Barbara Oakley’s latest book is called, Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurt. I’ve almost finished reading the book, think it’s outstanding, and would recommend it. It’s one part “True Crime” and one part cutting edge psychology and I was delighted to have an opportunity to interview Barbara Oakley about the book.
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Barbara Oakley. Enjoy!
Your book is on Carole Alden. What makes her story so fascinating? Why did you want to write a book about her in particular?
Basically, she fooled me. She’s that good. I just finished my last book, which was, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. It’s a bit of a tongue in cheek title for a very seriously researched book about the neuroscience behind why seemingly ordinary people can sometimes be so extraordinarily malevolent. So, I had done this book and I was like, “Gosh, I never want to write a book about nasty people again. I’m just really tired of it.”
…So that’s when I was sitting in bed one night and I happened to be reading The National Enquirer — and don’t tell my boss that, because I’m supposed to be your average educated professor who doesn’t like to read The National Enquirer — but I came across the story of Carole Alden. What it said in The National Enquirer was this wonderful artist had been brutally abused by her psychopathic monster of a husband; so she had shot and killed him.
I thought, “Well wait a minute, isn’t this the perfect idea to represent what I want to be studying?” She had married this drug abuser and she was supposedly trying to help him. He then turned around, attacked her, and almost killed her. She in turn, ended up killing him and going to prison. It seemed like the perfect story and besides, I’d be writing about somebody good for a change.
But, I’m an engineer, so I start looking at things like an engineer looks at it. You tell me this. Okay, good. Where does it say that in writing? Who else says that? I never took things just as I was first told. So, Carole Alden had written me 100 pages of letters that clearly defined her thinking about all of this. When I went and checked against the actual written record and checked against people who had known her and so forth, it was blatantly misrepresentative. She puts Casey Anthony to shame as far as her ability to spin the facts for her own favor. I mean it sounds kind of serious, but some of the stuff she did was just so wacky that it ends up being almost a book of comedy at times. She did things like calling up the press and telling them her 13 year old daughter was dying of malignant breast cancer and that her dying wish is to get an emu chick. Well, actually, Carol’s own desire was to get an emu chick, but they’re really expensive. By doing this she ended up being shown on TV as her ostensibly dying daughter is given these emu chicks as her “final wish.” Actually, she had this little benign cyst and this was just used as a mechanism to manipulate the public and get what Carole wanted. She’s good at it and I mean, who would think of a scheme like that to get emu chicks?
Tell us a little bit more about pathological altruism?
We can understand that maybe Hitler had some bio-physiological underpinnings that helped create his dysfunctional behavior. We can buy that, but that’s not the case for the millions of Germans who followed him. So what’s the deal with them? I thought, “That’s a good question,” and at that time, it began to strike me that there are pathologies of altruism. It’s our desire to do good for others that can often be the strongest hook to get us to do really awful things.
When I worked for the Soviets during the early ’80s, I was a Russian translator on a Soviet ship up in the Bering Sea. I still remember one night, we all got a little tipsy and I couldn’t take any more. You see, my captain had this big picture of Stalin up on his wall. I said, “How could you have a picture of this man on your wall? Don’t you realize how many millions and millions of Russians he killed?” He turned to me and said, “Barbara, everybody makes mistakes. When the whole world is Communist, we will not have these kinds of mistakes.” That idea was also in the back of my mind because I’ve lived under totalitarian governments, particularly communism, where they’re always doing these horrific things for the “people’s good.”
People normally think of altruism as something that benefits someone else, maybe at some cost to yourself. But, pathological altruism is altruism that you may think is benefitting someone else, but it doesn’t benefit him. In fact, it can make the situation even worse and not just for the person you’re trying to help, but even for yourself.
I had a student in one of my classes on pathological altruism and she was just not doing very well. Finally one day, I got a note from her and it said, “I can’t be in class today. My brother tried to commit suicide.” I took a risk, wrote a note, and said, “Maybe you want to apply some of the ideas from this class and set some emotional boundaries because you think you’re reaching out to try and help your brother, but it doesn’t look like that’s happening. Instead, it’s hurting you.” She told me, “That changed my life.” She had indeed become very depressed herself. She was planning on dropping out of school and so this helped her take a step back and start realizing that, no, she wasn’t really helping her brother.
I think sometimes people hear this and they have a knee jerk reaction, “You can’t say this and they get very upset.” I think they really get upset because if everybody knew this kind of thing, they wouldn’t be able to manipulate them quite as easily.
I think there’s some truth to that.. Now your book immediately brought to mind for me a C.S. Lewis quote from The Screwtape Letters where a devil explains his trade to a nephew. Let me read the quote to you,
“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus become wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”
In politics you tend to see quite a bit of that behavior. In fact, many of the most angry, hate filled, vicious people in politics will tell you their actions are motivated by compassion. That doesn’t seem to quite fit. Can you talk about that a little bit and whether it’s psychologically healthy for the person doing it?
I think that’s a perfect quote. There are so many examples of it — like busing. I live near the Detroit area and it was absolutely devastated by busing. Busing was instituted for benign reasons, altruistic reasons. They wanted to reduce the amount of segregation; so they instituted this at enormous costs and it sounded good. Because of that, everybody got on board. If you weren’t on board, you had to be a racist and we spent enormous amounts of money to what? Worsen the segregation — because people with means moved out of the city. They didn’t want to be told where to put their child — especially if it meant putting their child in a worse school. So this idea of we’ve got to help can be an immense waste of money.
More than that, I’m just appalled at how can we have a resurgence of Marxists and communist ideas? Isn’t it clear that virtually everywhere that communism and Marxism gets a solid footing that those economies go to hell in a hand basket and it becomes very totalitarian? I mean, look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea. Look what happened to Vietnam after we left.
…I see that happening now in our country. “Oh, we’ve got to help all these people in the unions and this and that. We’ve got to help…..” Well, wait a minute — there is only so much pie that we have to split before you’re starting to just print empty dollars. But because people haven’t been taught that helping can be actually bad for everyone, it just doesn’t compute — particularly with people on the Left.
Now your book touches on battered women and that people can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable taking a clear look at it because they’ll hear some things that they don’t want to hear. Tell us some of the things people may be getting wrong about battered women.
One thing that people don’t understand is that over 200 studies in the last 50 years have shown that men and women commit violence against one another at equal rates. It’s not like men are these horrible, horrible critters that do 98% of the battering. No, it’s 50/50. Women suffer more physical damage because men are bigger. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer their own fair share of damage. In fact, 1/3 of all murders that occur in couples are men murdered by women. We’re talking about some seriously disturbed women, as well as, men.
But what shocked me was to find that battered woman syndrome, which is used in states nationwide as sort of a get out of jail free card — this syndrome grew out of a study 30 years ago by a researcher named Lenore Walker who studied 400 battered women. Her conclusions were essentially that battered women are really pretty normal and just fall in with a bad guy. So what that really is saying is that any time you have a battered woman, you have a perfectly normal battered woman and you have a very bad guy. Right?
I asked Lenore, I said, “Okay, you have these 400 battered women, but who did you compare them with? What was their control group?” Well, she had no standard control group. None. This is not shoddy science; this is not science at all. Yet, when anyone points this kind of thing out, Lenore Walker says they’re against battered women. Ultimately, it’s a sad, sad statement against science that this kind of shoddy research could be given a free pass and allowed and then to serve as a basis for these laws nationwide. I mean it’s utterly ridiculous.
Barbara, I appreciate your time. Thank you.