July 10, 2011


by Martha Stout
219 pages, Broadway Books

Review by Marc Nash

I love this book, which is good because according to the author's argument it suggests I'm not a sociopath. It's far from perfect a thesis, but even its perceived failings stimulate thought in the reader to counter things that don't seem to quite add up.

She defines sociopaths as lacking in any conscience, which we all sort of know, but what she does so well is to go on and consider just what conscience is, where it stems from and what part of our beings it forms. The beauty of her explanations are their clarity and thereby their accessibility. She explains that you can't have conscience without having attachments to other people, otherwise you would be wholly unable to empathise with others. Sociopaths can't form attachments to others, therefore they have no consciences. Of course the word 'love' clunkily hangs on to the coat-tails of 'attachment' and love is one of the key words that is more wooly in its treatment here (and elsewhere to be fair), than a more clinical word like attachment.

And that brings me to the heart of this book's thrilling challenge. As with the consideration of any mental disorder, language is all. While I can agree with Stout's assertion that sociopaths can't form attachments and can only treat other people as objects or pawns, I can't accept the stretch from that to her constant refrain that sociopaths are playing games with these pawns. That they seek only to win. I don't credit sociopaths conceive like that. She should have maybe stuck at the point of stating that sociopaths are all about domination and control, but not taken an imaginative linguistic leap to being game players. The inability to see other human beings as human, means they have no way of perceiving agency and causation like we do. But just when the book threatens to lose your confidence, she comes up with a brilliantly simple expression of how sociopaths can be so charming and convincing, by explaining they can ape conversational emotions; That is they can talk about love and parrot the buzzwords, without actually feeling them.

The other word I caviled at, was that sociopaths act out of boredom. They amuse themselves, according to Stout. I don't believe they do. Rather than boredom, I feel they are plagued by having a constant level of pitch, because their emotions don't fluctuate like ours. Stout at one point uses the word monotony and I think she should have stuck with that, rather than turn it around to a less passive acting out of boredom. She says sociopaths end up burned out and bored, but surely the point is they are bored all the way through, irrespective of whether they are manipulating people or not. Their actions don't dilute their boredom, (unlike substance abuse, which she says can and very often is resorted to accordingly). Their will to dominate is as blind as any other predator's adaptive behaviour. Is all this semantics? Indubitably yes, but that is the very heart of the problem of diagnoses.

And diagnosis only, not cure. Early on in the book Stout says there is no cure because there is no foundation of attachment and conscience to build on. No drug therapy has anything to hook into. The book's vision is not unremittingly bleak, and tries to give us the visible clues to detect the 1 in 25 people in our lives that statistics show are sociopaths (hence the book's title). She reassures that not all sociopaths are murderous and indeed the case studies she gives are each fascinating and wonderful narratives in themselves, none concerning a murderer. The last two chapters of the book are a final case study and its evaluation as a basis of consideration of the spiritual dimension of conscience.

We probably are already armed with a base level apprehension of the notion just through popular media, but The Sociopath Next Door definitely fills in some of the lacuna around that. Is one in every 25 people a sociopath? Probably, and in that her thesis holds up. But in a way I don't find that the most significant revelation. It's that simple expression of the link between attachment, emotion and conscience that I can carry away from this read.

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