While browsing bookstores in NYC, I stumbled across a striking cover. A porcelain mask. Female. Red lipstick, with the attached popsicle stick handle. My eyes wandered down to the title in the bottom left-hand corner--“Confessions of a Sociopath”. Intriguing yet hesitant, as I don't normally read pop psych, I picked the book up. I put it down twenty pages later. I didn’t purchase it. It was a little bit too spooky for me. When you're left with a new lens with which to view your friends, colleagues, and possibly self, you’d feel the same way.
I ended up purchasing it at another bookstore later in the same day.
M. E. Thomas, a pseudonym, writes in an extremely readable transparent style. The compact volume of three hundred or so pages reads a bit like a diary, which is what a sociopath would like you to want. We want to feel like we know the other person. Yet, true to her sociopathic nature, the prose is lightweight, easy to reach, and a bit detached. Just what we’d want in a fling, to be drawn in, to imprint our own desires onto, and to be left wanting to know more. An early moment that we experience is mom and dad driving away forgetting us at the park. A moment that “normiopaths” or “empaths" would regard with fear, tears, or some other visceral reactions, M.E. takes as a chance to prove that she can live without them. M. E. reveals nothing, and with this style, she draws us into to her inner world.
We follow M. E. as she navigates growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional household, and matures into a beautiful, intriguing, and cold young woman. Some of her experiences as a child, I think readers may be able to relate to, especially if one were an outsider or immigrant to a new community. When you come in as an outsider, there are cultural norms, language cues, body language differences, inside jokes picked up innately for some and intentionally learned by the outsiders. The difference here is that, for M. E., the language to be learned is that of emotion something we might take for granted. The only strong desire she expresses is that of power, for control over her environment and all the people around her.
We discover her how she manipulates people around them, often without them knowing, learn, as she does, that emotions play no part in her mental world, and rules that don’t advantage her can be broken. We’re often reminded of rebels, criminals, and vampires, the darker archetypes of our mythology—characters with which we are enthralled with, at least in the aspect that they have freedom from internal and societal retribution. By continually drawing on examples from literature, particularly from Steinbeck, we’re reminded of favorite characters and perhaps about people in our own lives that fit this sociopathic mold. Not only does M.E. draw from these sketches, but she also draws from brain imaging and clinical research, as well as, clinical definitions for psychiatry. This gives this extremely transparent, personal narrative the touch of scientific authority without being too drawn out.
The worlds of work and love figure heavily in this book. Sociopaths, as we learn, turn out to be tailor-made for corporate capitalism. Money, that impartial thing that so much of daily life is centered around, is a sociopathic object. It can be transformed into whatever desire that we may hold. Within jobs that require stress, acting, or even normal office politics, sociopaths are able to lie and win their way into higher and higher positions. They're better able to deal with the stress of firing or launching a new product better than we can. However, we find through personal anecdotes that a cutthroat character isn’t always as good as it seems. The same impulsive behavior become less reliable at creating long-term relationships needed for management positions. I often thought of Steve Jobs as a possible archetypal sociopathic CEO, driven by a great product, through a path of scattered emotional breakdowns.
We later turned to the subject of love, and as noted before, it’s more than tough to maintain a long-term relationship because the default position is to be what your lover wants you to be. But as we know, vulnerability, that is being your true self, or at least acting and speaking as if you don’t have anything to hide, is the key to long-term relationships.
When we look around the office, or our college campus, or even in our loved one's heads, we often wonder what is going on in the behind their eyes. In a certain way, while reading, I was reminded of the Turing Test —how can you tell whether this thing, producing some output is intelligent (and/or) conscious. To extend the metaphor, the Turing Test is for emotions. "Do I actually know what this person is feeling at this moment?” It’s a bit frustrating. There will always be that lack of understanding that we always will face when dealing with people, just because we haven’t lived the exact same experiences as them.
How do we know our lover’s smile is genuine? What if like a chameleon, our lover may be producing this contortion of facial muscles to provoke the response we so desire? The ends that they want may not be just to please us, but they may be planning, plotting three steps ahead, using that goodwill generated from that smile to cajole us to change the channel to whatever they wanted.
At the end of the book, we’re left with M. E as she goes about her life without a care in the world, without attachment, yet desiring of a real connection wanting kids. And struck by the normalcy of it all. These are the desires that all of us feel, our mental worlds have just happened to mold our perceptions in a slightly different arrangement. Our biological drives, along with our upbringings can really make a difference in our lives.
If you read "Confessions of a Sociopath", you will wear the sociopaths mask. For some, you may that it fits your face perfectly. You may gain answers to some pesky questions that you’ve always wondered about yourself. If not, you may be disgusted and off put, but you will certainly wonder more about the man on the train with a certain glint in his eye. What is he thinking? How does he feel—if anything?