Compare, Contrast, and Consider
In the September 6 edition of The New Yorker, writer Carl Elliott profiles convicted murderer Colin Bouwer in a piece titled “Mind Games.” It’s a cold tale of murder, deception, strange behavior and a town fooled by a man who nobody considered capable of murder. Except, on reflection, many did.
It’s worth a look. It’s also, for such a faraway place, a tale that sounds strangely familiar to anyone familiar with Robert Wone’s murder.
Let’s set the scene. The South African-born Bouwer had located to Dunedin, New Zealand, with his wife Annette and family in 1997. By every account he was one of that town’s brightest lights.
A trained psychiatrist (his specialty, in a bit of foreshadowing, was psychopathy), Bouwer was head of psychiatry at the University of Otago Medical School – a position of some standing in the community. He was still relatively young and was universally regarded as brilliant with patients. He was personally engaging, had a beautiful home and a healthy salary, a dedicated wife and a string of mistresses – in short, a man on top of the world, down under.
He was also, it seems now, a sociopath.
In the first days of 2000, just at the lip of a new century, Annette Bouwer died. She had been struggling for a month with a strange affliction – first diagnosed as hypoglycemic coma, “…most commonly caused by self-administered glucose-lowering drugs that diabetics use, such as insulin,” writes Elliott. Annette Bouwer was not a diabetic.
She was in and out of the hospital twice when, just a few days after her last release, Dr. Bouwer phoned emergency. “Annette is dead,” said Bouwer, asking colleague and internist Dr. Andew Bowers to visit.
As Elliott relays, the scene was not that of an uneventful death.
“When Bowers arrived, it was clear that Annette had not died peacefully. The bedroom was a mess, and Annette’s body was splayed across the bed. The bedclothes were soiled with vomit. Bowers suspected that she had undergone a seizure. Yet Bouwer said that he had noticed nothing out of the ordinary until he found Annette dead early that morning. ‘We slept in different rooms,’ Bouwer later explained to the police.
“Bowers wanted to order a postmortem exam to find out why Annette had died so unexpectedly, but Bouwer objected. Both he and Annette were Jewish, he said, and, according to Jewish law, Annette’s body had to be buried within forty-eight hours. Bowers offered to have the postmortem done right away, but the psychiatrist still resisted. It was only when Bowers refused to sign the death certificate without a postmortem that he relented. Bowers attended Annette’s funeral, the following week, and he was surprised to find that the ceremony was not Jewish.”
Bouwer is described variously by various people – a bit Zelig-like. There was often high praise for his ability to zero in on his patients’ weaknesses: “brilliant” and “dazzling”are but two adjectives used. But for many there was also just something off about the good doctor. Bower: “He gave me a warm, hard handshake, and said he was a physician, a psychologist, and a pharmacologist…He said it in an intimidating way, as if to establish that he was the one in charge.” (It’s highly unlikely he was two of the three.) The Rev. Mann – who officiated at Annette’s funeral – told Elliott: “When she tried talking to Colin and Annette’s two teen-age children, Greg and Anthea, they sat silently on the couch, unresponsive, while Bouwer did all the talking.”
The day of Annette’s death one Dr. Anne Walsh, of the Department of Psychological Medicine at Otango, arrived. Odd, given rampant rumors of her having an affair with Dr. Bouwer. Odder still, her comment to Dr. Bower: “It will be good to get all this settled, especially since Annette had accused Colin of trying to murder her.”
Bouwer’s empathic antennae were working overtime in Dunedin, but there weren’t the only things. His work delved deep into uncharted medical waters; especially anxiety. “Colin had this fascination with things that terrify people,” said Sarah Romans, former head of Psychological Medicine. “People being suffocated, being exposed to water torture, or drowned.”
As Elliott writes, it may have been a result of Bouwer’s own experiences…or maybe not. He often told people – at extremely unusual moments and very matter-of-factly – that he had been tortured for months while in South Africa. Among his reported tortures: electric shocks administered to the penis and anus, and sodomy.
Zip forward to September 2000, when, after months of wiretaps by the police, Bouwer was arrested. Police found a trail of evidence that could only be considered sloppy at best…or “stunningly reckless” as Elliott characterizes it. For months after he lied publicly about Annette’s health and death. He boasted in lecture once of the “…perfect way…” to commit a murder by injection. He was dismissive of the capabilities of the New Zealand police, arguing they couldn’t catch a bike thief let alone a murderer. He spoke freely with his mistresses – among them, Anne Walsh – in a most cold and suggestive manner about his wife’s death. He left a paper trail of self-ordered prescriptions. Then a series of bizarre lies and odd physical behavior that seemed designed more to humiliate than exculpate.
“When police arrested Bouwer and searched his house,” writes Elliott, “they found the mortar and pestle he had used to grind up the glucose-lowering drugs, hidden in the pantry behind a box of Weetabix. Nine months had passed since the murder and Bouwer hadn’t bothered to dispose of it.”
As we said, there’s more in the article. But also of interest is the discussion of sociopathy.
Much has been written about sociopaths; or psychopaths as categorized in the current DSM-IV. Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” and Hervey Cleckley’s “The Mask of Sanity” rate high as beginning texts.
Common to much of the discussion is the sociopath’s lack of appreciation of their effects on the other; a sort of blindness to guilt, reason and empathy. But this blindness goes inward as well as outward. Cleckley noted 16 characteristics of the sociopath, writing that a person so afflicted can appropriate the guise of emotional or moral actions and language, but never engage with them. An “…emotional mechanism had collapsed,” he wrote.
Meaning that psychopaths can be charming, engaging, successful, alluring…but also dismissive of other’s skills and talents. A true sociopath does not consider him or herself above moral law – as there is no recognition of such a thing – but most decidedly does consider themselves above the skills or judgments of those around them.
Which leads to strange acts, odd and humiliating behavior, and what may appear to be a sloppy, “reckless” approach to any crimes they have committed.
Was Bouwer tortured? There’s no contemporary evidence. Was he a medical doctor? Seems unlikely. Why did he move around so much? A drug problem with Demerol, go the reports. Was he a compulsive philanderer, dropping old mistresses as soon as he tired of them? Was he charming but arrogant, solicitous but dismissive, successful but haunted? Why did he lie so much…and why did so many people believe the lies? Why would a man so outwardly capable be so interested in the weaknesses of others?
A group of people fooled by one man’s skills, save for a medical examiner with harsh questions. A figure of standing with a complicit wife, docile family, and stable of mistresses. A death that just doesn’t make sense, regardless of the lack of chemical evidence found in the body. Three people on the couch following a death – two silent, and only one doing the talking.
Oh. And his son, Colin Jr., sitting in a South African prison after admitting to the strange murder of his wife, and the far-more bizarre efforts to cover it up working with – wait for it – his mother, and Colin Sr’s. former wife.
Ultimately, do you think you could spot a psychopath if you met one?
We invite your comparisons, contrasts, and considerations.
–posted by Doug