In July 2014, 17-year-old Michelle Carter sent her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III,a series of texts urging him to commit suicide. Late last month, standing in a Massachusetts courtroom over a year after his death, Carter, now 18, stood before a judge while her lawyer defended the teen’s right to free speech, framing her string of text messages as both constitutionally-protected and unrelated to the boy’s passing.
The details of the case range from curious to nauseating. Carter’s insidious fascination with Roy making good on his promise of suicide is unnerving; her transformation into a self-identified advocate for mental health in the months after his death goes, in light of the facts, beyond hypocritical, into the realm of the possibly psychotic.
Still, the most tantalizing question is a simple one: why would an individual urge somebody else’s suicide? Bullying is considered one of the leading causes of teen suicide, with victims considered five times more likely to consider taking their life on average, but Carter’s encouragement skates the line between coercion, enabling, and something entirely different. To find out more, VICE spoke to renowned clinical psychologist and author Dr. Seth Meyers (no, not that one). Meyers conducts threat assessments related to relationships in Los Angeles and is a columnist for Psychology Today, where he has written about a number of topics, including the case for female psychopathy.
VICE: What is your background in specifically? Have you been dealing with youth predominantly or people of all ages?
Dr. Seth Meyers: My experience is in working with severe and chronic mental illness in outpatient and hospital settings.
When you were reading the story, what were the initial triggers that it hit for you as somebody who has dealt with a lot of threat assessment in terms of relationships? What were the initial triggers that jumped out?
This is by no means a typical case. We don’t see many examples of people convincing others to commit suicide. So we’re talking about a very, very small percentage of people who would do something like this. The question is, what motivated this girl to encourage the suicide.
She could certainly be framed as an enabler, especially considering the fact that her tactic doesn’t qualify as bullying, precisely.
In a way, you could argue that she was passively homicidal. You have to then ask, did she have homicidal tendencies? Did she have thoughts about killing others or wanting others to die? If I were assessing her, I would want to test her to see whether she presents psychopathic traits. Because this is bullying in its most malignant form, yes, but situations such as this could indicate psychopathy.
So then is the question whether or not she’s a psycopath?
Is she a psycopath? It’s certainly possible.
Is there a gender bias or age discrepancy in terms of identifying a psychopath?
Most research suggests that the overwhelming majority of psychopaths are male, so yes, in a sense. However, a lot of experts in the field of psychopathy, which is a very specific study, believe that the actual number of women that present the disorder is higher.
Higher than the data tends reflect?
Yes, because the idea is that social perceptions of gender [may cause] men to get arrested or caught for crimes, as opposed to the gender expectations that we have of women. I’ve written about the idea of an older female nurse who’s caring for an older aging man. She may find a way to rob him or swindle him of all his money, but people would never predict that that could come from, say, a 65-year-old female nurse, right? She would “never” do that as a professional or as a female. So I believe the percentage [of women psychopaths] is higher than the actual statistic we see.
This case that we’re talking about is a pretty great example of that, right? Because it flips the traditional model on its head, by having the female display the traits attributed to psychopathy, while the male is suicidal.
Right, and I do believe that the behavior in [Michelle] Carter is consistent. That kind of coercion is consistent. [The reason] the rate of people encouraging others to commit suicide is so low may be that the sample you would need to collect from would be people already contemplating suicide, right? You’d also need to find the group of people contemplating suicide who are open to social influence and pressure like that.
Right, it’s a specific pool.
For example, I may be suicidal or thinking about suicide, but if somebody actively tells me to do it, I’m going to be like, “Screw you, I’m going to do what I want to do.” So you need a confluence of a lot of factors. So this boy [Conrad Roy III] I think was very psychologically vulnerable and also extremely impressionable. It also seems like he had some kind of more-than-platonic relationship with [Michelle Carter]. We don’t really know the full nature of their relationship, so we can’t speculate too much.
Do you think that a psychopath would be able to identify those traits—the vulnerability, the impressionability—and if so, would that be an element of the attraction?
Yes, definitely. This girl has reported that Roy spoke openly about his depression to her, so she had data provided by him that he was psychologically vulnerable. She may have used tactics to manipulate him, and we can only speculate on what some of those tactics may be. But the flavor of her texts are extremely manipulative and coercive.
If you were to print out those text exchanges in their entirety as record, and remove the names and any identifiable information about which of the two said what—if you provided this document to a room of professionals, what do you think the conclusive result would be regarding the gender bias?
You know, I think social conventions suggest that women suffer from depression more. People perceive women as being depressed more than men. And men are socialized to hide any vulnerabilities and be less verbally and emotionally expressive. So in a text exchange in which one appears depressed, I think most people would imagine that the depressed individual is the female.
If you were to try and identify the reason that somebody would want to coerce someone to commit suicide, what would in theory be the thing that this person desires or is hoping to get out of that?
A person may try to coerce another into suicide to gain a sense of power or gratification. The thinking is, If I can get this person to do the most extreme or outlandish thing ever, I could get this person to do anything. So I think that this was gratifying for this girl, to have this degree of power or control over him. And that is the piece that seems most related to psychopathy. Because we know that psychopaths are oriented around winning and power above all else.
This isn’t a trait you would see in a sociopath?
No, because psychopaths are more severe than anti-social personalities. When you’re talking about a psychopath, you’re talking about someone who is simply not normal. They live and breathe power and control, and when they walk in a room, they can scan it within a minute and identify based on posture and how someone stands, or the confidence with which someone speaks, who are potential vulnerable targets.
Is this a skill set they can choose to employ or a natural instinctual impulse to scan a room in that way?
Psychopaths actively cultivate this skill.
Seth Meyers’s new book Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome is out now.
For help relating to depression or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-723-TALK (8255). The hotline is available 24/7.