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Black Sun: a psychopath in the family     

Hugo Marietán

"Sol Negro": Traducción  de María Gowland

Published in Alcmeon, 48, November 2005



The family is basically a system and any system that sustains itself is because in some way there’s a benefit for its members.

Fortunately, the majority of psychopaths display their psychopathy outside of the family. To such a point that often the family doesn’t even know of the individual’s psychopathic activities. They have a family but they don’t unload their psychopathy with in it. Only a small percent does so.

Not long a go a consultant came to see me. The woman had been married for 25 years and she had been separated for two years. She wanted to know what was wrong with her that for 27 years she’d never realized she been with a psychopath. She discovered it by chance. At one point she went through some things in the house she had shared with this man and she found a box full of photographs of teenage women in erotic poses with him. He always went around with a photographic camera, but she took it  as an innocent hobby. Every once in a while he went out hunting with some friends. She investigated these friends a bit and found out they were all into this perverse habit. She said that on a few occasions he tried to take photos of her in certain poses and that’s why she recognized them when she saw the photos. She asked herself how come she could not detect his psychopathic behaviour. Beside this fact he was a hard working man, a good father etc. 


The Black sun effect.

I have named the action of the psychopath in the family the ‘Black sun’ effect, because it makes the whole family system evolve around him/her, as if they were planets around the Sun. In contrast to the sun that gives light, energy, life and permits the individual’s development, the psychopath, takes the energy from everyone, darkens people, prevents the development of the members of the family, and exercises an intense power. They’re like ‘energy vampires’, they devitalize.

Some months ago a woman who writes plays for the theatre came to see me. Up to a month earlier she’d been married and she was a part of a circuit of psychopaths that she’d been in for four years. This scriptwriter seemed anaemic, in the medical term of the word. Due to the lack of physical strength and the mental muddle she found herself in: her energy seemed completely drained.

She told me she’d lost all her friends, ( psychopaths, in their aim for power, separate from all significant people, in order to concentrate their power over them) and she ended up without any relationships at a social level, without contacts. She said that her ex-husband took away her creative nature, he tarnished her. All her energy was focused on the way to satisfy him, a pretty impossible task, there was always something wrong, something missing.


The emergent.

When there is a psychopath in the family, what’s the first thing that arrives at our consultancy? The emergent appears, the one who has been designated as being ‘ill’.

Once a girl came to see me accompanied by her mother and father, she had all the characteristics of a schizophrenic syndrome. She heard voices, had visual, delirious perceptions, ideas of persecution, premonitions. With this panorama it’s easy to get carried away and declare schizophrenia. One should wait before making a diagnostic.

Later on I found out that the brother of this young, 28 year old woman was committed in a farm for serious addicts. A second sister got married very young: she broke away from the system. The father was a very anxious person, he generated a lot of tension.

In contrast to all this, the mother stoically bore the burden of this heavy family with a difficult co-existence. A self-sacrificing mother who bore her cross.


The three instances

Generally in families where there is a psychopath at first you can see the emergent, at a second view you can see that there are other members of the family who have psychological or psychopathological problems, and only in the third instance, with a lot of research and an open mind, can you see the psychopath, the Black sun.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that when there are several members of the family with psychopathological disorders you must seek out the psychopath, he/she is there somewhere.

In this case the psychopath was the mother, who besides suffered from a serious gambling. She had clear actions of objectivation; for example her mother, an old woman of limited resources, lived on a pension. She had access to that pension, would draw out that money and would gamble with it. She’d ask for loans in the company where her husband worked, on account. She did a whole series of things that are irrelevant that typify her as a psychopath. However, if one took her at face value, she appeared to be a suffering, victimized mother.


The neurotic traits of the psychopath.

Sometimes the psychopath presents neurotic traits. This is an observation that I’ve been investigating for some time, the presence of neurotic traits in psychopaths. This is important to point out  because our formation leads us to channel the diagnosis through  a psychosis or a neurosis and when we observe neurotic traits we go through a very direct route to think of  neurosis, leaving aside other possibilities, and that’s where we get lost.


The emotional factor prevents the analysis.

The other mistake that can be made when it comes to detecting a psychopath is to allow us to be overrun by emotional and ethical aspects in the face of psychopathic actions. The affective side annuls the intellectual follow up of the case; we’re left with the impact and we stop reasoning.


The invisible action of  psychopathy  

We know there are other dark suns, that in the case of a depressive, one or more members of the family revolve around him/her. We know that happens in other conditions too, such as psychosis. A serious neurotic can also make the whole family revolve around him/her. However in all cases the family can detect the illness, he/she is a depressive, he/she is a neurotic. The psychopathy remains invisible and only we can gage this through the effects it produces on the family. 


The psychopathic atmosphere

You must then think the following, the members of those families, especially the younger ones in the family, are in that atmosphere, they’ve grown up in that psychopathic atmosphere, so for them it is impossible to distinguish what a psychopath is and isn’t, what is right and what is wrong, that’s the way they’ve grown up. During the adolescent stage the children open up more towards the community and they try to affirm their personality and they find an obstacle in the psychopath.


The reactions to psychopathy  

They can then react in different ways:

a) ignoring the matter, denying it.  

b) submitting to it

c) rebelling against it: to rebel is to disobey, it’s to be aggressive, to oppose tenaciously, but within the system;  the system is criticized from within the system.

d) revolutionize: is to attack the system from the outside or from rims, inadvertently.

e) escape: is to distances oneself from the system, like the older daughter did in the case I mentioned, the one who got married when she was 17 or 18 and left. It’s to rotate in a much broader orbit.

f) to become ill.


The effects of the psychopathy

Considering that the psychopathy isn’t visible, in the sense that it is not detected like a depression or a neurosis is, it’s seen through it’s effects.

For some members there’s something that’s not quite right. And as they grow up this becomes more evident. In children teachers, classmates, can detect this. There’s something in that boy/girl that isn’t functioning properly, we can’t tell what, but it’s clear that he/she is engulfed in a situation that isn’t normal.


The active unawareness

The wife of the psychopath is of course a complementary. The complementary has a special kind of unawareness. Abnormal things occur and the family or friends tell him/her that what they’re living in is a mess, everyone points that out, however the complementary can’t see it, there’s an active non-awareness, he/she struggles to remain unaware.


Four points to outline

I would like to insist on four points. First, that when you suspect a psychopathy, try to control your emotional reaction, the psychopath may generate repugnance and negative affective reactions, once the psychopathic action is known: incest, perversion, produces a strong emotional shock and nothing can be analyzed in such condition. It’s important to cool down and study the case, to help, if requested, the people who are around the psychopath. Secondly in those families in which there are several members with psychopathological alterations, look for the psychopath, you’re likely to find him/her. Thirdly, do not be misled by the neurotic traits, the psychopath can present neurotic traits. Fourth, the psychopath is a great absorber of energy and exercises a special power over the family.


Case description and analysis:   


Carlitos, the liar  

Over the phone a woman requests a consultation. She says her brother-in-law is a compulsive liar and this generates problems in the family. Her husband (34 years old), Carlitos’ brother, comes with her to the consultancy. She’s 30 years old, Carlitos, the compulsive liar, 27. 

Carlitos,  the liar, lives with his parents. He finished secondary school with difficulty. He went on to further his studies but never practiced. He doesn’t work and has never had a permanent job. His father supports him. He doesn’t appear to have any projects for the future. He’s very intelligent and seductive.

They say there are two aspects to Carlitos, the way he behaves at home, somewhat subdued and another when he’s outside, where he’s active and seductive. He’s two faced. 

His brother, (the consultant’s husband), remembers Carlitos as always being a liar. This ‘always’ aspect, must be taken into account because it implies a continuity, a trait incorporated in his behaviour. It’s one thing to lie in a certain situation, but to always lie becomes a systematic action. He’d lie about his grades at school, he’d lie to his schoolmates, he lies constantly now. When he’s confronted with the truth, with proof that things aren’t the way he says they are, he looks coldly and says ‘that’s not so.’ In other words, in spite of the evidence, he continues to sustain that’s not so. These types of people do this; defend their lie to the very end, even against proof. If too pressed by the evidence he/she might say ‘I made a mistake’ with the same coolness. In this matter of lying there’s a special attitude, it’s not an ordinary lie. 

The couple tells me: ‘ in fact we’re here because something, more serious than lying is worrying us. Carlitos has started to steal.’ He takes things from the house, be it of economic or sentimental value and sells them for two cents in the street.

They tell me the following anecdote: they tell Carlitos they know he’s taking things from the house, they ask him who he sells them to because they’re things they are interested in keeping and want to get them back. Carlitos lies to the very last but in the end he admits he sells them to someone who buys stolen goods. They go to the guy’s shop and tell him they want certain things and the man, to their surprise tells them ‘Oh, Carlitos brought this.’ And he starts talking about Carlitos very fondly, he asks why they’re doing this, that Carlitos must have been in need; he speaks so well of him that they’re stunned. How is it possible that a crook speaks that way of Carlitos? He even went as far as to suggest what to do so that Carlitos didn’t feel bad about seeing the things again (that’s how far the boy’s seduction goes). 

When they come back with the stuff they show him he stole more than he’d admitted, Carlitos denies it, the same mechanism, the things are there and he denies it until the very end and then he admits ‘OK, I did’. Without remorse, or any gesture or apology.

Giving it some thought, the brother remembers Carlitos used to steal since he was a child. He’d steal from his schoolmates, he’d keep change.

Carlitos’ brother and father are professionals. They try to get him to work, do everything for him, make the connections at work, arrange interviews. Carlitos goes, but he either does very badly at the interviews and hence doesn’t get hired or is hired and then fired after 2 or 3 days, or he says he goes but really doesn’t.

Carlitos worked for a few months in some business with a friend, they shared shifts, he’d attend the shop one day, his friend the next, until he ended up without a job and without a friend. It’s easy to work out what happened.

Parasitism. Intelligence. Two faces. Seduction. Lies. Manipulation. Absence of a future project. Objectivization. Unusual use of his liberty. Theft. Lack of empathy. No remorse for these atypical actions. It all adds up.

Then his brother says, “ in fact we have two problems, because this is affecting my parents a great deal”.  The mother is 63 years old, the father 65. They worried because the parents have become gloomy and revolve around what happens with Carlitos. It’s the concept of Black sun,  he/she makes people revolve around them and drains their energy.

Carlitos’ parents were lively people, active, they had friends, went out a lot, on some weekends they’d go Claromecó, where they had a house. For some years now all that was no longer a part of their lives, they just revolved around Carlos.  And like the parents, so did this couple, they came to a consultation over Carlitos, because he doesn’t work, because he has no projects, because they don’t know what will become of him when his parents are no longer around.

Carlitos is a Black sun who makes everyone revolve around him and drains their vitality. This couple sees how the quality of life of the parents has changed, how isolated they’ve become. This is another way these kind of people act, they isolate to control the situation better.  They see how everything related to distraction and pleasure has gradually become dulled in their lives, that’s why we say, using the metaphor, that these people are energy vampires, they drain the energy of others. 

Pressured by the family Carlitos consults a psychologist. (They often accept going for a sessions). It lasted three months. At the beginning he’d go one week and miss the next (he’d keep the money of the session, that’s why it was convenient to keep going!) A month later the family called the psychologist for an interview to see how he was getting along. However the psychologist said that given Carlitos was over 21 years old he didn’t accept any form of family sessions.

They discovered Carlitos’ manoeuvres to keep the money and skip sessions and they changed analyst. After a while they discovered that the new analyst was fascinated with Carlitos.  That’s how it is. These people are very seductive and they work at levels that go beyond logic. The relatives reached the conclusion that this path was not giving good results with Carlitos.

Carlitos feels no anguish. His relatives see him as someone who feels no guilt, someone very cold. 

Carlitos doesn’t take drugs. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke.

The brother lives in the suburbs and Carlitos lives in the city. Once he asked the doorman of his building to call his brother up and tell him he was going to kill himself. He had a knife in his hand, he asks the man to tell his brother he was going to slit his wrists. The doorman called. The sister-in-law and the brother dropped everything they were doing and rushed into the city. When they got there he only had some minor wounds. It was a false alarm.

Carlitos had a girlfriend. At one stage his father freed an apartment he had for Carlitos to go and live there with her. That’s when the relationship begins. The sister-in-law comments that Carlitos’ relationships are temporary and that they depend on the woman’s attitude. The woman is the one to seek him and does all the work, Carlitos just goes along with it. He lived with a girl who was the one to actively keep the relationship going until she got fed up and left.

What does Carlitos do with the profits from what he steals? He has no financial needs. He appears with a new T-shirt, he invites his friends and relatives out for dinner, he spends the money frivolously.

The couple that makes the consultation is worried: Carlitos steals. The parents aren’t well. What’s going to happen with Carlitos when his parents die?


How to coordinate a case such as this.

Once the diagnosis of psychosis and neurosis have been discarded, and the correspondence between the traits described by the family and the describer of psychopathy, a psycopathy can be presumed.

In this case a scheme of advice for the whole family is designed:


1) Guidance to the couple who made the consultation: they’re the ones who presented the problem, they’re the ones to receive the first information about what a psychopath is. In other words the initial stage is instructive. It’s not an easy task given that it’s not a well know matter and it’s hard to comprehend. It would be easier to think of him as someone ill like in the case of a neurotic or a psychotic. However psychopathy is quite different: it’s not an illness  but a form of behaviour, a type of human being. In this case for Carlitos to become Carlos, someone who knows the difference between good and bad and can direct his actions and understand the consequences. For him to stop being Carlitos, the sick little guy and be placed in his just role: Carlos the psychopath.


2) Attempt that the parents come for consultation. Here the instruction is even more difficult. Generally parents, out of empathy, tend to minimize their son’s or daughter’s problem. And once detected,  they question in what way they have failed for their child to have turned out that way. They blame themselves.  

They also struggle incessantly to reverse the situation, that is, to produce some change in their son or daughter. Some parents taking the point out of the problem as an aggression or the therapist’s incompetence and they change professional until they find someone who tells them what they want to hear: a benign diagnosis. In other words they find it hard to take psychological distance in order to see the problem more coldly.

Others, surrendered before the evidence, consult themselves. This makes advising easier. In this case, with a 27-year-old son, the series of repetitions of traits, the frustration and exhaustion, can help in the therapist’s process.


3) Once they’re informed about what a psychopath is, I tend to work making emphasis on the impossibility of change. At the beginning this may seem pessimistic or even nihilistic, even anti-therapeutic. However experience has proved that relatives wear themselves out in the hope of a possible change, they wander from consultancy to consultancy, from frustration to frustration and all they achieve is to wear themselves out with illusions and strengthen the psychopathic system. As a consequence I tend to explain to them in detail the concept: “a way of being”.  That’s the way they are. They’re not going to change. They have to be accepted with these differences. To achieve this I tend to use the same information they provide me with and point out how the same traits, attitudes, experiences since childhood, its accentuation during adolescence and its full manifestation as adults. To make them remember facilitates greater information and they become convinced; they can tell their son’s story but now with the reference of these traits. In this case we are discussing the trait of lying can be followed easily, the action of stealing can also: “ he always lied, he always stole”, says his brother. The parasitical trait is easy to prove and so on with the rest.

The acceptance of  “no change ”, once the deception has been overcome, produces the following effect: there’s no energy wasted on this matter and efforts are oriented in re-dimentioning the problem and the roles of the family and its members in the face of a psychopathy. So the attitude of the members of the system faced with the psychopath changes. 


4) To work on the parent’s guilt. As we said this is an obstacle, as the parents feel responsible in forming their child. And this can be valid in the case of some pathologies, but in the case of psychopathy there are no grounds to support it.

There is no proof that a psychopathy is acquired or due to mistakes in the upbringing of the children or derived from conflicts during childhood. However the load of guilt on the parents make them cover up their child’s psychopathic actions. And psychopaths take advantage of this weakness to manipulate and aggravate the feelings of guilt, to  obtain their objective.  

5) Only after this instance is it possible to work on the psychological distance regarding the psychopath. This consists in seeing the psychopath as being different and avoids the psychological step of empathy. That is to say, the reasoning:  ‘in his/her place I would...’ What could give results when faced with an equal, fails absolutely when dealing with a psychopath. The psychopath thinks, feels and does differently. In a normal mind it’s impossible to comprehend how that brain works. The attempt to try to understand can lead to another dead in which relatives can get tangled. It’s crucial to be very firm on this point: it’s not possible to understand the mind of a psychopath. Experts can barely grasp something. 

The psychological distance is therefore to be able to differentiate you from the psychopath and to begin to see his/her actions and the effects of these actions on the rest of the members of the family. In other words preserve oneself from the psychopath. It’s important to clarify that these changes must be made gradually in order to avoid aggressive and destabilizing reactions from the psychopath that can be, on some occasions, serious. 


6) Physical distance, the ideal is to keep some distance from the psychopath’s area of action. This is what I referred to in 1998 as Zero Contact, no form of communication, relationship or glimpses. This can be obtained in the cases of exhausted complementary relationships, siblings, or adult offspring, rarely in the case of parents.  

It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, for parents to keep their psychopathic child at a distance. Only in the case of clear unsociable behaviour can this be achieved. But in the cases of parasitism the relationship with the “guests” can be very prolonged and we can only hope for the satisfaction of obtaining a psychological distance, the understanding of the problem and the adequate education about it: the seductive traits, the cohersion and manipulation are often very marked and it’s necessary to support one another.


7)  Transferring the problem: if a family gets  their psychopath off their back he/she will be received by another social group. In the case of parasitism, he/she will stop being a parasite on the family and become a parasite on another person or group, there’s a displacement of the parasitism. The psychopath doesn’t change. That’s why when the couple asked me what would happen with Carlitos when his parents died, the answer was simple: he will be a parasite on others, probably them, (the couple) were the psychopath’s target. The couple probably suspected as much and that’s what leads them to make the consultation. So, the “solution”  to this family’s problem consisted in a “transference”: the family might be able to relieve themselves of the psychopath but he/she would exercise their psychopathy on other social niches.


8) The therapist’s attitude in this process: we must accompany the process, not be in front of it. If it is possible to be clear about what to do, what the person should do, the couple, the family, it’s not advisable to advance over the family. It’s necessary to accompany, and coordinate the process and not direct it. To be one step ahead but no more. It’s the family who must assimilate the adjustments, take in the changes, process the problem. This will allow the changes to be long lasting and not merely following orders. 


9) Move forward one step at a time. For example: before touching on the matter of distance, it’s necessary for the people involved to be convinced in what they’re doing, that they don’t have vague ideas, that they know clearly what it’s all about. 


10) To be ready for the ups and downs.  The result of advising the family is uneven. There are steps forward and backwards. Remember that the psychopath is a cunning manipulator, who grasps the other person’s needs, who seduces, who exercises an irrational power over them. Do not feel disencouraged in the face of slim results or moving backwards. While the family seeks advice, we’ll be there for them. 


11) Should we have an interview with the psychopath? No it’s not necessary. I know this answer will generate a shudder, become an issue. Yet after having so many liars, manipulators, threateningly seductive that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Of course colleagues have all the right of not depriving themselves from the experience.


Dark suns and Black sun  


To have someone who is mentally ill in the family is very draining. The family begins to revolve around the person who is ill. There’s nothing visible, no wound, nothing physical or concrete. And the patient has those symptoms; the anguish, that strange pain and the family just observes without understanding. He/she knows something is wrong but there isn’t much they can do.


In a depression

Anyone who has ever had a serious depressive in their family, not a melancholic, or a pessimist, or someone with an unrequited love, or a Melacholoide, but a “major” depressive, will know how much energy they consume. To see the anguish and the loneliness in that person, the way they lock themselves up in the dark, the intolerance to noise, permanent crying, the complaints, the thoughts of suicide. So draining. So much impotence. There reaches a point in which the relative is so exhausted that sometimes he allies with the notion of suicide as a solution for the patient. That’s why you, at some stage of your practice, will be surprised by the surprising distractions that lead to the suicide of a serious depressive.

I remember the case of a very wealthy family who’s mother was a serious chronique depressive. She was committed several times. Several suicide attempts. In one of the ‘in between phases’ and due to a religious ceremony she stayed in the house of one of her children, a duplex on the 9th floor. They were in the habit of making sure she was not in contact with dangerous elements; knives, blades etc. The windows had bars because of the younger children in the house, which made it safer for the patient to stay. They were on permanent surveillance.

At one point the patient is left on the top floor and the others were on the lower floor making a toast. It wasn’t for long but long enough for the patient to go into the bathroom to open the skylight and jump into empty space. An inexplicable neglect, not conscious or wanted.  

I’ve heard relatives of depressives cry over the guilt produced by the feeling that suicide was a solution. They felt their lives also held by the depression, that they too had lost their quality of life, and that nothing could be done to soothe the cruelty of depressive anguish.

They too revolved around the depressive, not everyone. There was always someone, rarely two, who become very attached to the illness. The others, in their way accompany, or put their distance from the problem.

However depression arouses sadness and the family’s desire to help. After this exhaustion comes aggression. Yet the family has full awareness that they are in front of a sick person. They can make many reproaches: lack of will power, not appreciating what he/she has, etc, but they know they’re dealing with someone who’s sick. 


In  neurosis

In the case of neurotics something similar can occur. Yet another form is drawn in the family dynamics. The neurotic is demanding, manipulative, aggressive in his/her way, complains a lot, is often glum. If we’re talking of a serious neurosis they also make the family revolve around them. In one of my articles I wrote about an experience: the doorbell rings in the middle of the night and I have before me a very dramatic scene. A family is accompanying an 18-year-old girl who lies fainted in her father’s arms. The mother, father, brothers, the boyfriend and a neighbour. I remember those anguished faces, the anxiety and the features of the fainted girl. The scene was worthy of a painting by Goya or Velazquez, with Wagner music. The whole family had dropped everything to help her. It was a fit of hysteria. But it was in these moments that the hysteric generated these symptoms that alarmed and made everyone fussed over her. 

They are manipulators but there is also calm, stages of symptomatic silence, of latency, in which they can all lead their own lives. After some time the family can find the neurotics actions annoying and react aggressively. There is a trait of something artificial that the family perceive. The relative leads his/her life and pays his/her dues for living close to a neurotic.

There are some serious neurotics and the whole family revolve around them, yet the concept of illness is present.


In  psychosis

In cases of psychosis, schizophrenia for example, a relative must devote a part of their life to it. As psychiatrist we complain a lot when we see that in hospitals many chronic patients are “deposited” in the wards because their families have abandoned them. As psychiatrists we complain: how can they just dump someone in a hospital? The Head of the Moyano Psychiatric Hospital, in the city of Buenos Aires, at a congress recently admitted that half the patients who are there could go home. And all of us who work at the wards with chronical patients know that 80% or more should not be committed, that they could perfectly well be at home or in some kind of home, less strict than a psychiatric hospital. However from the point of view of the family, to have a schizophrenic, is to give up a part of their life to the illness: he/she can’t be left alone, their behaviour is unpredictable. And often the relative has to make the decision him/her or me, and they aim for a better quality of life and leave the person concerned for the state to take care of him/her. The exhaustion a schizophrenic person causes is quite intense. However the illness is clear, palpable, there is no doubt that you are faced with an extreme illness. 


In psychopathy  

In the case of psychopathy I have observed that what a relative of a psychopath once said to me is true. It’s been a long time now since I ceased to find the keys to this profession in books in English, French or German, instead I listen to what the patient tells me, what his/her relatives tell me. Not what the patient should tell me, according to what I’ve read or translated, but what he/she says, what he/she does, what they want to tell me. As I was saying, one day the father of a psychopath said to me: ‘doctor, this boy is robbing me of my life. Observe how deep this feeling is and how much truth it carries. He was aware of how absorbing this abnormal behaviour was, so demanding that he had to invest his whole life in his son. What he could not do was to discriminate, as I am doing when I summarize so many similar cases, that he was revolving around a Black sun. That he was running like a fireman after a pyromaniac who was always a step ahead, who had the initiative. He’d crash cars (a classic among pot-heads), minor theft, drugs, alcohol, manipulation, lies, lack of discipline and constance in his projects when he had any or had them imposed. The father was always there trying to solve the mess his son would get into, trying to see how the problem could be solved, in the illusion of a change that never occurred. Betting on the fact that it was his son’s wild phase of youth, that he would  “mature”.

Doctor, this boy is robbing me of my life”.

He was a Black sun.






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