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An Open Letter to Hollywood and the Entertainment Industry

Lillyth Quillan

Dear Hollywood,

First let me say I’m a big fan. I think you are amazing. I love your work. You are the keeper of our stories and culture, as all artists have been before you. In many ways you are the gatekeepers of what we, as a society, choose to think about, and the conversations we have. The work you do is important, not simply a distraction for the masses. You entertain us, sure, but you also move us. You change the way we think by showing us bits of ourselves on the screen and making us think, feel, and consider things from different perspectives. You show us our shared humanity. You help us build empathy for one another.

For both good and ill, Hollywood, the work you produce has an effect on our culture. “Monkey see monkey do” and all that. If you misuse words, those misused words trickle down into society becoming what the general public thinks of as The Truth. If you use someone’s disorder as entertainment, that trickles down, too.

I see so many wonderful new shows that include women, people of color, different cultures, LGBTQ characters, characters with disabilities, and even actors who aren’t a size two and stunningly beautiful. You are doing a wonderful job, Hollywood, of producing more inclusive content that better reflects the diverse human experience. But there is one area where you consistently fall down: psychopathy.

You forget people with psychopathy are part of our community too, and that psychopathy, like autism, is a spectrum. You hurl the word psychopath around like it is the worst thing you can possibly call somebody. You forget, Hollywood, for all the content you produce on the subject, that psychopathy is a disorder, one that can be detected in early childhood. It is associated with symptoms like low fear sensitivity, trouble forming social bonds, and a lack of prosocial emotions like guilt and remorse.

But you toss the word psychopath around like it is a character assessment mic drop, rather than treating it with the proper respect a scientific term deserves, or acknowledging that having psychopathy is not a choice.

I presume, Hollywood, that you keep making movies and TV shows about serial killers and other types of violent criminals for the same reason we keep watching them. They make you good money, sure. They are great entertainment fodder with all the drama already built in, sure. Beyond that, I think most people watch these stories because we are afraid of becoming a victim of these types of crimes. We watch these movies and TV shows looking for clues to see how we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

I think we want the same thing, you and I, Hollywood. We want the real-world violence to stop. Personally, I would love to see gruesome violence relegated to something we are only exposed to through the stories you tell. That sounds like a pipe dream, but I see it as possible if we all work together to make that happen.

The first step is educating the public about psychopathy. We have to stop equating psychopathy with serial killers. While many serial killers have psychopathy, serial killers represent less than a percent of a percent of people with psychopathy. The way you use the word psychopath seems to be synonymous with “depraved serial killer.” It seems like everywhere I turn, a TV show is using that word incorrectly, or as a joke. Even shows that use the word psychopath correctly don’t always use it in a manner consistent with science and use it as an insult. I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to believe everything they see on screen. But if you mostly use real historical information and science correctly throughout a show, then later use “psychopath” incorrectly to refer to a serial killer clown, how is your audience supposed to know which version of psychopath is correct?

Really though, please don’t use the word psychopath at all anymore. Because no one is a psychopath. Person-first language is important when talking about people with psychopathy just as much as any other disorder.

Referring to people as their disabilities and disorders is no longer acceptable, Hollywood, but more importantly, psychopath as you currently use it reduces an entire population down to the worst manifestation of psychopathy possible and turns a scientific term into a pejorative. There are plenty of people with psychopathy who are not violent. Many of those who are violent never even come close to killing anyone.

You are the very pinnacle of imagination, Hollywood. Imagine how you would feel to be judged by the worst thing someone with a disorder you also possessed had ever done.

You have turned psychopath into a bad word, Hollywood. Psychopathy is a scientific term. It means something very specific, not this grim specter you have made it into.  I am asking you to do better.

It’s simple, Hollywood: the more people understand about psychopathy, the more they are likely to want to provide treatment. Like any other neurodevelopmental condition, the earlier we treat people, the better the outcome. We want people with psychopathy to be able to be open about their disorder and seek treatment without judgement, not to keep quiet to avoid the stigma of being labeled a psychopath. Every time you use the word psychopath you make it less likely that people with psychopathy will seek treatment, especially families who have children with Conduct Disorder, a juvenile precursor to psychopathy. We don’t ever want a parent to be afraid of seeking treatment for their child for fear their child might be labeled a psychopath. A label you tell us to fear.

Next time you think about using the word psychopath, Hollywood, replace it with the word “autistic” or “diabetic” (or any other condition, really) then reread your sentence. If you would not speak to or about a person with a different condition in the manner in which you speak about people with psychopathy, rewrite it. The psychopathy research and treatment advocacy communities cannot possibly compete with your reach, Hollywood. You are the biggest influencer of them all. We cannot properly educate the public ourselves. We need your help.

Please, keep telling the wonderful stories you tell, Hollywood. Keep helping the world build empathy by showing us diverse cultures and people. But please remember people with psychopathy and their families who often struggle to find help because everyone is so afraid of a word you constantly tell them to fear. Every time you use the word psychopath you stigmatize people with this disorder. You make them into slathering monsters rather than people with a disorder needing treatment.

I am asking you to help eradicate the culture of fear we have around psychopathy (a culture you help promote), and instead help us build a culture of understanding.

Lillyth Quillan was the first parent to publicly use her name and her face and say she was the mother of a child with Conduct Disorder. In 2014, she created and founded Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder (PCCD), a Facebook-based support group for parents and other caregivers of these children. Over the last six years, Lillyth has personally spoken or communicated with thousands of families. She remains as dedicated to the cause of including non-intimate partner violence in the national Domestic Violence conversation, early treatment for our children, and political action as the day she started PCCD.

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