Editor’s note: A Slate columnist awoke this morning to discover an envelope slipped under his apartment door. Inside, printed on bone-colored stationery in Cillian Rail font, was this essay.
Heading home from working out at Xclusive, and after an intense shiatsu massage, I stop at a newsstand, scanning the Adults Only rack. The soothing strains of Pachelbel’s Canon emanating from my Sennheiser Momentum headphones somehow complement the harshly lit photographs in the magazines I flip through. I buy Lesbian Vibrator Bitches along with the current Sports Illustrated, even though I’m a subscriber and it’s already arrived in the mail. I wait for the stand to empty out to make my purchase, and while pretending to browse, I catch sight of the cover of Psychology Today. The cover model, who could be hot if she got her eyebrows plucked, forces a predatory stare over a sexy cover line: “Confessions of a Sociopath.”
I am a corporate raider and psychopathic murderer. This work touches on my field, so I pick up the magazine to read the cover story and see it’s the first serial excerpt from a memoir called Confessions of a Sociopath, pseudonymously written by M.E. Thomas, a female law professor who blogs about her pathological narcissism and remorselessness at SociopathWorld.com. I take the iPhone 5 out of the pocket of my Hugo Boss overcoat and pre-order two copies on Amazon.
On the day they arrive, a doorman I haven’t seen before hands the package to me as I return to my building at 1 a.m. I take the elevator up to my apartment and wash my hands and sit in my cream leather chair and chase an Adderall with a J&B and read the book in one sitting. It begins with a psychological evaluation that describes M.E. Thomas as a “prototypical psychopathic personality” manifesting “a ruthless and calculating attitude toward social and interpersonal relationships, and a relative immunity to experiencing negative emotions.” It ends with an epilogue that names me, along with Hannibal Lecter and Tom Ripley, as “walking manifestations of overblown desire and destructive forces”—real monsters who glory in a freedom that meek mortals can only imagine, and often do—and seeing that phrase gives me an erection, even after Thomas’ slightly repetitive and inevitably detached exploration of the sociopathic mind.
Thomas isn’t like me or Hannibal or Ripley. The evaluation describes her as a “‘socialized’ or ‘successful’ psychopath.” I wonder if a lawyer who spends her time rubbing elbow patches with other eggheads can truly be called successful. The most talented sociopaths I know are on the M&A team at Simpson, Thacher. Sociopathy exists on a spectrum of severity, but Thomas hooks me early by writing about cold violence and burning bloodlust in a stainless-steel tone. She starts the first chapter by encouraging me to imagine her as a tan teenage hardbody drowning a baby opossum in a pool, and then describes an encounter in a Metro station in D.C.: After she used a closed escalator, a worker tried to shame her and she saw red. “Adrenaline started flowing. My mouth tasted metallic. … An image sprang to my mind of my hands wrapped around neck. … I lost him in the crowd, and just as quickly as it had arisen in me, my murderous rage dissipated.”
But that is the most extreme expression of her impulsive craving to kill. She cops to no felonies, only juvenile delinquency stuff. She says and maybe believes that her lack of social conscience doesn’t define her. Violence doesn’t get her off. She’s into “the fine art of ruining people,” according to the title of Chapter 7. She seduces with charisma, and she cunningly covers her hollowness with superficial charm. She’s a “Nietzschean machine.”
And she violates social norms like it’s her job. Emotionally she takes no prisoners: The high school teacher she falsely accuses of harassment, the friends whose boyfriends she sleeps with just because she can, the colleagues she mind-fucks—they’re all just roadkill. It takes all kinds of anti-social behavior to give society an edge, and she and I differ in many important ways. She doesn’t use knives because she is too reckless with them—“I’ve cut myself many times. I can never force myself to be more careful, so now I just don’t use them”—where I use a Black & Decker Handy Knife, a slicer/peeler with several attachments and a rechargeable handle. She likes to get inside people’s heads with her ruthless charm, but I prefer a power drill. Between 1 and 4 percent of the population is just like us, if you’re willing to trust a self-aggrandizer like her.
Thomas escapes her abusive Mormon family and coasts through college and into a big law firm through manipulation and coercion. After she is fired for her lazy work, she undertakes a ruthless period of rational introspection. Once she embraces her true nature, she sees the dark light of harnessing her power, moving to a cushy gig as a law professor who screws with her students’ heads and prepares them to master the real world, just as she had in her day: “The law school environment made everyone a little more sociopathic, since we were encouraged to view our successes in a zero-sum game measured by precise numbers.”
I laugh out loud every time Thomas illustrates a point with an example drawn from legal practice. She writes about psyching out jurors as a trial lawyer and working the loopholes and core concepts, such as “efficient breach,” that sanitize unethical behavior. But I wish she would go further in describing the baked-in sociopathy of the legal code as it pertains to business and the awesome unfeeling logic of capitalism. I sweat with excitement whenever she touches on it. Thomas talks about Al Dunlap, the turnaround specialist, and his appearance in a book called The Psychopath Test, in order to explain guys like me who know that manipulation is leadership and megalomania is a survival skill. “It’s probably no surprise that many sociopaths end up as successful corporate types,” she writes. “Sociopathic traits can be a real boon in the corporate workplace: unemotional, ruthless, charming, confident.” And because she grows up Mormon (“a handy tool in explaining my eccentricities”) and builds her amoral resumé shoplifting at BYU, and because she uses an Etch a Sketch metaphor to explain her absence of core beliefs, she makes me think of Mitt Romney. Corporations are antisocial people, my “friend.”
I close the book and slip on my Ralph Lauren silk pajamas and go to bed on my goose-down mattress, and the smell of blood works its way into my dreams. I don’t care if this book helps the “empaths” with whom our kind like to toy. But it would be interesting to see Thomas rewrite her memoir as a manifesto. All of society is antisocial, and we sociopaths are citizens of America’s future. That’s one reason the rest of you are so scared of us. Another is that we’re not going anywhere. Indeed, we must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed. Thomas points out that, with sociopathy, the clinical emphasis “is on identification, not diagnosis. … Diagnosis is for people for whom there is a treatment.” The only thing you can do is try to smoke us out as we live among you, like aliens inhabiting human bodies, faking smiles and crying crocodile tears and making you hear what you want us to say. This is an existential disease. There is no treatment and no exit.
Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas. Crown.