Confessions of a Sociopath
by M.E. Thomas
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by Nick Cohen
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Confessions of a Sociopath

by M.E. Thomas

I'm very interested in this topic right now, given that I've met more than a few people in the last few years that I'd say exhibit sociopathic, or psychopathic, behavior. On the usual review sites like 'goodreads' I'm seeing a lot of bickering over which term is applicable to who, but I really don't care. I prefer the term 'sociopath' as for me the term 'psychopath' has had too much b-movie use and abuse to take seriously any more. For me, I'm just interested in the mindsets of people who can harm others for personal gain, or for enjoyment, as I feel I've run into these people too often in my life, and need to pay a little more serious attention to them.

This book is getting some very mixed reviews, which surprises me a little. I think some readers came to it hoping for another episode of 'Dexter'. I get the impression that many readers are attracted to works like this because they want the power fantasy of being someone like Ms Thomas. I've got no problem with power fantasies, we all have them (yes you do, stop lying), but if Ms Thomas is telling the truth then real people were hurt and harmed in the making of this book, and I feel that's a point that many reviewers miss. People also critique the writing, which I also found a little odd, as this isn't supposed to be a work of fiction (though I'm sure it somewhat is) it's supposed to be an honest recitation of someone's life. You might as well critique the writing in _Origin of the species_ or _Principia Mathematica_. That said, I found the writing more than adequate, with good 'narrative pull' that kept me wanting to read more. The author has a nice line in wry metaphors that are sometimes even a little startling, and they have a fairly friendly conversational voice (which may seem surprising, but probably isn't).

There's a big credibility issue with reading the anonymized memoirs of someone who's telling you "I suffer from a disorder that makes me an inveterate liar and Machiavellian schemer: here is my life story, it's all true, honest!" But I felt that most of the text had the ring of truth about it, and some of the most obvious falsehoods seem more to concern the authors use of words that she either doesn't understand, or which mean different things to her, (the obvious one being 'love') and some occasional lies that she tells herself to preserve her image of who she is.

Personally I found the book genuinely fascinating, and the pages sometimes seemed to be turning themselves. If you're looking for stories of extreme amorality with grisly murder or sizzling sex, you won't find that here. Instead this is more akin to reading the diary of a Martian: someone genuinely different to you, and who's every word is therefore fascinating. Ms Thomas (not her real name) makes a case for tolerance of socio/psycho-paths, pointing out that if correctly guided and channeled they can contribute a lot to society. She largely succeeds in making her case, despite repeatedly blowing it (for instance making the occasional veiled threat of he "you must learn to leave us alone" variety). I imagine that she would attribute her success in making her case to her manipulative powers, but the truth is it has more to do with the fact that most readers are deeply committed to all people receiving equal treatment (despite the fact that our societies, and our ideologies, particularly on the left, are rapidly moving away from that position) and thus her case is an easy sell which she succeeds in closing despite herself.

The opening chapters concerning her childhood are where she is at her most sympathetic. Neglected by her parents, (including a scene where she and her brother are abandoned in the middle of nowhere and start planning as best they can for their new life as feral children) the Thomas kids band together for survival and adventure. Running mostly with the boys in her family, the pre-adolescent Ms Thomas is a pint-sized hell-on-wheels that one cannot help but like. Indeed, the early chapters read like the backstory for some fictional heroine who will later become a secret agent or starship commander: she doesn't play by society's rules, particularly not gender norms. She gets into fist-fights and enjoys them, commits acts of petty larceny, and uses her supposed 'superior intellect' (which she is deeply invested in) to play mind-games with everyone around her. The way Ms Thomas tells it, she's a mixture of the young JT Kirk and Sherlock Holmes crossed with Ferris Beuler and then gender-swapped, and it's undeniably fun to watch her breaking all the rules.

One particularly interesting point of the narrative occurs when Ms Thomas and her big brother (her major co-conspirator in daring-do and rough-and-tumble) spontaneously decide that they have to stop bullying their little brother (who is the weakling of the family) and start protecting him. This kind of unexpected flash of conscience often appears in these narratives, I find, and often seems to trouble the narrator, who is so invested in their own identity as a sociopath that they have to make up explanations and excuses for why they're suddenly choosing to do the right thing. It appears that these people still have some kind of moral floor, it's just below what most people would consider sea-level, but when they hit it, they're troubled to discover that actually, they do have some limits.

The first signs of real trouble come as adolescence nears. Ms Thomas's frank recounting of how she engaged with competition with an unconfident girl at her school who had an interest in a particular boy (in whom Ms Thomas has no real interest at all) just so she could invest the girl with some kind of hope, and then crush it in a demonstration of superiority, is about the first time that the reader slams into the discovery that, no, this isn't the backstory of a fictional heroine who will grow up to be a secret agent or a starship commander, this is something else. We begin to see Ms Thomas's victims being lined up for humiliation and damage, and even if the crimes are minor, the alien cruelty behind them does begin to turn one's stomach. Ms Thomas is nothing but honest about the point that she's drawn to the most vulnerable and helpless people, and that her motives aren't anything as respectable as revenge for some perceived slight, but rather that she just finds cruelty fun and gets an ego boost from the constant demonstration of her 'superiority' over others. A fictional heroine and future starship commander would at least pick on someone her own size.

As her life goes on, recounted as a series of petty victories over people who never did anything to her, Ms Thomas advises us that she'd be much worse did she not benefit from the guidance of the Mormon religion, and from the fact that she grew up in a 'loving environment'. This latter claim would seem to directly contradict her own description of her childhood, but it illustrates one of the most telling points of the narrative: _you keep using that word, but I don't think it means what you think it means._ Quite why Ms Thomas thinks she grew up in a positive environment when she manifestly didn't, is hard to say (perhaps she's referring to the camaraderie with her siblings?) but the term 'love' is one that she frequently uses in ways that don't quite work. The conclusion one eventually reaches is that Ms Thomas divides people into two groups: those she uses and casts aside, and those she 'loves', whom she uses and keeps around.

The most disturbing section, for me, comes near the end and concerns Ms Thomas's sex life. She's bisexual and likes to be brutally dominant, and seemingly it's mostly other women who bear the brunt of this (although perhaps she's just not reporting how she treats the men). On occasion Ms Thomas gets physical with her lovers, she particularly likes strangling them, (she keeps breathlessly telling us that as a musician she has strong hands). I don't have a problem with that per-se (though I know many would) as many people enjoy a degree of rough-trade between consenting partners, and if both parties are happy with it, then it's nobody's business but theirs. However, Ms Thomas crashes straight over the line, less so in what she does physically, than in what she does to her paramours emotionally and mentally. Speaking of a past conquest, a woman named 'Morgan' (also not her real name, as we're told she has the same real name with Ms Thomas). Thomas exults over how she was able to take a successful career-woman, and emotionally grind her down until she became a dysfunctional shadow of her former self, exhibiting signs of mental disorder and physical collapse. "I think her hair started to fall out", Ms Thomas tells us, unconcernedly. You can read an excerpt from the book here concerning this.

As I said above, I've no problem with the fact that consenting adults might like to engage in some pretty shocking or brutal play (hopefully with safe-words and other safety infrastructure in place), as illustrated by the success of 50-shades-of-grey (although fans of that book might be more interested in fantasising about such things than actually doing them). So long as your partner is visibly thriving off whatever your doing to them in the bedroom, then it's fine by me. But when being in a relationship with you makes people exhibit the symptoms of radiation sickness something's very wrong. What Ms Thomas is engaging in here isn't rough trade, it's partner abuse, and if she were a man admitting doing this to his girlfriend, there'd be outrage. Interestingly, I think there'd be a degree of outrage (though much less) if it were a woman mistreating a man, but when it's girl-on-girl abuse no-one wants to get involved. I wonder if this is why Ms Thomas only details what she's been doing to her female partners?

Eventually, after they've finally broken up, the once successful 'Morgan' loses her job and falls into "an abyss of eating disorders and substance abuse." "It's a wonder she's still alive," Ms Thomas tells us, clearly not giving a shit. She then goes on to claim that none of this is her fault, that it's Morgan's fault for having masochistic sexual and emotional needs. "I never loved her, of course," says Ms Thomas, (having previously detailed how she unintentionally broke up Morgan's relationship with someone who probably did, or at least could, love her), "though I think she loved me in her twisted way". At which point this reader was inclined to shout a number of things at his e-reader. I guess you can't complain, you knew what you were getting when you picked up a book called 'confessions of a sociopath', but this section, where Ms Thomas tells us she enjoys 'ruining people' and then tells us how she seduced a successful woman, despite not having genuine feelings for her, and ruined her to the point where she lost her job and her health, for nothing but the fun of it, and actually seems to be disappointed that the victim didn't die, and even starts calling the victim 'twisted', finally reveals to us what Thomas really is under all the charisma and glamor: a monster.

And so, for me, the narrative arc of the story comes to an end. Like Francis Urquart in Michael Dobbs "House of Cards", Ms Thomas wins our sympathy and liking at the start of the tale, and we forgive her all manner of wicked acts, but she finally goes too far, and were left feeling disgust and contempt for someone we once liked.

All the way through this book, Ms Thomas clumsily argues that sociopaths are people too, alternating between "You must learn to leave us alone" threats, and "Am I not a sister and a human being?" appeals to a better nature that she herself clearly lacks. The only acceptable reply, of course, is "Yes, you're a sister and a human being, and deserving of being treated as such."

But she's a sister that the rest of us need to have a talk about.