‘The Alienist,’ Sadomasochism, and the Father of Sexology

Alienist-Caps-1x01-01-Opening-EpigraphTNT’s newly-concluded drama ‘The Alienist’ – based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name – is a psychological thriller about the hunt for a gruesome serial murderer of boy prostitutes in 1896 New York City. Its four protagonists race to protect these boys while struggling against the limits of the era’s psychoanalytic theory, a corrupt police force, and their own inner demons – all while wearing clothing that I would gladly give an arm and a leg, even my own, to have in my wardrobe.

‘The Alienist’ is about wounds. Wounds of all kinds. The physical and psychological traumas passed down through family abuse. The emotional pain that mentally ill and suicidal individuals live with. The contusions and sicknesses marking the bodies of immigrants, laborers, and prostitutes in Industrial-Era New York. The demeaning verbal barbs directed at women and the bruises left on their skin by restrictive clothing. The vicious brutality of trigger-happy bigots. But most of all, ‘The Alienist’ is about the rituals of violence we inflict upon others… and upon ourselves… to sooth ourselves, to give meaning to our traumas, and to bring us pleasure. And this sounds an awful lot like two terms that neither Laszlo nor his colleagues explicitly state, but that are eluded to in a certain book: sadism and masochism.

Judging by that beard, Krafft-Ebing’s psychosexual theories wasn’t the only thing Laszlo was inspired by.

In the third episode, Silver Smile, Laszlo recommends a book to John, stressing that reading it would help him understand the killer’s motivations. This book is Psychopathia Sexualis (trans: Psychopathology of Sex) by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing. First published in 1886, it is the first Western effort to comprehensively categorize atypical sexual desires and behaviors. Naturally it quickly became a best-seller. And in it, Krafft-Ebing coins the terms ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’ – pleasure derived from inflicting or being subjected to humiliation, punishment, or control. He categorize these ‘perversions’ as kinds of ‘paraesthesia’ – sexual desire for the wrong goal or object (the only correct object of desire being a person of the opposite sex and the only correct goal being procreation).

A small gallop in the right direction towards destigmatizing atypical sex. 

Our protagonists’ understanding of why one would use pain to sooth emotional wounds – especially in how this relates to sexual behavior – is deeply influenced by Krafft-Ebing’s text. Krafft-Ebing was, like Lazslo, an alienist – and like our protagonist his ultimate goal was to advocate for more humane treatment of individuals who had committed illegal sexual acts. So although Krafft-Ebing maintained that sexual “perversion” had biological roots, he was far more interested in exploring what about the inner emotional lives of his patients motivated them to seek out atypical sexual experiences.

He aimed to understand the psychological meaning that his patients ascribed to pain and domination by placing their sexual behaviors in the larger context of their personalities, fears, and beliefs. He was especially interested in how family dynamics and the psychological impact of living in industrialized urban society shaped the emotional lives of his patients. To that end he wrote not only about the sex they were having, but also about their fantasies, relationship histories, professional lives, and childhoods. Krafft-Ebing’s text did a lot to humanize individuals who desired anything other than procreative sex, during a time when most of society viewed them as immoral, dangerously antisocial, or mentally diseased.

The core thesis of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia – that his patients’ desires to inflict or endure pain were deeply symbolic means of self-expression, of relating to others, and of processing past traumas, influenced by their family dynamics and society – is essential to how our protagonists formed a profile of the killer. And it provides the foundation to a central theme of the show, which is how one chooses to use another’s pain to express and manage one’s own emotional wounds. Both the killer and Laszlo are compelled to be around others who are wounded. It brings them pleasure and peace to recognize their own pain and emotional conflict in that of others. But the killer forcibly inflicts wounds that resemble his onto others – using them as little more than mirrors reflecting his own truth, or vessels for displaced pain that he can destroy. Laszlo uses shared pain as a means of emotionally connecting with others, of developing knowledge and self-insight, and of building trust and family. And as Sara reminds Laszlo, each of us has the choice of which of these two men to emulate.


Frackman, Kyle. “Richard von Krafft-Ebing.” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Love, Courtship, and Sexuality through History: The Nineteenth Century. Vol. 5. Ed. Susan Mumm. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008. 130-32.
Hauser, Renate Irene. “Sexuality, neurasthenia and the law: Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)” Thesis submitted to University College, University of London. Web. Accessed 8 April 2018.
von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Psychopathia Sexualities. Bloat Boos; Reissue Edition, 1999.

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