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.