Psychopaths & The Criminally Insane

https://www.suecoletta.comThe criminally insane are often used in crime fiction, TV dramas, and movies. Take Hannibal Lector, for instance. Though it’s speculated that he simply outsmarted the jury, he was found criminally insane and placed in a hospital environment rather than prison, where he spent his days painting, conniving with other killers, and writing articles for medical journals.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]Was Hannibal Lector criminally insane, or a genius liar?[/tweetthis]

The criminally insane are an intriguing bunch. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the terms “psychopaths” and “sociopaths” are lumped under the term “antisocial behavior,” and classified as “dissociative disorders.”

If you have a psychiatrist, say, testifying in court in one of your scenes, make sure they refer to this as the DSM-4, the common term among the psychiatric community.

I’ve added a link to my Crime Writer’s Resource for the DSM-4, updated the resource to include more information, and reactivated all the links (apparently they unlinked in the move). This resource is chalk-full of information for everything you might need when writing a criminally insane character.

What if you’re writing about a psychopathic killer? You should know how they became psychopaths. So, let’s look at that now.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]Know how your psychopathic killer got that way.[/tweetthis]

How do you end up with a psychopathic killer?

I watched a fascinating Ted Talk with Neuroscientist Jim Fallon, where he talks about brain scans and genetic analysis that may uncover the rotten wiring in the nature (and nurture) of murderers. In a bizarre twist, he discovers his family history.  Someone in his family is a psychopath. Can you guess who?

I’ll reveal the answer later in the post.

It’s a quick video that’s well-worth watching.

Here’s the useful data I gleaned, along with a funny (depending on how you look at it) story…

Jim studied 70 brains to try to discover the interaction of genes, environment, and brain damage, and when these things occurred in life. All 70 serial killers had damage to their orbital cortex (right above the eyes) and the temporal lobe (located in your temples area). So there was a pattern among these criminals.

All of them had the major violence gene, called the MAOA gene. There’s a variable of this gene within the normal population, too. Some of you reading this post may have this gene. It’s on the X chromosome. Meaning, they could only have gotten it from their mother. In fact, this is probably why mostly men are psychopathic killers. You see, women (girls) get their X chromosome from their mother and father. Thus, diluting this gene. But men (boys) get their X chromosome solely from their mother. This is how it’s passed through generations, from mother to son.

The MAOA gene has to do with too much serotonin during development. Normally, serotonin is supposed to make you calm and relaxed, but if you get a surge of serotonin in utero (in the womb), your brain gets bathed in the stuff. Therefore, you become insensitive to serotonin and it doesn’t work later on.

Hence, why psychopaths kill without remorse.

In order to express this gene in a violent way, you must be exposed to a traumatic event–extreme violence, for example–before puberty. Then it’s a recipe for disaster.

In areas of the world where there is constant violence, this tends to concentrate the MAOA gene, resulting in both girls and boys with the potential of becoming psychopaths. Because now, the girls’ gene is activated by her surroundings rather than staying diluted.

Jim was fascinated by his findings and spoke widely on this topic.

One day his mother said to him, “I hear you’ve been talking about psychopathic killers as if you come from a normal family.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, your cousin was Lizzy Borden.”

“Okay, so we have one psychopath. That’s not so bad.”

“There’s more.” With a grim expression, she handed him a book. “Read this.”

Here’s what it said:

The first reported murder of a son killing his mother (aka Matricide) was by his great, great, great grandfather and seven more men on his father’s side were all murderers, too. In his family history, psychopaths occurred about three times a century.

This worried Jim. They were due. Who would it be?

Frantically, he took PET scans and EEGs of every person in his family. All turned out fine. Could it be his grandchildren? Did it skip his kids’ generation? Or did he miss something?

This video doesn’t share who it was. A later post did.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]Can you guess who the psychopath is?[/tweetthis]

A few housekeeping issues before I give you the answer. Some are confused by the tiny, red social media buttons scattered everywhere (yeah, I know, there’s way too many; the site still needs a few tweaks). Those aren’t sharing buttons. By clicking on a SM site, you’ll be connecting with me, not sharing a post. And I hope you will connect with me. Click away, my friends. The sharing buttons are to the left of the post, and only to the left.

Okay? *smacks hands together* Super.

Need inspiration on how to kill your darlings? Check out my FREE 60 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters.

So, did you figure out who the psychopath is in Jim’s family?

It’s Jim!

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly.

In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show “Partners in Crime” on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio — menu bar).


  1. I’ve always been fascinated by people who commit evil acts with no remorse (psychopaths as we often call them), so this post was very interesting. I’ll have to check out that Ted Talk. Thanks!

  2. Great post, Sue! Very interesting stuff about the X chromosome. I’d read an article about Jim before, and it’s fascinating to see how nature and nurture combine to turn us into who we are. It’s also fascinating to know that those genes may still be expressing themselves in less-obvious and less-destructive ways.

    • Yes it is, Dana. It seems it must be the magic cocktail of violence and the gene to create a psychopath. Not sure I’m thrilled to know about the many possible psychopaths-in-the-making in violent communities, though. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Mae. I’m intrigued by “how” you’ll be using the information. The dog pic…once I saw that face I had to add the caption, insinuating he’s going for a PET scan. That seems to be my new thing lately. It’s so fun to add captions to animal photos and try to relate them to the post. Happy writing!

  4. Great post, Sue. As you know I’ve got a particular interest in this topic right now, as I develop a character for book two in my Mothman series. The circumstances I’m employing are outside the common spectrum. but there is so much good info here, I can’t wait to start spooling threads into my character’s development.

    The X chromosome was intriguing, especially that guys get it from their mother’s side. As always, when I visit your site, I leave informed AND entertained.

    BTW, love the pic of the dog! 🙂
    Mae Clair recently posted…Change, Idiots, and Mr. Evening by Mae ClairMy Profile

  5. Great info. I always think it’s a bit of a cop-out when the explanation for a villain’s actions is, “oh, he’s nuts.” I hope your post inspires authors to flesh out the “why” 🙂
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…E-mail Etiquette Across the WorldMy Profile

    • It’s such a cop-out, you’re right, Nicholas. To not have a valid reason why your antagonist does the things he does…the why behind the murders…ruins the book, IMO.

  6. Love this, Sue. Fallon also did a Moth episode that was fascinating. Apparently, no one in his life was surprised at the results of his brain scan, not his wife, kids, colleagues, no one. He also hypothesized that the reason he didn’t exhibit violent tendancies was that he was raised in a loving family with money and therefore had enough opportunities that he never felt the need to resort to violence. I tried reading his book, but it was a bit too flippant and self-aggrandizing for my tastes. Go figure. 🙂
    Colette Sartor recently posted…Finish That First Draft And Other Writing TipsMy Profile

    • I saw that episode, Colette. Fascinating. He also said he was trying to “be nicer” and show compassion, but he found it exhausting. Can you imagine? I wouldn’t want to be married to him. His poor wife must sleep with one eye open. 🙂 Oh, yeah, I bet his book was self-aggrandizing; it goes with the whole psychopath angle. Although, he seems very personable in these talks. Perhaps it’s an act. Which proves that you never really know what goes on inside someone’s head.

  7. You dig up the best stuff, Sue. I’ve never heard of the MAOA gene but I have heard that the forensic science of genomics is going to make DNA comparison obsolete.

    I love the new look of your website! Very informative. Very down-to-earth – yet very professional. It’s very – You 🙂

    • Aww, that’s so sweet, Garry. *blush* I don’t feel very professional lately with all these little glitches, so thank you! As you know, I’m not happy unless my work is as perfect as I can make it. Control freak? Nah. I’ll go with…Libra. 🙂

  8. This is absolutely fascinating, Sue! I’d actually read an article about Fallon before; he’s very interesting. It must have been both unsettling for him; but at the same time, perhaps it answered some questions for him.

    As to fictional psychopaths, I think the only way to make one seem credible – so that it’s not cartoonish – is to do the sort of research you hint at here. If we don’t understand at least a bit about how psychologists think about mental illness, it’s very hard to write about it credibly.

    • Exactly, Margot. Which is why I included the link for the DSM-4. And that’s why Hannibal Lector was so awesomely portrayed, because Thomas Harris worked in that field for years before turning to writing as a career. It sounds like you read the article about Fallen when he discovered his psychopathic tendencies. The results of his scan didn’t surprise his wife any. But I did read a companion piece that said he’s trying harder to show compassion and “be nice.” So maybe learning the truth was a good thing. Time will tell.

  9. This was really interesting, thanks for posting. That X chromosome thing was new to me.

  10. Comments are open! Sorry about that. I mistakenly clicked “close comments.” Hey, I don’t do well in the heat and humidity. Read this post for proof of that.

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