M.E. Thomas began writing her singular memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight thinking that stories from her life were not enough to be included. She talked to me about types of empathy, how we treat those who are different from ourselves, the inner worlds of others, Calvin & Hobbes, how she’s evolved through writing the book and working with her Christian therapist, and the power of self-knowledge.
“M.E. Thomas” is the pseudonym of a Mormon blogger and lawyer who still receives hate mail and has lost her job as a professor. She received critical praise and acclaim for her first book’s blend of autobiography and reportage, but she has also been met with skepticism, and even suspicions that she or her book were not authentic.
Although Thomas’s scores on the PCL:SV (Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version) classify her as a sociopath, distinguishing her from 96% of the American population, her answers reveal successes and challenges more universal, even familiar, than one might expect—and perhaps offer insight into why her voice has resonated with such a broad spectrum of readers.
The Rumpus: I wanted to start with something you write in the beginning of the book, even before it starts, in the Author’s Note:
It is a true story according to my best recollections; however, in addition to the inevitable flaws of memory, this story is told through the lens of how I see the world, including my megalomania, single-minded focus and a lack of understanding about the inner worlds of others.
Part of that is the standard disclosure that you would have in a memoir and then that big additional caveat, lack of understanding of the world of others. When I think about why I write, I think about breaking that solitude of human existence. So, I wanted to ask, how is the lack of understanding about the way others’ inner worlds work different? How is that different for you than for someone who does not have sociopathic traits?
M.E. Thomas: I guess to answer that I would have to understand their inner world enough to understand their lack of inner world.
Rumpus: Yeah! So it sort of cycles around. It’s almost a question that you can’t answer.
Thomas: Yeah, one that I can’t answer for sure. I can answer a question about my own lack of understanding about inner worlds. A lot of people—not so much anymore but initially—a lot of people were like, “This is totally made up, and I can point out places in the book which are clearly lies, like there’s snow in southern California.” I sent that person a link to Big Bear, which has three ski resorts. There are just weird things that people think like, “Obviously someone with appendicitis wouldn’t go ten days and survive”—stuff that I think is perfectly reasonable because it happened to me.
There are the issues of worlds of others. I think the one that kind of bothers me the most now, in the book, is when I talk about seducing the other law associate so badly that she was basically never going to get over me. I had no clue. That particularly, as I wrote it, I was like, Well, I should include it; that’s how I felt at the time. It was kind of weird, jumping back and forth between how I felt at the time, which was a little bit more delusional. [Should I write it as] my child self, who was absolutely positive that I had crushed these people in this war or whatever, or should I write it as my current, reflective self, who is a little more aware that that’s probably not exactly how things happened?
Rumpus: And which side did you come down on?
Thomas: I wanted to make it more explicit, but it made the book choppy. When I am relating stories, it’s usually as the child, as the person I was. When I am reflecting on the story, then it’s me, my current self, reflecting on it.
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s really interesting, because I saw in another interview with Hippocampus Magazine that you said the hardest part about writing the book for you was that you’re not good at self-reflection.
Rumpus: That was really surprising for me to read after I had read the book. By definition memoir does require that of you, so how did writing the book change you?
Thomas: I think as you go through different drafts, people would be like, “This can’t possibly be true; this is inconsistent.” So then I would have to sort of acknowledge to myself maybe that is not how it happened—and then if so, how did it happen?
It’d be like if your ten most outrageous stories, somebody just like picked apart and was like, “No, it can’t have taken that long for him to come out of the bathroom.” Everybody kind of embellishes or misremembers stuff, so to have somebody go through and pick it apart, I realized that my memory is really, really not reliable.
We hear that all the time, memory is not reliable, but to realize it for a fact, now, that’s probably the biggest change—the biggest, isolated change. I am not the type of person that is like, “This did happen.” I’m like, “Well, that’s how I remember it and maybe it happened.” Everything now has a probability. There is a 95% chance this happened the way I remember it, or there’s a 65% chance this happened the way I remember it.
Rumpus: So it caused you to become aware of some, maybe, differences not only in how you perceive things and how others perceive things but just actual facts, you’re saying, and that we all have fallible memories.
Thomas: I don’t know if it’s even “we all.” I think I acquired this sense that I was disordered. I mean, I’m sure that “we all,” that’s true, because I’ve read it in science books, but more in a personal sense, before I always thought, Yeah, okay, I’m different but I’m not disordered. But writing the book I realized, no, I have a mental disorder.
Rumpus: I noticed there is a moment in the book, and it’s also towards the beginning, when you are talking about your choice to use the word sociopath rather than psychopath. You say you might be disordered, but you’re not crazy; there’s that line. You write,
Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms with an intertwined clinical history, and they are largely now used interchangeably, though some academics distinguish between the two based on genetics, aggression, or other factors. I have chosen to call myself a sociopath because of the negative connotations of psycho in the popular culture. I may have a disorder, but I am not crazy.
That was so interesting because it is true, I think, in our culture we see the prefix “psycho,” and we think insanity. We think that’s craziness, which is not what we are talking about here. So, why do you think that craziness is the ultimate taboo or the thing we push against?
Thomas: I actually don’t think it’s the ultimate taboo. I just thought that it was descriptive. Take your typical schizophrenic. Let’s say you have a cousin who is schizophrenic. He’s going to say or do crazy stuff, but you’re just going to be like, He can’t help it. He’s schizophrenic. Even all his bad behavior, you’re going to end up forgiving it, or being like he’s just schizophrenic, because it’s very obvious to you how and why he’s different. But if a sociopath does something similar to you, you’re going to be like, This person is evil.
Rumpus: Okay, so in those cases you’d say this person had the free will or had this awareness or made this choice or they were within reality.
Thomas: Yep, yep.
Rumpus: So that’s really just a place in the book where you’re making a distinction?
Thomas: Right, I mean, I think that people are afraid of violent schizophrenics, like the James Holmes types. That is scary, but I think it’s much more accepted. There’s actually someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia who’s a law professor. They are able to have respectable jobs as long as they medicate, whereas I lost my law professor job. So, apparently it’s not possible for a sociopath to be a law professor.
Rumpus: So that gets me to what you are doing today. Are you still teaching at all, or are you writing more? How did this change your career path?
Thomas: I do a little lawyering still. I do a lot of small jobs, but basically relying on—you know, I hesitate to get too specific because I still get, two days ago, I got a hate letter. It was addressed to a personal address, saying they were going to canvass my neighborhood and I don’t deserve to live and stuff.
Rumpus: It was fascinating, though, to me that your family responded really well to the book and that they were very supportive—
Thomas: Yes, they were super great.
Rumpus: You’ve talked about the fact you thought part of that response might have been because you involved them from the beginning. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that because for anyone who is writing about family or writing memoir, this is an issue we always think about.
Thomas: Right. They knew about the blog. I never thought about it as this pejorative secret. First of all, I started off with an informal diagnosis. It wasn’t like this thing. My older siblings, my younger siblings, they had known me since I was born. It wasn’t like I was keeping things from them as a little toddler. They were aware. The mask had slipped enough times that none of the stuff that was in there surprised them. Maybe they’d never heard some of the particular stories. Certain things bothered certain members of the family more than others. It was funny, even my dad, who probably had the most problems, was like, “That story you opened up with about the possum. Do we not kill rats every day? How could anybody have a problem with that?”
Rumpus: The things that bother them are maybe not the things you would have thought would have bothered them.
Thomas: Yes, or it’s just different from the general populace. The book is vague enough so that people can read into it and see different things, but if you were there, when you read the book you read it more as what actually happened, so they didn’t make those same inferences because that’s their memory too, you know?
Rumpus: Sure, okay, they’d be like, “Oh sure, something would be in the swimming pool and you’d have to get rid of it.”
Thomas: Right, right.
Rumpus: I had an experience where I wrote an essay, and there was an off-hand remark I had made about my mom being the one in charge in the family, which I thought of as a joke. So, my father commented on that, not so much about me being suicidally depressed, but he was like, “Hey, wait a minute—Mom’s in charge in the family?”
I wanted to talk to you a bit about the “E” word, empathy. It comes to mind as you mention the possum story. You mention lack of empathy—and as far as I understand it, it’s an inability to feel what others feel or imagine what others feel—as the most prevalent sociopathic trait. Yet, I notice in the possum scene, you almost seem to be empathizing with him because you describe him as being relieved when he gets away, even though he is going to drown. I don’t know if you were aware of that, so—
Thomas: Yeah. I understand, pretty well. I’m 90% understanding, day-to-day success rate, with cognitive empathy. I’m able to recognize people’s facial expressions and emotions. It’s what makes me so good at manipulating, probably.
Sociopaths definitely don’t have emotional empathy. They do have the cognitive empathy. They are able to do a thought experiment, a hypothetical. What would the typical person feel like in this situation, or what would I feel like in this situation, or what is the likely result emotionally of doing this particular action? And they say people with Asperger syndrome are the opposite. They have emotional empathy—they’ll cry when someone else cries—but they are not able to cognitively understand the worlds of others. Normal people have both types of empathy.
Rumpus: For me as a reader I almost felt as if I went through the experience of cognitive empathy for the sociopath; it was almost as if I could intellectually understand your mindset. That’s what the book did for me.
Thomas: That’s good.
Rumpus: Yeah, which was really cool because I don’t know how I would have ever done that, but to get back to empathy, one of the critically acclaimed books that everyone’s talking about this spring is The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
Thomas: No, I haven’t yet. Usually people email me about stuff like that.
Rumpus: This is an essay collection about perspectives on pain. In one of her essays she has to be a medical actor, and act as if she’s feeling emotion for medical students. It was said in the Los Angeles Review of Books that she calls on us to have more empathy for empathy itself, for knowing what it is and feeling it. Do you think it’s possible for empaths to empathize with sociopaths, to put ourselves in the position of an absence?
Thomas Yeah, I think there is a spectrum of empathy in an empath like there is with sociopathy. I have a friend who is very, very empathic. I call her uber-empath. She, for sure, empathizes with me, and she can understand. Basically, she feels what I feel, the lack of feeling something or the confusion of something else.
I definitely think so, yes, but it’s interesting. I find the people who are less able to understand why—the people who are more likely to write a letter that says, “You don’t deserve to live, and I’m going to canvass your neighborhood, and make ruining your life my mission”—those people seem to have less empathy
On the one hand, I think empathy is no big deal. On the other hand, I do see it informing people’s moral reasoning. It is true they are at least correlated. The more empathetic you are, the more it seems like you are going to have better moral reasoning, at least in terms of interrelations with other people, golden-rule-application type stuff. Because the golden rule really requires empathy: “Do unto others as you would do have them do unto you.”
Rumpus: I have been wanting to hear you talk about teaching a Sunday school class. When I would tell people I had read this book, they would have a stereotypical reaction, “A sociopath? A psychopath? Is this a murderer?” And I’d say, “No, no, that’s why you should read the book,” and when I told them you were a Sunday school teacher or a Mormon, this was the thing that boggled their mind the most, how to reconcile that.
What do you make of that?
Thomas: I feel really different than who I was ten years ago, fifteen years ago, five years ago. I even—I see a therapist now. He’s really good. I think all good therapists do this but I never know what’s coming. I know that the majority of our sessions are us chatting about nothing, but he’s slipping whatever he’s wanting to slip into the other part, so it’s funny to have to go to these sessions knowing that most of it is pointless and useless. I guess that’s how it has to be.
I feel better than I have, but it is still true that I don’t really have the same sort of moral reasoning that others do. I still don’t feel guilt. I still don’t feel empathy. But I am more aware of my own emotional reactions that I have. Before I used to be like, Who cares? Emotions…
And largely, he’s Mormon, so he uses church, gospel principles from Mormonism. “You were a person before you came here” is a fundamental doctrine. Reincarnation people believe that we existed before, but I think most Christians believe our soul was created when we were conceived. Mormons, no. You were a spirit in the spirit world before you came here. He keeps saying, “You just got put in this body with this brain and in this environment, this childhood environment, and they have distorted who you truly are.”
His whole thing is if you find your sense of identity, and you do have one, and there actually is one, if you find your identity, all of your other problems will be solved. And it is kind of true, and it is a little bit counterintuitive. He’ll say things like, “In order to not manipulate, you need to be aware of what your true preference in that moment is and then act as if nobody else exists. Just act on your true preference because if you do that, you will not manipulate.”
I think it’s funny because most people would say that is not what good people do. Good people take into consideration everyone else’s preferences and make sure everybody else is happy, but I can’t do stuff that way because if I do then it’s manipulative, and I’ll start seeing them as objects, just chess pieces in my game of trying to make sure everybody’s happy and gets whatever else they need in order to ultimately satisfy me, but not being aware of my true preferences.
It’s influenced the way I think a lot, and in a lot of ways it has really colored the way my disorder manifests. I try to be honest about that, that I don’t think I’m at all the prototypical sociopath even though I do have the essential traits.
Rumpus: Do you think there is such a thing as a prototypical sociopath?
Thomas: You know, I often wonder about that because I’m not exposed to them. I see other high-functioning sociopaths. Those are the people I run into in real life. Those are the people I hear about or talk about on the blog. Even the other famous “sociopaths”—Andy McNab, the British spy who is a good psychopath, and Jim Fallon, the good neuroscientist but psychopath inside—they’re not the killers, “prototypical,” I guess, but what you read about in the literature, there are demon-monsters out there.
I often wonder, Is that because these particular researchers have a bias, and that’s just all they see? Or [is that] how these particular sociopaths chose to present themselves, but they really have more in common with me than you might think? I don’t know.
Maybe I’m not a sociopath because there’s this very specific type of very evil person who really does deserve to die. I’m open to the possibility, but I just have never encountered that, and I have strong suspicions that that’s not true, that there is not a 100% evil person out there who manifests all these traits to the extreme. Maybe they exist, but probably not. Somebody who can’t benefit at all from any type of treatment, somebody who is just the way they are. That’s the way they are hardwired. That’s the way they’re going to be. There’s no behavioral therapy for them. There’s no anything. I just can’t really believe that. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
It’s weird that other people just believe it, like, Oh, these people are just evil. We should lock them up or kill them because there’s nothing else we can do, and they’re just going to kill us if we don’t do it to them. That’s a weird thing.
Rumpus: You talk in your book about some debates in England about that, using diagnosis to lock people away or sentence them. To me, that was one of the most disturbing things to read about. On the other hand, I also was interested in how you have this wish for a child at the end of the book, for a child that people could say, okay, let’s harness the good—or what are some good tendencies that could come out of your genes or how you are.
That sounds like advocating for people knowing or having a diagnosis earlier, so I’m wondering what’s a way through this, to balance this, how can we do that if on the other hand people think you have this, then they’re going to want to put you to death?
Thomas: Yeah, it is crazy. It is genetic, and I do have a little relative who does manifest this. Let’s call him Tate. There’s a really funny story that happened just a few days ago. His Sunday school teacher comes up to Tate’s mom, very upset, saying—apparently the Sunday school teacher has been having them all write notes to two missing classmates, two little girls, saying, you know, “Oh, we miss you, we want you to come back.” So, Tate’s little card said, “Drop dead.”
Rumpus: Oh no.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s kind of funny in my family because we’re aware of these things. Somebody else might freak out and think this child really wishes them harm. Somebody else too, might be, well, I don’t know, would anybody assume that was a joke? In my family, we kind of just assumed he misunderstood what the point of the assignment was.
Rumpus: Well, sure, I think anytime you ask a small kid to write anything who knows what you are going to get? I remember when I taught Sunday school, catechism, this little boy drew a picture of me as the devil. His father was so mortified and had him apologize, and actually, for some reason this was very funny and charming to me. I don’t know why. I guess I just knew he was engaged.
Thomas: See, you seem to be open to that type of behavior, but it turns out this kid, Tate, he reads Calvin and Hobbes, and Calvin hates Suzie, the neighbor, and says stuff like drop dead. So it’s not completely excusable. I honestly think Tate believes that’s how you treat little girls, that’s reality, not like he’s going to act on it. He doesn’t have the moral reasoning to be able to distinguish between what is satire in Calvin and Hobbes, and what is an accurate portrayal of reality.
I think part of that may be that he doesn’t have very good moral reasoning. He has very low empathy, very impaired moral reasoning. So for a child like that, how would you handle that? You can’t get angry at them and mortified and apologize. They don’t understand what’s going on. You could explain, hey, Calvin is a comic written by an adult, and he’s making jokes for other adults. It’s not an accurate portrayal of a real child. That he could probably understand. Calvin says drop dead to little girls. That’s not what most boys do. A lot of boys like little girls. You can like little girls too. You can make that choice.
Rumpus It’s almost like you’re suggesting he needs to have a metacognitive discussion. The things you pointed out in the book as positive sociopathic traits struck me as things I see our culture trying to provide to young people. Self-esteem, for example, was and still is a big concern in our culture. You write that this is not a problem at all for sociopaths. It is off the charts compared to others, and along with that, being resistant to depression and this ability to dispassionately evaluate facts that can be positive.
That’s the part where you flip it and say how can we learn from these? How do you think we could learn from them?
Thomas: Learn from those traits or from people who have those traits?
Rumpus: How do you think those traits could be transferred to others, in a good way, in a way that a high-functioning successful sociopath has them?
Thomas: How to teach them? I feel like a lot of my friends, the more they interact with me, the more they naturally pick up on my way of being. It’s like if you hang out with musicians, you eventually will learn a lot about the music scene. If people were able to be more honest in general with the disorder, and say this is how I would view this, even though most people might think it was abnormal or bizarre to see an emotional situation so unemotionally, you’d see a lot of that not through osmosis, but through people interacting honestly with other people.
Rumpus Did you have any authors that were your role models for creating this book? It seems to me you’re doing that explanation of how you interact with the world. Were there any authors or books that helped you as to how to construct this?
Thomas: I had not actually read that many memoirs. I had read biographies. Probably one that I had read before, The Glass Castle, I thought she’s telling these horrible things that happened to her in this way though that makes it seem not self-pitying. She’s rattling off facts but mixing it with very descriptive compelling narrative. I definitely thought that I didn’t want people to feel they are already reading a book about a sociopath and are going to be manipulated.
I didn’t want the prose or the structure to feel overtly manipulative. I don’t know if I succeeded at that, because a lot of people were like, you were trying to get me to empathize with you and I resisted.
Rumpus: Yes, there were reviews that said that. I also read a review that I found extremely curious—we were talking at the beginning about—there was one that questioned whether you could be a woman because your prose was so calm, which infuriated me as a woman. Is it not only that we have the image of a monster, but that our image is mostly male?
Thomas: A lot of the traits we do associate with men: lack of emotion, detached emotions, hyperrational, violent, perhaps. That’s another reason why I say I’m not prototypical. I am female. Female hormones definitely affect the way we are. I have some trans friends who have made the transition and their personalities are way different than they were before. You have to credit the hormones for at least some of that.
Rumpus: You mentioned The Glass Castle. What are you reading now? Have your reading habits changed through writing this? Have you found other books that you’re really drawn to?
I think that I like fiction that has a sociopathic character. When I was reading The Hunger Games, I thought, “this girl is a sociopath,” especially the way she is described in the first fifty pages as taking down her prey. She’s a huntress. She has a bow. She’s not swayed by emotional arguments. She’s just like, I know what I am supposed to do and I do it efficiently. Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. I recognize that mindset. I find it very heartening actually to read in fiction characters who are more like me.
I find it funny the strong female characters of late, their strength is not like Jane Austen’s strength, their moral certainty. No, they’re sociopathic. They’re ruthlessly efficient or coldly calculating.
Rumpus: Those are great examples for us. They’re both wildly popular. I have just started reading The Psychopath Inside, and I saw you have a blurb on the back, so I know you’ve read that. Are there other books you’d recommend that are specifically about opening up the world of sociopathy?
Thomas: The most popular pop one is Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door. For the average reader, there’s going to be a lot of good information. Obviously it has a huge slant. The subtitle is The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, this idea that it is us against them. I would say the same thing about Robert Hare’s Without Conscience. It’s definitely slanted, and it’s sad that he is one of the foremost researchers and has an obvious bias against psychopaths—also that we need to identify and rid the world of them, and let me teach you how to identify and rid the world of them. Those are the big ones.
I haven’t had a chance yet, sadly enough, to read Kevin Dutton’s Wisdom of the Psychopath, that’s probably another great one. I’ve read passages. He has the example of Andy McNab. We need people like this if you have an army, any sort of espionage, diplomacy. A lot of people are like, “Of course we don’t need that,” until Putin is up to whatever and planes are getting shot down over the Ukraine and Gaza, and then they realize, maybe, and a lot of people are like, “Well it’s the psychopaths themselves who are doing those things.” And I don’t think so.
Is the Westboro Church full of psychopaths? No, I think it’s full of zealots. People who are so emotional—all of their reasoning is emotional. If they feel it, then it’s right. And the anecdote to that is sociopaths, where none of their reasoning is emotional. It’s all mental.
Rumpus: Finally, would you talk a little a bit about your writing process, given as we discussed that self-reflection is not one of your strengths and that is what you were being challenged to do when you were writing the book?
Thomas: I had a lot of help. First of all, I had the blog. That had forced me for two and a half years to write on the topic. I was aware of the research. I initially wanted to write something that was like the blog. I was just going to present the research and make a thesis—this is going to be my book-length dissertation on what I think.
Rumpus What would your thesis have been?
Thomas: The same that you see in the epilogue. I didn’t want to write any memoir material because my thought was there’s nothing in my life that is interesting enough to write about. Even now, sometimes I read reviews that say, “I wish there was less theory in this book and more story.” Those people are the rubberneck type, I guess. They want more stories about killing animals or I don’t know.
So, they said you have to write more stories. I would wake up in the morning, and the first thing I would do is go outside on the lawn chair and start writing childhood stories, go through a journal—I actually kept journals all throughout my childhood.
Rumpus: So you always were a writer.
Rumpus All throughout this, you do say, which I really like, “I have these traits or I may have this disorder, but it doesn’t define me.” It informs who you are. Would you say that being an author defines you?
Thomas No, not at all. I hardly even think of it, especially even now.
Rumpus: You hardly think of it. So, are you planning to write anything else?
Thomas: I thought about writing a book. You asked this question before—how could people be taught to think more like sociopaths? I thought about doing a book on power relationships. I’ve written a little bit of a proposal, but most people seem uninterested, so I thought I’d shelve this for a while. I am also a little concerned about if I get more and more in the public eye again. That stuff has mostly died down. The vast majority of the emails I receive, at least a few every day, are like, “Thank you for this book. You described me” or “You described my husband, and now I understand.” The sensation would be as if, let’s say, you suffered from [an illness]—and I’ve known plenty of people that’ve suffered from health problems that can’t be diagnosed and they’ve gone to twenty different doctors, and they just suffer from whatever it is, fatigue and pains—and nobody can ever figure out what it is. Have you watched the show House?
Rumpus: Yeah. Right, right.
Thomas: And then somebody is actually able to tell you, “This is what it is.” And then at least you know. Even when its terminal, at least you know I wasn’t making it up. It’s one fewer thing to keep on the list of things to do. I feel like people frequently have that experience when reading the book. They recognize themselves and then everything just clicks
Rumpus: As you were saying, people want to be validated and they recognize themselves in the book. For those of us who don’t recognize ourselves in it, but who reject that story of the monster, think that’s not the story, we read it and say, “Here is the other story we’ve been waiting for.”
Thomas: Yeah, exactly.