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, SociopathWorld.com, 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?