With Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti – the Psychopathic Psychotherapist in Film and Television

By Nick Opyrchal

Psychotherapy has always been a difficult process to capture on screen. The intricate different layers of communication between client and therapist, as well as the emphasis on authenticity has meant that actors attempting to portray the process have (with the possible exception of Gabriel Byrne in the series ‘In Treatment’) seemed fairly wooden. Perhaps owing to this difficulty, fictional psychotherapists and psychiatrists have tended to be sent up as either comedic or exploitative characters.. often shown as one part hopeless-dispenser-of-self-help-platitudes and one part ruthless capitalist – they relieve clients of their funds usually before their anxieties.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gO3Y_IlPyXc

This figure of the farcical psychotherapist has brought with it a stereotype of the psychotherapeutic process as a waste of time: suitable only for those upper middle class bourgeois who have a large disposable income and not much idea of how to spend it. These caricatures (whilst raising some valid points) tell us that psychotherapy is a fundamentally difficult process to represent onscreen, especially in a manner which does it justice, as anyone who has had their life changed through their therapy will attest.

In contrast, the psychiatric condition of psychopathy (in this article I will be using that term as a catch-all inclusive of sociopathy) has a massive, disproportionate media presence. Psychopathy (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychopathy) is a difficult-to-detect condition often diagnosed through the application of the ‘Psychopathy Checklist – revised’ or PCL-R, designed by Robert Hare. It seems as if psychopathic villains feature in almost every other Hollywood film from Batman to Bond, despite the relatively low percentage of the population that they make up (although this is admittedly above 1 percent- Hercz, 2001). In fact this image of the psychopath as omnipresent criminal monster has been so pervasive that it has only been recently that the idea of someone suffering from psychopathy or one of it’s other pseudonyms could be functional in society and not be a rampaging homicidal serial killer. Some researchers recently have even suggested scenarios where psychopathy is adaptive and have ‘rehabilitated’ the image of the psychopath to some degree (Dutton, 2013).

Interestingly, in the last few years the media representation of the psychotherapist has collided with the media construct of the psychopath in two major TV series – BBC’s ‘The Fall’ and NBC’s Hannibal. In both of these the central antagonist is a psychopathic psychotherapist, and (I believe) we can look at the way in which these two representations have synergised to reveal some fundamental anxieties which surround the process of psychotherapy and the figure of the psychotherapist itself in the mind of the client.

The Fall – Paul Spector

Programme Name: The Fall - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows: Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) - (C) Artists Studio - Photographer: Steffan Hill

Paul Spector – Played by Jamie Dornan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyFrBC1rAcg

Paul Spector in the Fall (Played by Jamie Dornan) subverts conventional expectations of what a psychopath is through his ‘boy next door’ image. His life at first glance seems enviably grounded and the epitome of a socially acceptable middle class existence. He has a loving wife and young daughter who both seem to idolize him, as well as a respectable job as a bereavement counsellor. He is relatively young and attractive and at the beginning of the series at least he betrays no outer indication of his double life, which unfolds through the series through murders and sexual sadism.

 is he able to feel genuine emotional attachment to his wife and child or is it a ‘shell game’ which gains him some semblance of social acceptability?

At the beginning of the series it is difficult to see how Spector would be classified as a psychopath according to the PCL-R categorisation, and indeed the question is worth asking – is he able to feel genuine emotional attachment to his wife and child or is it a ‘shell game’ which gains him some semblance of social acceptability? We are provided with our answer later in the series as the wife and daughter are all but forgotten and Spector’s ‘mask’ of a life begins to unravel – for example in his seduction and manipulation of their very young teenage babysitter. Spector’s grandiosity (a trait listed as an indicator in the PCL-R) is similarly kept under wraps until we see him engaging with the police, in which he quotes Nietzsche and takes unnecessary risks in order to demonstrate his intellectual superiority and indicate his identification with the ‘Ubermensch’. His grandiosity is also revealed through the manner in which he toys with his victims – with the element of control as important to him as the killing itself.

Spector could perhaps be seen as a ‘socio’ rather than ‘psycho’-path (The debate about these two categories centres around biological or sociological primacy in the origin of the condition – with some professionals not liking to use either term owing to the negative media image around both). He is portrayed as a victim of a fundamentally disturbed childhood whose pain and anger has been split off and nurtured in the darkness. This attempt at emotional splitting is the most notable quality of Spector’s character within the series and is what allows him to effectively pursue his double existence.

emotional splitting is the most notable quality of Spector’s character within the series and is what allows him to effectively pursue his double existence.

Within the series the idealized ‘good’ half of him emerges during the day whereas the destructive sexual violence (as a means of reconciling his childhood trauma) finds it’s expression during the night. This symbolises the split between his conscious and unconscious. As we sometimes find with clients who are splitting and disowning a large part of their lives, there is after a while a ‘leaking’ of the repressed ‘shadow’ material into the more conscious part of his existence as the series develops, until finally it overwhelms and breaks through, entirely ‘possessing’ (in the archetypical sense) the fragile, constructed persona of acceptable middle class existence.

Paul Spector’s Psychotherapy

When we see Paul at work in bereavement counselling sessions with his clients in The Fall, we observe a number of dangerous and badly contained practices (…aside from the whole sexual murder aspect, obviously). It is instructive to see how Paul’s unprocessed sexual and violent material spills through into his client work.

we see him stepping over boundaries, firstly in small actions such as directly intervening and instructing his clients on large-scale life decisions. This invasiveness escalates to visiting a client in her home and hugging her during a time of grief and vulnerability in a bedroom. His actions towards her in her vulnerable state are seductive and manipulative

Programme Name: The Fall - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 3) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows: Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) and Liz Tyler (Seanin Brennan) - (C) Artists Studio - Photographer: Steffan Hill

Boundaries Paul, boundaries…

and he deliberately uses erotic transference created by the counselling situation to gain more leverage over her life. We see that he is fantasizing about her during sessions, acting out through drawing her naked on his notepad. It is clear that the unprocessed narcissistic and erotic feelings that dominate his unconscious ‘night’ life are equally as unmanageable in the therapy room and are starting to seep through into his professional world.

So What Does He Represent

I believe that Paul’s character represents the fear that the client may have when entering into a psychotherapeutic relationship that the therapist is only feigning empathy and hides in some form a terrible and dark secret. The fear that clients may have that they are making themselves vulnerable in the presence of someone who has the potential to not only harm them, but to seduce and control them, which is often reflected through anecdotal stories of therapists who are deemed as ‘worse’ than their clients or act inappropriately.

It is important to bear in mind that this suspicion that the therapist holds something dark can often be a reflection of unprocessed material of the client, projected outwards.

It is important to bear in mind that this suspicion that the therapist holds something dark can often be a reflection of unprocessed material of the client, projected outwards. This is especially the case with transference elicited within situations of extreme physical or sexual abuse in which the experience is split off and projected by the client onto the psychotherapist. David Mann (1997) in his book on erotic transference ‘Psychotherapy, an Erotic Relationship’ talks extensively on this topic in relation to the transference and countertransference elicited by badly abused clients.

We therefore have the potential to become a threat in the mind of our clients if they themselves are splitting a large part of their own experiences, like Paul. This is especially in the case of those who have experienced deep traumatic wounding, we have the potential as therapists to feel caught in countertransferential ‘evil’, especially if we are splitting parts of our own life off (for instance in the case of addiction or unprocessed trauma). Perhaps therefore his character also holds some fears that therapists have around their own issues around shadow material. Paul Spector is a good lesson for psychotherapists on why we need to work on our own issues on the other side of the therapy room and why we must manage our own lives or risk spilling our issues into sessions with our clients.

Hannibal Lecter – Hannibal

Spector presents ‘a mask of sanity’ (a term which forms the title of Cleckley’s seminal study on psychopathy) of an almost boy-next-door figure of idealised ‘normalcy’ behind which a dark shadow is efficiently split off and expertly hidden. The character of Hannibal Lector (acted with a cold mastery by the appropriately named Mads Mikkelsen) in contrast embraces the qualities of the psychopath that perhaps have made the figure so enticing to media. Obviously we must be aware that both characters are relatively two dimensional in comparison to ‘real’ people however there are qualities of Mikkelsen’s Hannibal which are expertly portrayed.

Wherever feasible, one should always eat the rude

Grandiosity, for example is one of the most definitive features of Mikkelsen’s Hannibal – his character displays a level of cultural refinement which elevates him above the ‘rude’ people who he interacts with and often ends up eating (“Wherever feasible, one should always eat the rude”). His clothing is expertly matched and finely tailored, his environment is classically refined and old world, his food (despite the meat arousing suspicion) could easily sit on the plate of Marco Pierre White, he plays the harpsichord. We see him quoting Dante in medieval Italian from memory when challenged (before eating the person who challenged him), and at one point during the series he is located by investigators through his preference for especially refined wines. The filming of the series mirrors this opulence, with gratuitous and graphic violence depicted through beautiful cinematography and editing, set to a classical operatic soundtrack.

Hannibal2

This layering of seductive grandiosity over a pathological and violent core is what disturbs the viewer while watching Hannibal. It is also the most difficult thing to come to terms with about Hannibal’s psychopathic character – you end up rooting for him whilst watching and conveniently forgetting or otherwise excusing the small issues of serial murder and cannibalism. The lack of empathy, shocking violence and emotional detachment is on display – however the false self or persona is so elegant and seductive that it acts as an eclipse. This is in stark contrast to Spector, who, once his darkness is revealed never really appears a sympathetic character. We must be aware as viewers of a ficitonal programme that Hannibal’s character lacks many of the qualities identified on the Hare Pcl-r checklist and this is perhaps what makes his character seem more beguiling. He does not have poor impusle control, many failed sexual relationships, a lack of long term goals or a parasitic lifestyle – these are perhaps a few of the less glamorous elements of psychopathy which are excluded from the character, perhaps to reinforce the air of mastery which he exudes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bH-dnbMMFSg content warning – violence

Hannibal’s Psychotherapy

Uncomfortably, Hannibal seems like quite an adept and ethical (!) psychotherapist in a number of ways – unlike Spector. Apart from the necessary plot device of dual relationships, Hannibal seems boundaried (at least during the first series). In one episode for instance he refers to his 24 hour cancellation policy, in another he makes the FBI wait in the hallway so as to not disturb his client’s exit from his office, he also recommends that his client choose a different therapist for couples counselling owing to the dual relationship that may interfere! His boundaried approach to his clients mean that his darkness does not seem to spill into his therapy work in the same uncontrolled and impulsive way as Spector and in fact infects the therapy in a very different manner which is far more calculated. When Hannibal does reveal himself as a killer it is out of his own choice.

warm empathy is characterised as being able to understand feelings, whereas ‘cold’ empathy is the ability to understand behaviour from a more rational or cognitive (rather than emotional) viewpoint – like viewing a blueprint.

Although he is apparently utterly lacking empathy, Hannibal displays an ability to understand his clients which allow them to feel understood during his interpretations. Psychopathy researcher Prof. Kevin Dutton refers to this ability in psychopaths as ‘cold empathy’ as distinct from ‘warm’ empathy’. warm empathy is characterised as being able to understand feelings, whereas ‘cold’ empathy is the ability to understand behaviour from a more rational or cognitive (rather than emotional) viewpoint – like viewing a blueprint. According to this characterization Hannibal displays a great amount of cold empathy and is able to step into the psychological ‘frame’ of his victims, clients and colleagues. This allows him to work as a therapist and for his clients to feel understood despite the severity of his pathology.

HANNIBAL -- "Apertif" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Mads Mikkelson as Dr. Hannial Lecter -- (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/NBC)

What Hannibal does with this ability however, is a perverse version of what is referred to in Transpersonal psychotherapy (as taught in the CCPE) as ‘drawing out the qualities’ of the client. Whereas a transpersonal therapist may aim to draw out qualities which are already inherent, and which seem to be calling out in distorted fashion for some kind of expression in order to facilitate growth and wellbeing, Hannibal draws out (or perhaps more accurately – inserts) qualities which he believes will make the person less bound by conventional morality and more able to get in touch with their ‘inner psychopath’. We see this through the development of his relationships with Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde. Both of whom are emeshed in a therapeutic relationship of growth with Hannibal, and both of which grow in a way that is amoral and monstorous according to his design.

What Does This Represent?

Hannibals interaction with his patients again puts us in mind of the vulnerability that we first experience as clients. Like Spector, there is the fear that behind the visage of a sorted out therapist there could lurk a monster. However the way in which Hannibal works with his clients is far more subtle and perhaps more disturbing.

Clients can easily elevate the psychotherapist to a godlike position, where they are seen as omniscient and omnipotent within the relationship.

Narcissism seems to be one of the defining features of Hannibals interaction with his clients. That the clients change is undeniable. However they change in line with the narcissistic projection that he holds over them (what he thinks they ‘should’ become) and directs their destiny in a manner which is almost godlike. This perhaps encapsualtes a fear which many clients (and therapists) have regarding the psychotherapeutic process – the fear of the overwhelming effect of power dynamics which are inherent in the relationship itself. Clients can easily elevate the psychotherapist to a godlike position, where they are seen as omniscient and omnipotent within the relationship. Unscrupulous therapists (or even well meaning ones) who have not worked through their own issues regarding narcissism can exploit this relationship unconsciously (or even consciously) for their own needs rather than that of the client. In Hannibal we can see that this bewitching transference fosters a dependence in his clients in the beginning of the series, and builds to a sense of paranoia and entrapment as they change in line with his desgns for them, loosing their sense of self and agency.

Lacanian analyst Bruce Fink comments at length on the danger that this narcissistic ‘imaginary’ dyad can pose to clients. They become a mere reflection of what the therapist thinks is best for them, and their ‘otherness’ is extinguished through becoming a reflection of the demands of the more powerful party of the therapeutic relationship. Although obviously exaggerating for television this is an important lesson to be found within Hannibal and his clients interaction.

Other Mental Health Professionals in Hannibal

Other psychiatrists featured in Hannibal are almost equally as abhorent and almost every professional in the series seems pulled out of a clients nightmare – Doctor Chilton (Raul Esparza) is a narcissist who practices a controversial procedure known as psychic driving, a real process of personality change which was promoted as a schizophrenia treatment by Canadian doctor Douglas Ewan Cameron, and was later employed by the CIA in research into psychological control. Chilton uses to convince his patient to think he is a serial killer – desperate to gain fame associated with his capture and treatment. Later in the series he attempts to promote himself by publishing case studies on clients and seems to be entirely devoted to gaining academic status rather than client welfare.

Dr Bedelia (GIillian Anderson) is aware of Hannibals crimes and becomes entrapped in a dyad of secrecy, colluding in Hannibal’s psychopathic behaviour instead of reporting him as well as revealing her own introverted sadism. This again brings up a question of professional ethics within the world of psychotherapy – when do we intervene and step outside of the boundaries of confidentiality, and when are we becoming too emeshed in something belonging to the client.

As a client, the process of counselling or psychotherapy requests my vulnerability in the presence of an ‘other’ who is in a more powerful position than I am; I am coming to an other for help, an other who is perceived as equipped with techniques, tools and professional status that elevate them into a position of power. I open myself up completely yet only perceive a minute amount of the life of the psychotherapist. It is an unequal exchange that at some point requires that I, the client, take a risk.

Conclusion

In these two series, the fictonal therapist-as-psychopath gives us a window into the fears that our popular culture attaches to the psychotherapeutic process. Centrally these are fears of vulnerability and trust.

As a client, the process of counselling or psychotherapy requests my vulnerability in the presence of an ‘other’ who is in a more powerful position than I am; I am coming to an other for help, an other who is perceived as equipped with techniques, tools and professional status that elevate them into a position of power. I open myself up completely yet only perceive a minute amount of the life of the psychotherapist. It is an unequal exchange that at some point requires that I, the client, take a risk.

Both the Fall and Hannibal play on this and this is part of what makes the central chacters so threatening – That their clients take a risk and this results in their vulnerability being exploited. perhaps the reason that this character has appeared in popular culture in recent years (although Lecter has been around for a while) is because the fear of vulnerability and helplessness in the therapeutic process is very real for many clients. This is especially true for those who have never had others who they could depend on for reliable support and who have been exploited by those that they have attempted to trust in the past (For example – abusive parents).

As an ending note it is useful for any reader who may be feeling paranoid about their next weekly session after reading this article to know that it is also something which is entirely unlikely. Psychotherapy rates as the profession with the third lowest occurence of psychopathic traits in practitioners. However next time you are at a buisness meeting, or need the services of a lawyer bring the fava beans and keep the Chianti on ice.

http://time.com/32647/which-professions-have-the-most-psychopaths-the-fewest/

 

About the Author

Nicholas Opyrchal can be reached for psychotherapy at nickopsychotherapy@gmail.com please visit his website https://nickopsychotherapycounselling.wordpress.com/ for more information

 

References

Dutton, K (2013) The Wisdom Of Psychopaths – Lessons In Life From Saints, Spies and Serial Killlers, Random House Publishing, London

Cleckley, H (2015) The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality, Martino Fine Books

Hercz, R (2001) Available at: http://www.hare.org/links/saturday.html

Hare, R. D. (1998). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

 

 

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