Friday, January 30, 2009

Title Fifteen: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D.

When we think of the term "sociopath," our minds conjure up such figures as serial killers, animal torturers, and despots. Unfortunately, the sociopath does not always fit into this neat box. According to Stout, "1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty. Who is the devil you know?"

Stout defines a sociopath as a person with no conscience, no ability to feel guilt or pity or love. A sociopath forms no attachments other than those that can benefit him. This inability makes it easier for them to blend into society and easier to destroy the lives of their targets. In some cases, it's the high-powered exec who marries to advance his career and calculates the monetary value of the people around him. He may shine in his corporate life but sweep sexual harrassment suits under the rug (with the help of his superiors) and cook the books, believing that he need answer to no one, including the SEC or IRS. Sometimes it's a psychiatrist, physician or pyschologist who undercuts her patients in order to screw with her colleagues. It may be the player who sucks in an unsuspecting, intelligent woman with low self-esteem by means of romance and wooing, only to drop all pretenses once he has her where he wants her, supporting him monetarily and bewildered by his complete ignorance of their child. Another example is the pillar of the community who plays the doting father and husband but uses his family as a front for his involvement in criminal dealings, killing a man in cold blood and using the community's support to secure his release from prison on the grounds of self-defense. Finally, it could be the old woman next door who strives to make the lives of her neighbors living hell with constant complaints and petty grievances.

It took this book for me to realize that I and my family have been victimized over the last year by a sociopath. My father played the part of a loving family man until we uncovered the truth: he had a girlfriend on the side and drained my mother's finances, leading her to a nervous breakdown. He destroyed the family business that I helped him to build and dragged us all down with him as he faces fraud charges (for which my mother may have to pay because PA is a joint marital property state). Now, as my mother attempts to distance herself from him as quickly as possible, he fights the divorce with every step even though he has leached every bit of money and love that she had, leaving her broke and broken. I am asked over and over again, "How did this happen? Your family was the last that we could ever have expected this to happen to!" I have no answers. Instead I, my mother, and my sister are left to deal with the aftermath.

Stout includes a lot of psychobabble, which I glossed over because I was more interested in the stories of the sociopaths and their families that she has met through her practice over the years. I cannot fathom the absence of conscience or love. I still cry over footage of Katrina and 9/11; my heart aches for the homeless and downtrodden that I see in my city. I wish that I had Paris Hilton's money so that I could fix the lives of these people and donate funds to cancer research. Some days I feel as if my chest is caving in at the heartbreak that I see on the news. I want to help everyone, or at the very least, buy them a Coke. When I worked in Center City I would regularly buy cups of coffee or sandwiches for the homeless perched on grates in the winter. Suffering brings tears to my eyes. I am overwhelmed by the suffering in Darfur. And I wouldn't trade any of that for the mind of a sociopath. My conscience makes me human and connects me to these people. Life without love is nothing.

Pick this up if, like me, you have an interest in psychology, but be warned that it can be slightly dry and bittersweet, like a good pizelle.


Jeremy Feist said...

Holy shit, ummm...all I can say is wow, Nicole, that's really terrible. But at the same time, it has made you a better person, and if this post is any indication, a great writer.

Nicole said...

Jeremy, that's the nicest compliment I've been paid in a long time. Thank you.