Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review - Confessions of a Sociopath

Provocatively titled, but ultimately as elusive as the person behind the mask on its cover, M.E. Thomas's Confessions of a Sociopath is an ugly, empty and deeply narcissistic work of “non-fiction” masquerading as an exposé of the life of an anonymous woman who has, in her mind, achieved an enormous amount in her life by basically treating everyone in it like toilet paper on the bottom of her (expensive) shoe.

The author’s attempt at shock value begins immediately, as she relates an anecdote from her younger years offering private swim lessons. As she inspects the pool before a student arrives, she notices a baby opossum struggling in the water. Instead of rescuing it, Ms. Thomas attempts to drown it, but when the effort becomes too taxing, she simply walks away, waits for the creature to die, cancels the swim instruction, fishes out the carcass and bombs the pool with chemicals. EDGY.

And so it goes, through 300 pages of trivial slights, psychological warfare, head games and emotional manipulation. The book’s primary problems are two-fold: first, the author is anonymous, so validating any of her story is difficult; and second, because she outlines the primary characteristics of sociopaths as including deceitfulness, manipulation and lying, it simply compounds the first problem.  In other words, a person who is telling you she is well-versed in lying is asking you to believe her autobiography is truthful. Good luck with that.

It is hard to discern what Ms. Thomas is offering for public consumption. Is the reader supposed to feel revulsion at her callous disregard for the feelings of others? Disdain at her pluck-the-wings-off-a-fly description of her emotional manipulation of colleagues, lovers and rivals? Envy at her allegedly successful career? Sadness that she cannot sustain a relationship for more than 8 months? Titillation at her bisexuality? All of the above? At bottom, what I felt was pity that someone has invested so much of their being into such pettiness and sorrow that this is the way some people live their lives.

Of course, to be an “empath” (a catchall the author uses to essentially describe all people who are not sociopaths) is to be cruelly mocked and taken advantage of in Ms. Thomas’s world and the world inhabited by the fellow travelers who flock to her website.  Ms. Thomas is the heroine of her own stories, lashing out at bullies from grade school to the board room, ruining professional reputations (but usually for those who “deserve it” in her view) and personal relationships like Sherman rolling through Georgia. The casualty list is long and the victims include everyone from a female supervisor who (allegedly) becomes so obsessed with Ms. Thomas that she torpedoes her own career and turns to drugs to salve the wound to a high school teacher who disses Ms. Thomas, leading her to spread rumors about him, resulting in his termination.

These skirmishes are, to some degree, paradoxical. Ms. Thomas takes pains to point out that sociopaths are typically concerned with blending into the crowd, the better to not arouse suspicion, than creating antagonism, where their true colors are less likely to be disguised. But this contradiction is simply of a piece with much of the book’s internal inconsistency. An early chapter devoted largely to itemizing the awful parenting Ms. Thomas suffered through, primarily at the hands of a verbally and physically abusive father, is flipped by the end of the book, where Ms. Thomas essentially gives her parents a pass for their conduct, saying they did the best they could. Huh?

The author’s professional career arc is similarly confusing. On the one hand, she lands a prestigious job at a top-tier law firm straight out of law school, but bombs out and is fired, skids out on unemployment for a time before landing a job as a prosecutor in the misdemeanor section of her district attorney’s office. There, we learn in exhaustive detail about Ms. Thomas’s skill with a jury, yet, at least in my state, misdemeanor cases (1) rarely go to trial; and (2) are not heard before a jury. Perhaps things are different where she lives (again, who can tell, the details of her life are purposefully obscured) but if Ms. Thomas was flashing her trial chops over disorderly persons citations and speeding tickets, I am fairly certain we are not dealing with the second coming of Clarence Darrow. Having tired of showcasing her skills before these supposed juries (or perhaps having realized she was not the lawyer she thought she was), Ms. Thomas now spends her days at a mid-tier law school wowing herself with her own cleverness and, (according to her), receiving laurels and encomiums from her grateful lemmings, whose affection for her teaching is matched only by their fascination with her as a person.

If there is a saving grace to Confessions, it is the author’s use of the research of others to inform her writing. Here, we have some objective barometer from which to digest the behavior of others, not the self-selected musings of someone who acknowledges her own capacity for deception combined with our inability to independently confirm anything that she says. Unfortunately, merely regurgitating the professional studies in the field is insufficient to carry a book that otherwise reads as a vanity project by someone with a wildly inflated view of themselves that does not comport with what most people would deem objective reality.


  1. Thank you -- I read an excerpt in Psychology Today and it sounds like anything worth reading was in there. I definitely won't bother.

  2. Sounds like a Jen Lancaster wanna-be...

  3. Am reading the book right now; up to ch.3. There's some controversy on the web as to the author: "she's not really a socio, just an attention whore" (evidently she went in disguise on "Dr." Phil)(Phil, never afraid to sputter sanctimonious outrage when there's a safe target handy, reportedly hated her); there are those who say she's a fake & merely a socio wannabe; and an interesting theory that the book is written by a true socio *in an attempt to frame someone else*: in just 2 chapters, there have been quite a few specific and presumably-verifiable clues as to who 'she' might be.

    Assuming she really is a sociopath, it's still an interesting read. Yep, she's narcissistic as hell and minimizes her little....um...quirks and blames others at the drop of a hat, but hey - what do you expect from a sociopath? Modesty? Self-deprecation? No.....I'm thinking there might be something to learn, even from repugnant teachers. For example, she claims that 'science' shows that socios have vastly fewer problems with the slings & arrows of modern life: petty & gross rejections, destructive and possibly unnecessary guilt & remorse, and - most importantly - *much* lower incidences of major depression. If any of that's true, there are a lot of brittle and/or fragile and/or clinically depressed folks out there who could be helped by learning how to do some of that.

    Although I don't think I'd want to date her, I'm not ready to trash the book just yet. The fact I don't like the way she 'teaches' doesn't mean all her ideas are wrong.

  4. Wow, this book seems super interesting! I actually can't wait to read this. It's really scary to think about at first but it intrigues you to find out more.

  5. Thank you for the review. I saw the book at the library today and was asking myself the very questions you addressed. The problem of sociopaths in society has been of considerable interest to me, but I wanted to hear some opinions from people who had read it before I subjected myself to the stress of reading it.

    The current state of my conclusions about sociopaths can be found here, if you're interested... http://goo.gl/6AO7z

  6. Personally, I am liking the book. I relate very much to her in some ways, and can see where her father did a lot of damage to her. I think it is a good read so far (half way through it).

  7. If she was detached from emotion, why would she care if a teacher dissed her. Ah, but I pull the first thread on the sweater...