While a psychology major at San Jose State during the mid-1980s, I interacted with a group studying psychopathology with Sheila Bienenfeld, a professor famous for using biographies of noted writers to teach diagnostic methodology. Here assigned selections included Louise DeSalvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work and Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography. Then students were to write papers defending any diagnostic conclusions, targeting behavioral instances from these biographies that matched criteria defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In short, my friends imagined that Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton had come to their offices seeking consultation. How fun, but alas my schedule forced me to take the course with another professor. Fictional characters have provided demonstrative fodder as well. In a June 2010 article for Psychology Today, Jared DeFife explains why:
People want to hear stories from psychologists about other peoples’ problems, but psychologists aren’t allowed to talk about them. It’s important for psychologists to talk about mental illnesses because people want to figure out if they have some, or all, of those mental illnesses. Also, most psychologists want to be recognized, praised and appreciated for their work (this almost always stems from problems in childhood).
Professional ethics dictate that licensed practitioners may not diagnose individuals they’ve never met or who aren’t under their care. Professor Bienenfeld artfully addressed this issue with biographies of deceased persons, who since no longer of our world present no such ethical dilemma to future psychotherapists looking to hone clinical skills. For obvious reasons, fictional characters receive a pass too.
Sherlock Holmes has inspired more than his fair share of discussion and speculation both among professionals and laypersons, and he’s far outgrown Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales, with adaptations and various interpretations on the page, the screen, and most recently with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s BBC television series. During an episode of this show, Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, diagnosed himself as a “high-functioning sociopath” causing the Internet nearly to burst with commentary. I’m skeptical about Sherlock’s self-assessment. I don’t see it in Cumberbatch’s portrayal, nor do I see it when looking across multiple iterations. So I wondered, “What are people more schooled in the art and science of psychiatric diagnosis, and other well-informed laypersons, concluding about Sherlock?” My aim isn’t to provide an exhaustive review, but to show how both professionals and laypersons have approached Sherlock Holmes’s mental health, to illustrate the trend, if you will. Here’s a taste of what I discovered.
Maria Konnikova takes the greatest exception with others who label Sherlock a sociopath. She makes her views quite clear in an essay appearing on io9.com on August 11, 2012, starting right with the title, “Stop Calling Sherlock a Sociopath! Thanks, a Psychologist.” After outlining historical confusions between the terms “sociopathy” and “psychopathy,” and after concluding that “sociopathy” often is greatly misapplied, she cites David Hare:
According to Robert Hare, creator of the standard diagnostic tool for psychopathic personality disorder and one of the world’s leading experts on the topic, psychopathy is characterized by four major factors, or groups of traits: the interpersonal, the affective, the lifestyle, and the antisocial. Into the first bucket fall such traits as glibness and superficiality, grandiosity, pathological deception, and manipulative cunning; into the second, characteristics like lack of guilt or remorse, shallow affect, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for actions; the third, proneness to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, and a lack of long-term goals coupled with impulsivity; and the fourth, poor control of behavior, childhood problems, breaking of parole (or other conditional release), and criminal versatility. Oh, and there are two other traits that don’t fall into any category but are important nonetheless: sexual promiscuity and numerous short-term relationships.
Sherlock’s coldness, she states, “is not the coldness of a psychopath.” He experiences emotions, but he’s trained himself to control them. She also summarizes various incidences from the annals of Holmes in which he displays compassion. She concludes:
. . . the most compelling evidence is simply this. Sherlock Holmes is not a cold, calculating, self-gratifying machine. He cares for Watson. He cares for Mrs. Hudson. He most certainly has a conscience (and as Hare says, if nothing else, the “hallmark [of a sociopath] is a stunning lack of conscience”). In other words, Holmes has emotions-and attachments-like the rest of us. What he’s better at is controlling them-and only letting them show under very specific circumstances.
Adam Sinicki — another writer with strong opinions, but not licensed in psychology or psychiatry — agrees with long-standing arguments from those who assign Sherlock with Asperger Syndrome. He dismisses claims of sociopathy with angles similar to Konnikova’s, calling to mind episodes from stories where Sherlock reveals his moral compass, a tool missing from any psychopath or sociopath’s kit. He closes his case with this from his “A Psychological Assessment of Sherlock Holmes” found on Healthguidance.org:
Unlike sociopaths, Aspergic patients are capable of forming strong bonds with those closest to them and can become very dependent on those relationships. This could also explain some of Sherlock’s abilities in terms of observation and memory too – many people who suffer with conditions on the autistic spectrum will also exhibit various ‘savant abilities’ which typically will include things such as feats of memory or observation. They are also often very good at drawing or playing musical instruments, one more talent which Sherlock shares.
Interestingly, Sinicki compares Sherlock’s “Science of Deduction” to those with Asperger’s tendency toward creating elaborate models of behavior to compensate for not fully understanding the emotions of others. This model allows Sherlock to grasp other people’s motivations. For Sinicki, the final verdict is Asperger’s, Asperger’s, Asperger’s.
Then surfaces those who assert Schizoid Personality Disorder is the proper tag. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), gives these qualifying features for the condition:
- neither wants nor likes close relationships, counting being part of a family,
- almost constantly picks introverted activities,
- has little, if any, thought in engaging in any sexual experiences,
- seldom derives pleasure from any activities,
- has no close friends other than immediate relatives,
- appears apathetic to the admiration or disapproval of others, and
- shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affectivity.
Wellington Goose, author of “Diagnosing Sherlock: Schizoid not Aspergers” from Wellingtongoosetumblr.com thinks that what brings many to mistakenly lean toward Asperger’s relates to his blunt affect. However, Sherlock’s cues do not meet enough of the criteria for Asperger Syndrome. He does, on the other hand, for Schizoid Personality Disorder. Nowhere does Goose reveal professional credentials, so I must accept his views as lay only, even if he has referenced the International Classification of Diseases, 9th Revision (ICD-9), not yet obsolete at the time of his writing, while sharing his ideas. Yes, I’m even willing to concede that Wellington Goose is a pseudonym – duh – but by including his thoughts I hope to indicate just how passionate even average fans feel about Sherlock’s state of mind.
Others aren’t so willing to support one diagnosis over another. In a February 10, 2014 blog entry on his website, The Psychology of Everything, John Bogardus LCSW lists reasons why he partially disagrees with Sherlock’s self-diagnosis. He points out that sociopathy is “not an official term found in DSM 5 (aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association).” There readers will find instead Anti-Social Personality Disorder. By sifting through three criteria for this disorder, Bogardus conjectures that at best perhaps Sherlock represents a case of adaptive sociopathy, because his behavioral responses are consistent with stimuli from his environment. A better diagnosis, though, might be Autism Spectrum Disorder, or most likely Asperger Syndrome. He also considers Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He can undoubtedly contend, however, that Sherlock is “brilliant.”
Finally, writing for Psychology Today, Karl Albrecht Ph.D. focuses on Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character:
[Sherlock Holmes’s] remarkable powers of observation, memory, relational thinking, and deduction made him a master of his craft, but he was famously incapable of relating to people as other than actors to be analyzed and explained.
These three core characteristics have led many to speculate that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his creator, had – more or less unconsciously – diagnosed him with what’s now known as Asperger (or Asperger’s) Syndrome.
But rather than elaborating on Sherlock and Asperger’s, Albrecht praises Conan Doyle’s craft, his dedication to characterization, “the art of elaborating the psychological make-up of a person as a distinct, recognizable, and believable personality package.” As a result, Conan Doyle gives birth to a seemingly real character, one worthy of analysis and debate. Perhaps it’s not so silly to analyze a fictional character? Albrecht even ponders the following: “Sigmund Freud and Conan Doyle did their best work at about the same time. Which of those thinkers, and their intellectual descendants, have taught us more about people?”
Analyzing Holmes is an interesting pursuit, but I agree with Bogardus and Albrecht. Why pigeon-hole Sherlock Holmes? Why not just understand that he’s brilliant, wonderfully quirky, and a testament to Conan Doyle’s character-building and story-telling abilities? Indeed, Conan Doyle compels us to accept Holmes as a real character, to desire a full understanding of how he operates. If he does fall into any of the categories mentioned above — although surely not sociopath! — he becomes a role model showing how these designations needn’t hinder anyone, living or fictional. Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition has done much to rekindle our collective curiosity and admiration. If he also does much to boost knowledge and acceptance of misunderstood behaviors, then all glory to him. Long may this character keep us thinking, and deducting, no matter the incarnation we prefer, whether it’s the original, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer, Nicholas Rowe, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., the stacks of pastiches populating bookstores, or Mr. Cumberbatch himself. We all probably agree that should any of us become criminals in London, we’d better hope that no one like Sherlock exists.