Understanding the Female Psychopath

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.
4 min readOct 10, 2019

It is 1959, you’re 19 years old, and have a deadly secret. Your mother, much-beloved throughout the neighborhood and a favorite at the local police station for dropping by with scones and cakes, is not who she appears to be. She drowned your father when you were ten years old, has murdered two men since, and has now set her deadly sights on your new husband.

This story is real. Hazel Dulcie Bodsworth was a serial killer who targeted three men for cold, calculated reasons. Each of these deaths had been ruled accidental until her daughter spilled the beans. Even then, it took 5 years before this apparent paragon of virtue was arrested for serial murder. After all, who would suspect a middle-aged mother of four? Back then — and now — we resist seeing women as capable of the same calculated violence we’ve come to accept in men.

The Seeds of Female Psychopathy

Few people these days are unfamiliar with the term “psychopath,” a term used to describe a personality disorder made up of traits including a lack of empathy, a manipulative, deceitful and self-serving interpersonal style, and a host of risk taking and rule breaking behaviors. These characteristics don’t just show up in adulthood; psychopathic females were often teenage girls who lied, stole, and attempted to manipulate relationships through emotional blackmail, by spreading rumors, gossiping, and excluding others.

While we don’t have the exact recipe for psychopathy, it’s likely a perfect storm of at-risk genes and a harsh environment. Recent research suggests that, while nature may have a stronger influence on the development of callous and unemotional boys, nurture, such as a cold, controlling parenting style and repeated exposure to trauma, may play a stronger role in sowing the seed of a budding female psychopaths. An extreme example of this was the case of Mary Bell. As a child, Mary’s father was absent and mother was a violent alcoholic prostitute. Mary was forced to perform sex acts on her mother’s client starting at age 4. By the time she was 11, Mary had strangled to death two preschool boys.

Blinded by Bias

Best estimates are that approximately 1% of the general population have psychopathy, between 7 and 20 male psychopaths for every female. However, this statistical picture may be skewed by our culture’s tendency to interpret the same pathological behavior differently, depending on whether it’s done by a man or a woman.. Give a mental…

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.