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  • A Third Way: Social Disability and Person-Centered Assessment
  • Christopher Heginbotham (bio)

impaired functioning, psychopathic, personality disorder, neurological damage, psychotherapy

John Sadler’s Fascinating Paper identifies a significant problem with existing diagnostic classifications. But in doing so he raises further unresolved philosophical, nosological, and practical problems. Although he is undoubtedly right in showing that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-IV (and International Classification of Diseases [ICD]-10) do not provide an adequate categorization, he is I believe wrong to use the term “vice” to describe the cluster of wrongful acts.

“Vice” conjures up images of Miami, drugbusting police, prostitution, and other activities that are characterized by one thing—by and large, these are actions undertaken knowingly, usually for financial gain. These are not the actions of people with impaired mental functioning as a result of mental disorder or neurological damage. It is of course true that human trafficking and enforced prostitution may mean women forced into prostitution against their will, but rarely are these women considered mentally disordered solely as a result of their prostitution. Yet it is capacitated, premeditated wrongdoing that is normally considered to be “vice.”

By contrast, all the cases cited in the paper describe conditions that are almost certainly the result of some form of impaired functioning, either owing to early childhood experiences (Case A), familial culture and conditioning (Case B), or neurological damage (Case C). The common thread in these cases is impaired capacity—in Case A this could be described as due to psychopathic or personality disorder (I distinguish the two separately rather than describe the phenomenon as “psychopathic personality disorder”) as a result of multiple childhood traumas. Their presentation is not unexpected given the person’s history and, although the condition may have become refractory, it might be amenable to treatment with psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy, given sufficient time and a nurturing environment (Bateman and Fonagy 2006, 2008; Cordess and Cox 1996; Levy 2008).

The description of Case B leaves a lot of room for doubt and uncertainties. Did Ms A really try to smother her child? She confessed to one occasion, but was this under duress? Did she feel that if she agreed she would be treated more leniently? And if she was guilty, does it suggest “vice,” a premeditated act, or is there another explanation—attention [End Page 31] seeking because of low self-esteem or a personality disorder as a result of some abuse that had not been identified? Almost certainly from the description given this would not count, for me at any rate, as vice. Her actions may be odd, bizarre, or dangerous, but did they demonstrate a mens rea? Was Ms A making adequate evaluative judgments of her situation and that of her child? We know from clinical work with very damaged women in forensic mental health services that early physical, emotional, or sexual abuse leads in turn to women harming both themselves and their children (Bland et al. 1999; Cordess and Cox 1996; see also for example, Jeffcote and Watson 2004). Or perhaps, speculatively, her condition was Munchausen’s by proxy?

Case C is horrendous but does not lend itself readily to the forms of psychiatric classification available. Indeed there is no easy way to describe such actions other than those of someone who is either incapable of understanding the nature and consequence of the actions that he has undertaken, or is simply “mad” in a folk sense. Prima facie this seems to be the result of permanent and little understood neurological damage. However, this case comes closest to the evil that is implied in the term “vice”; and might be diagnosed similarly to a celebrated English murderer, that of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, although the jury at his trial found that he was fit to plead, and he was initially sent to prison, where he deteriorated. He is now, and has for some time, been in Broadmoor high secure hospital.

The result of these comments is that I agree fully with John Sadler’s conclusions, but for rather different reasons. DSM-IV categories try and fail to offer a symptomatology for...


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