Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Skinner Principle . . . the seminal SP5 Case Study identifying a Homicidal Sociopathic Personality in Childhood.

Le fantôme du crime à travers ma raison y rôde . . .
(The ghost of crime prowls across my reason . . .)
                                                       Maurice Rollinat, Les Névroses (1883).

From the Publisher’s Announcement for Listen Close to Me (2011) : An eighteen-year-old governess becomes a suspect in a notorious case of serial murder and begins to harbour suspicions about the budding sociopath in her charge, a sinister nine-year-old boy [extract below]. These are tales that probe the intimate lives and crimes of unreliable narrators to prompt disturbing confidences told in voices from the sidelines that we wouldn’t normally hear. 
. . . A meticulous recorder of behaviour, pitch-perfect on accents and the faultlines between class, sex and age, Eisner imbues each account with an unsettling verisimilitude that reaches its peak in “An Unreined Mind”. An 18-year-old governess struggles to comprehend her nine-year-old charge . . . on an isolated country estate . . . When a series of murders begins, the governess falls under suspicion . . . Eisner shows the workings of a highly original mind.
   (Review by Cathi Unsworth in The Guardian. 14.02.2012)
‘Extraordinary writing. Mesmeric reading.
                                            (Ambit magazine commends An Unreined Mind.)

An Unreined Mind 

Seeing him again after all these years, as he was led out of the Crown courtroom after the verdict, flanked by an armed police escort, I was somehow neither surprised by his notoriety nor amazed by my own prophecy fulfilled.
  Because, after all, hadn’t his own governess murmured to herself with a shudder, when Skinner was no more than nine years old, ‘Well, that settles his place in history!’ as the boy perched on the wall of his reclusive animals’ graveyard and owlishly watched the hay rick burn while his squealing mice suffocated in their cages. 
  ‘If it’s nae ane thing efter anither wi’ tha’ wickit wee daftie,’ the housekeeper squawked, wildly beckoning to me before the wind could carry the smoke and smuts to descend on her washing line. 
  Not that Nessie could hear those caged death throes from the haystack. She was stone deaf, and her plangent speech was oddly intonated. 
  ‘Uch! Tha’ wretchit Pish-a-Bed cannae be dealt wi’!’ she screeched, pointing to indissoluble traces of yellowish stains on one draw-sheet.
  I helped her fold the batch of single flannelette sheets the boy had brought back from boarding school; each one carried a woven name-tape:

H. L. Skinner.

  Looking down at us from that distant grave-mound, the boy was now half hidden behind the iron-fenced enclosure, hands clutched upon railings, insolently sucking a sweet.  
  ‘A’wa wi’ ye!’ Nessie screeched, and brandished a raw fist. ‘Back tae the stank ye wis spawned in! Behind bars! That’s whaur ye belong!’ 
  Nessie Macmurtagher had a way of menacing those she scorned by bestowing snide epithets according to some ancient Borders custom. For example, Haskull Lauchlan Skinner, the bed-wetting young ‘maister’ and only son of the ‘Big Hoose’, she disparaged as ‘tha’ sleekit Wee Skullie’, and – willing-unwilling – within that household ‘Skullie’ was the name the boy answered to.
  Of course, whenever criminologists cite Skinner’s name, those gruesome serial killings over three decades will always come to mind; a notoriety that will be forever associated with the Skinner Principle (SP5), the five well-known signifiers of homicidal sociopathy which even today socio-psychologists still consider to be the essential ‘quintad’ for identifying in children first-rank personality disorders predictive of future criminal behaviour.
  ‘Cruikit weans oot o’ thair raison!’ 
  For Nessie Macmurtagher, such wilful children were unmistakable. And any child so labelled – in her own maledictory words – was likely to be possessed by ‘a demon soul blacker than the Earl of Hell’s waistkit.’
  As you’re no doubt aware, these components of the SP5 homicidal sociopathic personality consist of Enuresis (bedwetting), Pyromania (firesetting), Zoosadism (torturing pets and small animals), Necromania (a morbid attraction to dead bodies), and Zootomy (dissection of animal cadavers).
  ‘Well, that settles his place in history!’ I whispered to myself for, indeed, it was I who was that hired governess or, rather, since at that time I was myself little more than twice the boy’s age, it would be truthfuller to describe the eighteen-year-old factotum who drifted into Skinner’s warped childhood at that critical moment in his life as a sort of immature Universal Aunt.
‘We’re straying into tiger country!’ I once heard my father burst out in agitation, furiously shaking his News Chronicle on reading of some fresh ill-fated imperialist adventure in gunboat diplomacy.
  For me, aged eighteen in that year of my awakening, tiger country was the young plantation of silver birches, and the crooked path that led to Skullie’s lair.
  Skullie had promised to perform the office of burial in his animals’ graveyard [the dog, Sweetles, cherished pet of the lady companion to Skullie’s mother, had been discovered mysteriously poisoned] but , on my circuit of the boy’s haunts, I’d found the grave was empty save for the dead starling sealed in a film of ice. 
  But, now, as I approached the boy’s hideout, hooded in its cloak of snow, I heard Skullie’s raised voice, hoarse and strange, reciting a mysterious, rhythmic incantation:
  ‘The-more-there-is-of-mine! (Thwack!) The-less-there-is-of-yours! (Thwack!
  A muffled sound like pummelled flesh – a thrashing and flaying – followed by laboured breathing reached me from the other side of the trees.
  Then the breathing ceased. I heard the crisp sound of footsteps on the snow.
  I felt hidden eyes resting on me and shuddered. 
  The precise nature of the boy’s ghoulish hobbies was a forbidden subject between us, for I knew he regarded me as a trespasser. This tongue of ground, defined on three sides by the margins of a brook, and the farm’s water gardens and withy-beds, was the boy’s own secret territory . . . his own peculiar realm over which he ruled as autocrat and bandit chief.
  Those penetrating odours from his den still assail my memory and sicken me in the throat, so unhealthy was the place. And, never mind the stench, his workbench was too low and rendered a healthy sitting position impossible, so he would tend to hunch over his microscope or laboratory scales. 
  But more than this, his specimen tables, soiled gauze swabs and other impedimenta checked my advance so I paused no further than the threshold.
  ‘It’s dead enough,’ Skullie said without looking up. His features were unaltered by any sign of emotion.
  ‘I broke its neck. Didn’t you hear it go?’ 
  His shirtfront was stained, and he was bowed over the corpse of Sweetles, a set of brass knuckle-dusters on his hands. The hair on various parts of the dog’s head, trunk and legs had been shaved off, and on these spots heavy blows were being inflicted with a pounding from both fists. 
  In life, Sweetles had resembled a hairy caterpillar. Now the corpse suggested a hardened pupal case empty of all memories of doggy existence.
  Skullie glanced up and I looked everywhere but at the face opposite me, avoiding those unfathomable eyes, even though he did not appear to be looking anywhere in particular. All the same, I drew back from those eyes, as if I were about to push open the door to a stranger’s room and feared what I’d find there.
  ‘Maybe it’s not conclusive proof,’ he drawled, in imitation of his father’s suave barristerial address, ‘but it’s a . . .’
  ‘. . . helluva lot more than a hazardous guess.’  
  The fact that I’d remembered word-for-word this catchphrase of the major’s I think momentarily shook him.
  ‘It doesn’t keep the same colour for ten minutes together,’ he complained, pointing to the welts and contusions on Sweetles’ exposed pink flesh.
  ‘I dare say you are right,’ I said with a break in my voice. I’m not an imaginative person, nor am I highly strung, but at that moment I felt his words presaged the darkness of a calamity. I swallowed down my anger as best as I could. ‘Keep your temper,’ Skullie warned, as though he’d taken me for a scullery-maid come to clean his dissecting-room.
  He was wearing a Norfolk jacket cut in a novel fashion to afford more pockets. From one of these he withdrew an open cut-throat razor and commenced to slice an upheld sheet of paper into strips to demonstrate the keenness of the blade.
  His scowl gave place to a grin or, at least, an expression that passed for one.
  ‘An old stage dodge,’ he laughed, and pressed the ball of his thumb into the blade. ‘See? As blunt as a hammer. Our new English master showed us the trick for The Merchant of Venice. All you need is Nessie’s rice paper.’
  Nothing seemed difficult to that strong-willed boy; it was as though he’d donated his emotions to someone else in exchange for a bag of sweets.
  As I turned away, I saw out of the tail of my eye that he had stooped again to his grisly task and, above the stripped cadaver, was now poised a highly polished wooden truncheon.
   ‘My uncle was a Special Constable in the General Strike,’ the boy smiled with grim zest. ‘He cracked not a few heads in his time.’
  I had seen him assume that blank zombie-like appearance, and observed his bloodless disregard for sentiment, some months earlier at half-term. 
  Those vague leaden eyes had worn the same absorbed expression when studying the indwelling properties of crystalline structures in his microscope, or when I had surprised him in an experiment with a tin of Epsom Salts, feeding a little gobbet of pork fat on the end of a fishing line to a family of ducks until the incontinent flock was threaded together like beads on a string. 
  And, once, when I’d accompanied Skullie on an outing to a museum of taxidermy, those same reflective eyes had taken a fascinated interest, to an unnatural degree, in a bird with two heads. I had thought then that the freakish bird was like some malign projection of the boy’s state of mind.
  However, the weeks of ever-shortening days had ended, I thought, and, mercifully, there’d be no alternative to this devilment but the lad’s return to school.
Then the poisoned pen letters started to arrive again.
          Dora had given a little half-pitying, half-contemptuous jerk of the head when she’d shown me this second letter the previous August:

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)

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