Inheriting Evil

Speak See Hear no Evil
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I was left a very thoughtful comment today in response to my post about why I’m not going to have children because my father is a sociopath.

In Balbrouchan’s comment, which you can read here, she brings up some good issues. The first is that socipathy isn’t 100% inheritable, since she and I are not sociopaths, and neither are her kids, even with first order relatives that were.  She says:

“Since you are not, yourself, an antisocial psychopath, I would say your children, if you had felt like having any, would not have been at risk from inheriting it from their grandfather – since the fact that you don’t have that behavior, plainly shows that you have not inhedited it…”

She also says:

“But I think it’s very harsh to tell fellow incest survivors they have high risks of having sociopathic children. If the survivors themselves don’t exhibit “antisocial behavior with psychopathic tendencies”, and are not married to a psychopath, the risk on their children is pretty low, even with a first order relative who is a psychopath.”

Balbrouchan is right, it is harsh to say children of sociopaths are more likely to have sociopaths for children, and I wouldn’t have the gall to say it if it didn’t apply to me too, and if it wasn’t what I honestly believe. Given the magnitude of damage my father did in his lifetime, ‘pretty low’ chances are just too high for me.

More importantly, though, I think my post could be read as perpetrating the ‘survivors are more likely to be child molesters’ prejudice, and I’m not trying to do that here, at least partly because it actually doesn’t bear out. Child molesters will report being abused themselves at fairly high rates, but when they did studies that were structured to eliminated any benefits from claiming to be abused, and backed it up with a lie detector test, the self-reports of abuse by child molesters went down to the same rates as the general population. (I got this from Anna Salter’s book on predators  )

She also brings up an issue common to many survivors with children, the fear of turning into the kinds of parents we survived and abusing them too.

“The good part is that, while I was very afraid of “turning pedophile” on my own children, it has not happened. Time and time again I have checked with myself if I had any sexual desire toward my children and I’ve found absolutely nothing, to my own relief – and to my deeper disgust of my own father. I have never had even nightmares of sexual contact with my children (and you know one can’t control one’s nightmares – at almost 40, I still have nightmares where I end up willingly f*ing my father). I don’t have sexual desires towards other children as well, so all’s good on this side.”

I too, had a big period where I watched myself carefully for child molester tendencies (also something a sociopath wouldn’t do) and have always been extremely careful of treating children correctly. As a survivor and a lesbian, I know the stereotypes and prejudices attached to both of those categories, and have always been scrupulous in avoiding even the perception of creepiness. I go so far as to not usually initiate physical contact with children. Whatever stray hostile feelings I’ve had toward children (barring noisy disruptive ones in quiet restaurants) I’ve always recognized as being truly directed against my own inner child and dealt with them as such.

I’ve done a lot of reading about sociopathy, and one common thread I’ve found is that researchers think it’s partly or mostly genetic. Once a child is born and they’re exhibiting empathy, they’re not going to be a sociopath. They may do bad things, but they won’t be an actual sociopath, because that’s about the ability to feel empathy.

Balbrouchan points summarizes the situation nicely here:

The article you’re citing states that “in children with psychopathic tendencies, antisocial behaviour was strongly inherited. In contrast, the antisocial behaviour of children who did not have psychopathic tendencies was mainly influenced by environmental factors”.

“If I understand well, if your child has no early-onset psychopathic tendencies, then all is well and provided you give a right environment, no antisocial tendencies will appear. On the contrary if he has early-onset psychopathic tendencies, then his antisocial behavior will be mostly inherited and you’re in big trouble.

Strictly speaking, this research paper doesn’t mean that psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies are inherited. It shows “antisocial behavior with psychopathic tendencies” is mainly inherited. That’s a different story altogether.”

I’m not sure I get, in this last paragraph, how it’s a different story. Seems the same to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

It’s the ‘early onset psychopathic tendencies’ that I’m wanting to prevent, since I believe that’s what my dad had. If I’m technically wrong to say that’s sociopathy, then fair enough (although I don’t really get it), but that’s what I mean. I also, even if my kids are fine, don’t want to be responsible for passing a greater risk for ‘early onset psychopathic tendencies’ on to my grandkids or great-grandkids either.  We can be carriers of the gene without having the problem.  It’s like people who know that epilepsy, schizophrenia or hemophilia run in their family thinking twice about passing the genes on (all of these while serious, are at least treatable, unlike psychopathy), except in my case, it’s not just my descendants who would bear the impact of my decision, but their victims as well.

My kid (or grandkid or great-grandkid) is more likely to be born with great difficulty feeling empathy, and once he or she is born and I figure that out, I’d better be on my A game to make sure I parent in a way that corrects and compensates for that. Even good parents screw things up, and making sure my potential empathy-impaired kid isn’t a monster is a huge responsibility. Even if he or she isn’t, she or he will still carry the gene I carry and one of his kids could be born to parents who aren’t equipped to teach remedial empathy and we end up with someone like my dad again. Adoption or childlessness area perfectly viable options, and one way I can help prevent people like my father from being born. I realize we’re talking eugenics here, which is usually a bad thing, but unlike the Nazis, I’m not forcing anyone to follow my example, and really, is trying to prevent the birth of people with early onset psychopathic tendencies that will predispose them to behaving monstrously such a bad thing?

From talking to my relatives, and observing my dad’s relatives reactions to him, I think that my father exhibited lack of empathy pretty young, and it does seem credible that he was born that way. I think there are child molesters who aren’t sociopaths, and vice versa. They’re not one and the same. Raping me was only a small fraction of the antisocial, ugly and violent things my dad did in his lifetime. He’s not one of those ‘compulsively fixated on kids sexually’ types as far as I can tell, he ‘just’ likes to hurt people and animals and in general get away with things, which is classic for a sociopath.

Anyhow, thanks to Balbrouchan for pointing out I might be perpetuating stereotypes against survivors, something I’d never want to do.

5 thoughts on “Inheriting Evil”

  1. Kate,

    I too believe on nurture over nature. But I did not know that I would discover myself to be a good enough mother. I did take a bet in having kids, but I was pretty sure I would succeed.

    Most of my problems as a young adult had been somehow resolved when I went to live in the US as an exchange student, in high school. I lived with a normal family for a year – and that opened so many things for me, it’s as if I had been reborn, suddenly I had a model after which I could live : daily respect and love for each other, generous care, I had never seen that work out well before. I was very lucky. From then on, instead of akwardly searching in the dark forever, I knew that I could have kids, and they would be OK. Prior to this life-changing experience, I had decided not to have children.

    Meeting some people can be truly horrible – and meeting others changes your life for the better. All through sheer luck.

  2. Hello,

    Sorry I’ve been on vacation right after I last posted, on a mission from my elederly grandmother to find her long-lost relatives, something she had wanted to do all her life, and was now too frail to do herself — and I was only back two days when my mother called me to announce she had died. So… I’m only now coming back to reading your blog.

    Thanks for pursuing the discussion on inherited evil. I don’t know if I can clarify my point, because English is not my mother language, and I’m not an expert on psychology. On psychopathy, Wikipedia says that “the primary psychopath engages in antisocial behavior as a result of a genetic-biological predisposition directed by particular psychodynamic forces that occur in infancy. The secondary psychopath’s antisocial behavior is the result of strictly environmental forces (e.g., membership in a deviant group) that occur at developmental stages beyond infancy.”

    So, the way I see it is that a predisposition of being a psychopath is inherited in some forms of psychopathy, and not in all of them. If a baby or young one starts acting out antisocial, there is still a nurturing that one can do, to prevent it to fully escalating to psychopathy and harm to others. Then the knowledge of the risks of psychopathy, and the steps to take to prevent psychopathy to emerge, must be relayed to the next generation. A careful choice of spouse would be in order, to further dilute the risk of psychopathy to ever occur again – because it’s sure that the gene, or genes, are recessive, otherwise all of us survivors would have grown up being psychopaths. That’s also eugenics…

    But then again, if the abuser was the second kind of psychopath, it’s not genetic, so there is absolutely no risk of your children to end up being like him/her, provided you educate them the right way.

    I think that this research doesn’t mean that we survivors are going to give birth to psychopaths. It does, however, mean that we should be very attentive to any signs of antisocial behavior in our offsprings, to be prepared to raise them right, in the off chance they have inherited something bad. But then, so should the rest of the population. Incest is not something that is talked about openly. How many parents are right now raising children, whose ancestors were victims of incest who stopped the cycle of abuse and never told ?

    On the other part, I do respect the decision not to have children from survivors. It’s up to any of us personally.

    When I decided to have children, I was thoroughly persuaded that there was no genetic cause, and I’m happy I did, because my children are quite normal. I’ll look after my grandchildren, just in case, when it’s time ; for now, I’m trying to instill my children all the disgust I feel toward antisocial types, in the hope that it will protect them from ever marrying one.

  3. Hi SDW,

    Yes that is what I believe. As well when my mother was alive, I knew it was not safe to have children around her. When I was a young adult I knew that I had too many emotional problems to bring a child into the middle of it all.

    Yes it is good to agree to disagree.

    I know that alcoholism has a huge genetic factor as well. I do believe that environment heavily influences genetics, providing triggers that ‘turn on’ certain things or not. At least from what I have seen on science shows on PBS that deal with health issues and mental health issues that are genetically caused, that is what they are starting to believe.

    After studying attachment and bonding while working on my psychology degree I would have to say that without attachment anyone can become a monster, lacking the ability for empathy. So I would wonder how many people who lack empathy lack the genetic components. However I don’t discount your beliefs and your stance.

    Good and healing thoughts to you.


  4. I think your point about denying your evil ancestors descendants (If I understand it right) through you is a good one, and if I think about it, probably one I share too. I think both nature and nurture are involved, but am good with agreeing to disagree. I don’t know my nephews well enough to know whether they inherited their grandfather’s lack of empathy, I hope not. They’re probably at greater risk for alcoholism, which definitely heavily runs in the family on both sides. My one brother and his wife appear to be decent parents, and really probably better than most in the attachment area, so I hope for the best. My other brother, like me, hasn’t had any kids.

    Good and healing though


  5. Hi,

    I too refuse to have children. Not because of anything specific in the genes. But because I refuse to pass along the genetic makeup that passed through at least three women who sexually abused their little girls to get to me. I hate them all so much I refuse to create a child with my parent’s genetic contribution.

    I understand what you are saying, but don’t believe that my siblings have created sociopaths due to genetics. There is one of them, but I believe it is due to him having a father who is a sex offender and a sociopath. I don’t know their history. But I believe in nurture (or lack thereof) over nature on this issue and always have ever since I was little, even after getting my college degress.

    Good and healing thoughts to you.


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