Another way to understand how psychopaths work is to look at more obvious examples of psychopaths in the public eye. Whilst the examples of serial killers are more extreme, they still give us an insight in how a psychopath’s mind works.
In this article we will look at the life of British serial killer Dennis Nilsen (1945-2018), responsible for the murders of at least 12 young men in north London the early 1980s. He was caught when his attempts to dispose of some of the remains of his victims led to drain blockages at his flat. When confronted on the crimes he confessed in a completely calm and matter of fact manner and offered no resistance.
We have embedded an excellent documentary on Nilsen’s killings below. Police Officers desribed the entire case as well as Nilsen’s personality as completely bizarre. His completely open but emotionless and cold description of what he had done took many of them aback but is typical of psychopaths in that they feel little or no emotion.
Many of his observed character traits are typical of psychopaths in terms of a self absorbed, self obsessed mindset, excesssive need for power and control over others, and an incapability to truly bond with others. Of course not all psychopaths express their disorder to the extent of serial killing, but the same general personality traits will always give them away regardless of what kind of life they lead.
Let’s look at some of the giveaway characteristics of NIlsen’s background and personality that are in many ways textbook psychopathy traits.
An Isolated Upbringing
Right from the early years of his life you see evidence of some important precursors to psychopathy. Born in the remote Scottish fishing village of Fraserburgh in 1945, he never really knew his father which straight away is a bad start as a cold or absent relationship with one’s father is a common defining characteristic for male psychopathy or sociopathy.
Of course not nearly everyone who has this distant relationship is a psychopath but many psychopaths have this distant or absent father-son relationship. It is a common enough precursor to definitely be worth mentioning.
He was also reported to be somewhat isolated at school, seen as different and weird among his peers, straight away setting him off on the wrong foot in terms of an ability to form human connections. This, added to a possible genetic predisposition to psychopathy, will have immediately sown the seeds for what would later develop into full blown psychopathy.
Notably though he did have one very strong connection to his grandfather, whom he is reported to have loved very much and spent a lot of time with. This appeared to be the one close connection in his life and was brutally severed in a incident reported in the embedded documentary, where his mother said to him when he came in one day “Do you want to see your grandad?”.
Nilsen jumped at the opportunity as he was not expecting his grandad to be there, and went in to the kitchen, only to see his beloved grandfather dead on a coffin, having died at sea. No one had prepared him for the fact his grandfather was dead and the loss of this one close person in his life, as well as the way it was broken to him, devastated him deeply.
This arguably represented a pivotal turning point in his life and is an incident which appears to be glossed over far too much by researchers in our opinion. Whilst Nilsen’s actions later in life are inexcusable and entirely his own responsibility, we would also ask one simple question: Why would his mother break the death of his beloved grandfather to him in such a brutal, unprepared and insensitive way?
Whilst much of the focus on the case is for obvious reasons on Nilsen’s behaviour, this is an obvious and glaring red flag on the part of his mother and suggests a serious lack of empathy on her part. With all the focus being on Nilsen himself, was this brutally insensitive act on the part of his mother not also a pretty psychopathic thing to do?
We must never forget that his relationship with his grandfather appears to be the one and only truly close connection he ever had in his life, and the breaking of that connection appears to have been handled in a very unskilful way by his mother. Maybe this incident in itself sheds some light on where Nilsen’s psychopathic genetics came from. It certainly deserves more attention from people interested in the case.
With Nilsen on some level probably realizing he struggled to connect with others, he may well have invested every bit of humanity he did have to begin with into this close relationship with his grandfather. To have this connection broken so insensitively and traumatically must have deeply hurt him and arguably shattered any piece of human-ness he had left.
This incident is a crucial unexplained event in his life and something we believe should be looked into more. Whilst it is understandable to focus on the horrific crimes he committed later, we must never forget that psychopathy comes from somewhere. The nature vs nuture debate rumbles on, with some people arguing the condition is largely genetic or predetermined and others arguing that upbringing and environment also plays an important role.
More than likely both factors play a role, with genetics possibly “loading the gun” and a bad environment “pulling the trigger” in metaphorical terms. If this is the case then this incident of Nilsen and the death of his grandfather may well have been the defining moment which “Pulled the trigger” on an existing predisposition and sent him over the edge.
An isolated upbringing with few friends in the remote Scottish village of Fraserburgh immediately set Nilsen up as an outsider and misfit in life
The Psychopathic Traits of Nilsen
Wherever his psychopathy came from, after this incident he appears to never have been quite the same again. He joined the army as a chef in his mid teens, remaining there for just over a decade and slowly rising up the ranks. Already there are signs of psychopathic traits emerging, with former co-workers describing him as a bully once he started to attain some power over others.
He later left for London, working briefly as a police officer and then a civil servant. Immersed in the bustling life of London, this is when his serial killing appears to have started. He had a penchant for picking up young boys in the Soho area of London, taking them back to his flat and later abusing and strangling some of them.
One commentator in the documentary notices the uncanny knack he had for picking out young, vulnerable people, often of no fixed abode and perhaps looking for some kind of shelter. This is typical of the predatory intelligence of many psychopaths, where they seem able to sense and hone in on potential targets with a eerie sense of accuracy.
They are able to spot traits and vulnerabilities they either desire or can take advantage of in people; they are seen not as human beings but as objects to be used and manipulated and this is a common thread throughout his reported relationships with people.
In more general terms several contributors mention his total lack of ability to truly connect with or care for others. He seemed totally absorbed in and obsessed with himself and did not appear to be able to show interest in others.
Listening to some of the tape footage of him in the documentary, you will see a rambling, incoherent nature to the way he talks. As researcher Brian Masters puts it : “It becomes very clear after a few minutes, that he isn’t talking with you or even at you; he’s talking to himself”.
This is typical of psychopaths in that they often live in a closed off, solipsistic bubble. Some are better at “slotting in” to society than others and the more hedonistic psychopaths can even put up the mask of the eternal party boy who endlessly socializes and can hold a conversation with anyone.
However, if you dig in deeper, you will find all psychopaths are basically isolated and cut off emotionally from others, however good they may be at hiding this initially. They can produce a superficial air of charm and socializability but they cannot actually connect with others on any significant level.
Nilsen appears to have bored and driven away the few people he did have in his life through a kind of closed off self obsession, where he is in a person’s company but not truly connecting with them. The footage we do see of him appears to be just him rambling away in a kind of one way conversation; the kind many of us can relate to and often extricate ourselves from as soon as possible!
It is this tendency for people to leave him, combined with a psychopathic desire on his part for power and control over others, that led to him preventing some guests from leaving by killing them and keeping their corpses. This appears to have begun on New Year’s Day 1979, where he strangled a 14 year old teenager to death is his apartment after meeting them the night before.
It is from here that the more bizarre aspect of Nilsen’s personality became apparent. He would then keep the corpses in his flat, often for days, sometimes even conversing with them as if they were still alive. This represented an extreme and perverted need for control over others which is prevalent in all psychopaths to some degree.
If he couldn’t make them stay with him voluntarily, it is as if he would force them to stay with him by murdering them. Not all psychopaths go the extent of killing but it appears Nilsen had no restraint in terms of the lengths he would go to to have power and control over others.
Matter of Fact Approach to Murder
However despite this need for control, his lack of emotional connection with his victims is apparent in the way he treated their bodies when he wanted rid of them, cutting them up like pieces of meat and keeping them in his apartment or else burying them in his garden. Once he no longer needed them them they were nothing to him, just objects to be disposed of which is typical of a psychopath.
This is also evident in the completely matter of fact way in which he confessed to his crimes and gave evidence to the police after his arrest. Detectives reported the completely cold, unemotional way in which he described the horrible things he had done.
There was no sense of remorse or guilt at all and again this is symptomatic of a psychopath in that they do not have the same moral barometer of right and wrong that normal people do. This is something to watch out for in toxic people in your life. They don’t get that they have done anything wrong, and they are not sorry for the harm they commit towards others, whether physical or psychological.
“”He couldn’t relate to people emotionally but he could relate to a corpse as something that had to be removed, a problem to be solved. That’s much easier than dealing with people and their emotions”
Once the killings began, it appears he became addicted to the feeling of power and control it gave him and so the behaviour progressed more and more. He is known to have killed at least 12 young men and possibly as many as 16 or more. He seemed completely oblivious emotionally to the fact he had irreversibly taken the lives of a dozen or more young people.
His confession is also somewhat unusual in that there was no denial or resistance. He just calmly admitted to the murders, as though he knew the game was up. There was also perhaps some kind of intellectual (not emotional) understanding that if he wasn’t stopped he would just keep going.
The matter of factness aspect of his character showed up in another way it often does in psychopaths, in that on one level he lived a perfectly normal life and appeared in one sense to blend into society. He held a job down as a civil servant and appeared on a certain level, on first impressions at least, to be quite normal.
It is this aspect of a hidden life or identity which often shows up in psychopaths, whilst a respectable facade of mask of sanity is presented to the world, which covers the reality of the disorder and chaos that’s really going on in their psyche.
Lessons to Take From the Case
The nature-nurture argument will continue on but to most sensible explanation for many is still that both genetic and environment play a role. Serial murderers are probably not born to kill but are born with a disposition towards psychopathy that is later activated and brought out by a poor environment or some kind of deep trauma.
Many of theses trauma and difficulties are avoidable with better parenting and nurturing and for this reason it can be argued that society must take some responsibility for the creation of psychopaths.
How are we raising our children? How are we treating them? Unsympathetic and non empathic parents do exist and a combination of this with already dormant psychopathic genetics may be what creates the Dennis Nilsens of the world.
The hugely insensitive treatment by his mother regarding the death of his grandfather, the only person with whom he was very close, still remains an unanswered question, a pivotal turning point in his life and and huge red flag regarding the quality of his upbringing.
Why woud a mother handle the situation in that way unless they were also a grossly insensitive person? Was this just an single aberration or part of a more general pattern of insensitivity she showed towards her son?
Whatever the reality is here it appears to have been a very costly misjudgement as it sowed the seeds for much of his perverted behaviour later on in life. This is an important question to answer and not one that seems to be focused on much.
As several of the experts mention in the documentary, that event likely permanently fused the concepts of love and death in his mind and sowed the seeds for his depraved and morbid fantasies and perversions around death and corpses he would later live out in graphic detail.
It may not therefore be fair to say Dennis Nilsen was “born to kill”. He may have had a faulty gene which set him off in that direction but several avoidable events may have pushed him over the edge and sealed his fate. More research must be done to improve parenting to the point that these “psychopathic triggers” which enhance a pre-existing disposition are not unnecessarily pulled by insensitive and abusive behaviour.
This view is further enhanced by the apparent trend of psychopathic traits increasing rather than decreasing in the population. This is an indication that there is something we are doing in society to increase these traits. See the Unslaved Podcast on the subject for more on this.
Therefore the issue of where psychopathy comes from should be of central interest to everyone, both to limit the creation of psychopaths in society and to spot and expose these predatory characters before they cause the damage they do to people, both physically and psychologically.
Brian Masters, one of the experts on Nilsen featured prominently in the above documentary, wrote a book called Killing for Company, which is the definitive biography on Nilsen’s life and crimes. Click here to view the book on Amazon.