Sunday, June 16, 2013

Season of the Sociopaths

ISBN-10: 0307956644 ISBN-13: 9780307956644 Published: Crown, 05/14/2013 Pages: 320 Language: English 

I was prompted by an excellent, hilarious article on Slate that purported to be a review of  M.E. Thomas' memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by Patrick Bateman, the corporate shark/literal serial killer protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial satire American Psycho to think about what appears to me an explosion of sociopathic literature in the past decade or so. Nonfiction books such as the Psychopath Test have examined the increasingly prolific application of the term by psychologists with some skepticism, while M.E. Thomas' book and others seem to accept the oft-quoted (and oft-debated) statistic taken from Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door that places 1 in 25 Americans in this burgeoning category. In fact, Thomas goes further and suggests that many revered social climbers have been aided in their success by a sociopathic disregard for morality. Of course, this is more or less the same point Ellis was making rather unsubtly back in 1991, but the prospect still feels unsettling and new. 

Many of these books and articles dealing with sociopathy or psychopathy (while technically different, the terms are most often used interchangeably) also challenge our notions of how personalities are formed by leaning heavily towards biological determinism. For instance, Thomas claims to have been more or less born sociopathic, with an extraordinary degree of emotional distance present even as a child. Consider this piece from The New York Times which asks: Can You Call A Nine-Year-Old A Psychopath? It concerns children, particularly one young boy, who have already been diagnosed as clinically psychopathic without the clear involvement of environmental factors. The disturbing anecdotes and, at times, fatalistic attitude shared by parents and psychologists in the piece harkens back to old-school shockers (based upon dubious science) such as the 1956 film The Bad Seed, in which a young girl's violent actions are explained through genetics rather than demon possession or some other temporary, anomalous state.

As a sufferer of parental abuse at a young age, Thomas has been explained away by many critics as a damaged, narcissistic woman seeking attention and a strange sort of validation through her claims of sociopathy. These arguments may have merit, it's not for me to judge, but the phenomenon of personality disorders is still a major topic in contemporary literature and culture. Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin is one well-regarded example, but there are many more works that deal with antisocial behavior on a less extreme scale. I can think of one literary movement in particular that I would like to discuss, but doing so under the banner of this article seems in poor taste. For now, I will leave you with plenty of interesting reading to do, should your interests be as admittedly creepy as my own

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