We all know about them. They are often quite (in)famous. Most of us have encountered them in our personal lives or at work. Some of us are their victims. And no matter what you call them, once you have had to deal with one, you will never forget it. They go by many names: psychopaths, toxic people, malignant narcissists or master manipulators. All charm and seduction when you first meet them, whether socially or professionally, and then…! By the time they are done with you, nothing is the same any longer. To any human being with empathy, these people never make sense in the long run: their lies, manipulations, subterfuges, risk-taking, and constant deflection of blame and responsibility will have you tied up in knots. They live by different rules, and they always go for the kill. They are human parasites, unable to feel, emphasise or care for others. They are just brilliant at pretending that they can when it suits their own agendas.
Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home by Australian author David Gillespie is a guide on how to manage the psychopaths in our lives. Gillespie bases his analysis on available research, personal experience and observations, as well as stories of psychopaths and their victims. Most of the victims prefer to remain anonymous. It is frightening to read in the author’s acknowledgements that psychopaths “frequently ruin lives so thoroughly and are so likely to seek revenge for any slight, be it real or perceived, that even people who have not seen them for decades still crave anonymity.”
It is hard to admit to yourself that you might be or had been ensnared in the toxic power games of such an individual, but it helps to understand that you stand no chance against such ruthlessness if you are vulnerable and unprepared. Gillespie opens his book with comparing an encounter with a psychopath to that of an encounter with a tiger: “He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch. You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth.” Taming Toxic People teaches you how not to be devoured.
One of the first signs of being in the territory of such a predator is bewilderment. Psychopaths “behave in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. And as soon as we are entangled with them, we spend more time worrying about how to deal with them than we do running our own lives.” The harm and distress they are causing in the process may take a long time to recover from, sometimes the rest of your life. Some damage is irreparable. And, as Gillespie points out, nowadays we are living in a reality that encourages psychopathic behaviour and allows people with such traits to flourish. The 21st century seems to be the perfect habitat for psychopaths. It is essential for anyone who has empathy to know how to survive in such dangerous environments that are spreading worldwide. If you have any doubt, watch the news on any channel or go onto social media: “We are no longer a community; we are individuals who happen to live in the same place. The result is we no longer trust in authority because it is not earned through a life of unimpeachable honesty. We no longer trust in experts because they are often for sale to the highest bidder. We no longer trust the media because it chases clicks rather than the truth. Instead, we invest our faith in anyone who tells us they have simple answers to our problems and who looks and talks like us. It is a perfect set-up for any psychopath.”
Gillespie divides Taming Toxic People into four parts: “The Theory”, “The Everyday Psychopath”, “Managing Psychopaths” and “The Psychopath in Society”. He writes accessibly and has a good sense of humour (comic relief is most welcome in between the scary bits). Each part is comprehensive and offers extremely valuable advice. The author goes into the history of psychopathy and the terminology associated with the condition. He lists a few key tests for identifying psychopaths and explains the science behind them. He gives some more or less obvious examples from history (the Mother Theresa story was a shocker, I must admit) and our contemporary world (for example, the most obvious one – the US president). What is empathy and how it helped us evolve is discussed in detail. The chapters on how to manage the psychopath in different spheres of our lives are fascinating – reading them could potentially save your life, or at least spare you a lot of unpleasantness.
If you are lucky, you will never encounter a psychopath in your life, but the chances are that you already have or will at some stage. It will frighten or perplex you, or both. And sometimes there will be a high price to pay. Taming Toxic People will make you re-examine your life and relationships. It will make many confusing situations – whether in the past or the present – seem suddenly clear. It might not be too late to do something about them. Gillespie is very confident that the “taming” is possible and the methods he proposes are doable, even if they sometimes mean completely walking away.
What I found most inspiring about Gillespie’s book is his solution to the broader issue of how our societal structures which have kept us safe in the past have been eroded and are letting us down. He proposes a way of living our private lives and directing our professional conduct in such a way that psychopaths cannot thrive among us. It is a path based on transparency and accountability, and orientated towards communal rather than individual goals. It is truly worth thinking about and aspiring to.
Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home
by David Gillespie
Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 June 2018.