M.E. Thomas* laughs heartily as we chat, sometimes at herself, during moments that aren’t particularly funny. It seems like a technique cultivated to charm strangers like me, much like her practice of lavish compliments, or faking an unplaceable accent for alluring mysteriousness. She admits she manipulates her self-presentation to control what others think of her. Few realize the truth: the 32-year-old law professor and devout Sunday-school teacher is a diagnosed psychopath—though she prefers to be called a sociopath, a less culturally frightening term—albeit a non-criminal one. While the word conjures Hannibal Lecter clichés and jokes about heartless exes, as many as one in every 25 North American is a sociopath. Thomas insists most are largely harmless, and says she’s “functionally a good person.”
A co-worker/friend first casually pinned the label on her in law school; she later sought a formal evaluation, which deemed her “a prototypical psychopathic personality.” Unfazed, Thomas founded a blog, SociopathWorld.com. Though she uses a pseudonym for fear of repercussions, she’s come clean to a select few. Now with her new memoir, Confessions of a Sociopath, she reveals what shaped her disorder (genetics, plus a harsh upbringing), as well as the inner workings of people like her—free of empathy or remorse; prone to deceit and egocentrism; and hungry for power. For Thomas, who romances both sexes for sport, the ultimate source of power is love, which is the “universal Achilles heel.”
Herewith, our tête-à-tête with the author, plus an excerpt from her book.
In a blog post, you say, “a sociopath will reveal ‘personal’ details strategically, i.e. for misdirection… revelations of truth are very rare.” How do you square that instinct with the task of writing a memoir?
I think sociopaths, when trying to stay masked, selectively disclose things, and usually truths are slips of the mask. But sometimes sociopaths, like serial killers, want their work appreciated and admired by people. They have a desire to sort of be known and acknowledged for what they are. So frequently, sociopaths will give clues. The book mentions [a conversation]: “Oh, how do you feel about…?” “Right now, I hate you. I want to bite your ear off.” They’re saying these things that acknowledge the truth of their thoughts. If people are watching close enough, they’ll see those things as well.
How can we distinguish between a sociopath who’s harmless, versus one inclined to ruin our lives?
One of the saddest things is getting emails from people who have that experience with sociopaths, and then everything after is just paranoia and victimhood. I don’t know if this sounds self-serving, but one of the best ways to protect against sociopaths is to be self-actualized. A sociopath who has malicious intent is like a virus, looking for areas of entry in your psyche, for vulnerabilities. Like the fact that you grew up poor, but nobody knows that side of you. These are the sorts of things a sociopath is going to pick up on. So people who are very well balanced, some choose to date sociopaths. The victims are the people who feel like they didn’t choose it. But obviously everybody chooses everything.
How has being a sociopath affected your romantic relationships? Are you still seeing someone?
No. One of my friends just told me she doesn’t see me with anybody monogamously for any length of time and I do worry about that. I can’t even stay in a single job for more than a few years, and a relationship is so much more. Like all people, we don’t just show our thoughts to any stranger. We all wear some sort of mask of politeness. You know, when you start dating someone you dress up, and gradually you stop. The thing with empaths is, part of the reason they start dressing down is because they want to let the person in and understand the “true them.” You try to acclimate them to the idea of the real you. When I do this delicate social dance part of the disclosure, it’s not just “this is what I look like in the morning.” It’s trying to disclose the fact that I am different.
So you’ve had fallout when you’ve revealed the information?
Yeah, that was always probably the trickiest part. It’s easy for me to get people interested in me. But recently that is the main hurdle in terms of whether it works out or not.
How do you determine whether to be upfront or not?
Usually it’s impulsive. In that moment I would like to tell them a story. At least twice, I’ve done it because whomever I’m with senses I’m holding something back, and so to create more intimacy—to make them think that I am committing to this relationship as they are—I would tell them these things, strategically disclose information.
Do you for the most part pass as normal, or would an observant person realize something’s different?
Some people think I am foreign, international; some think I am quirky. You look at me and expect certain things from, I guess, my profession, my look… You might expect me to behave in a particular way, but I don’t.
So it’s not necessarily lack of overt empathy? It sounds like there’s an indefinable characteristic that’s not in accordance.
Right. That’s because typically we’re not expected to show a lot of empathy to people. I live in a city in which there are homeless people. We just walk past them and don’t acknowledge them. That is what is normal. Only when there are “outside normal” situations, people might see me falter. I tell the story in the book about a student whose grandma died and was on the verge of tears. I didn’t know what was a normal reaction in that situation so I couldn’t imitate it.
Sociopathy is considered one of the most difficult personality disorders to treat. What’s your view on the treatments?
Sociopaths don’t tend to respond to talk therapy [as] other people do, [but] do respond to incentive structures, so behavioural therapy seems a viable option. I am currently very happy, but there were more difficult times when I sought help in the form of therapy. I didn’t get anything out of it at the time. But I started writing the blog and that helped— perhaps it made me more conscious of my behaviour and more circumspect.
Do you actively seek answers in the latest psychological research?
I do. I’m always interested in [research that confirms] something I have concluded by myself. Like [the idea] that sociopaths have a weak sense of self. This is the reason they can be chameleons. I like the neurological studies. Sociopaths, for instance, store information chaotically—little bits and pieces all over the brain—and people think possibly the cause is a very thin corpus callosum [which] makes transfers across the halves very efficient. Things are stored haphazardly. They’re not topically categorized. That’s the way that hard drives store information, too. With everything I read, I’m trying to gain better insight into myself, because the more I know, the more I am able to have a functional life.
Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, by M.E. Thomas
Ruining People. I love the way the phrase rolls around on my tongue and inside my mouth. Power is all I have ever really cared about in my life: physical power, the power of being desired or admired, destructive power, knowledge, invisible influence.
My bread and butter is feeling like my mind and my ideas are shaping the world around me, which is of course why I bother writing the blog. But when I am hungry for the richest, most decadent piece of foie gras, I indulge in inserting myself into a person’s psyche and quietly wreaking as much havoc as I can. Every day we are expected to be productive, pro-social. But if you’ve ever had an impulse to tell your best friend that yes, those pants do make her look fat, you understand how liberating it is to unrestrainedly lash out at another’s softest parts.
When I met Morgan, I didn’t know she would be so much trouble. She was the senior trial attorney in an office in which I was very junior. The infatuation quickly became mutual. Mine was rooted in my own narcissism and a desire to exploit the weaknesses in someone I had initially admired, hers in an apparent attraction to people who enjoyed hurting her. Her growing attachment to me even warped her appearance. Her once-firm jaw began to appear weakly skeletal. I think her hair even began to fall out.
At first I really relished the power I had over her. One afternoon she canceled her dinner plans with me, and I could see that it was for no other reason than that I made her nervous. I sat in her office, staring at her with motionless judgment. I pushed the shame tactic too hard, and she stopped speaking to me.
I knew I only had one chance to get her back, so I let things cool off for a couple of months before I sent her a seemingly heartfelt e-mail. I said that I loved her several times and made sure to use the past tense, because I wanted her to feel regret for something she didn’t even know she had. There isn’t anything more crushing than lost love.
A few weeks later, I heard back from her. She had received my e-mail while on an island vacation with a new girlfriend, the arrival and discussion of which precipitated a minor spat and then a breakup. When she came back, we took up again. Her self-devouring weakness seemed to have grown exponentially.
After a few months we drifted apart. Morgan quit or was fired from her job and fell into an abyss of eating disorders and substance abuse. It’s a wonder that she’s still alive. I cannot take all of the credit for this extreme decline. It was inevitable in her life, due to her desire to be abused.
I never loved her of course, but she loves me in her twisted way. I made her believe I understood needs and desires she had kept hidden from most everyone else out of fear and shame. People always say to be careful not to confuse sex and love, but I think they should be more wary of confusing love and understanding. I can read every word of your soul, become deeply engrossed in the study of it until I’ve comprehended every nuance and detail. But then when I’m done, I’ll discard it as easily as if it were a newspaper.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas. Copyright © 2013. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
How many sociopaths are hiding in plain sight?
According to a 2007 study published in Biological Psychiatry, 1 percent of the U.S. adult population fits the DSM criteria for antisocial personality disorder (which encompasses sociopathy and psychopathy; there’s no standard distinction between the two terms). Yet clinical psychologist Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, believes one in 25 people in North America is a sociopath—making the condition more common than anorexia or schizophrenia. She points out that sociopathy is not equally prevalent across cultures; it’s relatively rare in group-centred East Asian countries, for instance. But some research suggests it’s on the rise here, perhaps because North American society seems to tolerate, or even cheer on, me-first attitudes in the “pursuit of domination” (think: competition in the corporate boardroom).