The terms “sociopathy” and “psychopathy” mean the same thing, but the latter is nowadays deprecated in popular use because it suggests a psychological or mental illness. Sociopaths are not mentally ill. They are too mainstreamed for obvious notice.
M. E. Thomas is a lawyer, law school professor, blogger — and sociopath. She writes of herself in Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight (2013). Thomas belongs to a profession that attracts sociopaths, as does finance, banking, politics, the military, law enforcement, surgery — and now, perhaps, authors of books like these. As a sociopath, and by her own account, she is a liar, manipulator, opportunist, envious, covetous, hedonistic, promiscuous, extremely intelligent, easily bored, shameless, narcissistic, unreliable, ruthless, and completely lacking in empathy.
The book is predominantly anecdotal, with a few references to research, starting with pioneer Robert Hare, whose original observations of sociopathy involved prisoners, one of Thomas’s complaints about the bad image of sociopaths. There are no footnotes in the book, however. The author’s childhood anecdotes confirm a violence-ridden household and an abusive childhood that has left her cold and cynical. She admits that she lacks the discipline to have used her power to revenge herself to a maximum against the world, in contrast to most sociopaths. Many of her adulthood adventures are not so much thrills as sad confessional.
Thomas rightly stresses that sociopaths are not necessarily criminals. In fact, in modern society they are the engines of what she herself calls “corporate capitalism.” Studies point to different brain characteristics: sociopaths have more white matter (versus gray), enabling faster, too fast, deduction versus judgment, hence sociopaths use emotional criteria far less than those with slower and therefore more reflective judgments. Sociopaths have extremely high pain thresholds, physical as well as emotional, hence they pursue riskier behaviors and are oblivious or hardened to the collateral results of their actions (think Wall Street). Moral decision-making probably evolved from emotions, notes Thomas, “gut feelings,” and sociopaths lack these, instead relying on practiced observation of the weaknesses and contradictions of others. High intelligence and premeditation added to the absence of empathy makes the sociopath the ideal personality for executing the whims of power and exploitation.
As with most psychology-oriented popularizing books, the most plausible sections deal with childhood upbringing. That is where the reader will probably identify the author’s personality quickly. But the question of plausibility conveys minimal confidence, and many questions of motive. Why would a thorough-going sociopath make a public confession? Even the pseudonym is permeable, as on the last page of the book Thomas invites curious readers to contact her via her website but swears them to secrecy. Is Thomas the proverbial “criminal” wanting to get caught? The aging fatale wanting attention? Not that the anecdotes are not salacious enough or don’t fulfill the intent to shock “empaths,” as she calls other people. Rather, the probability of mendacity keeps rearing its head. Is Thomas the sociopath as much a liar in writing as she tells us and shows us in her real life?
In the end, the old Liar’s Paradox haunts this book as soon as the objective references to research evaporate and the anecdotes begin: If a liar says “I’m telling the truth,” is she telling the truth or lying? If a liar says, “I’m lying,” is she lying, or telling the truth? Substitute “sociopath” for “liar.”
If the book argues that sociopaths deserve our understanding, if not empathy, that is itself an odd sign of weakness, a mellowed sociopath trying to pump meaning into fading memories. But given the machinations that sociopaths wreak on society and as their victims multiply, one may take the author’s claims as either disingenuous or delusional, depending on how the reader assesses the purpose of this confession.