Antisocial personality disorder in prisoners

(I’ve been sitting on the raw material for this post for almost two years and finally wrote it up.)

When I worked in the jail, I asked myself fairly often whether my clients had anti-social personality disorder.  Supposedly almost half of male prisoners have it, and in that setting you do have to constantly ask yourself whether someone is trying to take advantage of you in some way.

“Anti-social” almost seems redundant in a jail, but it’s not clear what the term should mean. It’s also been called sociopathy and psychopathy, and people don’t agree about whether those are actually different things. The seminal work on the topic is Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanitywhich describes psychopaths as not truly experiencing emotions, especially love. Lots of other books give advice on how to avoid such people.

The DSM IV-TR, which we were mostly using at the time, required three or more from this list for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder:

  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

Jails obviously have a lot of people with these characteristics. But they are also full of people with addiction and trauma histories, which can explain almost all the symptoms:

  1. Everyone in jail has been arrested, so that’s a given.
  2. Lying and conning for personal benefit are probably adaptive behaviors in harsh environments like the foster system, abusive relationships, and homelessness. (As my supervisor told me the first time I had my feelings hurt by a client who successfully conned me into making a phone call for her, “This is how she’s survived.”)
  3. Impulsivity and failure to plan ahead: A ton of people are in jail because of this. Executive function is not the strong suit of prisoners. You see a lot of ADHD, a lot of traumatic brain injury, and a lot of substance use (which is both cause and effect of impulsivity).
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness: again, aggression can be adaptive in a dangerous environment. A lot of young men learn this as a way to avoid being victimized. The irritability could also be substance use or withdrawal.
  5. Disregard for safety: A common response to trauma.
  6. Irresponsibility: I read this as “often unemployed,” which isn’t surprising in someone coming out of an unstable family and/or a broken school system. Also would be pretty predictable as a consequence of substance abuse.
  7. Which leaves us with lack of remorse: the only one I can’t explain away even in this population.

I met very few clients who obviously met the “no conscience” model. They were particularly likely to be pimps, I guess because that’s a career particularly well-suited to remorselessness.

The most obviously low-on-conscience guy I worked with got offended once when I asked why he did the right thing in one case when it didn’t seem to benefit him, which made me think he had occasional moments of decency and maybe thought of himself as a decent person. But there were so many other examples of him doing the non-decent thing whenever convenient that this might have just been a front.

Another client was terminally ill and decided during his last weeks that he’d like to discuss his life history with someone. He told me about a variety of horrible things he had done (starting with arson) with no apparent remorse. But he appeared to have genuine love for his dog and spoke fondly of how he hoped to be released in time to go visit it.

At one point I went over my client list and picked the last 60 clients that I had talked with enough and remembered well enough to have an idea of whether they seemed to have a lack of empathy or remorse. 11 (18%) had said something that indicated this (though again, not consistently so—everyone in the sample at least appeared empathetic in certain situations). Another 10% were maybes in that they seemed to maybe have done really callous things but I wasn’t sure. And the remaining 72% didn’t seem to be deficient in empathy. They were mostly locked up for things in the “poor impulse control” department.

I came away from this feeling that:

  • a lot of the diagnostic criteria only make sense for someone coming from a basically ok background where you wouldn’t normally expect to see survival-type lying, violence, etc. The DSM 5 criteria seem much better in this regard, since they now ask you to rule out socio-cultural environment, substance use, and head trauma as causes.
  • this thing seemed a lot more like a spectrum than like a separate category of people.

Being less mean

I just finished C. S. Lewis’  The Great Divorce, which is short and interesting enough that it’s probably worth reading even if you don’t buy the religious premise. The parts I found valuable were the depictions of self-sacrifice that are mostly about signaling virtue and are actually counter-productive to anyone’s happiness. I was going along, noticing things I do (particularly with Jeff) and thinking how good it was to have such a clear illustration of my faults so that I could better avoid them.

Hours later I launched into a particularly spectacular episode of passive-aggressiveness with Jeff (complete with slamming of objects and the key phrase, “no, that’s fine!“). Apparently I congratulated myself too early.

Christianity is the main source of writing that I’ve read about this kind of thing. The other passage I remember really hitting home about this is a communion hymn from the Iona community:

The words of hope I often failed to give,
the prayers of kindness buried by my pride,
The signs of care I argued out of sight:
these I lay down.

The narrowness of vision and of mind,
the need for other folk to serve my will,
and every word and silence meant to hurt:
these I lay down.

It seems like this kind of topic should have come up more in social work, but I don’t remember anyone talking about these kinds of micro-aggressions (in a general sense, not about race or gender specifically). Some possible reasons:

  • This kind of thing falls under “neurosis” which is in the realm of psychoanalysis, and thus out of fashion.
  • It seems basically in the realm of personality disorder, but there’s not a specific disorder it fits under. At least where I practiced we tended to say things like “There’s some Axis II going on” rather than pegging almost anything as a specific disorder, but it’s much harder to do research on something you can’t peg in the DSM.
  • Social work training focuses on people with more obvious problems rather than “the worried well” who are high-functioning but want to go to therapy to fine-tune everything.

Christianity, meanwhile, has to deal with everyone from people with serious problems to people who only want a little fine-tuning. So maybe they find it more useful to address subtle but common faults like this.

Unfortunately, depictions that really hit home don’t seem to change my behavior, and I’m not sure what will (other than more sleep, which I’m working on prioritizing this week). I guess a Christian would say the special sauce is not just recognizing the problem but asking God for help with it, but I’ll let them report on how that works.

Thoughts on “I am Hutterite”

I just finished “I am Hutterite,” Mary-Ann Kirkby’s memoir of her childhood on a Hutterite colony in Canada and her parents’ decision to leave. It illustrated some points of Moral Foundations Theory for me: cultures really do value different things, and my culture’s values aren’t ubiquitous. Loyalty, authority, sanctity, and care are much bigger there than in my culture, and I think the resulting social cohesion makes them come out ahead in a lot of ways.

The big question of the book for  me was why the family would ever leave. The colony ran like clockwork, taking care of you from birth until death. New mothers have three meals a day delivered to them and are assigned an older woman and a teenager to help watch the baby. Children run in packs among adults who have known them their whole lives. Old and sick people have their needs provided and live in constant contact with their grandchildren and other family. Everyone has a job and three meals a day cranked out by the communal kitchen. New colonies split off when they reach about 150 people, so your social group is always below Dunbar’s number. The whole system has operated more or less like this for 450 years.

After the family leaves to live among “English” people, things seem a lot worse. They’re materially poor because they weren’t allowed to take anything with them. The father works grueling hours to try to earn money and social capital. The mother is isolated in a farmhouse taking care of seven children alone, rather than among her sisters and cousins. Coming from a society where everyone is assigned the same goods, the children have to learn to signal status to avoid their classmates’ torment (like by bringing home saran wrap from the trash to wash and re-use it so their sandwiches will look like the other children’s sandwiches).

The main reason for leaving seems to have been the father’s longstanding conflict with the colony’s leader, the worst effect of which was that the parents weren’t allowed to take a colony vehicle to the hospital where their two-year-old was awaiting emergency surgery, and the delay likely caused the child’s death. But weirdly, this doesn’t seem to have been the last straw for the family. It’s instead conflict about the colony finances, and the leader’s refusal to treat the father as competent to make business decisions, that seems to have been the main problem. (This article theorizes that the transition from unmechanized agriculture to modern methods where you only need one manager to run a large cattle or hog operation has raised attrition from Hutterite colonies, as most of the men are left without much to do.)

In some ways, this illuminates an additional reason to leave a very traditional, closed society: everything seems to have been the father’s choice. Even though leaving was pretty clearly worse for the other eight people in the family, his dignity seems to have been valued above their wellbeing.

I was expecting there to be an online community of ex-Hutterites decrying the sexism and authoritarianism of the system, like there is for the Bruderhof and other similar groups, but there basically doesn’t seem to be one. The most prominent ex-Hutterites‘ main criticism seems to have been that it wasn’t Biblical enough(!) and didn’t emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus.

Even if I knew I’d have better quality of life there, I can imagine it would be really hard to handle a sense of unfairness. I imagine the conformity is difficult or impossible for people with a strong wish for autonomy, queer people, and/or people with an intellectual drive that can’t be satisfied with education that ends at age 15. And I’m sure there’s abuse that goes more or less unchecked. The author mentions a bunch of other people who left, but the Hutterite birthrate seems to be high enough that they can lose a lot of people who don’t like living there and still have plenty of numbers.

The descriptions of the parents’ courtship and marriage also made me think about another way of life that’s unthinkable to those who don’t grow up with it: arranged marriage. The marriage wasn’t actually arranged — the mother chose the father over the man her family was pressuring her to marry. But because dating didn’t exist on the colony, they’d had only a couple of conversations and one letter when she made the decision. The fact that people in such marriages usually make it work, and often seem very happy together, seems to be testimony for the advice that marriage is largely about cooperating as a team rather than finding the one-in-a-million person that’s just right for you and hoping you always feel like going in the same direction.

Thoughts on first fairy tales

I had thought I was going to be very heavy on the fairy tales for my children. My hefty volumes of Grimm and Andersen, standards of my childhood inscribed with my parents’ marginalia (“TOO GORY”), stand ready on the shelf.

But as we start to branch out beyond the animal stories, I find I’m more selective than I thought I would be. Lily’s nearly three, and her favorite stories are Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood. The first one is a bit of a reverse in which the transgressive character is the little girl, but the others are fairly straightforward tales of how to survive someone who wants to eat you.

I’ve found that the first standard version of “The Three Little Pigs” has a longer bit than I remembered before the demise of the wolf. The interchange between the wolf and the third pig, safe within the brick house, is a story about outsmarting a phisher:

When he found that he could not, with all his huffing and puffing, blow the house down, he said:

“Little pig, I know where there is a nice field of turnips.”

“Where?” said the little pig.

“Oh, in Mr. Smith’s Home-field, and if you will be ready tomorrow morning I will call for you, and we will go together, and get some for dinner.”

“Very well,” said the little pig, “I will be ready. What time do you mean to go?”

“Oh, at six o’clock.”

Well, the little pig got up at five, and got the turnips before the wolf came (which he did about six) and who said:

“Little Pig, are you ready?”

The little pig said: “Ready! I have been and come back again, and got a nice potful for dinner.”

The wolf felt very angry at this, but thought that he would be up to the little pig somehow or other.

(a series of similar tricks follow)

These are basically cautionary tales: bad people/carnivores will get you if you’re not careful. She loves them, and I’m fine with that. It’s a way of introducing the concept of danger, which she finds fascinating. She’s also fascinated with the idea that fire will burn you, and asks for stories about various items catching on fire.

I’m much more wary of any of the fairy tales where people end by getting rich or getting married (which is most of them). We read “Rumpelstiltskin” last night and I was horrified by how badly everyone behaves: the miller lies to the king about his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold, so the king kidnaps the girl in order to make money from her abilities, threatening to cut off her head if she doesn’t produce. Rumpelstiltskin is the first honorable character: he makes a deal with the girl and saves her life, requiring the promise of her first child as payment. (This is admittedly not a contract you should ever ask someone to enter into, but she does agree to it.) When he shows up after the birth to collect his due, she balks and he offers her an out: he’ll release her from the deal if she can guess his name. She then follows him and overhears him say his name; it’s not really clear if this is playing by the rules since she was supposed to guess it.

(Lily’s only question was a pragmatic one about the story’s final sentence, when Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in two in a fit of rage after the queen reveals his name. “How did he tear himself in two? Was he made of paper?”)

I don’t like telling her a story where the happy ending is that the girl, after being fobbed off by her deceitful father to a greedy and murderous king, stays married to said king by successfully hiding her own deceit from him.

I’ve read Jane Yolen’s and Terri Windling’s work on fairy tales as a way of processing the reality of abusive families.  (Explore Endicott Studio if you like that kind of thing.) In the days when these were peasant stories, a happy ending about finding riches or making a good marriage was equivalent to escaping crushing poverty and must have been very appealing indeed.  To my children, who don’t need to process abuse and will never need to escape poverty, I don’t want these to be the goals.

So I think we’ll stick with the stories about escaping predators.

Computer setup

I really like my work computer setup:

  • All the expensive stuff is elevated above desk height, so if I (or more likely, the kids) spill anything, it won’t be that bad.
  • Everything is at an ergonomic height for me. Screens are at eye height, mouse and keyboard are at hand height. Since a typical desk is built for a person about 5’9″, your desk may be too high or low for you. In my case, I have a low desk and a chair adjusted to be low. I want my feet to rest comfortably on the floor and my elbows at a 90° angle.
  • Two screens means I can work without as much switching between tabs. For example, I can be writing a document or email on one screen and be looking at reference material on the other. I’m wary of having too much stuff open at once being worse for focus, so I try to minimize the extra window if I’m not using it.
  • I have one Chrome window on each screen, logged into different personas (personal and work). This means my search history, etc. don’t get mixed up between the two. I’m logged into my work Google account on the left window and my personal Google account on the right. Now I don’t have to log in and log out when I want something from different email accounts or different Drives.



  • Laptop: refurbished Macbook Pro, works great but I probably could have gone with something cheaper.
  • Laptop stand: $14.99 on Amazon. I don’t want to use textbooks or similar to elevate this because I want room for my keyboard underneath.
  • Second monitor: Dell, found in trash. I see these at the thrift store a lot, too. Elevated to eye height on some old textbooks.
  • Wireless ergonomic mouse: $19.99 on Amazon.
  • Mini keyboard: $14.99 on Amazon. I wanted one without a number keypad on the right so that my mouse and keyboard could be closer together.
  • Cable to connect monitor to laptop, I think like $6 on Amazon.

When I want to take the laptop somewhere, there are four things to unplug (charger, monitor, mouse, keyboard). If you wanted to avoid that you could get a dock to plug everything into, but it didn’t seem worth the cost for me.

How ritzy to be?

Cases where I wonder about whether I’m setting a bad precedent by getting nicer versions of things:

  • We’ve had a debate recently about whether to get cheaper Wonderbread-type bread or more expensive, more textured bread. There’s no nutritional benefit to the more expensive bread, and if our kids grow up preferring the cheap kind they’ll lose nothing except status in the eyes of people who consider it low-class.
  • I’d prefer to get incandescent Christmas tree lights because the color of the light looks right to me, but they’re less durable, take more electricity, and are getting harder to find than the LED lights. So I’ve grudgingly decided not to raise my kids to prefer an outdated product they probably won’t even be able to buy.
  • I like our house to look nice, but I also worry that this isn’t a very productive thing to spend time and money on and is just contributing to everyone feeling they have to make their houses look a certain way so other people will accept them as grown-ups.

How we’re explaining Jesus and Santa Claus

These both seem like hard ones to tackle, so I’m writing down what we’re doing in case it’s helpful to other families.

I’ve told Lily that at Christmas people tell a story about a baby being born. My plan is to continue presenting religious traditions as stories, which she can then choose to get into or not, sort of like some children get really interested in Cinderella and some older people get really interested in the Lord of the Rings.

With two babies in the household, Lily’s naturally interested in stories about babies, particularly when animals are also involved. She’s particularly interested in umbilical cords, so we’ve discussed Jesus’s umbilical cord quite a bit. I made her a pregnant Mary doll, with the baby being presented on Christmas Eve. Lily currently likes to carry him around in her pocket.


In some ways, explaining Santa was even trickier because other adults really don’t want you to mess up their kids’ belief (whereas people accept that not everybody’s on board with Jesus). I wasn’t interested in deceiving my kids for several reasons:

  • It messes with their sense of reality, particularly when they get old enough to notice some discrepancies and adults are gaslighting them by pretending the evidence they’re noticing is wrong
  • A lot of kids are disappointed when they find out
  • It takes away the credit from those who deserve it. These gifts didn’t come from a far-away stranger, they were made or bought by your own family.
  • It means the child can’t fully participate in gift-giving until they’re let in on the secret. In our large family gatherings, stockings are how we give any presents to anyone outside each nuclear family (so we don’t all need to come up with 27 presents).

So after the older cousins who believe in Santa Claus had gone home, we strung up the stockings (pillowcases pinned to a clothesline across the house, which is the only practical way to do it for all 27 people visiting). I showed Lily the presents I had for other people, and she helped me put them into their stockings.

Yesterday when she asked for a story, I told her the story of St. Nicholas. Well, a simplified version without mentioning dowries or prostitution as in the original.

A long time ago in Turkey there was a kind man named Nicholas. There was a family nearby who had three daughters, and they were very poor and didn’t have enough money for the things they needed. Nicholas wanted to help them, but he wanted to keep it a secret. So one night Nicholas threw a bag of gold down the chimney for the oldest daughter, and it landed in her stocking that was hung up by the fire to dry. The next night he threw a second bag of gold down the chimney for the second daughter. By now the family was very curious about who had been helping them, so the father hid outside the house to see who kept dropping money into the chimney. Sure enough, Nicholas came with a bag of gold for the third daughter, and the family said, “It’s you! Thank you, kind Nicholas, for helping us!” People thought he was so good that they called him a saint, and they called him by the nickname Santa Claus, which means Holy Nicholas. And that’s why we give each other presents in stockings at Christmastime.

Of course, Lily’s primary interest in all this was still in finding and opening her own stocking. found-it