Unlike the raving mad-axemen usually associated with the term, socialised psychopaths are apparently normal people with a profound personality disorder that makes them a serious psychological threat to anyone they encounter. These people are not "mad" in the sense of being detached from reality. Indeed, a recurrent theme in the responses I received is the uncanny sense socialised psychopaths have for what makes the rest of us tick - allowing them to home in on our vulnerabilities to attract or attack as they see fit.
Their coldness, egocentricity and deceitfulness corrodes every relationship that they touch, from marriage to business partnership, while their superficial charm, moral flexibility and lack of remorse often allows them to become very successful in today's devil-take-the-hindmost society.
As my article explained, there is a growing realisation among psychiatrists that socialised psychopaths are to blame for a great deal of misery in society. From the office bully to the arrogant, philandering husband, they appear to be causing countless blameless people to quit jobs and relationships, at untold cost.
Yet none of my research or interviews prepared me for the scale and nature of the damage revealed by those who contacted me after the article appeared. Cynics might argue that the article simply provided an excuse for every paranoiac and hysteric to bleat on about their soured relationships. Certainly, some of the responses I received smacked of parents keen to condemn an unsuitable boyfriend or an employee bitter about being ditched just short of retirement.
Most were, however, entirely rational and coherent accounts of how readers had concluded that they were dealing with a social psychopath, followed by often harrowing descriptions of the impact this had had on their lives. For many, the simple recognition that they had been suffering at the hands of someone with a genuine personality disorder seems to have been cathartic:
"Your article hit me like a bolt through my heart", wrote Vanessa from Surrey. "I've kept brave all these years, but cried like never before at relief on reading your article. I could have written the article myself - it was a picture of my ex-husband".
Vanessa's husband showed the many characteristics of the socialised psychopath. While outwardly charming and apparently highly successful in a job that frequently took him abroad, at home he was cold and egocentric, showing no interest in the lives of his wife or children. Despite a generous salary, his ludicrously expensive tastes frequently led to massive debts - which on one occasion he helped recover by raiding his children's own savings account. An insouciant womaniser, he cheerfully explained the contraceptives in his briefcase by saying that "I never know who I am going to meet during the day".
Like many others, Vanessa endured the coldness, contempt and abuse for many years before giving in, and filing for divorce. Even now, a decade later, she is still scarred by the experience: "I have a recurring dream where I hear his voice with a particular intonation saying 'I'm here to torment you".
Some of the most disturbing accounts came from former spouses and colleagues of prominent public figures. They give a chilling insight of what lies behind the facade of success projected by some very highly regarded individuals. I heard from the ex-wife of a highly successful and well-known businessman who kept her a virtual prisoner at home, subjecting her to constant mental and physical abuse. Eventually she escaped, taking her two children with her - only to have him pursue her with private detectives and death-threats.
I learned of a distinguished professor of medicine who wrecked the careers of many scientists before having his psychopathy recognised by colleagues, who succeeded in having him removed from all positions of influence. Then there is the senior figure at a leading public school whose aggression and deceit has forced many colleagues to quit, and whose recklessness now threatens the financial future of the historic school.
Many of those who contacted me were anxious to learn more about the personality disorder whose effects had so blighted their lives. Frustratingly, there was very little more I could say beyond the research detailed in the original article: both the cause and cure for social psychopathy remains a mystery.
Some readers tried to cast more light on the origin of the disorder by detailing what they knew about the background of the social psychopath in their lives: poor maternal bonding was a common feature. Medically-qualified readers who had themselves been in relationships with social psychopaths offered their own insights into its causes. A number drew parallels with autism, the neurobiological disorder which affects social and emotional skills. Autistics have difficulty forming relationships, and appear indifferent to affection. They may also have problems assessing risk - all of which is broadly consistent with the behaviour of social psychopaths. Unfortunately, the parallels do not end there: like psychopathy,both the origin and cure for autism remain unknown.
For most of those who responded, however, such issues are academic. They were either recovering from or still fighting battles with socialised psychopaths, and simply needed to know to whom they could turn for help and advice. This is one front on which, happily, there has been some progress since the article appeared.
Earlier this month, a national charity to combat corporate bullying was unveiled at Staffordshire University. Known as the Andrea Adams Trust - after the late author of a ground-breaking book on the subject in 1992 - the charity's primary aim is to give those targeted by corporate bullies access to psychologists, lawyers and arbitrators.
Lyn Witheridge, chief executive of the trust, says she is convinced that many of the cases are the result of socialised psychopaths being given a free rein in "aggressive" companies. "But following the article in the Sunday Telegraph, we are going to broaden our remit to help those affected by these people outside work as well".
This will be welcome news for all those who until now had no idea that their lives had been blighted by people with a personality disorder. Many respondents expressed their bewilderment at the sheer level of unprovoked mental violence that had been unleashed upon them, which left many with a feeling of guilt that they must have somehow been to blame. "Having read the articles", wrote one young mother from the Midlands, "I felt with a sense of relief as though the pieces of a puzzle had been put together".
But the most important task for the new charity must be to persuade the legal and psychiatric professions to get to grips with this extremely destructive element within society. Many respondents described their attempts to bring socialised psychopaths to book for their actions through the courts - only to see the characteristic superficial charm and barefaced dishonesty triumph yet again. Maintenance payments, child support orders, bankruptcy rulings - all are ignored, or dodged by deception.
Among the most distressing accounts centred on child custody battles, where loving parents find themselves trying to counter a barrage of lies and deceptions created by their all-too-plausible former spouses. "Our case would be so much stronger if we could convince the court that this man really does have a personality disorder", said one parent currently fighting for a child residence order against her ex-husband.
The legal difficulties raised by psychopaths were highlighted earlier this month by the official report into the case of Darren Carr, the live-in babysitter who set fire to the Oxfordshire home of Susan Hearmon, killing her and her two children, last summer.
Carr had lied to Mrs Hearmon about his background, which included admission to a mental hospital, where he had been diagnosed as a psychopath. Duly released as being beyond treatment in 1993, Carr gradually dropped out of supervision by social services, and set about beginning his avowed career as the "best serial killer ever".
Even for Carr, a criminally violent psychopath, it took the deaths of three people before the law could curtail his actions. For socialised psychopaths, who are usually smart enough to stay on the right side of the law, there is no legal restraint at all.
"The problem is that the mental health framework is not able to cope with psychopaths", says Genevra Richardson, professor of law at Queen Mary Westfield College, London, and chairman of the inquiry panel. "The justification for imposing loss of liberty is based on the notion of compulsory treatment, and if you have no treatment to offer, that justification becomes very slender".
Simply getting a diagnosis of psychopathic personality disorder is hard enough, says Prof Richardson: "It is difficult to get them to consent to psychiatric examination, and then of course there is matter of their deceitfulness".
Whatever the difficulties, it is clearly to the psychiatric profession that society must turn for a strategy for dealing with socialised psychopaths. Only they have the experience in defining and dealing with the subtle defects of mind that lead to personality disorders.
Yet as a field of research, the study of psychopathy is currently at an impasse, with the persistent failure to find either causes or treatments for psychopathy understandably deterring many psychiatrists from entering the field - thus ensuring that progress remains virtually non-existent.
What little research is done focuses almost exclusively on criminal psychopaths - again for the perfectly understandable reason that prisons provide ready access to the large numbers of subjects needed for research. How is one to persuade an egocentric, glacially unfeeling and often highly successful socialised psychopath to help scientists find out what is "wrong" with them ? While psychiatrists and lawyers wrestle with such paradoxes, those who fall prey to socialised psychopaths are forced to find solutions within themselves. And as many readers found, this rarely comes without a heavy cost.
"Your article said these cold-hearted predators are incurable - so what are we victims supposed to do ?", asked one reader, currently trying to free herself from the corrosive influence of a psychopathic in-law. "Slam the door in their faces and turn our backs on them ? I find that very hard. In the end I will have to abandon her to her fate, but not without much soul-searching and guilt for me".
And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of relationships with socialised psychopaths: they may not always win, but we always lose.
Certain details have been changed to protect readers' identities.
By Robert A. J. Matthews, Aston University
Excerpt from Sunday Telegraph Review, June 1997