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Psych on Screen
He's Charming, He's Conniving, He's Convincing—He's The Talented Mr. Ripley.


By Elaine Cassel

Conniving, deceitful, arrogant, and aggressive. Tom Ripley has all the charms of a sociopath. At least that's how the movie critics refer to him.

But what’s a sociopath? A little linguistic history is in order. Two hundred years ago, Phillipe Pinel described people like Tom,who behaved in impulsive and self-destructive ways without any evidence of thought disorder or psychosis, as suffering from manie sans délire (insanity without delirium). J.L. Koch (1891) and Emile Kraepelin (1903-1904) referred to these individuals as psychopaths, believing that the behaviors had a biological basis (hence the use of the root word "pathology"). Karl Birnbaum (1914) described them as sociopaths because he believed that their disorder was the product of social learning and deficient family environments.

The word psychopath "stuck," and the concept of the psychopathic personality has received much attention in psychological literature and research. Hervey Cleckley (1941), in his famous treatise The Mask of Insanity, described psychopathic personalities as being superficially charming and intelligent, unreliable, insincere, untruthful, unable to learn from experience, incapable of feeling guilt or remorse for misdeeds, and unable to feel genuine love for anyone.

Most behaviors associated with sociopathy and psychopathy are included in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder. The terms are often used interchangeably, with sociopathy/psychopathy being most closely linked to criminal behavior. Most psychopaths and sociopaths could be diagnosed with APD, though certainly not all people diagnosed with APD are psychopaths/sociopaths.

Which takes us back to Tom Ripley—the collective embodiment of all three labels. He is glib, resourceful, and clever. He is a quick-study, capable of becoming an "authority" on jazz, for instance, by investing a few hours in self-study. He holds himself out convincingly as a Princeton grad (thanks to his purloined blazer with the Princeton crest on the pocket) when he is actually a men's room attendant. He can be anything, or anyone, you want him to be, and make it seem like second nature. But he is mutable and false sense of self belies the absence of true ego development. When Freddy (Dickie’s suspicious pal) insinuates that Tom is a phony, the irony is obvious. For Tom’s "talent" is his ability to be the perfect fake. He longs to be identified with Dickie, and to have his money, leisure and trophy girlfriend because he has nothing of his own. More to the point, Tom is nothing but a shell. And therein lies the essence of the antisocial personality disordered psycho/sociopath.

The Talented Mr. Ripleystars Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), and Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood). Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name by director Anthony Minghella, it was released by Paramount-Miramax.


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