Sociopath: A Memoir

Image of Sociopath: A Memoir
Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Simon & Schuster
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“As interesting and enlightening as Sociopath is, there’s something disquieting about it.”

When we hear the word sociopath, our first thoughts are likely of malevolent, remorseless ne’er do wells whose behavior is manipulative and often criminal. A far less likely image is Sociopath’s author, Patric Gagne, PhD, an attractive, happily married mother on a therapeutic mission to upend our view of her diagnosis which she believes has been unfairly maligned and under-treated.

Sociopath: A Memoir is not meant to be an autobiography in the strictest sense, as its author readily admits to inventing scenes and dialogue to convey her ideas and employing pseudonyms for some people in her life. Her goal is to educate the psychology community and general public about the true nature of sociopathy and provide self-help for others who carry her diagnosis.

Gagne begins by telling us that, “I knew as early as seven that something was off. I didn’t care about things the way other kids did . . . social emotions—things like guilt, empathy, remorse, and even love” did not come easily. “Most of the time I felt nothing. So I did ‘bad’ things to make the nothingness go away. It was like a compulsion.” She explains how she would do anything to make herself feel something because feeling “trapped in the void” and in the numbness of apathy generated unbearable anxiety. Throughout the book, Gagne returns to the theme of apathy leading to intense pressure leading to acting out.

In her youth she got off on stealing goods and later cars, inflicting physical pain on classmates (or once, on a cat), and breaking or sneaking into houses because these acts pierced the agonizing tension born of nothingness. She tried her hardest to act normally and do the right thing, recognizing that there were emotions to be felt but unable to connect authentically with them. Though she struggled to “tame” her dark side, eventually her acting out became addictive, a way to survive emotionally.

Her childhood included family dysfunction (whose doesn’t?), but nothing so extreme to cause her feeling so little affect yet so much impetus to act out. She tried to be truthful with her parents and beloved “good girl” sister about what she could—and could not—feel and often fessed up when she went off the rails. At the same time, she was driven to understand her behavior through self-reflection and reading everything she could lay her hands on about the causes of and treatment for sociopathy. After her parents divorced, she enjoyed success working as a nanny and eventually ended up, like her father, in the music business where she felt more at home among so many people she deemed sociopathic.  

In her free time, she obsessively researched her diagnosis and sought therapy, which confirmed it. She believed her impulsive reactions were the “brain’s subconscious desire to jolt itself out of apathy.” Through reading and intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, she began to see that the problem and solution were not about being either good or bad. Her goal then shifted to understanding and accepting all parts of herself, including her deficit of natural emotions, rather than trying to jump start them in ways that were fast losing their heady appeal and becoming morally reprehensible to her.

With a nod to ongoing debates in the field of psychology regarding differential diagnoses of people who engage in hurtful, harmful, or criminal acts, she learned that psychopaths are thought to have brain abnormalities and be “incapable of learning from punishment or understanding remorse or even experiencing anxiety. Sociopaths seem to be more capable of evolution [with issues that appear to] be more environmental than biological.”

What bothered Gagne most is that there was no viable, standard treatment to heal sociopaths—and she yearned for such help. By the end of the memoir, she has become a PhD psychotherapist exclusively treating other sociopaths whom she finds remarkably like her in their quest for self-understanding and finding a place for their unique selves in society.

The book is also an on-and-off love story between Gagne and David, whom she met when she was 14 and knew instantly that he was the right man for her because she felt “seen” by him. After dating other men, including intentionally seeking out sociopaths in order to feel understood and valued, she eventually lives with and marries David. In therapy, like many couples, they work on how to better understand and respond to each other’s needs. Hers is to have both the culturally typical and atypical sides of herself accepted and validated and for David not to try to mold her into a person she isn’t or will ever be.

She describes motherhood as a mixed bag, with David doing much of the physical nurturing of their two children. She is fiercely protective of them and finds her sociopathic leaning to be “calm and organized” helpful in caring for them. She calls her version of mother love “a mosaic: tiny pieces of broken glass held together by fate so the light can shine through in different colors . . . fierce and shape-shifting, slightly twisted and delicious. Accepting, forgiving, understanding, and relatably flawed, the furthest thing from perfect. The closest thing to me.”

As interesting and enlightening as Sociopath is, there’s something disquieting about it. By challenging traditional views of sociopathy, she is going against decades of accepted research while also boldly challenging the status quo without evidence beyond her observations of sociopaths and experiences in her practice.

One wonders about the fairy tale ending of her story, all sunshine and flowers: comfortable, comforting relationships with her parents, sister and friends, marital and motherhood issues seemingly put to rest, and a career that is not only gratifying but that has brought her fame and fortune.

There’s also a swirl of questions in the book world about her graduate school credentials and whether or not she uses a pseudonym in writing Sociopath. It’s unclear if these attacks are due to academics affronted by this new upstart in the field and closing ranks against her novel ideas or if she is a true maverick in her sincere attempts to revolutionize treatment for sociopathy. The book would have more gravitas if it included additional research via footnotes, a bibliography, and an index. But doing things her own way and feeling neither shame nor guilt about it is part of who Dr. Gagne is.