Review: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, by M. E. Thomas

122719-121559>>Published: May 2013

>>Finally got around to it: January 2014

I don’t mean to redefine sociopathy as the new normal, and certainly not “better than normal.” Sociopaths are not a race of Übermenschen. We’re not out doing good among the populace—standing up for the disenfranchised when everyone else is too afraid—not often, at least, and never as a general rule. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved vigilante-justice movies, but I often root for the bad guy. Society labels the subversive a criminal or revolutionary, not him. He rarely needs to tell himself stories of moral justification in order to engage in his flourishes of elaborate violence. I know I’m not alone in my love of the villain. In him, we see freedom.

Perhaps that is why the sociopath has loomed so large in our fictive spaces—Hannibal Lecter pulling Clarice’s strings from behind bars; the talented con artist Tom Ripley infiltrating and destroying the life of his wealthy beloved, Dickie; the perfectly coifed Patrick Bateman traipsing through yuppie New York soaked in blood, real or imagined. They constitute walking manifestations of overblown desire and destructive forces, characterized by the absence of limitations, whether it be empathy, guilt, or fear. Indeed, the most enduring of cold-blooded villains, Dracula, is so limitless that he dissolves into mist. Historically, the diagnosis for sociopathy has in many ways served as an amalgam of miscellaneous reprobate traits, a depository for wayward, antisocial behavior from which its members can be identified and separated from everyone else. In the gothic vampire myth, the existence of the nocturnal creature can be explained, and thus contained, in the realm of the supernatural. In everyday life, however, explanations for the existence of the sociopath are much more elusive.

***

Strange as it might sound, as an extreme empath—someone not only heavily attuned to the emotions of others but often pulled up or down by them, as if tethered to those I care about like a dog on a leash—I’ve always been fascinated by sociopaths and the space the occupy on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The expectation of a sociopath is of someone who is ruthless, cold, and capable of pushing their emotions to the side in favour of a more calculated, survival-of-the-fittest way of operating in day-to-day life. They are stereotypically the Wall Street elite, those with a cutthroat attitude to the world around them, especially as it relates to climbing social and business ladders, and a willingness to play by only their own rules of ethical conduct. As detailed by pseudononymous author M. E. Thomas, this assumption is not terribly far from reality.

Confessions of a Sociopath is both a memoir of sorts and a loose academic treatise on sociopathy. With unflinching honesty, the author invites readers into her unique life spent coming to terms with being labelled a sociopath, learning to embrace the distinction, and how it has affected everything from her family life, friendships, and relationships to school and her professional career.

Just what defines a sociopath? As Thomas writes, elements used to identify someone as a sociopath include:

Superficial charm and good intelligence
Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
Absence of nervousness or psychoneurotic manifestations
Unreliability
Untruthfulness and insincerity
Lack of remorse and shame
Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
General poverty in major affective reactions
Specific loss of insight
Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without
Suicide threats rarely carried out
Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
Failure to follow any life plan

As a devout Mormon, a law professor, and a Sunday school teacher, Thomas’ life is a fascinating mix of successes, failures, and sacrifices one might not immediately attribute to a sociopath. However, what’s clear after reading this book is that the specific mixture of ideals and practices that make up Thomas’ life are part of a larger chess game in which she’s positioning her pieces not necessarily to take over the other players but to disappear amongst them, so that she might use their moves to better calculate her own. As put forth in chapters such as “I’m a Child of God,” “Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers,” and “Emotions and the Fine Art of Ruining People,” Thomas offers readers a sociopaths’ eye-view on the world and the divergent paths taken by sociopaths and empaths, or “normal” people; where, in certain situations, an empathic person would feel a desire to protect a wounded friend or colleague, the sociopath would typically see an opportunity to get ahead by pulling said friend further down into their own abyss.

Thomas goes to great lengths to show that although sociopaths do not fit into any normative spectrum socially defined as “right” or “proper,” they do in fact have a full template of feelings and emotional responses to situations and stimuli—the difference, as she writes it, is that they are not governed by these responses but in fact can choose how best to pay into them or ignore them outright as the case may be. In some ways, the sociopath’s incredible capacity for emotional control can seem robotic. The truth of the matter, though, is decidedly more worrisome. Unlike a machine for whom emotions are calculable transactions, the sociopath is as capable as anyone at weighing the emotional heft of a situation, and knowing through a lifetime’s worth of interacting with those dissimilar to themselves how best to play an individual to suit their specific whims and/or needs.

The question of nature versus nurture in the development of a sociopath of course makes an appearance, and Thomas explores this via her own relatively cold upbringing, in which her parents—her decidedly obtuse mother and father, the latter prone to excessive fits of explosive violence—and siblings are all seemingly on different points of the emotional spectrum. It’s clear that, like in many situations involving divergent or unique psychologies, a sociopath isn’t bred—at least not entirely; there must be something “off” in the chemistry to begin with. However, as Thomas makes clear, it’s in the nurturing that helps determine whether or not a sociopathic child will grow into someone capable of fitting in with society, or someone forever skirting the boundaries, possibly coming into frequent conflict with people and rigid social structures.

Alongside my pre-existing interest in sociopathy, my desire to read Confessions of a Sociopath stemmed largely from my interest in writing fiction and a compulsion to learn more about specific character archetypes—specifically villains. Interestingly enough, one of my favourite villains in literature—Cathy Ames, from Steinbeck’s East of Eden—is regularly employed as an example of a pure sociopath, someone for whom the pain of others is a kind of sustenance. Cathy is a monstrous figure, malevolent and seemingly without a soul; she is the not-so-shining light of a sociopath for who even the basic concepts of decency and the wellbeing of others are nothing more than simple trifles. What Thomas makes clear is that Cathy is not necessarily the exception to the rule, but neither is she the rule itself. Cathy is a dot on the far side of the line of sociopathy, but not a definition of character for all sociopaths.

In first hearing about this book, I came across a review of it in The Boston Globe. The first paragraph reads: “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?” After reading Thomas’ book I feel compelled to weigh in on this. Yes, it’s entirely possible that in seeking to write about sociopathy Thomas is manipulating the reader, offering them just enough of a carrot to feel threatened by the sociopaths in the world around them, hiding in their midst like passive assassins who will one day sweep their lives out from beneath their feet. However, unlike the reviewer from The Boston Globe, I have no doubt that what Thomas has provided is a truthful account of her life as a sociopath and the struggles and benefits contained within. In fact, I feel it’s worth mentioning that Confessions of a Sociopath in many ways feels like one of the most honest books I’ve read in a very long time. Though writing under a pseudonym to protect herself from potential personal, professional, and legal ramifications (given the touchy reaction many in society would have to someone “outing” themselves as a sociopath, a word which is too often linked to criminal psychopathy), Thomas writes as if exposed, completely and utterly. Like one would expect of a sociopath, given the distinction’s penchant for ego and high levels of confidence, it feels as if while reading the book you’re peering into the confession of someone uninterested in hedging their bets; Thomas writes with blunt profundity, as if she’s got nothing to lose. This is a fascinating, albeit deeply disturbing book, one that will get you looking carefully at your own life and social circle, wondering just who the sociopaths in your midst truly are.

*And goddamn I love this book’s cover…

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2 thoughts on “Review: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, by M. E. Thomas

  1. Hunh. This isn’t one that was catching my attention, but your comments have intrigued me, and I want to take a peek now. The cover, mind you, certainly is an attention-getter; I wonder if this cover and the cover of Corey Redekop’s Husk would like to hang out.

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