Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part One

Female Psychopathy

Book cover: Savage Spawn
Book cover: Savage

In Savage Spawn, Jonathan Kellerman states that male psychopaths outnumber females eight to one. Yet the voluminous literature on psychopathy focuses primarily on males, so little can really be said on the subject until assessment levels are more comparable. Childhood psychopaths (males) get far more attention than female psychopaths.

Basically, psychopaths exhibit callousness, impulsivity, shallow emotions, superficial charm, and no remorse for what they do. They're narcissistic and manipulative, and tend to seek stimulating activities like crime. They fail to learn from punishment, so they're well-represented among repeat offenders. When intelligent, they're generally persuasive and charismatic, and they can get people do to almost anything. They have no regard for truth, although they can evince complete sincerity, and they're looking out only for themselves. They generally form no long-range plans and fail to take responsibility for their deeds. Robert D. Hare's Without Conscience offers a comprehensive description of his work among male psychopaths in prisons.

Book cover: Without Conscience
Book cover: Without

In a study by Nesca, Dalby, and Baskerville, published in 1999, they attempted to profile a female psychopath, and their conclusions about female psychopaths in general are based on this one case. "Ms. X" had murdered her cellmate while serving a four-year sentence for armed robbery, and they felt that she showed many of the classic symptoms of psychopathy.

The authors claim that recent estimates indicate that "severe" psychopathy among women is rare, about one-third of the estimated prevalence for men. Relying on the social history and personality profile of 30-year-old "Ms. X," the authors found among her symptoms an early onset of antisocial behavior, evidence of sexual aggression, multiple substance abuse, and sexual perversion. She also showed fluctuating levels of reality testing when emotional, but no problem with impulsivityconsidered a central trait of psychopathy.

She had suffered sexual abuse in her family home, was removed at the age of six, and put into foster homes over the next three years. At age nine, she joined a street gang. She had numerous short-term relationships, showed sadomasochistic tendencies, and only completed school through the ninth grade. She acknowledged a history of mutilating animals. Half of her life has been spent in prison, and all of her immediate family members have been incarcerated at some point.

Since she showed more theatrical acting out than narcissism, the authors decided that female psychopaths are more inclined to be paranoid and hysterical than arrogant and egotistical.

The New Predator: Women Who Kill bookcover
Book cover: The New
Predator: Women
Who Kill

Deborah Schurman-Kaufman undertook a lengthy analysis of what little material there is on female offenders, and found that male and female offenders share a common background of neglect and abuse. In The New Predator: Women Who Kill, she finds only seven women guilty of multiple murder to interviewa sample far too small to draw any conclusions. At best, she can say they shared an introverted family life and sense of isolation. She also indicates that, as with men, killing for females is largely about control and power. Yet much of what she has to say about psychopathy, sadism, murder, and violent aggression is based on studies done with males.

No wonder people assume that what drives women to kill is a mysteryin particular, those women who assume the role of caretakers of the most vulnerable among us. It's striking that among nurses and midwives, there have been so many killers, but even more striking are those who have motives other than mercy for their deeds.

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