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Sociopath: A Memoir

The Book Brigade talks to psychologist Patric Gagne.

Used with permission author Patric Gagne
Used with permission author Patric Gagne

Impulsivity. Deceit. Lack of empathy. Lack of remorse. Manipulation. Repeated law breaking. These are the textbook traits of a sociopath. And we all know how sociopaths end up, right?

You refer to yourself as a 21st century psychopath. What is a 21st century sociopath and how does a 21st century sociopath differ from those of earlier eras?

I don’t think diagnostically there is much difference at all. Sociopathy was one of the first personality disorders identified. It was included in the first edition of the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. Since then, very little has changed, at least diagnostically. But I would argue that very much has changed: In pop culture, the term sociopathy has been misappropriated to represent every manner of evil.

Any Google search related to sociopathy is likely to reveal little more than a list of serial killers alongside a decades-old behavioral checklist. These represent the most extreme version of the sociopathic personality, and yet they’ve been coopted to encapsulate the entirety of the disorder. This needs to change.

Why should I, or any reader, believe anything that you, a confessed sociopath, have to say?

I understand that I am not an ideal messenger in some respects. Trust me, I get it. What I’d like people to understand is that for many sociopaths, deceit is a coping mechanism born out of necessity.

Now that I’m an adult who recognizes the complexities of my personality type, I don’t feel like I have to lie. I don’t feel like I have to hide. Rather than conceal my personality type, I’ve chosen to accept and understand it. My hope is that conversations like these can help accelerate a similar understanding for others like me, and foster greater trust between neurotypical and neurodivergent people.

Are sociopaths born or made, or is there a combination of traits that gets furthered, or not, during childhood?

I believe it’s a combination of both. I agree with research that finds sociopathy to be more environmentally driven. However, I do believe that children born with certain temperaments—temperaments predisposed to lying and manipulation, for example—are at greater risk.

What do others most misunderstand about sociopathy?

Sociopathy falls along a spectrum. The majority of those on this spectrum have the ability to lead high-functioning lives. But you’d never know it from pop culture.

Television, cinema, books, and magazines nearly always denigrate sociopaths, usually by conflating us with malignant narcissists or stereotyping us based on the worst examples of our personality type: serial killers and other monsters. But even though these extremes only represent a small fraction of the sociopathic population, they have come to represent the entire cohort afflicted with the disorder.

That’s why I wrote my memoir. I wanted people to understand that not all sociopaths are created equal. I think if more people understood that not every sociopath is an evil maniac, more people with sociopathic traits would feel comfortable coming forward, and more treatments would subsequently be developed for it.

You are a parent. How do you socialize children if you don’t feel empathy or know what it feels like?

In much the same way that, as a woman, I can raise male children despite having no experience living as a man. I am able to socialize my children despite having limited experience with socialization.

I might not, for example, be able to relate to my child’s desire to be a “people pleaser.” But I understand this inclination is shared by many who desire to be part of prosocial society. I understand there are tremendous benefits to living in a harmonious community. I want my children to have those benefits. So, I encourage them to be kind to others as well as to themselves.

My ability to empathize—as with many sociopaths—is not absent; It’s muted. I describe this struggle as an emotional learning disability. It’s something I didn’t understand at first but over time (and especially since having children) have been able to somewhat overcome.

Why do so many sociopaths go unrecognized as such?

Because people don’t expect sociopaths to resemble anything other than monsters. Sociopaths know this and exploit it, often for personal safety just as much as—if not more often than—for personal gain.

One of the reasons the very concept of sociopathy is so alarming to neurotypical people is because it taps into fears that have been around since at least the time of Socrates and Plato: What if I’m the only one who is thinking the thoughts I’m having? What if everyone else is a mindless, soulless automaton and I’m actually all alone?

Of course this isn’t true, but sociopaths don’t feel things the same way as everyone else, and that makes them frightening. And because sociopaths are—ironically—aware of this dichotomy, there’s a perverse incentive for us to hide, to mask, to actively participate in concealing ourselves.

What is the fate of many sociopaths and why is yours different?

The somewhat tragic misconception is that sociopaths are fated to live a hopeless, loveless life and die alone (or in prison). But the truth is that I share a personality type with millions of other people—many of whom are likely living very “normal” lives, under the radar—just as I was.

Almost anyone with my personality type could have written a book like Sociopath from their own unique perspective. And I hope they do.

Do you believe there are elements in the contemporary culture that glorify or promote sociopathy?

Absolutely. I am consistently amazed by the degree to which society identifies with (and sometimes even idolizes) those who experience a harder time exhibiting and/or internalizing the higher social emotions. Take the most recent iteration of [the fictional character] Wednesday Addams. This Netflix version meets nearly every trait on Cleckley’s psychopathy checklist. Yet there is so much more to the character than her sociopathic traits would have you believe.

This Wednesday Addams, in my opinion, presents a more complete sociopathic composite than we’re traditionally fed by the mainstream media. What this tells me is that society is very capable of accepting sociopathy when it is portrayed realistically rather than sensationalized.

How does a sociopathic kid get through childhood unnoticed as such?

As a child I learned quickly that being truthful about my emotional experience (or lack thereof) was the quickest way to get into trouble. In my book I wrote, “The only thing that ever got me into trouble was the truth.” That was very much my experience as a kid. Deceit kept me hidden. Lying kept me safe. I think many sociopathic children develop similar coping mechanisms that enable them to go unnoticed. But this is neither healthy nor safe.

Research indicates that treatment for sociopathy is most effective when it is implemented early. My hope is that my book can help elevate the conversation and allow space for neurodivergent children to process their emotional experience openly, honestly, and therapeutically.

You report your path to adulthood almost as a series of destructive acts arising from inner tension. Can you describe the tension? And did there have to be a threshold of rule-breaking to relieve the pressure?

Accurately conveying the anxiety produced by a self-awareness of my baseline apathy was one of the most difficult challenges I faced when writing the book. The sociopathic pressure I experience seems to be similar to the tension described by those with obsessive-compulsive urges. Instead of repetitive behaviors or mental tests, I felt compelled to act out destructively.

I came to understand that smaller, consistent acts of destructive behavior were far more effective (and safer) than larger, more spontaneous ones. In the book I refer to this cycle of behavior as my “prescription”, as it seemed to keep extreme compulsive urges at bay.

Do you still feel such inner tension and what do you do if you feel it?

Occasionally I still feel this inner tension. However, because I am very aware of its machinations, I can employ healthier coping mechanisms such as cognitive journaling and re-framing.

You work as a psychologist. Does your inside understanding of sociopathy afford you any special insight into others? Or does it hinder understanding of others?

Please note that I do not work as a licensed psychologist (I no longer maintain an open practice at all). I do, however, think that my unique understanding of sociopathy—from an academic as well as a personal perspective—allows me an impartiality and ability to unemotionally interact with others that can sometimes be difficult for a neurotypical therapist. So, in that case, yes, I think it is fair to say that having the ability—the sociopathic trait—to engage with others without being affected by their emotions has been an advantage.

If you had to limit yourself to one item, what one idea or insight would you like people to get from this book?

There is nothing inherently immoral about limited access to emotion. It’s not what you feel. It’s what you do.

If there is an important question that you believe I haven’t addressed, please feel free to address it.

There’s a lot of confusion regarding the use of the word sociopath and the belief that the term was “replaced” by antisocial personality disorder. It is critical to note that you cannot diagnose sociopathy using the DSM criteria for antisocial personality disorder. The two have different diagnostic requirements and should not be used synonymously. This gap also means that the systems in place for dealing with most psychological conditions—from diagnosis to treatment to health insurance—aren’t available to sociopaths. This isn’t good for us or for society.

About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.

To purchase this book, visit Sociopath: A Memoir.

Used with permission author Patric Gagne
Used with permission author Patric Gagne
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