08 May 2009

My very own sociopath next door

Some days I question my willingness to write about troublesome topics close to me here on this blog, but I keep coming back to the need to tell my side of my story, because my father has never, ever accepted my version, my truths. Having just finished reading a book called The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, I have a new perspective on why that is: I don't believe he has a conscience, and so finally I see why my version of the story will never, ever match up with his. Ever.

One of the questions the book left me pondering relates to Stout's contention that sociopaths have no conscience and therefore never see a problem with themselves that needs addressing or fixing. This fits my experience; when told by people near and supposedly dear to him that he had dangerous behaviors that adversely affected not just him but others around him, he always accused everyone else of trying to manipulate him. He never saw us as trying to help him. Now I see why he couldn't conceive of that. But what I am left wondering is whether there are people without a conscience who believe themselves to have a conscience, in their own limited fashion. I think my birthfather sees himself as a moral and upright man; it's just that he doesn't have much capacity for compassion and so can't have a very well developed sense of obligation to others.

Reading that book gave me about fifty aha! moments. I saw a thousand instances where we, as his family, were arranged and manipulated: to make him look like a good person, to provide a cover for his other actions and activities, to be toyed with: battered physically or emotionally into silence or cowering fear. Meanwhile I was supposed to prove that He was Right about raising his children unconventionally, even though the reality of that included a dead child, and meant abuses like subjecting his children to active (as opposed to benign) neglect and countless dangerous situations.

The aha! moment that clinched the author's premise for me was when she related "Hannah's" story. Hannah's father had been a high school principal in a small midwestern city, married and with a daughter (Hannah) who had been accepted to medical school when he went after an unarmed intruder with the gun he kept in his closet and shot him dead outside their home. Hannah's father was convicted of manslaughter, because the attack had been in the street instead of inside their home, which would have been a self-defense killing. The community was in an uproar, and mostly on his behalf: he had no criminal record or known history of violence, and so folks in his community protested the severity of his sentence. It took Hannah years to understand that in many, many ways, her father had not been the nice person or loyal family member he had presented himself as being.

A few years later, Hannah worked up the nerve to visit him in prison. The thing was, Hannah said, she would have expected someone in her father's situation -- in prison, with little to no contact with family nor friends over a couple of years -- to be dejected and downcast. Instead, Hannah said, she was surprised to see this glint in his eye, as if this was the most exciting thing to happen to him in a long time.

When I read Hannah's story, I remembered how I felt when my father came back from Mexico telling the story of his month in a Guatemalan jail for trying to bring fireworks into Mexico in the back of his car, something that would have never occurred to anyone else I know. To him it was just another adventure, another story for him to tell. With that same glint in his eye, he told us far more than we cared about the guys who make hammocks in jail. He brought back hammocks that he then resold to people -- I wheedled hard to get him to give me one. (They are nice hammocks, after all.) But as he told that story again and again after he returned from that journey, I realized I did not want to hear another one of his stories, ever again, and that was when I made the decision to tell him: Don't call me. If I want to get in touch, I will.

Since then he has asked if we could talk, so that he could share his perspective. But I feel I already know what his perspective is, and it's all about him and how we have wrongly judged him. But I'm just not buying what he's selling anymore.

In some ways it seems unhealthy to keep circling this drain that is my father, but reading this book felt like finding a key piece of the puzzle, and talking with my mother is especially reassuring. We keep telling each other, yes, it really was that bad. He really was that bad. And I do feel sad about it, but for me and my mother and stepmother and sisters and brother, and not so much anymore than for his having inherited a lousy set of tools from his parents, which is the story I had been telling until now. Now I feel I am see him more clearly than ever for who and what he really is.

There were so many little flashes of recognition reading that book, and my sadness now comes in response to my beliefs as a child that this was all good and right and normal during my formative years: the thrill-seeking, the substance abuse, the moving from place to place, the moving from person to person without having true intimate attachments to people, the apparent respect and private disdain for others. I could cite a thousand examples, general and specific.

But I liked this book in part not just because it reinforced some things I've only just started to realize about my father, but also because it validated the idea that I did the right thing in cutting him out of my life. Stout says as soon as you see the patterns -- the excessive charm/allure, flattery, the desire for you to pity them as soon as they are in a tight spot, the I'm-right-and-all-you-idiots-are-all-wrong thinking -- the best way to protect yourself from this person is to run. To cut them out of your life completely. This is what I have done, and it feels like it's helped me start moving on with my own life.

Oddly, I told my mother, the book also gave me more compassion for a college writing teacher of mine, the poet Lucille Clifton, who said she could not believe a father would drive drunk with his children in the backseat, as I wrote about in one of my poems. Now I see that despite all the evils she believed in (slavery, hell, the abuse of women), she couldn't fully conceive of a true sociopath. Lucky her, I said to my mother.


Lovely Queen said...

I cried. Right now I don't know what else to say.

vanillagrrl said...

Thanks for reading this and saying so, sweetie!