- By Megha Mohan
- Gender and Identity Journalist
Psychopathy is a disorder that both fascinates and repels – as illustrated by the viral TikTok videos in which people talk about how to “spot a psychopath”. But the stigma that surrounds psychopathy means it is still poorly understood, especially when it manifests in women.
Victoria knew about her boyfriend’s wife, but after a few years she suspected he had other mistresses.
There was no evidence, but his body language gave it away, she said. His stories didn’t fit. His face was different when he was lying.
“I happen to have an excellent memory when it comes to conversations,” she says. “He was not a good liar at all. I don’t know why his wife never caught him.”
A mental flipboard of ways to punish him swirled through Victoria’s mind until she came across one. It would take some time, and she would have to act like she didn’t know anything.
For several months, while continuing to see him, Victoria sent nude photos of her boyfriend to his wife.
He came to see her, upset, asking her who could do such a thing. His wife was devastated. He confessed to Victoria that he did, in fact, sleep with other women. He didn’t suspect her, and she comforted him.
Then, when she got bored and was ready to end their relationship, she sent his wife one last photo gallery, the last being a photo of her with the man they all knew both. With this explosive revelation, Victoria left their lives forever.
When she told this story to people, her flippancy alarmed them. They asked me, “Why did you do this to his wife? What did his wife do to you to deserve this? How did she hurt you?” she said. “And I was like, ‘Life is unfair’.”
“I guess that’s a good example of an extreme psychopathic trait I had. Insensitivity.”
Psychopathy is not an official mental health diagnosis and is not listed in the fifth and latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but the term is nevertheless widely used in clinical settings.
It is a neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person exhibits abnormally low levels of empathy or remorse, often resulting in antisocial and sometimes criminal behavior. The term was used by doctors in Europe and the United States in the early 1900s and became common in 1941.
“The world’s leading scholars have debated the definition of psychopathy,” says Abigail Marsh, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “You’ll get very different explanations of psychopathy depending on whether you go to a forensic psychologist or a criminologist.”
Dr. Marsh explains that criminal psychologists tend to classify people as having psychopathy only when they exhibit violent and extreme behavior. For her, however, the condition presents itself as a spectrum with other less dramatic behaviors that can vary from person to person.
Psychologists and psychiatrists generally agree that between one and two in 100 people in the general population meet the criteria for psychopathy, but Dr. Marsh claims that up to 30% exhibit psychopathic traits to some degree.
Most research on psychopathy has focused on criminal offenders, she says, rather than the general population. And although some studies suggest the condition is more common in men than women, Dr Marsh says this may be because the standard test was designed by a Canadian psychologist working with male prisoners in the 1980s. 1970.
Ana Sanz Garcia, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Madrid who has analyzed a large number of studies, told the BBC that researchers have generally found that women with psychopathy show a lower propensity for violence and crime, but a greater propensity for interpersonal manipulation.
According to PsychopathyIs.org, a website co-founded by Dr. Abigail Marsh, here are some of the key traits that manifest in extreme psychopathy:
- Insensitive and selfish approach to interpersonal relationships.
- Lack of empathy for the suffering or distress of others.
- Lack of remorse after hurting others or breaking rules
- Little sense of identity or self
- Manipulates people to get things
- Engages in risky or dangerous activities
- Superficial charm
Victoria explains that her own manipulative behavior grew out of a desire to have fun while growing up in Malaysia.
Her home was unhappy, due to her father’s alcoholism, and although she did well in school, she was often bored. For fun, she would pass on secrets that her friends had sworn her to keep – who hated who, who had a crush on whom. The tensions between the children of the college could often go up to her.
Victoria knew how to manipulate others into taking responsibility for her mistakes, or what to say to get out of trouble. She convinced a teacher that she threw chalk at her because of peer pressure.
“That was what she wanted to hear,” she said. “She wanted to believe that the smart kid wasn’t a bad kid, just an easy-to-lead kid.”
Victoria’s train of thought is interrupted when a thick, billowing orange cat’s tail suddenly pops up over the video call and gently tickles her cheek.
“His name is Gibberish,” she says, reaching out to stroke a body that’s out of frame on the table.
I ask him if that’s his real name.
“He has many names,” she replies.
Recently, several videos titled “The Psychopath Challengei” went viral on TikTok, with over 20 million views. They discuss how viewers might “spot a psychopath”.
The “psychopath” tag is one of the app’s most popular, with over two billion views. It is used to tag several topics, including trial footage of people with psychopathy, and is sometimes used as a slur to denote bad behavior. What is clear is that people find the subject of psychopathy, and those who have it, both fascinating and repulsive.
Victoria does not find these videos offensive.
“Part of being a psychopath is not caring what people think, so that doesn’t bother me,” she says. “But it shows how little people understand about the full spectrum of the disease.”
On the other hand, she protests against videos that discuss the question of whether people with psychopathy are more inclined to harm animals.
“A lot of us prefer animals to humans,” she says dryly, looking down at Gibberish, who is purring out of sight.
The “we” that Victoria refers to is an online community of women like her. It focuses primarily on the blog of writer ME Thomas, one of the best-known female psychopaths.
Thomas scored over 99% on his psychopathy assessment by John Edens, a forensic psychologist at Texas A&M University.
Thomas’ blog, Sociopath World, details what life is like as a psychopath. She says she used the word “sociopath” instead of “psychopath” because she thought it was a term more people would understand. According to psychologist Abigail Marsh, this term is sometimes used by people aware of the stigma that surrounds the word “psychopath”.
A literary agent discovered Thomas’s blog, which led to him signing a contract for a book. A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight was published in 2012 and translated into over 10 languages. A film with actress Lisa Edelstein is currently in the works.
“I see myself as a formula, not a person,” says Thomas. “It’s like being an XL spreadsheet where I work out what to do and say by calculating possible outcomes.”
An example might be telling someone she loves them when she wants something from them, Thomas says.
She says her agent told her not to describe herself as “manipulative”, and to say instead that she knew how to influence people since childhood. But she ignores this advice. Being manipulative is her dominant psychopathic trait, she says, adding that it helped her become a good lawyer.
When she talks, people can’t place her accent. They think she is from Israel or Eastern Europe, although she has lived her entire life in California.
“You get accents by being socialized to have an identity. I never had an identity,” she says. “I have a very weak sense of self.”
On her blog, she shares her daily thoughts and interviews others who live with psychopathic traits.
Many of her readers find refuge in her posts and videos, she says, because it’s a place where they recognize their own patterns of behavior and share their experiences without being judged.
“Everyone knows someone who exhibits psychopathic traits,” says Dr. Marsh, who co-founded a nonprofit organization called Psychopathy Is. It’s one of the few online platforms offering support for both to people with psychopathy and to their loved ones.
According to Dr. Marsh, the goal is to demystify psychopathy and provide screening tools so people can self-assess and then get useful information about what to do next.
“Psychopathy is not a category, it’s a continuum,” she says. “It’s spread across the population to varying degrees. Some people cause ongoing destruction and others just need to manage their symptoms. When we’re not discussing it openly, we see TikTok trends filling the information void. specialized.”
Victoria and ME Thomas use meditation, psychological therapy and peer support from their online community to bring their disorder under control.
“It’s useful not to be in the shadows”, explains ME Thomas. “But the word ‘psycho’ is still stigmatized. There’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot more open conversations to be had. The reality is that we exist.”
Illustrations by Somsara Rielly