During the run-up to the 2016 election, one word was often used to describe Donald Trump: sociopath. Just Google donald trump sociopath, and you'll find the results full of articles asking if he really is a sociopath. His former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz thinks so.
Amid all the sociopath talk, I realized I didn't know what the word meant. To me it just described a horrible person. I decided to fix that and read up on sociopathy and its close cousin psychopathy. By election day I had read several books on what psychologists call anti-social personality disorder but what we commonly know as sociopathy.
In particular one book stood out. Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M. E. Thomas (a pseudonym) is not a particularly well-written book, but I challenge you to try to put it down. It is a memoir of a normal everyday sociopath. There are no murders, suicide cults, or prison sentences - just a high-functioning diagnosed sociopath who manages to integrate herself into mainstream society. It offers insight into a mind so different from my own that it seems impossible such people could exist. But they do.
The reality is that I have nothing of what people refer to as a conscience or remorse. The concept of morality, when defined as an emotional understanding of right and wrong, goes right over my head like an inside joke of which I am not a part...Still, I often wonder what life would be like to feel that things were right or wrong, to have an internal compass to direct me to my moral north (p. 134).
The book begins with a disturbing incident with a baby opossum drowning in a pool which sets the tone for the remaining pages. The author covers her life as a young sociopath trying to figure out why others were behaving so strangely. Eventually she would learn their behavior was driven by emotions - something she didn't experience herself except in muted distant ways. True joy, sorrow, and compassion were absent from her inner world leading to anti-social behavior. To cope, she copied the words and actions of those around her in an effort to fit in. She grew her bangs long to cover her empty eyes. Over time, she developed a mask of normalcy and rarely let it slip. Thus the subtitle, "A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight."
Eventually she would graduate from law school, a place she described as teeming with sociopaths, and hold various positions as a prosecutor, law firm associate, and finally law professor. She writes about how she enjoys ruining people - her term for manipulating people to the point of destroying their lives. Intellectually she knows society disapproves of such behavior, but with no conscience to hold her back, she proceeds with glee. In particular, the story of how she ruined the career of a colleague turned lover is as fascinating as it is disturbing.
Ruining people. I love the way the phrase rolls around on my tongue and inside my mouth. Ruining people is delicious...I like people. I like people so much that I want to touch them, mold them, or ruin them however I'd like. Not because I want to witness the results, necessarily, but simply because I want to exercise my power (p. 216).
For me, the best parts of the book are the glimpses she gives into the mind of a sociopath. Because their emotions are muted or completely missing, sociopaths try to fill the void in superficial ways like ruining people. The author seems to have more self-awareness than most sociopaths and works to understand herself and others. This isn't due to any feelings of empathy which she lacks. It's a matter of self-preservation.
Later in the book, the author writes about how she takes on religion as a way to guide her through life. She is beginning to self-destruct due to her impulses, and religion, with its clear rules regarding behavior, offers a path forward. She becomes a strict adherent to her childhood faith, Mormonism, and even teaches Sunday school.
[Some] sociopaths, and I am one of these, have settled on a more "principled" approach to life and act according to religious or ethical beliefs, or, at the minimum, for their self-interest or preservation. We decide on standards of behavior or a code that we can refer to when faced with decisions ("I've decided not to kill people, so I won't stab this jerk") (p. 141).
In Confessions of a Sociopath, M. E. Thomas gives an unvarnished account of her life and seems to have a genuine interest in educating the reader on what makes a sociopath tick. She asks for understanding and compassion from the neurotypical world. One almost has sympathy for her by the end - which is exactly what she wants.
Does any of this sound like Donald Trump? I would say he certainly has some symptoms of anti-social personality disorder. Deception, manipulation, superficial charm. But is he a full-blown sociopath? We have four years to find out.