'I'm a Psychopath, Here's What Everyone Gets Wrong'

For the past couple months I've played bass guitar in the pit orchestra of a new musical. According to reports, part of the performance originated from diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops held with the cast and crew before rehearsals began.

I wasn't part of the inclusion workshops, but I experienced their effect. Like most of my musical experiences, on the first day of rehearsals, I walked into a room with mostly men. As the men introduced themselves, they included their preferred pronouns, which I assumed they learned from the workshop training. But I didn't give my preferred pronouns and I noticed the other two women didn't either. I'm not sure why they didn't give their pronouns but I know why I didn't. I don't have them. I don't have any normal concept of myself as female or any gender at all because I have an antisocial personality disorder. I am a psychopath, or as some call it, a sociopath. In a psychological evaluation, I was described as a "successful" psychopath, but I chose to use the term sociopath thanks to social stigma around psychopathy. More recently, I learned British people typically use the term psychopath, so I switched.

Psychopathy is typically understood to be a subclass of antisocial personality disorder. In my case, I also have a very weak sense of self—so weak that I have a difficult time conceptualizing myself as things like female, or white, or bisexual, or anything else that may be true about me. I also have traditionally struggled to relate to my own emotions, much less the emotions of other people.

I had learned as a very young child that people were often repulsed by me—by my chronic need to know which they labeled "nosiness," by the way I could read their minds and use their hidden fears and insecurities to manipulate them, and by the way I showed no empathy to those whom I guiltlessly used. So, I learned to mask these traits and to appear like everyone else. The first time I had heard the word sociopath applied to me was during a rare instance in which I let the mask slip with a work colleague. She was unusually open-minded, so I had been exceptionally honest with her about the way my brain worked. Her lack of judgment about sociopathy or psychopathy would be an unfortunately rare experience for me.

M.E. Thomas is a Psychopath
M.E. Thomas has been assessed by a psychologist as a "successful psychopath." Thomas describes her life before and after writing Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Getty/iStock

My music colleagues know me as a bassist—not a lawyer, not the founder of a non-profit pro bono legal services firm and certainly not as the author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. But actually, there is a connection there. It was only after I lost my career as a law professor due to the publication of the book that I took up playing bass again. After so many terrible, judgmental, and tone-deaf encounters with my law professor administrators and colleagues when all they knew about sociopaths and psychopaths were stereotypical Hollywood portrayals, I just wanted to be judged by my merit and not my mental health disorder.

I published Confessions of a Sociopath under a pseudonym I still use and tried, at least at first, to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, as people close to me made the connection, I suffered from people making assumptions about me based on a group I belong to.

For instance, the law school I taught at in California banned me from being within 1000 yards from any of its buildings as a result of details about myself I shared in the book and while promoting the book. This ban was so broad on its face that I couldn't continue to live in my own apartment. Rather than waste time fighting what I strongly believe to have been their active ignorance and discriminatory treatment of me, I just moved.

Similarly, a colleague that I had been co-authoring a paper with told me to never mention their name again or they would sue me. The paper we had been collaborating on had been my ideas, my research design and my applications to funding sources. Years later, I found out they had stolen my research design and written the paper without me and without crediting me. So I lost my career as a law professor because I'm a psychopath, but they remain employed despite their unethical behavior.

Unlike many other segments of the neurodiversity movement that have benefited from an increased understanding and acknowledgement that they are just another flavor of "human," psychopaths are still widely misunderstood and persecuted—a stigma that is reinforced by inaccurate and dehumanizing Hollywood portrayals.

For instance, I just watched the finale of the BBC television series Killing Eve. The show has at least three characters described by their creators as psychopathic and all three are female: one is an assassin for a shady organization and the other two work with British intelligence agency MI6.

Killing Eve
Killing Eve, starring Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh. After a series of events, the lives of a security operative and an assassin become inextricably linked. BBC

The showrunners and writers for the first three seasons had clearly either read my book and/or done their research. I was charmed to finally see accurate fictional portrayals of female psychopaths as the complicated and flawed but also fierce, open-minded, and often brilliant people that they are. And this show had fans! There were people who actually loved and accepted these female psychopath characters not "despite their flaws," but because these characters were shown for the first time as human.

There were parts from the series that seemed lifted straight from my book, like a scene in which the psychopath in a hospital is told she doesn't look well and asked if she'd like to sit down. She replies that she's fine and promptly faints. In real life, that happened to me because it's very easy for me to be disconnected from even my bodily sensations.

But what I found most true to the real lives of psychopaths was when one of the characters became so dissatisfied with the persistent feelings of boredom and emptiness that plague psychopaths that she embarked on a journey first of self-discovery and then attempted recovery from the negative impacts of her mental health disorder. The truth is that most (all?) psychopaths want what every human wants: a life filled with meaningful connection and a sense of purpose. And the show did a great job demonstrating how the traits of psychopathy often interfere with those goals, for instance by impeding sustained emotional vulnerability in relationships.

I was charmed, until the fourth season. Particularly the series finale.

Despite a major growth arc of the assassin Villanelle, (BIG SPOILERS AHEAD!) she gets killed in the last two minutes while she's embracing Eve, who has finally learned to accept and love Villanelle back, in what I saw more as Eve's acceptance and love of her own psychopathic traits.

The third female psychopath character Carolyn is reduced to a mustache-twirling-villain stereotype as the one who orders the hit on Villanelle, in a head scratching moment that is explained by showrunner Laura Neal as: "We really wanted to make sure that she was unknowable and unpredictable to the end."

My perspective is this: just because you personally have a hard time knowing and predicting a person doesn't make them unknowable and unpredictable. Psychopaths and sociopaths are knowable and predictable, they just by definition don't think the way normal people do.

Ted Bundy really was a psychopath. But that doesn't mean all psychopaths and sociopaths are killers, or that all killers are psychopaths or sociopaths. Nor am I saying all psychopaths or sociopaths are like me—relatively successful. Or relatively conscientious. Or unusually interested in being emotionally engaged with other people. Or a truth-seeker like me. Or a problem-solver like me.

Psychopaths, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes and it infantilizes us all for Hollywood to suggest all heartless villains are psychopaths, or that all psychopaths are heartless villains.

The stigma against psychopaths exists even in the mental health community. Many mental health professionals still believe psychopathy is untreatable and consequently won't treat them. I haven't personally experienced this, but so many psychopaths I know have struggled to find available competent treatment that I joined a nonprofit, Psychopathy Is, which hosts the first database of clinicians—only a couple dozen in the entire United States—willing to treat psychopaths.

Earlier in the final season of Killing Eve, Villanelle is humorously depicted tying a psychiatrist to a chair to get the help she felt she needed for her psychopathic traits. To me, that's what Season 4 of Killing Eve got the most correct about the real lives of psychopaths.

M.E. Thomas (a pseudonym) is the author of Confessions of a Sociopath, A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. She is a former law professor who has written extensively on music copyright issues, a current California attorney, and the founder of a non-profit. She is also, most recently, a professional musician.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own. Newsweek has confirmed the writer's identity and agreed to the use of a pen name.

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