Sociopath: A Memoir

  • By Patric Gagne
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 368 pp.

What does it feel like to be unfeeling?

Sociopath: A Memoir

The mark of a good memoir isn’t the content of the story. It’s the way the story is told. A good memoir relies heavily on reflection, tone, voice, and personality. There are lots of memoirs that have fantastic stories which are stiffly or indulgently related. Then there are others where nothing much happens, yet the narrator’s vulnerability, observations, and ability to connect give the work momentum.

Readers of the genre may have noticed that among recent titles like Salman Rushdie’s Knife and Christine Blasey Ford’s One Way Back, another release is getting a lot of press: Patric Gagne’s Sociopath, a firsthand account of what it’s like to live with one of the most stigmatized psychiatric disorders. The premise is fascinating, but how does someone with a condition characterized by an inability to feel write in a genre that’s all about feeling? (Or, even more surprisingly, become a therapist, as Gagne does?)

It’s true that the author doesn’t experience emotions the way most do, but her humanity — both because of and in spite of her diagnosis — is the point of the book. It is several chapters before she explains that while sociopaths experience basic feelings like joy, sadness, and anger, they don’t feel vital secondary ones like guilt or shame. She describes how humans are built to experience emotions; those who can’t often act out in order to feel something.

Because this insight doesn’t occur until later, however, the memoir’s early pages leave the reader squirming as the young Gagne deals with her lack of feelings through acts of deviance. Violence, theft, stalking, and breaking and entering abound, and they’re recounted in a cold, sharp way that isn’t exactly pleasant to read.

As she matures, Gagne decides that, above all, she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. So when she goes off to college, she establishes a pattern where she mitigates her absent or underdeveloped feelings via minor sins instead of bigger, more destructive ones. The more she learns about herself, the more reflective the narrative becomes. 

The increasingly self-aware coping strategies Gagne employs in her 20s may be problematic, but they’re often endearing, too. On weekends, for example, she attends funerals and then donates money in the name of the deceased. She goes to frat parties and steals cars for joy rides but is careful to return them (and to pick only vehicles with owners whose lives won’t be ruined if something happens). Gagne’s sense of right and wrong is strong even if her ability to feel anything about such matters is not. 

In adulthood, Gagne rekindles a romance with her childhood sweetheart, David. In many ways, he serves as the narrative’s north star. It’s because of David that Gagne believes she can have a normal life. While he is not a sociopath, one of the memoir’s refreshing aspects is that it avoids the dynamic of Gagne as the unwell and David as the sane. Rather, they are two complicated people trying to navigate an extra dynamic on the bumpy road we call partnership. 

In a recent interview with Anna Sale on the podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” Gagne charmingly explained that the reason she never got arrested for her misdeeds came down to privilege. She is pretty and blonde, and her father is a major player in the music industry. For a brief stint, Gagne worked in the biz and managed musicians, rubbing elbows with famous people she knew and famous people she didn’t. (Readers with no interest in neuropsychology might be pulled into Sociopath by its Hollywood glamor.)

The timing of Sociopath is apt, as we as a culture are becoming more understanding and accepting of neurodivergence. Its release parallels that of Ramani Durvasula’s It’s Not You, which explores the harm experienced by those close to narcissists, including family members, coworkers, and romantic partners. While sociopathy and narcissism are often conflated, they’re very different, and it can be cringe-inducing to see them used interchangeably. But the rise in books like these is a sign that we’ve entered a time of both/and: People who suffer from psychiatric disorders deserve both to be seen as human and to be understood.

In light of that, Sociopath should be required reading for teachers, social workers, counselors, and anyone else who regularly crosses paths with the neurodivergent. Patric Gagne might’ve escaped jail because of her whiteness and her wealth, but she decided to wield her privilege as a weapon for good. Hopefully, there will be more books like hers to come. 

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer at Horse Network and the Independent, and host of “HN Reads,” a podcast about horse books. She lives in Chicago.

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