“In the beginning, I thought it was us,” Miguel said, as his two younger sons played loudly with a toy car. “But Michael defies logic. You do things by the book, and he’s still off the wall. We became so tired of fighting with him in public that we really cut back on our social life.”
Over the last six years, Michael’s parents have taken him to eight different therapists and received a proliferating number of diagnoses. “We’ve had so many people tell us so many different things,” Anne said. “Oh, it’s A.D.D. — oh, it’s not. It’s depression — or it’s not. You could open the DSM and point to a random thing, and chances are he has elements of it. He’s got characteristics of O.C.D. He’s got characteristics of sensory-integration disorder. Nobody knows what the predominant feature is, in terms of treating him. Which is the frustrating part.”
Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University. Following a battery of evaluations, Anne and Miguel were presented with another possible diagnosis: their son Michael might be a psychopath.Happy Mother's Day! Is your child throwing terrifying tantrums one minute, eerily rational and charming the next? Welcome to a world where your progeny has no empathy!
Still, (Dr. Paul) Frick (of UNO) acknowledges that it’s not yet clear how best to intervene. “Before you can develop effective treatments, you need several decades of basic research just to figure out what these kids are like, and what they respond to,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing now — but it will take a while to get real traction.”
And there are other challenges. Since psychopathy is highly heritable, Lynam says, a child who is cold or callous is more likely to have a parent who is the same way. And because parents don’t necessarily bond to children who behave cruelly, those children tend to get punished more and nurtured less, creating what he calls “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“It reaches a point where the parents just stop trying,” Lynam said. “A lot of the training is about trying to get these kids’ parents to re-engage, because they feel like they’ve tried it all and nothing works.”
Anne admitted to me that this had been her experience. “As horrible as this is to say, as a mom, the truth is that you put up a wall. It’s like being in the army, facing a barrage of fire every day. You have to steel yourself against the outbursts and the hate.”Sure, I say it time and time again: children are a crapshoot. The raising of children is no easy task. My own depression and anxiety made the prospect of having kids worrisome for me on that level alone, forget the whole day-to-day grind of basic child care. It turns out that my husband and I rolled the dice and came up with a sweet, bright child who has ADHD. It hasn't been until recently that I've begun to reconcile myself to this fact of his and our lives. He has thus far gone an entire school year on medication and the changes at school have been wonderful for the teachers to behold.
But trying to raise a child with no empathy whatsoever? At a time when the whole prospect of it is, in the minds of most, reserved for one of two extremes - those of, as mother Anne says in the article, "a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer?" When what really happened at Columbine High School could be largely written up to the psychopathy of one of the perpetrators? It's scary, really.
Initially, I was angry that such an august publication had decided to run with something like this on Mother's Day, for crying out loud. I was wondering who was ambushing this Hallmark card holiday when WWNO chose to air this episode of This American Life and I caught the tail end of it near the end of the day. Was all of this cosmic revenge for Joan Crawford's actions or something? Really...
Really, this wasn't that big a deal, though. What was a bigger deal was hearing about parents who were getting help, psychiatrists and psychologists who were treating this disorder with a great deal of decency while trying to get to the bottom of what makes those without empathy tick, and those who were less scientific about it all but no less interested. The very idea of being empathetic to those with mental illnesses and disorders is very new; that of being empathetic to those who would have no clue of how to return those feelings - who, at best, would fantastically mimic their outer manifestations - is still not easy to come to grips with. I don't know if we'll ever get there as a society.
Until we get there, though, the front lines will, as always, be the parents of these children. They deserve a great deal of empathy and assistance. Especially the moms, who, despite a greater division of labor between moms and dads in most homes, still do most of the work.
Stories like the one the Times published only drive home that, now more than ever, every day is Mother's Day.