To the NY Times Book Review:
Walter Walker, in his Oct. 22 review of Ann Rule’s Dead by Sunset, did the public a disservice in not identifying Brad Cunningham as a probable sociopath. He seems to share a widespread reluctance to use that term. It is as though there is a dangerous fish in all the waters of the world, that is never mentioned. Sociopaths are not simply ogres or horrible human beings, the most extreme are criminally insane, manipulative predators, whose only humanity is in the mimicry (which can be phenomenal).
Mr. Walker also shares the widespread tendency to blame the victims of sociopaths for allowing themselves to be manipulated. While it certainly would be better if they hadn’t and didn’t, one should keep in mind what they are up against. A sociopath’s manipulative ability is beyond normal human capabilities or understanding. In the way that autistic savants are able to focus their remaining human abilities in areas that exceed normal human capabilities, sociopaths are able, in the absence of an inner emotional life with its steady background chatter of worries, plans and hopes, to bring a vastly higher percentage of the human mental apparatus to bear on the task of manipulation. Their manipulative skill approaches the realm of “weaving reality.” While the delusional are certainly their easiest victims (since sociopaths will sense and play into the delusions), I doubt very much that their average victim is any weaker or more gullible than the rest of us.
Sociopaths move through the world like sharks through the water because no one ever calls them on it. This review was an opportunity for Mr. Walker to educate the public to the existence and dangers of sociopaths. Sadly, he chose the less threatening story of an ogre and his foolish victims, rather than that of a parasitical chameleon with the manipulative skills to fool any of us. ________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1997
Dear Ann Landers:
Concerning Wits End in Sylmar and her selfish, thieving stepdaughter, I believe you overlooked a very important possibility, sociopathy. Sociopaths are with us everywhere, but they are rarely talked about. If we can recognize them, we can protect ourselves.
The questions to ask in the Sylmar case are whether the stepdaughter ever shows unsolicited, spontaneous concern for anyone else; whether she constantly engages in skillful, lying manipulations of others; whether she shows a genius at getting people (particularly strangers) to feel sorry for her; and whether avoiding boredom is the overwhelming motive force in her life. The answers of no, yes, yes, and yes would be a very strong indication. Extreme sociopaths live in a world in which only they matter. All other human beings (including parents and spouses) are of no more importance than bugs on a windshield are to you or I (literally). They are truly conscienceless, guiltless, shameless and empathyless. Tragically they can never form any real attachment to another human being or experience deep emotions.
For anyone interested in pursuing the subject I’d recommend the novel The Incredible Charlie Carewe, by Mary Astor (the actress). For those who prefer books written by psychologists there is The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley or Without Conscience by Robert Hare. Sociopaths also abound in such television shows as “Unsolved Mysteries,” unfortunately they are rarely labeled as such. ________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1998
To Vanity Fair:
I’d like to thank you for running Robert Sam Anson’s article on the probable sociopath, Jeffrey MacDonald. Vanity Fair is one of the best sources I know of for articles on sociopaths – each year there are 2-3 indepth studies of such individuals. However, the word sociopath is almost never used. This reluctance to use the term is quite widespread. Thank you for breaking that tradition.
There is rarely a consensus concerning sociopathic individuals, the reaction to them is almost always polarized. There are those who see through a particular individual and those who do not. There is no common ground. Even if the populace at large were aware that such individuals were quite common, this would still be so. A sociopath’s defining trait is a seemingly guileless manipulative ability. All sociopaths are con artists (though the reverse is not true). Confidence artists are named that, of course, because they inspire confidence – the many will always be on their side.
Personable, young, soldier, doctor Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his family? Just couldn’t be. This refusal to follow the evidence hidden behind a pleasing appearance is the probably the most important protection sociopaths have. We are nice people living in a nice world. Do we walk shoulder to shoulder with mimics who share no fellow human feeling, no empathy, no conscience? Can’t be. After the recent schoolyard murders in Arkansas, sociologists were counseling parents elsewhere to reassure their children that nobody they knew could be that disturbed and dangerous. This is a nice fairy tale for children – why the day before, the Arkansas parents would have said the same thing. Unfortunately, as adults, most of us live by the same fairy tale.
I suspect this fairy tale will be destroyed forever in the next five to ten years as the human genome becomes more fully mapped. When one considers all the seemingly conscienceless and subtracts the attachment disordered, the narcissistically rigid, and the hideously abused and needy, there is still a core of the emotionally/morally colorblind, a.k.a. the Cleckley sociopath (from Cleckley’s Mask of Sanity), a.k.a., the Charlie Carewe sociopath (from the actress Mary Astor’s The Incredible Charlie Carewe). This core, Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience, terms ‘intraspecies predators.’ There is no reason to argue the point, the human genome project will either find genetic anomalies among the sociopathic or it won’t.
I predict it will. Articles such as Anson’s will both help prepare for that possibility and help protect ourselves currently through the knowledge of such people. Thank you.