My interest in true-crime books piqued an interest in knowing what makes murderers tick. How can someone take another's life? How can someone take more than one life? Truly, I think I would lose my mind if I committed a murder for personal gain. Even killing someone in self-defense would shatter me. Being able to commit the heinous act of killing is what I call an unknowable because there is just no way I can know how a person thinks before, during and after murder. Some of my earliest childhood teachings were to put myself in someone else's place. Over time, I began to try to think like someone else in a particular circumstance in order to figure out what makes him the way he is. It isn't quite the same as the novel, The Other, but I understood trying on someone else's mind for size. But I've never been able to try on the mind of a murderer - - I am exceedingly grateful for that.
Some years ago, FBI profilers interviewed hundreds of incarcerated killers, the infamous as well as the obscure. They took notes on simple facts such as birth-order, environment, height, weight, parental involvement and dozens of other things. Then they sorted the facts, looking for commonalities, and began the method of criminal profiling. Sociopathy (or psychopathy, as I prefer, also known as the antisocial personality) was a common disorder among those interviewed, especially among the serial killers and mass murderers. In other words, people who killed others were frequently found to be devoid of conscience.
Martha Stout, PhD., submits the figure of population distribution of sociopathy at four percent, or, one person out of twenty-five. Dr. Stout is the author of my most recent read, The Sociopath Next Door. Lest you think, dear reader, that this means that one out of every twenty-five people may just snap and kill you, please know that sociopathy takes a variety of manifestations (personality theorist Theodore Millon divides sociopathy into ten subtypes). Some sociopaths are content to commit petty unkindnesses while others prefer to sack and loot corporations, and still others kill people or rob banks. Perhaps you had a cruel schoolteacher or coach. You might just have known one of the sociopaths next door.
In The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Stout describes, through composite examples, several sociopathic personalities in action, none of whom is the serial killer type. She situates the sociopath in our neighborhoods, and tells us what kind of behavior he exhibits in day to day living. As chilling as that sounds, it also serves to inform, to put us on our guard.
Dr. Stout states that she wrote this book as her answer to the question, Why have a conscience? She wrote that she also wanted "to warn good people about 'the sociopath next door,' and to help them cope." As I read, I became more and more sure that I know two sociopaths; I am very grateful that there is much distance between them and me! Far from advising the other ninety-six percent of us to avoid judgment and labels with sociopaths, Dr. Stout tells us how to protect ourselves from them. What a relief that position is from the trend to look for "root causes" of harmful behavior, and to keep trying to reach the good that is presumed to be in the hearts of those who would hurt us. Sometimes, there is no such good. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to keep up our defenses.
In fact, the latter part of the books lists "Thirteen Rules for Dealing With Sociopaths in Everyday Life." Some of those rules simply waste paper and print (such as the last rule, "Living well is the best revenge"), but others are useful in identifying sociopaths and dealing with them when we must.
Dr. Stout muses at length about what constitutes conscience, what causes it to develop and what prevents it from developing. She weaves her enthusiasm for Buddhist views into this book as well, though I would prefer less philosophising and more hard fact.
Although I still can't put myself into the mind of a sociopath, this book provided an enlightening view of what makes such people the way they are.