Tom Skeyhill made grandiose claims about his combat experience during the World War I battle of Gallipoli.
By Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld and Emory Ph.D. candidate Ashley Watts
Tom Skeyhill was an acclaimed Australian war hero, known as “the blind solider-poet.” During the monumental World War I battle of Gallipoli, he was a flag signaler, among the most dangerous of all positions. After being blinded when a bomb shell detonated at his feet, he was transferred out.
After the war he penned a popular book of poetry about his combat experience. He toured Australia and the United States, reciting his poetry to rapt audiences. President Theodore Roosevelt appeared on stage with him and said, “I am prouder to be on the stage with Tom Skeyhill than with any other man I know.” His blindness suddenly disappeared following a medical procedure in America.
But, according to biographer Jeff Brownrigg, Skeyhill wasn’t what he seemed. The poet had, in fact, faked his blindness to escape danger.
That’s not all. After a drunken performance, he blamed his slurred speech on an unverifiable war injury. He claimed to have met Lenin and Mussolini (there is no evidence that he did), and spoke of his extensive battle experience at Gallipoli, when he had been there for only eight days.
You have to be pretty bold to spin those kinds of self-aggrandizing lies and to carry it off as long as Skeyhill did. Although he never received a formal psychological examination (at least to our knowledge), we suspect that most contemporary researchers would have little trouble recognizing him as a classic case of psychopathic personality, or psychopathy.
What’s more, Skeyhill embodied many elements of a controversial condition sometimes called successful psychopathy.
Despite the popular perception, most psychopaths aren’t coldblooded or psychotic killers. Many of them live successfully among the rest of us, using their personality traits to get what they want in life, often at the expense of others.
Psychopathy is not easily defined, but most psychologists view it as a personality disorder characterized by superficial charm conjoined with profound dishonesty, callousness, guiltlessness and poor impulse control. According to some estimates, psychopathy is found in about one percent of the general population, and for reasons that are poorly understood, most psychopaths are male.
That number probably doesn’t capture the full number of people with some degree of psychopathy. Data suggest that psychopathic traits lie on a continuum, so some individuals possess marked psychopathic traits but don’t fulfill the criteria for full-blown psychopathy.
Not surprisingly, psychopathic individuals are more likely than other people to commit crimes. They almost always understand that their actions are morally wrong – it just doesn’t bother them. Contrary to popular belief, only a minority are violent.
Read the whole story in The Conversation.
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