Can psychopaths be saved?
Three years ago I was interviewed by “Christian Cinema” about my then new book Finding God in the Shack. At one point in the interview I talked about the way that grace could even break through the hardened shell of a pyschopathic serial killer:
When I was growing up, I lived near the Pacific Northwest, and we got the Seattle TV stations. I remember hearing every day about this person called The Green River Killer. He was a serial killer who had killed more than 70 women in the Pacific Northwest.
Gary Ridgeway [sic] was caught in 2003, and they had a sentence hearing for him. At the hearing, they had victim impact statements that I saw. There were people whose daughters, sisters, and so on, had been brutally assaulted, raped and killed by this guy. Some of them said, “You’re going to burn in hell for eternity,” and other things, and he sat there with his head bowed.
But one guy got up there and said, “God told me to forgive. He didn’t say who to forgive, He just said forgive.” And suddenly, this person Gary Ridgeway [sic], who’s supposed to be a sociopath, had big tears rolling down his cheeks. I thought at that moment that forgiveness is the most powerful force in the universe.
If I do say so myself, it was a powerful moment in the interview, one used to significant, dramatic effect (though that doesn’t necessarily carry through to the transcript). Few images are more powerful (and for some, offensive) than the picture of a completely debased murderer being extended grace by a bereaved parent.
Some time after I did the interview I mentioned the case to a Christian friend who is a clinical psychologist. However, he didn’t share my warm response to the story. Instead he acted rather dismissively. He pointed out that there are many possible reasons Gary Ridgway may have been crying at that moment, and if he really was a psychopathic personality the tears weren’t the first sign in a story of redemption.
I had to admit he was right. I really had no idea what the tears meant. I chose to interpret them in accord with a narrative of sin-forgiveness/repentance-redemption. However, that didn’t mean they were repentant at all. They could mean all sorts of things. “Self-pity” my friend suggested, but not repentance.
Since that rather deflationary exchange I have read up on psychopathy, and while I am certainly no expert, I now recognize with a deepened sense of alarm the conceptual problems the psychopathic personality presents to the Christian theologian. I’ll be saying more on that in a subsequent post. But for now I want to consider a couple other examples where Christians have misunderstood the psychopathic personality by fitting certain individuals into that same facile framework of sin-forgiveness/repentance-redemption.
Before considering our two examples, I’ll point out two key reasons why Christians are likely to be mistaken in appropriating notorious psychopaths into redemptive stories. To begin with, Christians naturally gravitate toward examples of extreme sinners coming to grace. So-called “trophy conversions” then become a way to strengthen the faith and draw others into it. Thus, you can think of the way one time notorious gang leader of New York, Nicky Cruz was embraced by Christians after his conversion. Cruz quickly gained a popular following (like many I read his classic autobiography Run Baby Run) because he who had once known the mean streets of New York now knew God’s grace. Since there is nobody more debased than a psychopathic serial killer, these become the ultimate trophies. (Incidentally, less than 0.1% of psychopaths kill. We’ll come back to that later.)
Second, psychopaths are master manipulators who crave attention, including the kind of attention they receive from being considered a trophy conversion. This makes the Christian community vulnerable to being taken in by the psychopath who is only too happy to role-play a starring part in the narrative of redemption.
The first case involved perhaps the United States’ most prolific and infamous serial killer of all, Ted Bundy. In 1989 James Dobson interviewed Bundy shortly before his execution. Bundy was well aware that Dobson wanted him to identify as the impetus behind his crimes the social ills that Dobson himself had targeted at Focus on the Family. And Bundy the psychopath was only too happy to oblige as he focused in on the destructive role of pornography as “his newly contrived ‘devil made me do it’ defense to help explain his almost unfathomable murder career.” (Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy, (Authorlink, 1999), 340).
To be sure, I share Dobson’s revulsion of pornography and his belief that it contributes to many social ills. But in his desire to find a repentant poster child for his fight, Dobson completely ignored the fact that Bundy is first and foremost a psychopath. The consumption of pornography undoubtedly spurred on Bundy’s litany of crimes, but to blame pornography for Bundy is like blaming blood in the water for the shark. Perhaps the shark wouldn’t have attacked when it did had the blood not been there, but the the blood didn’t turn a benign fish into a shark. The shark was the shark by its nature. And Bundy was a psychopath by nature.
Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer from Milwaukee, may not have been quite as “prolific” as Bundy, but he was equally grisly, and the discovery of his crimes in the early 1990s deeply scarred the public consciousness. So it is no surprise that many Christians were over-joyed when they heard reports that Dahmer had become a Christian and was seeking baptism. At the time I remember hearing Dahmer’s name often mentioned as an example of grace breaking through to the chief of sinners, in this case a serial killer who dismembered and ate his victims.
Some people were skeptical of course. But consider the following response to those skeptics from Roy Ratcliff in his article”Saving Jeffrey Dahmer“:
This question bothers me. Why question the sincerity of another person’s faith? Baptism represents a change in lifestyle. A person is expected to change after being baptized. When people don’t change, we begin to wonder. Why were they baptized? Did they did not fully comprehend what was involved?
In other words, Ratcliff (who was the Wisconsin minister who baptized Dahmer) wanted people to consider Dahmer not for his heinous crimes but for his life post-baptism.
Fair enough. I take that point. Nonetheless, it is frustrating that Ratcliff seems to display a blissful ignorance regarding the characteristics of a psychopathic personality. We’re not simply talking about John Newton, former slave trader, finding God and penning “Amazing Grace”. We are talking rather about a manipulative, amoral, completely narcissistic psychopathic personality. Does this mean Dahmer is beyond redemption? We’ll talk about that later. But it certainly does mean this: that the highest degree of skepticism is always warranted whenever a psychopath begins to speak about redemption.