The feeling of danger in ‘Shakespeare for Sociopaths’

Sociopathy—the lack of conscience or empathy—has long been a subject of interest for psychologists and criminologists who have defined and diagnosed it as a mental disorder. Philosophers, too, have their own discussions about how much of moral awareness is inborn and how much is acquired. And what do poets say…? Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths (Hedgehog Poetry, 2019), while perhaps agnostic on the definition of sociopathy, takes an entirely different approach: she examines what it feels like to interact with dangerous people.

Rag doll posing with a copy of Kristin Garth’s Shakespeare for Sociopaths.

Garth’s sonnets are about poignant moments with unsavory characters. She depicts sociopaths she saw on the news; those she encountered at work (her jobs included “stripping and court reporting”); those she got to know in her neighborhood and in her bed; and those she invented as fictional characters.

One example from each of these four sections:

“A body wrecked requires the best of care. / Your mother with you, examination room, / he talks to her, his hands everywhere.” (“Expensive Leotards,” about a young gymnast abused by her doctor)

“A sting they call / the trap he’s tangled in. A reptile calm, / a predator who still has teeth and tongue.” (“Dora,” about a man who boards an airplane with a doll to bribe a young girl)

“Such faces, flush with heat and glimmer, clone / a sun’s salvation, sequence stretched to Mars, / but I pick you.” (“If the Star Fits…,” about online dating)

“one last acidic sip three letters reveal. / One word at bottom, tea all done. / in cursive, lavender, and it is ‘run.'” (“Insanitea,” about a threatening conversation over tea)

The ordering of the sonnets suggests increasing levels of nearness to danger. After all, a crime overheard on the news can be absorbed impersonally. Sociopathic behavior encountered in the workplace—even if it is part of the job—is riskier, and the sociopath’s presence is felt. A sociopath in the home is of course an intimate disaster. And, lastly, to find such a character in one’s imagination suggests that the bits and pieces of previous threats have been drawn so near that they have finally been absorbed and can appear in one’s own dreams.

Garth doesn’t inquire academically why it’s wrong to treat people like playthings, nor does she interrogate the details of the crimes. Instead, her poems focus on the feelings that the interactions produce. Even though (and perhaps because) she has been hurt by such people, she draws these images romantically. She shows us the aesthetics of the dance. Some poems focus on the predator; others, on the prey. To be entranced or ensnared by a sociopath is to lack a simple path out. “Run,” indeed, if you can.

That may be a shortcut through much psychological and philosophical musing on this topic: Revel less in the bewitching “reptile calm” of the adversary, and focus more on how you feel and what you’ll have to do to escape.

Where do we get our morality?

 

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I’ll get to the above graph in a moment, but first I want to tell a little story.

A man sits in a bar with a bunch of his friends one evening. The group is having a pleasant night out until a stranger walks up to the table and speaks insultingly to the man. He sneeringly claims to have been having sex with the man’s fiancée on an ongoing basis, and states that he and the man’s fiancée have had many jokes about the man’s diminished sexual attributes and abilities. Hey lays it on pretty thick for another minute and then says, “I’m heading out to the parking lot now, and if you’re any man at all — which we all know you’re not already — you’ll follow me out and prove it.” What should the man do? When asked about cases like this, men and women from the southern US were much more likely to think that the man should go and punch it out, however bad the fight may be. While northerners, on reflection, tended to think that the moral course of action would be to ignore the provocation and laugh off the stranger’s insults, southerners tended to think that one wouldn’t be ‘much of a man’ if he didn’t respond with violence.

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