Psychiatrists Diagnose Gotham's Villains with Mental Illnesses

Wednesday, 14 January 2015 - 11:43AM
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Wednesday, 14 January 2015 - 11:43AM
Psychiatrists Diagnose Gotham's Villains with Mental Illnesses

With the city collapsing into chaos after the death of the Waynes, not to mention the rise of Arkham Asylum, there's no shortage of mental illness in the newest version of pre-Batman Gotham. Now, psychiatrists H. Eric Bender, Praveen R. Kambam, and Vasilis K. Pozios, who regularly consult on television, films, and comics about the accurate portrayal of mental illness, have taken to Wired to diagnose some of Gotham's most notorious baddies.

 

Gotham

[Credit: Fox]

 

The least surprising conclusion drawn by the doctors is that Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin is likely a psychopath (essentially interchangeable with sociopath). As the symptoms include manipulativeness, lack of empathy responses, narcissism, and violence, he is close to the textbook definition of a psychopath: "The man known as the Penguin appears on the surface to be simply a clumsy, stuttering ne'er-do-well, but underneath he is a calculating criminal and ruthless killer completely lacking in remorse or empathy. He's also narcissistic (he often asserts Gotham "needs" him), masterfully manipulative, and immeasurably power-hungry. He's not only a psychopath, he also might fit the standard definition of a serial killer since he stabs frat boys in the neck and feeds people poisoned cannoli with a fair amount of glee."

 

Gotham

[Credit: Fox]

 

Riddler's diagnosis is a little more involved, especially considering that he hasn't begun exhibiting criminal behavior yet. But he is almost completely unable to recognize social cues, as is shown by both his insistence on telling unwelcome riddles and his painfully awkward courtship behavior with Kristen Kringle. "Edward's persistent deficits in social communication and interaction-as well as his restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests-point to autism spectrum disorder. And if that assessment is correct, his riddles could even be seen as a learned social interaction strategy."

 

This may seem like an extreme diagnosis, as autism is an extremely serious illness that would place a lot more pressure on the writers to treat it respectfully. One commenter pointed out that he could have any number of other disorders that cause social awkwardness, or he could just be a "typical scatter-brained nerd." Pozios responded, "While it's true there may be other causes of Edward's social awkwardness, given the totality of the depiction, autism spectrum disorder tends to explain most of what we see."

 

The psychiatrists are careful to point out that autism is not typically associated with violent tendencies, so while autism may explain Nygma's overall social interactions, it would not explain why he eventually becomes the Riddler. So he likely either has some kind of precipitating event or a comorbid personality disorder such as psychopathy. "It's possible... that narcissistic injuries-lack of approval/admiration from GCPD detectives, failed attempts at courtship-put Edward on the road to villainy. It also could be the case that his deficit in social-emotional reciprocity-like his 'fascination' with the broken body of a Viper victim-isn't related to autism spectrum disorder at all, but rather just symptomatic of textbook psychopathy."

 

Gotham

[Credit: Fox]

 

Finally, they diagnosed the young Selina Kyle, who is still a child on the show but will go on to become the villainous Catwoman. She is portrayed as a juvenile delinquent who often steals, runs away, fails to respond to authority, and is prone to violence when necessary. The psychiatrists asserted that this behavior could indicate antisocial personality disorder, which is often cited as the closest clinical equivalent to psychopathy: "Through her aggression, deceitfulness, theft, and serious violation of rules, Selina displays traits of conduct disorder, the childhood precursor to antisocial personality disorder. This could mean she's on a somewhat familiar trajectory. About half of real-world prisoners suffer from antisocial personality disorder, so if her conduct disorder develops into that condition-and she continues her criminal ways-Selina could find herself behind bars at Blackgate Penitentiary alongside a lot of people with similar backgrounds."

 

One commenter pointed out that the authors seemed to contradict themselves by claiming that mental illness plays a minimal role in violent crime, but also that half of real-world prisoners suffer from APD. Pozios replied, "Defining mental illness is always tricky and we should have been more clear. The statistic of mental illness being a factor in only 4% of violent crimes refers to 'severe mental illnesses' such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, etc., usually when psychosis is present. Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder have historically not been seen as 'severe mental illnesses,' although they can be severely debilitating. This distinction is echoed in most criminal responsibility (legal insanity) statutes, and in some, personality disorders is expressly disqualified as a reason for lack of criminal responsibility."

 

I'm not a psychiatrist, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but from what I know of the subject, it's not the authors who created this difficulty, but the diagnostic standards themselves. The first criterium for APD is "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest." Putting aside the problematic nature of defining a "failure to conform to social norms" as mental illness, the DSM standards for the disease are based in criminology as much as clinical studies. (The first enumeration of psychopathy symptoms was done by Robert D. Hare, a criminologist who came up with a "checklist" from studying already incarcerated prisoners.) So, through no fault of the authors, it's somewhat circular reasoning to say that Selina may go to jail if she develops APD, when going to jail is part of the diagnostic standard.

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