This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Josephine, my mother, is not a sociopath. She just has tendencies. At 69, her capacity for violence has diminished, but I think if she had to tackle a burglar, he would probably end up with a kitchen knife deep in his chest. My mom has gone through life with the kind of ruthless energy usually encountered in gangsters and soldiers of fortune.
I didn't think about any of this as a child, except knowing that it was a good idea to keep a safe distance if I'd pissed her off. My school friends called her "Don Jo." The pertinence of the moniker only occurred to me years later, after uncovering a buried family history that spans three continents and includes a once famous criminal, an upcoming murder trial, and a part in one of the 20th century's most important and disturbing novels. It is a history that taught me that nurture only goes so far in explaining who a person is. Sometimes, your blood does your thinking for you.
As I got to know my mom as an adult I realized she was capable of calmly making decisions that would cause others to shudder. In 2006, when I was 23 and she was 62, we spent two months backpacking around India. It was something my parents had planned to do when they retired. Tragically, my father took permanent retirement much earlier than we had expected, so I took his place. We had a great time driving up the Himalayas and trekking for elephants in the jungles of Kerala. However, one incident in particular convinced me that she could survive pretty much anything that life could throw at her.
We were walking along a beach in north Goa during monsoon season. It was overcast and windswept. There was a rusted cargo ship wrecked on the shoreline, and large waves curled vindictively in on themselves before smashing into surf.
I jumped in.
It was an act of immense stupidity. I swam among the waves for a few minutes and then decided to exit. When I got to the shore and tried to stand, my feet didn't touch the bottom. I went under and a wave pounded me and pulled me out. I swam hard to get back in.
I got to the shallows again. Except, I hadn't. One foot down and it was like missing a step; a step into an empty elevator shaft. The current dragged me struggling from the land. As I swam back I could see my mom stood watching. Then she turned her back on me and walked up the beach. Two things ran through my mind: It can't be that bad because she's causal, she's not in a hurry; she knows I'll be fine. And, Maybe she's going to find some help, since the village wasn't that far away.
I tried to stand again. Back under. I was exhausted. I laid on my back and let the waves carry me on theirs. Up and down and back and forth. They wanted to rock me to sleep.
I had a word with myself: "You either do this. Or you die. Sort your life out."
I swam hard. Then I swam harder. Then when I thought I'd made it, I swam harder still.
Foot down. Sand. Stagger. Collapse. The relief bordered on muted ecstasy. I heaved breaths. My hands gripped wet sand.
Mom walked back and stood over me.
"Are you OK?"
"I am now."
"You look relieved."
I caught my breath. My eyes squeezed shut while my fingers compacted the sand in my palms.
I looked up at my mom.
"Why did you walk away? Were you going to find help?"
"No. Where was I going to get help from?"
My mom looked at me like I was the contemptible idiot I'd just demonstrated myself to be.
"I wasn't going to watch you die."
There's one aspect of my mom's background that we didn't speak about until recently, because she didn't know of it, which lies in the mystery of "Don Josephine." She never knew her father. He abandoned her mother in 1945 when he found out she was pregnant. My grandmother, Eileen, who died in 1959 of pneumonia when my mom was 13, dealt with the repercussions of refusing to abandon her daughter for the rest of her short life.
Orphaned into the care of a resentful stepfather, my mom buried all thoughts of her real dad, a habit that lasted for near on 60 years. I never heard her speak his name, and he was so removed from my consciousness that it never occurred to me to ask.
However, a year ago she called me in an agitated state.
"I found him. I found him," she said.
"Paul Axel Lund. My father."
A recent interest in using the internet had led her, after giving no clue of thinking of him for years and years, to google his name.
This is what infamous beat author William Burroughs had to say about my grandfather: "I am attenuating my relations with Lund and company. Too much of a bad thing."
Quite a statement when you consider the man who made it shot his wife in the head during a "William Tell" party trick, afterwards saying he killed her while under the control of a "completely malevolent force."
Burroughs and Lund met in Tangier in 1955. The city was an international free zone known for its liberal climate, skullduggerous inhabitants, and lack of extradition treaties. Lund had arrived the year before while on the run from the English police, and soon became established as a well-known smuggler happy to regale his swashbuckling adventures to journalists. The city remained his home until he died of TB in 1966. The headline for his obituary in the News of World read: "The Buccaneer: He Played with Fire and His Women Loved It."
Burroughs wrote that he "saw quite a lot of Lund and used some of his stories in Naked Lunch," a novel that gave Jack Kerouac, who also knew my grandfather and wrote about him in Desolate Angels, nightmares while he was editing it. The friendship disintegrated when Lund was charged with opium smuggling in 1959. He dodged it by framing Burroughs.
Six months prior, and in unrelated circumstances, Burroughs had written to him from France with a whimsical plot that involved "pushing a little Moroccan tea in Paris." My grandfather gave the letter to the cops and the Moroccans passed it on to the French authorities. He was free and Burroughs was arrested in Paris.
Paul Lund was a villain. So much so that author Rupert Croft-Cooke titled his biography of him Smiling Damned Villain: The True Story of Paul Lund. His career choices included gun running for Haile Selassie, safe breaking, burglary, robbery, forgery, fraud, and smuggling. "Asked, as he entered prison for one of his sentences, what his occupation was, he said: 'thief' and refused to modify it," writes Croft-Cooke. He spent time in jail in India, Egypt, Spain, Italy, and Britain.
One of my favorite passages from Smiling Damned Villain is an account of Lund's desertion in Egypt during World War Two. After twice being mentioned in dispatches for bravery there was a lull in the fighting and he got restless. To counter the boredom he went AWOL in Cairo and settled in a warren-like slum officially off limits to Europeans.
Lund described it to Croft-Cooke: "It was full of gambling and opium dens, brothels of every kind, deserters, black marketeers, thieves, escaped POWs—every kind of villain you can imagine. Just the place to lie up quietly."
He joined forces with three other deserters, and together they robbed a watch shop "with a very fine stock of expensive watches" while disguised as mechanics. After going on a crime spree across Cairo and Alexandria he realized that "we were too easily recognizable," so he returned to his army unit. He avoided punishment because he was sent to fight at the battle of el Alamein.
Lund possessed qualities that made him a predator to society. Croft-Cooke highlights the ultimate manifestation of those qualities.
He writes: "Paul's a killer, a fellow criminal of his once told me, not because he has ever committed a murder but because he obviously would do so if it seemed necessary to him."
The point of Smiling Damned Villain, Croft-Cooke explains, is to present a "portrait" of Lund. He avoids attributing underlying psychological motivations to his subject.
"A criminologist will know that, perhaps, better than I," he states.
I'm not a criminologist, but I was convinced after becoming acquainted with it that my grandfather's portrait depicts a sociopath. I decided to consult criminal psychologist Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist Revised—the 20-point gold standard for diagnosing psychopaths.
Lund gets full marks for most of them, including a lack of remorse, criminal versatility, recidivism, impulsivity, and being manipulative.
Paul Lund being interviewed about smuggling outside his bar in Tangier
As for promiscuity and having many short-term marital relationships—both things cited in Hare's list—the book is littered with examples (my grandmother being one of them), making superficial charm—another checkbox—almost obligatory. Inevitably, his charm resulted in a scattering of babies, and after some research I managed to find one of my mother's half-sisters living in a trailer park in the Deep South. She had a shocking revelation: Her son, who has a string of criminal convictions, is facing a murder trial. She believes he inherited his grandfather's sociopathic genes.
My cousin is awaiting judgment in a state penitentiary. But where does that leave the rest of the family? Are we simply a line of evolutionary throwbacks? A lizard-brained collective only in existence because of the marauding lifestyle of a free-loving psychopath? I can't speak for the wiring in my cousin's head, nor I can I speak to growing up poor in the United States—a place that makes a walk in England's mean streets seem like a country stroll.
In 2005, scientist James Fallon PET scanned his brain for a study on Alzheimer's. At the time he was working on another project scanning the brains of psychopaths. To his surprise, it turned out his brain matched the pathological connections found in his psychopathic subjects. After delving into his family history, Fallon discovered he came from a long line of killers.
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If he had the brain of a psychopath, why was he a law-abiding family man? Fallon concluded that his parents' unconditional love had kept him from turning into a monster. Paul Lund also had a relatively decent upbringing; his mother was a dour and distant woman who left most of the child rearing to nannies, but his family was large, affluent, and well respected. I think this is perhaps why he didn't do anything that could be typified as criminally insane or sadistic, despite being a proper bastard.
Writer and curator Ian Francis, who gives talks on Lund, agrees he lacked morality rather than being interested in the opposite of it. I called Francis before I investigated Lund's past to enquire whether my mother should be prepared to confront a hideous truth.
"He was amoral, not evil," he told me.
Croft-Cooke said Lund was a man "who unblinkingly and intelligently faced the abomination of reality." I recognize that ability in my mother. She accepted that I was going to drown in India, so she made a decision that would spare her any subsidiary pain. She wasn't going to watch me die. Savage realism can be a useful tool to possess. It's a hostile world out there, and making choices that break social convention is often an instrument of survival.
While Paul Lund used this ambiguous quality to help himself, his daughter has used it to help the people around her, despite having a much harder upbringing than her father. For example, at age ten I was unruly in class and falling behind. I had already been asked to leave one primary school. After being called into the head's office over yet another issue, she found a way to inspire me. She handed me The Hobbit, told me to sit in the kitchen chair, and said if I moved or made any noise she would beat me to death. I had enough sense to do as I was told. Then I began to read.
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