What It Feels Like to Be a Sociopath

Patric Gagne sociopath memoir

In movies, sociopaths are often depicted as cold-blooded killers, but the disorder is actually widely misunderstood. Patric Gagne is a therapist, wife and mother of two living in the Los Angeles area, and she just wrote a gripping memoir about how it actually feels to be a sociopath. I interviewed Patric on the phone about misconceptions, her childhood, and her urge to break rules…

First off, what do you wish society knew about sociopathy?
Sociopathy doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. Sociopaths can feel the primary emotions, like happiness, sadness and anger. But sociopaths have a harder time feeling the socio-emotions [emotions that depend upon the feelings or actions of other people, such as embarrassment, guilt, shame and empathy]. Sociopaths can learn socio-emotions, they just learn them differently. I call sociopathy an ’emotional learning disability,’ since that’s what it feels like.

People often picture sociopaths as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, not average people.
Not every sociopath is a serial killer who’s out to get you. These extreme examples comprise only a small fraction. But they’ve been misappropriated to define everyone with the disorder. It’s wild to me that this perception has been allowed. It’s the only personality type where we are villainized full stop, even though that’s not what the research says.

There’s so much mental health awareness these days around autism, depression, anxiety, the list goes on. So, I was shocked by the negative comments on your New York Times piece. People were really upset that they featured an interview with a sociopath.
I represent a very inconvenient truth because many people want to think all sociopaths look like monsters, since monsters are easy to spot. It’s unsettling that you could be living next door to a sociopath and have no idea, or with one and have no idea. People don’t like that. Statistics say that the prevalence is just under 5% of the population.

Little kids often seem like sociopaths. Toby once bit a kid at the playground, and Anton would push over his friend’s block towers. What’s the difference between typical kid behavior and sociopathic behavior?
Socio-emotions are learned emotions. Babies don’t automatically feel remorse from the womb. When a kid knocks down block towers, you say, ‘Hey, that might make someone sad.’ A neurotypical child will get that and start feeling shame or guilt. A neurodivergent kid may still feel ambivalent. My mom would say, ‘Well, you don’t want people to feel sad, do you?’ And I was like, well, what does it matter? I couldn’t conceptualize those traditional socialization lessons until I was much older.

As a kid, did you know you were different?
Yes. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t okay to say, I don’t feel bad about that. And I learned that it wasn’t okay to say, I’m not excited that so-and-so is coming to visit. If someone asks if you’re excited, you nod and say yes. I realized that in kindergarten.

If you suspect your child might have an ’emotional learning disability,’ how would you approach that?
Preemptively sit a child down and say, ‘Personally, I feel excitement or shame in this or that situation, but there are a lot of people who don’t feel anything when X, Y and Z. And it’s okay that you don’t have those feelings.’ When you’re socializing kids, talk about behaviors, all day long, but not emotions. There is nothing inherently immoral about having limited access to emotion.

There was a scene in the book where your mom was crying to your dad, saying, what can we do with her? What has your mom said about raising you, looking back?
When I was growing up, psychology wasn’t as much of a thing, and my mom did the best she could. Her reaction to the book is what I’d hoped for: understanding that there was a reason that I behaved the way I did that had nothing to do with her. This is a personality type, not anything a parent did right or wrong – the lack of a traditional emotional response is not personal.

You talk in the book about how, since you didn’t feel strong emotions, you would instead feel apathy. Then stress would build up, and you’d do risky behavior just to feel something, anything. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, as a kid, I would sneak into our neighbors’ house when they weren’t home and just hang out, or sneak out of my house at night and follow people around the neighborhood. In college, I stole cars at night, drove them for hours, and then returned them without people ever knowing.

What about hurting people?
I wrote down the rule that I couldn’t hurt anyone. Then I thought, so, what can I do? Sneaking into a neighbor’s house, it’s like, look, there’s no one in this house, who cares if I’m here? But because I knew I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to do it, it felt good. It gave me a release. It can’t explain it more than that. If you’re a kid, and you throw a bottle, it feels good – this is similar. I didn’t really want to be doing that stuff, but I felt a compulsion.

A compulsion? That sounds similar to OCD or addiction.
I read a magazine article about OCD, and it felt similar — that compulsion to do things that you don’t want to do but that you know will make you feel less stressed. I remember thinking, oh, so instead of repetitive behaviors or counting or washing hands, I feel compelled to do destructive things. That understanding helped me recognize that maybe if I follow the tips that they’re giving me for OCD, maybe my stuck stress will go away, too.

What were the OCD tips?
They recommended writing down your behaviors and teasing out why they made you feel better. It’s all about redirecting it so it doesn’t control your life. Otherwise, you can feel defenseless. I remember, as a child, often picturing people in prison and thinking, wouldn’t that be nice? I’d think about being in lockdown with the lights off and how even if they wanted to do something, even if their compulsive drive was at the absolute highest, they couldn’t do something destructive because they were inside the walls. Wouldn’t that be nice not to be lying in my own bed feeling powerless against that urge?

What are your urges like as an adult?
My traditional lifestyle has been such a service to me because I respond to the structure and the idea that I have a family. I could go out and steal a car tomorrow, and I might get arrested, or I could choose to do some cognitive journaling. So many people on the sociopathic spectrum have the ability to lead high-functioning, beautiful lives.

What are your guidelines for living a moral life, since you can’t really trust your gut? Do you lean on social norms and laws?
As a sociopath, you can still have a moral compass. I don’t feel shame and guilt, but my working brain can still tell me what is right and what is wrong. A sociopath makes decisions based on logic. I appreciate the benefits that come with living within a harmonious community. I don’t have to CARE in order to make the right choice. That’s something people get wrong about sociopathy – ‘I have to care about you to do the right thing by you’ is just as inaccurate as ‘you have to believe in God in order to make the right choices in life.’ You make the right choices in life because they benefit you and the people you love.

You wrote that your husband sometimes gets upset that you can’t love him in this all-encompassing way. You love him, of course, but you feel emotions differently.
My husband is Italian, he’s as hot-blooded and passionate as it gets. You don’t have to be a sociopath to not meet those qualifications! That said, love is a learned emotion. Just because feelings like love and remorse don’t come naturally to sociopaths doesn’t mean they don’t come, period.

What did he think of your memoir?
I would write chapters and my husband would read them first, and there were more than a dozen times where he came in and said, you can’t write this, you have to burn this. He was aghast that I would even consider telling these stories, but playing such an intricate part in the writing process also allowed him to understand what I was saying. I’ve been with him since I was a kid, and when he read it in black and white, he finally understood me.

What do you hope people take away from the book?
Most of all, I wrote it in the hopes of reaching sociopathic people to feel less alone. But also I wrote it so neurotypical people could read it and go, ah!

sociopath memoir Patric Gagne child

Thank you so much, Patric. Your book is a gift.

P.S. What it feels like to have autism, and being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult.

(Top photo by Stephen Holvik.)