are related to him. He has a very interesting family tree to say the least.

Research has shown that Antisocial Personality Disorder (psychopathy) has an about 56% genetic component to it. Just to compare, breast cancer also has a genetic component. Women who have the mutated genes BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a chance of getting breast cancer in about 55-65% or 45% respectively. Angelina Jolie in 2013 went public with her double mastectomy because she has the gene mutations.

That is a different perspective, isn’t it? They are in the same range.

Just because you have the breast cancer gene, doesn’t mean you get breast cancer. If you have the gene for psychopathy, doesn’t mean you actually become a psychopath. But your chances of becoming a psychopath or getting breast cancer are the same when you have the gene for it.

Kids get some genes from Mom, some genes from Dad, it is a mix. This means children of psychopaths are at risk. It doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to have the gene, but there is a considerable possibility they do.

And when the kids do have the gene, it takes outside factors for psychopathy to become present, just like it takes outside factors for a woman to develop breast cancer.

2. Psychopathy is in the brain

Well-meaning people will say: ‘O, it will get better, it just takes time’, ‘Why doesn’t he go into therapy, that will help’, ‘If he just realizes what is going on, he will change’. I’ve heard my attorney say it, I’ve heard friends and family say it and I have to admit, I was of the same mindset during the marriage as well. I believe in human goodness and thought it would get better. I now know better.

Looking at the brain scan of Dr Fallon is sobering. It is clear that certain parts of his brain are functioning differently than his family members do. Sure, I read the research that psychopathy is not curable, I talked to experts, I preached and told it. Yet deep down inside I hoped it would be different; for the children’s sake. When I saw the scan, reality hit.

A psychopath is not going to change, no therapy will cure him/her. Nothing can change their brain.

3. Hitler vs Dr. Fallon

When we think about psychopaths, we think about Hitler, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and perhaps even Jodi Arias, Ariel Castro or the Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza. We think of creeps, we think of violent criminals.

Certainly not of a well-respected neuroscientist, husband and father like dr Fallon.

And that’s where society and the judicial system go wrong. The world’s leading expert in psychopathy, Dr Babiak and dr Hare, wrote the book ‘Snakes in Suits‘ and as you probably guessed, it is not about violent criminals. The percentage of psychopaths in high-powered positions in society is similar to the percentage in prison.

However, not only is our view of psychopaths skewed, our perception of their ‘damage’ is also clouded. Violence and murder are tangible concepts. We see the horror. Psychological trauma is so much more difficult to grasp, especially when you are not the victim.

Caregiver behaviors …… negatively affect the child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and/or physical development. Psychological maltreatment has been linked with disorders of attachment, developmental and educational problems, socialization problems, disruptive behavior, and later psychopathology. American Academy of Pediatrics

Despite the fact that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have policies in place that recognize the frequency and long-term injury of psychological abuse, family court dismisses or even fails to recognize its existence. Yet the psychological damage of being raised by a personality disordered parent is well researched in the field of psychology, this is an unmistakable and devastating disconnect for the child.

4. Make or break the child

So how is it possible that Dr Fallon turned out ‘reasonably well’ and others have gone off the deep end? It is the early years. It is the environment the child grows up in.

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Picture by Steve Corey (Flickr)

Nurture

Dr Fallon explains he was loved as a child. He was the first-born after several miscarriages. He was wanted. He was important to his parents, or at least by 1 emotionally and psychologically healthy parent. A parent who was able to form secure parent-child attachments. So there was at least a 1-way of love.

As I’ve written about before, psychopaths cannot form secure attachments, but the love of Dr Fallon’s parent(s) provided him with a cushion to soften the impact of his genetics.

Just like smoking can cause lung cancer, red food coloring can aggravate ADHD, so is lack of love a trigger for becoming a psychopath. A psychopathic parent per definition can not express love; they are incapable of having empathy and without empathy there is no love. And a parent without empathy can not teach a child empathy.

Love is a deep concern for the other. Love is caring for the other. Children of psychopaths often endure neglect at best, or worse, physical abuse. This environment encourages the next generation to be psychopaths when they are at risk.

Dr Fallon emphasizes over and over again that the timing of the emotional/psychological injury determines the effect on the brain and what type of psychopath you become. For the gene to be expressed, the child needs to be exposed to trauma before puberty. Having the gene and being exposed to violence, or child neglect, is the recipe for disaster. The more severe the exposure, the more violent the psychopath becomes later on.

Family Courts Responsibility

‘Best Interest of the Child’ is the legal standard, not what is fair to each parent, or what a parent would like. Yet the courts do not follow-up on this, they would rather cater to Parental Rights organizations and work on a compromise between the 2 parties as if the children are property that needs to be divided equally. The legal standard is blatantly ignored to favor what can be agreed upon, not what is in the best interest of the child.

First of all courts need to put aside their misconception that psychopaths are violent criminals and realize that ‘upstanding’ members of society can be psychopaths as well. All persons involved in child custody decisions need to put the child first, and not the glorified theory of coming to an agreement and divide the property equally. This is the wellbeing of the next generation decisions are being made about.

When a child is at risk because 1 parent is a psychopath it is particularly important one limits the environmental influence of said parent. This could be a tipping point for the child to develop a personality disorder. It is extremely important that the child be around the parent that can express love, values, care and empathy. That does not mean the psychological disordered parent should be eliminated out of the life of the child, but the influence needs to be managed appropriately.

I can not repeat this enough; conflict is the single most predictable factor for the worst outcome for children of divorce. Forcing joint custody is perpetuating conflict for children. It is making the situation for children who are already at risk even worse. The acrimonious behavior of the psychopath is not going to change. They can’t change, their brain is set.

It is the courts responsibility to protect and safeguard the child, failure to do so has long-term consequences for the child and society. It is time courts recognize and take appropriate actions when there is a parent with a personality disorder and not stick their heads in the sand to cater to parental rights organizations. Our children are not 2nd rate citizens, they are our future.