Transcript for M.E. Thomas on "Confessions of a Sociopath"

Jim Fleming: But first, M.E. Thomas. That is not actually her real name. She used a pseudonym to write her book, "Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight". As you can tell from the title, Thomas is a diagnosed sociopath. She is one of the four percent of highly successful, non-criminal sociopaths that make up the U.S. population. Anne Strainchamps talked with her.

Anne Strainchamps: M.E., when did you first become aware that you were different from other people? Do you feel like this is something you've always known?

M.E. Thomas: I think I always thought that I was different, but I didn't really think sociopath obviously. When I was little I thought maybe I'm just smart, maybe I'm just Mormon, maybe it's something having to do with my big family, big musical family. Maybe there are other things that are sort of idiosyncratic about me that are just chance. And I don't think I really realized how systematic my differences were or what their particular nature were until law school, when we were all trained to think like lawyers, very logically and rationally. My classmates and I did that well, and we did it pretty much in lockstep, and did it very, in similar ways, until we started talking about controversial subjects like the death penalty or abortion. Then my classmates would have emotional reactions to these things, and there was an emotional component to their argument. And they had feelings about these particular issues, not just rational think-like-a-lawyer thoughts about them. And I didn't. And I thought, these people are having these very authentic reactions, I'm not having them, I must be very different from them.

Strainchamps: People have a lot of stereotypes about what it means to be a sociopath, and one of them is that sociopaths have no feelings, or don't empathize with other people. You open the book with this kind of chilling story about, I think you were a teenager maybe, and a baby opossum fell into your pool one day. Could you tell that story?

Thomas: Yeah, so I had planned to do swimming lessons in the pool and I walked out and was getting everything set, kickboards ready, and then I noticed there was splashing in the pool. And I got close enough to see that it was a baby opossum. And I thought, well, we can't have swimming lessons in the pool with a baby opossum. We have to get it out somehow. So in my mind, I thought the best, easiest way and the most risk-free way was to kill it, to help it drown, essentially. And then after it's dead to get it out, because who knows, you know, you take it out and does it bite you? Does it have rabies? It just didn't seem like the benefits of trying to fish it out outweighed the potential costs.

Strainchamps: So you just approached it purely rationally.

Thomas: Yeah, when I did that, I didn't really think this is like a cruel thing to do, or I'm enjoying killing this animal. It was purely this practical thing to do. And it was only in the re-telling of it to other people that I realized that other people would have approached it very differently, and would have had feelings of guilt almost at killing it. And I think, feelings of guilt? I mean, it's a pest, right? It's a pest in the sense that it's an animal that's where it shouldn't be, and we kill animals like that all the time. You know, we have rat traps, and we put down wild dogs. We just do this, right? But other people, their feelings about it are a lot more complicated than mine are, obviously.

Strainchamps: So when you told that story to other people, did they kind of gasp and say, oh my god? Why? Why did you do that? Thomas: Exactly. I was surprised that they were having these reactions. you know, that's another example of, that happened in my late teens or early twenties or something, of realizing that you're different. I thought it was almost a story not worth telling, maybe I just told it on the offhand, like why didn't you have swimming lessons today? Oh, I cancelled them because there was an opossum in the pool that I tried to drown, but it didn't drown quick enough.

Strainchamps: So what do you think is responsible for you being a sociopath?

Thomas: Well, it's very hard to say, and I'm very careful to say always, I'm a diagnosed sociopath. Who even knows what sociopathy means? I don't think there's nearly enough research to make any sort of for-sure statements, but the research that has been done suggests that there's a genetic component. They've done twin studies and found that twins, you know, if one's a sociopath, the other one's much more likely to also be a sociopath. Most people's guess is it's about fifty percent genetic, or fifty percent sort of inborn, and the rest comes from other sources, environmental, I guess. I would say, if I had to trace the genetic link, it would come from my father's birth father who abandoned him as a baby. Knocked up my grandmother, shotgun wedding, abandoned, and we don't know that much about him because he never met the father, never knew him at all, but we do know that he was very sort of violent, aggressive, had maybe a mood disorder. He had a bunch of scars on his face from all the reckless activities he would engage in. And he ended up losing his money by buying a ranch. He fancied himself a cowboy and then ran the ranch into the ground. So if I had to guess, I would say he is the source of the genetics.

Strainchamps: So once you got that diagnosis, and by now, you write in the book, that you identify more as a sociopath than by your gender, or profession, or race. Can you talk more about that? What does that mean to you?

Thomas: Yeah. It doesn't actually mean that I identify so strongly with being a sociopath. It largely means I don't identify with the other things. And I think one of the primary characteristics of sociopaths, what it feels like to be a sociopath, is to have a very weak sense of self. There's sort of no there there. I don't think of myself in these terms, female, or part of a particular political party, or even my age, my ethnicity. Even Mormonism, to a certain extent. I've never really felt Mormon. So people see me and see all these different characteristics and treat me that way, but I never really think of myself in those terms. I think of myself more in terms of how I process things, how I think, rather than the results. So more like the formula, rather than the particular inputs or outputs of the formula.

Strainchamps: That's interesting that you say you don't have a sense of self. That's just such an interesting concept. For one thing, you must understand something about a sense of self to know that you don't have one.

Thomas: Right.

Strainchamps: How did you figure out what you're missing?

Thomas: That's a good question. You know, not having a sense of self, what does it feel like? It sort of feels like I am a mirror or a camera. I am just capturing other things. I think the figuring out that I didn't have a sense of self was experiencing things like the law school experience, where people had very strong opinions. And I always felt like the opinions I had were largely convenient. I had them for that particular context, or for that particular moment, or maybe even just to portray a particular role in society, whatever I was doing. And I always thought I can change my mind the very next minute. So I think probably, actually, in my relationships, my personal relationships is where it felt most obvious. Because I felt that way, and I say this all the time, that tomorrow I could be out of a relationship if I happen to be in a relationship. I make a decision to be whoever I am, or whatever role that I have, every day. I make a decision to keep my job every day, I feel like I could quit every day. Same thing with relationships, same thing with everything that I participate in, I think I can move tomorrow. Constantly I'm deciding these things. It's not something that's rigid or solid and I think that really scares people when they're in a relationship with me because it doesn't seem secure.

Strainchamps: Well, you also write that one of your favorite pastimes is what you call "the fine art of ruining people," which you describe as inserting yourself in someone else's psyche and quietly wreaking as much havoc as you can. For example?

Thomas: Well, yeah, favorite pastimes, I think that might be overstating it a little bit. I say in the book it's sort of a delicacy that I engage in as often as I eat foie gras, which is, I mean, I haven't eaten foie gras in, for forever. And ruining people, too, it's something that I did more before I was diagnosed and wasn't really aware of the consequences of some of my actions. But the appeal to ruining people was sort of an intimacy with people. I really like people. I actually do really like people, but it has been hard. You know, as I said, with relationships and other things, it's been hard to have any sort of sense of intimacy with people, emotional, physical, anything. And I think ruining people in some ways was just a way to interact with people. It's like the difference between hugging somebody and roughhousing with them, punching them. They can mean the same thing, actually. They can both mean affection, or you want to engage with that particular thing, and so ruining people was almost like an emotional roughhousing.

Strainchamps: What's an example? How have you ruined someone?

Thomas: It's not like they actually are ruined. That's the biggest point, I guess, to make first is they don't end up a shell of their former selves. It's just a mind game, basically. You try to get in their mind. You try to get them to like you, get them to sort of rely on you for particular things, you get them to wonder what your motives are. You're just playing mind games with them. It's like seducing them, probably, in a way, except the goal is not to be in a relationship with them or get them to do particular things. You just want to inhabit their mind, you want them to think of you and wonder what you think about.

Strainchamps: You tell the story about this young, successful lawyer Morgan, for instance, who, by the time you finish your relationship with her, you said she had been young and successful and by the end she was an anorexic who had lost her job and was involved in substance abuse. That sounds like ruining.

Thomas: Yeah, you know, Morgan, we're actually still friends, Morgan and I. I wouldn't take credit for those things. I do think that she, and this is something that I've kind of adapted over the years, to seek after people who have sort of masochistic tendencies. For whatever reason they're wanting to self-destruct, or their life is unstable, and so I become a part of that. I don't necessarily lead them to do those things. Those were her choices. But her vulnerability and her instability, I think, attracted me, because it was so easy to kind of get into her head. But I don't think she would think of me as a negative influence in her life, actually. If anything I've sort of been a stabilizing influence, or at least an interesting influence. She wants to engage in these sorts of things, and most people would really judge her for that sort of behavior, and think, you're ruining your life, and how could you, and we're not going to support you anymore, and I'm going to stop being your friend because I just can't see you do this to yourself. And I was always supportive of whatever she chose to do.

Strainchamps: You've written that your view of morality is instrumental. What do you mean by that?

Thomas: I think I don't really have this emotional view of morality. It's largely ethically based, it's largely utilitarian, to the extent I have, raised in the Mormon church and taught to serve others and raised in a large family, I was able to see early on that when my siblings are happy, when my parents are happy, when people, my friends, are happy, I'm happier. So I really kind of took to this idea of utilitarian ethics.

Strainchamps: Most of us believe we've never met a sociopath, but research shows that in fact they make up, I don't know, what?

Thomas: One in 25, so one to four percent of the population.

Strainchamps: And many of them have very successful careers. Can you recognize other sociopaths?

Thomas: Sometimes I recognize sociopaths, and it is kind of scary to think, you know, statistically, everybody has met a sociopath, but most people cannot ever recall having met a sociopath. If they met a sociopath they didn't know it. And I think that has happened to me too. I think I've met sociopaths and not realized it. I've also met sociopaths and did realize it. I think there is kind of ways that you can tell. They tend to hold eye contact, and then it kind of becomes a staring contest. If it's sociopath against sociopath, then it's just like really intense, staring at each other for however many minutes. There are other ways to try and flush people out. Sometimes I like to bring up the TV show, "Dexter," and ask them how they feel about things, about "Dexter," and if, I think a lot of times, sociopaths are sort of dropping hints about themselves. They want to be discovered. They rarely flat-out lie. They largely kind of tell the truth in ways that are not really going to out themselves, but they can still express their own authentic thoughts about something.

Fleming: M.E. Thomas is the author of "Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight." She spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

Comments for this interview

What's the use? (Layla, 08/12/2013 - 3:52pm)

Why not just interview your nearest politicians or overly driven capitalists? Or wall street bankers? I see no use of giving this person any time or attention on public radio. People like these are a bit of a curse on our society.

Confessions of a Sociopath (Cam, 08/12/2013 - 11:03am)

I commend this author for letting people know what is inside the mind of a sociopath ~ most would not admit to any of this. They study human behavior and then mimic it. Some researchers have seriously misinterpreted their ability to read people as "empathy," when in fact, they are the least empathic people on the planet. To those who would like to learn more about them, I recommend studying the Enneagram, Type 8, as well as the book "The Sociopath Next Door," which confirms that 3-5% of people are sociopaths.