© Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD 2010 all rights reserved
If you write novels, there’s a good chance you also know how important it is to do research. If you write thrillers, crime or suspense novels, or mysteries, you’re probably darn good at researching things like police procedure and forensic medicine. You know you need to do research, because you probably don’t work in those fields.
The Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity Plea
Fictional police and detectives often worry or complain about characters they’ve hunted “getting off” thanks to a Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI) plea. The implication is always that NGRI is a common – and commonly successful – approach and, worse, that criminals who are declared NGRI either go home or head off to some resort-like institution.
In reality, NGRI is not a common plea, and even when it’s used, it’s successful less than 1 percent of the time. Partly because juries believe the same things so many writers do – that NGRI is a Get Out of Jail Free card – they’re loathe to allow it, sometimes even when the situation warrants it.
Many states use the M’Naghten Rule to determine NGRI. The M’Naghten Rule states that the defendant must know what he is doing and that it is wrong at the time he is doing it. Pretty basic. But someone who is in the throes of a psychotic state – that is, someone who is seeing, hearing, or believing things firmly based outside of reality – may not realize that what he’s doing is wrong. Is it still wrong? Absolutely. But did he understand that while he was committing the crime, if he understood what he was doing at all? If not, he should be declared NGRI.
Do realize that when defendants are declared NGRI, that declaration may only be temporary; in other words, the individual may be viewed as “restorable” with appropriate treatments, which may include time, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, therapy, and/or medication.
In the rare situation that a defendant is concluded to be “unrestorable,” he is probably looking at the rest of his life in a state institution that’s no more comfortable than prison.
The Ambiguously Insane (But Often Brilliant) Villain
Another common mistake writers make is to declare their villain “insane,” “crazy,” or “mentally ill” without any attempt to define exactly which disorder said villain has. Or worse, as in the film The Cell, they pick a diagnosis out of the air and then fail to show any real symptoms of that disorder.
Let’s look at the terms “insane,” “crazy,” and “mentally ill” one by one: “Insane” is a legal term, not a psychological term, so avoid it unless the psychologist in your story is a forensics expert who’s making a NGRI-type of declaration for the courts. “Crazy,” as you can imagine, is a colloquialism, so it has no clinical meaning. And “mentally ill” is rarely used; instead, it’s best to use a given disorder name.
So which diagnosis should your villain have?
Psychopathy is always a good bet, and psychopathy is probably the single best diagnostic predictor of future violence. Psychopaths flagrantly violate others’ rights without any remorse. They’re glib, superficial, grandiose liars who harm, mutilate, or murder others at a whim. They’re the Hannibal Lecters of the world, the Jokers, the Jigsaws. But – and this is crucial – they are completely sane. Psychopaths are rarely, if ever, psychotic.
Anyone who is actively intoxicated or addicted to a substance is also more likely to commit violence than the average person, partly because inhibitions are lowered. Interestingly, there are psychological diagnostic codes given to people who are intoxicated or addicted, so addiction is considered a psychological problem as well as a physical one.
Another possibility? Someone who really is psychotic, and –very important – is also suffering from threat/control override symptoms (TCOs). TCOs are a specific type of delusion (psychotic thought) in which the individual believes someone is trying to control his mind or otherwise hurt him. The difficult thing about psychosis is that it’s usually accompanied by other irrational behavior – it’s not smooth and cold and calculated the way psychopathy is. In other words, it’s hard for people who are psychotic not to get caught – people notice they’re acting strange.
There are certainly other disorders you can use – psychology’s “bible,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) contains over 300 – but choose one only when you’re going to be able to depict it consistently and accurately. Remember, modern readers are getting more savvy about psychological problems, and less tolerant of mistakes.
About the author
Need more information on psychology for your story? Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist, a writing coach, and the author of THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. You can find out more about the book at Amazon or on the book’s website, http://www.writersguidetopsychology.com/, which includes the media kit and a detailed table of contents.