Tara McTiernan, author of Cocktail Hour, joins me today to share a fascinating piece on the sociopaths among us!
Your Friend the…Sociopath?
by Tara McTiernan
A shadowy basement prison cell contains a slim man in a blue uniform who waits and watches FBI trainee Clarice Starling approach, his piercing eyes and penchant for eating his victims’ body parts famous. A lone gunman walks into a movie theater and opens fire on the audience, just for kicks. A maniac is loose in the woods where you’re camping and he’s got an ax, says a child with a flashlight under his chin as you sit around the fire and toast marshmallows, flinching at odd nighttime noises in spite of yourself and then laughing.
These are the images most people have of sociopaths, and while they are right a tiny percentage of the time, the reality is far more frightening. The fact is that sociopaths are all around us and play a role in our daily lives. They are our neighbors, our colleagues, our fellow church-goers, and, yes, even our friends.
According to Dr. Martha Stout, clinical psychologist and author of the bestselling and highly respected The Sociopath Next Door, the number of individuals in the general population who have this disorder is 1 out of 25. So, if you know more than 25 people, you know a sociopath, possibly very well.
When I decided to write my second novel, I wanted to explore sociopathy – a subject I’ve always found fascinating – by creating a group of women with a common friend who is a sociopath, but none of them knows it. Cocktail Hour exposes the machinations of a sociopath, Bianca Rossi, and the damage she does to those who trust her. While doing my research, I found that this situation was not only possible, it was common. People who have consciences cannot fathom someone who does not possess one, usually excusing away the sociopath’s behavior for them or believing the lies the sociopath tells them to cover their tracks.
So, what to do? Well, as the old saying goes: knowledge is power. Here are my top ten ways to identify sociopaths (all gleaned from my research):
Top Ten Ways to Identify a Sociopath
- Lack of Conscience: That little Jiminy Cricket that resides inside of you and tells you that something you’re doing is wrong – that thing? Sociopaths don’t have it. It’s the defining character defect of a sociopath. How can you tell? Do they shrug off things that are clearly wrong, obviously not bothered? Do they ever willingly and freely admit guilt feelings? Sociopaths never feel guilty. The only way they would claim feelings of guilt is if prompted to do so by someone well-meaning who possesses something the sociopath wants, so it’s worth it to the sociopath to pretend to feel guilty.
- They’re Just Perfect As-Is: Sociopaths may understand that they are different from other people, that the majority of people in the world have this strange weakness of caring and morality, but it doesn’t bother them. In fact they think morality and doing the right thing is stupid. No, they like themselves just fine. You’ll never find a sociopath shopping in the self-help section of the bookstore or deciding to go into therapy.
- It’s a Game: For sociopaths, life is a game. Sometimes the point of the game is to simply toy with people, manipulating them and making them “jump”. Other times the game is to win: either through money or influence or power or all of the above. People are simply pawns for their amusement and they will do anything to win. How successful they are depends on their intelligence level and, as with the rest of the population, that’s variable.
- What Me Care? Sociopaths do not form emotional connection to people or animals or any living thing. Every creature on this earth is a tool to them – existing to serve their needs. Many sociopaths are lazy users who live off of the good will of others and, though they claim that they will contribute or get it together soon, they have no intention of doing so. Sociopaths who marry always tie the knot for some reason other than love, whether it be for money or access to society or for some other reason. Look for genuinely loving non-self-serving behavior – if this is absent, you’ve probably got a sociopath on your hands. Flowery words mean nothing.
- Risky Business: Sociopaths are easily bored, so you will find a great deal of risk-taking behavior in a sociopath. Drug use and alcohol abuse is common. Obviously, everyone who takes risks and/or does drugs or drinks to excess is not a sociopath. This is something to observe as a part of the package, not as a telltale sign on its own.
- Painful Fun: Most sociopaths will hurt animals or people for amusement. This is a hard thing to catch them at, but if they tell you how they used to torture frogs or other small animals when they were kids and it was so much fun, you’ve got a live one on your hands.
- Prince/Princess Charming: Ever felt swept away by someone’s overwhelming charm? That person could be a sociopath. Charm is one of the sociopath’s most powerful weapons, used to relax and sedate their victims.
- Dancing on Strings: Game-playing essential to their happiness, sociopaths are talented manipulators. They will use you to their own ends while making you feel as if it was your idea. If you find yourself doing lots of out of character things with one of your friends or co-workers or someone else you know on a regular basis, watch out. Another thing to pay attention to is the phrase: “You owe me.” This is a standard line of sociopaths, one used when they require your compliance.
- Pants on Fire: Sociopaths are brilliant liars. Why? Because they don’t have the emotions of doubt or guilt that would give them away. Also, it helps them with their games and manipulations, so they lie a lot. Practice makes perfect!
The Pity Play: One of the most telling signs of a sociopath according to Dr. Martha Stout’s, The Sociopath Next Door, is the pity play. When backed into a corner or caught red-handed and unable to lie, the sociopath will almost always turn on the crocodile tears and act pitiful to soften the hearts of those that accuse him. Why is this such a telltale sign? Because the pity play is an extremely effective strategy, working on the very thing that a sociopath doesn’t have: a soft heart. Most sociopaths figure this out early and use it to their benefit.
So, you’ve got to be wondering – have I known any sociopaths? Well, after doing all of my research for my novel, I can say that, yes, I have. However, what’s great about knowledge is that it can protect you. There’s a very helpful section in the back of The Sociopath Next Door that outlines how to deal with sociopaths in your life and I recommend it highly.
Writing Cocktail Hour was a lot of fun in general, but I found it very unpleasant when I wrote anything from the sociopathic Bianca’s point of view; it was what I imagine it must feel like to climb down into a filthy sewer. Her way of looking at the world was repellent to me, but necessary to create a realistic character, so I did what I had to. However, I’ve heard from many people who’ve read the book so far that they “loved to hate” Bianca, so I’m glad I did it!
About Tara McTiernan
Tara McTiernan grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut and spent most of her childhood summers on an island in the Great South Bay on Long Island, New York – both of which has been the setting for her novels, Barefoot Girls and Cocktail Hour, as well as her short stories. She currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband, Ash. Visit the author’s website for more information including upcoming book releases and events.
Cocktail Hour by Tara McTiernan
What if your friend, someone admired, envied, and fervently sought after by everyone who knew her, was really a dangerous sociopath? Spring in glamorous uber-rich Fairfield County, Connecticut is a time of beginnings: a new diet for the approaching summer spent out on the yacht, fresh-faced interns being offered up at the office as the seasonal sacrifice to the gods of money, and corporate takeovers galore. Five women in their thirties have a brand-new friendship, too, one that fed and watered regularly at local hotspots over cocktails. With all of their personal struggles – Lucie’s new catering business is foundering due to vicious gossip, Kate’s marriage is troubled due to an inability to conceive, Chelsea’s series of misses in the romance department have led to frantic desperation, and Sharon’s career problems are spinning out of control – the women look forward to a break and a drink and a chance to let their guards down with their friends. And letting their guards down is the last thing they should do in the kind of company they unknowingly keep with the fifth member of their cocktail-clique: Bianca Rossi, a woman who will stop at nothing to have it all.