Just for Fun: Has Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes Erred in his Self-Diagnosis?

Another season of Sherlock on PBS is upon us. For those who can’t quite cotton to Downton Abbey then maybe this updating of the Holmes saga is your cup of tea, although I bet most would enjoy taking both.

Personified by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mesmerizing performance, this Sherlock  successfully updates the Holmes’ setting  from the Victorian era to our iPhone age. The current writers have kept Sherlock a curio by maintaining his oddness and not quite of this world countenance. He is prickly and prideful. He is dismissive toward those who would be irritable and put off by his antics.

In this updating of the classic John Watson continues as a stand in for the audience to identify with. What would being around the brilliant Sherlock Holmes feel like? Martin Freeman as Watson is less hapless and bumbling and more of a character in his own right. He has his own personal traumas and his backstory is very important to the series. Freeman is at times bewildered and befuddled.  But more often Freeman has surprising reserves of gravitas making him more Samwise Gamgee to Frodo Baggins than inept Carlos Castaneda of the early volumes of the Don Juan stories.

So what about the self-diagnosis?

Over the course of series, Sherlock has referenced himself as a sociopath. Not an official term found in DSM 5 (aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association), the current default diagnosis is Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Let me choose the 3 aspects cited in the DSM that could conceivably make the case for Sherlock being correct.

1) Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.

  • Part of Sherlocks schtick is that he so brilliant, what appears illegal, and often is, becomes tolerated because he gets results, much to the consternation of Scotland Yard. His ends-justifies-the-means schema can look anywhere from positively genius to monomaniachally, well, sociopathic.

2) Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.

  • When Sherlock resorts to these tactics, he has his reasons. However there is a curious subplot which comes off positively 20th century. It has Cumberbatch plying “gotcha” with Freeman when it comes to feelings of love and regard, apparently something that manly men still don’t profess. For example we see Holmes feigning incapacity to stop a bomb from  going off in the Underground Subway to extract Freeman’s confession of  deepest sentiment. Given the show has suggested a homoerotic tension between the two, at least in the eyes of their landlady Mrs Hudson, played by the delightful Una Stubbs, this allusion of the the love that dare not speak its name seems dubiously puerile, even for Holmes. So does this rise to the level of sociopathy or is it just a mean spirited psychological defense shielding Holmes from his own yearning of what he mocks?

3) Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

  • Here we have perhaps the strongest case for Holmes’ sociopathy. In the words of Watson, he can be an absolute “dick.” Or perhaps what we have here are the boundaries of a continuum ranging from dick to sociopath, with Watson placing Sherlock at the lighter end of the scale.

The thing about the most successful evil sociopaths is that though they are damn good at predicting the behavior of those “normals” of whom they would take advantage. Lacking this ability, a sociopath  would just be an oafish klutz of which, no doubt, there are many examples.  But the truly remarkable sociopath has charm even if it is crazed c.f. Hannibal Lector. Sherlock exudes charm to manipulate others when it serves his purpose. Maybe we can’t totally dismiss his claim to his diagnosis.

Also, Cumberbatch alludes to the old saw that were he not in the catching criminal side of the ledger he might be in the criminal perpetrating business.

In a purer form we could call Cumberbatch a case of adaptive sociopathy. However Dexter, the Showtime series, has this angle so deeply mined that Sherlock only rates as a lightweight. Still, conjuring an image like Godzilla versus Mothra, wouldn’t you kill to see a season of Sherlock versus Dexter?

But is there a better diagnosis?

I suppose the leading candidate would be called Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. This the current catchall in DSM 5 for what used to be called Asperger Syndrome or AS.

Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder 315.39

The obvious candidate is Asperger Syndrome, which like Sociopathy is nowhere found in DSM 5. The new diagnosis is Autism Spectrum Disorder. The principle characteristics are as follows:

• limited or inappropriate social interactions
• “robotic” or repetitive speech
• challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
• tendency to discuss self rather than others
• inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases
• lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
• obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
• one-sided conversations
• awkward movements and/or mannerisms

Benedict’s ability to and dance argues against this diagnosis, but his social awkwardness and obliviousness is an argument in favor.

Bill Gates has been said to have AS. But the caricature of Asperger’s that comes to mind is Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. We get a little of that in Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

The other contender would be something in the direction of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Here the lack of empathy to others is what makes NPD a consideration. But how does narcissism differ from sociopathy? One can think of narcissist as an sociopath minus the malice and, perhaps, cunning.

One can make the case for Sherlock’s character to have elements of sociopathy, AS, and narcissism. But let’s not get too serious. His best diagnosis may just be, “Brilliant.”

At the end of the day it adds up to a fascinating personality and entertaining television and for me that’s the takeaway.

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2 thoughts on “Just for Fun: Has Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes Erred in his Self-Diagnosis?

  1. tykobrian on August 03,2015 at 2:17 am said:

    Here’s what Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat has to say about this issue, (https://goo.gl/hT3AmT)

    “It’s funny how people are always wanting to prove me wrong on this one. They say: ‘But he’s not a high-functioning sociopath.’ I never said he was! Sherlock Holmes tells people he is. Why would you listen to him? Nobody can define themselves. That’s what he’d like people to think he is. And that’s it–and I think he probably longs to be one. I think he loiters around prisons for the criminally insane, envying them their emotional detachment. He knows emotion is a problem to him. A man who has decided to suppress all his emotions in order to be better at what he does clearly has an awful lot of emotion. That’s a very simple deduction. It clearly is a problem for him. So, in itself, that is an emotional decision.”

    • John Bogardus on August 04,2015 at 2:49 pm said:

      Tykobrian, You bring up an interesting point. Cumberbatch’s Holmes tells the truth except when he doesn’t. Or he lets people see part of the truth in order to manipulate for the results he wishes. In this regard BC’s SH comes close to meeting typical characteristics of sociopaths. However he is more akin to Hugh Lawrie’s Dr House in that he is more likely to offend than to charm. In the clip where he pronounces is diagnosis in episode of 2 Season 3, he is in fact trying to derive maximum shock value from his hapless victim. In this way his fundamental motivation is to confound expectations of those who would have emotional need of him.

      Still most human beings would never opt to become part of Star Trek’s Borg, even those like SH who desire to remove their weaknesses. I disagree with Steven Moffat that Cumberbatch’s Holmes longs to be sociopathic. Although the beautiful confound of this scene is that Cumberbatch presents in this instance as wickedly charming, as opposed to as in Hannibal Lector style, in acting sociopathic. Let’s all agree he is “high functioning” no matter what his diagnosis is.

      I likened SH to Asperberger’s. He does have a need for a girl friend and not because he is motivated to manipulate for sexual gratification the way a sociopath would.

      This may not end the debate, but I do thank you for bring this clip to my attention. Here is the relevant scene from the show so that we may all observe the context in which SH offers his diagnostic observation.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CpeCBFE_Wc

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