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Portrait of a Psychopath

Experts say serial killers can look extraordinarily ordinary on the outside.
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WebMD Feature

Jack Levin, PhD, knows a lot about psychopaths and serial killers.

He's the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of several books on serial killers, including Extreme Killings. Levin said that serial killer Dennis Rader's cool and dispassionate detailing in a Kansas courthouse last year of his 10 murders was not surprising for a psychopath. Even Rader's gory name he created for himself, BTK ("bind, torture, kill") -- is an example of a psychopath's pride in his work.

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"For a person with a conscience, Rader's crimes seem hideous, but from his point of view, these are his greatest accomplishments and he is anxious to share all of the wonderful things he has done," Levin tells WebMD. "He held this close to his vest for three decades."

Psychopaths May Appear Outwardly Successful

As many as 5% of people display psychopathic or sociopathic personality disorders. That's according to experts and the professional bible of mental illnesses -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). These personality disorders are marked by antisocial and impulsive behavior, disregard for societal standards, and no indications of fear or guilt.

"There is a stereotypical view that serial killers are loners, antisocial, and unable to maintain any relations, but that's mythology," Levin says.

Some psychopaths and serial killers may appear outwardly successful and 'normal'. "Rader, like so many of the others, was extraordinarily ordinary," Levin says. He was married with two children. "He looked beyond suspicion, he was active in the church, a Boy Scout leader and a compliance officer, and that is the secret to the success."

Serial killers often "don't look like sociopaths or deranged killers, because if they looked like monsters, they would be apprehended almost immediately," Levin says.

"Psychopaths wear the mask of sanity," agrees Michael Welner, MD, a forensic psychiatrist and an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. Welner is also an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.

"Nobody would have called Dennis Rader a psychopath before he got arrested," he says.

The Abuse Excuse?

Not all psychopaths morph into criminals or serial killers, experts tell WebMD.

The BTK killer "definitely fits the characteristic of a psychopath, and he just happens to be a psychopath who evolved into a serial killer," says Jacqueline Helfgott, an associate professor of criminal justice at Seattle University in Washington.

"Throughout history there have been other people like him who can maintain a family and live a double life," she says. Rader was a "very successful psychopath."

His style in the courtroom was also typical of a psychopath, she says. "Psychopaths have low autonomic arousal. They don't react and don't show a lot of affection or emotion. They don't feel when or what other people feel."

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