On Tuesday (May 16, 2017) The Washington Post ran a story on the 23-year-old convicted of murdering nine church parishioners as they attended Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina.
According to the Post and other sources, a report from a psychological evaluation commissioned by his attorneys stated that the gunman was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. But the shooter rejects this assessment. Instead, he claims to be a sociopath.
I haven’t met the Charleston shooter. I can’t tell you with absolute certainty that he is a sociopath. What I can tell you is that in declaring he is a sociopath this man is admitting more than perhaps he realizes: That he wanted to belong.
As far as the gunman is concerned, being labeled autistic is an embarrassment. According to court records, he stated that autism was for “nerds and losers.” The Charleston shooter doesn’t want to be autistic. He wants to be a sociopath. He wants to be one of “the cool kids.” He wants to be one of us.
When it comes to someone like the Charleston shooter, it’s hard to ask for empathy. Here is a young man in his early twenties who walked into a church and murdered nine people in cold blood. He is a self-described white supremacist and has made it clear that he has no remorse for the things he has done.
When you are a sociopath, empathy does not come easy. This has certainly been the case for me. The good news is that empathy isn’t required to understand the Charleston gunman. In order to do that, all you need are a handful of facts.
Without the hindrance of emotion, I can tell you a great deal about the Charleston shooter. When I research his past, I see that he had few friends, a family that didn’t understand his behavior, and therapists who misdiagnosed him. That he became preoccupied with racism doesn’t alter my perspective. All I see is someone who was testing the bounds of his apathy.
When I look at his psychiatric records and court transcripts, I see an individual who is hell-bent on belonging to a group. That he chose sociopaths and white supremacists doesn’t prevent me from understanding. All I see is that he wants to belong.
When I read the notes of his meetings with family members, I see a man who is concerned for the well-being of his cat. That he is manipulative and cold doesn’t bother me one bit. All I see is someone who is capable of loving something outside of himself.
When I look at the Charleston shooter I see a human being. I see the Columbine killers. I see the two 12-year-olds girls convicted in the Slenderman case, for stabbing their best friend.
I see individuals who are capable of emotion. I see people who care deeply about selective relationships. I see young people who have access to both antisocial and prosocial behavior. I see individuals who are different, and lost, and confused. I see kids who are like bombs waiting to explode in any direction because they have no direction.
Maybe I have some empathy after all.
Let’s be clear: Sociopathy is not the Charleston gumnan’s only issue. According to court documents, he also presents with “psychiatric symptoms that are not explained by autism spectrum disorder including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, disordered thinking, and psychosis (including delusions of grandeur and somatic delusions).”
They go on to state that he demonstrates “a number of highly unusual symptoms that suggest disordered thinking and lack of contact with reality.” So whatever this man’s issues are, we can agree that they can’t be simplified. And yet I can’t help but wonder how different his trajectory could have been had he understood his personality type.
The Charleston shooter represents a myriad of co-morbid disorders of which sociopathy is probably only one. But what if he had known? What if he hadn’t felt so alone? What if he hadn’t disappeared into isolation and trolled the internet in search of hate?
What if instead of racism he had found a true definition for sociopathy – one that didn’t write off sociopathic individuals as “evil,” but as people who struggle to internalize emotion? What if instead of a machine gun he had found a therapist – one who was familiar with the nuances of his personality type and knew how to treat it? What if he had understood that he wasn’t alone, wasn’t broken, and that he didn’t have to hurt anyone else in order to be seen?
The gunman from Charleston wanted to belong – to something. He wanted it so badly that he stood up in court and declared to the world that he was a sociopath.
I just wish he’d done it sooner.