Mary Astor's "The Incredible Charlie Carewe"

Approaching Infinity

FOTCM Member
I recently finished reading Mary Astor's novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe (Doubleday, 1960). I heard about the book by reading Hervey Cleckley's The Mask of Sanity, in which he writes:

Cleckley said:
In many respects the most realistic and successful of all portrayals of the psychopath is that presented by Mary Astor in The Incredible Charlie Carewe. The rendition is so effective that even those unfamiliar with the psychopath in actual experience are likely to sense the reality of what is disclosed. The subject is superbly dealt with, and the book constitutes a faithful and arresting study of a puzzling and infinitely complex subject. Charlie Carewe emerges as an exquisite example of the psychopath - the best, I believe, to be found in any work of fiction.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician. It will hold the attention of all intelligent readers, and I believe it will be of great value in helping the families of psychopaths to gain insight into the nature of the tragic problem with which they are dealing, usually in blindness and confusion.
He also endorses the book on its dustjacket:

Cleckley said:
Even when I try to allow for the fact that people who behave like Charlie have been one of my major interests for many years, I feel that your rendition of him is a masterpiece. You show him at one time or another playing inimitable every note of that vast and elaborate scale on which the full psychopath is such a virtuoso . . . I hope that it will be widely read for I believe that some general dissemination of knowledge about this type of disorder must occur before society can achieve any adequate measures of dealing with it.
I can only concur with Cleckley's praise. Every aspect of psychopathy is present in this novel, in stunningly accurate description. We observe Charlie's complete inability to intuit a psychological situation; we see him observing others' emotions from a distance, practicing facial expressions, and puzzling over the unexpected reactions he receives when he gives an incorrect 'reaction.' He quickly develops his "special psychological knowledge", becoming an expert of human weaknesses. We even catch glimpses into the mind of Charlie as he views others as a para-specific variety.

The novel is set in the early to mid 20th century, Charlie being born into a wealthy family. As such, he is provided with every opportunity to succeed. And while in a sense he does succeed to some limited degree, in fact, he is an utter failure. His employees and his wife run his company for him, as he has no will or talent to labor for his earnings.

Here are some extended quotations which I think are representative of the book as a whole in its presentation of psychopathy.

The list of "thou shalt nots" in Charlie's mental card index was increasing. Whenever he wanted to, he could refer to them as something to be avoided because they interfered with the pleasures of living. Thus "Thou shalt not steal--money from the cash box in the kitchen because it will be missed more quickly than a dollar or two from Mum's handbag." And "Thou shalt not swim too soon after a meal--it will cause a bellyache" was catalogued ahead of "Thou shalt not remove a book from Dad's library--he raises an awful row."

The latter was just too silly. He had been keeping a scrapbook of famous people withe the name of "Charles" and in a volume of French history there was a painting of a certain Charles IV, which he fancied because he was called "Charles the Fair." He had thoughtfully used a razor blade to cut it neatly out of the book. Unfortunately the razor had cut through several pages which he had put into the wastebasket, and his care in returning the volume to its proper place on the shelf had gone unappreciated. In his father's mind this was inexplicably cross-filed with another, quite different and very funny episode. It amused Charlie to write his initials in the sand at one end of the beach when he was urinating, but it took much more skill and was infinitely more satisfactory to do the same thing neatly in the center of the white oval rug in front of Mum's dressing table. With his legal lingo, his father had lumped both things together as "Wanton defacement of personal property."

But there was a difference as anybody with any common sense could see, because the "defacement" of Mum's rug had precipitated on of the rare sound thrashings he was often threatened with but rarely dealt. The sound thrashing was not nearly as bad as it sounded, either. His father cuffed him around for a while, and then, because it tired him, Charlie supposed, he would go over and put his head in his hands on the desk and tell Charlie to "Go on now, and remember this as a lesson to you." It did make things sticky around the house for a while, so it was a good idea to avoid such consequences. And nothing cleared the air so quickly s those magic words "I'm sorry" and everybody positively beamed if on said, "How could I be so stupid?" or seemed to brush away a tear. Boy! What foods people were.

At that moment Charles was feeling brilliant. He was adding a valuable item to the index: "Thou shalt not lost thy temper." It was practically like a lecture with illustrated slides they had sometimes in school. The subject was "the danger of letting one's emotions run away with one" and Dad said, "you obviously lost your temper when you were wrestling with Roger, and as a result he was seriously hurt. [Charlie had smashed Roger's head repeatedly into a large rock on the beach.]" But the best part of it all was that as along as he remained quiet and attentive, Charlie could watch his father become what he was talking about. His face got redder and redder, he began to walk faster up and down the library, and once he pounded the desk with a crack th
at must have hurt his hand. It was very interesting.

[Charlie's father is trying to explain why nearly killing Roger was wrong.] "You're no different from other human beings, Charles. We all of us have to keep watch on our passions for our entire lives, otherwise they will control us instead of our controlling them." How to explain that they could be channeled, used as fuel for ambition, to overcome wrong? "Most of them are a kind of hangover from the Stone Age, I guess--when all we had was our fists to claim what belonged to us. But just take a look those fists of yours--they almost claimed a boy's life."

Charles caught the expression on this face and mirrored it. He heard the tone of his voice and became an echo. Looking at his hands, he said solemnly, "A boy's life," and his voice was an awed whisper.

His father rose and, putting an arm about the boy's shoulders, walked him to the door. "Don't dismiss it too soon, Charles--think it over--think it over." And Charles went out of the room shaking his head, still looking at his fists, a perfect picture of bewildered remorse.
Charlie was having a wonderful time. He had acquired a new toy that delighted him with its effectiveness. It contained innumerable ways of getting attention--of the pleasant kind. Heretofore there had been times when kids or grownups looked at him too suddenly, with widened eyes and open mouth, and it made him want to scratch himself or get out of the way. Now, as a result of a few words that his dad had said in the library, he had found a whole new world. To himself in the mirror above the washbasin in his bathroom he said, "Dad, I'm grateful to you." HIs boice slipped a little and he relaxed his throat and tried it a tone lower: "Dad--thank you." While he was about it he studied his face, staring hard, and by concentrating a little his eyes filled. "That's enough, that's enough," he whispered. More would look babyish.

[His mom calls, and he loudly blows his nose before greeting her.] "Why, Charles baby, have you been crying?" [...]The answer to this wasn't quite clear, so he played it safe, saying nothing, keeping his eyes down. [...] "But mother, what have I done?" He pulled away from her and buried his face in his hands, which gave him a chance to listen more closely for his next cue. [...]

"I'm just a leftover from the Stone Age," he said hollowly.

Beatrice bit her lip, to suppress a smile. "Well, cave man," she said, "you'll grow up to be a Carewe and a gentleman, don't you worry."

"Thank you, Mum dear. I love you very much."
[Later on, while taking a bath, Charlie contemplates what has happened the last few days, getting closer to an understanding.] There was no "why" connected to this key, dancing and gleaming with promise--there now--almost got it! He had learned that it was the proper thing, and therefore the rewarding thing, "not to make a fuss." When he was young and he bellowed over a cut toe, people would keep saying, "Don't make such a fuss." Instead, if he said, "It's nothing," he got lots of attention. "Are you sure, you poor, dear boy--you are so brave."

But there was a subtlety about the events of yesterday and today that was still eluding him. He had been going ahead with his "don't make a fuss' routine, and it had boomeranged. He'd got nothing but those silly O-faces that his sisters put on, his mother had got icy with him, and Dad had been thoroughly dull until he became angry; and that was interesting to watch because for some reason it was not directed at him. Then suddenly it had come to him, he "got" what was expected of him. [...] Now it lay shining and cunning in his palm. No effort, no "itchiness," no boredom. You just were clever and watched and listened with a kind of third ear and you could find out what people expected you to do, and then you did it and, oh boy! Life would be one sweet song! [...] He slacked his shoulders a little, gave a sigh, and muttered: "A disgrace to the name of Carewe." That was it. Try it through dinner, don't talk, just listen closely, and don't seem to listen.
After seducing a professor's wife, convincing her of his love for her, Charlie attempts to rape a fellow student. In the hospital after the blow he received, Jane (the professor's wife) comes to visit and have a talk with Charlie, trying to get it through to him that what he did was wrong. After talking about the rape and its consequences, Charlie responds:

Charlie started to yell. "Listen, Mrs. High-and-mighty-nympho-Dexter, you can just goddamn well leave my parents out of this. They'll understand all right. They know the kind of phonies you people are. That you're jealous of people like us, because we have money and breeding and culture. Why, they wouldn't even spit on a woman like you. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if somebody didn't put that redheaded floozy up to it--the way she pulled up her skirts right there in front of everybody, making it look like I was going to rape her or something. I feel sorry for her--that kind of behavior!"

Jane had walked back to the bed to look at him in a kind of horror.

"And I--loved you." She was talking about someone else, someone she didn't understand. "Why, I've been the most unbelievable, ridiculous fool. I thought that you were 'sensitive,' that you had a kind of deep, undiscovered beauty of mind--and that I could help you discover yourself by my love----" The ache for her injured being overcame her, and she sand back into the chair. Grasping his hand, she pressed it to her mouth, moaning:

"Charlie, Charlie, what have you done to me--didn't it mean anything--I can't bear it that you didn't love me----" The words ran together, became mere little animal sounds of pain. As she raised her streaming eyes she saw that Charlie was looking over her shoulder, a pleasant smile on his face.

Startled, she whipped around to see Brian [her husband] standing in the doorway, his face like chalk. He walked over to his distraught wife, gently taking her by the elbows and raising her to her feet. "Come, on, Jane," he said behind tight lips, "let's get out of here."

From the bed, Charlie's laughing voice reached them, carrying them out of the door.

"Thanks very much, Mr. Dexter--take good care of her--she's a good screw!"


hkoehli -

I agree with you. I read this book after finishing Cleckley's and Hare's books, which was 4 years ago. It was my attempt to understand what just happened to me. I feel I was one of the fortunate ones after a run in with a psychopath. I didn't lose a lot and I feel I gained more than I ever imagined! It led me here in the end! So, it ended being one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Tho' it was not a pleasant experience, I am NOW happy that I do have the experience. I've gained far more than I lost thru the experience/lesson.

Although I was "aware" of psychopaths (meaning I merely knew that some people suffered from a type of mental illness -- now laughable with the knowledge I've gained), I was left reeling after my encounter with one. It is very difficult for the average person to wrap their head around what a psychopath REALLY is.

My analogy for myself (to get it into my head) was telling myself, that to have a psychopath emote honest, real feeling is equivalent to expecting an armless person to do a handstand. Mary Astor's book was actually helpful for a "beginner's" understanding.

After reading the "The Incredible Charlie Carewe", I wondered how Mary Astor came by her knowledge. Anyone have any background on this?


A Disturbance in the Force
Re: Mary Astor's \

Many years later ....

Reading around it seems that her (physically and emotionally abusive, money-grabbing, controlling) father was possibly on the psychopathic spectrum and her mother (who left a diary saying how much she hated her own daughter) was possibly a narcissist.

She herself seems to have had normal emotions (my interpretation of what I've read) but was totally messed up by it all, having many marriages and affairs and descending into alcholism. She fought for custody of her daughter, and won, seems to have had a talent for comedy, and had a fairly down-to-earth viewpoint (e.g. not wanting to take starring roles). A survivor of toxic parents.

Like you I'm coming to this from Cleckley.
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