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NATURE OR NURTURE | A BAD SEED OF DARK OFFSPRING

As we delve into the complexity of maladaptive personalities of psychopathy and narcissist personality disorder (NPD), there is one book that has stood the test of time in offering an evocative inspection of the character disturbances that are deeply hidden from view in the psychopath and pathological narcissist.

Written in 1954, William March’s novel “The Bad Seed” is an exploration of the “nature versus nurture” question. Can someone in a loving, financially secure home become an uncaring selfish criminal–a cold blooded murderer? The novel was adapted into a theatrical play shortly afterward, and by 1956, was made into a movie starring many of the actors from the play’s original cast. While The Bad Seed’s specific answers may seem dated now, that doesn’t take away from the complexity of the questions the story asks.

Are Psychopaths and Narcissists created through a maladaptive trauma bond with their primary caregiver (parents), or are these predatory personality disorders passed genetically through the generations?

It’s a fair question to ask. And this question has been debated for many years within clinical studies of developmental psychology. A neuropsychological perspective hints that while there is no universally accepted cause of psychopathy, there are basic biological patterns in brain dysfunction observed in individuals who display psychopathic tendencies.

The premise that a seemingly sweet and well mannered child that comes from loving and financially successful parents who have raised her properly could be a heartless psychopath who conceals her “true” murderous self was unthinkable within the fabric of social mores of the time.

Part mystery, The Bad Seed is also the first film to explore the dark nature of psychopathy.

….an answer to the nature vs nurture question remains elusive. However, influence from the caregiver (parent(s) that conditions the child from birth, such as mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child’s experience. Societal and cultural conditioning, is also known to play a major role in the development of the character of a child – both positive and negative.

The novel became an immediate best seller and quickly adapted to a theatrical performance for New York’s Broadway district, before it was produced into an equally shocking film for cinema.

So, let’s take a closer look at the central character of the novel/play/movie. A young Patty McCormack plays Rhoda Penmark, a picture perfect 8 year old girl who displays impeccable manners and charm. Rhoda seems quite adorable with her immaculate appearance, neat and well constructed stature, crisply pleated dresses, and perfectly braided hair. Exceedingly polite and obsessed with obtaining whatever her heart desires, young Rhoda fits a typical description of a spoiled child; she’s willing to go to extraordinary ends to satisfy her desires.

Rhoda’s only genuine emotion is rage. The politeness that so charms the adults in her life is calculated, as out-of-place as the pristine polka-dot dress she wears at a school picnic. For the supposedly normal girl that she’s made out to be on the surface, there’s a bubbling undercurrent of malevolence hiding behind the mask of sanity.

ARE GENETICS TO BLAME?

But, to the larger question – are genetics to blame for the core behavior of a child born from a psychopathic or narcissist parent?

And then there is an even larger question as to why or how a genetic predisposition to psychopathy/malignant narcissism can affect one or more of the offspring, leaving others without the predatory makeup?

It’s well known through clinical research and casual observation that children of a Narcissist parent can be deeply affected by the behavior of that parent or caregiver. Whether it be over indulging the child(ren) with praise and lack of accountability, or passive/aggressive senseless or cruel punishment for a smallest of slight, both are equally abusive in terms of nurturing happy and healthy offspring.

This aggression can be overt (out in the open so everyone can see it) or covert (veiled or carefully concealed so that a potential victim is caught completely unaware).

The case for Genetic Inheritance

While this subject has been debated for several decades, little research has examined genetic and environmental contributions to psychopathic personality traits, a recent study was done with 626 pairs of identical twins, both male and female aged 17. According to the study – Psychopathic personality traits: heritability and genetic overlap with internalizing and externalizing psychopathology by the National Institutes of Health,

A quote from the study is below.

The results of the twin analyses revealed significant genetic influence on distinct psychopathic traits (Fearless Dominance and Impulsive Antisociality). Moreover, Fearless Dominance was associated with reduced genetic risk for internalizing psychopathology, and Impulsive Antisociality was associated with increased genetic risk for externalizing psychopathology.

While certainly not conclusive, the findings lean heavily toward a hereditary predisposition to genetic psychopathy. Whether or not those subjects in the study showed a propensity to criminality is another question, as psychopathy also is a familial disturbance along a spectrum of traits. Yet, one could argue that an offspring of a homicidal killer would be more prone to inherit the maladaptive traits, than an offspring of a trout fisherman; just as an offspring of an alcoholic has a propensity toward alcoholism, himself.

Below, are a few reference links to the question of Biological vs Environmental development of Psychopathy.

ARGUMENT FOR NURTURE AND ENVIRONMENT

As we attempt to get a comprehensive understanding of the un-human concept of malevolence toward others, and, to a greater degree, society as a whole in some documented clinical cases, an answer to the nature vs nurture question remains elusive. However, influence from the caregiver (parent(s) that conditions the child from birth, such as mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child’s experience. Societal and cultural conditioning, is also known to play a major role in the development of the character of a child – both positive and negative.

Rhoda’s only genuine emotion is rage. The politeness that so charms the adults in her life is calculated, as out-of-place as the pristine polka-dot dress she wears at a school picnic. For the supposedly normal girl that she’s made out to be on the surface, there’s a bubbling undercurrent of malevolence hiding behind the mask of sanity.

While psychopathic traits overlap with malignant narcissism, this severe mental condition leads affected individuals to create chaos as they harm other people without remorse, guilt, or shame. Not developing empathy while growing up is a warning sign of developing a serious personality disorder as an adult, including the Narcissistic type.

German Psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term Malignant Narcissist in 1964. Calling it – “The Quintessence of Evil”.

Intensive study on the Malignant Narcissist was also done by the late Dr. Otto Kernberg. Dr. Craig Malkin and Ross Rosenberg also have some excellent information on YouTube.

To simplify it, think of this on a continuum: Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism and Psychopathy.

This lack of conscience, without a showing of genuine cognitive or affective empathy towards another’s suffering is a tell-all sign of a disordered personality. While it is not the singular trait that is shared among the psychopath and narcissist, it is perhaps the most telling of a serious disorder, and it would be wise to be able to readily identify this pathological lack of emotion.

After all, it is real emotion that makes us human.

A problem arises for the many victims, former and future, of these masked predators and to a healthy society at large. I will leave you with a quote from the author of this ground-breaking book in discussion – “The Bad Seed”.

“Good people are rarely suspicious; they cannot imagine others doing the things they themselves are incapable of doing; usually they accept the undramatic conclusion as the correct one, and let matters rest there. Then, too, the normal are inclined to view the multiple killer as the as the one who’s as monstrous in appearance as he is in mind, which is about as far from the truth as one could well get. These monsters of real life usually looked and behaved in a more normal manner than their actually normal brothers and sisters: they presented a more convincing picture of virtue than virtue presented of itself.

I know. I have experienced the malevolence of psychopaths and malignant narcissists.

They were disguised as family.

REFERENCE

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