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.

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