Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unsettling memoir tells of mechanical life

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The current rage in fiction is for stories about near-human creatures such as zombies and vampires. In non-fiction the equivalent appears to be tales of real but repulsive humans in such titles as Tucker Max's Assholes Finish First and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test.

The unsettling memoir Confessions of a Sociopath is the latest entry in this apparently profitable genre.

The author, M.E. Thomas, is a mid-30s American woman, a piano-playing, Mormon Sunday-school teacher and law professor -- if, that is, a reader can believe anything about a book written by someone brassy enough to use these initials as a pseudonym.

By the way, Mormon dogma, which asserts that everyone has the potential to be godlike, makes the church "a sociopath's dream; it's a belief that's well suited to my own megalomaniacal sense of divine destiny," Thomas claims.

The author's note says she -- or could it be he? -- has changed the names and identifying characteristics of family members and other characters, and rearranged events and times. "Otherwise, this a true and honest account and I have not knowingly misrepresented any material facts."

Readers have been warned.

Thomas operates the website SociopathWorld.com, from which she lifts visitors' comments to pad her first book.

Her accounts of psychologists' attempts to define and explain sociopaths, who are also referred to as psychopaths or people suffering from antisocial personality disorder, are frequently tedious.

More revealing are personal details such as her self-definition. "I am strategic and canny, I am intelligent and confident and charming, but I also struggle to react appropriately to other people's confusing and emotion-driven social cues."

Even an occasional bout with emotions, such as pleasure in observing her toddler niece, has a mechanical explanation.

"She's endlessly charming to me. Her mere existence in the world pulls chemical levers and pushes enzymatic buttons that produce in me immense joy. Generosity and affection are simply its symptoms and side effects."

Thomas views her own childhood as an omniscient rat might view a psychologists' experiment: "I can see how the antisocial behaviours and mental posturing that now define me were incentivized when I was growing up."

The key indicator of sociopathy, she says, is the lack of a rigid sense of self, illustrated by her "fluid sexuality." Indeed, this tale features repeated romantic and sexual adventures with women and men.

"I have remarkably beautiful breasts," she explains.

Another indicator might be a tendency to prefer machines over people.

The author recounts her inner debate about whether to seek permission before taking a neighbour's bicycle for the afternoon. She takes it without asking, because "I knew better than her what was best for the bike. Besides, what she didn't know would not hurt her, and I really didn't want to bother having the conversation with her."

But through this narcissistic odyssey gleam occasional moments of poetry.

For example, a nearly fatal bout of appendicitis in Thomas's teens prompts the reflection: "Hospitals are, of course, dehumanizing places. The worst time of day is predawn, when the floors are especially cold and the daylight peeking through the blinds feels like a reckoning."

Was that a stray emotion? Or is the author engaging in her admittedly frequent mimicry of more mainstream people, those she dubs "empaths"?

Readers who puzzle over this moment, or perhaps over this entire unusual book, will realize that the author won't understand their concerns -- or care.

 

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:56 PM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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