In my first post, I talked about a bully as someone who relentlessly picks on or harasses another person who has less power or social status. I pointed out that McElroy mastered the art of bullying, not only individuals but entire communities. In this article, I would like to take a look at Ken McElroy’s psychopathology: Was he mentally ill? Was he a psychopath?
There has not been much written on the pathology or clinical description of bullies. Some writers say that bullies are basically insecure; that they suffer from low self-esteem and dominate others as a way of making themselves feel better or more powerful. Other writers say that in fact bullies can be extremely self-confident; that they are primarily arrogant, unfeeling, and gain some sort of pleasure from watching others suffer. All seem to agree that there is some element of resentment or envy involved in the makeup of a bully. Bullies seem to have a chip on their shoulder, seeing slights where none are intended.
Ken McElroy was far more relentless than your average bully—he kept up his reign of fear for over 20 years; and he was undoubtedly far more crafty than most in his ability to avoid being held to account for his actions. And his crimes, including attempted murder, were violent in the extreme. But, was he mentally ill? A psychopath, as some have suggested? A psychopath has been defined as follows:
People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get what they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.
Ken McElroy meets many of these criteria; his violation of social norms was pervasive and constant. As I detailed in “In Broad Daylight,” McElroy lived the way he wanted, did what he wanted, how he wanted. If he thought your daughter was attractive, he took her. If you pissed him off, he burned your barn down, or shot you in the stomach. He certainly had a disregard for the law, as witnessed by his pulling guns on lawmen and threatening judges. And he certainly had a history of victimizing others, which is basically what a bully does. Witness the shootings of Romaine Henry and Bo Bowenkamp, and the intimidation of countless others who one way or another ran afoul of him.
But the primary characteristic of a psychopath is that he has no conscience. He has no empathy or feeling for others. This is what allows him to inflict incredible pain on another person and feel nothing, or if he feels anything it’s enjoyment. Taking a human life is no more bothersome to a psychopath than breaking a twig off a branch. It isn’t the case that the other person deserves it or had it coming for some reason. He doesn’t blow up in a rage and override his conscience. He doesn’t medicate it with drugs or alcohol. The conscience is not there. He feels bad about nothing he does. Most, if not all, serial killers are psychopaths. Ted Bundy was a psychopath. Jim Jones was a psychopath.
Ken McElroy does not fit this last, critical characteristic. While he could be incredibly cruel to others, including those close to him, none of my research indicated that he lacked all empathy. He cared for his kids, and his kids cared for him. He had friends who were incredibly loyal to him. There were people throughout the communities of northwest Missouri who had only good dealings with him, who in fact liked him and saw him as a kind and generous man. While he was manipulative and charismatic, particularly in his younger days, and showed elements of narcissism, he did not display an utter lack of feeling toward other human beings. He directed his acts of terror at people who had one way or another “earned” it. In his mind, he had a reason for shooting Romaine Henry in the stomach, for shooting Bo Bowenkamp in the face, for threatening a state patrol officer’s wife. The reasoning was warped, to be sure, but to him it made sense: someone had crossed the line, someone had it coming, for some slight, imagined or real.
If McElroy was not a psychopath, he easily fits within the definition of an antisocial personality. An antisocial personality is seen as someone who has:
A pervasive pattern of disregarding the rights of others and may include symptoms such as breaking laws, frequent lying, starting fights, lack of guilt and taking personal responsibility, and the presence of irritability and impulsivity.
Other symptoms of an antisocial personality include aggressive and violent behavior, recurring difficulties with the law, lack of remorse about harming others and abusive relationships. McElroy’s behavior certainly brings him within this definition; he was a constant lawbreaker, he was extremely violent, he was abusive to the women in his life, and he did not feel bad about the harm he caused those he saw as having deserved it.
In the upcoming book, “About In Broad Daylight, the Story Behind the Book,” I discuss my struggle to reach a deep understanding of Ken Rex McElroy. I wrote:
The closest I came to an understanding of McElroy was a belief that he felt and saw slights everywhere, even as a little boy, and he could never let go of them—not one—so that they piled up and aggregated inside him as the fuel for a bottomless rage. And when Lois—a woman!—refused to sell him a pack of cigarettes it was every insult, every slight, real or imagined, he had suffered in his 47 years, and he was overwhelmed, taken over, consumed by a terrible rage that required vengeance or payback of a terrible sort. The harassing, the firing of a shotgun over Bo and Lois’s house in the middle of the night, the following of her daughter in his truck, proved to be insufficient. Someone had to die, and they had to die at his hands. He drove around, and he waited, until one day he spotted Bo standing alone out on the loading dock, and it all came together. I saw him in some sort of crazy, almost transcendent state when he taunted the old man and finally reached in the window of his truck and lifted the shotgun from the rack.
Ken McElroy was consumed with the notion that “others”—the rich farmers, the well-to-do, the educated—looked down on him and his family. He was suspicious and showed symptoms of paranoia—innocent comments or looks from others could be seen as hostile or demeaning, which required a threatening or violent response. When he heard, on the last day of his life, that the farmers had gathered at the Legion Hall in Skidmore to figure out what to do about him, it was more than a slight; it was a challenge; it was an affront. He had to meet it—them—head on, even at the risk of his own life.
So, McElroy suffered from an antisocial personality disorder. Could he have been treated for the disorder, as some bloggers have suggested? I suppose he could have, but for some reason the notion of McElroy in a talk therapy session has a certain absurd aspect to it. To McElroy, the world existed as he saw it. He was who he was in it. Change was not a concept that would have made sense to him.