The Mask of Sanity

THE MASK OF SANITY : An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality by Hervey Cleckley, M.D.  – Fifth Edition pdf


A millionaire notable for his eccentricity had an older and better balanced brother who, on numerous fitting occasions, exercised strong persuasion to bring him under psychiatric care. On receiving word that this wiser brother had been deserted immediately after the nuptial night by a famous lady of the theatre (on whom he had just setded a large fortune) and that the bride, furthermore, had, during the brief pseudoconnubial episode, remained stubbornly encased in tights, the younger hastened to dispatch this succinct and unanswerable telegram:


This, at any rate, is the story. I do not offer to answer for its authenticity. It may, however, be taken not precisely as an example but at least as a somewhat flippant and arresting commentary on the confusion which still exists concerning sanity. Although most patients suffering from one of the classified types of mental disorder are promptly recognized by the psychiatrist, many of them being even to the layman plainly deranged, there remains a large body of people who, everyone will admit, are by no means adapted for normal life in the community and who, yet, have no official standing in the ranks of the insane.

The word insane, of course, is not a medical term. It is employed here because to many people it conveys a more practical meaning than the medical term psychotic. Although the medical term with its greater vagueness presents a fairer idea of the present conception of severe mental disorder, the legal term better implies the criteria by which the personalities under discussion are judged in the courts.

Many of these people, legally judged as competent, are more dangerous to themselves and to others than are some patients whose psychiatric disability will necessitate their spending their entire lives in the state hospital. Though certified automatically as sane by the verbal definitions of law and of medicine, their behavior demonstrates an irrationality and incompetence that are gross and obvious.

These people to whom I mean to call specific attention are not the borderline cases in whom the characteristics of some familiar mental disorder are only partially developed and the picture as a whole is still questionable. Many such cases exist, of course, and they are sometimes puzzling even to the experienced psychiatrist. Certain people, as everyone knows, may for many years show to a certain degree the reactions of schizophrenia (dementia praecox) of manic-depressive psychosis, or a paranoia without being sufficiently disabled or so generally irrational as to be recognized as psychotic.

Many patients suffering from incipient disorders of this sort or from dementia paralytica, cerebral arteriosclerosis, and other organic conditions pass through a preliminary phase during which their thought and behavior are to a certain degree characteristic of the psychosis, while for the time being they remain able to function satisfactorily in the community.

Some people in the early stage of these familiar clinical disorders behave, on the whole, with what is regarded as mental competency, while showing, from time to time, symptoms typical of the psychosis toward which they are progressing. After the disability has at last become openly manifest, enough episodes of deviated conduct can often be noted in retrospect to make the observer wonder why the subject was not long ago recognized as psychotic. It would, however, sometimes be not only difficult but unfair to pronounce a person totally disabled while most of his conduct remains acceptable.

Do we not, as a matter of fact, have to admit that all of us behave at times with something short of complete rationality’ and good judgment?

Language: English
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