Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Sociopaths Among Us

by Sandra Parshall

Crime fiction writers – like most people, I suspect – tend to think of sociopaths and psychopaths as criminals.

They’re all violent, or on the verge of becoming violent, right? This spectrum of mental disorders is rare, but most prison inmates, especially the repeat offenders, are sociopaths, and the worst of the lot are psychopaths. Right?

No. Wrong on all counts, according to mental health experts.

A number of books, notably The Sociopath Next Door (2006) by Dr. Martha Stout, have examined the prevalence of antisocial personality disorders in our society. The most intriguing, though, could be the latest (May 14), Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by diagnosed sociopath M.E. Thomas (a pseudonym for the female author).

The book has received widespread attention in the press, is excerpted in the May/June issue of Psychology Today, and the author has spoken freely in interviews. She hasn’t revealed herself as the culprit in unsolved murders or other crimes. Her whole point is that, like most sociopaths, she functions well in the everyday world. She is a respected attorney and law professor. She teaches Sunday school for her Mormon congregation. She has friends she claims to love, and she says they love her in return. (Almost everyone she knows is, by her account, in awe of her.) But she can be breathtakingly cruel – leaving a baby opossum to drown in a swimming pool, abandoning a friend whose father is dying because the friend isn’t fun anymore – without the slightest twinge of guilt, an emotion that is foreign to her. Her blog,, explores the inner workings and outward behavior of people like her. “We are legion and diverse,” she writes, and it feels like a threat.

Experts in the field estimate that one out of 25 persons is a sociopath. But only about 20 percent of prison inmates are sociopaths. Most are living ordinary lives. We (those who give ourselves the debatable label of “normal”) encounter them all the time, and they might make us miserable in myriad ways, but because they aren’t violent or engaging in criminal activity, we dismiss them as “difficult people” we have to avoid or work around.

How is a sociopath created? Thomas describes a chaotic childhood with a violent father, whom she loathed, and a weak, sometimes hysterical mother. But they didn’t necessarily turn a normal baby into a sociopath as she was growing up. By her own account, she had all the markers for the disorder quite early in life, including a lack of fear that led her to taunt her father rather than cowering. Her parents’ indifference to her welfare allowed her sociopathy to flourish in the form of relentless manipulation, bullying, lying, minor theft and vandalism, and contempt for authority.  She was a good student, not because she loved learning but because “it meant I could get away with things other students couldn’t.” She has never killed anyone but admits to fantasizing about it many times. She wonders whether she might have crossed that line if her home life had been even more abusive.

Although she spends a lot of pages praising her own extraordinary talents and achievements (grandiose thinking is a hallmark of sociopathy), she occasionally produces an insightful statement about something outside herself, such as this observation about society’s expectations of women: “When you grow up as a girl, it is like there are faint chalk lines traced approximately three inches around your entire body at all times, drawn by society and often religion and family and particularly other women, who somehow feel invested in how you behave, as if your actions reflect directly on all womanhood.”

While Thomas has a remarkably clear-eyed view of herself as a high-functioning, nonviolent sociopath, she feels no fellowship with all the “stupid, uninhibited, or dangerous sociopaths out there.” She tries to avoid them, and she advises the rest of us to do the same.

Accompanying the excerpt from Thomas’s book in Psychology Today is a checklist of traits that mental health professionals use to diagnose people with antisocial personality disorder. Although “failure to follow any life plan” and “incapacity for love” are listed, Thomas proves (if her account is truthful, and how are we to know?) that it’s possible for sociopaths to have successful careers and form loving relationships. Other traits are among those she recognizes in herself: untruthfulness, insincerity, lack of remorse and shame, superficial charm, unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations.

We all know people like that – people who have hurt us and felt no guilt for it. In childhood, they’re the schoolyard bullies and the teachers who seem to hate kids. In adulthood, they may be our bosses or co-workers, our neighbors or casual acquaintances. In fiction, they are the characters we love to hate, even when they don’t turn out to be killers.

Do you remember a sociopath from your own childhood? Do you have one in your life now?


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
I'm not sure we use the terms sociopath and psychopath correctly according to the latest psychiatry manual, but we certainly tend to misuse sociopath. A sociopathic personality has little empathy for others, but the person is not necessarily violent, as many people think. I've known many sociopaths (mostly at my old day job, with tendencies towards narcissism in some cases) who are functional and productive. Being somewhat of an introvert, I can relate a little, although I deeply care about friends and family.
Psychopathic behavior is often violent and destructive and can be produced by many disorders, some of them chemical imbalances in the brain. Harris' character Lecter is a psychopath, a quite clever one, and his predilection for cannibalism is similar to the real-life Jeffry Daumer. The latter shows that we have plenty of models in the real world if we want to include such characters in our fiction.
All the best,

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

One way to look at psychopathy and sociopathy is as an extreme form of narcissism (antisocial personality disorder according to DSM), and it should come as no surprise that plenty of lawyers, bosses, and CEOs, among others, are walking around with it. My rule of thumb for the difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is that the former is Hannibal Lecter (or Ted Bundy), the latter is Tony Soprano, ie someone who cares about no one vs someone who is loyal to and protects an inner circle (ie some kind of dysfunctional family).

Anonymous said...

Sandy, this is an excellent piece - and spot on target. Most of us know someone like this, and we are reluctant to claim his/her negative sides. Steven mentions the narcissism, which is usually part of the package, too, and this is not as rare as people think. Often, the person functions on a level where he/she is highly regarded in the community! Thelma in Manhattan

Sandra Parshall said...

The big question is whether sociopaths and psychopaths are made or born that way. I tend to think it's inborn, since so many of these people behave in an antisocial way from very early childhood.

K.B. Gibson said...

I agree, Sandy. I believe sociopaths are born. But perhaps it's the nurture part of our childhood that determines whether the person uses that personality disorder for good (successful in profession) or evil (criminal behavior). In my pre-writer life, I was a social worker at a state psychiatric facility. There seemed to be a percentage of the (mostly male) population who had no break with reality. Instead, they were usually fairly bright and knew how to play the system.

Steven M. Moore said...

Here's another thought: I'm not sure there's a technical term for it, but let me define "bleeding heart" as a person that is the opposite of a sociopath. In extreme cases, such a person might be so worried about others, even complete strangers, that he or she forgets completely about self. I haven't seen characters like this in literature too much, but it's interesting to consider a story where sociopath meets bleeding heart. Will it be like an electron and positron annihilating?
I think the mothering and fathering instincts many of us have tend to the bleeding heart side in a positive way, but one can certainly argue whether this is just pure inbred instinct that evolution has provided to preserve the species.

Morgan St. James said...

Yes, Sandra, I had two sociopaths in my life, both boyfriends many years ago. They had several traits in common: extremely charming, they referred to everyone (particularly high-profile or important people) as their "friends" even if they had only met once. Both were self-serving but never believed their actions harmed anyone, although they invariably did.

Ten years later I discovered that the first one, my boyfriend when I was just 18, turned out to be a killer. I was shocked when I realized he was the subject of Vincent Bugliosi's true crime book and movie, TILL DEATH US DO PART, and contacted Mr. Bugliosi to tell him how perfectly he had captured his personality.

The second, a long-term relationship when I was in my 40s, was in the entertainment industry. He harmed many people financially and otherwise, but never thought he did anything wrong. He was the inspiration for my story "What Happened to Mandy Blake?" in The MAFIA FUNERAL and Other Short Stories.

Anonymous said...

I read the book The Sociopath Next Door and it enabled me to recognize why a supervisor where I worked behaved the way she did - abusing underlings with no sense of remorse and the ability to lie without a qualm. It helped me realize that I needed to leave that job to keep my own mental health intact.

Anonymous said...

I recently worked at Google in Street View, which sounds like a great opportunity. Right?

Wrong. It would have been a great opportunity, but my manager was definitely toxic and, most likely, a sociopath. Which turned a great job into something that had to be endured until I could be released or find a new job.

As has been pointed out here, he could be very "charming" when he had to be, but there was nothing behind it.

Unfortunately, a lot of bosses belong in this category. Being the boss allows them to exercise and get away with their tendencies. And maybe that's more healthy (except for the people who report to them).

I suspect that a sociopath in a menial or lower position would have to hide a lot more and might store up a great deal of rage and resentment that would come out in a most unfortunate way.

I do know that in my situation, no one could disagree with our manager in any way. He took any kind of disagreement as "arguing" and unacceptable and got back at people who didn't follow his party line in a whole variety of petty ways.

On the other hand, it gave me a lot of stuff to work with when it comes to my writing. I've already, in essence, done the research to create a major jerk (or killer) in a new book.