Orphan (2009): Deciphering The Justness Of Punishing A Psychopath
Author: Vedant Saxena
Designation: Student, Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab
“A couple, who recently lost their baby, adopts a nine-year-old girl. They soon find out that she has a troubled and mysterious past and she is not at all who she pretends to be.”
A psychopath is a person who is known to commit barbaric crimes without an ounce of guilt or remorse for his/her victims. According to Dr Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist and the founder of the Centres of Psychiatric Excellence, psychopaths suffer from Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), which renders them devoid of human empathy. Through this article, the author, by discussing the character of Isabelle Fuhrman’s ‘Esther’ in the 2009 thriller flick ‘Orphan’, explains why awarding a psychopath a punishment equivalent to his barbaric crimes is not a just solution.
Lack of empathy
Lack of human emotion for his victims is what renders a person a psychopath. A psychopath is usually aware of the nature and consequences of his actions but lacks basic empathy to comprehend the gravity of his killings. Psychological and neuroscientific studies are providing increasing empirical evidence demonstrating the importance of emotion in moral judgment and behaviour, and characterizing the deficits observed in psychopathy.
For a psychopath, a law is merely a set of written rules backed by sanctions. Since psychopathy is a condition wherein the offender lacks basic human emotion, it could be considered a disorder impairing the ability to meet the ordinary demands of life. Esther Coleman’s killings are evident manifestations of her psychotic personality. For instance, in one scene, Esther crushes an injured bird with a stone, claiming to have done so in order to ‘put it out of its misery’. In another, she smashes a nun’s face multiple times, mauling her to death.
Psychopathy: Not a choice, but a manifestation of severe trauma
Psychopathy is not a choice. It is usually a manifestation of severe trauma undergone by the person sometime in the past. Just like any other person, Esther was not born a psychopath. It is revealed during the film’s climax that Esther had been through a traumatic childhood. She had been subjected to constant physical, sexual and emotional abuse, which had eventually left a marred blot upon her mind.
In the penultimate scene, Kate is informed that the reason why Esther wore bands on her neck and wrists was to obscure the scars she had obtained while being beaten by her father. Several studies which have been undertaken over the years indicate that psychically abused children are more prone to delinquency and violence.
Childhood sexual abuse is also considered to be a major cause of mental and physical problems, which may carry on up to the adult life of men and women. A range of sexual relationships, drug use, social problems, behavioural problems, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc. are all issues associated with sexual exploitation. Studies have shown that 93% of the victims of sexual abuse know their abuser, and in several cases, the abuser is a parent or a near relative. It has also been found out that children who are subject to sexual exploitation are more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking and other dangerous conduct. Esther had been raped and tortured by her own father at an early age. Such traumatic moments had played upon her psyche, and now she desired of having sex with every adoptive father of hers. On being turned down, she killed them.
During the movie’s climax, the viewers discover that Esther is not an innocent 9-year-old girl, but a full-grown woman suffering from a rare hormonal disorder that stunted her physical growth and caused proportional dwarfism. As a result of this condition, she had routinely been pressured by her father to be a real woman. She had been turned into the hub of mockery and ridicule by others. Such instances had generated a desire within her to be a normal woman; a lover, a wife, a mother. This becomes evident when she tries to seduce John and gets annoyed at him for treating her like a child.
Emotional/psychological abuse play an indispensable role in the child’s wellbeing and development. While such abuse may not be visibly evident through injuries or scars, it could still be devastating to a child’s development and could lead to lifelong problems that persist into adulthood. Recent studies conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) depict that children who have been subject to psychological abuse and neglect could sometimes be more prone to developing severe mental issues than children who suffer from psychical or sexual abuse. PTSD, suicide, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are all possible symptoms of childhood psychological abuse.
No person is born a monster. Psychopathy is not a choice, but a mental disorder. Awarding a psychopath, a punishment proportionate to the ghastliness of his/her crimes is both unjust and illogical. Instead, subjecting him to therapy would be a more viable option, both for him and the society at large.
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