It is Los Angeles, late December, 1999. Two days before the new millennium. Former vice cop Lenny Nero “deals in dreams”, selling bootleg, virtual reality discs that allow the user to experience the emotions and past experiences of the person who recorded the disc. These are illegal, “squid” recordings (for how the recording devices look, and how they affix to the scalp; the recordings are made directly from the cerebral cortex of the participant).
Someone passes Lenny what the other dealer calls a “good one”, and Lenny discovers, to his horror, that the woman he is interested in is murdered in the recording. It is a high-tech snuff film. Lenny finds himself in the middle of a vast conspiracy involving shadowy underworld characters in league with rogue police, who are trying to bury evidence of a political murder of a popular rapper in Los Angeles. Lenny enlists the help of bodyguard/chauffeur Mace, and they save the day when they get the recording of the murder to the proper, official higher-ups in the LAPD. It is a damn sexy flick, because the payoff at the end is flashing lights, falling confetti, a new year–new millennium!–and a make-out with a buffed-out Angela Bassett. (I was putting myself in Ralph Fiennes’s place, you see. :))
This is a plot outline of the 1995 film, “Strange Days”, starring Ralph Fiennes as “Lenny”, and Angela Bassett as “Mace”. I saw the movie in a theater in suburban St. Louis in the fall of that year. I have always thought the film raised serious social questions, and was prescient; before its time. It was reportedly conceived by “Avatar” director James Cameron, and actually was directed by his former wife, the fantastic auteur Kathryn Bigelow, of “The Hurt Locker”. What Cameron and Bigelow could not foresee in this futuristic dystopia was Facebook.
I am not here to demonize social media, however, I do need to note the parallels and divergences between the media environment of “Strange Days” and that of 2017. In the film, “squid” videos circulated within a subculture not unlike that of the marijuana industry of the time. Officially illegal, and socially frowned upon, these fictional virtual reality recordings were passed around surreptitiously, undercover. Potency, or “wow factor”, determined price, with the more outrageous scenarios commanding higher prices. One had to own a player/recorder to experience the recordings, and these players were not connected to the Internet.
Today, we can record a murder and upload it to the Internet for all to see, at least theoretically. That is what Steve Stephens of Cleveland, Ohio did yesterday, on Easter. On a video he recorded and then later uploaded to his Facebook page, Stephens coldly announces that he is about to kill someone. He is driving his car in East Cleveland at the time. He happens upon 74-year-old Robert Godwin, who is walking home with some belongings in a plastic bag.
Stephens says the murder is part of the “Joy Lane Massacre”. Joy Lane is reportedly Stephens’s estranged girlfriend. He says he has anger about the breakup, and that this is why he “snapped”. On the recording, he looks decidedly cold and calculating. His “anger” is not hot; he seems matter of fact; he is not in a rage.
Stephens gets out of his car to approach Mr. Godwin. He asks the man if he can pronounce “Joy Lane”. The older man is mystified. He doesn’t know what Stephens is talking about. At that point, Stephens shoots the victim about nine times. All of this was available on the Internet.
I do suggest that you seek out the video, if you can, to see how a psychopath does it. But, do it the way they did in 1995: let the pros handle it. I saw what CBS chose to show on its “CBS Evening News“. Stephens stands before Mr. Godwin calmly, pointing the gun directly at Godwin’s face. Mr. Godwin recoils; he raises his arm, and bag, in a pitiful attempt to shield himself. Stephens is not foaming at the mouth; he is not barking obscenities; he is not twitching uncontrollably.
Stephens is in complete control, and that is “in the pocket” for psychopaths. Control is what they are all about. They cannot abide an even playing field. Stephens has the power of life and death literally in his hand, and he became Mr. Godwin’s executioner. Mr. Godwin was not in court, and there had been no sentence.
The video was viewed by 22,000 people and shared 1,200 times. Immediately, there was debate on social media about who, or what, was to blame for what was characterized as a savage killing. It was actually a cold-blooded execution, with psychopathy as the underlying condition, and its proximate cause.
Facebook, the world’s largest social media website outside of China, is officially legal, and, though frowned upon in tiny circles, IS the culture today. There is nothing “sub” about Facebook in America. You have to be on there, because all your friends are, except for maybe one trusty holdout, who says he has nothing to put on there. He is too modest.
“Crazy”. “Nuts”. “Insane”. “Psychotic”. These are some of the adjectives I have seen online or heard in discussion today to describe the disposition and actions of Steve Stephens. These terms indicate a man who is a wacko, incompetent to stand trial, or delusional–out of touch with reality. None of those apply to Mr. Stephens, and I will show that as concisely as I can now.
Stephens prepared for his killing expedition. He did not care who was going to suffer for his thoughts. He did not care who would pay the ultimate price, so that he could become more broadly notorious than I suspect he already was. It is my theory that Steve Stephens was known by most people to be a jerk, and, by a few, to be something much worse. The latter did not know what to do about it.
And that’s not “the” problem, it is “a” problem, in society. We have tremendous difficulty separating the jerks from the psychos, and that is because of the way we view how men are socialized in the Western world.
Men have more testosterone than women. Testosterone is related to aggression. There are all kinds of aggression, from physical tackling on a football field, to assertive self-promotion in a boardroom. All psychopaths, male and female, have elevated testosterone levels, relative to their genders.
One female psychopath I knew, who is middle-aged, had a vaguely receding hairline, and reported to me that she had to shave her upper lip three times a month, lest she wanted to appear in public with a full mustache. Now, some women have hormonal imbalances that cause problems with the endocrine system, which can cause the growth of excess facial hair. This does not automatically mean that every woman you see with excess facial hair is a psychopath, it means that there could be an underlying medical condition. The fact remains that female psychopaths have more testosterone than most other women.
This is true of men, as well. Male psychopaths have more testosterone, on average, than other men do. Mr. Stephens is 37, and bald. He may shave his head, but it is also generally true that bald men–men who have lost their hair–have more testosterone than men with full heads of hair, as we call it.
I do not have the space, nor the expertise really, to go into depth delineating the differences between how boys and girls are socialized in the United States. We know that we expect boys to be stoic; to not show their feelings “too much”. We ask that they be macho, and not act or appear too much like girls, which means we have stereotypes about how boys and girls “should be”. We expect boys and girls to fit into preconceived, established norms for how they are to present, and to behave.
Our culture reinforces psychopathic tendencies. What are these tendencies that I call psychopathic? Dog-eat-dog individualism. Every man for himself. Only the strong survive. These are the driving concepts that buttress assertiveness that lurches into aggression, that reward hyper-competitiveness, that sacrifice empathy and compassion for others on the altar of the bottom line.
Have you heard of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap? He is a psychopath who relished in cutting tens of thousands of jobs when he ran Sunbeam in the 1980’s. He was a hero in business circles, until it was discovered that his success was tied to massive accounting fraud at the company. Dunlap ruined Sunbeam, and probably many lives in the process. The company lost its independence. It is now called Sunbeam-Oster. He is barred from serving as an officer of a publicly traded company.
I suspect that if you went back into Steve Stephens’s record, you would find a long-established pattern of violating and exploiting others. It is likely that as he grew into a young man, he expressed sexist and homophobic attitudes. He denigrated women and homosexuals. The only types allowed in his imagination are traditional sex kitten women, and hyper-macho, sports-obsessed guys.
I bet that people tried to correct Stephens for many years. I believe they mostly gave up on him, because I doubt he took kindly to any kind of correction. Was he a jerk? Yeah, to most people. Most people did not get to see the real Steve Stephens.
These retrograde attitudes colored his relationships, especially with women. However, you can see that his hate can be directed at anyone. Psychopaths hate everyone.
We lionize the metaphorical kings of the jungle–the Donald Trump’s of the world. Dominant aggressors are lionized. (Think of that word!)
The police know they are looking for a psychopath in the case of Steve Stephens. That is exactly what “armed and dangerous” means, in his case. Stephens has guns, he is without conscience, and he knows the end is near. I believe that he will kill himself before he is caught. He is a coward. The worst bullies are the biggest cowards.
How could Mr. Stephens be nuts? He has evaded a national manhunt for more than a day. That means he is lucid, and working to elude authorities. Further, what evidence do we have that he feels guilt or shame about what he has done? Guilt is feeling bad for doing something wrong. It is tied to the superego. Psychopaths have no superego. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. Shame is tied to the concept of the “ideal self”. Most people try to live up to their own code of what is acceptable behavior to them. Again, psychopaths do not carry around an ideal self; the person they idealize themselves to be. Steve Stephens should be feeling bad about what he did, and this fact should compel him to turn himself in. We have zero evidence, so far, that he feels guilty, or remorseful, or that he wishes to atone for his crimes.
No, he is on the run, and this is typical of psychopaths. Often, they must leave town at a moment’s notice, and it is always someone else’s fault. They have liens, or they have spent time in jail, or they may have sexually transmitted diseases, but it is always someone else’s fault. So it is with Steve Stephens: it is Joy Lane’s fault that he shot a stranger, Robert Godwin, nine times, killing him on Easter Sunday.
We need to do a vastly better job of educating ourselves about the psychopath in society. I am convinced that psychopathy is the least understood important problem in America. Psychopaths are responsible for HALF of all violent crimes. The other half are crimes of passion; crimes rooted in desperation by desperate people.
We simply do not understand people like this. We “otherize” them, and call them “monsters”. You can see in the video that Mr. Stephens looks quite ordinary. There is nothing physically outstanding about his visage. He is a normal looking guy who would not stand out in a crowd, unless that crowd was all white. Mr. Stephens is African-American.
That is another point I would like to make: Psychopathy is present in all ethnic populations, and women who are psychopaths can be just as bad as men. Usually, they do it differently, using covert emotional manipulation, and by manipulating social networks. They use sex as a leveraging tool, to get money, and things.
We live in a country where the NFL is the national pastime. Millions gamble, in the form of lotteries, with dreams of striking it rich in a culture where incomes have stagnated for decades. We have virtual reality devices, and smartphones that can deliver any kind of multimedia experience right now, perfectly devoid of context, or nuance. This has implications, some of them negative, for how we think about, and deal with, others.
I know from talking to people in-person, and online, that they know very little about the dynamics of how psychopaths work. That is why they are so prolific. One experienced psychopath can do a lot of damage. And when one is done with you, you are brutalized, or psychologically and emotionally shattered, or blamed, or disbelieved, or all of the aforementioned, and all of that is deeply traumatizing. Being hit by a psychopath is a deliberate, intentional betrayal. In Dante’s Inferno, those who betray are in the lowest circle of Hell.
Steve Stephens betrayed Robert Godwin yesterday. He broke his compact with the human race. It was not the first time.
(I took the photo above, at a “Blue Lives Matter”, pro-law enforcement officer rally in downtown Clayton, MO on January 24, 2015. We were counter-protesting that day.)