Title: The Sociopath Next Door
Author: Dr. Martha Stout, Ph.D.
Rating: 4 stars
I said I might review a non-fiction tome next and so I have.
The Sociopath Next Door was recommended to me by several folks I know and I grew intrigued as they told me a little about it, partially because I believe myself to be unusually aware of sociopaths as a group (or a mental illness, if you prefer) and I was interested in what a true expert would have to say about them. Generally speaking, I was very impressed and mostly pretty entertained.
Let me say before I begin that Dr. Stout is a very highly credentialed and respected psychologist working and instructing at the Department of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. The lady knows her stuff…
What I Liked
This is the true story of a psychologist who has become personally frustrated at the damage done to others by one specific group of mentally I’ll people: sociopaths.
To begin, let’s clear up what a sociopath is by definition. Lots of people get mental illnesses all mixed up due to popular portrayals or mislabeling by the ill-informed. For example, people use the term “schizophrenic” when they actually mean “multiple personality disorder”. (Not similar at all!) The same is often true of sociopathy. They assume it is the same as psychotic, and refers to those individuals so evil that they don’t understand right and wrong and are the most extreme of killers…also not true.
What the author points out are a few very important things:
- Sociopathy falls under personality disorders and it boils down to one distinct characteristic – the person has no conscience. He/She know right from wrong but feels no sense of remorse whatsoever from doing harm to others, and in fact, may derive his/her only real pleasure from harming others; and
- Sociopaths are much more common than people think.
She goes on, using real-life examples (confidential, of course) from her practice that will chill you right to the bone. No, not all sociopaths are serial killers, but ALL do harm, few are caught, and most are basically incurable.
You can tell as she goes on that this is a manifesto of sorts for her, a “What do we do about this problem?” kind of battle cry. She even addresses the issue of what causes sociopathy, exploring genetic and evolutionary factors, cultural factors, and environmental factors in her attempt to find purchase on the slippery slope for a “cure” to a condition that is harmful and intractable at once.
And having concluded that, for now at least, we don’t have an easy cure, she resigned herself to giving us non-sociopaths the best “warning signs” she can for how to detect and avoid being harmed by a sociopath.
So what do I think? The book is very good. I’ve read a lot of these science crossover books that attempt to teach non-science buffs about scientific topics, but in an entertaining enough fashion to keep the audience interested. I think she mostly does this well without sensationalizing her topic. To the contrary, rather than focusing on the well-known serial killers, she’s focused on the more subtle, camouflaged sociopath that may be damaging you right at this very minute, hence the title.
The other reason this book is good is because it is TRUE and we do need to be warned. I have known several sociopaths in my life and got so mixed up by them at times that though I knew something was wrong in my gut, I started to think I was crazy! (This is known as Gaslighting after the old movie.)
These individuals are dangerous because they are master manipulators and they DO NOT HAVE A CONSCIENCE. It’s true and it’s chilling. No matter what they say, how they act, or what you’d like to believe, a sociopath does NOT care about you or anyone else, even if he/she is a family member or close friend. It hurts when you realize it, but the best thing you can do is stay the heck away from them!
If you don’t believe me then you MUST read this book so you can learn for yourself. If you do believe me then you’ve probably recognized a sociopath in your life along the way whether you knew how to label him/her or not.
If you are compassionate, you will feel for this person without the capacity to love and connect with others. But if you are smart you will stay the heck away (repeated for emphasis) because they can’t be cured, they won’t change, and you don’t want to be one of their victims.
I recommend this book highly because of her “warning signs” list and details that will teach you how to spot these individuals. She nails the most important one, the Pity Play” dead freaking CENTER! Because I’ve known several of these people, I learned to spot and combat the Pity Play, but man is it hard to ignore.
If you would like a sensational version of the sociopath and the Pity Play, take Jody Arias. Now, in choosing her for this example I AM PLAYING ARMCHAIR psychologist. Perhaps a real doc would say I was wrong, but based on what I’ve seen, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…well, you know. I am going out on a limb identifying her as a sociopath, but it just seemed to clear an example to ignore.
Jody Arias is all about the Pity Play. She could have pled temporary insanity but instead she chose to say that her victim had been mistreating her and deserved to be stabbed a bunch of times and shot in the face while in the shower.
And now that she’s been convicted, she’s done media interviews saying she feels betrayed by the jury, even pulling out her “Survivor” t-shirt in defiance of all seemingly normal behavior. She wants us to pity her. What!?!?!
In this case the Pity Play seems eye-poppingly bizarre, but she’s no doubt been doing this to get out of trouble her whole life. Note the way her own parents don’t really defend her. That’s because they know…shhhhhh…they know something is wrong with Jody.
And that is the shame of it. That some of us are so scared, so greedy (that’s how con men get you, many of whom are sociopaths), or so gullible that we are not only taken in, but if we figure it out we keep it secret, allowing the individual to move on to harm others. This book will discourage that as well. Only by standing up to the behavior of these individuals early can we hope to mitigate their swath of destruction.
What Was Just Ok
The only drawback to the book? She repeats herself rather dramatically at times, particularly about the fact that sociopaths have no conscience. i think this is because she’s afraid you won’t believe her enough unless she does, that you won’t take precautions…but if you believe her or already know she’s right, it will seem like overmuch on the convincing side. Also the science may get dry at times, particularly in the end when she drags a bit through evolutionary theory and the purpose of having a conscience. I love this kind of thing personally due to my Eco/Evo past, but it feels like her personal, more academic musings and may not be for everyone.
You could get what you needed from this book by reading the beginning in detaIl, the example stories in detail, and the warning signs in detail. The rest is the science if you want to contemplate larger implications…
If you don’t know what a sociopath is or how to spot one, get this book! If you wanna be creeped out by real life creepiness, get this book. If you already know about sociopaths but want the science or the “warning signs” list, get this book. It’s a fast, crazy read, if I may make light of something so dark.