science of us

What Do We Know About Female Psychopaths?


Next week, America’s favorite female assassin returns to television, in the season-two premiere of Killing Eve, the comedic drama in which British intelligence officer Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) becomes fixated on the beautiful, sadistic hired-assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). In coverage of the show, the character Villanelle is routinely described as a “psychopath,” and the show employs a psychiatrist to consult on the character’s presumed personality disorder. But the criteria for clinical psychopathy are very specific, and often misapplied.

According to Craig Neumann, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Texas and expert on psychopathy, “Psychopathy refers to a pathological personality style that is interpersonally deceptive, affectively cold, behaviorally reckless, and often overtly antisocial.” True psychopaths are also rare — experts estimate that between 1–2 percent of the population possess elevated levels of psychopathic features. Diagnosis is further complicated by how little data there is on psychopaths in general, and women psychopaths in particular. Most studies done on psychopathy are done on convicted criminals, which usually means they have already done something very, very bad — which not all psychopaths will.

Villanelle, as viewers of the show know, does very, very bad things, with little to no visible remorse. Her apparent lack of empathy may satisfy our popular perception of psychopathy on the most basic level, but there’s more to it than that. In Comer’s depiction, Villanelle is not just remorseless and casually cruel, but also brilliant, charming, pragmatic, and, at times, genuinely thoughtful. Pop culture depictions like this are informing the public’s picture of psychopathy, but how does Comer’s Villanelle  compare to real-life profiles in female psychopathy?

According to Michael H. Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Gary Brucato, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the Center of Prevention and Evaluation at the New York State Psychiatric Center — co-authors of The New Evil: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime real-life female psychopathic killers are hard to come by, at least relatively speaking, as compared to male psychopathic killers. (It’s important to note that while many, if not most, serial killers are psychopathic, not all psychopaths are killers, or violent at all.) Among Stone’s personal collection of 800+ true-crime books, which he’s amassed over 40 years, he found just 57 women whom he considered clinically psychopathic, given their descriptions and histories. Of these, he made a smaller list he called “the dirty dozen” — the worst of the worst. “None of them are anything like Villanelle, who’s basically a hired hit-woman,” he says. “Female psychopaths are quite different.”

Before we get into the gendered dynamics, a note on hired hit-men (and women): Though some may have psychopathic traits, says Stone, most are able to maintain some kind of work/life balance. “They go home after work, are pleasant with their wives and children, and have friends,” he says. “Maybe they lack remorse, so that would be one psychopathic trait, but they usually are not superficially a fit. They’re not charming, they’re not necessarily pathological liars.” Hit-people are doing a job, killing who they’re requested to kill. When male psychopaths kill, say Stone and Brucato, the motive is usually psychosexual, and the victims are usually strangers. When female psychopaths kill, the motive is usually money, or attention, and the victims are people they know — and they usually kill them “expeditiously,” as opposed to the drawn-out, torturous murders more typical of psychopathic male killers. In that respect, Villanelle bears some resemblance to Sante Kimes or Dorothea Puente, whom Brucato describes as other “female cold-blooded serial killers.”

Still, more common are female psychopaths who kill within the family. Stone cites Theresa Knorr, who tortured and killed her young daughters because she envied their youth and good looks, and is currently serving two consecutive life sentences at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. Other female psychopaths on Stone’s list killed their husbands for life insurance money, while others are classic examples of Munchausen by proxy, in which a parent (in 95 percent of cases, a mother) abuses her child(ren) through unnecessary medical procedures, dietary restrictions, and prescriptions, sometimes causing the child to become sick via poisoning.

Often, female psychopaths are what’s known as secondary psychopaths, or psychopathy that is effectively induced by abuse, usually in childhood. “In secondary psychopathy, you have an individual who is so badly mistreated that they have a kind of overarching loathing for the whole world,” says Brucato. Thus, one reservation Brucato and Stone share in diagnosing Villanelle (who is, yes, fictional) is the lack of information regarding her childhood made available by the show so far. (Maybe you’ve read the book and know more, in which case, congratulations.) We do know she’s an orphan, but we don’t know if her remorselessness has other experiential roots. But according to the show’s psychiatrist consultant, Dr. Mark Freestone, Villanelle is a primary psychopath, which means that she was born that way — someone with “hereditary, genetic factors, where they’re born with a brain that is predisposed to be fearless, and sensation-seeking, and guiltless,” says Brucato. This distinction makes the character all the more unlikely: Male primary psychopaths outnumber female primary psychopaths eight to one, says Stone.

This is not to say that women can’t be primary psychopaths (we stan a trailblazer!), but rather, for whatever mix of reasons, men appear predisposed to psychopathy in this form. And when a cultural encouragement toward violence is layered upon psychopathic traits, a killer can be made. “What happens in childhood when a boy is bullied or picked on? Is a parent more likely to say, ‘Just punch him?’” says Brucato. “In our country, there’s a normality to aggression among males, so we don’t really know how that figures into the story.” There is some evidence to suggest that testosterone plays a role in physical aggression (and perhaps in serial murder), he adds, but again, that picture is incomplete. There are certainly more psychopaths in the population than we realize, of any gender, because not all psychopaths are violent. It’s also possible that women psychopaths are extra sneaky. “What may make [female psychopaths] different from the men is maybe they’re not winding up in prison because they have traits that stay below the radar,” says Brucato.

Whether or not the depiction of Villanelle as psychopath is clinically accurate or not, Brucato and Stone find it interesting that the question itself is so popular. “I think for some viewers, she is seen as somebody who is sort of taking the weapon away from men, and isn’t taking that kind of crap from men in power,” says Brucato. “In a strange way, a figure like that then suddenly becomes a figure of power and appeal.” Like all psychopaths, Villanelle exists in a context. That hers is virtually impossible may be part of what makes it so appealing.

What Do We Know About Female Psychopaths?