“There is endless psychological research on evil people. But in my experience the average sociopath has no idea they are wrong. They’re born this way, not made.”
― Kate Moretti, The Vanishing Year
Like any other child, he was a source of great joy to his parents when he was born. Their bliss did not last long. At some time in his development his behavior concerned them. He did not seem to care for his friends and his pets. He frequently lashed out when his will was not done.
He grew up healthy and strong. By his mid-teens he was a frequent visitor to the principal’s office. He settled disagreements with violence. Once he got a driver’s license, he made friends in neighborhoods far away from his upper-middle class home. He was in high demand because he usually won when he fought.
It was not a steady descent into darkness. Or so his parents felt. He could be an excellent student. Whenever he messed up, he had a special way of asking for forgiveness. He knew which words would placate his father, and which gift would make his mother weep with joy.
Then they noticed the money: he had much more than what he collected on allowance. He spent freely; he told his family that he did odd jobs, and that people were grateful that he helped. When his siblings began to avoid him, and after the first visit from the police, his father had enough.
The family moved thousands of miles away. Everyone’s life was uprooted because his parents believed, against all evidence, that his behavior was precipitated by “bad friends.” He was enrolled in a “strict” school. Psychologists were hired. All to no avail. Other bad friends popped up; he kept handling a lot of money; the police kept coming.
His mother finally had enough. She ushered him out of his home. She managed to stop listening to his excuses, and she threw his nice presents back on his face. When his father reprimanded him for being rude to his mother, he challenged his father to a fight. Right in front of me and numerous other holiday guests.
He left home, and for a few years he seemed to have found a good space for himself. He married a good woman, whose father had significant resources. He went to work in the family business. Everyone in the family relaxed and took a deep breath.
Years passed before I heard about him again. He had left his wife. There were many more encounters with the police: during a late-night raid on his place of “business” he ran away by stealing a police car. In his state of mind, or intoxication, I do not know which, he crashed the car a few blocks from the place that he took it from. The officers were not pleased.
As I got news of his enormous legal problems, it struck me that he still managed to find his way out of jail. He took money from his parents so that he could afford excellent legal help. Once this source of revenue dried out, he was able to convince the court-appointed lawyers that he had been wronged in some way, or brought up in horrible circumstances, or had been betrayed by his ex-wife. They worked overtime for him. He sweet-talked judges: he was strikingly handsome and had received an excellent education. He was very articulate; he knew just what to say. They felt that he could somehow be redeemed.
One night I received a phone call from him. It was 3AM. He had been “working” close to Saint Louis, and he had once again been caught doing something illegal. He asked me to bail him out.
After all you have done to your parents and everyone who has tried to help you? You want me to bail you out?
A torrent of excuses and promises followed. I cut him short.
Do not ever call me again! Shame on you!
“You will not help me?” An incredulous tone of voice. “I told them that you were a doctor, that for sure…”
I hung up. I never heard his voice again.
A few years ago, my sister called me to tell me that he had been murdered. I did not want to hear any more details. I asked her to talk about something else. After we hung up, I walked away from my bedroom, to find a place to cry.
Sociopathy. I find it telling that we cannot even agree on what to call this condition. Antisocial behavior is the latest term, but I am sure that there will be others. There is no way that we can measure this condition. It is not the same as taking a blood pressure or drawing blood to find out how high our cholesterol is. We do not have a good way to tell how “bad” a sociopath is, or how much better or worse he (I say “he” because men dominate this diagnosis) is than another person who exhibits the same type of behavior.
This is the Wikipedia definition:
- Boldness. Low fear including stress-tolerance, toleration of unfamiliarity and danger, and high self-confidence and social assertiveness. Fearless dominance.
- Disinhibition. Poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight, lacking affect and urge control, demand for immediate gratification, and poor behavioral restraints.
- Meanness. Lacking empathy and close attachments with others, disdain of close attachments, use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies, defiance of authority, and destructive excitement seeking.
If this sounds like a politician (or head of state), or CEO, or anyone in a position of power that you know, it is because… I will let you finish the sentence. It is frightening. These people are very seductive. They have a highly accurate, inborn “radar” that lets them know which people are likely to let themselves be abused or manipulated. They can seduce whole countries. They are everywhere.
Of course, they are found in jails. Even though they constitute 1% of the population, 25% of prison inmates are sociopaths. The percentage would be higher if it were not for the fact that they are so good at talking judges and parole boards into setting them free earlier than what their sentences dictate.
The common belief, as my lead quote says, is that this condition is incurable. Many years ago, I treated a world-famous psychiatrist who had made some headway with these patients by submitting them to intensive psychotherapy and group therapy. Eight hours a day; every day. Current research has shown abnormal areas in the brains of these patients. There has been some success (up to 40% of the time) with intensive psychotherapy. Psychologists try to convince the sociopaths that it is not good for them to be thrown in jail; that they can use their insatiable self-interest in ways that will benefit them. Maybe this is what the politicians and CEO’s found out by themselves.
It is estimated that this intensive intervention will cost $7,000 per person per year. Before you say that this is too much, remember that a criminal who is a recidivist costs the state almost ten times as much. Further research is desperately needed.
I have used composites of people I have known to describe the young man discussed above. Everything that I wrote is true, but events described may have happened to different people. Yes, I have a remarkably interesting family, and you have not heard half of it. I will write a book someday, but I will ask my children not to publish it until after I die. Too many skeletons; dozens of flawed relatives; people that I love dearly.