What exactly is a sociopath? Many people might think of killers, criminals, the cruel and heartless, Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining.
That's the common wisdom. But it's being challenged by a new memoir, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. It's written under the pen name of M.E. Thomas. The author says most sociopaths are not incarcerated — and the silent majority of them live freely and anonymously. They're your neighbors, colleagues, maybe even family members and lovers.
Thomas admits that sociopaths can be dangerous; they're hungry for power, and they don't feel guilt or remorse. But they're not inherently evil, and some are highly productive members of society. Thomas herself is an attorney, law professor and Sunday school teacher. She founded the website SociopathWorld.com.
On the key traits of a sociopath
"They can be very charismatic. They don't really get nervous. ... They tend to fail to conform to social norms. They might come off as a little bit of an independent thinker. Or they might be committing crimes, depending on who they are. They have a facility with lying — well, they lie frequently, obviously to cover up certain aspects of themselves, or things that would indicate that they are a sociopath. Probably the biggest characteristic of a sociopath is their lack of empathy. ... They can't really imagine or feel the emotional worlds of other people. It's very foreign to them. And they don't have conscience."
On whether sociopaths can have fulfilling, loving relationships
"Definitely fulfilling, and I think loving; we feel a love. You know, whatever it is that we feel affection, for me it's maybe 70 percent gratitude, a little bit of adoration, a little bit of — if it's a romantic relationship — infatuation or sexual attraction. I think a complex emotion like love is made up of all sorts of little emotions. And our particular cocktail of love is going to look or feel different to us, but it's still there."
On changing the way we view sociopaths
"I think that there really has been so little research done about sociopaths. And the common wisdom now is that they are untreatable. And that, you know, sociopathy is basically synonymous with evil. ... You know, statistically everybody has interacted with a sociopath at one point. But the fact that most people can't identify who a sociopath is or remember those sorts of interactions suggests to me that it couldn't have been that bad of an interaction, right? Most people interact with sociopaths in positive ways and don't realize it. It's only when we catch them, and they are in prison, and we have gone through this lengthy trial to point out all the bad things that they've done, that we start thinking that sociopaths are bad."
On realizing she's a sociopath
"I had just lost a job. I had just lost several relationships. And it wasn't the first time that something like this had happened to me, where my life seemed to just fall apart. And I thought, 'Well, I can't keep doing this — every few years have my life just go kaput. And so I thought, 'What is the common denominator here? It's me. There must be something that I'm doing that's causing this.' So I started going to therapy, and therapy didn't really help that much. ... But I remembered through therapy a casual diagnosis that one of my co-workers had made years before. And I explained to her how I viewed the world and my ethical principles, and she said very nicely, 'You might consider the fact that you are a sociopath.' So I looked it up, and I saw the traits, and it made sense. And it made sense in a way that nothing really before had."
On why she wrote the memoir under a pen name
"There's a huge stigma against sociopaths, and I wanted to protect my family a little bit as well. I have little relatives who share my last name, and they've done nothing really to bring any sort of notoriety to themselves."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now we take a peek behind doors that are usually closed, to get a glimpse inside the mind of a sociopath. Now, I know as soon as I use that term, many people have already made some assumptions that sociopaths are criminals, killers, cruel, heartless. But author, blogger and diagnosed sociopath M.E. Thomas wants to challenge the standing wisdom about antisocial personalities. She writes that most sociopaths are not incarcerated, that the silent majority of them live freely and anonymously.
They're your neighbors, your colleagues, maybe even family members and loved ones. She admits they can be dangerous. They're hungry for power. They don't often feel guilt or remorse. But they're not inherently evil, and some are highly productive members of society.
M.E. Thomas herself is an attorney, law professor and Sunday school teacher. She's founder of the website SociopathWorld.com, and her new memoir is titled "Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hidden in Plain Sight." And M.E. Thomas joins us now from NPR member station Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Welcome.
M.E THOMAS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: So let's talk about your decision to write this book in the first place, and why you've written it using a pen name.
THOMAS: So the book came from the blog. And I started writing the blog because I was experiencing, at the time, a lot of bad things. I had just lost a job. I had just lost several relationships. And it wasn't the first time that something like this had happened to me, where my life seemed to just fall apart.
And I thought, well, I can't keep doing this every few years - have my life just go kaput, I guess is what I would say. And so I thought, what is the common denominator here? It's me. There must be something that I'm doing that's causing this.
So I started going to therapy, and therapy didn't really help that much. I didn't really get that much out of it. But I remembered, through therapy, a casual diagnosis that one of my co-workers had made years before. And I explained to her how I view the world and my ethical principles, and she said - very nicely - you might consider the fact that you are a sociopath. So I looked it up, and I saw the traits, and it made sense. And it made sense in a way that nothing really before had. But at the time, everything was going well.
And so I didn't really think much of it. It was just, you know, some interesting fact about myself. But then after I remembered it years later, I thought, maybe there's something to this sociopathy thing, and maybe I should research it and see if this explains why I behave the way that I do.
HEADLEE: Let's talk, then, about the definition of sociopath, 'cause I think a lot of people interchange sociopath with psychopath. So what is the difference between the two, and what is the relationship to this new designation of antisocial personality?
THOMAS: Right. There's a lot of confusion about what exactly the terms mean and whether there's a distinction between sociopath and psychopath. Some researchers use it. And then a lot of people think that antisocial personality disorder has replaced both. And then there are other researchers who say that's not true. Sociopath is the term used by Hervey Cleckley in his "Mask of Sanity" book. And he's sort of the modern father - or the father of the modern concept of sociopathy.
HEADLEE: So how does one recognize a sociopath? What distinguishes sociopath from any other designation?
THOMAS: Some of the primary characteristics of a sociopath are the ones that you might notice, are superficial charm. They can be very charismatic. They don't really get nervous. So if you see them in a car accident, everybody else is freaking out and they're just sitting there calmly, dealing with problems. That's a trait. They tend to fail to conform to social norms. They might come off as a little bit of an independent thinker. Or they might be committing crimes, depending on who they are.
They have a facility with lying. Well, they lie frequently, obviously, to cover up certain aspects of themself, identifying aspects or things that would indicate that they're a sociopath. Probably the biggest characteristic of a sociopath is their lack of empathy. They don't really have the meaningful emotional worlds, inner worlds, that most people have and perhaps because of that, they can't really imagine, or feel, the emotional worlds of other people. It's very foreign to them. And they don't have a conscience.
They don't really feel guilt, in our classic conception of what a conscience is - is feelings of guilt. I think you do something and then you feel guilty afterwards, and we call that conscience. So because sociopaths don't feel guilt or don't really give meaning or context to feelings of guilt, then they don't have this innate conscience that most people have.
HEADLEE: So OK, so let's go back to why you used a pen name. There are very specific details - about your family, about your work, your friends - that I have to imagine that anybody who knows you in real life will know that this is you writing.
THOMAS: Definitely. So while I was writing the blog, I felt like I was living a little bit of a double life. I had my normal life where I went to work, and then I had the other life where I was very honest with my motivations, on the blog. And I interacted with people in a very authentic way, and I started liking the second life better. And I started thinking, well, maybe there's a possibility that I can start being more authentic in my real life.
So when I was deciding what to include in the book, I made the choice to be more authentic, to be more - who exactly I am, with the knowledge that people would know who I am, but thinking that that was a good thing; that I would like to be more open with the people that already know me, particularly.
But I used the pen name because strangers, other random people, it's possibly dangerous. There's a huge stigma against sociopaths, and I wanted to protect my family a little bit as well. I have little relatives who share my last name; and they've done nothing, really, to bring any sort of notoriety to themselves.
HEADLEE: You write in your book about how those things, which could be perceived as weaknesses or strikes against a person, can actually help you in your professional life. In relationships, sometimes some of these very traits that are decried, in sociopaths. can be useful.
THOMAS: Oh, definitely. I think they can be useful. They're very good at cutting to the weakness of a situation whether it's - you know - what am I doing wrong here? Let me help you; here's what you're doing wrong.
HEADLEE: Is it because the emotion is taken out of it?
THOMAS: It must be. I think emotion, when you live in a world that's so complex - it would be sort of like being colorblind. If you took color out of things, then you would perceive things differently. Things that you otherwise would have largely ignored maybe become more important to you because there's not as much going on.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new memoir "Confessions of a Sociopath" with author M.E. Thomas, which is a pen name. I want to, maybe, risk being a little Freudian here and go back to your childhood. Early on in the book you say, you know, I didn't have a bad childhood, I had a perfectly normal childhood. You can't blame me being a sociopath on that. But let me read an excerpt from the book itself. This is where you're talking about your father, who you describe as violent and shaming; and your mother, you described as indifferent, sometimes hysterically.
And you write this: (Reading) I never doubted their love for me, but their love was inconstant. It was sometimes very ugly. It didn't prevent me from harm; rather, it often caused me harm. The more they felt secure in their love for me, the less they seemed prompted, actually, to look after my well-being. I learned a lot from my parents. I learned to limit the emotional effect other people could have on me. I learned to be self-sufficient. They taught me that love is exceedingly unreliable, and so I have never relied on it.
You describe an incident in which your father punches a hole in the bathroom door large enough to put his face through; and another in which your mother and father take you and your brother to the park, and then drive away. That, to me, doesn't seem like a - un-bad childhood. That seems like a kind of negative childhood.
THOMAS: I do think that it's negative. I think I say in the book, it was an unremarkable childhood. And I think that's just acknowledging that those are bad things, but they're not so unusual, unfortunately. I think a lot of people experience those sorts of bad things, but they don't grow up to be sociopaths.
So it was more a point of, it's not just the bad things. And maybe if I were treated more or less horrifically, it would've mattered and affected the extent to which my sociopathy manifested itself. But I think that without that genetic component, bad things can happen to people, and they don't turn out bad. Nobody else in my family is a sociopath. My siblings basically experienced the same upbringing, but I'm the only one that's this way.
HEADLEE: And yet, there's a bit of a warning in this memoir, for other people, in dealing with sociopaths. That sociopaths, to a certain extent, see other people in terms of what use they can be to you, right? How they could be used to gain your own ends. I remember one point where you're describing charging your brother money to play the games that he wants to play. So I mean, that's a bit of a warning to your readers, right?
THOMAS: Definitely. I think - I don't want to whitewash sociopathy at all. When I talk about these different issues, I just want to sort of clarify things. I think people jump to particular conclusions. But it is true, sociopaths do see other people largely in terms of what they can provide to the sociopath. And I think it's largely because they don't feel the same sorts of emotional connections. They don't feel empathy. So take that stuff away and what are you forced to think about people?
You're going to interact with people no matter what. Everybody has a mother and a father. You're still going to value people because people are valuable. People are interesting. People are very complex. They're very - they can be very helpful, useful. Nobody wants to live a life without people. That's a worse life, no matter if you're a sociopath or not.
HEADLEE: So sociopath - you, and others like you, are capable of having fulfilling and loving relationships?
THOMAS: Definitely fulfilling. And I think loving - we feel a love, you know, whatever it is that we feel affection. For me, it's, you know, maybe 70 percent gratitude, a little bit of adoration, a little bit of, if it's a romantic relationship, infatuation or sexual attraction. I think a complex emotion like love is made up of all sorts of little emotions, and our particular cocktail of love is going to look or feel different to us, but it's still there.
HEADLEE: You know, the book doesn't appear to be aimed at other sociopaths. I mean, you're very unflinching in describing your own thought processes, even when they're not necessarily flattering to you, even when they're sometimes harsh. And that to me reads like it's meant for someone like me, someone who perhaps needs to understand sociopaths better. I wonder if the point of the book is to educate people or clarify, as you say, what are you hoping to teach people?
THOMAS: I guess I'm not really hoping to teach people so much as start a conversation. I think that there really has been so little research done about sociopaths. And the common wisdom now is that they're untreatable. And that, you know, sociopathy is basically synonymous with evil. So I just wanted to, sort of, provide some sort of explanation.
You know, statistically, everybody has interacted with a sociopath at one point. But the fact that most people can't identify who a sociopath is or remember those sorts of interactions, suggest to me that it couldn't have been that bad of an interaction, right.
Most people interact with sociopaths in positive ways and don't realize it. And it's only when we catch them and they're in prison and we have gone through this lengthy trial to point out all the bad things that they've done that we start thinking, sociopaths are bad. But I think whenever you collect only criminals, and that's what you're basing the diagnosis, or that's what you're basing people's understanding about a category like sociopathy on, then it's going to not be accurate. It's not going to reflect the diversity that exists within sociopathy.
HEADLEE: Well, if this is the beginning of a conversation, it's certainly an interesting one. The new memoir is called "Confessions of a Sociopath." It's written by M.E. Thomas. That's a pen name of the author. She's also an attorney and law professor. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
THOMAS: Thank you.
HEADLEE: I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.