M.E. Thomas is a sociopath – and she wants you to understand what it's like to be one.
Offering a rare glimpse into the mind of someone who belongs to one of society's most reviled and least understood cohorts, Thomas, a 30-something U.S. law professor, has written a new memoir, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. As Thomas explains, being a sociopath does not necessarily mean having a criminal bent or being unable to feel emotions. Sure, she can be calculating, manipulative and immune to feelings of guilt. But, as a high-functioning individual who donates 10 per cent of her income to charity and teaches Mormon Sunday school, she also wants people to know that sociopaths can be valuable members of society.
Thomas makes a compelling argument. During a phone interview, she is clever, thoughtful and incredibly likeable. Still, the unease that comes with knowing she could just as easily crack a joke as stab you in the back underscores how difficult a challenge she faces in convincing society to accept individuals like her, which is why she uses a pseudonym.
"The hope was maybe if I present … a complete story of what it's like to live like this, then people will be more open to people who think and act like me and I won't have to hide as much," Thomas says.
Sociopaths or psychopaths (the terms are often used interchangeably by lay persons and there is a lack of consensus on the differences) are thought to make up 1 to 4 per cent of the general population, and about 20 per cent of the prison population. Those who live among us are believed to thrive in leadership positions in the corporate world and in politics, due to their ruthlessness, charm and penchant for taking risks, but they are also difficult to identify. The criteria for assessing psychopaths – such as the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised) created by University of British Columbia's Robert Hare – have tended to be based on prisoners.
Thomas is among the very few non-criminal sociopaths to seek a diagnosis. Although she had suspected she was a sociopath years earlier, she obtained a formal assessment after a series of setbacks. She experienced a lengthy period of unemployment after losing a high-paying job at a prestigious law firm. (By her own admission, she was a terrible employee.) Around the same time, she cut ties with a close friend, whose father was diagnosed with cancer, and realized she missed her company. The losses prompted her to take a closer look at herself, and she found that the expert's assessment fit.
Thomas says she has meaningful relationships with her friends and family, and that she can feel "very warmly" toward people. (She calls it love, but acknowledges that others may not.) Her ability to read people and anticipate their reactions – the very character trait she uses to prey on others – is also one that benefits those close to her. Friends and family often turn to her for clear-headed relationship advice. Thomas say she is great with children and is the "favourite aunt in the family" because she can get into their heads. She also thinks she may want to get married and have children of her own one day.
But she admits she enjoys controlling, manipulating and "ruining" people by setting them up for heartache or failure. "There are certain things that we do, certain behaviours that leave openings for viruses or other infections to invade our body, [just like] there are openings that people leave for other people to manipulate them," she confides.
In her book, she describes how she orchestrated a love triangle, with the goal of breaking the other girl's heart. It's admittedly a minor example, but Thomas says her other tales of ruining people would likely get her sued.
In defence, she says she is at no risk of committing crimes of passion. "To say people should be concerned [about getting close to me], it's like saying people should be concerned about dying of a shark attack when they go on a beach vacation," she says. "I'm not going to deny that there are sharks and that sharks attack people, but the levels and the frequency is grossly overstated."
Audrey Anton, an assistant professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University who recently authored a paper titled The Virtue of Sociopaths, says that sociopaths are a diverse bunch, and in certain circumstances, such as when faced with difficult decisions like killing an animal that is suffering, they may have an advantage.
"I'm certainly not arguing that sociopaths are terrific, and are all wonderful," Anton says. But she adds, "I think we're being too judgmental and too quick to say that anyone who is a sociopath, or anyone who is a psychopath, is therefore a bad person."
In fact, Anton says, sociopaths can, in many ways, be like everyone else. "All of us can be selfish sometimes. All of us can talk ourselves out of feeling guilty for something we should be. With them, it's just systematic."
Thomas says her own friends and family are in denial about her sociopathy. "They think, 'This can't be you. You've never killed anybody.' I've heard that so many times."
Just because she's never killed doesn't mean she hasn't thought about it. In her book, she discusses how she almost strangled a metro worker who chastised her for trying to use an escalator that was closed. He disappeared into the crowd before she had a chance. Thomas says she would have had no moral misgivings about attacking him. In fact, she does not have any gut feeling about what is morally right or wrong. She talks about all this as frankly and nonchalantly as she might describe the weather. Yet as chilling as her confessions are, her self-awareness is disarming.
While reading the book and speaking with Thomas, I recognize she has a clear agenda, but don't feel manipulated. If anything, Thomas does her readers a service by offering a candid account of how she acts and thinks. To protect against sociopaths, Anton suggests society needs to recognize how common and diverse they are, and to set realistic expectations (in other words, don't expect them to empathize with you).
Thomas anticipates that living openly as a sociopath may actually keep her in check. "Because there's that much pressure and scrutiny, I think I actually will be more successful in continuing to be a good member of society."