(Spoiler alert: This essay contains some details from Season 2 of Orange is the New Black. I don’t think I give anything important away, though.)
I just finished watching Season 2 of Netflix’s original series, Orange is the New Black — a fun jaunt through the pages of the DSM IV. This season, Lorraine Toussaint paints a chilling portrait of a sociopath in the character of Yvonne Parker, or “Vee,” a contemporary Fagin with her merry band of dope-pushing orphans. There is also a top-notch portrayal of narcissism in the character of former nun Jane Ingalls, played by actor Beth Fowler.
Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, does a good job imbedding the traits of these disorders into the backstories and ongoing relationships. Toussaint steals the show, but Fowler gets simmering grandiosity down perfectly, so she deserves a shout out as well. We watch the more psychologically normal prisoners attempt to bond with and understand these nutters from the safety of our knowing perches, and indeed, all but the most vulnerable characters seem to figure it out.
In real life, it’s another story.
Some Basic Facts about Narcissists and Sociopaths
The writers of the latest edition of the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for those who always wondered what that stood for — attempted to get rid of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) altogether. There was too much political blowback over this decision, so they backtracked, which is unfortunate. I really think they were on to something.
Narcissism is a diagnostic trait of several mental health disorders, including borderline personality disorder (BPD), antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), bipolar disorder and certain anxiety disorders.
Rather than say that NPD was comorbid with (existing alongside) these other conditions, the DSM V originally attempted to chart a continuum for degrees of ASPD, or sociopathy, where narcissism was one diagnostic trait. They decided that the salient characteristic of ASPD was a lack of empathy. What that means is narcissists who appear devoid of empathy — not merely self-absorbed or grandiose — are actually sociopathic.
Although NPD ultimately made it back into the DSM V, I think that this dimensional approach is a better way to classify narcissism. Emotional empathy is what gives us humanity, and sociopaths and pathological narcissists are not human in the same way most of us are. Low activity in the frontal and temporal lobes, which are linked to empathy, is a neurologic marker for the disorder, and sociopaths are known to process images and even language differently.
What the smarter sociopaths — the ones like Vee — have in common is an ability to manipulate others using cognitive empathy. This is an imitative skill that those on the ASPD continuum use to survive around us normals. It’s what makes them so charming and what makes those who love them feel so connected at first.
Vee employs cognitive empathy when she approaches her marks as a mother figure. She understands Tastee’s desire for a family on an intellectual level, but rather than want to nurture her, Vee sees this as the perfect opportunity to indoctrinate another loyal follower. When one of the crew betrays her, Vee uses cognitive empathy to know that the boy will welcome her sexual advances, which puts him in a position of vulnerability that she uses to her advantage.
In every way, Vee is the classic sociopath: impulsive, remorseless, prone to boredom, superficially charming, and callous. She is a pathological liar who views people simply as a means to an end. As actor Toussaint explains, there was no motive given for her choices; her backstory simply addresses the behavior. Sociopaths have no inner moral life, so their motives are more like biological drives.
Although they only constitute 4 percent of the total population, prison is full of mostly low-functioning sociopaths — the figure is as high as 50 percent. Many of the characters in Orange is the New Black are on the continuum. Poussey, a likeable figure, takes a gun with her to kill her German girlfriend’s homophobic father for ordering the transfer that will force the girls apart. As viewers, we get emotionally invested in her outrage, so we forgive her action. But in fact, it is something only a sociopath would do.
Not all sociopaths are behind bars. James Fallon, seen here giving a Ted Talk called “Exploring the Mind of a Killer,” discovered that he himself was a sociopath while looking at a scan of his brain. Although it’s important to note that there is no diagnostic difference between “sociopath” and “psychopath,” Fallon and others use the term “pro-social psychopath” to describe their brand of ASPD. These are sociopaths who, for whatever reason, have good enough impulse control to remain within socially-acceptable bounds.
Pro-social psychopaths who are driven to succeed in the workplace often rise to top positions because they have that “killer instinct.” To some extent, our society needs psychopaths because they tread where others dare not, unhindered by the restraints of conscience. In tribal or global conflict, these individuals get results.
A Complex Problem of Empathy
After thinking about this exhaustively over the past few years, I have come to a conclusion. The main problem narcissists and sociopaths pose to our society doesn’t come from them. It comes from the rest of us. We have emotional empathy, and we are deceived by their cognitive empathy.
The pro-social psychopath, lacking a conscience, has no problem blaming the victim. It’s not even conscious. It’s a survival instinct, like killing a deer or seeking shelter beneath a rock. The rest of us look at his convincing performance and boil interpersonal conflict — even criminal actions, such as rape — down to a “he said/she said” scenario. In fact, because the sociopath’s victim tends to be so emotional, we often think she is the perpetrator.
As I mention in another post, my ex was diagnosed as either a narcissist or a sociopath. My daughter’s therapist, a very kind-hearted and empathetic person, kept looking for signs of humanity in him in spite of what she saw. She was highly susceptible to his manipulations, even though my own therapist, who had been seeing me for over two years and knew my psychology well, worked with her to provide some balance.
My daughter’s therapist thought I would be encouraged by these positive signs. The sociopath’s new marks always try to persuade you that you are mistaken. The more empathetic they are, the more they get sucked into a proxy campaign on the sociopath’s behalf.
I wish society understood that narcissists and sociopaths destroy people’s lives. I wish they understood that a pro-social psychopath isn’t going to snap a broomstick and go medieval on them. I wish they could see how their empathy is being used in the service of a false agenda.
But we don’t. And while the sociopath’s victims can and do move on, this lack of community support is one of the biggest stumblingblocks along the way.