Hiding in Plain Sight

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When you think of sociopaths you generally think of people with no conscience who commit horrible crimes. M.E. Thomas, in her memoir, Hiding in Plain Sight, identifies herself as a sociopath, but states that she is not a murderer or criminal. In fact, she says that sociopaths are often glamorous because they’re adventurous risk-takers. Yes, some do horrible things, but by no means all, and while they have difference from “normal” human beings, whom she calls empaths, they have a lot of similarities too.

Perhaps the greatest difference between sociopaths and others is that sociopaths don’t perceive certain emotional “wavelengths.” They’re not very sympathetic. On the other hand, they DO perceive people’s weaknesses, since their main interests have to do with power, aggression, and sometimes violence. If they have blind spots, so do “normal” people.

There’s a lot of talk about nature versus nurture in talking about deviations from the norm. Nature has a lot to do with such a condition, but Ms Thomas says that in her experience, nurture had a lot to do with it too.

Her parents had their weaknesses. Her father, she says, was mostly concerned with his image as a good father and good person. She was always threatening to him, because she didn’t buy his belief. Both parents played favorites, creating some rivalries among the children. She never depended on love, Ms Thomas says, because her experience of love was that it was undependable.

She gives one brother, just slightly older than she, as an example of nature. Presumably their DNA was very similar, but he was completely opposite as a personality, weaker, and passive. She could get him to do anything she wanted, and says that she and an older brother were cruel to him until they realized that he couldn’t take it, and have spent their lives since helping him.

On the other hand, she credits her family for giving her a clear sense of the rules. They were Mormons, and their rules were thus pretty rigid. If one doesn’t have a conscience, which presumably means an emotional intuition of how one’s actions may affect others, providing one with a desire not to hurt, knowledge of the rules is invaluable. She grants that she is impulsive, thrill-seeking, and desires to have power over others, but credits knowing the rules for helping her keep her desires in check.

She talks about being more intelligent than most, and using that advantage to just get by. She used it to maximize her college experience, manipulating to get the kind of experience she wanted, and again in law school. Eventually, however, she discovered that behavior didn’t work in a law firm. She lost her first job because of her behavior, and because she’d lost interest in the work she was supposed to be doing.

Eventually, she became a public defender, and spends much time explaining how she would manipulate the jury to give her the kind of verdict she wanted. She used her various ways of being attractive to woo them, usually successfully, and comments that if you’re in a really bad legal situation you want someone like her to defend you. Someone who isn’t repulsed by whatever you may have done or not done, but wants to win, and is willing to use any method to do so. Eventually, however, she lost interest in practicing law too.

She found what turned out to be the perfect job for her in teaching law. There weren’t a lot of rules she had to follow, she didn’t have to make a lot of effort, she could control everything that went on in the classroom, and she was very well paid for what she did. She admits that the perfection of the job may well be temporary: she might lose interest in it too, and have to find another source of income.

She begins the book by saying that she came to realize that she was a sociopath when her life took a downturn, and she began wondering why. She had always been willing to lie convincingly to other people, but came to see that she had also lied to herself, and didn’t know who she was. She went so far as to see a psychiatrist, to confirm her self-diagnosis, which he did. She also started a blog, in which she wrote about her experience, and invited anyone with similar experiences to visit and talk about them. Her blog became very successful, and the book she wrote grew out of it, as much as anything.

She sees sociopaths as being just another sub-group of humanity. Not necessarily sick, though they can do horrible things, but not mentally ill either, in the sense of having delusions. Empaths, which is how she refers to normal, non-sociopathic people, may be attracted to sociopaths because of their devil-may-care attitudes that empaths tend to lack. She also points out that sociopaths are not the only people who commit crimes, that empaths may commit them at an even higher rate, precisely because they get tangled up in emotions that sociopaths aren’t subject to.

She quotes a visitor to her site as saying that sociopaths are people-pleasers as often as not, because they aren’t interested in the drama that some empaths like. Of course they only please people if they feel it’s in their interest. If they decide to do something that WON’T please others, they’ll often do it without regard for those others’ feelings, or any guilt . It’s likely to be simply a cost/benefit calculation. Are empaths so different?

Sociopaths tend to like attention. Don’t empaths? Sociopaths tend to be quite manipulative. Are other kinds of people immune to that? Sociopaths just tend to be better at it, entering into any interaction with the desire to win, whatever winning means to them in any particular situation. I think that’s not such a foreign idea to “normal” people, though they may approach situations differently, and see “winning” differently too.

It’s interesting to compare her story to to at least one character in science fiction writer Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. Ender is the third child in a family in which all three children are genius-level.The armed forces are recruiting children to combat the threat of an alien invasion, and monitor promising children. Peter, the oldest child, has been monitored but rejected for being too aggressive, too ambitious and ruthless, too irresponsible and intractable. His younger sister has been rejected for not being aggressive enough. Ender is still being monitored as the story opens.

Peter appears as a definite bully, with at least potential to become a monster. Ender accepts being inducted into the military (very little choice on his part) at least partly because it takes him away from Peter.

Peter gets older and more sophisticated, but also a little more mellow–comparatively. He still intends to rule the world–literally–and begins by at least his early teens to write essays that shape politics, in concert with his sister,whom he coerces into joining him. They keep these activities secret from their parents–they think.

It later emerges, though, that his parents have been aware of his activities and have chosen to pretend they aren’t. They don’t want to block him from doing something positive, so they talk to him about being honorable and ethical. Religious themselves, they realize that he is not, and to talk about religion with him would encourage him to tune them out. So they talk about the positive things religion influences people to do, without mentioning the religious component, a difficult tightrope to walk for people whose religious beliefs are important. And Peter seems to respond.

He eventually DOES become ruler of the world, and a pretty wise one, overall. Has Mr. Card ever dealt with a sociopathic person? I know little about his personal life, so I can’t say. Evidently he’s thought about how he WOULD deal with one in his own family. Such people can possibly be born in any family, so no one can exclude the possibility that his child might become one. I doubt any of Card’s children are sociopathic, but don’t doubt that he drew on his experience of his own family to portray Peter. The conclusions he draws are not so different from those of Ms Foster.

If Ms Foster is correct, sociopaths are just part of the spectrum of humanity, and not extremely different from other people. She and Mr. Card seem to agree that morality, or at least rules, are useful in providing people with guidelines as to how to behave. The spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff said that conscience is atrophied in modern man, and sociopathy seems to be an example of that. He also said that the awakening of conscience is the best guide to behavior, but failing that, knowing the rules and the benefits of keeping them seems to be the best alternative.

Unfortunately, we currently live in an unstable society in which sociopathic behavior is often highly rewarded. The rules seem to be unclear to many, so we often get unequal justice and transgression by the privileged, which often goes unpunished. And different groups have different rules, to make things more confusing.

For some, minorities, almost by definition, are evil. They’re concerned with sexual behavior and decry welfare for the poor, while implicitly sanctioning it for the rich. People with this viewpoint are uncomfortable with many facets of the modern world, sometimes with good reason. But in other cases their discomfort is related directly to their inability to understand other people’s lives and motivations.

Most of us are self-centered, and don’t behave as well as we could or should. But our world frequently rewards self-centered people who want to succeed at any cost, especially if the cost is to others. That could be a description of a sociopath, but as Ms Thomas points out, sociopaths aren’t necessarily evil. Nor are “normal” people necessarily good.

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