Writing Advice


4 February 2019

From Atlas Obscura:

There’s a German word, waldeinsamkeit, that Google Translate (yeah, I’m that guy) puts in English as “Solitude of the Forest.” It’s meant to describe a singular type of loneliness that is at once isolating, peaceful, and reflective. And having a spot where you can go and indulge in a little waldeinsamkeit of your own can be a rewarding experience for everyone. Now we want to hear about the most incredible places where you go to be alone.

While waldeinsamkeit traditionally implies a dense, quiet wood, the emotional experience can happen just about anywhere. Maybe it’s a meaningful hideaway in your city or town that you like to keep all to yourself, or maybe it’s a bustling public square where you allow yourself to be alone in a crowd. Personally, I sometimes like to head to a place near our office called Transmitter Park. It’s right on the East River, and has a terrific view of Manhattan just across the water. It’s gotten much more crowded in recent years, but I still go there and tune out the world, just watching the water and meditating on the endless possibility of the big city, or whatever’s on my mind. It helps me feel like I’m both in the middle of the teeming city around me, and blissfully apart from it. Wherever it is that you like to explore the wonders of solitude, we want to hear about them.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

From Rosetta Stone:

Waldeinsamkeit roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude.

This word is about creating a connection with nature and cherishing one’s time spent alone in the woods. Waldeinsamkeit evokes feelings of contemplation, calm, and even meditation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled, Waldeinsamkeit.

I do not count the hours I spend
In wandering by the sea;
The forest is my loyal friend,
Like God it useth me.

In plains that room for shadows make
Of skirting hills to lie,
Bound in by streams which give and take
Their colours from the sky;

Or on the mountain-crest sublime,
Or down the oaken glade,
O what have I to do with time?
For this the day was made.

Cities of mortals woe begone
Fantastic care derides,
But in the serious landscape lone
Stern benefit abides.

Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy,
And merry is only a mask of sad,
But, sober on a fund of joy,
The woods at heart are glad.

There the great Planter plants
Of fruitful worlds the grain,
And with a million spells enchants
The souls that walk in pain.

Still on the seeds of all he made
The rose of beauty burns;
Through times that wear, and forms that fade,
Immortal youth returns.

The black ducks mounting from the lake,
The pigeon in the pines,
The bittern’s boom, a desert make
Which no false art refines.

Down in yon watery nook,
Where bearded mists divide,
The gray old gods whom Chaos knew,
The sires of Nature, hide.

Aloft, in secret veins of air,
Blows the sweet breath of song,
O, few to scale those uplands dare,
Though they to all belong!

See thou bring not to field or stone
The fancies found in books;
Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own,
To brave the landscape’s looks.

And if, amid this dear delight,
My thoughts did home rebound,
I well might reckon it a slight
To the high cheer I found.

Oblivion here thy wisdom is,
Thy thrift, the sleep of cares;
For a proud idleness like this
Crowns all thy mean affairs.

Should you, like PG, have no idea how to pronounce Waldeinsamkeit, here’s a link.



Three Writing Rules to Disregard

1 February 2019

From The Paris Review:

I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—­to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—­and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.

Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—­that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.

Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-­constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well ­constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.

A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)

. . . .

But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them.

. . . .

Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified.

. . . .

1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this essay, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more.

But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat:

An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think.

. . . .

2. Never Split an Infinitive.

To cite the most famous split infinitive of our era—­and everyone cites this bit from the original Star Trek TV series, so zero points to me for originality—­“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

There’s much more—­much more—­one could say on the subject, but I don’t want to write about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford any more than you want to read about the nineteenth-­century textual critic Henry Alford, so let’s leave it at this: A split infinitive, as we generally understand the term, is a “to [verb]” construction with an adverb stuck in the middle of it. In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.

Otherwise, let’s skip right to Raymond Chandler. Again, as with the Star Trek phrase, everyone loves to cite Chandler on this subject, but it’s for a God damn [sic] good reason. Chandler sent this note to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in response to the copyediting of an article he’d written:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-­down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The Hedonic Appeal of “Dreyer’s English”

30 January 2019

From The New Yorker:

Books about language usage, including “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss, and “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner, constitute a metaliterature, in which the writing must prove the writer’s qualifications to teach writing. The magician makes a magic show out of explaining his tricks. Sometimes, as with William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” the music of the prose is what recommends the volume long after many of its prescriptions have been discarded.

A new entrant in this genre, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” seems happily aware of its own planned obsolescence. The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the longtime copy chief at Random House. He grants that his rules are sometimes arbitrary (e.g., hyphenate “light-headed” but not “lighthearted”) and often fluid (although most sentences don’t benefit from the passive voice, he points out, some do). But he’s a true believer, full of passionate opinions about “actually” (never say it), house style (try not to have one “visible from space,” he advises this publication), and italics (unfortunately straining to the eye, and redolent of the sorts of interior monologues and dream sequences that readers are likely to skip). Dreyer himself is a charming, chatty narrator with a soft spot for both digressive footnotes and name-dropping. He dislikes scare quotes and lauds parentheses for their “conveyance of elbow-nudging joshingness.” He is just persnickety enough.Dreyer’s through line is that most rules have exceptions: “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think,” he finds. His book, which apotheosizes the case-by-case basis, compares the copy-editing process to “a really thorough teeth cleaning,” at the end of which the text reads “even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.” This is nice, but it is also a theremin-spooky late-capitalist metaphor. The copy editor performs service work for the writer by fine-tuning the writer’s personal voice or brand. The emphasis on grammar as a tool for self-expression, not just communication, feels evocative of an era in which online dogmatists periodically go scorched earth on punctuation marks or parts of speech that offend their sensibilities. (“The semicolon is pointless, and it’s ruining your writing,” one such piece asserted, setting off plumes of semicolons all over Twitter.)

. . . .

Wallace’s 2001 essay was premised on the notion that, after standard English was disgraced as a “shibboleth of the Establishment,” language snoots needed to come up with an entirely new reason for people to follow their rules. (It didn’t help, Wallace observed, that the old ways could be “archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass.”) A similar crisis of motivation might be said to haunt the language snobs of 2019. Perhaps we insist on usage norms to reclaim a lost sense of agency: These sentence fragments I have shored up against my ruin. But why insist on good manners when you can travel so far without them?

. . . .

Dreyer’s attention to gusto in language use is magical in a way that resists full explication. Like life, writing is an accumulation of choices, some deliberate but most only hazily understood. The language we handle moves under our touch. We feel around in it until a mysterious clicking starts, and then we wrestle the stuff into what we hope is proper grammar and wait for it to set. For Dreyer to wade into this process with news of pleasure is lovely.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

30 January 2019

PG did a strange thing a couple of days ago.

He purchased a hardcover book.

From a major New York publisher.

And he’s happy he did.

The book is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the “Copy Chief” of Random House. It turns out that he’s an engaging writer with less-than-draconian opinions about how best to express oneself in the language of Milton and Shakespeare.

A couple of excerpts:

Proofreading requires a good deal of attention and concentration, but it’s all very binary, very yes/no: Something is right or something is wrong, and if it’s wrong, you’re expected to notice it and, by way of yet more scrawling [on the manuscript], repair it. It’s like endlessly working through one of those spot-the-difference picture puzzles in an especially satanic issue of Highlights for Children.


Here’s your first challenge:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really quite
  • in fact

And you can toss in–or, that is, toss out–“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too).

Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.

And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.”

And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”

If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers–I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them: that would render most people, especially British people, mute–you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.

In addition to being, at least for PG, entertaining, the book is an illustration of the typesetter’s art when dealing with lots of non-standard sentence and paragraph structures.

Perhaps it’s because PG is returning to some of the earliest ebooks he formatted for Mrs. PG to update the “Other Books by Mrs. PG” sections and (courtesy of Jutoh) discovering some non-observance of formatting best practices (No fixed line spacing!), and correcting those to improve their electronic appearance, he finds the punctuation, spacing, etc., of Dreyer’s English informative.

As you observe in the excerpts above, Dreyer is anything but a subject-verb-object writer and PG finds himself paying attention to how what some of PG’s elementary school teachers would have marked as run-on sentences are handled. For instance, no space between the last/first character in a word and the beginning or end of an em dash.

“you can toss in–or, that is” instead of “you can toss in — or, that is”

And, speaking of em dashes, even using them instead of colons or parentheses is a good reminder for PG.

Most readers of TPV will undoubtedly be familiar with how to create an em dash in MS Word, but for those sprouts and shavers who are just showing up, you type two hyphens and a space and, as someone in Seattle decreed a long time ago, Word will convert the two hyphens into an em dash and deport the space to another dimension.

WordPress appears to do the same thing, at least for PG, without the need for a space following the two hyphens.

So (coming full-circle) for PG, reading a printed book feels a little like driving a 1957 Chevrolet–an entertaining change and a trip down memory lane–but an ebook and a Toyota are a better way to go.

‘Dreyer’s English’ Review: Flossing Your Prose

25 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, “ ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

. . . .Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Here’s a link to Dreyer’s English

Given that it was published by Random House, PG was pleasantly surprised at the price.

He Said, She Said: Why Guessing Gender Pronouns Is a Challenge for Tech Companies like Google

21 January 2019

From The Deseret News:

If you’re one of the 1.5 billion people who use Gmail, you might have noticed last year that your emails suddenly started writing themselves. But did you notice that the autocomplete feature never uses gendered pronouns like she/he or him/her?

In May, Google introduced Smart Compose, which helps users finish sentences. Another feature called Smart Reply generates quick, automatic responses to emails, including phrases like “No problem!” and “Unfortunately, I can’t make it.”

In November, Reuters reported that a Google researcher discovered the potential for bias when he typed “I am meeting an investor next week,” and Smart Compose suggested, “Do you want to meet him?” instead of “her,” according to Gmail product manager Paul Lambert.

As a result, Google decided Smart Compose and Smart Reply would not suggest gendered pronouns at all, Reuters reported.

. . . .

According to Nick Haynes, director of data science at Automated Insights, a company that specializes in natural language generation software, gender-pronoun correctness is a priority for tech companies because gender is such a big deal in today’s cultural climate.

“Despite the tremendous recent growth and hype around artificial intelligence (AI) applications, many people are understandably suspicious of AI,” said Haynes. “This makes the process of building trust with users a critical part of deploying an AI system, but misgendering a person can be a glaring mistake that can quickly erode a user’s trust in an entire product or company.”

Haynes said pronouns are tricky because the English language is often ambiguous when it comes to gender. Names like Taylor and Leslie can be unisex, whereas nouns like doctor or secretary often carry gendered connotations even though they’re not explicitly gendered, he said.

“Because AI is built and trained by humans, AI systems inherit the same challenges and biases in the use of language that its human creators and users experience,” said Haynes.

. . . .

Programs like Smart Compose are created with natural language generation, a method by which computers analyze the relationships between words in text written by humans and learn to write sentences of their own.

“The (process) successfully captures analogy relations, such as ‘Man is to king as woman is to queen.’ However, the same (process) also yields ‘Man is to doctor as woman is to nurse’ and ‘Man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker,'” said said Londa Schiebinger, professor of History of Science at Stanford University and author of a case study on gender and ethnic bias in machine learning algorithms. “Taking no action means that we may relive the 1950s indefinitely.”

. . . .

Agolo, a New York-based startup, uses artificial intelligence to summarize business documents. It is difficult for the company’s technology to reliably determine what pronoun goes with what name, said chief technology officer, Mohamed AlTantawy. To help with accuracy, company’s program pulls as much context from the document as possible.

“The rule here is if any task is intellectually hard for humans, it’s also hard to solve using AI,” said AlTantawy.

For example, take the sentence: “Andy and Alex met yesterday when she gave him the gift.”

“You have no way of knowing the gender of Andy or Alex,” said AlTantawy. “You would assume that Andy is a female because that name appeared first in the sentence.”

But additional context helps: “Andy and Alex met yesterday when she gave him the gift. Alex is a great mother.”

“Now this changed everything! It turns out that Alex is the female,” AlTantawy explained.

As another layer of fact-checking, Agolo also utilizes a database of known facts about companies that includes the headquarters, products and names and genders of prominent employees, AlTantawy said.

. . . .

Some autocomplete suggestions might not offend people but still have gender-related implications. In its iMessage application, Apple suggests “policemen” to complete “police” and “salesman” for “sales,” for example.

When you type the gender-neutral Korean sentence “Geubun-eun gyosu ibnida” into Google Translate, it gives you “He is a professor” in English. So does Microsoft’s translator app and Alibaba’s Language Service.

In December, Google published a press release that said the company was addressing gender bias by providing feminine and masculine translations for some gender-neutral words.

“Now you’ll get both a feminine and masculine translation for a single word — like ‘surgeon’ — when translating from English into French, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish. You’ll also get both translations when translating phrases and sentences from Turkish to English. For example, if you type ‘O bir doktor’ in Turkish, you’ll now get ‘She is a doctor’ and ‘He is a doctor’ as the gender-specific translations,” the statement reads.

Link to the rest at The Deseret News

Bullet Journaling

3 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Bullet journaling is an organizing strategy developed several years ago by Mr. Carroll [Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method] that has attracted something of a cult following. It involves writing out tasks and daily events by hand, which helps you think about whether they’re worth doing. A table of contents or index in the front of a bullet journal allows you to include everything from exercise logs to project plans and to find notes quickly. There are different types of “bullets” for events and tasks, and tasks that aren’t completed in one daily log are moved onto the next day’s roster.

All of this can read like “stereo instructions,” as Mr. Carroll jokes. (“When you notice a Master Task is spawning a lot of Subtasks, it can indicate that this Task is growing into a project.”) Yet the point is to de-clutter your mind and make life more organized than it would be with mere to-do lists.

Bullet journaling is a serious system that takes itself a touch too seriously. Mr. Carroll notes that detailing how you spend your time helps you remember that life includes more than daily drudgery: Drinks with old friends, dinners out with spouses and other pleasures are more common than we recall at first. But it’s hard not to laugh when, as an example of the range of bullet journaling, Mr. Carroll tells of a guy who used his journal entries to figure out why things didn’t work out with his girlfriend. (She was distant, apparently.)

A common criticism of bullet journaling is that, with its emphasis on hand-written entries, the journals themselves can begin to look like adult coloring books, and a cursory search online reveals devotees who have spent hours curling bubbly letters and other adornments. What a waste of time for a method aimed at making the most of your time! Credit to Mr. Carroll for assuring his readers that you don’t have to be an artist to reap the benefits of bullet journaling.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG is engaged in an attempt to become more efficient with his time after realizing that some parts of his working day are extremely efficient, but other parts are inefficient.

He’s pretty certain that he’s not going to write anything down on paper because one of his inefficiencies is not processing the paper which enters his life with any pretense of efficiency. He believes he needs less paper, not more.

A bit of online research disclosed that (surprise!) there are a lot of Bullet Journal apps. However, at the moment, PG is deapping his phone and tablet. His winnowing method is very simple – if he doesn’t immediately know what an app is used for by looking at its icon, he’s not going to use it and it’s going into the bitbucket.

However, during his brief look at bullet journaling, PG discovered a couple of articles about using Evernote for bullet journaling (here and here).

Since PG does use Evernote on a regular basis and has done so since the program was in beta, he’s going to go that route.

He thinks.

At present.

My Life As a Psychopath

2 January 2019

From The Cut:

The word “psychopath,” like many words associated with mental and personality disorders, is used broadly, and often incorrectly — colloquially, we might call someone who lies a lot a psychopath, just as we might call someone who texts us more frequently than we want “crazy.” The word “psychopath” is also routinely used to describe serial killers, though not all serial/mass murderers have psychopathic personalities. And while “sociopath” is sometimes (mistakenly) used interchangeably with psychopath, only the latter is rigorously defined and clinically accepted, says Craig Neumann, a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Texas whose singular research focus has been the psychopathic personality and its traits.

According to Neumann, the true definition of “psychopath” is actually pretty narrow: “Broadly speaking, psychopathy refers to a pathological personality style that is interpersonally deceptive, affectively cold, behaviorally reckless, and often overtly antisocial,” he writes. To qualify, he says, a person must possess traits pertaining to each of four “domains”: Interpersonal, Affective, Lifestyle, and Antisocial. The corresponding traits are as follows:

Interpersonal: They’re manipulative, deceitful, and/or narcissistic.
Affective: They lack remorse, are callous, and may take pleasure in hurting others.
Lifestyle: They’re impulsive, may use illegal substances, and may have disregard for the consequences of their actions.
Antisocial: They are physically aggressive and may have a history of or tendency toward criminal behavior.

Importantly, Neumann notes, psychopathy is a scale. “It’s not that you’re either a psychopath or not,” he says. “In the same way someone can have severe depression but it’s also possible for someone to have mild or moderate depression.” Neumann uses the example of professional poker players: they might be deceitful, and narcissistic, but they’re (probably) not psychopaths. Similarly, he takes issue with neuroscientist James Fallon’s calling himself a psychopath because his brain imaging profile matched that of psychopathic individuals.

“Just because the amygdala shows hypoactivation does not make you a psychopath,” says Neumann. “This is a characteristic that’s associated with psychopathy, but biology is not destiny. We believe that the syndrome, the personality disorder, is a coming together of these four major domains.” While certain people may possess a few, or even most of the psychopathic characteristics (like superficial charm, sexual promiscuity, and early behavioral problems, to name a few) listed on the Psychopathy Checklist(the PCL-R) — another tool used in the diagnostic process — unless they fulfill each of the four domains, Neumann doesn’t consider them truly psychopathic.

“The max score on the PCL-R is a 40, but to reach 30 is really going to be up there,” he says. (Most people score between a 1 and a 3, he adds.) “But the point I’m trying to make here is that even people who are 25, 26, they don’t quite reach the diagnostic threshold. Even people who are 16, 17, 18 on the PCL-R are nasty sons of bitches. Do they meet the diagnostic threshold of what we would call meeting a diagnosis of psychopathy? No.”

. . . .

Neumann hasn’t met or spoken to the subject of the following interview, but he did offer some potential disclaimers when I described the nature of our conversation. “These people dissimulate, they lie quite regularly, so it’s a challenging interview to do,” he says. “And most individuals at very high levels of psychopathy are not going to submit to an interview.” He’s also insistent that psychopaths are inherently and evidently unpleasant to be around. “One of the essences of personality pathology is you usually feel it in your gut first. Would I get in a car with this person and drive across the United States? And if you say ‘Oh, hell no,’ that gives you a clue that there’s something off in terms of personality,” he says.

The woman I spoke to, who will remain anonymous, says she was diagnosed as a psychopath in her mid-20s, and the diagnostic process she describes appears to be in line with what Neumann says is required. That said, our conversation was under an hour, and I am not a psychologist. That conversation, which has been edited for length, is below.

. . . .

 When were you diagnosed as a psychopath?
From age 26 to 27. I went through the whole diagnostic process over several months. There were a certain number of doctors that were involved, and a lot of testing: neuropsych testing, personality testing, brain scans, a lot of different interviews and going through the history of my childhood. It wasn’t a quick snap diagnosis. It was something that was arrived at over a decent period of time.

. . . .

Let’s talk about what people get wrong about psychopaths, in your view. Especially now, when there’s this huge cultural true-crime obsession, I think we have this very particular understanding of what a psychopath means, and it’s almost universally someone who’s very violent. 
It’s actually not an unreasonable thing — not because it’s true, but because of what they’re presented with. Most studies done on psychopaths are done [on men] in prison or in forensic hospitals, so everything you’re going to hear is going to come from a criminal. It’s always going to be painted against the backdrop of someone who has committed crimes. They’re only out for themselves, they don’t care about anyone else. If you interviewed any walk of people, and based their entire profile based on [the institutionalized] version of that person, like neurotypicals or autistic people, bipolar people, you get a very different picture than if you interviewed them in their general lives.

There is also this mistaken thinking that all serial killers are psychopaths, which is just not even remotely true. It’s just a myth that won’t die. There’s a phrase: “Not all psychopaths are serial killers, but all serial killers are psychopaths.” It’s just incorrect. But people hear this, and they associate [us with] serial killers. For some reason, people think we want to kill people. And I think that probably comes from the lack of empathy. People believe that if you have a lack of empathy, that automatically opens a floodgate of antisocial behavior. That’s not really how it works. I may not care, I may not have an emotional reaction to someone’s pain, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going out of my way to cause pain. It just means that I don’t have that emotional response.

In a day to day sense, or in your interpersonal relationships with people, is empathy or attempted empathy something you’ve had to teach yourself in order to relate to other people? How does that work? 
Well, we have cognitive empathy. So if your mother died, I can look at you, I can see that you are in pain. I may not feel the same pain, but I can understand you feel pain, and that series of behaviors usually warrants a certain response: comfort or interaction, engagement. And so it’s a matter of honing that over time, and also making sure that I can continually consider that my reaction to things is not how other people experience things. Which is hard, because you sort of go through life with the assumption that everybody experiences it like you do.

Do you ever feel afraid? 
We don’t feel fear. We get adrenal responses. When you have adrenaline responses to a car accident, or bungee jumping, or what have you, we’ll still get that, but for us, we don’t feel the fear, which can be obviously dangerous if you’re a little kid, and you don’t know you’re supposed to be afraid of stuff. We don’t process the emotion of fear. It doesn’t occur to us. And we can’t understand it, either. I mean, we get that you feel something, but we don’t get it.

How do you perceive it when you hear someone expressing their fear of mortality, or says they’re afraid to die someday? That always baffles me, because I can’t comprehend why it matters. For me, life is very much in this immediate moment. This moment is all you have, and the fear of it going away is just nonsensical. This is a huge disconnect for me. People explain it in ways that they very much understand: they’re afraid of dying, they’re afraid of not being important, they’re afraid of being forgotten. And none of those things are important to me, so it’s sort of like saying I’m afraid of not being the color blue.

. . . .

When you say cognitive love, does that mean you don’t feel that sort of romantic roller coaster feeling that other people describe to you? 
Well, no, I don’t. Certainly attraction. I feel attraction, and he’s very attractive. But psychopaths don’t process oxytocin like neurotypicals do. What oxytocin contributes to in your brain is chemical love, so that feeling of a roller coaster. Bonding is another one we don’t have. You bond to your significant other, you bond to your children, you bond to your pets. There’s also trust, which is a weird one, because I didn’t know oxytocin had anything to do with trust. Most people feel trust as an actual emotion. I never knew that. To me, trust was always: You show me how you’re going to behave, and I will determine whether or not I want you around. I always knew I didn’t trust people, and I always had a disconnect, because I didn’t know it was a chemical reaction for most people. I didn’t have an explanation as to why I didn’t trust people, but then I started digging into oxytocin. It made sense.

A lot of people think of psychopaths as having a very flat emotional affect, and I know we haven’t talked for long, but that’s not my impression of you. You obviously have a personality, and a distinctive way of speaking, and so I wonder what your experience is with that perception. 
People think we have no emotion, which is absolutely not true. We just feel them way turned down. If most people feel an emotion between seven and eight on a dial of ten, I feel it between zero and two. Negative emotions are background noise. We can’t tune into that frequency because our brains just don’t process enough information for them to ever be loud enough to feel or direct behavior. We enjoy things, get excited about things, like adrenaline — that’s great. I laugh with people, I enjoy intellectual discussions. A lower functioning psychopath probably wouldn’t enjoy intellectual conversation. They’d rather go and rob a liquor store. But that’s why they spend most of their lives in prison.

Do you feel at all that your psychopathy is an advantage to you? Do you feel lucky in any sense? 
No. It’s not an advantage, because all neurotypes come with limitations, don’t they? With psychopathy I constantly have to figure out people, and why they do what they do, and how to respond to them. Normal people have to deal with grief and loss and pain and heartbreak, but they also have things to make them happy. I think people are pretty wired the way they’re meant to be. I don’t know that it’s necessarily an advantage or disadvantage, it’s just what you make of it. I could easily take psychopathy and make it a terribly negative thing for both me and the world, because I could make bad choices, and do terrible things. I could do that, but that’s not who I have any interest in being. Anyone can make bad choices for themselves.

. . . .

 Online you’re very out as far as being a psychopath but is it something that a lot of people in your personal life know? Or your family? 
No. They have no idea, and I’m going to keep it that way.

. . . .

When you meet new people, whether professionally or personally or whatever context, do you present them with the version of yourself that fits the situation? 
Absolutely. Why tell them anything that they don’t need to know? They just need to know what they can expect of me.

Do you think it’s something that people suspect about you? Or do you think people’s perceptions are so off that they wouldn’t really know what psychopathy looks like? 
No. Psychopaths use what we call a ‘mask.’ It’s basically an entire affectation of being like everyone else. We learn at a really young age that if we respond to things the way that we naturally respond to things, people don’t like that. So you just learn how to affect the behavior and how to appear like everyone else, and that’s just what you have to do.

There’s a very different version of me that goes out of the house and interacts with the world from the person who’s home with people who know how I actually am. And even with the people who do know me, and do know how I actually am, there still has to be a mask. If somebody’s spending time with me in a room, I won’t give them the impression that they’re welcome. They might say something to me, and I’ll answer them back, but I’m not going to look at them, there’s no feeling of being welcome. But to me, unless I tell you to leave, you’re completely welcome.

I have a friend who will feel like I resent her spending time with me. She’ll be like, “I’m bothering you.” You’re not bothering me. Why do you think you’re bothering me? She’s like, “Well, I just get the impression you don’t want me here.” Did I tell you to leave? “No, but are we okay?” We’re fine! You’re fine. I have to make that connection. So if I don’t do that, people feel like there’s something profoundly lacking, and they feel uncomfortable. It’s very disquieting to them.

Link to the rest at The Cut

PG found this fascinating (no, he’s not a psychopath) because he doesn’t believe he’s ever met anyone who is a psychopath or close to one.

In olden days, prior to public defenders being available almost everywhere, when PG was occasionally assigned by a court to represent a criminal (technically, a defendant charged with a crime, but most defendants PG encountered professionally were, in fact, guilty of some sort of  crime), they mostly struck him as pretty stupid people without much impulse control.

PG also did a lot of voluntary Legal Aid work and encountered low-functioning people who got tangled up in legal matters, often divorces where the children were placed in foster care while custody issues were litigated. In such cases, PG represented the children and, on occasion, could not recommend that custody be granted to either parent even though the foster care system was not ideal. Still no psychopaths (he thinks) among those folks.

He’s not a frequent reader of novels depicting the inner lives of psychopaths, but doesn’t remember reading any in which the psychopathic character sounded a lot like the subject of this interview.

« Previous PageNext Page »