Book club: psychopaths and sociopaths

Our Halloween picks show how empathy could be limiting your potential, says Craig O'Callaghan

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

by M.E. Thomas

Sidgwick & Jackson, 2013

Are you a sociopath? M.E. Thomas, a practicing lawyer and law professor, is. This might cause you to initially recoil in horror, but Thomas's book goes a long way to challenge any pre-conceptions you might have, especially as she makes clear there are great difficulties in defining and diagnosing sociopathic disorders. However, given the wealth of anecdotal information provided by Thomas about her own life, sociopath seems a fitting description.

Although you might be wary of taking career advice from one, Thomas points out that "sociopaths are primed for success because they are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused." Her ability to use these qualities as a lawyer ensure she has enjoyed great success, initially at a Los Angeles corporate law firm (though she was eventually fired for shirking work assignments) and later as a trial attorney at the district attorney's office.

While aspiring lawyers are likely to learn little from Thomas' lengthy descriptions of childhood events and digressions into medical science, her passages about working as a lawyer demonstrate there are virtues in lacking empathy. While working as a trial lawyer, her ability to read people and exploit their insecurities allowed her to win over jury members and get them on her side. If that proved unreliable, she'd play on their fears of looking foolish and make out that any intelligent, reasonable person would obviously side with her. Though the vast majority of this book makes life as a sociopath seem highly unappealing, there are enough tips like these scattered throughout to make it a worthwhile read.

Top tip

While at law school, Thomas was more than prepared to do ugly things in front of a few people in order to be perceived more widely as smart and successful. To get her first internship she wasn't afraid to shamelessly beg her interviewee for the job.

What not to do

Unfortunately, Thomas's desire for success led her to do some very ugly things such as constructing fake stories about sexual advances from male tutors who didn't mark her highly enough. It worked, but it shouldn't be emulated.

The Gateway rating: 3/5

American Psycho

Directed by Mary Harron

Released April 2000

"I like to dissect girls. Did you know I'm utterly insane?" Although nobody around him seems capable of noticing it, there is clearly something very wrong with Patrick Bateman. As portrayed by Christian Bale, the American Psycho protagonist comes across every bit as unhinged as author Brett Easton Ellis intended. Well, almost: Bale's Bateman doesn't engage in cannibalism and necrophilia, details which failed to make the transition from novel to film (understandably so).

Those still yet to discover Mary Harron's adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis's novel (or even the book itself) are in for a tortured, twisted treat, made all the more captivating by Bale's iconic portrayal of the troubled protagonist. Bale had to fight tooth and nail for the role (Leonardo DiCaprio was the studio's first choice) and in return he offers a performance so committed that respected movie critic Roger Ebert would describe it as "heroic".

Bale's multi-faceted performance complements a film where nothing is straightforward. Bateman is more than a mere "Wall Street serial killer"; he is, as he himself admits, utterly insane. Neither is the film's message a simplistic "bankers can get away with murder". Instead, Harron and Ellis have produced between them a thrilling satire of consumerism and materialism, just as relevant now as it was when the film was released.

As you can probably guess, American Psycho deviates a fair bit from the realities of working in finance, so this is a film to watch more for pleasure than to pick up any useful career tips. Last time we checked, Wall Street employees don't obsess over their own business cards nearly as much as Bateman, and many of them aren't prone to lengthy monologues about the virtues of Phil Collins. If you do meet anyone like that, it might be best to keep your distance!

Top tip

When introduced to people, make sure you remember their name as mistaken identities are a recipe for disaster. Just ask Paul Allen.

What not to do

Murder your co-workers, objectify women, try to feed a cat into an ATM - take your pick!

The Gateway rating: 4/5