Ordinary Behavior
by Lucille Lang Day
Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day's fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in California Quarterly, Eclipse, The Hudson Review, Istanbul Literary Review, Passages North, River Oak Review, RiverSedge, Waccamaw, and other journals, and her memoir, Married at Fourteen, will be published by Heyday in 2012. She received the Willow Review Creative Nonfiction Award in 2009 and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays 2010. The author of a children's book and eight poetry collections and chapbooks, most recently The Curvature of Blue (Cervena Barva, 2009), she is the founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, and served for 17 years as the director of the Hall of Health, a museum in Berkeley. Her website is <http://lucillelangday.com>.

Reading about Bernard Madoff made me feel really good about myself. I don't mean ordinary good, but extraordinary, off-the-charts good. Sixty-five billion dollars missing from client accounts! Retirement funds! People's life savings! How could he do it? I would never do anything like that, I thought. I am a normal guy, a good guy. Unlike that guy. That guy is a psychopath. It was a Saturday morning, and I'd been drinking my coffee in the living room, reading the paper, taking it easy.

"Cassie," I called to my wife, "come here." She was busy at her computer. I don't know what she does there, but she does an awful lot of it. I can hardly get her attention anymore. This time, though, she must have heard some urgency in my voice, because she came, disheveled, still in her pajamas because she heads for the computer right after breakfast. "You won't believe this," I said. "I'm reading about a psychopath. Bilked people for sixty-five billion dollars. Bought himself boats and planes and mansions all over the world. Can you imagine?"

"Who says he's a psychopath?"

"I say he's a psychopath! How could someone do that and not be a psychopath?"

"You shouldn't throw words like that around unless you know what you're talking about. There must be a clinical definition."

I hate it when Cassie gets contrary. Sometimes it seems like she lives to contradict me. I do appreciate it, however, that she has a brain.

A few days later, I was vindicated. A guy named McCrary, a former special agent with the FBI whose job it was to construct criminal behavioral profiles, was quoted in the Times: "Mr. Madoff appears to share many of the destructive traits typically seen in a psychopath." McCrary went on to say that Madoff was sort of like a chameleon. He could change his personality to make a good impression, leading people to believe he was who they wanted him to be: a nice guy, a wise investor, someone who would take good care of them. I clipped the article and gave it to Cassie, but she just shrugged.

At dinner that night, as Cassie plunked overcooked pork chops onto the table (she's a fine lady, but not much of a cook), I said, "Did you read that article I gave you about Madoff? An FBI criminologist says he has the traits of a psychopath."

"Why are you so obsessed with calling him a psychopath?"

"Because I am not a psychopath. I am an anti-psychopath, and you are one lucky woman to be with a man like me."

"Walt, I am very happy to hear that." She laughed.

I don't know why I wanted to go any further with this, and I sure wish now that I hadn't. I had established that Madoff was probably a psychopath and was still certain that I was not, but I wanted to know more, so later that night I went to the computer and Googled "psychopath," and that's when my troubles began. Quickly, I confirmed that, just as I had suspected as soon as I read about Madoff, a psychopath is not necessarily a serial killer. A psychopath is someone without a conscience, who might or might not be a serial killer. If a psychopath wants to kill, he can kill and not feel guilty. However, he might not want to kill or even if he does, he might not do it, because he wouldn't want to get caught and go to jail. The bottom line is that whatever a psychopath wants to do, he will do without guilt. If he wants money, he will take money. If he wants sex, he will rape. But a psychopath might not be a criminal, or even a man. A woman who doesn't do her share of the work, sloughs off at the office while others toil away, might be a psychopath. All she wants to do is be lazy! What makes her a psychopath is that she doesn't feel guilty. That's when I started to worry—when I realized that ordinary behavior can be psychopathic.

But what really scared the shit out of me was an article about diagnosing psychopathic behavior in childhood. It's difficult, the article said, but there are three things that most psychopaths have in common as children: they set fires, they wet the bed until late in childhood, and they kill or torture animals. I was flabbergasted. When I was about six years old, I lit a stack of newspapers in the basement because I was angry that my parents were going to leave me with a babysitter I didn't like, a cranky old woman who always put my brother and me to bed as soon as our parents left the house, then stationed her butt on the sofa to watch television. Not even a bedtime story! Who did she think she was? My dad smelled the smoke right away and threw a bucket of water on the flames. He said, "Walter, what the hell do you think you're doing?" I said, "I lit a match, and when the fire got close to my fingers, I dropped it. I was afraid." He shook his head. "Don't touch the matches again, buddy. You could burn the house down." I also tried to start a fire once when I was thirteen. I was in a pissy mood, walking down the street near the home of some friends my parents were visiting. My mother had asked me to watch my brother Cliff, who was now ten years old. Well, I can tell you that by then I'd been routinely delegated the task of entertaining Cliff for about eight years, and I was very, very sick of it, so I took off by myself, leaving Cliff with my parents and their friends. I was about two blocks away when the urge came over me to start a fire. I whipped out the matches I'd been carrying around since I'd started smoking, secretly of course, about six months earlier. I struck one and tried to light a dry leaf on a bush in someone's front yard. The match burned down, but the leaf didn't catch fire. I tried another half dozen times or so with other leaves and twigs before I gave up. Then the urge to start a fire left me as quickly as it had overtaken me. Lucky for everyone, myself included, that that bush must have contained too much moisture to ignite.

What can I say about the bed-wetting? I hated it as much as my parents did, but it went on until I was nine or ten years old. I'd dream I was spraying it into a toilet or at the base of a tree, then wake up as I shook the last drops free. At first the puddle in my bed was warm, but it quickly grew cold and uncomfortable, and I'd have to get up. For a while my parents thought it was jealousy of or competition with my baby brother that made me do it, but Cliff stopped wetting the bed when he was three or four, whereas for me the problem went on and on. My parents nagged and scolded, and Cliff made fun of me. The humiliation was excruciating, but still I couldn't stop.

Reading that psychopaths kill or torture animals as children was what scared me the most. I didn't kill or torture any animals as a child, but I did try to kill both my brother and a cousin I couldn't stand, and I knew as soon as I read about the animals that what I had done was far worse. From the day my parents brought Cliff home from the hospital, I alternately loved and resented him. Through Cliff's babyhood and toddler years, the resentment grew stronger, because I felt like my mother favored him. She'd give him whatever he wanted when he cried, she always gave him the bigger piece of cake, even on my birthday, and she'd let him fall asleep in her arms, while I was sent alone to my cold little bed. On one of the many occasions I was told to watch Cliff when our mother was busy, I tried to get him to eat baby aspirin. I think it was the same year I started the fire in the basement, so I must have been six and he was three. "Cliff," I said, "here, I have some candy for you." I shook several little pink cubes out into my hand. I was prepared to feed the whole bottle to him, but the kid said, "That's not candy. It's medicine." How did he know this? I said, "Well, then take some medicine. It's good for you." "No," he protested, "I only take medicine from Mommy." Saved by my baby brother's intelligence! Later he told our mother that I'd offered him medicine and said it was candy. She warned me never, ever to do that again and, to make sure I didn't, had my father put a lock on the medicine cabinet.

My second homicide attempt was when I was about eleven. I was playing doctor with Abigail, a cousin I particularly hated. She always ripped my comic books and broke my model airplanes when no one was looking. I knew she was the culprit, because once I caught her. My parents said, "She's four years younger than you. She's just a little girl, and she doesn't know what she's doing. You have to teach her how to take care of things." But I knew she was doing it maliciously, because she knew how not to wreck her own things. So that day when we played doctor, I told her she was dying of cancer and she'd have to take some medicine I made for her if she wanted to live. I prepared the medicine by mixing a couple of my mother's perfumes. I thought if the medicine smelled good, she'd drink it. When I gave it to her, I said, "You have to drink it all down in one gulp." She did as I said, then started to scream. Her father rushed into my bedroom, where we were playing, scooped her up into his arms, and took her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. My own father whipped my behind and took away my allowance for a month. My mother said, "You're a disgrace. I never thought a son of mine would do such a mean thing."

There was one other occasion, when I didn't actually try to kill a playmate, but neither did I try to prevent her from doing something I knew was dangerous. Her brother Nick was my best friend. If memory serves me, we were both ten, and Janie was five. There must have been some work going on at Nick and Janie's house, because there was a ladder going from the balcony, where the three of us were playing, to the roof of the two-story structure. Janie suddenly took a notion to scramble up the ladder and start running around on the roof, which was sloped. Nick was beside himself. He yelled, "Janie! Come down right now! You could get hurt!" Neither Nick nor I wanted to risk our own necks to go up there after her, but Nick was clearly alarmed. Where could their parents have been? Maybe out doing errands. I didn't say anything, but it gave me a sort of thrill to think about the scene that would ensue if she fell.

You have to understand that these memories not only frighten me but make me nauseous. The last thing I want to be is a psychopath. I've always had a rather high opinion of myself, and I do not want to be the worst that humanity has to offer.

What about animals? As I've said, as a child I did not kill any, except maybe bugs. Gratuitous killing was never my style. However, I will admit that in high school biology I did not mind dissecting frogs. Some of the girls in the class had me pith their frogs for them; even some of the boys quavered at the task, but I could stick the needle in and twist it to obliterate a frog brain, then slit open the chest cavity to reveal the organs, without guilt or regret. Also, one summer when I was in college, I worked as a lab technician, and part of my job was to guillotine white mice for studies of brain enzymes. Some of my friends, and even my mother, said, "God, Walt, how could you do that?" I said, "It's medical research, for the good of humanity. What's the fuss?"

I have never been into hunting or fishing, but if I had lived 30,000 years ago, I'm sure I would have made my spears and tracked woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers with the best of them. It would not have bothered me any more than the fact that carnivorous animals kill other animals for food. It does not make me sick to see a film in which a pack of alligators brings down a wildebeest, or a cheetah chases, then pounces on, a springbok or gazelle. I think that predators are beautiful (think of the huge face and rippling muscles of a lion or tiger) and just as entitled to act on their instincts and enjoy a good meal as their prey.

Where does this leave me? Do these things make me a psychopath? I could hardly sleep that night for worrying about it. I kept tossing and turning, disturbing Cassie's sleep, too.

"Walt, what's wrong?" she asked at about three a.m.

"Nothing, just a bad dream. Go back to sleep." I wondered if feeling guilty at the mere thought of being a psychopath was proof that I wasn't one, but I didn't know if what I was feeling was guilt at the prospect or disappointment that I might not be someone I could admire.

In the morning I knew that I wouldn't get a good night's sleep again until I figured this out. I am an electronics engineer, a problem solver, someone who uses logical reasoning all day. I now faced a problem, and by God I would get an answer. All I had to do was to establish that I had a conscience. That shouldn't be so hard.

My first decision was to keep this problem to myself. I could not say to Cassie, "Honey, I'm worried I might be a psychopath, and I need to prove that I'm not." Most likely, her first response would be "Walt, don't be ridiculous." Then I would have to explain why I think it's possible, and some of the evidence might scare her. I do not want my wife to be afraid of me. I also ruled out talking to a therapist, a psychiatrist, or a friend, because if I am a psychopath, I don't want anyone to know. I don't want to be a pariah, the monster in their midst. A person could lose friends over this. The decision to keep quiet about my dilemma worried me even more, of course, because the first commandment for psychopaths surely must be "Thou shalt not divulge it." All true psychopaths would know to keep their ugly secret to themselves.

The traffic was bumper to bumper as I drove to work from my home in Fremont, California, to my company in Santa Clara. Usually, I listen to NPR to wile away the time when I'm stuck in traffic, but that day all I could think about was how to prove to myself that I have a conscience.

I thought about school. I have only cheated four times in my life: twice in seventh grade, once in tenth grade, and once in my freshman year of college. I can tell you that I felt very bad about it all four times, but I'm not sure if what I felt was guilt for having done something wrong or disappointment in myself for being less than perfect. I like to think of myself as an intelligent guy, no Einstein to be sure, but someone who does not need to stoop so low as to cheat on a paper or a test. I felt so bad about it in tenth grade that I even told my biology teacher what I had done. He said, "Walter, you're one of our best students. I never would have expected that you'd do something like this." I said, "Neither would I. It disgusts me. Just give me an F on that test, and, believe me, it won't happen again." But it did happen again, three years later. I was so hopelessly behind in an anthropology course that I didn't go to the final exam. A friend pilfered a copy of the test for me, and I called the professor to say I was sick and arrange a time for a makeup exam. A couple of days later, I passed with a B+ (evidently the answers I looked up did not exactly match the ones the professor had given in the lectures I'd missed). I never told anyone about this, and no one ever knew except the guy who stole the test for me. I majored in electrical engineering and was mostly an A student, yet walking across the stage on graduation day, I remembered that test and felt bad about it, knowing there was one course that I hadn't really passed. Is this guilt? Or is it a desire to be perfect? I don't know, so I couldn't take it as proof of the existence of my conscience.

At work I continued to think about it. I couldn't think about anything else. When you're worried that you might be a psychopath, it totally wrecks your day. Computer circuits became as meaningless to me as cuneiform. I sat at my desk in a kind of fog. I love my wife, I thought. I love my kids. Did I mention I have a son and a daughter? And now a new grandbaby, Allina? I love her too. I also loved my parents, and I love my brother Cliff, even though I once tried to kill him. But nothing I'd read said that psychopaths were incapable of feeling love. Guilt and love are not the same thing, so my capacity for love did not let me off the hook.

I love my family so much I've always felt that if push came to shove, I would kill for them, that if anyone tried to hurt Cassie, either of the kids, or now Allina, they would be putting their life on the line. I had always been proud of this. I felt like a potential hero, defender and protector of the family. But now I found myself wondering if maybe this was not a sign of courage or valor, but instead an indication of a terrible flaw, the symptom of a very sick man.

I remembered an incident when my daughter Ashley was about ten. We'd just given her a new bicycle, and she'd been out front practicing riding it, when in she limped with a skinned knee. "Jordan pushed me," she said. "Maybe he was jealous of the bike." I jumped up from my chair and charged out of the house. Jordan, a neighbor kid a couple of years older than Ashley, was in front of his house across the street.

"If you ever touch Ashley again," I said, trying to sound as menacing as possible, "I'll knock the shit out of you."

A few minutes later the doorbell rang. It was Jordan and his parents. The father said, "Mr. Cantrell, Jordan says that you threatened him, and we'd like you to know that child abuse is against the law."

I stepped outside onto the porch. "Jordan pushed Ashley, and she skinned her knee. Behavior like that is unacceptable."

"Squabbles between kids are not illegal, Mr. Cantrell, but adults taking the law into their own hands is."

"I wouldn't call smacking a kid who's misbehaving ‘taking the law into my own hands.'"

"Are you a child abuser, Mr. Cantrell? Maybe you should be reported to the police." Jordan's mother was speaking.

By now we were down on the front lawn, and Cassie and Ashley had joined us. Jordan's father turned to Ashley. "When was the last time your father hit you?"

My God! I thought, he's trying to get me for child abuse. I held my breath, trying to remember hitting Ashley. All I could come up with was spanking her as a toddler to teach her not to play with the stove or run out into the street. She looked so vulnerable in her pink shorts and blouse with little flowers on it. Why would I hit her? I adored her. She was skinny, with a heart-shaped face and long, wavy brown hair. Every day she looked more like her mother. She said sweetly, "I can't remember him ever hitting me."

Everyone sighed with relief, and the neighbors went home after asking me to come talk to them if I had any further problems with their son. I felt no guilt whatsoever about what I had said.

There are things I do feel guilty about, though. I feel guilty that I went out for a walk while Cassie was in labor with Marty. I was only gone for half an hour, but when I got back, he'd already been born. God, I was angry with myself! He's twenty-seven years old now, but it still upsets me to think about it. I also feel guilty about the ballet recitals and Little League games I missed, and that when my mother was dying of cancer and asked me, "Do you think we'll meet again?" I said no. I'd give just about anything to replay that moment and comfort my dying mother: "Yes, Mom, we'll meet again in a better world. I'll be looking for you." I could go on with stuff like this, but you get the picture. I feel awful when I let down people who are close to me. Is this a conscience or just a desire to take care of and be on favorable terms with one's own?

Maybe the ultimate test of conscience is whether you can harm strangers without guilt, as Madoff did, which makes me think of the Holocaust. I've always thought I would not have participated in the Holocaust, that if I'd been in Germany in the 1930s and early '40s, I would have understood what was coming down and tried to work against it. The odd thing is that I have never met a German who thinks his or her parents or grandparents participated. They always say, "My father was a gentle young man, a scholar, but he was drafted by the Nazis and died in Russia. He was a victim too," or, "No one in our village knew until it was too late." I bet Madoff thinks he couldn't have been one of the perpetrators either. But what do we know about ourselves? How many of the people who herded whole families into cattle cars and ovens thought ten years earlier, "I am a prospective serial killer, a psychopath. I could do this"?

Estimates of the frequency of psychopathy vary. Some experts think it's less than one in 1,000. Others think it's as high as three percent of all men. All I know is that there are enough of them out there to keep the engines of genocide running. Folks like Hitler will find people to do their dirty work. Yes, I know that some people might feel they have to commit atrocities to save their own necks, or they might have some other way to rationalize it, but if they do it without guilt, they are psychopaths.

After failing to get any work done all morning, I went out to lunch with one of the software engineers. We shot the breeze for a while about the 49ers and movies we'd recently seen. Then I decided to get down to business. One way of assessing my own conscience, I'd decided, was to compare it to that of others.

Between bites of kung pao chicken, I tried to sound casual. "Ken," I said, "looking back at your life, are there any things you feel guilty about?"

"Yes," he said, "my best friend in college confided in me that he was a homosexual. I promised I wouldn't tell anyone, but when I was with other friends or my girl, it was all I could talk about. I was obsessed with it. This was before gay liberation and all. He lost friends over it, and I lost him as a friend. I feel disgusted with myself. Wish I could go back to that time and shut the hell up, muzzle myself."

"Anything else?"

"Yeah, lots of stuff. I totally forgot my wife's birthday the first year we were married. She was devastated. I don't know how I could do that. It wasn't that I didn't love her. And when I was a kid, I crashed my younger brother's new bike he was so proud of. Maybe unconsciously I wanted to crash it because I was jealous, but I sure as hell felt bad afterward."

It was pretty clear that Ken felt guilty about the same kinds of things as I did. That was a relief, actually, because it was unlikely that we were both psychopaths. I told him about Marty's birth and what I said to my dying mother. Then I said, "Ever do anything illegal, like cheat on your income tax?"

"Not exactly, but I bend the rules in my favor."

"So do I. Like I always deduct the full amount of a donation even if I get a letter saying, ‘Forty dollars of your donation is deductible.' I figure that if I ever get audited I'll say I made a mistake or I didn't know. I don't feel guilty about it. Do you?"

"Are you kidding? I don't think anyone feels guilty toward bureaucracies."

"I've been thinking a lot about guilt lately, trying to figure it out," I explained.

That night I asked Cassie, "What would you think if I told you I'd cheated on our income tax?"

"Way to go!"

"Seriously, I do bend the rules a little sometimes to save a few bucks."

"I think most people do that."

"So I shouldn't feel guilty about it?"

"Definitely not."

"What do you feel guilty about, Cassie?"

"For the last three months of my father's life, I badgered him to sign up online to have his prescriptions mailed to him. I was tired of going to the pharmacy for him every Friday night. He asked me to do it on Saturdays instead, but that would have been even more trouble. I realize now that he looked forward to seeing me when I brought the drugs, but I never stayed long enough for a real visit."

"Let it go. He loved you, knew how busy you were, and was grateful for everything you did for him." I wasn't getting the information I needed, proof that her conscience was somehow different from mine. "What about strangers? Did you ever break the law or do anything to strangers that you feel guilty about?"

"I can't think of anything. What's with all this stuff about guilt, anyhow?"

"Ever since I read about that Madoff guy, I've been thinking about guilt and wondering how different Madoff is from the rest of us."

"Very different, but it's not worth wasting your time trying to analyze him. Leave that to the courts."

How could I figure this out? Ken and Cassie felt guilty about the same kinds of things as I did, but I was still worried that I wasn't normal because I'd started a fire, wet the bed until I was ten, and tried to poison my brother and cousin when I was a kid. My hope was that I had a conscience, but that it had just been a little slow in developing.

I thought about breaking the law: if I committed a crime and felt guilty about it, I'd have my proof that I wasn't a psychopath. I thought about shoplifting, defacing a billboard, or killing my neighbor's dog that barks at all hours of the night and shits in my yard. But what if I got caught? I've always considered myself an upright citizen. I don't want to go to jail, be fined, or even sentenced to community service. I don't want a criminal record of any kind. What would my children think?

It was another rough night. As I tossed in the darkness, throwing off the blankets, then pulling them back over myself again, the only thing I could come up with to prove I had a real conscience was to spread a lie about someone and see if I felt guilty about it, just make up a bit of nasty gossip and say I heard it from someone else.

I was still turning this idea over in my mind the next day when my opportunity came in the form of a phone call asking me to provide a job reference for a young woman who worked in my group a couple of years ago. She was not a bad engineer, but she was damn slow and from day one she maxed out her vacation time and sick leave. I could not depend on her. She had a toddler who was sick a lot, and she always said she had to stay home to take care of the kid. Her husband was a freelance writer who worked at home, so I didn't understand why he couldn't be the one on nursing duty. Things went from bad to worse when she got pregnant again. She was still complaining of morning sickness in the third trimester, by which time she also had high blood sugar and a perpetual backache. She used up her sick leave and went on state disability twice before going out on maternity leave. Thankfully, she never returned.

But now someone at the other end of the line was saying, "Gwen Lautman has applied for a position as an Engineer, Level II. What was your experience with her?"

I could have said, "She was out sick so much I hardly ever saw her," or, "She was so slow she put one of our projects three months behind schedule." I thought, if I am a psychopath, I will say those things and more. I will embellish. I will make sure she doesn't get that job, and I will not feel guilty. But I couldn't do it. How could I damage the career of a young woman who has two kids and is the primary breadwinner for her family?

"She's a lovely person," I said. "Does careful work, never made a mistake here. Also gets along with everyone. Yeah, I recommend her." I didn't even hint at the sick kid or hard pregnancy, figuring those things could happen to anyone.

When I bounced into my house that night, I must've been grinning like a jack-o'-lantern. Cassie said, "Walt, what's the good news? Did you win the lottery?" I did indeed feel great. But then I realized that even a psychopath might recommend someone who didn't deserve it; and that thought creeped me out, because I knew that I didn't give a shit about the people hiring her . . .

What do you think? Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.