Forget the image of the knife-wielding psychopath and look to the woman next door, the man on the PTA, your colleague on the board. Four percent of the population fit the bill. 

 If the word psychopath conjures up serial killers Manson, Dahmer and Ted Bundy, the reality is that the blood-and-guts brigade are unlikely to get you. The bad news is that there’s a sub-species that will not slice you up and savour the wet bits but they’re a lot closer to home and paradoxically, harder to spot.

There is a psychopath on your stoep… on the golf course, in your book club, investors’ circle, local medical practice, at your school re-union, between your sheets, even, rather disappointingly, behind the pulpit.  When they in business, they suck in their acolytes as powerfully as powerful Grade 5 hurricane.

Take Brett Kebble. At the height of his power, 41-year-old Kebble was seen as a colourful character known for his flamboyant lifestyle, overt generosity and as a champion of black empowerment.  Although there were dark mutterings about his unorthodox business methods while he was alive, posthumously it was Pandora’s Box.  Kebble has been exposed in the on-going and protracted court case surrounding his execution as one of the century’s major confidence tricksters who dealt with perceived threats by – in the one instance we know according to evidence presented at the Johannesburg High Court – organising a conveniently debilitating stay in hospital for the ‘obstacle’.

Noseweek editor Martin Weltz writes: “I have long been interested in the role of sociopaths in business: conmen, people who have the most unbelievable skills, like selling fridges in the Antarctic. South Africa also has its own community of conmen in business and Brett Kebble was one.”  Weltz uses the term sociopath but psychopath seems more apt. A sociopath’s crimes are’ typically disorganized and spontaneous, while the psychopath’s crimes are well planned out. For this reason, psychopaths are harder to catch.’ Kebble’s organisation and reach points to the latter.

It may be obvious in the postmortum of the result of their actions but spotting them before the distruction is not that easy.

They walk into the room and scan your barcode in minutes, capturing your likes, dislikes, motives, needs and most gratifying, your weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  They can smell a needy person the way a ‘pig smells a truffle.’ Once they have armed themselves with your Achilles heel, they formulate a plan and play you. To the pyschopath your face, words and body language are your personal billboards.

Could this be a major component of Kebble’s ability to con some of the smartest business brains in the country?

Psychopaths endear themselves to their victims and bond quickly by being solicitous and reassuring, all the time exerting control through deceit and charm. They move through four classic phases of entrapment adroitly. “I like who you are.  I am just like you Your secret is safe with me. This relationship is perfect.” At this stage your fate is sealed. You are handcuffed into a relationship based on manipulation and lies.

Although there is general consensus about the generic modis operandi of a psychopath, there are different models and criteria to define them used amongst psychiatrists and forensic psychologists.  The best current understanding though is that psychopathy is a ‘mental disorder characterised by a lack of empathy and guilt, as impulsivity, egocentricity and chronic violation of social, moral, and legal norms.’

Barry Sergeant author of  The Inside Story that exposes many of Kebble’s dark secrets and explores his links with some of South Africa’s elite, certainly concluded that Kebble exhibited signs of this conscience vacuum: … ‘From an early age he was fascinated by contraband and certainly by the early ’90s he was involved heavily in smuggling so-called blood diamonds from Angola and later the DRC. Locally, from 2002 he became seriously involved with the top gangster mob in Johannesburg.’

If the picture seems all dark, unraveling the mind of the psychopath unearths a perverse aura of glamour around them. In what is considered the best ‘psychopaths unpacked’ book on the market, The Mask of Sanity, author Hervey Cleckley writes about the ability of the psychopath to put up quite a normal and even charming facade. He describes them as having the same ice running through their veins (as a serial killer) … with a tot of bitters.’

Victims of these ‘intra-species predators’ do, however, describe their encounters as a figurative disembowelment. The victim is left dazed, raw, bleeding with no self esteem and completely at odds with their own identity. The psychopath feels nothing apart from a deep sense of satisfaction.  Cleckley relates the words of a particularly brazen psychopath.  It is succinct and chilling: “The first thing I do is size you up. I look for an angle, an edge. I figure out what you need and give it to you. Then it’s payback time, with interest. I tighten the screw.”  It is little wonder victims say psychopaths ‘eat your soul.’

It was in 1968 that psychopathy was recognized by theAmerican Psychiatric Association (APA). Referred to as an “antisocial personality” and classified under ‘personality disorders characterised by a pattern of disregard for and violation of, the rights of others’.   In the 1980s, a Canadian researcher, Robert D. Hare, and colleagues developed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised PCL-R; one of the most influential set of criteria for determining psychopaths to date. One of the problems around this 20-item rating scale is that it relies to an extent an honest answer from notorious liars and the unbiased accounts by the victims of the psychopath all with a vested interest in nailing the perp.

Why then, is there so much measurement, work and interest on what constitutes four percent of the population?

Dr Tim Noakes, author and Professor in the Discovery Health Chair of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town whose mild interest in psychopaths was fast tracked  by some rather unpleasant encounters with a colleague and various snakes in the sporting fraternity says,  “It is because this four percent causes 90 percent of the worlds’ problems.’ They drain relationships, bank accounts, self esteem and peace on earth.  What makes the psychopath so powerful?  The overriding reason is that they are utterly without conscience, the lack of which Hare describes as ‘a deep human division, arguably more significant than intelligence, race or even gender.’

Even though they may not be serial killers, there is a common thread in all of them – whether they are ‘homicidal tyrants or ruthless social snipers’ – the absence of  their private Jiminy Cricket, the inner mechanism that chastises us when we are selfish, unethical or immoral.’

Larry Lobenstein a forensic psychologist in Claremont describes them as superficial, grandiose, deceitful, lack any empathy, don’t accept responsibility, arrogant, inflated opinions of themselves, is envious of others or thinks others are envious of them and exploit everyone and everything. All this with a glib superficial and sometimes quite voluble charm.

Arguably then, there is no place more perfect place for a psychopath to operate in the guise of legitimacy than in the business world.  In the book Snakes in Suits by Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, Hare describes how organisations will hire confident, out- of-the-box thinkers who will rattle the cage of the organisation. The kind of tough CEO who will streamline the company ruthlessly for greater profit regardless of the human fallout. It’s fertile ground for the psychopath. The personality traits of a psychopath read like a thesaurus entry for everything nasty.

Kebble’s own words strike an ominous note: From the age of 30, I have been involved in a series of business coups that brought me public prominence. Perhaps the apogee of my success over the past 10 years was when entrepreneur Mzi Khumalo and I bought control of mining company JCI from Anglo-American. In those days the media loved me. I was held as the new Barney Barnato and my family was lauded for our role in making it possible for a new breed of independent mining operators to revitalise marginal mines, saving thousands of jobs and creating profit for shareholders. I am still the person I was then, although the intervening decades have seen some grey streaks in my hair. But these days, if you believed everything you read, you could be forgiven for thinking very bad things about me. Those who have made enough money to forget their own time in the cut and thrust of fortune building, or who try and portray me as a dubious businessman, say that the companies I control are shaking and sooner or later the whole house of cards will come tumbling down as I buckle under the pile of mounting debt and I’m forced to sell my assets. There isn’t a word of truth in the whole story…”

Grandiose, deceitful, lacking in empathy, unable to accept responsibility, arrogant …  These are hardly subtle personality traits, so why is it so difficult to recognise and to defend yourself against them?

It’s simple.

They are masters of manipulation ,the key to their survival and success.  They manipulate without shame, empathy or acknowledgement of the victim.  In Snakes in Suits we are told one of the most painful and fundamental mistakes we make is ‘to assume that everyone has much the same capacity as we do for emotional experiences.’ In the case of psychopaths, research has shown that the ‘emotional brain or limbic system is absent – not lit up.’  This is best demonstrated by electrocardiogram tests (EEG) on psychopaths.  Loebenstein says that ‘normally, words with an emotional connotation evoke a greater brain response than neutral words. Psychopaths respond to all words as if they are neutral.

Pathological lying is the hallmark of a psychopath. If you catch them telling lies – they glibly tell more, adapting their convoluted and ludicrous story slightly for friend family or common or garden sucker.  With not a frisson of shame. Or conscience.

In the Mask of Sanity Clerkely explains that everyone assumes that conscience is universal amongst human beings, so hiding the fact that you are conscience- free is nearly effortless. Sergeant makes the point in The Inside Story that society’s inadvertent collusion, is part of the problem. “If you understand the role Brett played in this country’s economy and what he was allowed to get way with then his story is a savage indictment on South Africa as a society. Had he been brought to task a lot earlier he’d still be alive today. He’d probably be in prison and convicted of many things. But he was very much a function of the society he lived in as well as a function of his own genius.”

Even if the psychopath has a vague idea that his behaviour is asocial, Loebenstein says it is ‘only when guilt inhibits you, that you have a conscience.  With a psychopath it never does.’  He is however, acutely aware of the social environment so ‘can cry when he wants (or needs to).’ “This learned response never lasts,” says Loebenstein because it is a mere mimicry.

Starting to recognise anyone yet?

Both Loebenstein and Tim Noakes, use Hansie Cronje as an example of a psychopath in full flight.  “It was all about money,” says Loebenstein.  Hansie was not only tight with money but had a voracious appetite for accumulating it. The Mr Nice Guy of cricket isolated the more susceptible members of the team and exploited their weaknesses for a long time.

Cronje may have been a loner in a system with pockets of corruption but the corporate psychopath works best within some framework. Other professions give them almost free reign. Loebenstein says violent psychopaths often end up in the military service where they can act out their impulses and get the control they crave through ‘legitimate channels.’ And then there is the clergy…. One of the characteristics of a psychopath is that they preach high moral standards but act using a low moral standard.  Living an immoral lifestyle and milking the God-fearing congregation while hoodwinking them, is a disappointingly familiar scenario.

If hard evidence and Hollywood are anything to go by then male serial murderers outnumber women. The balance is neatly redressed when it comes to the psychopath next door.  There is no shortage of women in this sector but they are more likely to operate differently.  She doesn’t necessarily commit criminal/antisocial acts but she is as power-driven and  is as ‘toxically narcissistic’ as a male psychopath;  manipulative, dishonest, controlling, egotistical and callous. Men may use aggression or intimidation to get what they want. Women use more underhand methods to ‘slowly slowly catchy monkey’ by pretending all the while to be nurturing, and dependent in order to get what she wants…

Ominously, this behaviour is not as obvious as Kebble’s power-and-money chase. “Manipulation is the petrol to drive the engine of the psychopath,” says   Loebenstein.  He mentions a well-known and wealthy horse trainer who would far rather make R50 illegally than R1000 above board.  He tells the story him playing golf in a four ball with an orthopaedic surgeon.  The trainer has a shocking first nine and tells the surgeon that he would ‘play much better if he had money on it.’ A bet of R200 was wagered. Of course, our psychopath plays a magnificent second nine and wins. But his score wasn’t the only below par when the surgeon realises he has been conned. He refuses to play with the man again.  Friendship and future four-balls gone over f R200? “Yes,” says Loebenstein.   “ Remember, it’s the petrol.”

Are we to blame for being gullible then? ‘We are definitely enablers,” says Tim Noakes.  He maintains that they repeatedly rape our instinct to trust implicitly. Like Othello’s Iago, the psychopath preys on the weaknesses and virtues of the characters  and describes how his victims ‘will be tenderly led by the nose…’

In The Mask of Sanity, Clerkley compares the way in which an animal uses subterfuge and stealthy movements to stalk their prey, their eyes focussed on the target like laser beams, slowly hypnotising them, and separating them from the herd.  The psychopath too uses a camouflage of flattery, actions, manoeuvres, lies and manipulations to stalk his prey.

Is there a ‘school of life’ they attend to make them Olympic candidates in the game or are they born a psychopath?  Michael Gillard (WHO) writes in (WHERE)  ‘The other thing that struck me about the Kebble’s was what appeared to be living proof of a suspicion I have had for many years, that there is some form of fraudulent gene that travels through generations. This is much in view of father and son Kebble, father and son Robert and Kevin Maxwell, who were very similar sorts of characters, and father Lord Archer and his son James Archer.

 There’s no doubt that fertile ground fuels the way for a psychopath but there is evidence that the hardwiring must be there first.

Hare says, ‘You will have a tough time overcoming what nature so kindly gave you,”  ‘Abhorrent as it is, true psychopaths are born not made.’ This explains the child or adolescent who is resistant to any method of behavioural change. Sadly there’s “no recipe for treating them,” says Loebenstein.  Traditional methods of psychotherapy and drug treatments have failed. Therapy is more likely to work when an individual admits there’s a problem and wants to change. The common problem with psychopaths is that they don’t see a problem with their behavior.

So what to do?  Hare’s survival guide says ‘You need to be aware of who and what you are dealing with.  Psychopaths are found in every strata of society and can manipulate and con anyone, including mental health experts.

Try to see through the façade – it involves an exhausting hyper vigilance and a resistance to a repertoire of non verbal language designed to draw you in.” Psychopaths will often play the role of victim and appeal to those described as ‘pity patsies.’ These are the rescuers, the natural carers who will light up immediately to the psychopath – perfect victims.  You need to take off your rose tinted glasses and try to remove their mask of flattery, congeniality, false concern, pathological lies and deceit.  If it is ‘too good to be true… it probably is…’

The words will ring true for those who backed black knight Kebble. In the final act, he arranged his death much like he lived . . with money, manipulation, flamboyance and what he believed would be a middle finger to his life insurers. The trouble is that when a psychopath dies, his control dies too. The emotional and financial mess he makes in life is never ‘his’ problem. It’s ours. For once, no-one can argue.


As published  – first in Private Edition and then Mail and Guardian


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