Friday, October 1, 2010

Is Dexter an Addict?

Compulsion, addiction, and TV serial killers.

With the hit cable TV show “Dexter” set to begin a new season, it seems a fitting time to consider the matter in its essence: What the hell is the deal with this guy? There is, in fact, a book—“The Psychology of Dexter”—which takes exactly this task as its mission.

Edited by Bella Depaulo, PhD, the “completely unauthorized” collection features essays by assorted psychologists, science writers, grad students, professors, and other brainy Dexter fans. For TV watchers unfamiliar with the show, Wikipedia describes “Dexter” as “an American television drama series that centers on Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter-pattern analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department, who moonlights as a serial killer.”

Got that? Whether you find the show to be a dark comedy or an outrage, its popularity is undeniable. One of the show’s themes is that Dexter is the victim of impulses beyond his control, and at one point, he becomes enrolled in Narcotics Anonymous. Is he exactly where he is supposed to be? Let us speculate for a moment, and assume that certain behavioral obsessions—gambling, shoplifting, perhaps even compulsive sex behavior—turn out to be legitimate addictions—addictions to a behavior, rather than a substance. Might not serial killing fall into the same category as other addictions mediated by a disordered reward system in the brain?

Okay, probably not. But the informed speculation that makes up much of the book is both funny and thought-provoking. Moreover, Adi Jaffe, friend of Addiction Inbox, soon-to-be doctor of psychology at UCLA, and the guiding light behind the AllAboutAddiction treatment site, contributed to the collection of essays about Dexter. Here are some of his observations:

“Although the specifics of his story might divide professional opinion on whether he fits the clinical definition of an addict, for the purposes of this essay it is safe to say that Dexter displays both addictive behavior and a personality disorder.”
“Dexter’s misleading admission that he is, indeed, an addict, is not far from truth…. We find that addicts, like Dexter, often project an entirely false persona in the pursuit of disguising their true intentions and compulsions, as hiding behind a carefully constructed mask is essential to allow them to continue with the behavior that is often their biggest motivator. Indeed, addicts and their behavioral patterns tend to make us feel uneasy in much the same way that Dexter does.”
“Although a series of vivid flashbacks to horrific childhood trauma has given us a wider view of the origins of Dexter’s dark compulsions…. addiction, as we know, owes much to genetics and biology. The extent to which serial killers are governed by inheritance is not known.”
“However, we know a few things about addicts, beginning with the unshakably strong connection between addiction and personality disorders that brought Dexter Morgan to a narcotics anonymous meeting in the first place…. These two afflictions undoubtedly support one another, to the tune of a three times higher prevalence of personality disorders in addicts versus the general population.”
“There is one last thing that Dexter has in common with other addicts. While Dexter seems to have thus far kept his omnipresent mask in place, the show continues to push him toward a point beyond which maintaining the fa├žade and giving in to his dark compulsions will prove mutually exclusive. He would not be the first addict to face such a choice.”

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Lee @ said...

Ah, the false persona. Once we realize that this simply is a rational way to justify our behaviors, what freedom in uniting reality with the mask! Addicts who are ready to drop the mask can start to experience who they REALLY are.

Nice look at a popular phenomenon in the light of addiction science. Thanks.

TGGP said...

I'm listening to an EconTalk podcast with Gary Greenberg on (among other things) addiction and thought you might be interested.

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