Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Legacy of Shame

Sticking a psychological label on someone based merely on media accounts is a dubious way of trying to get at the truth. This is the case even if the label is being pinned on the notorious and virulently vilified Bernard Madoff.

Madoff is the former investment guru who defrauded investors out of upwards of $50 billion in a decades-long ponzi scheme that collapsed in December. New York Magazine dubbed him “the monster mensch,” with a cover depicting him as a tricked-up Mephistopheles. Many victims lost their life savings and numerous charities were forced to shut down. At first, Madoff was allowed to remain on house arrest, but eventually he was jailed, and yesterday a federal judge sentenced him to 150 years in prison.

Last week, I attended an online CLE on civil commitment of the mentally ill in which one of presenters, a board-certified psychologist named Samuel Myers, glibly suggested that Madoff illustrated antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Myers was trying to show how the categories in the DSM-IV, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by mental health professionals, can help predict the level of someone’s risk of causing harm to self or others. Though he cautioned that the DSM-IV categories must be combined with clinical judgment, that didn’t stop him from tossing around the names of celebrities to illustrate various disorders, such as

● Winston Churchill for bipolar disorder
● Princess Diana for borderline personality
● General Patton for narcissism
● Bernard Madoff for antisocial personality

I can see how examples like these can be useful teaching tools, yet they can also easily give rise to red herrings. Bernard Madoff, for example, certainly was a con man and a pathological liar, looking people in the eye while robbing them blind. But if Madoff stands for antisocial personality disorder, how does one account for the fact that he confessed to his two sons (who eventually turned him in to prosecutors)?

Could the concept of “shame” shed some light on Madoff’s behavior? Surely it is suggestive that shame was a word Madoff used himself. In his remarks at sentencing, he spoke of the legacy of shame he had left to his family. Of course, as a confirmed liar, Madoff’s concern about shame might have been a sham — but who, ultimately, can know the human heart? My point is to beware not only of lies and the lying liars who tell them, but of glib labels that obscure thought, even if those labels come from the DSM-IV.

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