Jennifer Kahn Asks: Can a Child Psychopath Be Saved?

Jennifer Kahn

Jennifer Kahn

Of all mental disorders, none elicits more revulsion or less sympathy than psychopathy, a disorder characterized by extreme impulsivity, narcissism, callousness and lack of empathy. Psychopathy is widely considered incurable, but some researchers have theorized that it might be possible to treat “fledgling psychopaths” if they can be identified early enough. When journalist Jennifer Kahn decided to examine this controversial idea, her first step was … to wait—for years, in fact, until the science caught up with the question of whether “prepsychopathy” exists and if so, what kinds of interventions might thwart the development of full-blown psychopathy. The wait was worthwhile. In a story that provoked enormous reaction from readers, Kahn examined the issue through the lens of a nine-year-old boy whose disturbing behavior caused his own mother to predict that he will grow up to be “either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.” Amid family scenes that are no less heartbreaking than they are chilling, Kahn weaves in a nuanced discussion of the thorny questions that confront scientists trying to understand how psychopathy develops. [Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath? appeared in The New York Times Magazine on May 13, 2012.]

Here, Kahn tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind her story:

What brought you to this subject?

I actually came across this ages ago, in a different form. I originally thought I was going to do something about brain imaging of psychopathic adults. I had put in a lot of work, and then I had a nice conversation with a psychopathy researcher at the University of New Mexico named Kent Kiehl, only to discover that this exact story was already being done by another writer at The New Yorker.

So that scrapped that idea. But I think what interested me most about this subject was the idea that psychopathy was considered untreatable. I talked to one person who kind of casually said, “Well, the forefront of this is the kids—can you get them early?” I thought, well that is an interesting question.But when I started looking around, it was really hard. Everyone had opinions about the kids, but no one was actually doing anything with them. There were just people theorizing about it. The key was finding someone who was actually doing something with these kids. If there wasn’t anybody either trying to identify them or preferably actually trying to treat them, then there really wasn’t anything to observe. There wasn’t going to be a great narrative.

How did you find that narrative thread?

After I’d called a bunch of folks, finally someone said, “Well, the only guy that I know who’s doing it is this guy, Dan Waschbusch, at Florida International University.” So I contacted Dan, and it turned out that he wasn’t actually doing anything yet. He was applying for a grant to try to treat these kids.

That was maybe three years ago. So I just kept in touch. At the end I think it was probably quite useful that we’d been in touch for so long, because by the time we looped around to me having to ask him to try to get a parent on board with me talking to their child, he was game for that.

Writers often bemoan how difficult it is to move from a general topic to a true story narrative. How did you approach that problem with this story?

I actually think that it’s a very hard thing to do, and also, I mostly don’t work that way. When I started writing, I often would come across areas where I’d think, “Oh, this is an interesting thing: stem cells! There must be a story in there,” or something like that. But I mostly don’t approach stories in that way anymore. The way I now talk about this with my students is by comparing two strategies of story-finding: mining versus panning for gold.

The mining [strategy] is: You find something like stem cells and you think, “Okay, I have to find a story in there.” Then you do this deep dive and learn all about stem cells. The advantage is that at least you’re limiting what you’re looking for in the way of a story: You know it has to be in the area of stem cells. But the downside is, you don’t really know if there’s a story there, and you can waste a ton of time endlessly learning a lot of stuff about stem cells and not really ever finding anything that pans out into a story.

What are you doing when you’re “panning for gold”?

From the get-go, you’re not looking at a subject area so much as you’re trying to find something that already has some of the narrative elements in place. You’re looking for a gold nugget in the stream. The downside of that is that you don’t have anything to limit you, and it can feel like you’re really lost and just feeling around, reading through the paper every day and hoping that something will materialize. You can improve your chances a bit by looking at places that often have narrative elements in place. So, for example, I’m on an FBI alert list, and a Department of Justice alert list…stuff that is probably going to have conflict or its own narrative momentum.

So for this story, I did go from topic to story, in the sense that I was thinking about psychopaths and this novel field of brain imaging. But I wasn’t so much learning all about psychopathy. I was trying to do a pretty triaged version. I thought there was this interesting story in the new use of brain imaging, so I already had this idea of what a story would be. That’s already a bit narrow, and I just had to find a main character of someone doing this to profile. The idea was that Kent Kiehl was probably going to be that person. When that didn’t work out, I was sifting through my notes and that’s when I saw this bit about the kids and I thought, “The kids—that’s a really good question. That’s something else I’m going to follow up on.” This is a case where something is hanging in the balance: Can we save these kids? Already there’s this natural interest and drama around it. Plus, the idea of a child psychopath is innately creepy in a way that people find fascinating.

And then of course finding the right family, with a young enough kid, was the other ticket. You can actually find a lot of kids who’ve entered the juvenile justice system who have tested as psychopathic on the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklist. But that’s pretty complicated. One, they’re already adolescents at that point, and it’s not as shocking or novel as when they’re younger. And often if they have entered the juvenile justice system, they’ve had some sort of conflating factor, like parents who are drug dealers. It’s not always true, but you often have cases where it’s more complicated. What I really felt like I needed to find was kids who had really functional parents, so people wouldn’t just say, “Oh, well, what you’re seeing is purely nurture, nothing to do with nature.”

How did you find Michael and his family?

That was thanks to Dan Waschbusch. Pretty much the only way I was going to find a young kid who might have psychopathy and wasn’t already in the juvenile justice system was through someone doing this work. Waschbusch recruited a dozen kids and families for this initial summer treatment program, and since I’d been talking to him for a few years, he offered to reach out to the parents. Most of them, understandably, didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Then, luckily, we did find this one family that was game.

I did an initial phone interview with the mom, Anne, to see if she was willing to be forthcoming and understood what the story would entail. I just needed to vet her and also get a sense of whether her kid sounded genuinely prepsychopathic. I really pushed her for that, because for a while she was saying stuff like, “Well, he has these tantrums…” Then she gave me that line that he is either going to be a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer. And then she also told me some stuff about his colder or more callous behavior, which made it clear that there was something distinctive about him.

How did your reporting at Michael and his family’s home unfold?

I spent a very long day there, about eight to ten hours. If I’d stayed for just a few hours, the kid and everyone else can be on their best behavior—you can’t really watch the whole family dynamic unfold. A therapist friend of mine has a phrase, that people “leak.” You cannot keep up your front for too long. So the more time you spend, the more stuff will come out that wasn’t on the program initially. I didn’t actually get a bunch of that from the parents. They were both forthcoming from the get-go. But Michael was on his good behavior at the start, and the number of moments that were really distinctively callous were relatively few. You just really had to put in the time to observe them.

Was there a point where Michael just wasn’t able to keep up an act anymore?

He was never able to act one hundred percent successfully. He had some weird affect, but nothing that would have made me think, that’s callous-unemotional or that’s prepsychopathic. For the first hour, maybe, he did really well. He was hugging his mom, and running out to play, and ruffling his brother’s hair…he was putting on the whole show.

And then it got longer and longer, and we sat down to dinner. He was still watching me a lot, but he was getting tired at that point of putting on a show. He would be brusquer, a little weirder. He would just get up abruptly from the table to go get stuff or to go upstairs and do whatever he wanted. And he would get angry. And then after dinner, when I’d been there for maybe four hours, we went upstairs. He was watching Pokémon videos and his brothers were up there. That was the time when I started to see things that really stood out.

Like when he told you that he hated his brother?

Yes. There was something just so odd—this wasn’t a case where he was fighting with his brother and said “I hate you!” This was different. He was just sitting there, and then very calmly and in this very strangely adult way, he sort of said, “As you can see, I don’t like Allan very much.”

I said something like “Oh?” And he said, “Yes, it’s true. I hate him.” But he said it in this very interestingly dispassionate way.

There were some other episodes like that, and it felt so not like something a kid his age does. I was trying to be careful about exaggerating the effect just because I wanted or expected to see callous-unemotional behavior. I was trying to go only for the things that were really beyond the pale.

The moment when Michael grabbed your tape recorder and pressed the erase button, in such a premeditated way, obviously provided rich scenic material, but it must have also posed a bit of a reporting conundrum. How did you respond? And did you lose any material?

Fortunately with my recorder you have to press a series of buttons to erase something, and he’s not quite that advanced. So I didn’t actually lose any material. He said “Ha!” after he’d done it, and I just said, “Nope, it’s not that simple,” or something like that.

But I did actually try to accommodate him. I said, “Do you not want me to be recording you?” He was furious at this point and he said no, he didn’t. So I said, “OK. I’ll turn it off.” I felt, why antagonize him? I didn’t want to be a provocateur, so I just tried to be as neutral a presence as possible. So, for a while I turned it off, but I didn’t stop taking notes. And then at some point I turned the recorder back on again.

The day after that, you visited Dan Waschbusch’s summer treatment program. How did you spend your time there?

It was one of those long days where you sit through the kids doing their different classes. Mostly I was just watching the whole group. Obviously I was closely observing Michael, but it was also a chance to see these other kids and see if there were other kids whose behaviors stood out in some way. A lot of the kids have a high ADHD score, and so some of them are just impulsive, and that’s why it was so interesting to have Dan Waschbusch there and to review the videotape with him. He’d say, “Now this is what impulsive behavior looks like… the kid gets up and runs around, and then is sent back to their desk, and then a second later is up and running around again—they can’t really get it together.” But the idea of really being able to sort of say, “Now is the time where I’m going to be impulsive, and now I’m going to behave because it’s in my interest”—that is distinctive.

Was there anything about the reporting that was tricky to handle?

In this case, there was so much to be observing, so in a sense it was easy reporting, actually. But personally I will say that the hardest part of the reporting, by far, was the day with the family. Not only was Michael his own thing, but it’s like any kind of different parenting-style strain that would exist is being magnified in Anne and Miguel’s marriage. And then to me, the most heartbreaking thing was actually Allan. He clearly worshiped his older brother, and Michael loathes him with a passion. The saddest thing is that you could see that Allan was an extremely sensitive kid, but you could also see him turning into a bully. He was learning to find these moments of weakness when Michael would absolutely melt down. He would really just go in there and really just laugh at him and mock him. And no one in the family seemed to notice that was happening, and that part was really breaking my heart. I did and do have a lot of concern for both the younger kids, especially for him.

Can you walk through your process of mapping out the story’s structure?

Again, in this case for some reason it came relatively automatically—not perfectly, but we didn’t actually have to do a ton of drafts. There were multiple scenes. There’s the scene with the family, there’s the scene at the school, there’s the scene with me watching the video with Waschbusch, and then at some point I knew I was going to have to return to the family, to find out how he is doing now, so we have some sort of sense of chronology and progress. I pretty much knew that I was going to just go in the order that happened—I think it only complicates things when you have things out of chronological order, especially in a case like this where they’re just separated by a day.

The trickier bit—always—is that there’s so much science in this piece that you feel like you have to get a lot in there. I think in my initial drafts it probably was chunkier—a scene, and then a bunch of science stuff, and then a scene, and then a bunch of science stuff—not quite as distributed as it ended up in the end. We ended up moving things around so that the broccoli was sort of hidden underneath the mashed potatoes.

Psychologists disagree about the idea of diagnosing children as prepsychopathic. How did you sort through those differing views and decide how you would treat that controversy in your story?

The main thing was to be up front at the start about the fact that the idea of identifying and treating kids for prepsychopathy is controversial, and to give at least some space to the folks who disagree with it. But I think none of [the critics] would say that there are no kids with prepsychopathic tendencies—they would just say that our ability to identify them is flawed, and that you have to be very cautious about this, that temperaments are so labile at this age that you can’t accurately evaluate them. If there had been a lot more debate about whether prepsychopathy even exists, I would’ve probably given more space to those people who doubted it.

You introduce Michael this way:

When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly, then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions. “Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her. Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside. A few minutes later, he was back in the house, capering antically in front of Jake, who was bobbing up and down on his sit-and-ride scooter.

Then in later scenes, you remove whatever hope of normalcy that this initial scene creates, before eventually coming around to the father’s hope that maybe Michael will turn out alright in the end. How did you conceptualize that arc?

It really just mirrored the arc of my own experience: I couldn’t help hoping that Michael would actually turn out to be a good, sweet kid with a simple problem that could be treated. That this was also the arc that Michael’s parents went through made sense. That hope is what drives the piece. If you’re not invested in Michael—if he’s one-dimensionally evil and unredeemable—you won’t care what happens to him.

How did you decide which of Michael’s physical characteristics to describe?

It’s interesting, because I think there’s almost a different answer than what I do for adults. For adults, if I’m doing a profile I’m often looking for the telling detail—you want to illuminate their character. But with Michael, I was really struck by how beautiful he was. He had these beautiful high cheekbones and this pale skin—he looked sort of luminous and a little ethereal. He was graceful. He was pretty. I’m not what sure what I imagined, but it might be that when you imagine psychopathy, you imagine personal ugliness. You might think of a thug, kind of a Neanderthal brow and that sort of thing. I think I was really struck by the fact that he was the opposite of that. The thing I love about characterizations is when things are surprising. Even when they’re sort of in conflict—when two things don’t match, it forces your brain to start working. It’s the opposite of the easy cliché.

As evocative as your story is, it’s also restrained—it’s not filled with superfluous punches to the gut. Was it difficult to prune out the excess? How did you decide where to draw the line?

If anything, my inclination with this story was to play down the drama. It’s such an inflammatory subject, but the reality is quite complex and subtle. I didn’t want to the nuances to get lost. The visual metaphor, for me, is the understated movements of a violin bow. Narrative stories are driven by questions—in this case, questions like: “Is this boy actually a psychopath?” and “Can he (and his family) be saved?” You want to saw folks back and forth over the edge of those questions—which means that every time the balance starts to tip one way (he’s a monster!), you put something on the other side of the scales (his delicate appearance, and moments of vulnerability).

What do you feel was the most important decision that you made in shaping this story?

To me, the most important decision was just pursuing it, because it took so goddamn long. It’s one of those things where it’s easy to decide that it’s not going to happen, or it’s not worth it. I’ve become such a believer in stories that take a while to unfold. I realize that’s easy to say, and everyone out there is trying to make a living, and you think, “Well, I need to get a piece going on now.” But I’ve really become a believer in this idea of just having these kinds of long-term irons in the fire.

A glimpse behind the scenes:



  1. Pingback: A behind the scenes look at freelance science writing - Branching Points » Branching Points

  2. Great story, Jennifer! Thanks so much for giving TON a peek behind the scenes.

    I’m curious: Did you worry at all that one day with Michael and his family, even a long day, might not be enough to get the full picture? Did you ask for more than that (from his parents or your editor)?

    Also, I’m wondering about whether you think that reporters should make any distinction (to readers) between stuff we observe in person and things we’re told over the phone or in email messages? For example, you reported that the mom laughed awkwardly and shook her head when she said “Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer,” which makes it sound like that happened in person rather than during your initial phone interview. Or maybe she said it to you more than once? (The quote in the pitch is not quite the same as the one in the story.)

    Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to find assignments that include generous travel budgets, even for feature stories, so we have to get creative sometimes about filling in the blanks. I often find myself asking retrospective questions during phone interviews, and going back to my sources repeatedly with followup questions while I’m writing an article: “What else do you remember about that day?” “How big was the snake?” “What was the first thing you said after you saw it?” (Or, if I wanted to help readers get a visual of Michael’s mom: “Were you shaking your head just now, when you told me that?”) Sometimes it feels awkward bombarding a source with these questions, even though they help bring the story to life and are often just as important as drilling down on the science. You can’t have great narrative nonfiction without great reporting.

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