Last night, I finally watched the film based on the best-selling novel. I’d heard enough horror stories about the dark content of the tale to actually be underwhelmed, but felt the whole thing delightfully disturbing. Kind of like the ending of a Criminal Minds episode from this past season, when (spoiler alert!) a Manchurian Candidate kind of guy goes to his psycho mom for advice after she tries to kill his wife. Or, you know, like the two years I was married, except not as delightful, more disturbing, and generally hellacious (of course, my former partner didn’t kill anyone. Just looked like he wanted to sometimes).
Regarding Gone Girl: I am going to talk about the film and its plot points without alerts first, so don’t read if you want to see it and haven’t yet. In addition: I am in no way a mental health professional, so take my thoughts as those of a person who has read a lot but has no real, y’know, authority.
I’ve reached the point where I actually enjoy when things are no crazier than they appear, as though a level of predictability comforts me. The ex-boyfriend really is a stalker; Ben Affleck’s character really is a schmuck, but not a killer; and his wife really is a sociopath who comes back to him because she’s stupid enough to believe he could love her again after all that she has done. And in the end, the audience is left with the chilling question, What would I do, if my partner was a sociopath, but wanted to stay with me? And more subtly, what would that even feel like? Not good, I’ll tell you that much. It certainly isn’t love.
Not to go all Sleeping with the Enemy, but through a half-baked morass of literature, film and fascinating one-on-one encounters—including teaching, to be honest, wherein I’ve met some crazy kids—I have come in contact with a plethora of pathological people, in addition to the aforementioned ex (say that three times fast! Any of it!). I have learned a little from them all how to handle a personality with little-to-no empathy or normal ways of relating.
While it isn’t love, there is a startling clarity of possession, malevolence, and an array of other strange behaviors that accompany someone without a conscience. When a narcissistic personality first puts its gaze on you, it can feel freakishly euphoric to be on the receiving end of such attention. There is a downside, of course, and I’ve lived long enough now to recognize the“off” gaze of a budding psychopath. (Fun times!)
I’ll steer clear of the super-personal from now on, but plenty of samples remain: there was the seventh-grader whose teacher gravely told me, “I know he’s going to grow up to be a rapist”; the bold, attitude-filled young football player whose deadly mix of charisma and deceit made the assistant principal putty in his hands, and teachers nauseated when they had to interact with him; and a couple of new teachers I once mentored. Each possessed a chilling lack of empathy, the ability to mess with people’s minds, and a startling prowess at maneuvering conversations into mazes and corners from which escape seemed futile to the most articulate of persons. All were able to steal, cheat or hurt others in whatever way necessary to get what they wanted. And time after time, people looked on, betrayed, because they themselves simply didn’t act that way. It’s where the terms “crazy-making” and “gas-lighting” come into play.
The leverage of such individuals comes from how they operate on the basis of power instead of understanding in relationships, and it’s astonishing what you can accomplish if you have no concern for others. In fact, the chasm is never so clear as in those freaky moments at the end of movies like Gone Girl wherein you see Amy’s true colors, and she just continues on her way, nonchalant, because she really doesn’t give a shit.
My personal experiences with these types of individuals still catch me off guard sometimes, but I can recognize them now. I’ve been kicking around the idea for a couple of years of pursuing a career in psychopathology to try and keep this kind of person from screwing people over in a criminal sense, or to help their victims recover and realize that, yay! the best part of it all is that if/when they decide that they are through with you (unlike poor Nick in Gone Girl), you are freed for good. None of that messy “residual feeling” or “wondering where it all went wrong.” You’re yesterday’s trash, ready to be tomorrow’s sterling silver to someone who is not psychotic. In the words of a good friend who saw me go through my own marriage, “I think it would have worked, if he hadn’t been crazy.” Therapists concurred. The strangest part was that while friends and family were so sad that my marriage was over, I felt like I had just escaped from jail. Divorce was the kindest gift he ever gave to me.
Disturbing films are a useful reminder that some people out there don’t play by the rules—even if most of us do. And the most effective thing anyone can do is understand the way they work. Right after the divorce, I was startled to encounter not just one, but three narcissistic individuals in a summer job I took at the last minute.
Narcissists can commit crimes like sociopaths or psychopaths, but often don’t because they would rather stay within the letter of the law. They share characteristics and indicate a broader category into which psycho/sociopaths fall: lack of empathy; total self-absorption; no core self; and an ability to use others to accomplish ends without care for the effects of their acts. There is a spectrum, so someone might just be an immature adult who at 30 shows behavior more indicative of a teen, but at that age, it wreaks more havoc; or he/she might be as cold-blooded and calculating as characters on TV.
In that particular job, I had one gorgeous young recent grad who rarely turned in lesson plans, never registered for the Praxis*, and missed her first day of student teaching because she was mysteriously stranded for two days four hours away and just “couldn’t get a bus,” but eventually admitted to me that she’d been able to bullshit her way through life up to that point, and no one had ever called her on it;
a superior who came on to me and got my head all dizzy with his changing directions, but whose clutches I thankfully escaped after a few days of confusion, and realizing “Why-the-hell-would-I-be-attracted-to-another-tall-dark-and-handsome/brooding-scary-man”;
and another teacher-in-training so impressed by his own stunning intellect that he preferred writing essays about the inferior philosophy of writing lesson plans than face the fact that he had no idea what the hell he was doing (but would never deign to accept advice or deal with it).
Working with these people after coming through years of interaction with someone similar was scary, but oddly reassuring, too, like, Oh, they exist everywhere. Later encounters included a handsome Clive-Owen lookalike who couldn’t believe I didn’t think it was normal that his mother raised him in, among other places, the Playboy Mansion; and that his first experience of sexual intercourse was at eight.
Like entertainment suggests and Gone Girl illustrates, crazy shit goes on in the homes of psychopaths and their lesser versions to create such manipulative, creepy people. Since then, I’ve run into these individuals among other students, many of the characters on Criminal Minds, and a few blowhards who were almost amusing in their self-absorption. These people were not sociopaths, but more likely narcissists; they went beyond merely irresponsible to “leaving emotional bodies in their wake.” Being able to navigate their bendy ways of interacting, dodge their verbal bullets and avoid their manipulative land mines made me grateful for how far I’d come.
On a cruise later that first summer, after I’d dealt with my first round post-marriage of similar personalities, I thanked a friend for telling me directly when something I did pissed her off. She got so confused that she finally gave up being mad and said, frustrated, “I can’t stay angry when you say stuff like that!” What she didn’t know was that interacting with normal people who get angry and express it instead of coming up with secret ways to torment me was, at the time, unusual.
So here’s to truly good, awesome, or at least honest people, who might be douches like Ben Affleck’s character in Gone Girl, but at least have a conscience.
Whatever the point on the narcissistic or pathological spectrum, stories like Gone Girl serve a purpose. They remind us that the crazies are out there, they do not play nice, and if you find yourself married to someone with no friends, a Stepford glow, and a box-cutter hidden under their pillow, then you should get the hell out. Now, to paraphrase one Penelope Garcia, “I’m going to have to go watch a few hours of bunnies to get over the residual ick.” Until later, gents (and ladies)!
* Super-important teacher exam that in most states you have to take to legally be able to teach in a classroom. Check out some books related to this stuff. Narcissism vs. sociopathy (very informal site but maybe of interest. Also, according to other stuff, no one uses “sociopath” anymore, so I could be full of shit) Also helpful: Boundaries in Marriage. It might not save you from a crazy psycho killer, but it sure can help you figure out what’s healthy.