In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “Rethinking Dexter” from The Psychology of Dexter, Lisa Firestone considers: What if Harry was all wrong about Dexter? What if Dexter actually wasn’t the psychopath that Harry thought he was? And even if Dexter did fit the psychopath description, what if the conventional wisdom about those people is wrong, and they actually can be treated effectively?
In season one, Dexter entered therapy with the purpose of getting close to a homicidal psychologist. When a fellow patient asked him how he liked therapy, Dexter candidly replied, “I’m a sociopath; there’s not much he can do for me” (“Shrink Wrap,” 1-8). Although he was half kidding, the statement is indicative of what Dexter truly believes about himself. He is convinced that there is no way he can stop his violent urges, and why shouldn’t he be? However, there are two problems with Dexter’s assumption that he is an incurable psychopath. First, while he exhibits certain destructive characteristics in line with psychopathology, Dexter also exhibits traits that argue strongly against a psychopathic diagnosis. Second, even if Dexter is a psychopath, it is a common misconception that this diagnosis is untreatable. Despite his insistence that “there’s not much he can do for me,” I believe Dexter Morgan has been far too hasty in diagnosing himself as a lost cause.
At first glance many of Dexter’s personality traits could be interpreted to be in keeping with a diagnosis of psychopathy. Psychopathic traits are evident in his lack of empathy, his glib and superficial charm, and his emotional disregard for his victims. However, Dexter’s other diagnosable symptoms, such as social awkwardness in intimate relationships and a lack of sex drive, diverge from the picture of a classic psychopath who is casual and calloused in personal and romantic relationships and quite often promiscuous. Where the typical psychopath enjoys excessive flirtation, Dexter avoids flirtatious encounters, as they make him extremely uncomfortable. In the pilot episode, when a policewoman flirted with Dexter by putting her hand on his leg, he was noticeably unnerved and moved away from her. While psychopaths engage in dishonesty and duplicity and are often compulsive liars, Dexter is honest and forthcoming and only lies when it is necessary to keep from getting caught. Psychopaths are generally irresponsible in their lives but Dexter is highly organized and responsible in his actions.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Dexter is not a classically incurable psychopath is the fact that he was able to develop an attachment to his adoptive father, Harry, at a young age. In seeking Harry’s approval by dutifully following his code and directing his violence toward only killing evil people, Dexter is honoring Harry. When Harry asked young Dexter why he hadn’t acted on his urges to kill a person, Dexter answered, “I thought you and Mom wouldn’t like it.” At that point in Dexter’s childhood, his desire to remain in the good graces of his adoptive father outweighed his urge to commit murder. Even Dexter’s reason for killing the neighbor’s dog was couched in the interest of his family’s happiness: the dog was keeping his sick mother awake. Despite Dexter’s insistence that he cannot genuinely feel for people, he does everything in his power to keep the people that he should care about safe and content.
As an adult, Dexter’s growing attachment to Rita and her children over the course of the show has provided further evidence that he is not truly a psychopath. The development of these relationships is a deviation from the typical mold of a psychopath and indicates a trait that most psychopaths cannot possess: an element of caring. While the thoughts of Dexter’s Dark Passenger may suggest that he is vacant of such feeling, Dexter’s actions show otherwise. For example, the only times Dexter acted violently on impulse, against the Code of Harry, were in instances where he was trying to protect or defend Rita. When her ex-husband became verbally threatening toward Rita in “Seeing Red” (1-10), Dexter responded by hitting him on the head with a frying pan. Dexter surprised himself with this outburst of aggression; it was a behavioral manifestation of the very care that he claims he is unable feel. His actions throughout each season have demonstrated a deepening emotional investment not only in Rita, but also in her children and his sister, Deb. His ability to develop these attachments, even if they lack serious emotional depth, is a sign that Dexter himself is neither a psychopath nor a lost cause.
The Trouble with the Psychopathic Label
When Dexter first began to indulge in violent, destructive behaviors as a child (i.e., killing animals), Harry, a veteran detective, assumed that his son was revealing the early stages of psychopathy. Psychologist David Farrington argues that there is danger in labeling someone as a psychopath at a young age, in large part because research shows that people who exhibit psychopathic traits in childhood tend to gravitate toward the mean later in life. According to studies done by J. F. Edens and M. Cahill, “some transient developmental characteristics that are relatively common to adolescents can be mistaken for long standing adult psychopathy traits.” Additionally, there is limited data on whether or not juveniles who demonstrate psychopathic traits will continue to possess these traits in adulthood. For example, it is common for children to experiment with animal cruelty at a young age, but for most this will never extend past sprinkling salt on a snail or putting ants under a magnifying glass; not every child who kills animals will turn into a serial killer.
Children are not born with a sense of right and wrong; however, they arrive in this world with the innate ability to develop the neural circuitry for empathy. Given the proper attachment experiences as they grow up, humans develop empathy. Research shows that a child’s cruelty toward animals almost always arises out of an abusive violent family environment. Although Dexter’s early years were shaped by such an environment, his adoptive family provided a potentially reparative experience. Research has also demonstrated that interventions such as humane education that focuses on developing empathy toward animals generalizes to empathy for human beings. The National District Attorneys Association suggests, “If we pay attention to children and youth who perform acts of cruelty on animals and take immediate action to stop their behavior, future crimes can be prevented and lives can be saved.” Unfortunately, Harry did not stress the inherent wrongness of killing animals, nor did he take action to stop Dexter from acting sadistically toward them. Instead he assumed that Dexter was on an inevitable course of destruction and encouraged him to commit these “small” acts of murder in the hope that it would keep him from harming people, when a more appropriate response would have been to get Dexter psychological help.
The mistake Harry made with Dexter is the same mistake the criminal justice system often makes with psychopathically labeled juveniles. Studies find that juvenile offenders who are categorized as psychopaths receive less therapeutic attention due to the misconception that they are lost causes. However, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment study of adults found that “psychopathic patients appear as likely as non-psychopathic patients to benefit from adequate doses of treatment in violence reduction.” Such studies indicate that society is wrong in its view that all that can be done with these people is to lock them up and throw away the keys; research suggests that psychopaths almost always are treatable if they receive intensive therapy for a proper duration of time.
Dr. Randy Borum’s research has shown that intensive intervention, with an emphasis on improved interpersonal relationships and increased self-control, reduced the number of additional offenses in juveniles. This treatment helped young people form essential attachments that cut the risk to reoffend in half. Attachments such as these could have ultimately saved Dexter from his fate as a violent criminal. Had he received a proper psychological evaluation and subsequent therapy, Dexter might have been able to overcome the violent tendencies of his youth.
Childhood Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD )
I propose that the show’s implication that Dexter is a psychopath is a misdiagnosis and that, in fact, Dexter is a victim of childhood post-traumatic stress. At the age of five, Dexter experienced the most horrendous type of trauma imaginable. He watched as his mother was brutally murdered and dismembered before his eyes. He was then trapped in a storage container with her corpse for three days, confined to complete darkness and imprisoned in a two-inch thick pool of blood. In the field of trauma, this combination of witnessing a violent murder, losing a primary caretaker, and subsequently being entrapped would be categorized as the worst type of trauma (“big ‘T’ trauma”) and would certainly lead to PT SD. Studies have shown that almost 100 percent of children who witness parental homicide develop PT SD because of the severity of the traumatic event. Research also shows that 80 percent of children who have been imprisoned or rendered immobile in some way, such as being buried alive, tied up, or tortured, develop PTSD. The factors that tend to indicate whether or not a child will develop PT SD after a traumatic event include “the severity of the traumatic event” and “the physical proximity to the traumatic event.” Both of these factors were extreme in the case of Dexter. Another factor is the parental reaction to the traumatic event. Harry was greatly impacted by the death of Dexter’s mother through his romantic attachment with her and his partial guilt for her death.
In instances of severe trauma, the child disassociates from him/herself and the memory of the event is suppressed. When Dexter first becomes aware in a therapy session of the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, he thinks, “No wonder I felt so disconnected my entire life. If I did have emotions, I’d have to feel this” (“Truth Be Told,” 1-11). Although Dexter is supposedly cut off from all human emotions, empathy is the emotion that he seems to most lack and long for. This lack of empathy, which is often cited as evidence of his psychopathy, can be a direct result of childhood PT SD. Childhood trauma has an impact on actual brain development: it can cause serious structural abnormalities in the frontal lobe, known as “the seat of emotion.” Brain researchers have found that these abnormalities often result in deep-seated personality deficits such as an inability to be empathetic.
Another characteristic of individuals suffering from PT SD is that they may be prone to aggression and dehumanization in the service of a cause that they find noble. The Code of Harry, which dictates that “killing should serve a purpose, otherwise it’s just murder,” provides Dexter with the moral justification and righteousness to see his acts of aggression and dehumanization as upholding a noble cause. Therefore, the code had an effect opposite to the one that Harry intended; rather than control Dexter’s violence, it may well have perpetuated it.
An additional common symptom of early childhood PT SD is post-traumatic play, in which children repeat themes or aspects of the trauma they experienced. For Dexter, this post-traumatic play was evident at a young age in his killing and dismembering animals. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, this (or any) type of post-traumatic play does not relieve anxiety. By encouraging Dexter’s post-traumatic play with animals in the hope that it would curb his appetite to murder people, Harry only pushed Dexter further down the path toward homicidal violence. Had Harry sought psychological help for Dexter to deal with the underlying trauma instead of allowing him to continually recreate it in his play, he would have provided his son with more constructive guidance.
The Anti-Self: Identifying with the Aggressor
A few important questions remain unanswered: in suffering from PTSD, what exactly happened to turn Dexter into a killer? Where did his Dark Passenger come from? When childhood events are traumatic enough to cause PT SD, children dissociate from themselves as the helpless victim and identify instead with the aggressor. They identify with the very person who is hurting them, who they see as strong and not vulnerable to the type of pain they are experiencing. This is the only survival strategy available to the child. In Dexter’s case, he identified with his mother’s murderer. This is evident in his homicidal desires and in his literal reenactment of his mother’s murder by dismembering each of his own victims. For Dexter, dismemberment likely has significant meaning and is not simply a practical means of disposing of a body. Interestingly enough, Dexter’s brother, who also witnessed their mother’s murder and became a serial killer, beheads his victims.
From taking on the aggressor’s point of view, Dexter is plagued by destructive thoughts telling him to act out violent and sadistic urges. He calls this point of view his Dark Passenger; clinical psychologist and theorist/author Dr. Robert Firestone calls it the “anti-self.” Dr. Firestone has identified a division that exists within all of us between our “real self” and the “anti-self.” The nature and degree of this division depends a great deal on early life experiences. Most of us are not as destructive as Dexter, but we do engage in behavior that is both self-destructive and other-destructive on a less extreme level. The anti-self is the incorporation of the negative side of the parenting we received: the emotional neglect or abuse, and any other traumatic treatment that we may have experienced. In situations where a parent “loses it” with the child, the child ceases to identify with him/herself as the helpless victim and instead identifies with the all-powerful parent. In this manner, we “take in” our parents during those extremely stressful incidents when they are at their worst. This identification exists as an anti-self that cannot be fully integrated into the personality. As an adult, when we are under pressure or stress, our unintegrated anti-self manifests itself. Then we act out either on ourselves or on others in ways similar to what was done to us.
The core aspect of the anti-self is a “self-parenting” process in which we treat ourselves as we were treated early on, both soothing ourselves and punishing ourselves. Self-parenting, as it is referred to here, is not self-love; rather, it is the self-infliction of the misattunement and mistreatment the child experienced from its early caregiver. The self-soothing behaviors are strategies we employ to relieve anxiety, such as being self-protective or self-indulgent (as in addiction and substance abuse) or having an inflated sense of self-importance. The self-soothing part of Dexter can be seen in his self-sufficiency and the emotional distance he keeps from people, as well as in his self-aggrandizing belief that he should be acknowledged as a hero. It is the most extreme when his Dark Passenger counsels him that he needs the release that committing murder will bring him. In general, the self-punishing behaviors people engage in are more obvious: they take the form of self-attacks, self-denial, and self-harming actions. The self-hating side of Dexter is revealed in his negative internal dialogue and his thoughts that other people would never accept him if they knew the truth about him.
Although we mature into adults and are no longer threatened by the traumatic or painful situations of childhood, we still carry our alien point of view with us. Dexter’s reference to his own anti-self as a Dark Passenger is an apt description of how his destructive thought processes act as a companion, traveling beside him and keeping him company, much as they do in all of us to some extent. Although most of us have not undergone the level of trauma that Dexter has and are not as destructive in our behavior as he is, we all experience negative thought processes that direct and control our lives more than we are aware of.
The Critical Inner Voice
Even though Dexter’s innermost thoughts are often excessively violent and unfeeling, his inner struggle is an extreme representation of the “anti-self” and a destructive thought process we all have within us, the “critical inner voice.” This critical inner voice operates as a dialogue that advises us and defines us in a negative way.
The critical inner voice is a manifestation of the anti-self and develops when the child first identifies with the adult who is frightening him or her. The critical inner voice is defined as a well-integrated pattern of negative thoughts toward self and others that is at the root of an individual’s maladaptive behavior. Critical attitudes toward self and others predispose alienation in personal relationships. Our research shows that these negative thoughts, which we refer to as voice attacks, are directly connected to self-destructive acts and acts of violence toward others. From the time Dexter identified with his mother’s murderer, he was plagued by destructive thoughts telling him to act out violent and sadistic urges. Dr. Firestone and I contend that persons who dissociate, which Dexter clearly did as a result of his early childhood trauma, are more prone to experience voice attacks that distort their perceptions. Because the voice is not only antithetical to the self but is also hostile and suspicious toward others, these voice attacks can lead individuals to act on wildly sadistic impulses.
Projection of a Parent’s Negative Traits
Dexter was raised from a young age by an adoptive father who saw his son’s bouts of rage and violent tendencies as a clear indication that Dexter was a psychopath on an inevitable course toward destruction. Because Harry was convinced that Dexter’s dark urges would not go away, he decided to “make the best of it” and provided young Dexter with a moral code through which his son could filter his homicidal impulses. However, it is reasonable to wonder whether Harry could have capitalized on Dexter’s respect for him and have developed a different moral code, one that didn’t allow for murder at all. How much was this code a projection by Harry of his own “vigilante” side, the part of him that acted out revenge and punishment and wanted to be the hero? Harry’s drive to be a hero was so strong that it directly contributed to Dexter’s mother’s murder.
The “dark side” of Harry, his anti-self, prevented him from providing Dexter with the guidance the boy needed. We know from the views that Harry voiced that he had vigilante feelings that justice should be done to violent criminals who had gone unpunished by the legal system. He could not accept this part of himself that longed for vigilante justice, and tried to rid himself of it by sublimating it in his police work and projecting it onto Dexter. He disowned the unacceptable elements of his own character and saw them instead in his adopted son, believing him to be an untreatable monster. The veteran detective even went so far as to use Dexter to act on his behalf to right the wrongs that he identified in the criminal justice system.
This father/son relationship is unusual in that the life lessons Harry provided Dexter with center around homicide; however, an adult offering misguided and destructive advice to a child in the name of parenting can be found in much less extreme examples in everyday life. It is common for parents to project their negative thoughts and desires onto their children. For instance, a mother who still carries feelings of being a “dirty little girl” will punish her child for making messes and label her a “slob.” Or a father with deep-seated feelings that his desire for attention is unacceptable will see his affectionate child as needy and demanding. Harry desperately wanted to see revenge enacted upon criminals, and he projected these murderous fixations onto Dexter. We all have internalized elements of our parents that they did not accept in themselves and instead projected onto us.
When Dexter integrated the negative aspects of Harry, he added to and reinforced the development of his already very destructive anti-self. Harry’s view of Dexter as an incurable psychopath supported the voice attacks that define Dexter as a murderer and instruct him to commit violent acts. Therefore, Dexter’s loyalty to his destructive voices is not only a result of his identification with his mother’s murderer but also of Harry’s encouragement of Dexter’s violent tendencies. After all, it was Harry who gave Dexter the moral code that provided him with the rationalization that “killing should serve a purpose,” trained him to become a successful serial killer by teaching him to murder without getting caught, and even dictated his first victim: a nurse who was poisoning her patients and had tried to kill Harry when he was in the hospital because of a heart attack.
One of the most powerful and destructive functions of the critical inner voice is to pass on the “Dark Passengers” from one generation to the next. We have seen how this is done when children integrate their parents’ aggression toward them during times of great stress, and the anti-self and the critical inner voice are formed. We then see how it is further transferred when parents project their own negative voices and traits onto their children.
In season two, Dexter discovered that Harry had, in large part, been responsible for the murder of his mother. His adoptive father’s insistence on following his own moral code and bringing a criminal to justice had led him to be negligent in relation to Dexter’s mother and her children. Dexter struggled to forgive the man whose selfishness resulted in the horrifying and bloody scene that traumatized him as a young boy. The last episode of season four was chillingly familiar, as Dexter’s selfish desire to be the one to bring the Trinity Killer to justice resulted in the death of his own wife, Rita. The final scene was a recreation of Dexter’s childhood: we saw his son, Harrison, on the bathroom floor crying, sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood. This is a graphic illustration of a basic psychological reality: if people do not deal with their own inner demons and distinguish their real selves from their antiselves, they leave their children with a horrifying legacy.
Even though the dramatic childhood trauma and psychological stress associated with PT SD can certainly cause irreversible emotional and psychological damage, with the proper therapy model even the most severe trauma can be treated with good results. Research has now established that psychotherapy can change the brain and increase a person’s ability to experience empathy, insight, morality, and emotional balance. Unfortunately, Dexter did not get the treatment as a young child that could have effectively changed the course of his life. Even as an adult, Dexter is responsive to psychotherapy, as indicated by his reaction to his brief encounter with therapy. A sustained, trauma-focused treatment where he would be able to form a positive secure attachment to his therapist could allow him to change himself, his brain, and his life.
Recent research has demonstrated that the specific psychological treatments for the disorders of obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, social phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder actually alter the brain. The treatment process emphasizes resisting acting out symptom behavior, enacting new positive behavior, and engaging in mass practice in these positive behaviors. There are many effective therapies for treating trauma disorders in children. Dyadic development psychotherapy is an evidence-based treatment for children with complex trauma and attachment disorders. The therapy is based on the findings from attachment research. Evidence-based treatments— treatments that integrate behavioral management strategies and cognitive behavioral therapy, which makes repressed traumatic memories explicit in order to integrate them and thus form a coherent narrative of one’s life—can effectively manage the behavioral regulation problems that occur in traumatized children. Had Dexter received this type of therapy as a young child, he would have been encouraged to make sense of the traumatic circumstances involving his mother’s death. He would have been taught relaxation techniques and learned to correct thoughts that were inaccurate or distorted as a result of his trauma. His acting-out behaviors would have been controlled and modified by both his therapist and his parents. In the process, he would have re-wired his brain so that he could more fully experience a sense of connection to others and develop empathy.
The fact that Dexter, as an adult, was able to benefit from even three short therapy sessions with Dr. Meridian in season one suggests that Dexter would have been a good candidate for therapy. When Meridian asked Dexter to imagine a time when he felt powerless, Dexter experienced an onslaught of previously untapped childhood memories and first glimpses his initial childhood trauma. This is evidence that Dexter had implicit repressed memories of the event that had never been integrated into his conscious awareness. After the session, Dexter had a self-described “breakthrough” and was able to be intimate with Rita for the first time. If one session could have such a profound effect on Dexter as an adult, imagine how intensive therapy as a child could have altered the course of his life. If Dexter had been given assistance to access and explore his implicit memories and make sense of his trauma by integrating these memories into his understanding of himself, he could have begun to change his brain in ways that would have altered his life course.
Because of his concern with the “Dark Passenger” in all of us, Dr. Firestone developed “voice therapy,” a process for bringing out into the open the critical inner voice and its destructive thoughts, then understanding where they come from, developing compassion for ourselves, and changing our behavior, thereby breaking destructive patterns that limit or destroy our lives. People can overcome this destructive thought process and free themselves from their “Dark Passengers” through voice therapy. The five steps of voice therapy include: (a) eliciting and identifying negative thought patterns and releasing the associated effect, (b) discussing insights about where these voices come from (to gain compassion for oneself), (c) verbally responding to the voice, both emotionally and rationally, (d) developing insight into how the voice influences specific destructive behaviors that the individual engages in, and (e) resisting destructive behaviors regulated by the voice and increasing constructive behavior that is in line with the individual’s own self-interest (which the voices are discouraging).
Patients who participate in this type of therapy are able to distinguish their “real selves” from their “anti-selves” and are subsequently able to reduce their tendency to act on the negative thoughts, decreasing their risk of being violent against themselves or others. As a result, they are free to develop into goal-oriented, life-affirming individuals. They are able to stop reliving their destructive past and to begin fully living their own lives.
Our fascination with Dexter—a character who manages to intrigue and attract us, even as his primary preoccupation centers on remorseless murder week after week—presents an enticing case in and of itself. Could it be that because we also have a dark side, we get some vicarious pleasure from Dexter’s acting on these urges? I believe we do. We all have a “Dark Passenger” who all too often is directing our behavior. We have integrated the negative aspects of our early childhood attachment figures in a manner that is hurtful to ourselves and to others. Part of Dexter’s appeal to a mass audience is that his character provides a dramatic example of destructive impulses and thought processes that everyone struggles with.
One reason we are drawn to watching Dexter act out his dark side on “evil people” who deserve to be punished is that we would rather see evil out there in the world than to see it in ourselves or in our loved ones. To defend against seeing ourselves as having been hurt as children by aspects of our parents’ dark sides that were acted out on us, we displace their malevolent traits by projecting them onto the world. We focus our fear and anger on the types of “monstrous” people Dexter kills and see them as evil, thus protecting our parents and ourselves from the much lesser evils we are guilty of. We feel justified and get pleasure from Dexter’s behavior.
Dexter does have a lovable side that draws us in and makes him a sympathetic character, as well. However, I believe what makes Dexter’s character redeeming to a wide audience is not just his lovability or his maintaining a fierce moral code even in his dissociative violent state, but also the fact that through Dexter’s inner dialogue we are able to see him as a deeply conflicted and divided character. In this, we are able to identify with him and are made aware that the difference between Dexter and us is only in the degree and character of these negative thoughts.
Lisa Firestone, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the Director of Research and Education at the Glendon Association. She conducts clinical training and research on suicide and violence, including developing The Firestone Assessment of Self-destructive Thoughts (FAST) and The Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (FAVT). Dr. Firestone is the coauthor with her father, Dr. Robert Firestone, of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.
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