In 1963, New Zealand forensic psychiatrist John Marshall Macdonald published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry called "The Threat to Kill." This paper described three behaviors - bedwetting past age 5, cruelty to animals, and the setting of fires - as "red flag" indicators of sociopathy and future episodic, aggressive behaviors. In combination, these childhood activities have become known as the "Macdonald Triad" and have often been associated with serial killers and other violent criminals. (Petiot, like Jeffrey Dahmer, was viciously cruel to animals). While not all convicted serial killers demonstrate these behaviors, the Triad seems to predict anti-social tendencies. But what causes the Triad? Do we choose to be evil, do outside forces make us evil, or is being evil an illness?
There is no question that Petiot would make any top ten list of evil people. But, as Dr. Elliott Cohen asks in his article "Are Evil People Crazy,": "Is being evil really a mark of mental illness?" Cohen notes a sociopath's lack of remorse as an oft-cited symptom of mental illness:
"...the Ted Bundies and Jeffrey Dahmers of the world can commit brutal murders with little or no remorse. But these cases are rare, and the vast majority of sociopaths are not mass murderers... According to the DSM-IV-TR [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2000], 'The essential feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.'"
Cohen notes, however, that there are those who believe that the diagnosis of mental illness is, in itself, a moral judgment: "We call people mentally ill... when their personal conduct violates certain ethical, political, and social norms." He goes on to point out that many evil people seem absolutely rational and, "do not suffer from any form of psychosis or perceptual or reasoning impairment."
He then presents the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Fromm whom, he argues, would claim that, "there are certain basic human tendencies that are 'normal,' and those who deviate from them are, in effect, mentally ill." Cohen counters these ideas by paraphrasing Jean-Paul Sartre's take on evil: "...we exist first and only then define who (or what) we are. So, the evil person has carved out his own 'nature' through his life choices and is fully responsible for it." Sartre's evil man is not ill - he is fully responsible for his evil.
As King demonstrates in Death in the City of Light, Sartre was a contemporary of Marcel Petiot, and existentialist thinking was born in the same world that may have shaped Petiot's evil - or mental illness.
For information on how to recognize a sociopath and how to deal with one in every day life, read this interview with Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door.
Image of Marcel Petiot
This article was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the
June 2012 paperback release.
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