Search Box

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Phil Markoff, classic sociopath

The recent "Craigslist killer," Philip Markoff, is a good reminder of some of the important things to remember about sociopaths.

They can look like anybody. Markoff was tall and blond, with a youthful, almost innocent-looking face. He's not the type whose appearance would cause you to cross to the other side of the street. Sociopaths can be tall or short, good-looking or ugly, black or white, male or female. People who are monsters inside rarely look like monsters on the outside.

Markoff was a medical school student at Boston University. This is an important reminder that sociopaths come from all walks of life, and in a full range of IQs. If he hadn't hit upon this
particular scheme, and if he hadn't gotten caught, he would have become a doctor. I can only recall hearing of one doctor who became a serial killer (I'm not including Dr. Kevorkian here, although he definitely had the psyche of a serial killer). There seem to have been more nurses, especialy male nurses, who have become such than doctors. But medicine is a prestigious field, and one that a sociopath might be drawn to for that reason. What kind of doctor would Josef Mengele, another indisputably sociopathic character, have become if he hadn't been presented with the opportunity of the concentration camps? Someone with a reputation as a kindly general practitioner? To take the Hippocratic oath is not necessarily to take it seriously.

Another lesson taught by Markoff is that an intelligent sociopath is a slick manipulator. A case in point would be his fiancee, med school classmate Megan McAllister, who sent the following letter to ABC News: "Unfortunately, you were given the wrong information as was the public. All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling his false story to the TV stations. What else is new! Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life so if you could just leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share a wonderful, meaningful life together."

Time to shut up, honey. Whatever you say now will embarrass you later on. As a matter of fact it's already embarrassing you. We're all allowed to be young and naive once -- but we're not allowed to be that self-righteous about it. And a certain police officer (or many) in Boston is owed an apology.

But before we get too harsh with her, it's important to remember that she's probably had no experience with sociopaths before. And we are all innocents till we get to really know one. Megan McAllister can't be entirely stupid if she got into med school, yet she fell for his act. Maybe this was a case of love being blind. But Markoff's sociopathic skill at subterfuge is also definitely part of the equation here. He also fooled his prospective mother-in-law, whose greater years should theoretically have made her wiser. Yet tellingly (or humorously, depending on your perspective) she warned her daughter a few days ago about the Craigslist killer who was on the loose, completely unaware that it was in fact her prospective son-in-law.

The evidence against Markoff, by the way, is pretty damning. It includes his internet record, the surveillance tape of him walking away from the hotel where the murder took place, a gun found inside a hollowed out copy of Grey's Anatomy (how appropriate is that?), ammunition, plastic ties used for handcuffs, duct tape, and a collection of panties which the police think are trophies from past victims. (Paging Doctor McAllister!)

Markoff is said to have engaged in these robberies in order to feed his gambling addiction, which he indulged on a regular basis at Foxwoods. Whenever you hear of someone who becomes "addicted" to something that most people don't find addictive even if they engage in it, you can be sure that that is someone with a very low level of inhibitions, which means that he is much more likely a sociopath. Yes, gambling can raise the heartrate and increase the level of serotonin, and sex is nothing but physical pleasure. But neither is addictive the same way heroin, alcohol, or nicotine can be. So when you meet someone who is a gambling addict, or a sex addict, beware.

According to the New York Daily News, a police officer connected to the case said, "He [Markoff] probably thought he was going to get away with it. He thought he was too smart for us." This is true of all sociopaths. They think that they're smarter than everyone else, and this attitude is typical of the contempt in which they hold the rest of the world. If you ever meet someone who thinks he's fooling people when he's not, beware.

Markoff's intended victims were also telling: masseuses whom he thought would not report being robbed. Sociopaths have no qualms about whom they victimize, often picking on the weakest if it suits their needs. This is why serial killers from Jack the Ripper to the Green River Killer have often targeted prostitutes to satisfy their blood lust, because they figure they can get away with it. (Sadly enough, they're often right.) With Markoff, it doesn't seem to have been about blood lust, just money. But the attitude was the same: pick a victim who won't strike back. An attitude not all that different from that of a schoolyard bully (many of whom turn into sociopaths).


Anonymous said...

Your musings don't really make a lot of sense. You point out that Markoff kept panties as souvenirs, but then say that the only purpose for his attacks seems to have been theft. Someone who keeps sexual souvenirs from victims is obviously motivated by more than just money.

John Craig said...

Actually what I said was that the police said that they thought his collection of panties were trophies, and that he engaged in the robberies to feed his gambling addiction. I never used the word "only," that's you putting words in my mouth. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

By the way, the point of the post was to point out the various clues to his sociopathy, and his death today does not change the fact that he was a sociopath.

Anonymous said...

Frickin amazing post John. I learned about the sociopathic personality about four years ago when I discovered someone who posed as a friend for several years was one and she had been the creator of several horrendous scams to me. It even took me awhile to come to terms with the fact someone who "appeared" normal could have ice water running through tehir veins. Sonce then I educated myself on this personality. They're dangerous and all around us. Read Dr Haares Without Conscience.

John Craig said...

Second Anonymous --
Thank you. They are amazing, aren't they? It's hard for normal people to get their minds around exactly how inhuman sociopaths are. I did read Dr. Hare's without Conscience, also his Snakes in Suits. But I think the best book I've read on the subject is The Antisocial Personalities, by Professor Lykken of the University of Minnesota (since deceased).

Anonymous said...

Amazing article, John. I dated a sociopath who was chillingly similar to Markoff...handsome, charming, sort of a wolf in sheep's clothing. I discovered he was a sex addict and from there, it felt like my life unraveled because I discovered so many secrets and so many lies! It was devastating to me most of all because I could not believe that I was involved with such a predator (I consider myself to be fairly intelligent and street smart). I felt so duped! Your article was excellent and pointed out qualities that he definitely had, especially the part about lack of ambition.

Since dating a sociopath, I have educated myself on their characteristics such as APD. Thank you. I enjoyed reading your perspective on sociopaths and after having first hand experience in dealing with them, I agree with you completely and have learned that the best way to deal with them is no contact.

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
Thank you so much. Yes, we're all innocents until we've had extended contact with a sociopath. I had my learning experience when I was 25, with a woman who turned out to be a pathological liar. Your experience is classic; but at least you got away with your health and without getting ripped off (I hope).

Anyway, it has remained an interest of mine to this day, and if you look through the blog I write about them frequently (look for the "sociopath alert"'s). Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

You are insanely idiotic for saying that gambling addiction is not as powerful as alcoholism or heroin addiction. Addictions should not be looked at in terms which one is more severe, as they can all be severely powerful to different individuals. Furthermore, the fact that he is a sociopath is just the end result of what's going on here. What people should be focusing on is what led him to his issues, most likely emotional abuse by his divorcee casino working mother from a young age. It's not like people are just born with fascinations for robbing killing and humiliating strippers. People are products of their own environments. That is the sad part, that he was too sick to seek help.

John Craig said...

First, what I said was not that gambling or sex addictions can't be powerful, but that people with the normal level of inhibitions don't develop them in the first place. The fact that Markoff did is illustrative of his sociopathy. Secondly, if you've ever dealt with sociopaths, you'd know that they never see themselves as needing help, and generally only seek it after an addiction has ruined their lives, or after they've been caught somehow, or are forced to by a court.

Anonymous said...

Great read, these types of people just intrigue me. I cant fathom how people turn out like this, unfortunately not enough education and prevention is taught by the media. They just sponge to the story and almost worship the criminals behavior as opposed to using these stories as teaching and prevention tools.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you very much.

I couldn't agree more, too many people, especially in the media, are taken in by the superficial charm and don't see the reality beneath.

Anonymous said...

I don't know very much about gambling addictions so I won't comment on that, but note that sex addictions can be caused by high testosterone levels. I know a muscle-bound guy who might be described as a 'sex addict' but I've known him for years and he definitely isn't a sociopath. Maybe sociopaths are more prone to being sex addicts, but they're certainly not the only ones.

John Craig said...

Anon --
LIKING sex and wanting it more frequently is certainly partly a function of high testosterone levels. But a "sex addict" is generally considered to be someone who goes after sex compulsively, all the time, in a very self-destructive way, not purely out of lustfulness, but in order to "fill the inner emptiness."

Just recently there was a study which came out that said that scientists had proven that "sex addiction" was not a real disease, since it didn't spark the same neural pathways in the brain that other addictions did. I'd always thought it was a bogus "disease," more just an excuse for bad behavior and primarily a function of low impulse control. I'd meant to write a blogpost about it, but didn't get around to it.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading when I read "Shut up, honey". You need to practice your writing style.

Jan said...

This is very insightful, as I've tried to make sense of Markoff's crimes and can't really seem to put two and two together. Markoff seems to have a very complex issue that is actually many different issues wrapped up into one. Sex addiction, gambling addiction, sociopath capable of murder, as well as depressed person capable of suicide.

The real question is, what made him that way? What was in his background that caused these problems? Was it inherited or something?

John Craig said...

Jan --
Thank you. I actually don't think it's all that complex. Markoff was a sociopath end of story. The sex and gambling addictions were really just offshoots of his sociopathy (there's some debate about whether those constitute true addictions), and in any case, a sociopath is far more likely to become "addicted" to them. I also don't think he was seriously depressed; he just realized that his life as he knew it was over, and he didn't want to spend the rest of it in jail, which is what he was faced with.

You're right, the most fascinating question, as always, is HOW he became that way. There's nothing in the "background" section of his bio on Wiki that tells us anything relevant. My guess is that the seemingly normal family he came from had some sort of disconnect, at least between his mother and him. But that's just speculation, I'm just guessing. I suppose it's also possible that there was some sort of frontal lobe damage there, but that seems less likely.