Sunday, January 01, 2006

Grizzly Man and Psychopaths

Above is Timothy Treadwell, a man who was an alcoholic and had he stayed the path of alcoholism he would have surely died from it. He gave up his addiction to ethyl alcohol, a.k.a. ethanol, a.k.a. liquor, and substituted it for another, which in his case was "protecting" grizzly bears. Interestingly enough he was killed by his addiction after all, though few would have ever
thought it would have been at the claws and fangs of a hungry grizzly - life's ironies are not always subtle. Werner Herzog brings us Timothy Treadwell in his movie Grizzly Man.

As for the movie itself, I didn't care for it, though I have to admit that I was caught in it - I knew the main character got killed in the end so it wasn't a matter of wanting to know so much what happened, but rather to get some clue why it happened. Herzog pieces together his movie from a vast collection of footage that Treadwell shot while he was out "protecting" grizzlies in Alaska. Inserted into this are interviews with various people who knew Treadwell, Treadwell's family, the coroner who received the bodies of Treadwell and his girlfriend, who comes across as a man who's been hanging out in the morgue on his own for far too much time, and a director of a local museum who was a native American (I would guess that this makes him an Eskimo) who hit what Treadwell was doing like a nail on the head - Treadwell was disrespecting the established and necessary boundaries between man and the grizzlies, and in effect was disrespecting the animals themselves. Treadwell was anthropomorphizing the animals to some degree, and on some level was using them to fit some pattern of life and the universe that worked for him, in spite of the fact that it ignored reality; of course that's what addiction is all about.

Treadwell, as you may have guessed, irritated me - he'd proclaim being a samurai when he had to be if it was necessary to have to directly face up to the grizzlies, which for some reason put up with him for as many years as they did, or to those who allegedly threatened the bears. The fact is that there was never anything in the movie to indicate that Treadwell was protecting anything, much less any grizzlies. In one scene Treadwell cowers behind bushes, tearfully lamenting about how a bear he knows and, as with most things in his vidoes, loves, is being subjected to rocks thrown at it by photographers trying to keep it away from them. If he couldn't protect his wards of the wild from rocks, it begs one to wonder how much good he'd be against someone with a rifle, or even a sling shot for that matter.

Herzog's documentaries can be a bit tedious and overblown, though on the whole this was a bit more constrained than others I've seen. Herzog also makes what I thought was an interesting observation about Treadwell who in one scene in the movie laments the death of a baby fox by coyotes. Herzog believes that Treadwell wants everything to be idyllic, to fit some oddly conceived, albeit comforting to him, flow of existence. In Treadwell's world there's little appreciation for what Herzog sees the world and the universe to be, which are places where chaos, death, and murder are a natural part of the order of things. Herzog seems to subscribe to Camus' " ... benign indifference of the universe". And here is where we segue into the psychopath part of this post ...

My friend She Falters to Rise (SFTR for short) wrote a thought provoking post about psychopaths a few days ago, you can read it for yourself at She Falters To Rise: Blank Stare, and I encourage you to do so. The psychopath in question here was someone who doused someone they knew with lighter fluid and then threw a match at them resulting in the expected outcome. We need to get into a few definitions:

Psychopath: A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.

Antisocial personality disorder: A personality disorder characterized by chronic antisocial behavior and violation of the law and the rights of others.

I would guess that if you were to douse someone with lighter fluid and stand there and watch what happened without giving it much thought, other than possibly how interesting it was to see or how much satisfaction you got from the whole experience, you're a psychopath. But where does the line get drawn on this delineation? Ted Bundy was a psychopath, but what about Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz Angel of Death, or Adolf Eichmann, the head of Jewish Affairs for Hitler? Or the many thousands of Germans who helped to eliminate some 10 million people? What about the folks who torture other people? How do we draw a line between something horrific like lighter fluid dousing and Hutu's running through the Rwanda with machetes slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus, not because they were a threat, no, they simply didn't like them, and frankly given how much slaughtering was done (nearly 1 million people were killed) the only possible conclusion one can come to is that these machete-wielding citizens were enjoying themselves?

I'm sure clinically there must be some fine differentiation between those defined as psychopaths and people like Mengele and a long list of others who commit crimes against humanity. My belief, though, is that what differentiates someone who likes to play with lighter fluid in deadly ways from someone who one day is a loving father and husband and the next is out committing genocide, is not very much. I think we live with many psychopaths, regardless of wherever we may be. If order breaks down, if the repercussions for psychopathic acts are eliminated, then psychopathic behavior becomes more common. I think the distinction between the ones we all can point to and say are psychopaths and those who we'd never guess could act like one is, that the latter are more sensitive to the repercussions, there's simply more self-awareness and outward awareness of consequences, but the desire is to act is there, simply waiting to be unleashed. The psychopaths amongst are in kept in check by society, so by definition they're not really psychopaths, but then history makes clear that it doesn't take a great deal for them to come out and indulge their lust. Why this is so makes me wonder, and maybe I'll do more reading into this at some point. But I don't kid myself into thinking that there aren't people whose paths I cross on a daily basis who, if given the chance, would love to hurt, maim, and kill, and the only time we may see an inkling of this is when they indulge some outrageous act of road rage, or when the society they live in, for whatever reason, removes the shackles of and negative consequences for their indulging their desires.

Like Treadwell, who wanted to believe all his animal buddies were actually some sort of Disney characters, we kid ourselves when we think that all people who live in civilized societies are actually civilized. What restrains a human's darker tendencies can easily be lifted given the right situation or societal calamity, but we often think that it can't happen here, or that it's only in special circumstances that this sort of thing actually happens. On the whole society strives to make sure that a human's darkest impulses are blunted, but they're still there, waiting for the right situation. How those impulses get there, whether it's due to something genetic or is simply inextricably tied to something about humans in general, I have no clue, but it's there, and in some of us they're stronger than in others. You can be sure you've met someone, likely many someones in different places, who given the chance would look upon you as something to exercise an impulse upon, and we can only hope that they're never given the chance.


Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Absolutely! This guy substituted one delusion for another. I do not wish to see this movie for the same reason I thought Titanic and Pearl Harbor stunk-- bad acting, bad scripting, and I know how it ends.

8:07 PM  
Blogger she falters to rise said...

I think the morphing of people into Disney characters happens often when we discuss/evaluate children. As a society, we have conceptualized children as having "inherent innocence". If they do something horrible it is because they are the victims of their environment or parents or social system...the list is endless.

I realize this concept has some deep-rooted religious origins, but the firestarter is by far not the first child who has done something that most politically-sanctioned torturers wouldn't be able to do without a little hesitation. Some of these children seem to have "reasons" for their behavior, but others seemingly do not.

I don't believe that children are inherently innocent no more than I believe that we are born without a "personality". I do think that for many, childhood behavior is malleable. I'm not sure if this is the case for all, and maybe that's what distinguishes subclinical childhood antisocial disorder from childhood psychopathy.

8:59 AM  
Blogger James said...

SFTR, Even before The Firestarted we had a book and movie a bit more rooted in the "real world", i.e. The Bad Seed, where you have an 8 year old girl with impeccable manners going around killing people. How many bad seeds we have running around I don't know, but I think you're right on the whole, that some kids are simply born without the brakes in their behavior set that most of us seem to be. Some kids are in fact shaped by their environment, in which case they fall into a mode of behavior that I think is just there for most of us but rarely is compelled by circumstances to come to the fore.

But the Firestarted and the Bad Seed are extreme examples, how does a national government or its citizens suddenly go on a murderous rampage? How do people who were perfectly normal in every respect you could come up with suddenly morph into something that thinks little or nothing of killing innocent human beings who present no danger to them whatsoever? The possibilities seem to be there for all of us to fall into this mode of behavior, and that, to me, is what's really frightening.

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mengele was a psychopath.

4:36 AM  

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