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Absalom: A Biblical Portrait of a Sociopath
by Cate Russell-Cole
10/06/2015 / Christian Living
I have spent a great deal of time researching Absalom and he carries every symptom of someone with antisocial personality disorder (APD or sociopathy). He also exhibits strong narcissistic and psychopathic traits. He is a treasonous villain and no preacher worth his salt forgets that. However, as a mental health professional, I know enough about this kind of disorder to stop and think deeper about his story. Was he fully, entirely in control of how he saw the world? How could that have affected his behaviour?
When we speak of episodic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we find it easy to show compassion, as we understand the uncontrollability of these problems. However, when we talk about antisocial personality disorder (APD or sociopath), our willingness to be sympathetic is markedly decreased. Why?
Since the late 1800s APD has been considered a series of static behavioural traits. APD is not episodic, neither is it treatable... plus those who suffer from it drive us to such anger and angst, our tolerance runs dry. I can understand that. Sufferers have been problematic since they were small children. They destroy families and relationships, commit crimes, appear to be attention seeking and can turn into psychopaths: remorseless killers. It's hard to be understanding. However, with the newer sciences of genetics and investigation into the hard wiring of an APD sufferers brain, we now know that APD may very well be just as uncontrollable as schizophrenia. Thus, there is a moral call to be understanding.
One of the clearest ways this shows up is in lack of empathy. Someone with APD has no capacity to understand or relate to the pain or feelings of others. That is why they are able to destroy. They go through the motions of life without heed to the consequences of their actions for friends and loves ones. They take and do what they want then they and others, suffer for it. How others feel and why they are wrong is unfathomable to someone with APD. As one psychologist said, their brain is broken. It is tragic.
Thankfully, mental health organisations are on the path to better understanding the condition and making changes in how we understand it. This, however, is far too late for Absalom and even if his condition had been recognised as a mental disorder, then as now, nothing could have been done to help him. There is no drug, miracle producing counselling, or sudden shock which could switch his brain into a more normal mode.
It is thought that APD can, in some cases, be caused by an abusive, negligent childhood and there may be some Scriptural basis for that, such as the size of his family and the lack of discipline that his brother Adonijah received from his father. However, to me, this doesn't seem to be enough to produce the extremity of APD. [Adonijah reference: 1 Kings 1:5-6] The philosophy that 'the fault is the parent's,' is a much criticised one and it appears that this theory may have come from a desperate attempt at an explanation, which grounds behaviour in early childhood and provides a block that development cannot move past. It is highly controversial and there are many solid arguments for and against.
For someone of Absalom's background to have no empathy, when others who have gone through more abusive situations can come out with a high degree of empathy, it seems more likely that his empathy switch was 'off.' The family factor may would have contributed to his behaviour and choices, however, the plausibility of family as the dominant cause of this level of disorder doesn't ring true for me. You may disagree and you are welcome to.
We cannot excuse Absalom's behaviour entirely on the grounds of bad brain wiring. People with APD still know right from wrong and are able to choose not to murder, lie, cheat, commit arson, usurp their father's throne, publicly rape women and con the populace. Yet again, in reading his story, we must still remember that the mental building blocks that made him up were faulty and on that, as in accordance with Scripture, we can learn from his story but must not judge. [Ref. Luke 6:37, Matthew 7:2, Hebrews 10:30]
So why do I believe he was a sociopath? I am a trained social worker who has also had to deal with mental health issues within my career and immediate family. In accordance with the standards set out in the universally recognised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, here is how Absalom measures up.
According to DSM V, he has at least 5 of the 7 necessary traits for diagnosis. That is enough.
- Failure to conform to social norms: he broke laws and social codes like lying.
- Deceitfulness [2 Samuel 15:1-6 and 15:7-9]
- Impulsivity: possibly as he did burn down Joab's barley field (asset and income). We don't have the actual facts of how plotted it was.
- Irritability and Aggressiveness: Unknown
- Reckless disregard for the safety of himself and others: he places his servants at risk of the death penalty for murder and penalties for arson, he endangered his father and his father's household (especially the ten concubines); he also placed the army of Isra'el in danger (many were killed) as they followed his con job.
- Consistent irresponsibility: none of his behaviour appears responsible.
- Lack of remorse: when in danger, he always flees and never begged for mercy or forgiveness.
By the older DSM IV standards, he also fits into requirements to be egocentric, his self-esteem was derived from personal gain and power and his goals were based on personal gratification and failure to conform to the law and societal expectations.
Sadly it gets worse. He has these additional traits which point to narcissistic personality disorder:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance. [2 Samuel 15:1]
- Preoccupied with fantasies (he tried to make it reality) of unlimited success.
- Requires excessive admiration. [2 Samuel 14:25-27]
- Very strong sense of entitlement. [2 Samuel 18:18]
- Exploits others.
This ticked 5 boxes out of 9 which is enough to rank him as a narcissist. Additional antagonistic traits include:
- Manipulativeness [2 Samuel 13:23-27]
- Callousness [2 Samuel 16:20-22]
These behaviours would have been evident in childhood in the form of conduct disorder, which means the family would have had long-standing problems with him and that may be part of the reason why David took a lot of manipulating before he would allow Amnon and his brothers to Absalom's celebration. It could also have played a part in why the King grieved so heavily when Absalom was murdered by Joab. A failed child within a family is a great source of grief and regret, especially when the abnormal psychology behind his actions was not known. There may have been many attempts to help him and many tears shed over failures.
Conduct disorder in Absalom's childhood would have manifested in problems such as:
- spiteful and vengeful behaviour
- getting into fights
- learning difficulties could have been present
- low self-esteem
At this point I would like to mention that APD does damage the self-esteem of the sufferer. Even if they aren't able to to relate to the pain of others, they still experience their own emotions. The stress of this disorder can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviour.
To finish up this awful task, I will list the traits of a psychopath that Dr Robert Hare has identified in his psychopathic diagnostic tool (PCL-R). On known information, I scored 18/40. On such little information, that is worryingly high. The real score would be higher.
- Superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self-worth
- Pathological lying
- Cunning / manipulative
- Lack of guilt or remorse
- Callousness / lack of empathy with other's emotions and suffering
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
A Selection of my Reference Sources:
The distinction between personality disorder and mental illness | The British Journal of Psychiatry http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/180/2/110
DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders http://www.psi.uba.ar/academica/carrerasdegrado/psicologia/sitios_catedras/practicas_profesionales/820_clinica_tr_personalidad_psicosis/material/dsm.pdf
Narcissistic Personality Disorder In-Depth | Psych Central http://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-personality-disorder-in-depth//
Narcissistic Personality Disorder Symptoms | Psych Central http://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder-symptoms/
Mental Health.com Narcissistic Personality Disorder http://www.mentalhealth.com/home/dx/narcissisticpersonality.html
FraudAid: Profile of a Con Artist http://www.fraudaid.com/backstage/profile_of_a_con_artist-01.htm
Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms | Psych Central http://psychcentral.com/disorders/antisocial-personality-disorder-symptoms/
For more information on King David, please have a meander through the King David Project Facebook page, our web site and our blog, Masada Rain. The blog houses many useful resources on studying, David plus bits and pieces of information which dont neatly fit into article form. Please ignore dates and use the search feature to find what you want. The web site has resources on Davids family tree, life and the Psalms. All content is creative commons and non-profit. Sharing of the projects work would be deeply appreciated.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fromdespairtodeliverance
Masada Rain Blog: https://masadarain.wordpress.com
The project web site: http://cateartios.wix.com/kingdavidproject
This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Written in Australian English.
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