Monthly Archives: August 2014

Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

It seems to me that recently, sociopaths have been enjoying a bit of time in the pop culture limelight. I was first turned on to the sociopath craze a few years ago when I listened to this This American Life episode, which was inspired by British journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, The Psychopath Test. After Al and I read The Psychopath Test, we both entered into a phase in which we frequently diagnosed people around us with sociopathy. We still do this occasionally, but it was a lot easier to sociopath-spot when I worked at a corporate law firm (a word on that later). But, having spent the last almost two years working for myself and choosing to surround myself with primarily non-sociopaths (aka “empaths”), I had sort of forgotten about sociopaths. Then, I received M.E. Thomas’s book, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, and was reminded, once again, of those pesky psychopaths wandering among us.

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Confessions of a Sociopath, as the title suggests, is a memoir written by a self-proclaimed (and supposedly clinically diagnosed) sociopath. M.E. Thomas is a pseudonym, but it didn’t take the internet long to figure out that the author of this book is actually (most probably) a woman named Jamie Rebecca Lund, a former law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in Texas and then, before she was “outed” as a sociopath and subsequently fired, BYU. Lund didn’t help to keep her identity secret when she went on Dr. Phil in a bad wig and talked openly about her sociopathy (a move that led some to question whether she was in fact a sociopath or merely a narcissist). Indeed, in the paperback edition of her book, Thomas/Lund acknowledges that she has been “outed” and has lost her job as a law professor. All of this is to say that it’s unclear whether Thomas is actually a sociopath or merely an attention seeker who observed sociopathy’s rise in the zeitgeist and decided to cash in on it. As I read the book, it was impossible for me to decide one way or the other, so I decided to take Thomas at her word and assume that she is, in fact, a sociopath.

For those who haven’t done much reading on sociopathy, sociopaths (a term usually used interchangeably with the more loaded “psychopaths”) are people who suffer from a personality disorder that renders them unable to feel empathy and/or tap into a conscience. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel right from wrong. Some sociopaths turn out to be violent criminals; others end up being wildly successful in business, law, medicine, and other fields in which the typical traits of sociopathy (ruthlessness, manipulation, charm, risk-taking, and lack of empathy) are advantageous. Thomas is one of the latter, a sociopath who has succeeded in her chosen field (law), has never been arrested, and who claims to live a full and happy life filled with friends and family. She attributes her success in large part to her strict Mormon upbringing, arguing that adherence to a set of external values (in this case, the ones set by her church) has helped keep her on the straight and narrow. Even though she doesn’t feel moral outrage, guilt, or compassion, she nonetheless adheres to the rules set by the church because they make sense, and they keep her in line.

Thomas divides the book into nine chapters, each of which discusses a different facet of sociopathy, which she backs up both with research and with anecdotes from her own life. She discusses, among other things, how sociopaths experience emotion, the impact of family life and upbringing on steering young sociopaths toward good or evil, how a sociopath might interact with an external moral or ethical code, and what sociopaths are like in romantic relationships. To me, the most interesting discussions were the ones focusing on Thomas’s religion (she remains a practicing Mormon) and her experience working in the law, particularly in corporate law (also known as BigLaw, a realm with which I am intimately familiar).

In explaining how she balances being a sociopath with being a Mormon, Thomas writes that because Mormons believe that “we are all sons and daughters of a loving God who only wants our eternal progression and happiness,” and that because all beings have the potential for salvation, she has concluded that only her actions matter, “not [her] emotional deficits, not [her] ruthless thoughts, and not [her] nefarious motivations.” She explains that Mormonism is “especially well suited” to her needs, “because its rules and standards are very explicit,” and following them has always helped her to blend in with everyone else. She argues that her lack of guilt is not a hindrance in practicing her religion; she says she follows the tenets of Mormonism simply because they tend to be rational and lead to good outcomes. “Rather than feeling a moral certainty about the rightness of the church and its articles of faith, my affiliation with the church makes sense to me in the language of efficiency,” she writes.

However, rather than following the letter of the church’s law, Thomas bends or interprets the rules as she sees fit. For example, she writes that the church only explicitly bans “pre-marital relations,” and she has interpreted this to mean that she can enjoy a full sex life, presumably as long as she refrains from intercourse (although this is not made explicit). In another chapter, she discusses her fluid sexuality and many sexual conquests of both men and women. So, it’s unclear to me how she squares her sexual behavior with the Mormon church’s rules, particularly when she claims to believe that only her actions matter with regard to her eventual salvation. Then again, Thomas is explicit about her reasons for being Mormon: it’s about efficiency, and getting ahead. So maybe these questions don’t matter to her that much.

Thomas’s discussion of her success as a lawyer was not surprising to me. In fact, it brought back a lot of memories from my time working in BigLaw, when I saw a lot of people seemingly devoid of empathy not only survive but thrive. Thomas’s observations about law school were also interesting:

Some of the most amoral and manipulative people I met in my life I knew in law school — rats who gamed the system with little regard for others at a level of meticulousness baffling even to me. They calculated every event or encounter to optimize their advantage, even when the advantages were so trivial as to mean having a slightly better breakfast. Many of them seemed capable of committing massacre, grand theft, or real destruction, had a sufficient motivating desire struck them to do so.

Thomas/Lund went to University of Chicago law school; my experience at Harvard was somewhat different. Most law students at Harvard are not manipulative, scheming rats, but are instead socially stunted, hyper-intelligent, neurotic head-cases. But there were some of the sociopathic schemers that Thomas describes in my class; they were just far fewer in number than the harmless nerds. Where I encountered the real sociopaths was at my law firm job. There’s a reason for this, Thomas argues; sociopathy actually helps lawyers to succeed:

The stereotypes about the bloodlessness of lawyers are true, at least about the good ones. Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making. … Working the slippery knot between right and wrong to my advantage is not only personally satisfying but has the additional benefit of being good lawyering…. And like all sociopaths, lawyers recognize the self-interest that hides in every heart, ferreting out the hidden motivations and dirty secrets that underlie criminal acts.

Reading the book made me glad, for the zillionth time, that I no longer practice law, and that my interactions with people like Thomas are consequently much reduced. By the end of the book, I was tired of her self-aggrandizing tone and stories of her own ruthlessness and seductiveness. Much of Thomas’s discussion of the study of sociopathy, particularly how it plays out in her professional and personal life, was interesting, but some of her anecdotes and conclusions struck me as inflated, as if she was trying too hard to prove her own sociopathy. Part of the problem with reading a firsthand account of sociopathy, it turns out, is that you have to listen to a sociopath drone on about herself for 300 pages.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in sociopaths and want to hear a firsthand account from a self-diagnosed (but possibly lying) sociopath, but wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already read The Psychopath Test, a superior and more entertaining book, in my estimation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

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The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

My podcasting debut

As many of you know, I’m a contributor to the fantastic TV humor and criticism website, Previously.TV, which is home to the Extra Hot Great podcast. I was honored to be this week’s guest on the podcast, in which we discussed important topics such as The Bachelorette finale, the nineties-ness of Felicity, Season 1, what’s good on TV right now (my pick was PBS’s gross and fascinating Sex in the Wild), and much more!

It was so fun being on the podcast, and once I got over the revulsion of listening to the sound of my own voice, I was even able to listen to it and enjoy it!

If you’d like to check it out, it’s available for streaming and/or download here.

(Crafting) book review: Petit Collage, by Lorena Siminovich

As a lady in her early thirties, I know a lot of people with babies or who are expecting babies, and it’s always nice to be able to present someone with a hand-made gift instead of something store-bought. As a knitter, I’ve made my share of baby hats and blankets, but I’d like to switch up my baby gift repertoire a little. One can only knit so many baby blankets before one is driven to distraction. Thus, I was so excited to get my hands on Lorena Siminovich’s Petit Collage, which promises “25 easy craft and decor projects” for homes with children and babies — and it did not disappoint! 

petit collage
Petit Collage is a design brand for nurseries and playrooms. I wasn’t familiar with it before I received this book, but their website is pretty charming. The book follows the same aesthetic of the website. Everything is, in a word, adorable. On top of that, as promised, the crafts included in the book seem doable. The author has designated three levels for the projects: easy, intermediate, and advanced, but even the advanced projects don’t require special skills. The “advanced” designation refers more to the time commitment involved in making the object.

Flipping through the book, I saw several projects that I could make for the (current and future) babies in my life: the paper mobile, the personalized baby plaque (made with templates included at the back of the book), the baby door tag, and the patterned letters, to name a few. The templates in the back of the book are handy and practical: they can be photocopied to desired size, cut out, and used immediately.

I also love the book’s emphasis on “reusing, repurposing, and recycling materials,” since, as an inveterate crafter, I have a million scraps of things lying around and I’m forever looking for opportunities to use them in new projects. I also liked that the book suggests non-crafting materials you can use for crafting, such as envelopes, notebook paper, and scrap paper. I have all of these things in my house and would love to be able to use them in creative ways.

Overall, I can’t wait to make some of the projects from Petit Collage. These crafts have the benefit of being both adorable and accessible. Highly recommended for crafty parents or crafty friends/family of parents looking to create unique, homemade gifts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.