Twenty years ago, a newspaper unknowingly helped conceal a sociopath’s secrets by painting the woman as a loving maternal figure. In an interview granted by the publication, she described her “heartbreak” over lack of adequate benefits for her mentally handicapped son. Attached to the article is a photo of the frail looking woman, packing a lunch for him as he looks on in the background. Frustrated with the state’s deficient programs, she is quoted as having “cried many, many tears” because there were such limited opportunities for her son. Little did the interviewer know it was all a ruse to cover the truth: this same mother mentally, verbally and physically abused her son, gaslighted him, neglected him, attempted to drug him, and used his social security benefits to help fund trips to the bar. And she never cried “many, many tears.” I know this because……they were my mother and my brother. And because she often used the “many, many tears” line to manipulate others.
I don’t think anyone doubted my father’s sociopathic tendencies. He looked mean, especially when he was angry. But sometimes it’s the less obvious people who do more damage. Women are not normally suspected of sociopathic behavior because they are seen through a maternal veil. Females are regarded as the nurturers of their brood. I admit: before my mother’s diagnosis, if I’d heard the terms “sociopath” or “psychopath”, my first thought probably would’ve been Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. This gender-bias helps camouflage some very dangerous people. According to a recent article by the International Journal of Women’s Health, psychopathy research is primarily focused on men, “risking misjudgments of enormous consequence…..[such as] length of prison terms…. or to justify patients’ exclusion from treatment programs.”1 The truth is, sociopathic women can (and do) exhibit similar characteristics as male sociopaths. And most professionals agree that treatment programs for true sociopaths are unsuccessful.
Certainly one would never peg a dainty, grandmotherly figure as a sociopath. One of California’s most cruel women hid well behind this disguise. Living in a quiet gingerbread Victorian house, Dorothea Puente was known for charity work, socializing with local politicians, and caring for other elderly people. She looked like a sweet older lady. She often wore silk chiffon dresses and matching coats. Her appearance deceived many people for years (including county officials, health inspectors, social workers, and the police), despite the strange activities at her house and the foul odors emanating from her backyard. Years later, detectives discovered her ghastly secret: she had murdered the elderly people she cared for and buried them in her back yard. Meanwhile, the victims’ forged social security checks funded her tailored wardrobe and well-kept lifestyle. As forensic experts were excavating her yard for bodies (and after the first of seven bodies had been found), Dorothea – wearing purple pumps, a pink dress, and carrying a pink umbrella – asked officers if she could leave to get coffee at a nearby restaurant. Her demure appearance not only lulled officers into trusting her, but the detectives even escorted her past the swarms of media! She escaped to Los Angeles, where she was eventually captured. Sacramento police later conceded they made an error in judgment.2
I think it is only normal for people to doubt their instincts when faced with something that doesn’t seem plausible. Clinical psychologist Martha Stout wrote in her book The Sociopath Next Door: “Over the years, listening to hundreds of patients who have been targeted by sociopaths, I have learned that within an organization or community, in the event that a sociopath is revealed to all and sundry, it is not unusual to find that several people suspected all along, each one independently, each one in silence.” This passage was especially poignant for me. Many people, myself included, were tricked by my mother – only to say later “I had a feeling………”.
I am not at all suggesting we should become cynical or paranoid. I still believe most people are kind-hearted. Those of us who were duped by sociopaths were harmed because we do care. What I am saying is that we should pay attention to our gut instincts when something doesn’t seem right. We shouldn’t assume a person is trustworthy because outward appearances seem more logical than our intuition. Sociopaths thrive on the fact that altruism often trumps instinct. They count on it.
1. Wynn, R., Hoiseth, M., Pettersen, G. (June 1, 2012) Psychopathy In Women: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives. International Journal of Women’s Health.
2. Associated Press (1988, Nov 20) Puente Escaped Cluthes of Law Several Times. North Carolina Star News.