Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Inside the mind of M.E. Thomas, a diagnosed sociopath

By Britta Bowles

Halloween is right around the corner, and I can't help but feel that publishing this story now is particularly fitting. This story is about wearing a mask. It's about trickery. About being in costume and playing a character. The only difference is that the mask I'm referring to is one of normalcy.

Meet M.E. Thomas: She is a successful attorney and law professor well respected by her colleagues and students. She donates 10% of her income to charity and volunteers as a Sunday school teacher within the Mormon church. She is charming, witty and, by her own admission, "the sort of date you would love to take to your ex's wedding."

Thomas probably sounds like someone you would like to get to know.  Who wouldn't want such a generous, intelligent, and accomplished person as a friend, family member or significant other? But Thomas is not all that she seems. Behind the charming facade is a diagnosed sociopath.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term sociopath, let me explain the meaning. This term is often used interchangeably with the term psychopath and, according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (the DSM for short), both terms are used to refer to someone with a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The disorder is characterized by the following:

  • Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about hurting others
  • Disregard for right or wrong
  • Persistent lying to deceive or manipulate others
  • Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain
  • Intense narcissism and a sense of superiority over others
  • Hostility, irritability, agitation, impulsiveness, aggression and/or violence
  • Unnecessary risk taking behaviors

With that set of criteria, you'd think you could spot a sociopath quite easily, but the truth is they go to great lengths to hide who they really are. They learn how to mimic empathy. They often come across as kind, compassionate, and humble. They can be popular, charming, the life of the party. They know how to flatter and how to flirt with perfect mastery. They know exactly what you want to hear and how to say it to get in your good graces. They could be your pastor. Your teacher. Your sister. Your husband. They could be someone you're very close to, and the chances are, you'd have no idea.

Thomas just published a book called Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. She also runs and regularly updates the blog www.sociopathworld.com. Both endeavors are about her life, which has largely been spent hiding who she really is from the rest of us.

Prior to learning about Thomas, I had already done quite a bit of reading on sociopaths so I felt I knew what to expect when approaching her for an interview. After checking out her blog, I decided to email her and ask if she would be willing to talk to me. I figured there would be one of two responses I would likely receive:
  1. Because I am not the New York Times or Psychology Today, Thomas would either ignore me or kindly tell me to piss off. Why would she speak to some random blogger nobody has heard of?
  2. Thomas' narcissism would get the better of her, and she would agree to an interview, even with a random nobody blogger, just to have another opportunity to talk to someone about her favorite topic: Herself.
For days I heard nothing, and just when I assumed she would blow me off I received a brief email in which she agreed to grant me an interview. To help preserve her anonymity, I decided it would be best if I emailed her a list of questions to which she could send back her typed responses. Because I am 1. A hopeless procrastinator and 2. Full of self-doubt I agonized over which questions to send her for weeks. I finally settled on the ones I wanted to ask and sent them off. In the meantime, I continued reading her blog.

Getting to know M.E.
My top takeaways from Thomas' blog are that you really shouldn't get on her bad side. Or date her. Or be a kid in her immediate vicinity when you're having an episode of the Terrible Twos.

Regarding children, M.E. writes: 

"Even though I like kids generally, I find certain children to be completely intolerable. It can be very difficult dealing with these children because they behave so selfishly and unreasonably. If it were just up to me, no problem, I could just ignore or terrorize them to get them to stop. But a lot of the time other adults (typically their parents) will placate them in ways that tend to put you out. It's ridiculous to watch how easily these adults are manipulated."


 "I recently acquired this impulse to choke people, including children. They're crying, or they're hitting me with something, or screaming at me and I just want it to stop so I reach out with both hands at their throats with these crazy eyes full of intent, like the cartoon character Homer Simpson. It is completely impulsive. I did that with a little relative recently. It was hilarious looking up and seeing his mother's anxious (slightly horrified?) expression wondering whether she should intervene or whether I was going to stop myself (I'm very open with who I am around my family)."

Of course, who hasn't had a moment where they felt fed up with a bratty kid, whether it be their own or that obnoxious 6-year-old running circles around your table in Applebee's while their parents blatantly ignore them? But would you fantasize about choking that child? I'm guessing not.

Thomas is similarly blunt throughout the rest of her blog.

The cover of Thomas' book
I learn that her longest intimate relationship lasted a brief 8 months and that she found it exhausting to constantly have to fake emotion toward this partner. She views intimate relationships like a business transaction: Don't expect Thomas to stick around long if she doesn't feel she's getting a good return on her investment. She readily admits that she charms and manipulates her partners but respects them less for allowing her to do so.  She also views potential relationship partners as either "possessions" or "exploits" and says that it is the seduction involved in a relationship, not the relationship itself, that she finds enjoyable. She writes:

"Seduction has traditionally been an all of (sic) nothing endeavor, at least I can't really control it. Seductions are like wildfires, I only get to choose the beginnings and then they take on a life of their own or flame out. So I don't typically do them with people I hope to keep around for longer than a few months. For the exploits, the pleasure is in gaining and exercising influence over them. I am never infatuated with my possessions, but I am for my exploits. And I can feel possessive over my exploits. I pursue them because they give me a thrill. Will I win them over, what might that look like? Success is valuable only to the extent that it is evidence of my power. As one blog reader said, 'There really is nothing more amusing or exciting or fun than turning a smart, beautiful, resourceful person into a personal plaything.' It is a game, but I am not necessarily interested in the spoils so much as the maneuvering."  

Thomas doesn't always seem to be cognizant of the fact that, to most of us, her idea of relationships is pretty twisted. She cultivates them only to feed her own ego. Discussing her past relationship partners, she writes:

"More than anything, I want to feel the depth of their ache for me. I want to know that it was/is real just like I am real. Somehow I feel that it is their ache that defines me, that that is who I am. But their ache, their nauseousness, their fear, their void seem to say so little about who they are as people, and so much about who I am as a person. I created that ache. I caused that pain. Is that why people want to be in love? So they can hurt someone in a way so completely original and unique to them? So they can feel real?"

Only a little heartless, right? But, because I'm habitually incapable of seeing anyone as all bad, I feel kind of obligated to say some nice things about Thomas at this point in the story:

  1. She is not a homicidal maniac (or any other kind of criminal for that matter). Thomas is a high functioning sociopath. She doesn't physically hurt people (despite impulses to do so), generally follows the rules and regulations society has set for us all, and has never done time for any kind of crime.
  2. She does nice things for people. She bought a house for a friend, gives her relatives' children anything they ask for, volunteers, and donates to charity. Her students love her. She also seems to have a genuine appreciation for her immediate family.
  3. She's self aware. The fact that Thomas sought help to manage her disorder and and can talk about it openly is pretty impressive. She even had the guts to confess her disorder to her family, potentially risking alienation.

A Hollow Shell
By the time Thomas gets back to me with her responses to my questions, I have read so much about her that I feel like I already know exactly what she's going to say. I'm mildly surprised when I open her email and find that her answers are all fairly brief, elusive, and at times contradictory to things I have read in her blog. To give you an example:

Me (Britta): I read a lot of the relationship posts on your blog in which you talk about how hard it is for you to fake emotions constantly, particularly within intimate relationships. To be blunt, what's the point in pursuing an intimate relationship if you're incapable of the feelings necessary to sustain such an endeavor? What do you get out of such a relationship? It seems like it would be exhausting more than benefical.

M.E. Thomas: Am I incapable of the feelings necessary to sustain such an endeavor? I never do things that are more costly than beneficial.

Even in her comparatively long responses (about four sentences on average) Thomas uses words without saying anything of meaning at all. Her responses are eerily hollow. If I could only pick one word to describe her, hollow would be it.

It took me almost four months to sit down and write this article. There were a plethora of reasons. I already mentioned my procrastination and self-doubt. I was also a little frightened of Thomas and her rather obsessive blog following (some of whom seem a tad unhinged). Her following seems to include three main groups of people: 1. Fellow sociopaths who enjoy commiserating with Thomas and relating their own stories and experiences 2. People who have been hurt by sociopaths and now seek revenge (they seem to think Thomas can shed insight on how to best exact revenge though I think that seems like a rather perilous endeavor) and 3. Non sociopaths, like me, who are fascinated and seek to better understand what goes on in a sociopath's head.

Even though I'm fascinated with Thomas it's not with the same gusto as her blog following. I also have a healthy dose of reservation and anxiety. In fact, my anxiety got the better of me on several occasions while I was attempting to write this story. I wondered what would happen if Thomas and her following didn't like what I had to say. Would Thomas axe murder me? Would members of her following show up at my house and set it on fire? I had a lot of paranoid delusions regarding the importance of my own story and the potential consequences of writing it. Once I realized that I'm really not important enough to axe murder, I figured out that the hardest part about writing this story was my subject. Thomas is incredibly elusive and hard to piece together. She says one thing, then can turn around and completely contradict herself just a few sentences later. She's vague. Abrupt. What is genuine and what isn't? I didn't know. Thomas is truly an enigma.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Going inside the mind of Davecat, the man in love with his RealDoll

By Britta Bowles

I never watch TV. Ever. I would rather read a book, run a marathon or even do some horrible mundane chore, like clean toilets. I would prefer to do just about anything else besides spend time watching mindless television programming. But when my fiance mentioned that he had discovered a television show called My Strange Addiction I was immediately intrigued. My fiance knows my interest in abnormal psychology knows no bounds, and that I delight in the weird and strange. A show that details people's bizarre addictions? Yes, please. So we gave it a go. 

Each episode of My Strange Addiction follows the same story line. The viewer meets two individuals with odd "addictions", hears their family and friends' thoughts on their addictive behaviors and watches as they dutifully meet with a psychologist to get a professional opinion on their issues. The show normally concludes with some brief words on whether or not each individual decided to seek further help for their addictions.

The episode my fiance and I watched featured a woman who compulsively picked her scabs (being rather sqeaumish, I had to cover my eyes during the segments that showed her in action) and a gentleman named Davecat who was supposedly "addicted" to his wife. Davecat instantly captured my attention and fascination. Why? Because Davecat's wife, the person he is "addicted" to, is a doll. A RealDoll to be exact.

Davecat shares his life with a 5'1", 85 lb. RealDoll he has named Sidore (pronounced SHE-DOOR-EH). RealDolls are life-size dolls made of silicone that are designed to recreate the appearance, texture and weight of the female form. Their primary function is to serve as sex partners, and Davecat admits that this was the initial motivation behind his purchase of Sidore, however, she quickly became much more to him. She is now one of his best friends, and the love of his life. Davecat says that he loves Sidore in the exact same way and with the same intensity that he loves his human friends and family (minus the sexual aspects of their relationship, of course). To him, their love is very real even though Sidore is a doll that cannot see him, hear him or reciprocate his feelings (Davecat is cognizant of this fact -- he is is not delusional, as some people have suggested).

As I sat glued to the TV screen watching, fascinated, as Davecat lovingly spoke to and gently kissed his doll, I turned to my fiance.

"I've got to interview this guy," I said. "You should," he replied. "This is right up your alley."

And that is how I came to be speaking to Davecat one rainy Sunday afternoon in April via Skype. Due to some technical issues with his laptop’s camera, he can see me, but I can't see him. This disconcerts me slightly so throughout the interview my eyes keep self-consciously drifting to the right hand corner of my screen where my own image is projected back to me. As Davecat responds to my questions, I find myself growing more comfortable. There is something about the rambling nature of his responses and a slight awkwardness in the way he laughs that I find endearing.

What has made Davecat prefer the companionship of an inanimate object over the companionship of a woman? This is what I most want to know. I am not the first person to speculate about the reasons behind his decision to form a relationship with a doll. Various writers and television producers have attempted to explain why Davecat prefers this type of relationship. On the National Geographic television show Taboo the producers speculated that Davecat had Autism, a diagnosis that I find inaccurate since Davecat is talkative, engaging and seems quite good at interpersonal communication. Even more impressively (though perhaps unrelated to this diagnosis) he uses a lot of big words. I'm actually a bit mortified that his vocabularly is more extensive than my own, but I carry on, hoping that he isn't regretting his decision to grant an interview to a writer who has less of a command of the English language than he does. I suddenly realize that I'm being self-conscious again and refocus as Davecat, seemingly unaware of my anxiety, tells me that the producers of the show tested him for Autism but that his results were negative. He doesn't blame them for speculating that he might have the condition. He does see similarities between himself and individuals with Autism. He has a keen eye for detail and prefers interactions with objects over interactions with people, among other things.

"Personally, I've always abhorred clutter and disarray, and I've mentioned publicly on many occasions that I'm not a people person," he says. "But those qualities don't necessarily make me autistic," he concludes. 

My Strange Addiction producers labeled Davecat's love for his doll an "addiction", although I suspect that this was more because they desperately wanted to feature him on their show and not because they actually belive this. Afterall, if Davecat's love for his doll is an "addiction" then so is my love for my fiance or anyone's love for their romantic partner, really. We're all dependent on our partners for love and support. That doesn't make us addicts, it makes us normal human beings. At least that's what I think. 

I decide to take a shot at psychoanalyzing Davecat myself since it seems the writers and TV producers who have already taken a stab at it have failed rather miserably. Davecat is game. He seems just as intrigued by his brain as I am and open to exploring the possibilities. I decide to start from the beginning and ask him some questions about his childhood. Psychologists are always saying that abnormal or dysfunctional behaviors in later life often stem from childhood neglect, abuse or trauma. I wonder about Davecat's parents and how they raised him. Perhaps they were cold, neglectful and didn't show him enough affection as a child? I feel horribly guilty for thinking this, but I am truly curious if this theory holds weight. When I ask him about his childhood and his parents' relationship with himself and each other, he sees right through my question. 

"That's the thing, a lot of people are like 'he must have had some sort of troubled past to turn to a doll for sexual and relationship companionship' but not really. (My childhood) was dramatically undramatic."

I am clearly a horrible armchair psychologist if I'm this transparent. 

Davecat continues and describes a rather uneventful childhood. He was an only child. As a result, he spent much of his time entertaining himself which helped to cultivate his colorful imagination. When he wasn't riding bikes with friends, he would read books or build cities for his G.I. Joes to inhabit. His mother, a creative, imaginative soul and his father, a more practical, analytical person, were very much in love. There was little fighting, as his mother generally disliked conflict. Davecat seems to have inherited something from both of his parents as he is equally as creative as he is logical, a seemingly rare combination. Overall, Davecat's childhood seems pretty normal. 

I move on to another line of questioning. What about past relationships? Surely there will be some sort of traumatic experience there. And there is. Sort of. I say sort of because Davecat has never had a serious intimate relationship with a human woman. He has only had affairs, has always been "the bloke on the side" (his words) instead of the boyfriend or husband. The one relationship he did attempt (if it can even be described as such) ended disastrously. Davecat befriended a woman just out of a bad relationship, and they eventually bought a house together. It seems like a story of unrequited love, with Davecat hoping the relationship would progress into something more than friendship over time. According to Davecat, he eventually discovered that this woman was a compulsive liar, a thief and a coke addict with a history of rehab stints. After the purchase of the house, arguments arose.

"We were getting into...debates, let's say, once a week. I think this is partially because of the coke that she had coursing through her system," Davecat tells me rather sardonically.

"I can't imagine that arguments with cokeheads are very fun," I reply.

"If you have the means, avoid them at all costs," he tells me. I make a mental note never to interview a cokehead.

I have to admit that I find it both sweet and a bit comical that Davecat is so averse to arguments that he can't even say the word argument, prefering the term "debate"  instead. He's clearly inherited the aversion to confrontation his mother possessed. I also notice that he seems to have a predilection for dysfunctional relationships and Davecat admits that Dr. Tim Ring, the psychologist he spoke with for the My Strange Addiction segment, told him the same thing. 

"The one thing I do remember (Dr. Ring) saying is...'you seem to be attracted to or have a thing for damaged people' and I'm like....yea, um, YES!"

"I maybe want to fix them," he continues, "and over the course of me fixing them maybe they'll say 'living with Davecat is a little bit better than not living with Davecat.'"

Davecat eventually gave up on the hope of finding a human woman whom he could rescue and live with happily ever after. He seems completely content with the 12 year relationship he has maintained with Sidore. I can't help but think that for an introvert who is averse to conflict, perhaps this type of relationship is the best option? Davecat certainly thinks so. When I ask him about his overall opinions on relationships with human women, he seems very jaded. Given his past run-ins with cokeheads and women who cheat on their spouses with him, I'm not at all surprised.

"With a (human) person it's like 'if I tell him what he wants to hear then maybe we'll be friends, and I can see what I can get out of him.'"

"That's a very negative view of relationships," I say.

"I don't say negative, I say realistic," he replies, laughingly.

I suppose Davecat's views on relationships could be considered many things by different people, but I personally find them to be strangely pragmatic. He seems to be preoccupied with Return on Investment (ROI). He's every salesperson's worst nightmare: the potential client to whom you must provide statistics that clearly demonstrate rewards greater than the risks. If you can't, no deal. Apparently no one has ever provided Davecat with such evidence because he has no future intention of pursuing a serious relationship with a human woman. I think that his pragmatism seems rooted in fear, and I cautiously ask him about this.

"With you I feel like there's a real fear of intimacy, a fear of rejection, and just perhaps a fear of getting close to people," I say. "And I could totally be wrong," I add quickly, afraid I'll offend him and he'll terminate the interview abruptly, "but I just wanted to see what you thought about that?"

To my relief he responds almost instantaneously.

"I will cop 100% to the fear of rejection, the fear of failure and the fear of abandonment," he replies. "It takes so much time. It takes so much energy and emotion to actually form lasting bonds with people. You find something good and you want to hang on to it like grim death. And just the whole concept of meeting people...it's a gamble. I don't like gambling. I don't like taking chances, really."

I understand where Davecat is coming from. You can't ever lose if you refuse to play the game. As someone who has loved and lost, I understand his desire to avoid romantic relationships entirely. A psychologist would probably encourage Davecat to enter therapy in order to work through his fears so that he can one day have a healthy intimate relationship with a human woman.  Instead he has created a unique relationship that is both personally satisfying and emotionally safe for him. The way I see it, if it works for him and isn't hurting anyone else, why is everyone so quick to label his behavior unhealthy and dysfunctional? When I tell my best friend Angie (who is also engaged to be married) about Davecat's peculiar relationship, she gets it immediately. 

"Maybe he's on to something," she writes me via Google chat. 

And maybe he is. A relationship in which you never have to worry about your partner leaving you? Betraying your trust? Hurting your feelings? I can see the appeal.

Davecat hopes that by granting interviews and making television appearances,  the stigma surrounding relationships like his own will be reduced. He hopes that any human being presently lonely and dissatisfied with human relationships realizes that, like him, they have another option.

Author's note: Davecat recently welcomed a second doll companion into his home. Her name is Elena Vostrikova, and she is from the Russian doll company, Anatomical Doll. Elena is Sidore's girlfriend and Davecat's mistress. The three of them are living quite happily together in Detroit, MI. Davecat hopes to eventually own seven dolls, one from each of the major doll companies. If your curiosity about Davecat wasn't satisfied by this article, you can check out his blog here.