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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sociopath alert: James Traficant

I'd always been vaguely aware that James Traficant was a US Congressman from Ohio with a weird head of hair and a reputation for being colorful. But I'd never really paid much attention to him until his obituary appeared yesterday.

I was surprised how many of the classic flags for sociopathy he had waved during his lifetime. Most of those flags were yellow, but he waved a couple of red ones as well.

On the surface, Traficant was an appealing figure. He had a reputation for sticking up for the underdog. It certainly took guts for him to stick up for John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being Nazi concentration camp guard "Ivan the Terrible." (Israel convicted Demjanjuk in absentia, then later reversed that conviction.) As Sheriff of Mahoning County, Ohio, Traficant spent three days in jail because he had refused to evict former steelworkers who had just lost their jobs from their homes. (The law ought to be enforced, but at the same time one can sympathize with and even admire his attitude.) Although he was a Democrat, Traficant often voted with Republicans, showing a strong independent streak which eventually resulted in him being stripped of every committee assignment by the end of his tenure in the House.

But, there were just too much sociopathic behavior not to come to the conclusion that he was one.

Traficant played quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. This is a position which takes great nerve to be good at, especially at a football powerhouse like Pitt. Being a successful quarterback doesn't even rise to the level of a yellow flag, but given everything else about Traficant, it does fit the pattern.

Traficant was known for his colorful, purposely ugly wardrobe, which was geared to attract notice. (Sociopaths do like to be the center of attention.) His hairdo -- later proven to be a wig when he went to jail -- did the same. Traficant was known to say that he cut his hair with a weed whacker.

But charm -- even the self-deprecating variety -- is often a hallmark of sociopathy. The NY Times obituary quoted Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio: “There wasn’t a guy who had more charisma, or more of an ability to make someone feel special and part of the fun that was going on.”

This is reminiscent of Bill Clinton, another sociopath known for his ability to make everybody feel special.

Traficant was first accused of corruption in 1983, when he was Mahoning County Sheriff. Prosecutors said he was taking bribes from local mobsters to protect their businesses. Although he wasn't a lawyer, he decided to defend himself. (Acting as one's own lawyer -- thinking that one will do a better job than a professional --  takes incredible arrogance; I've never known anyone to do this who wasn't a sociopath. Others who've acted as their own lawyers include Ted Bundy and Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad shooter.)

Miraculously, Traficant got off by claiming that he was conducting a one man sting operation.

In 2000, he was indicted again, and this time he was convicted. From the NY Post:

During the two-month trial, he did a curbside interview on live network TV outside the courthouse each morning and then went inside to challenge U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, who tried to dissuade Traficant from representing himself [again].

What kind of person has the nerve -- and the gall -- to do a live TV interview every single day while on trial? (Rhetorical question.)

Traficant ended up being sentenced to eight years in prison, of which he served five. Upon his release in 2009, he actually ran again for office, though he was defeated. (Shamelessness is another sociopathic trait.)

It's one thing to accept bribes from businessmen and mobsters, who theoretically have some choice in the matter. From a sociopathy standpoint, it's worse to coerce your staffers to work on your farm and on your houseboat on the Potomac, which Traficant was also convicted of. The staffers had far less choice, at least if they wanted to keep their jobs, and the fact that Traficant took advantage of them means that he ruled his fiefdom by fear and intimidation. In other words, he was a bully -- another classic sociopathic trait.

A "colorful" character can sometimes refer to a true eccentric, someone who is truly different from others and has a lot of offbeat opinions. But in this case it referred to a flamboyant sociopath who loved attention and also loved money, and would do anything to get either. Traficant knew how to make himself appealing to the electorate, but if you looked closely, you  saw a guy with tremendous nerve, no shame, and no scruples.


Anonymous said...

Hey John,

I have another theory, How can you tell someone definitely is not a sociopath?

They Blush.

I met this girl at work who I became great friends with (very considerate with a wicked sense of humour), I found myself and a few other guys at work would tease her until she blushed then we would make light hearted fun about her blushing too... to completely embarrass her.

I find her blushing incredibly endearing. Then I thought "could a sociopath blush?"


John Craig said...

Andrew --
Excellent insight. Yes, that pretty much definitively proves that someone is not a sociopath.

Generally, any behavior which is the opposite of what a sociopath would do indicates decent character, though some of them can be faked. But you're right, blushing is something which would be hard to fake.

Steven said...

When you said about guys who represent themselves in court, I thought of Vance Miller. His nickname is the kitchen gangster and he's built up one of the biggest kitchen companies in the UK from nothing. He sources all his materials and products from China and actually owns a forest and a granite quarry there, so he undercuts everybody on price but he also used to get a lot of complaints.

He's got a criminal record and has been to jail more than once- one time for kidnapping somebody who broke into his mother's house. He seems to be a devoted and loving father. He doesn't live with his son but spends his entire weekend with him and even took him along on a trip to China. He is openly affectionate towards him.

One time in China, he hired a coach and got it marked up as if it belonged to an Olympic inspection committee to avoid trouble with local officials.

Take a look at him, he's a pretty entertaining character to watch.

What do you think?

Steven said...

Sorry, this is the first link. I was meant to link to a specific part of the video:

John Craig said...

Steven --
I took a look at both videos. Honestly, I don't know, I'd have to know more. He certainly carries himself in uninhibited style, he's got that very emphatic way of speaking that I associate with sociopaths, and he's unquestionably a hard-edged businessman, but I also don't blame him for being angry for being cheated by those Chinese exporters. You say he's a good family man, though the "Iceman" Richard Kuklinski was also described that way. I just don't know enough to say.

Anonymous said...

It's when you look beneath the surface of these seemingly well-adjusted people, you eventually recognize what type of person you're dealing with, a sociopath. After comparing notes with others, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place - you see the larger picture - you're dealing with a disordered person. These people can aggravate the heck out of you, knowing this from personal experience, unfortunately. They can literally lead you down a road of insanity. That's why it's best to keep them at a distance - they're bad news for one's own mental health.



Steven said...

KUklinski was only portrayed that way by Hollywood, right? I was going by what I've seen of Vance's behaviour with his son, which is very positive.

I suggested Vance as a possible counter example to the principle that people who represent themselves are sociopaths. Although I thought it would be interesting to find out your take on him.

I didn't know about the emphatic way of speaking thing...interesting.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
That's exactly what it is, a puzzle. See enough of the pieces and you can discern a pattern, and once you see that pattern, that's all you need to know.

John Craig said...

Setven --
Kuklinski was a strange mix. Yes, Hollywood made him seem nicer to his family than he was (he evidently beat his wife and even broke her bones on a couple occasions). But he always bought gifts for her and his children, and was responsible financially, and was evidently nice to his kids. Nobody in his family had any idea what he'd been up to until the day he was arrested. And there was no question about his sociopathy. While in prison, he said his one regret was that he hadn't killed his own father.

Vance is certainly a dynamic guy, and it would be easy to be swept up in his charismatic aura; but that's how sociopaths work. Again, I'm not saying he is one. But he does have a couple of the hallmarks.

Both of the sociopaths I knew best had a very emphatic was of speaking.

Steven said...

oh definitely, probably more than a couple.

I read Kuklinski's wife's account of their relationship and he was extremely abusive and she hated him.

This bit stuck in my mind:

"Sitting in his car one day after work, she gathered the courage to tell him how she felt: that she was only 19 and wanted the space to see other people. Richard responded by silently jabbing her from behind with a hunting knife so sharp she didn’t even feel the blade go in. “I felt the blood running down my back,” she says. He told her that she belonged to him, and that if she tried to leave he would kill her entire family; when Barbara began screaming at him in anger, he throttled her into unconsciousness."

Scary shit.

If you feel like reading:

He seems to me like a pure psychopath...

Anonymous said...

I just read some articles about this man, James Traficant. He certainly was a colorful person. Apparently, he was married to his wife for 46 years. How she stood it, I can't answer that. Kudos to her. From personal experience, these people are always "on the move," usually up to no good, living a very secretive, double life. They do want to be the center of attention, loving the attention (showboats). Regarding my ex, I had never encountered anyone who had so many secrets, having a hard time answering questions with definite answers (instead supplying you with vague answers). They enjoy talking, "shooting the breeze" with people, oftentimes causing your head to spin when you're talking to them. Again, keeping them at a distance is key.


John Craig said...

Steven --
Wow, hadn't heard about the knifing incident.

Yes, unquestionably, a pure sociopath. That movie trying to humanize him and turn him into a good family man was pure Hollywood.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
While sociopaths are more likely to be married multiple times than non-sociopaths, some of them stay married to the same woman a long time. Richard Kuklinski, whom Steven mentioned above, had only one wife. And one of the two sociopaths I knew best has been married to the same woman ever since he was in his early twenties.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Richard Kuklinski, a pure psychopath. His parents were evil too. The father was a psychopath and the mother wasn't much better, an enabler. Apparently, the father killed one of his sons and both parents lied to the police about how the boy died. I imagine that these "parents" are not in a good place in the afterlife, their destination not being where you want to end up.


Pavonine99 said...

Some interesting observations about sociopaths and their families. I have sort of a theory: it seems that in general (Kuklinski sounds like an exception), the ones who genuinely are nice to their children had relatively normal family lives themselves. The Nazi leader Hermann Goering, though a typical sociopath, was by all accounts (including the girl's in later life) very kind to his daughter, and he himself seems to have had a charmed childhood. I can think of a few other examples.
Unfortunately, there are many more examples of sociopaths were abused as children and went on to repeat the pattern.

John Craig said...

Pavonine --
The ones who come from nice families always give me pause. I have to wonder if they were as nice as they seemed on the surface. Just as there are some men who are "pillars of the community" who are actually sociopaths, I'm sure there are some "loving mothers" who are in fact mostly "show mothers," i.e., they put on a god show of being loving mothers to outsiders, but in reality are not.

But, who knows. It's hard to tell from the outside.

Anonymous said...

Defending oneself and thinking it would not be (significantly) better than hiring a lawyer or having one appointed for you - that definitely sounds pretty sociopathic (both arrogant and desirous of complete control of a situation).

I was watching a documentary about Jim Jones recently, and am wondering why is it that people are so blind to sociopathy? For a long time people both in and outside of his "family" thought he was the greatest thing that ever happened to them. I suppose he provides an extreme (and unfortunately extremely tragic) example of the wool that can be pulled over our eyes.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Sociopaths can be the most dynamic, charismatic, seductive people in the world. And if you don't understand them, you can be fooled into thinking they're extraordinarily decent and kind people, too, at least at first, until you noticed their long term patterns of behavior.

I'd say that both of the sociopaths I knew best were charismatic. They were strong-willed, had good senses of humor, were charming, and when you were around them, you could feel yourself just being pulled into their reality distortion fields. With the first, before I understood sociopaths, I believed all the lies. With the second, with whom I had an institutional association and thus couldn't avoid, I saw through him, but still found myself swayed by him to some extent.

senatortombstone said...

I enjoyed reading Kevin Dutton's "The Wisdom of Psychopaths." I learned that many psychopaths actually have positive traits, which can be useful in moderation. Sometimes I have to speak with angry customers and tell them news they don't like. When doing this, I try to channel my inner-psychopath and not get emotionally entangled in the delicate matter.

John Craig said...

Senator Tombstone --
No question, sociopaths can perform useful roles in society. Some of the best --and most fearless -- soldiers are sociopaths. (Of course, these are also the guys who most likely to commit "friendly fire" types of crimes, and also wartime atrocities.)

Sociopaths can make inspiring leaders, and uninhibitedly passionate orators. (Of course, they are also the most likely to become corrupt and despotic and genocidal as well.)

I like the idea of non sociopaths channeling their inner sociopath to gain courage and calm. I also like the concept of non sociopaths "out-sociopathing" a sociopath, although I think that could happen only on rare occasions, because it represents a sort of poetic justice. (I'm referring to returning their coldness with an even frostier coldness, of lying to them, and of out-maneuvering and out-manipulating them in various ways.)