For a few years I have been lying to myself about my son's condition. He is a sociopath. Completely devoid of any ability to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. And now he is evolving quickly--from lying, to stealing, to carefully planning and executing emotional and physical harm to others, including his family.
In my son there are areas of the brain that are completely silent. In me those same areas are lit up like the Las Vegas strip. I would say that I'm an "empapath."
At a funeral I am unable to maintain my composure. When I grieve I feel overwhelming, debilitating pain. At those time I look at "normal" people being stoically sad, and I feel that they are callous. I see a chasm between myself and the mass of humanity who has so much less passion and so feels sadness, happiness, and pleasure in much smaller amounts than I.
My son also looks at the mass of humanity across a chasm. But in his case he is limitlessly callous, and willing to do things that a "normal" person could not even imagine.
I read your answer to the young man who was a self-diagnosed sociopath (psychopath) and asked if he would be able to love. Thank you for your candor. You said that it was difficult for therapists to empathize with sociopaths. I understand those challenges.
But it seems to me that someone like myself can in fact empathize with a sociopath in a few ways:
1. We both perceive a gap between ourselves and the mass of humanity based on emotional capacity (of course, at opposite extremes).
2. This gap creates a tendency towards ego-mania, megalomania, etc. and an objectification of the bulk of our fellow humans (which will be manifestly evident in this note ... I apologize in advance ... although I suspect that you are a closet "empapath" yourself, so I'm sure that you can handle it).
3. Both conditions can be considerable assets, and often lead to excellence in similar types of endeavors (politics, crime, religion, business).
To elaborate on this last point: You are probably aware of Goleman's research which has found high levels of "emotional intelligence" as a common trait among great leaders. For me "high levels of emotional intelligence" is synonymous with being an "empapath." So should there be an "-path" at the end of "empapath"? Is it really an abnormality at the level of being a sociopath?
When my ex-wife came to realize the reasons behind my son's incomprehensible acts she immediately mentioned Genghis Khan as an example of a sociopath. I know that to be false. Genghis Khan felt things with terrible intensity. On the death of one of his sons, he killed thousands of people as an act of remorse. Genghis was a "empapath."
If we look at an "empapath" as a shepherd, and understand that a sociopath is a lone wolf, then is may appear at first blush that society has more to fear from the sociopath than from the "empapath." But while the sociopath may harm indiscriminately, the "empapath" will determine their "flock" and then may allow even more unthinkable things to happen to those outside of that group. For instance, Hitler was not a sociopath. He was an "empapath"--a remarkably emotional, nervous, and charismatic person. Heydrich, on the other hand, was a sociopath, who, without this "empapath," would have never had the opportunity to architect the Final Solution.
My point is that both conditions can be a danger to society, but that there are ways that both conditions can be channeled to be of some benefit to society. A sociopath like Dick Cheney has at least been of service to Halliburton shareholders, right?
So, as an "empapath" am I in a unique position to help my son?
Or am I the last person in the world who should try to influence him? (I know the potential danger of an "empapath" and a sociopath getting together, as outlined in the extreme example above)
My desires at this point are simply that he not harm anyone else. As a side-effect of his condition he is a remarkable actor, a truly fearless and completely-non-self-conscious presence on stage. In fact, for him every human interaction is acting. My instinct is to encourage him to expend his energy here, as it will keep him from being bored, allow him to toy with the emotions of others in a "constructive" manner, and play to his already-inflated self image (reinforcing his own self-image is one of the few things that motivates him).
What do you think?
Thank you again for your candid and insightful comments on the dilemma of the sociopath.
I am sorry to hear about your son's sociopathy. As you describe his "evolution" into someone planning physical harm to people, including yourselves, I can imagine how sad this must be for you.
That said, I am afraid that I cannot buy into any of the ideas you put forth in your letter; they all seem to me to be rationalizations meant to make this tragic situation easier to bear, and perhaps, as I will explain, to mask your own shortcomings in the empathy department. Under other circumstances, ones with less potential for real danger, I would simply let those self-deceptions pass without poking holes in them since I would view them as a comfort which should not be taken from you. However, as you read in the article to which you refer, I have rather extensive experience with sociopathy, and, knowing how dangerous a person like your son really can be, it would be unfair of me not to try to reply honestly and fully with the intention of warning you that your present attitude towards this problem really will not serve.
To begin with, the excessive emotionality you describe in yourself is not what I would call empathy at all. As I understand it, empathy is the entirely normal and usual human ability to tune in to the feelings of others as if feeling them oneself. That is all. Empathy really has nothing to do with the exaggerated grieving you describe. When the grief is yours, and you feel great pain, that is not empathy, but self-pity, for, as I say, empathy means tuning in on the feelings of another person, not experiencing your own feelings more deeply than you assume that others do. I say "assume," for, based on your letter, I do not think that you really know much about what others feel—you seem to be too wrapped up in your own emotional world really to comprehend the inner experiences of other humans. Since I do not know you personally, I could be mistaken about this, but I do not think so.
In other words, I do not imagine that you have more "emotional capacity," as you put it, than other people—although I would have to know you personally to be sure of that. To me, a high level of emotional capacity would not mean being overwhelmed by emotions, but quite the opposite. To me, it would mean being able to experience and contain a wide range of emotions of various kinds without being overwhelmed by them. And, sorry to say, I must agree with you that your attitude does have the aroma of ego-mania as you said of yourself. In fact, an egomaniac, which you say you are, is the opposite of an empathic person: the egomaniac is all wrapped up in himself and his own feelings; the empathic person constantly relates to the feelings and concerns of others as well as his or her own. I agree with you also that you are objectifying your fellow humans in a rather strange way, which also is quite the opposite of empathy since empathy, in its purest form, sees no gap between self and others. In other words, the empathic person does not objectify others, but experiences, second-hand of course, their subjectivity. I hope you see this because it will be important in understanding what follows.
Your wife was quite correct. Genghis Khan was a classic sociopath. There was no empathy there at all (according, of course to the history books—I never knew the man personally). You seem to imagine that sociopaths don't feel anything. That is totally incorrect. A sociopath can feel plenty, and can care plenty about himself. What he or she cannot do is care about other people. When one of his sons was killed, as you wrote, Khan killed thousands of people in an attempt to mitigate his grief. (By the way, that was not an act of remorse, as you wrote, which means deeply regretting ones actions and repenting them, but a psychopathic act--the total opposite of remorse which, by definition, a psychopath cannot feel.) Khan, a psychopath, felt nothing for the thousands he killed, nothing for their friends and families; he felt only for himself. In other words, his loss, his grief, his pain was all he felt—he was entirely unfeeling of the pain of all those others. That is sociopathy: not lack of feelings, but lack of feelings for others. It is very important that you try to understand this, so I will repeat it: a sociopath is not necessarily an unemotional person at all. He or she might, like Khan, be highly emotional regarding his own losses and pains, just not the losses and pains of others.
believe that your diagnosis of Dick Cheney as a sociopath could be
correct, and Bill Clinton, for that matter, might qualify, along,
possibly, with Hillary, for those are people who seem ready, willing,
and able to manipulate and use others to achieve their own goals, no
matter what the cost to those they manipulate, and those whom, as one says in
politics, they throw under the bus. Many consider Bill charming and
charismatic (although he never got to me one iota), but
sociopaths often are
charming and charismatic. To take another famous example, Charles Manson, an obvious sociopath, was highly charismatic, having attracted, before his arrest, a large coterie of admirers who assisted him in the murders he committed. You see, misunderstanding this, you imagine
that Hitler's charisma disqualifies him from a diagnosis of
psychopathy, but that is simply wrong. I don't know if Hitler was a sociopath
or not, but certainly based on his having presided over the extermination of millions of innocents, a case could be made.
And, by the way, Julian, I would not agree with you that Cheney has provided any kind of service by using his power to syphon billions of dollars away from the American people to enrich Halliburton. Your reasoning here is more than strange; it is absolutely twisted, demonstrating, as it does, a total lack of regard for the thousands killed, wounded, impoverished, and otherwise victimized and damaged by Bush and Cheney's totally fraudulent war. Stockholders my ass!
I regret to say, Julian, that this last piece of logic prompts me to wonder if you could be a bit of a psychopath yourself. Perhaps that is why you believe that you have the power to, as you wrote, "empathize with a sociopath in a few ways." Easy to empathize with that which you are. Have you no feeling for the immense suffering involved in the tragic misadventure in Iraq, which still continues to maim and kill, not only soldiers--bad enough--but total innocents? How could you possibly consider such a thing a service to anyone? And where is the excess of empathy with which you credit yourself?
Now to your question. I would say that you are in a good position to help your son, but not for the reasons you imagine. Encouraging him to work as an actor seems like a good idea, so why not? But the way really to help him--along with the rest of us including yourself--is to watch him carefully and constantly with a view towards preventing him, in any way necessary, including calling in the police when necessary, from committing criminal acts. Criminal psychopaths belong behind bars where they can be isolated from the rest of us. I know this flies in the face of the usual father-son loyalty, but your son, by your own description, is a dangerous person who enjoys hurting others, including physically, and this must not be allowed. You are the one best situated to stop him, and you must. That, in my view, is your moral and ethical responsibility as the father of a psychopath.
You praised me for my candor. I hope you still appreciate my candor now that it has been applied to you, and that you will do whatever you must to stop your son from hurting innocent people. Rationalizing your boy's situation--and you have an obvious talent for rationalization--will not help. Your son is a kind of monster who must be stopped from hurting others, no matter what it takes to stop him. Sorry to be so blunt, but you have shown a great capacity for self-deception and twisted logic, so I hesitate to be subtle—you would only find a way to misunderstand subtlety.
Dear Dr. Saltzman,
Thank you for your reply, and once again for your candor. Thank you also for your sincere concern for my son and for those whom he has hurt, and whom he may hurt in the future. I am struggling to come to terms with my responsibility to protect others from him. As you said, this runs against traditional "father-son loyalty," but I do understand and accept this as my moral obligation.
You had previously stated that it is difficult or impossible for a therapist to empathize with a sociopath. You are right. It is also impossible for me to do so. As you stated the theories which I presented are garbage.
What I was really trying to ascertain was whether you would be able to provide therapy for my son. Whether you would be able to win his trust and some modicum of respect from him.
I am sorry that I had to fabricate this nonsense about the existence of "empapaths," lump yourself and myself in that category, and then add Genghis Khan and Hitler to the group for good measure. That was a little excessive, but necessary for me to ascertain your ability to deal with morally and emotionally challenging statements that are reasonably well articulated. That is nothing compared to what my son would say to you in sessions! He is much smarter than I am, and exhibits a level of callousness that would make your blood run cold!
Emotional intelligence does exist, and I do believe that at some point they will find that those who possess high levels of emotional intelligence have limbic hyper-action, just as my son suffers from acute limbic under-action ("silence" in the emotional centers of the brain). As you pointed out, those with emotional intelligence do NOT feel a chasm between themselves and the rest of humanity. In fact they feel an incredibly strong bond to their fellow humans and are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to help others. To set the record straight the real examples of people with emotional intelligence are people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Possessing high levels of emotional intelligence is a huge asset, and it is ridiculous to equate this with very real and debilitating mental conditions and illnesses.
I will admit that I am disappointed, because I feel that you are so close to being qualified to help my son. The sad thing is that you retreated to a moral high ground in response to my silly, rather-transparently-provocative message. And you tried to create distance between yourself and me. Given that response, my son would not come to a second session (I speak from experience, he has "thrown out" 3 therapists so far).
This response does add to my respect for you as a person. I recognize what a genuinely caring and deeply empathic individual you are. But I agree that you are completely unequipped to provide therapy to intelligent sociopaths. But you know that already. I don't expect you to forgive me for my manipulation (you made it abundantly clear how much you hate manipulation), but I am truly sorry that I had to be deceptive to someone as honest and open as yourself.
On the manipulation point, I would say that you are right about Bill Clinton being manipulative but wrong about him being a sociopath. If you showed him the horrible pictures that you posted, his amygdala would light up on a fMRI. I promise you that. He is highly emotionally intelligent. Which makes him very good at being manipulative! The "manipulative = sociopathic" equation that you are making is simply false!
I agree with you that Hillary Clinton is a sociopath. That's a more honest example of someone with high emotional intelligence partnering with someone with limbic under-activation (i.e. a sociopath).
Obama on the other hand has very high emotional intelligence, which is why it is so shocking when he makes callous comments like the "clinging to guns and religion" comments that he made is San Francisco. This is a phenomenon which I have witnessed on several occasions, and which I struggle to understand. Why do people who are so genuinely and deeply empathetic occasionally say things that would make a sociopath proud? Very bizarre!
If you have any recommendations on how I can find someone who can provide therapy for my son I would be deeply grateful. I believe that person should possess remarkable levels of emotional intelligence, incredible levels of objectivity, and be a phenomenal critical thinker (able to look beyond the 1st, 2nd and 3rd levels of communication). I know that is a tall order, but my son will be able to fool anyone who does not posses these traits, and he will not respect them.
Thank you for your genuine concern and compassion. I am sorry that I had to contact you initially in this way.
Well, I guess the joke is on me, but I feel neither manipulated nor deceived, so no apology necessary. Obviously I must respond to questions posed to me as if they were sincere; there really is no option. A good therapist can go very much deeper in a face to face conversation--body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, feelings in the room, etc., all speak volumes—but anybody can hide behind words on a page as you did.
You must be extremely desperate to have needed to cook up such an elaborate ruse. I do feel for you.
Now to your question. I have spent much time with psychopaths, including some who I would guess are far more dangerous than your son might be. I have known many such people, including murderers who felt as much about killing one of their victims as you might feel if you slapped at a mosquito. On the basis on such experiences, I have concluded not only that I am not qualified to treat a true psychopath (I mean "treat" in the sense of actually helping to heal the psychopathic tendencies, not just babysit them), but that I have never known any therapist who was so qualified, and I doubt that any exists, although, of course, I could be mistaken.
The problem is not one of an intelligence gap as you seem to think—despite your little experiment I am notoriously hard to fool tete-a-tete—and I doubt that your son would shock me at all, much less make my blood run cold; I have seen and heard a lot. The most difficult barrier to such therapy is simply this: a true psychopath will not respect anyone who evinces any compassion at all. What seems like strength to a normal human being—compassion, emotional intelligence, caring, love, all of that—to a psychopath looks only like weakness. Seeing that “weakness,” the psychopath immediately feels superior and will not be able to accept anything the “weak one” says. Once that door closes, any therapy is precluded. That I why I speculated that if I tried to treat the psychopath who asked if he could ever learn to love, such treatment would require an unyielding and extremely firm posture. I was open to possibly taking on that job (on a purely experimental basis) because that man saw his own state with clarity and seemed to want to escape from it. Apparently your son is not in that frame of mind, so I would never attempt it.
By the way, I have reread your original letter and my reply, and do not see where I retreated to a moral high ground. If I am on such a ground—which, since I am a normal human being, already is doubtful—there was certainly no retreat; I simply replied to you, as I do to all my questioners, from the ground on which I really stand, moral or not. In fact, as I experience it, that ground has little to do with morality, high or low, but that’s another story. And, as for trying to create distance between my self and you, I do not believe I did that either. You created the distance by sending me such a letter--which, as I say, obviously had to be taken seriously--after already knowing a lot about my point of view as a reader of my website. In other words, you came on as narcissistic, egotistical, and confused, and since I am none of those, the distance was there already. I did not have to create it; you did that. So, Julian, no retreat, no creation, just myself responding honestly—very simple really, and possibly too simple for the way you are accustomed to thinking.
I mention this because you seem to imagine that a therapist can work with a patient by playing some kind of complex mind games like 3-D chess, but that is wrong. Good therapy, in my view, can only be grounded on the absolute authenticity of the therapist—never on intentional deceit or complicated subterfuge. You might see such stuff in the movies, but, in real life, contrivances and machinations simply won’t cut it.
I am sorry not to be able to offer you any advice on seeking therapy for your son. I sincerely wish I could, but, honestly, I doubt that any exists. Such people seem damned, and that is tragic.