“I didn’t intend to harm her. It was just pressure building up…” The individual labeled as a sociopath who learned to regulate behavior and discovered happiness.

A glimmer flickers in her eyes as Patric Gagne delves into what she terms the “tug” – that instant when she envisions something entirely inappropriate and ponders, “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

She chuckles. What once might have driven her impulsively is now quelled by reason and foresight. “You feel like taking that car for a spin? Sure, but then I have to face the consequences. Do I want that? Not really.” It’s not to say Gagne wouldn’t seize an opportunity, provided she could justify it wasn’t entirely her fault. Recently, she recounts, she was handed the keys to another car while waiting for her own at a valet, and she drove off with it. “They handed me the keys! And then I realized,” she adds with feigned surprise, “‘Oh, this is not my car.’” Her husband, upon hearing the tale, “wasn’t thrilled,” she admits, flashing a wry grin as if to imply, “But what else could I do?”

In 2020, Gagne found herself featured in the New York Times’s Modern Love series under the headline: “He married a sociopath. Me.” This exposure led to her memoir, Sociopath, where she delves into her past lack of empathy and emotional voids, and the compulsions that once threatened to consume her.

The term “sociopath” is a familiar trope in popular culture – often associated with cold and calculating politicians or CEOs, and in its extreme portrayal, with serial killers – yet it lacks an official diagnosis. In the UK, it’s an antiquated term, now encompassed within the realm of antisocial personality disorder, which also encompasses psychopathic tendencies. Gagne has never received a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. In the US, she was tagged as a sociopath by a psychologist who subjected her to the psychopathy checklist assessment, typically employed with offenders.

Sociopaths, she concedes, bear a notoriety that’s not entirely unfounded, but she felt compelled to unveil the inner turmoil of someone grappling with their identity, striving not to inflict harm or engage in destructive behavior, while yearning for meaningful relationships. “I felt compelled to help others like me understand themselves and their motivations.”

Our conversation unfolds via video call, Gagne situated in her Florida home. She’s riveting, akin to a character from a film – a sociopath who exudes beauty, warmth, and wit; articulate and captivating. She’s candid about her penchant for deceit, yet her book unravels a narrative of a woman combating her impulses, with deception largely serving as a façade to blend in, rather than a tool for dominance and control. (Although, might a sociopath be inclined to manipulate my perceptions?)

Can she identify fellow sociopaths? “Not particularly,” she replies. “People prefer to believe that sociopaths are inherently evil, making them easy to spot, hence providing a sense of security. No one wants to acknowledge they might be working alongside a sociopath, sharing a bed with one, or even parenting one. But my aim is to destigmatize the notion, enabling a more nuanced discourse about it.”

During her university days, Gagne grappled with the scarcity of resources on sociopathy. Older texts resonated more with her. Perusing a psychiatrist’s work from the 1940s, the outlined personality traits – such as a lack of remorse or shame, unreliability, and mendacity – resonated deeply. “I recall poring over these studies, some dating back decades, and wondering, ‘Why isn’t this discussed more?'”

While other mental disorders garner extensive research and consequent treatment, Gagne realized, antisocial personality disorder remains relatively neglected. Despite the potential for early intervention to thwart destructive tendencies and revolutionize the criminal justice system, she laments, “Because these terms have become synonymous with malevolence, people’s compassion dwindles automatically. There’s little impetus to extend aid.”

Where, she muses with a grin, is the empathy for sociopaths? “As a sociopathic child, no one empathizes. Sociopaths are vilified for failing to exhibit emotions they’ve never experienced themselves.” That sense of desolation, she surmises, can serve as “a catalyst for the escalation of destructive conduct.” Yet, the sociopaths in the limelight “represent the outliers, and by fixating solely on the extreme cases, we perpetuate the problem. The majority of individuals falling on the sociopathic spectrum lean towards moderation, making treatment feasible, and that’s what I want them to realize.”

For Gagne, labeling her experiences, despite the controversy surrounding them, felt empowering, offering a glimmer of hope for improvement. Her therapy included cognitive behavioral therapy. “To me, limited access to emotions isn’t inherently immoral – it’s not what we feel, but what we do. If destructive behavior surfaces, it’s imperative to address the behavior first and foremost.” Left unaddressed, it doesn’t necessarily result in a criminal career, she explains, “but it does pave the way for unhealthy coping mechanisms.”

Gagne didn’t embark on a criminal career – she delved into the music industry, transitioned to therapy, and eventually emerged as a writer and advocate – yet she faced her share of struggles. She grappled with compulsive theft and joyriding. As a child, she even stabbed another girl with a pencil. Yet, she insists, “It wasn’t driven by a desire to inflict pain. I distinctly recall feeling this mounting pressure, and she just happened to be there when it burst. Admittedly, she was getting on my nerves in that moment, but I wasn’t specifically targeting her.” The act, she reflects, “provided a release I’d never experienced before. Looking back, I can logically wish she hadn’t borne the brunt for my release.”

Gagne grew up in California, where her father held an executive position in the music industry; post her parents’ separation, she relocated to Florida. She recollects realizing her divergence from her peers early on, “just this subtle awareness that I wasn’t processing things the way my classmates did; their emotional responses diverged significantly from mine. And certainly, my family’s.”

She observed and mimicked her younger sister’s behavior, as well as that of her schoolmates, particularly in relation to emotions. “It was akin to learning a language,” Gagne reminisces. “I’d strive to discern the socially appropriate reactions.”

It wasn’t a calculated manipulation, she clarifies. “I understand that chronic dishonesty automatically triggers perceptions of malice or manipulation, but that wasn’t the case for me. I lacked the social adeptness everyone else seemed to possess, so I emulated theirs – an antisocial child striving to navigate a pro-social world.” Did she foster many friendships? “Not particularly, but I was content with that.”

She cherished her family – “The sociopathic personality isn’t incapable of forging those connections” – particularly her younger sister. “We were inseparable from the get-go. Furthermore, I didn’t harbor the typical sibling rivalry that plagues many familial relationships.” Gagne relished her younger sister’s spotlight, “I think the absence of rivalry enabled us to coexist harmoniously.”

At 14, during a vacation camp, she crossed paths with another teenager, David. They shared a fleeting connection before reuniting years later; they’re now wedded with two children. Before him, did she harbor doubts about her capacity to love a partner? “My concern revolved around whether this would be a genuine relationship or if I’d have to feign emotions 90% of the time. Was there anyone with whom I could truly be myself?”

Was she anxious about motherhood? “I recall fervently hoping that when my first child arrived, I’d experience that instantaneous bond depicted in literature and cinema. When that didn’t materialize, I felt disheartened: ‘Will I be unable to connect?’ However, ultimately, I adore my kids. I didn’t encounter that immediate bond, but I learned that other women, devoid of a sociopathic personality, undergo similar experiences.” She gleaned from her familial and marital experiences that she was capable of love. “Thus, I never fretted about my inability to love my children.”

Gagne finds it arduous to articulate the sensations her compulsions elicited (she doesn’t grapple with them to the same extent now). In her youth, she wrestled with her sense of apathy, a world veiled in shades of gray, and, as she writes, “engaging in morally unacceptable acts was akin to infusing a burst of color.” Moreover, there was that feeling of liberation. Was there a pattern to her compulsions? “It didn’t solidify for me until later, but when I attempted to suppress [the pressure or urge], I found it harder to control my behavior.”

Gagne realized, she divulges, that frequent, minor transgressions could avert major outbursts. She formulated a set of “rules,” the first being “do not harm anyone.” “I think it was vital for me to establish those boundaries, as they weren’t innate,” she reflects. “I comprehended the distinction between right and wrong, but I lacked those intricate emotional mechanisms that usually keep people in check. I had to jot them down and walk myself through it. What constitutes egregious behavior? That was straightforward: violence.” Instead, she’d stalk strangers on the street (arguing that if they were oblivious, it wouldn’t cause harm), skip school, and gain access to houses her mother, a real estate agent, had keys to. Later on, she taught herself to pick locks.

Yet, there were lapses. Once, she picked up a cat from the street and squeezed it tightly, feeling, she writes, “euphoric” before releasing it. It shook her – she didn’t wish to harm animals. There are other incidents she omitted from her book; she hints at them, mentioning disturbing occurrences such as breaking into the property of a woman attempting to extort money from her and attending strangers’ funerals, drawn in by the heightened emotions of the mourners.

“My husband and I agreed that I wouldn’t show the pages to anyone else before he reviewed them,” she discloses. “There were instances where I’d write something, and he’d come in looking horrified, like: you can’t share this, obliterate your computer. My editor jests about wanting access to what he terms ‘David’s vault.’ Even now, I might utter something or admit to something that a neurotypical individual would find appalling, but it doesn’t register that way for me.”

During her stint at the Los Angeles university, Gagne persisted in her transgressions, all the while grappling with her impulses. At one juncture, she leaped from her window – not as a serious suicide attempt, she now realizes, but as a hopeful bid to render herself incapacitated somehow. “Perhaps if I were physically compromised, I wouldn’t be subject to my compulsions anymore. I don’t feel that way anymore, as I am firmly in control of my behavior. I possess a deeper comprehension of my personality type.”

Post-university, Gagne immersed herself in the music industry. Does she believe that world attracts sociopaths? “If it’s not a prerequisite, it’s certainly advisable. I think having moral flexibility is beneficial in certain fields, and the music industry certainly falls into that category. However, that’s precisely why I opted against pursuing that career. It’s somewhat unchecked, and it seemed wiser to invest my time in a more regulated environment with clearer boundaries.”

So Gagne pursued her PhD and ventured into therapy. She believes her detachment was advantageous. “If you’re consistently projecting your own emotions into the session, they won’t be able to process their feelings.” There are other perks to Gagne’s sociopathic traits. “When I observe other women grappling with self-worth issues, shame, striving to make others feel more comfortable by making themselves less so, it seems agonizing, and it’s easy to conclude that I’m better off not having to contend with that. Yet, on the flip side, women with deep emotional spectrums forge connections much more effortlessly than I can, nurturing relationships that elude me.”

She does have meaningful friendships, she asserts. “I’m fortunate to have friends who are both emotionally generous and nonjudgmental.” Can she be a good friend, empathetic when necessary? She believes so. “If a friend encounters something I can’t relate to directly, I ask: help me comprehend this. Other times, I simply listen.” Has she inadvertently offended her friends by saying or doing the wrong thing? “Of course,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “There are instances where certain moments necessitate sensitivity that I don’t always grasp, but they’ll inform me that my reaction wasn’t ideal, and I can acknowledge that.”

As she penned her book, Gagne began to unravel her own complexities and found empathy blossoming. “By chronicling my childhood experiences, I was able to empathize with other children who might find themselves in similar circumstances, and it was profound – almost like, ‘Oh, so this is what it feels like.'” It felt hopeful, she reflects. It felt like traversing the right path.

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