This book is a work of memoir. It is a true story according to my best recollections; however, in addition to the inevitable flaws of memory, this story is told through the lens of how I see the world, including my megalomania, single-minded focus, and a lack of understanding about the inner worlds of others.
I have chosen to publish this book under a pseudonym, and I have changed the names and identifying characteristics of my family and friends and certain other people mentioned in the book to protect their privacy. In some instances, I disguised settings and rearranged and/or compressed events and time periods in service of the narrative. Otherwise, this is a true and honest account and I have not knowingly misrepresented any material facts.
Psychological Evaluation Excerpt
Ms. Thomas is a 30-year-old Caucasian female seeking an assessment of her personality, particularly in regards to the presence or absence of psychopathic traits. Across multiple self-report inventories tapping both normal-range and pathological personality characteristics, Ms. Thomas scored beyond the 99th percentile of the community normative data. Her presentation in many regards could be considered that of a prototypical psychopathic personality. Additionally, the results of the PCL:SV assessment largely converge with this description, particularly in regards to the affective and interpersonal features displayed by Ms. Thomas, such as a pronounced lack of empathy, a ruthless and calculating attitude towards social and interpersonal relationships, and a relative immunity to experiencing negative emotions.
Most notable in Ms. Thomas’s clinical presentation …were pronounced elevations on scales tapping antisocial and psychopathic traits (particularly egocentricism and sensation-seeking characteristics), interpersonal dominance, verbal aggression, and excessive self-esteem, as well as very low scores on measures tapping negative affective experiences (e.g., phobias, traumatic stressors, depressive symptoms), interpersonal nurturance and stressful life events. Here again, her overall profile reflected a constellation of personality characteristics and interpersonal style highly consistent with current conceptualizations of psychopathy.
Although cognizant that she is “different” from most people she knows in terms of her personality structure, Ms. Thomas does not view herself as “disordered” in the sense of suffering from a form of mental illness per se. Quite the contrary, she seems content with her lifestyle and its current trajectory and rather blasé about many issues and concerns that might cause others some degree of uncertainty or distress. Of course, such attitudes are emblematic of individuals who are highly psychopathic.
By all accounts Ms. Thomas has thus far experienced relatively few objective (or subjective) negative consequences associated with being highly psychopathic—and in many regards appears to have excelled across various life domains (e.g., academic, occupational). This suggests that one might describe her as a “socialized” or “successful” psychopath, or at least a relatively non-maladaptive variant of this personality pattern.
—John F. Edens, PhD, Professor, department of Psychology, Texas A&M University
I’m a Sociopath and So Are You
f my life were a television show it would start like this: It’s a pleasantly warm summer day in a beautiful southern clime. Sunlight glints off ripples in the pool. The sliding door opens with a gentle rumble. A young woman steps out in her flip-flops and a black Speedo swimming suit. Her dark hair hits just below muscular swimmer’s shoulders. Her skin is darkly tan from lifeguarding at the local municipal pool. She is neither pretty nor ugly, of medium build and with no prominent features. She looks like an athlete; there’s a clumsy tomboyishness about the way she moves, an emotional disconnect with her body. She does not appear to have any feelings about her body, good or bad. She is used to being near-naked, the way athletes are.
Today she is giving a private swim lesson. She flings a towel on a deck chair and kicks off her sandals. There’s a casual recklessness about the way she does these things, as if letting loose wayward objects into the world with abandon. That’s when she notices the ripples on the surface of the water. She sees that there is something moving in the pool.
It is so small that she doesn’t recognize it until she’s close—a baby opossum, probably only a week old, its tiny pink paws frantically paddling, its even tinier pink nose struggling above the surface of the water. The poor thing must have fallen into the pool in the night. It is too little to thrust its tiny body up and over the nearest ledge. The baby’s muscles quake with exhaustion. Even its tiny sparkling eyes look tired; it is on the brink of succumbing to fatigue.
The young woman moves quickly, sliding her sandals back on, and pauses for a moment at the top of the deck. She grabs a net and heads toward the opossum. The camera cuts in as the net lowers, dipping into the surface of the water, catching the baby opossum under the belly just in front of its hind legs. With a quick, almost effortless movement, the net drags the opossum under the surface until its head is fully submerged. The animal thrashes, its tired body now alert to a new threat. It struggles loudly, whimpering and squealing, until it finally manages to free its hindquarters from the lip of the net. But it’s barely able to gasp a breath before the net comes down again. The angle of the net is awkward though, and the animal is able to writhe out of its trap.
The young woman sighs, and the net is lifted. The baby opossum feels relief wash over it for a fraction of a second, only to resume its desperate paddling against the water. The young woman drops the net on the ground, grabs her towel, and heads back inside. Moments later she is on the phone with her private student—today’s lesson is canceled; there is something wrong with the pool. She grabs her keys, flings her front door open, and skips down the stairs to the muscle car that she’s been driving since her sixteenth birthday. The V-8 engine stutters for just a moment, then roars to life. She slams the transmission into reverse, just barely dodging the other cars in the driveway, then takes off, ready to make the most of a newly free summer afternoon.
When she returns home at dusk she sees a dark shadow at the bottom of the pool. She grabs the same net, manages to scoop up the small bundle on the first try, and pitches it over the fence into her neighbor’s yard. She drops an extra chlorine tablet into the pool and heads inside. The camera lingers on the placid pool, no longer interrupted by frantic waves. Fade to black.
I am a sociopath. Through dual quirks of genetics and environment, I suffer from what psychologists now refer to as antisocial personality disorder, characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” Key among the characteristics of the diagnosis are a lack of remorse, a penchant for deceit, and a failure to conform to social norms. I prefer to define my sociopathy as a set of traits that inform my personality but don’t define me: 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. Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms with an intertwined clinical history, and they are largely now used interchangeably, though some academics distinguish between the two based on genetics, aggression, or other factors. I have chosen to call myself a sociopath because of the negative connotations of psycho in the popular culture. I may have a disorder, but I am not crazy.
I can trace the likely genetic link through my father to his birth father, who was known for being an exceptionally cold man. My grandfather’s heavily scarred face attested to his impulsiveness and penchant for risk taking and violence. He was literally a rocket scientist but fancied himself a cowboy. He spent all of his inherited wealth on a ranch that he ran into the ground, then lost to back taxes. He knocked up my grandmother and was forced into an unwanted marriage that ended quite suddenly just months after my father was born. He gave up parental rights and never saw my father again. I don’t know anything about my paternal great-grandparents, although my guess is that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
My upbringing promoted my genetic propensities, but not in the ways that you would expect from watching television or movie depictions of a sociopath. I was not a victim of child abuse, and I am not a murderer or a criminal. I have never skulked behind prison walls; I prefer mine to be covered in ivy. I am an accomplished attorney and law professor. I am a typical well-respected, young academic, regularly writing for law journals and advancing various legal theories. I donate 10 percent of my income to charity and teach Sunday school every week. I have a close circle of family and friends whom I love and who very much love me.
Does any of this sound like you? Maybe you are a sociopath too. Recent estimates say that 1 percent to 4 percent of the population, or one in every twenty-five people, is a sociopath— that’s higher than the percentage of people who have anorexia or autism. You’re not a serial killer? Never imprisoned? Most of us aren’t. Some of you may be surprised to find that it is no defense that you’re not a criminal. Only 20 percent of male and female prison inmates are sociopaths, although we are probably responsible for about half of serious crimes committed. Nor are most sociopaths incarcerated. In fact, the silent majority of sociopaths lives freely and anonymously in society, holding down jobs, getting married, having children—fitting in with varying degrees of success in a culture that easily considers sociopaths as monsters. Who then are sociopaths? We are legion and diverse. At least one of them looks like me. Does one of them look like you?
Do you have plenty of friends, paramours, or admirers? That doesn’t disqualify you; in fact quite the opposite. Despite our bad reputation, sociopaths are categorically known for our exceptional, albeit superficial, charm. In a world filled with gloomy, mediocre nothings populating a go-nowhere rat race, people are attracted to the sociopath’s exceptionalism like moths to a flame.
You would like me if you met me. I am quite confident about that because I have met a statistically significant sample size of the population and they were all susceptible to my charms. I have the kind of smile that is common among television show characters and rare in real life, perfect in its sparkly-teeth dimensions and ability to express pleasant invitation. I’m the sort of date you would love to bring to your ex’s wedding. Fun, exciting, the perfect office escort—your boss’s wife has never met anyone quite so charming. And I’m just the right amount of smart and successful so that your parents would be thrilled if you brought me home.
Do you have an inflated view of yourself? I certainly seem to, don’t I? Sociopaths are known for having egos so full-bodied they could be considered Rubenesque. I exude confidence, much more than my looks or social stature would warrant. I am not very tall but present solidly with broad, strong shoulders and an angular jaw. My friends often remark on my toughness and swagger. But I am just as comfortable in summer dresses as I am in cowboy boots.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of my confidence is the way I sustain eye contact. Some people have called it a “predator stare,” and it appears that most sociopaths have it. Sustained eye contact can seem hostile, and so zoo visitors are frequently advised not to stare at gorillas, lest it be taken as a sign of aggression. Most humans seem to think so, too; otherwise, staring contests wouldn’t present much of a challenge. Sociopaths are different. We are unfazed by uninterrupted eye contact. Our failure to look away politely is often perceived as being confident, aggressive, seductive, or predatory. It can throw people off balance, but often in an exciting way that imitates the unsettling feeling of infatuation.
Ever find yourself using that charm and confidence to get people to do things for you that they otherwise wouldn’t? Some might call it manipulation, but I like to consider it simply using what God gave me. And the word manipulation is so ugly. It’s what people say to disavow their own choices. If they end up never regretting their decision, does that mean that no one has manipulated them?
Manipulation is where the traits of a sociopath take a distinct turn for the nefarious in a lot of people’s minds, but I don’t see why. It is just fulfilling an exchange. People want a particular thing—to please you, to feel wanted or needed, to be seen as a good person—and manipulation is just a quick and dirty way to get both people something they want. You might call it seduction. One of my sociopathic friends gave this example. One guy wants to sell a car for $5,000, the second wants to buy it for $10,000. I am aware of the two but neither is aware of the other. I buy the car for $5,000, sell it to the second guy for $10,000, and I make $5,000. It’s called arbitrage and happens on Wall Street (and a lot of other places) every day. We all get what we want, and we’re all happy, as long as the two never connect the dots and never learn more than they need to. I facilitate their ignorance for the benefit of all, especially myself.
Indeed, I believe that most people who interact with sociopaths are better off than they otherwise would be. Sociopaths are part of the grease making the world go round. We fulfill fantasies, or at least the appearance of fantasies. In fact, we are sometimes the only ones attentive to providing for your deepest wants and needs, the only ones so deeply attuned to them for no ulterior motive immediately discernible by you. We observe our target and strive to become a facsimile of whatever or whoever that person wants—a good employee or boss or lover. It’s not always the case that the facsimile is malicious or ill intentioned. And it makes the target feel good for the course of the transaction and usually ends without harm. Of course everything comes at a price—we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t getting something from you, often money or power or simply even the enjoyment of your admiration and desire, but this certainly does not mean that you get nothing out of it. Maybe some might think the price is too high. But the truth is that if you’ve made a deal with the devil, it’s probably because no one else has offered you more favorable terms.
What about morality? Do you approach questions of morality with ambivalence, finding it easy to justify your own or others’ behavior with a reference to “survival of the fittest”? People sometimes say that we lack remorse or guilt like it’s a bad thing. They are sure that remorse and guilt are necessary to being a “good” person. But there is probably no universal, and certainly no objective, morality. Despite millennia of arguments among theologians and philosophers, no one can really agree on the contours and parameters of morality. From where I stand, it’s hard to put such faith in something so wildly elastic and changeable, something associated with horrors as diverse as honor killings, “just” wars, and capital punishment. Like many people, I adhere to a religion that gives me moral guidance. The practice of it is just good sense—it keeps you out of prison and safely hidden in the crowd. But the heart of morality is something I have never understood.
My view of morality is instrumental. I abide by conventional dictates when it suits me, and otherwise, I follow my own course with little need for justification. Once I helped two elderly Holocaust survivors fill out forms for restitution funds from the German government. They were a couple: a lovely blond woman in her late seventies or early eighties who obviously spent money on her clothes and her face, and an even older man with a shock of white hair on top of his head and the sense of entitlement that you often see in Los Angeles among aging Hollywood stars. His papers seemed to be more or less in order. At one point he even belligerently rolled up his sleeve to reveal a numeric tattoo that matched his paperwork. The woman’s papers were more confusing. She had dates from a previous restitution claim, but they didn’t really make sense when compared with the story she told me. According to her paperwork she was in and out of camps, which seemed unusually inefficient for the Germans. I didn’t really know what to put down on the form, so I stood and told her I would ask for help from the organizers sponsoring the event. She panicked, grabbed my arm, and sat me back down. What followed was a bit difficult to understand, given her old age, likely senility, and bad English. Pointing to one of the forms, she said, “This isn’t me.”
A story of fraud and survival rolled out before me, if not from her actual words then from my own tendency to infer deceit. With her blond hair and blue eyes, no one had suspected her of being Jewish. She was able to “pass” for the duration of the war as a seamstress and then stole the documents that corroborated her story of time spent in camps from another young woman, who had died shortly after liberation. I think that was the gist, anyway; I made it a point not to ask any questions. I wonder if her husband even knew who she really was. I wonder if it was all a figment of her imagination, or mine.
In any case, I felt no moral compunction about helping her fill out the forms. It was not my job to question her story, only to help her tell it. I was glad to do it, actually. I admired her. In the course of my travels, I had visited several Holocaust sites and been through the Anne Frank Achterhuis more times than I would have preferred. Visiting these places, I was always struck by the enormous passivity of most of the people involved: the neighbors, the townspeople, the camp guards, the fellow prisoners.
Looking at the old woman, I could not help but recognize myself. A kindred spirit. She knew what it meant to be a survivor at all costs. An elaborate identity theft to rise from oppression. I could only hope to do so well in my own life.
She was probably lucky to have been assigned to me rather than some other volunteer. It’s hard to know if someone else with a firmer moral compass might have asked more questions and availed themselves of more, and thus potentially incriminating, information. A compassionate person might think that she must have suffered during the war, if not in the same ways then for the same reasons as those the restitution was meant to help. She probably lived in constant fear of being discovered. Who knows whom she had to bribe, befriend, or seduce to maintain her freedom? But yet another might not want to help someone who helped herself by breaking the rules. Shouldn’t we be disgusted with those who game the system, accept government money when they’re not entitled to it, and are opportunistic about social safety nets? There might even be some judgment about her choice to capitalize on her Aryan looks to avoid suffering alongside her kin. But luckily for her there was no moral conundrum for me, and I sent them both on their way in time to catch a nice lunch.
Are you good at making decisions on the fly, sometimes to the consternation of your friends and family? Sociopaths are known for being spontaneous. I get restless; I find it hard to focus on one project for a particular length of time or to keep a job for more than a few years. Sociopaths tend to crave stimulation and are easily bored, so we tend to make snap decisions. The darker side of impulsivity is that we can become fixated on an impulse to the exclusion of all else, unable to listen to reason. Whereas most people experience impulsivity as hotheadedness, I become coldhearted.
I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to, as I am sure most people have. I have rarely wanted to kill those close to me; more often it has been a chance encounter with someone who caused me consternation. Once while visiting Washington, DC, for a law conference, a metro worker tried to shame me about using an escalator that was closed. He asked in thickly accented English, “Didn’t you see the yellow gate?”
Me: Yellow gate? Him: The gate! I just put the gate up and you had to walk around it!
Silence. My face is blank.
Him: That’s trespassing! Don’t you know it is wrong to trespass! The escalator was closed, you broke the law!
I stare at him silently.
Him: [visibly rattled at my lack of reaction] Well, next time, you don’t trespass, okay?
It was not okay. People often say, in explaining their horrible actions, that they “just snapped.” I know that feeling well. I stood there for a moment, letting my rage reach that decision-making part of my brain, and I suddenly became filled with a sense of calm purpose. I blinked my eyes and set my jaw. I started following him. Adrenaline started flowing. My mouth tasted metallic. I fought to keep my peripheral vision in focus, hyperaware of everything around me, trying to predict the movement and behavior of the crowd. I was unfamiliar with the city, a new user of the metro, and it was just before rush hour. I was hoping that he would walk into some deserted hallway or sneak away through a hidden, unlocked door where I would find him alone, waiting. I felt so sure of myself, so focused on this one thing I felt I had to do. An image sprang to my mind of my hands wrapped around his neck, my thumbs digging deeply into his throat, his life slipping away from him under my unrelenting grasp. How right that would feel.
It seems odd thinking about this now. I weigh less than 130 pounds; he probably weighed 160. I have strong hands from being a musician, but I wonder if they would be strong enough to squeeze the breath out of him in his last moments of life. Is it truly so easy to extinguish a life? When it came down to it, I couldn’t even manage to drown a baby opossum. I had been caught in a fit of megalomaniacal fantasy, but in the end it didn’t matter anyway. I lost him in the crowd, and just as quickly as it had arisen in me, my murderous rage dissipated.
I have wondered since, what would have happened to me had I not lost sight of him? I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to actually kill him, but I am also relatively certain I would have assaulted him. Would he have struggled? Would I have been hurt? Would police have been involved? What could I possibly have said or done to get myself off the hook? I often wonder about this and dozens of similar incidents. I realize that one day I may do something very bad. How would I react in such a situation? Would I be able to put on a sufficient show of remorse? Or would I be revealed to be a faker?
From my own observations, I have found that a sociopath’s need for stimulation plays out in very person-specific ways. I’m not surprised that some sociopaths would fill this need via criminal or violent acts, particularly if these were the opportunities that regularly presented themselves. It also seems perfectly plausible that others would feed their need for stimulation via other more legitimate routes, pursuing careers in firefighting or espionage or duking it out in the boardrooms of corporate America. My thought is that sociopaths who grow up poor among drug dealers are likely to become sociopathic drug dealers; sociopaths who grow up in the middle and upper classes are likely to become sociopathic surgeons and executives.
Have you succeeded in rapidly climbing the corporate ladder in a competitive field like business, finance, or law? If charm, arrogance, cunning, callousness, and hyper-rationality are considered sociopathic traits, it’s probably no surprise that many sociopaths end up as successful corporate types. In fact, as one CNN reporter opined: “Squint at the symptoms of psychopathy, and in a different light they can appear as simple office politics or entrepreneurial prowess.” Dr. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet, due to the close match between the personality traits of sociopaths and the unusual demands of high-powered jobs.
Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam and Scott Paper, was famous as a turnaround artist and downsizer until he was investigated for accounting fraud by the SEC. In the book The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, Dunlap admits to having many of the traits of a psychopath, but he redefines those traits as crucial to being a business leader. For instance, in his mind, “manipulation” can be translated to the ability to inspire and lead others. Overblown confidence is necessary to survive the hard knocks of business: “You’ve got to like yourself if you’re going to be a success.” Not to mention, due to our inability to empathize, sociopaths are perfect for all the dirty work that no one else has the stomach for, such as firing and downsizing. In fact, that ruthlessness in personnel decisions is how Dunlap earned his nickname—“Chainsaw Al.”
Easily distracted? That’s situational awareness. Constantly in need of stimulation and love playing games? These characteristics promote risk taking, which in business often equals reward. If you combine a propensity for manipulation, dishonesty, callousness, arrogance, poor impulse control, and the rest of the sociopathic traits, you could end up with a socially dangerous individual or the next big-thinking entrepreneur. Robert Hare says that the biggest tip-off to identifying a “successful sociopath” is a “predatory spirit,” just the kind that businesses seem to love. It seems that where we do not crash and burn, we have the potential to achieve dizzying amounts of success.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you recognize yourselves in these descriptions. It is statistically very probable that some people reading this book are sociopaths and have never realized it. If this is you, welcome home.
Being a sociopath doesn’t define me. In a lot of ways I am ordinary. These days I lead a quiet, middle-class life in a medium-size city that looks like any number of cities across America. I accomplish errands at various strip malls on the weekends. I work more than I should, and I have trouble sleeping.
When not acting impulsively, almost everything I do is done with purpose. Things like physical appearance are most easy to manipulate. My nails are immaculately manicured and my eyebrows perfectly groomed. These days I allow my dark hair to grow just past my shoulders. It is soft and unfussy in subtle compliance with the strictures of fashion. The pleasant ordinariness of my hair brushing lightly against my eyelashes functions to neutralize the intensity of my eyes, which are shiny and flecked by jagged-edged shards of amber, as if something shattered when they first opened to the world. They are probing and merciless.
I should say something about my intelligence, which I believe to be one of the most difficult topics to navigate. While people may be forced to acknowledge their inferior physical appearances, they rarely do so in regards to their intellect, the hidden and variable nature of which allows for rampant self-deception. Even your regular junior high dropout likes to think that he could have been Steve Jobs had he chosen computer programming over meth addiction.
I think I am pretty realistic about my intelligence. I am probably smarter than you, dear reader, but I know that in the rare instance this will not be true. I accept that there are many more kinds of intelligence than just raw brainpower (which of course I have in spades), but I do not necessarily respect them all. Rather, I believe that true, worthwhile intelligence is characterized by an innate and superior awareness of surroundings and an ability and desire to learn. This type is rare in the general populace. I was very young when I realized I was smarter than most everyone else, and I felt at once victorious and isolated.
It is not always clear what sets people like me apart from other members of society. Sociopathy cannot be diagnosed based solely on a person’s behavior but must focus on their internal motivations. Take for instance my story about drowning an opossum. It is not, in itself, a sociopathic act. Killing a small, cute animal might be cruel or sadistic, which is not necessarily sociopathic. In my case, it was merely expedient. It was an act of dispassion.
In letting the baby opossum die a slow and horrible death, I didn’t feel morally justified. I didn’t think about having to justify myself at all. I didn’t feel sad or happy about it. I took no pleasure in its suffering; I did not give it a thought. I didn’t feel anything other than a desire to solve my problem in the simplest way possible. I was concerned only for myself. There wasn’t much chance that the baby would cause much harm if I saved it, but there was no upside for me if I did. And at some point, there was no point in finishing the job of killing it; the pool was probably already contaminated by the opossum releasing its bodily wastes in the throes of death. It was just easier to cancel my plans and wait for the inevitable approach of death.
Instead of acts, I believe that what really distinguish a sociopath conceptually from everyone else are our compulsions, our motivations, and the narratives we tell ourselves about our inner lives. Sociopaths don’t include elements of guilt or moral responsibility in their mental stories, only self-interest and self-preservation. I don’t assign moral values to my choices, just cost-benefit. And indeed, sociopaths are without exception obsessed with power, playing and winning games, appeasing their boredom, and seeking pleasure. My story lines focus on how smart I am or how well I play a situation.
Similarly, I like to imagine that I have “ruined people” or seduced someone to the point of being irreparably mine. The stories I tell myself to explain my actions are self-aggrandizing. I spend a lot of time spinning reality in my head to make me seem more clever and powerful than reality would suggest. (Sociopaths are highly immune to depression, and this ability to tell ourselves wonderful stories about how attractive, smart, and wily we are, and to believe them, surely helps.) The only situation in which I may feel shame or embarrassment is when I have been outplayed. I am never embarrassed that someone may be thinking something bad about me, as long as I have conceived of some gambit in which I have fooled or outmaneuvered them.
Normal people feel emotions that I simply don’t. For them, emotions like guilt serve as convenient shortcuts, telling people when they’re crossing societal or moral boundaries that they’re better off observing. But guilt is not absolutely necessary to live within social acceptability. And it certainly isn’t the only thing that prevents people from murdering, stealing, and lying. Indeed, guilt is often unsuccessful at preventing these actions. It follows, then, that the lack of guilt does not make sociopaths criminals. We have alternative means of keeping ourselves in line. In fact, because guilt does not drive our decision-making, we experience fewer emotional prejudices and more freedom of thought and action. For instance, I felt no need to insert myself and exercise my own moral judgment regarding the old lady who may or may not have survived the internment camps. I would like to think I was better able to help her in her unique situation because of my emotional distance. Recent research suggests that emotions and gut reactions play a dominant role in forming moral judgments and that rationalization of those emotions only follows. The human brain is a belief factory, and part of its job is to rationally justify moral feelings. Rational decision-making is not fail-proof, but neither is guilt and remorse. Neither sociopaths nor the empathic—“empaths”—have a monopoly on bad behavior.
There seems to me to be something wrong with requiring people to pretend to feel remorse. Is it any wonder then that sociopaths are known as being liars? There is really no other option for them, when to show their true feelings (or lack thereof) or to express their true thoughts would get them extra jail time, cause them to be branded as an antisocial, or any number of other negative consequences, simply because they do not share the same worldview as the majority.
Living in a world of empaths makes me vividly aware of how I am different. In John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, he describes a sociopathic character, Cathy:
Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.
Like Cathy, there has always been something foreign seeming about me. As a sociopath friend of mine put it: “People, no matter how stupid, can’t put their finger on it, but somehow know I’m not quite right.”
Sometimes it feels like I am in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and any slipup or indication that I am different will draw suspicion. I mimic the way other people interact with others, not to trick them, but so I can hide among them. I hide because I fear that if I am discovered there will be unpredictable negative consequences as part of being affiliated with a disorder plagued by pejorative connotations. I don’t want to end up fired from my job or kept away from children or institutionalized just because other people can’t understand me. I hide because society has made it almost impossible to do otherwise.
Have I earned your hostility?
I’m not necessarily a sadist. I intentionally hurt people sometimes, but don’t we all? It seems like the greatest harm is often inflicted through passion—the angry ex-husband who won’t let anyone have his wife if he can’t, the armed zealot willing to die and kill for his cause, the father who loves his daughter just a little too much. There’s no danger of this kind of explosive excess of ardor from me.
Even so, I often try to soften my edges around people with whom I share the closest relationships. I actively shield them from realizing that I am meticulously calibrating their value to me at all times, because I know that they are hurt by such things. The consequences of their hurt often result in discomfort to me in the form of withheld privileges or retracted social favors—friends and even family are only so forgiving of bad behavior before they start to withdraw—so I have trained myself to behave with “sensitivity” to their feelings like most of you do, by holding my tongue or indulging their harebrained ideas about themselves and the world. Of course I am ruthless with my enemies, but that is also a very common human quality.
A few years ago, I suffered a series of setbacks. It was a time of loss and introspection, and it was then that I realized that the “sociopath” label explained the pattern of thought that was at the root of many of my problems. A friend had casually diagnosed me years earlier but I hadn’t thought about it since. This time I took it seriously. I started looking for answers and browsing the basic information that was available on the Internet and in popular science magazines. I was appalled that all of it reeked of a particular bias. There were some amusing blogs written by victims of con artists, but there weren’t any sociopaths writing about their perspectives online. I saw an opportunity for offering a different perspective that coincided with my own interests at the time. I figured that if I existed, there must be others like me—other sociopaths who didn’t make their impact in a world of crime but out in the business and professional world. I wanted to shape the dialogue to reflect my point of view. I wanted to expand the discussion of sociopaths beyond the traditional study of incarcerated criminals. The entrepreneur in me also thought there could be some benefit from being the first to do it and doing it well, so in 2008 I started writing a blog called SociopathWorld.com, which I intended as an online community for people who identify as sociopaths, as well as people who love and hate them.
At the time of this writing, thousands visit the site a day; since the blog’s inception, there have been more than a million discrete visitors from all over the world. An active online community of aggressive narcissists, violent sociopaths, and morbid empaths comments daily—some are sensitive and thoughtful, while others are crude and sophomoric. To my occasional amusement, their discussions often divert wildly off topic—they engage in bullying and peer pressure, express territoriality, shame and tease—setting up a complicated social dynamic I had not imagined. Some lay out the facts of their lives, as if confession would offer absolution, or at least a modicum of self-acceptance, which I can understand. Still others quietly skulk on the site—perhaps trying to glean what they can from it to gain some mastery of their own lives, or simply to feel closer to a largely anonymous group of deviants of which they feel they are a part.
My favorite part about running the blog has been encountering scores of other sociopaths. I managed to tap into a hidden community, populated by complex characters and rich with histories. Despite these differences, I recognize myself in them and they in me. I am different than a killer or rapist or serial-embezzler sociopath who has no check on her behavior, but we all cross Hare’s threshold line into the category of sociopath. We share a kind of capital that we have each been cultivating largely in isolation, learning in our own private ways how to be. Maybe the world hates us, and maybe we do not know or even like each other, but at least we can understand one another, in our way, and know that there is a precedent for people like ourselves. Via my exposure to the myriad variety of sociopaths and other personality types that I’ve run into on the blog and in real life, I have also been able to eliminate many misconceptions I myself had about sociopathy—for instance, that all criminal sociopaths are overly impulsive and low-functioning. I’ve also reaffirmed to myself that sociopaths really are different from the average person, often in very dangerous or scary ways. Once they’ve targeted someone, I’ve seen sociopaths on my blog fixate on that individual like the proverbial pit bull, slowly eliciting information from them until they’ve acquired enough leverage to out them to their friends and family, and marriages are disrupted and homes are broken, all for the sport of it. Sociopaths have both the power and inclination to ruin lives, and this is just what they do to strangers on the Internet.
I don’t ever mean to give the impression that no one should worry about sociopaths because I am not so bad. Just because I’m smart, high-functioning, and nonviolent doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of stupid, uninhibited, or dangerous sociopaths out there who genuinely should be avoided. I try to avoid people like that; after all, it’s not like sociopaths all give each other hall passes to avoid harassment. And the really extreme ones probably aren’t commenting on my blog from their isolation cells, so who knows in what ways they would be similar to or different from the sociopath next door. We share many things in common, but we differ in how those traits manifest themselves in our behavior.
In my experience, sociopathy exists on a spectrum of severity, from the death row inmate to the ruthless venture capitalist to the calculating cheerleader mom. Consider, as an example, someone with Down syndrome. I have two relatives that have Down’s—one blood and the other adopted. The blood relative does sort of look like the rest of his family, his siblings, and his parents, but he also looks unmistakably like his adoptive sister who also has Down syndrome. In fact, most people would probably say he looks more like his adoptive sister than his blood siblings—unless the observer was intentionally trying to look past some of the more obvious Down’s markers, such as the distinctive broad, flat face, creased eyelid, short stature, and so on.
Down’s is an interesting condition. Throw an extra chromosome in there, and it affects the way seemingly every other gene is expressed. It’s almost as if you take the individual’s raw genetic material and put a very distinctive mask over it.
I think that sociopathy is something like this. My personality resembles my siblings’ quite a bit. And it resembles the personalities of many people around me, my colleagues and friends, people whom I have chosen to surround myself with due to our mutual or complementary views of the world. But my personality also resembles those of other sociopaths a great deal, sometimes in ways more conspicuous because of our relative rarity in the general populace. It’s amazing to me how much of my habits of mind and proclivities of action I can share in common with strangers—with people who are of different genders, ethnicities, races, nationalities, backgrounds, ages. But I am not just like every other sociopath. From what I have seen of us we are all very different. But there is no mistaking a certain family resemblance.
When I first started my blog, I struggled in writing my posts with this issue of what it means, day to day, to be a sociopath. On the one hand, if I talked openly about the limited role sociopathy played in my life, I ran the risk of not seeming sociopathic enough. But I also wanted to present myself as a real person, not a caricature you’d expect to see on television. I’ve decided to lean more on the side of authenticity and less on the side of titillation. I have a similar goal for this book. I know I will live for a long time. I have managed to remain undetected so far, but there’s no telling how long that will last. Will I end up being shipped off to a sociopaths-only gulag? Perhaps if I’m lucky. Many visitors to my blog have called for much worse, including our total extermination. I’m hoping that once you get to know one sociopath, you’ll show even this cold heart some compassion when the cattle cars come to ship me off somewhere.
And hopefully you’ll gain something too—awareness and understanding of a type of person that you probably see and interact with daily. I don’t think that I’m the prototypical sociopath. Not everything I do in my life is straight out of a sociopath handbook. A lot of readers question whether I am a sociopath at all. Certainly not everything I do falls in line with all the diagnostic criteria psychologists have developed for sociopathic behavior. I think this surprises people, particularly those whose only idea of a sociopath comes from the psycho killers they see in movies. But to the extent that we share these things in common, particularly a common mind-set, I understand other sociopaths in a way that is often eerie. I want to reveal my internal dialogue and motivations, because I believe that to learn to understand the mind-set of one sociopath is to get an uncommon insight into the minds of all other sociopaths. You might even find that the way I think is not that different from your own.
Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt has opined that the presence of monsters and hybrid creatures in modern human culture, unknown to Neolithic man, indicates a high degree of development. The idea is that the further a society is from nature and, inevitably, a healthy fear of it, the more it finds itself inventing things of which to be afraid.
There is a romantic poem believed to have been written by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century called Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion. In search of chivalric adventure, Yvain comes across a monster in a clearing—“so passing ugly was the creature that no word of mouth could do him justice.” I imagine the creature as a young girl. She is lying in the bedroom she shares with her sister in her parents’ large house, dark tendrils of hair touching her eyelashes ever so slightly. She daydreams of throats split open in effusions of brilliant red.
In order to ascertain whether a fight is in store for him, Yvain engages the monster in conversation:
“Come, let me know whether thou art a creature of good or not.”
And the creature replied: “I am a man.”
“What kind of a man art thou?”
“Such as thou seest me to be: I am by no means otherwise.”
People are interested in the mind of a sociopath, and understandably so, but I suspect for the wrong reasons. This book is sure to disappoint if you are looking for graphic tales of violence. They don’t exist, and in any case absolutely anyone could be a gruesome killer if put in the right situation. I don’t think there’s anything very interesting about that, or at least I don’t have anything to add to that particular fact about humanity.
I think it’s more interesting why I chose to buy a house for my closest friend, or gave my brother $10,000 the other day, just because. I recently got an e-mail from a friend with terminal cancer, saying I give the most thoughtful and useful gifts and how she is so grateful to know me. I am considered a very helpful and considerate professor and am consistently rated one of the best in the school. I am devoutly religious. I am functionally a good person and yet I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are. Am I a monster? I prefer to believe that you and I simply occupy different points on the spectrum of humanity.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas. Copyright © 2013 by M. E. Thomas.
First published 2013 by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. First published in Great Britain in paperback 2013 by Sidgwick & Jackson, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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