There’s no doubt that American Psycho is a highly influential and seminal piece of literature. It is one of the most banned and challenged books out there, in fact, it is still challenged on a yearly basis, but it intrigues and repulses many readers. I am here to talk about a deeper subject, one that has been on the minds of several experts and zealous readers alike: was Patrick Bateman actually a psychopath?
American Psycho was published in 1991 by Bret Easton Ellis. The book is truly in a league of its own and has a legacy that just won’t die, and for good reason. Ellis mixes in literary devices that readers such as myself love. Unreliability is the major player in this book. Can you believe what Patrick Bateman is doing? Is it real? Regardless of whether or not it is real, does it make him a psycho? Before the book was even published, it was being challenged by many advocates and critics alike. The little people did know about it was outrageous, and libraries and bookstores were ready to ban it. The book itself had a difficult time being published as Simon and Schuster wanted heavy editing before even considering publishing the book. Eventually Knopf’s imprint, Picador, picked up the book with little hesitation and it hit the scene early 1991 to shock and disgust. Most people didn’t even read the book, but were willing to fight against this book being available widely or even publicly. Despite this, it wasn’t a hit with the critics and almost faded into obscurity until Mary Harron, a director, picked it up and decided to turn it into a movie. Upon the film’s release, it was a cult classic although it didn’t do well in the box office. Almost 17 years after its release, the film has become one of the most widely referenced in its time.
The novel has enjoyed increasing popularity since the movie, and although Bret Easton Ellis enjoyed the adaptation he admits that the medium didn’t work for what he wanted. He wanted the book to be ambiguous, almost nonsensical, full of ridiculous irony, but the problem with a movie is that although you indented for it to be ambiguous, the visual medium is what is telling us the real story. What is really happening?
The book follows a young urban professional, Patrick Bateman who is a 20-something working on Wall Street. You follow his everyday endeavours like trying to get reservations at Dorsia, telling his peers the correct way to dress, and killing anyone he likes from children, to women, to men, to animals. Everyone is fair game. Everyone is just a game. As the book progresses, Patrick is falling apart, he is coming undone. He cannot seem to get a firm grasp on reality or discern what is real or fantasy. Because it is a first person narration, we the readers have an equally difficult time understanding what is going on in Patrick’s world and in his head. Is he guilty or is he innocent? Perhaps he is both innocent and guilty and you’ll only find the truth if you peer inside. Much like Schrodinger’s cat, we don’t know the state of the cat, but we know once we open the box. Bret Easton Ellis and director of the movie, Mary Harron have said that it is up to interpretation of the viewer or reader.
The novel itself is ambiguous, not relenting to give any answers because every piece of evidence that points toward Patrick murdering all those people have been contradicted by evidence that he didn’t. Each reader and/or viewer will come to their own conclusions. Much like the classic psychological idea of perspective and parable, Blind Men and the Elephant. Six blind men are confronted by an elephant but each interact with a different part of the elephant and therefore come to their own conclusion of what is standing before them. One man believed a wall was standing before him and another man believed it was a large snake. Each perceived the animal differently. You may believe he killed those people or he didn’t. Regardless, your answer is not wrong. I am not going to tell you what the ending means or what literary significance this book has, I will leave links to articles and videos below for your interests. I am, however, going to be analysing Patrick Bateman and decide, through my experience as a Psychology graduate and Behavioural Sciences author, if he was truly a psychopath or if there is something else at play. At the beginning of the book, Bret Easton Ellis gives us three quotes that tie in the book beautifully. These quotes help us understand what is going on and what is to unfold.
Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed. I have wished to bring before the public, somewhat more distinctly than usual, one of the characters of our recent past. He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us. In the fragment entitled “Underground” this personage describes himself and his views and attempts, as it were, to clarify the reasons why he appeared and was bound to appear in our midst. The subsequent fragment will consist of the actual “notes,” concerning certain events in his life.
Notes from Underground
One of the major mistakes people make is that they think manners are only the expression of happy ideas. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can be expressed in a mannerly way. That’s what civilization is all about—doing it in a mannerly and not an antagonistic way. One of the places we went wrong was the naturalistic Rousseauean movement of the Sixties in which people said, “Why can’t you just say what’s on your mind?” In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we’d be killing on another.
Miss Manners (Judith Martin)
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
As a disclaimer, I do not claim to know everything about psychological abnormalities, but through research I have come to a content conclusion and think my findings are significant and worth sharing.
The series of essays will be exploring the following and many more subjects:
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Anxiety Disorder
- Derealisation & Depersonalisation
We will first be also exploring the psychology of the culture described in the novel. Anywhere from the bystander effect, just world hypothesis, beauty equals goodness theory, to the disparity between the rich and poor. As well as how Patrick might be viewed by his culture and why that advantages or disadvantages him. To understand Patrick Bateman we first have to explore the culture around him.
Who is Patrick Bateman and what was the culture like in the 80s?
The boom of the 1980s, where money is available in excess and drugs are rapidly the most fashionable item you can have. The book takes place in New York during the MTV generation and people were making loads of money, there was a huge cocaine problem. Thousands of people were homeless and died every day because of their drug habits and because of this, there was a huge disparity between the rich and poor. On the streets you could see women in lavish fur coats but right next to them you would see a homeless person begging for money. Timothy Price – a fellow vice president at Pierce & Pierce—acknowledges this statement, in the first few pages, by keeping track of how many homeless people he has seen today. The count by the end of the chapter, which we assume has not been more than an hour, is up to about 30.
There is an obvious disparity between the rich and poor, but also the need to fit in and become one with the popular culture. This is spelled out for us on more than one occasion by most of the characters. The need to consume the most popular music, fashion, drugs, food, you name it, this desire was unquenchable. Popular music at the time was Phil Collins, Whitney Huston, Huey Lewis and the News… not to mention INXS and U2. The people Patrick associated with were not afraid to voice their opinions on artists, such as Paul Owen stating that he never liked Iggy Pop but because he was getting more popular he was probably going to start listening to his music. But Paul never got a chance because he got an axe to the face. These yuppies were concerned only with what was popular, what sold, because that had to be quality. They thought alike, dressed alike, had similar tans, damn-near similar business cards, dated women who looked almost identical, but it seemed to never really be a problem. Everyone got each other mixed up, and it seemed ok. Or at least that’s how Patrick made it out to be. The conceptual novel moves around slowly, picking up every minute detail that is excruciatingly painful for the reader but necessary for the novel so you can get the whole concept of it. This is about someone who obsesses over the new trends. Someone who has taken an absurd amount of time to tell the difference between designers in order for him to list exactly what each person is wearing.
The conformist culture as illustrated in the novel is exactly how I described it earlier. Everyone thinks and looks alike. There is almost no individuality or any real presence of a singular person. The people Patrick congregates with look the same, and the homeless people he runs into or spots all look the same to him—or rather—they are all the same. This culture only breeds the perpetuation of hate and envy. Of sameness – nothing real or signifying. Only unifying and this, in a psychological sense, can be very dangerous.
Psychological theories such as the just-world hypothesis and bystander effect can hurt more than it can help. It places everyone in the circle of blame and not just the perpetrator, which in this case is Patrick Bateman. The just-world hypothesis is the idea that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Therefore you can justify a terrible act happening to a stranger -- they must have deserved it otherwise it would not have happened!
The bystander effect is when there are several witnesses to a crime but nothing is done because every person witnessing puts the responsibility into someone else’s hands. We also call this the diffusion of responsibility. For example, the classic murder case of Kitty Genovese in the 1970s, which was witnessed by 38 people in two apartment buildings but not one thing was done. This case just recently has been resolved and found that bystanders did intervene but it was too late to save Genovese. Regardless, this case was used for decades as a seminal psychological study as to what can happen when a large group witnesses a crime. One crime I will highlight that shows the bystander effect is still relevant and continually happens is the case is Ilan Halimi, where in 2006, was kidnapped by a large group of people and tortured for three weeks. Neighbours heard commotion and screams, and were curious to see what was happening, they watched as Halimi was tortured by strangers, and no one called the authorities or attempted to stop the torture, perhaps fearing for their own lives. In almost any case of the bystander effect, every person that didn’t intervene was equally to blame. An important lesson here is if you see something, say something. Do not be a bystander. It can be especially dangerous if it is mixed in with the just-world hypothesis because if you witness a crime or harassment, you may think automatically, ‘well maybe that person deserves it, because otherwise why would it be happening to them?’ It is one of the most illogical ways of thinking, yet it is one of the most common ways of thinking. Those people are not killing or stealing from people who deserve it. Patrick Bateman is not cleaning up the streets or getting rid of bad co-workers because he is doing the ‘right thing.’ He is coming undone and no one seems to notice. There is so much more at play with Patrick’s state of mind.
These theories are important as no one in Paul’s or Patrick’s apartment calls the police to report any noise disturbance or possible crime. If Patrick did kill those people, we can assume that at least the bystander effect was at work in the novel. No one cared because everyone was too involved in their own business to notice. Or if they did, they believed that someone else would step up and sort it out by intervening or calling the police. When it comes to the just-world hypothesis, we can apply that to the ‘lesser’ people Patrick killed such as the homeless. People would likely not care because the ones who were murdered probably deserving of it.
When we think the same, we act the same and then we become the same. Essentially we are clones, or a copy of a copy of a copy. There is no newness, nothing to be salvaged, just the same prototype, out on the streets, saying the same thing as everyone else. Because why be different? Why have a different viewpoint or different opinions? Because you want to fit in. Being a part of a group is better and easier than being outside of one. Which also means that there must be harmony in the group in order to stay in the group and to ‘fit in’, which is desperately what Patrick is working toward. It doesn’t matter that he truly does not need his job at Pierce & Pierce, but it does matter because it is his way of fitting in and becoming one with the group. He works hard to maintain it by looking after his appearance in the most excruciatingly detailed manner.
A psychological theory that is a huge advantage for Patrick is the beauty equals goodness theory. It is the simple idea that when you are beautiful you must be a good person. You must have a good soul and you are likely not a bad person, someone addicted to drugs, someone who kills for fun, or someone who has a mental illness. Patrick knows that, especially earlier in the novel, people think he is attractive and therefore someone they can trust. A model even says it herself, “there’s something sweet about you.” How do you know that? Do you really know what’s bubbling at the top? We cannot truly read a person just by their looks. Regardless, my point is, appearances can be deceiving, and Patrick is fully aware of this. He makes a point of it in the novel. People in his circle find him to be the boy next door, a dork, someone who can’t even pick up an escort girl let alone kill one. They think he is not capable of any of the heinous acts he says he has committed. But one thing we all must understand is that we are all capable of great and horrible things. We are all capable of killing someone. Just because we ‘would not hurt a fly’ does not mean we could not. After all, we are human, and humans have been responsible for heinous and cruel acts since the beginning of time. Now is not the time to think that some good looking man, who is dressed well and has great manners is not going to turn on you, kill you, and cannibalize you. Think of someone like Ted Bundy, who was an attractive man, but nonetheless a sadistic psychopath who needed to kill. The generalization of beauty equals goodness is something that proves fatal for those who trust Patrick and also that proves ignorance in those who think he is not capable. That is where his power comes from.
Patrick’s fake charm and calculated smile and manners is what also makes him appear like a nice person. In a social cognitive light, a smile leads to a positive impression and also reduces cognitive work, which means it can rapidly decide how you perceive a person. Our minds work economically, which means we think with little thought behind it. When we form an impression, it is normally quick and can lead to generalisations about a person in under five seconds, which may or may not be accurate. Patrick has shown us in the first three quarters of the novel how in control he is of almost every situation. He tries not to show his true emotions in public or around company, but instead is always ready to talk about his political neutrality and how he is pro-family and anti-drug – he is in control of what he says because he knows that his appearance is what people see and therefore what people care about.
If he can impress you upon your first meeting, you are likely to immediately think he is a wonderful and charming person with some insight. For example, impression management plays a huge role in Patrick’s daily life. Impression management is the same as self-presentation. You make the effort to make good impressions on others and it also requires you to take on the role of the perceiver. If you know people will take kindly to you if you are empathetic, you will present yourself as a relatable person and empathise with them accordingly. In fact, many people who appear agreeable or nice tend to commit more heinous crimes. According to a few studies over the years, if people appear kind they are more willing to deceive you than those who appear like total douchebags. What I am attempting to convey is those douchebags are more likely to be contrarians. They often times will dismiss what is being said and go with their own philosophies, which can rub many people the wrong way. However, they probably will not betray you or commit crimes, but those who can fool you into believing they are nice people are more likely to hurt you. Do keep in mind, it is not a 100% of the time sort of thing. The study this was taken from was conducted in a controlled environment so it is not something we can apply to every ‘nice person.’ But in this case we can apply it to Patrick. It is about manipulating the situation to work in your favour and therefore gain something. What Patrick also does is self-monitoring, which is his tendency to monitor the perceiver’s actions in order to manipulate the impression they make on the perceiver. Ultimately Patrick believes he is on top of his game because of how he interacts with people. He is charming in a superficial way and always has something to talk about, which leads back to talking about him. Sounds both psychopathic and narcissistic.
And here, dear reader, is where I must leave you until our next issue where I will be delving more into psychopathy and narcissism. Do remember that first impressions do not always give an indication of a person’s character. Tread lightly, dear reader. Until next issue.
American Psycho is available from Picador