Talk about an unreliable narrator: Just what are we to make of a book by a diagnosed sociopath that functions alternately as a warning against sociopathy, an apologia for it, and an embodiment of its worst manipulative tendencies?
This intermittently fascinating, if rather disjointed, account is part memoir, part psychological treatise, and entirely not to be trusted. Its pseudonymous author, M.E. Thomas, describes herself as a law professor and a Mormon who tithes and teaches Sunday school. Even more surprisingly, she claims to have “a close circle of family and friends whom I love and who very much love me.”
Thomas is the creator of SociopathWorld.com, a blog that was the seedling of this book. “Confessions of a Sociopath” exemplifies publishing’s continuing fascination with the blog phenomenon. The result is too often the expansion of thinly researched work of marginal literary quality that seems edgy, different, or timely.
Well, different this book certainly is.
As Thomas explains, sociopathy and psychopathy have an “intertwined clinical history” — sociopathy is the newer term — and the syndrome they represent is now generally referred to as “antisocial personality disorder,” or ASPD. Sociopaths constitute a relatively high percentage of the prison population, but most are not convicted felons. Instead, they apparently live among us as colleagues, friends, and intimates, “hiding in plain sight,” as Thomas’s subtitle has it. Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” (2005) made a similar claim and suggested that as much as 4 percent of the population is sociopathic.
Among the markers of antisocial personality disorder, Thomas notes, are “a lack of remorse, a penchant for deceit, and a failure to conform to social norms.” Later, though, she maintains that she doesn’t meet the criteria for ASPD because she abstains from criminal behavior, a dubious and baffling assertion given her “significant history of impulsive, aggressive, and generally irresponsible conduct — things like fistfights and theft.”
The control that sociopaths seek evidently extends to their own image. “I prefer to define my sociopathy as a set of traits that inform my personality but don’t define me,” Thomas writes, in a particularly awkward locution. “I am generally free of entangling and irrational emotions, I am strategic and canny, I am intelligent and confident and charming, but I also struggle to react appropriately to other people’s confusing and emotion-driven social cues.”
Note how fault is projected onto other people — sociopaths call them “empaths” — who emit those “confusing and emotion-driven social cues.” Arrogance flames into grandiosity. “In a world filled with gloomy, mediocre nothings populating a go-nowhere rat race,” Thomas writes, “people are attracted to the sociopath’s exceptionalism like moths to a flame.”
True, there is such a thing as sociopathic charm, the poisonous snake’s gorgeous coloration. But some of Thomas’s assertions seem ludicrously self-justifying. She suggests that “most people who interact with sociopaths are better off than they otherwise would be . . . We fulfill fantasies, or at least the appearance of fantasies,” though, she admits, it is always at a price. “But the truth,” she adds, “is that if you have made a deal with the devil, it’s probably because no one else has offered you more favorable terms.”
But what if you didn’t know that you were dancing with Satan? Sociopaths don’t generally announce themselves; even Thomas, a veritable crusader for sociopath rights, chooses to remain anonymous. And as she points out, it’s not easy to distinguish between a sociopath and a jerk, categories that surely overlap.
The causation of sociopathy, though unsettled, probably involves both genetics and environment. Thomas traces a genetic link to her paternal grandfather, “an exceptionally cold man . . . [with] a penchant for risk taking and violence” who abandoned his wife and son.
She also says that while her upbringing “promoted my genetic propensities,” she “was not a victim of child abuse.” Yet she describes “a violent and shaming father and an indifferent, sometimes hysterical mother,” whose love was unreliable and who almost allowed her to die at one point because the family lacked health insurance. Her father, she says, used to line his five children up and beat them, each in turn, with a belt. And because she declined to cry, Thomas received the worst beatings.
That the author is female somehow makes “Confessions of a Sociopath” even more chilling. It is hard to shake the sense that the book is the work of a man, so cool is the narrative voice. One might argue that sociopathy, as some researchers have said of autism, is maleness taken to a dysfunctional extreme. “A lot of times my lack of emotionality just reads as an increased masculinity,” Thomas says.
The chief value of “Confessions of a Sociopath” lies in the clues it offers to the detection of sociopathy. Reading it calls to mind encounters with calculating, heartless people. The editor whose boundless ambition impelled her to bully and cashier subordinates while she flirted with and flattered her male bosses; the lover who juggled half a dozen women in different cities and lied smoothly to each: Could these have been sociopaths? Would it have been better to have known?Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.