It is 1959, you’re 19 years old, and have a deadly secret. Your mother, much-beloved throughout the neighborhood and a favorite at the local police station for dropping by with scones and cakes, is not who she appears to be. She drowned your father when you were ten years old, has murdered two men since, and has now set her deadly sights on your new husband.
This story is real. Hazel Dulcie Bodsworth was a serial killer who targeted three men for cold, calculated reasons. Each of these deaths had been ruled accidental until her daughter spilled the beans. Even then, it took 5 years before this apparent paragon of virtue was arrested for serial murder. After all, who would suspect a middle-aged mother of four? Back then - and now - we resist seeing women as capable of the same calculated violence we’ve come to accept in men.
The Seeds of Female Psychopathy
Few people these days are unfamiliar with the term “psychopath
,” a term used to describe a personality disorder made up of traits including a lack of empathy, a manipulative, deceitful and self-serving interpersonal style, and a host of risk taking and rule breaking behaviors. These characteristics don’t just show up in adulthood; psychopathic females were often teenage girls who lied, stole, and attempted to manipulate relationships through emotional blackmail, by spreading rumors, gossiping, and excluding others.
While we don’t have the exact recipe for psychopathy, it’s likely a perfect storm of at-risk genes and a harsh environment. Recent research suggests that, while nature may have a stronger influence on the development of callous and unemotional boys, nurture, such as a cold, controlling parenting style and repeated exposure to trauma, may play a stronger role in sowing the seed of a budding female psychopaths. An extreme example of this was the case of Mary Bell. As a child, Mary’s father was absent and mother was a violent alcoholic prostitute. Mary was forced to perform sex acts on her mother’s client starting at age 4. By the time she was 11, Mary had strangled to death two preschool boys.
Blinded by Bias
Best estimates are that approximately 1% of the general population have psychopathy, between 7 and 20 male psychopaths for every female. However, this statistical picture may be skewed by our culture’s tendency to interpret the same pathological behavior differently, depending on whether it’s done by a man or a woman.. Give a mental health clinician two identical patient profiles, make one a man and one a woman, and you might wind up with two different diagnoses.
Here’s an example. It’s not uncommon for a female inmate who clearly meets the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy to have received other diagnoses, most commonly borderline personality disorder. Both diagnoses include similar symptoms but for very different reasons. A woman with borderline personality disorder may mimic others to get approval and to fit in. A female psychopath does this as part of the “con.”While a woman with borderline personality disorder may rage at the slightest hint of disloyalty or withdrawal out of a fear of abandonment, a female psychopath may rage to deflect the truth, hide her true intent, or to control her partner’s actions. A failure to recognize the predatory motives behind problem behavior is a failure to recognize the danger at hand.
Psychopathy with a Feminine Touch
Of course, sex role expectations don’t just influence how our behavior is interpreted; it also shapes the behavior itself. While female and male psychopaths share similar histories and personality traits, they may differ in how these traits are expressed. For example, both male and female psychopaths are sexually coercive in their interpersonal relationships. Unlike the more physically aggressive male psychopath, however, female psychopaths rely on emotional manipulation and use sex as a weapon - to end conflict, to gain psychological power, to poach another’s mate.
Female psychopaths, over and above their male counterparts, appear to have a knack for reading emotional cues that allow them to identify areas of emotional vulnerability; depression, insecurity, loneliness. It’s not that female psychopaths can’t be as physically violent as men; they can. Psychopathy, in both men and women, is correlated with premeditated aggression and, to a lesser extent, impulsive violence in response to anger or frustration. But what female psychopaths tend to specialize in is their ability to seduce, lull, calm, comfort, provide security and convincingly portray gender stereotypical illusions as long as it’s useful to them. When it’s not, all hell can break loose.
Sisters in Crime
Female offenders make up 13% of the U.S. prison population; 17% of them are psychopaths. In comparison to males, female psychopaths commit fewer violent crimes and are more likely to be arrested for fraud, property crimes, and drug possession. In comparison to non-psychopathic female inmates, they start their criminal careers earlier, reoffend more often, and commit premeditated crimes motivated by power, dominance or personal gain.
Female psychopaths also kill and, when they do, they don’t go far from home. (11) Of the 60,000 murders committed by women between 1976 and 1997, 60+% were against an intimate or family member (in comparison to 20% for male perpetrators). Female serial killers, also kill people they know – the insured husband, the inconvenient child, the whistleblowing client, the tiresome hospital patient. And, they away with their crimes for a lot longer; on average, female serial killers elude arrest for twice as long as men. It’s the victims who pay for that extra time.
Female psychopaths wreak just as much havoc as their male counterparts, often in the lives of the people who trust them the most. Children are scarred, lovers are used and discarded, friends and acquaintances are conned. However, they tend to fly under the radar far longer than their male counterparts. Until we learn to spot them, there will continue to be victims, including the at-risk girls who, if recognized early, can still choose a different path.