Written by: Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified CEO Effectiveness Executive Coach
As I was reflecting on Bill Anton’s post about the causes and manifestations of sociopathy, it occurred to me how lucky I’ve been in my professional life. While I’ve heard some horror stories from colleagues, I couldn’t think of a single coaching client of mine who exhibited those tendencies. Even when I was completing my pre-doctoral internship at a community mental health agency, the most antisocial tendencies I ever saw in a client were those of a garden variety petty criminal who’d been mandated by the court to seek counseling. (Does that ever work?) But suddenly it struck me that I did in fact, at one point in my life, get an up close and personal view of a sociopath, and a sociopath in the making at that. My role at the time was not that of an executive coach or therapist, but rather that of a babysitter.
My young charge—let’s call him Joshua—was about 8 at the time I knew him; when I was 14, I babysat for him and his younger sibling with some frequency before his family moved out of the neighborhood. Joshua was one of the smartest children I had ever met. He could be charming and funny and often acted mature beyond his years. He appeared to be neither unloved nor unwanted. His parents, both professionals, provided their children with a seemingly stable, upper-middle class lifestyle and a first-rate education. I never heard them raise their voices or speak an unkind word. Of course, I know now that that’s not the same as love, but to my young eyes, the family looked very similar to all the other families I babysat for in the neighborhood.
Except for this: there were no limits. Or rather, limits were routinely abandoned in the face of any resistance. And the resistance, in Joshua’s case, was both creative and relentless. (The source of the next two examples is a friend who also babysat for the family, and with whom—many years later, I compared notes.) Asked to get into his bed at his appointed bedtime? Joshua swore up and down he was allowed to go to bed in a tent on the living room floor, only to get up and dance and sing about having fooled the babysitter once his parents returned home. Their response? A half-exasperated, half-amused, “Oh, Joshua!” Told he wasn’t allowed to have orange juice before bedtime? He poured an entire container on the floor and then went through it on his bare feet. And perhaps most telling of all: there was a latch on the outside of his bedroom door. Joshua’s parents told me that when he got particularly out of control, I should put him in his room and close the latch. They had absolutely no control over him other than physical restraint.
This is the episode that I remember best from my days of babysitting Joshua. When I arrived that day, Joshua greeted me with his usual, cool “Hello, Jennifer,” and then announced to his mother—whom he called by her first name—that I had arrived. His parents told me that they didn’t want him to play with his golf clubs that day. The minute they left, he ran to the garage to grab his golf clubs. I was adamant in refusing to let him play with them, and—despite my best efforts—I was not able to distract or redirect him. He had been howling and carrying on for perhaps five minutes when he suddenly sat up, stopped crying, and returned inside the house. I followed him, feeling helpless. He picked up the phone, dialed a number he knew by heart, and, in an incredibly mature voice, he said, “Hello, Martha, this is Joshua. Is my father there?” It turns out that Martha was his father’s assistant. In a minute, when his father presumably came to the phone, Joshua resumed crying and claimed that I wouldn’t let him read a book. I remember taking the phone from Joshua and explaining the situation to his father, feeling defensive, but I can’t for the life of me remember his response. My guess is that—like the rest of that incident—it would be burned in my memory had it been anything but mild and unsurprised.
When the family moved out of the neighborhood, I lost track of them. It was not until many years later that a headline in my newsfeed brought memories of Joshua back into my consciousness. At the tender age of 24, with his Ivy League education, keen intelligence and conviction that the rules did not apply to him, Joshua had been indicted for embezzling tens of millions of dollars from his employer.