This book has an appealing title and an appealing theme—comparing people with personality disorders to vampires. But my opinion of Emotional Vampires—Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., is decidedly mixed.
The book gives a brief overview of personality disorders in general, and then discusses five types of problem people—antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive and paranoid. The author provides checklists to help you identify the problem personalities, and tips on how to deal with them.
Dr. Bernstein’s writing style is breezy and entertaining, and he uses made-up anecdotes to illustrate his points. To be fair, it seems that the book is mostly written for a business audience, people who come up against personality-disordered individuals in the workplace. In fact, the author is available for business consultation, speaking engagements and workshops. Here’s how he describes his presentations on his website, albernstein.com:
Give me a podium and stand back.
In my talks, I try to present a sensitive and humorous view of serious issues that everyone in the business world must face. I try to give useful, step-by-step advice and to leave my audiences laughing — and thinking. Listen to one of my talks, and work may never be the same again.
Successful speakers generally are entertaining. As a book, Emotional Vampires is entertaining. The problem, for me, was that it skimmed over the serious damage these vampires do to others, and underestimated the malicious nature of their actions.
The basic problem with emotional vampires, the author says, is that they are immature. He writes:
Emotional Vampires are not intrinsically evil, but their immaturity allows them to operate without thinking about whether their actions are good or bad. Vampires see other people as potential sources for whatever they happen to need at the moment, not as separate human beings with needs and feelings of their own. Rather than evil itself, vampires’ perceptual distortion is a doorway through which evil may easily enter.
I’m sure plenty of Lovefraud readers would dispute the “not intrinsically evil” part.
Of the five personality disorders discussed in the book, I am most familiar, of course, with antisocial personality disorder. And quite honestly, I was outraged that the section of the book dealing with sociopaths is entitled “Lovable Rogues.” Here’s how Bernstein begins it:
Antisocials are the simplest of vampires, also the most dangerous. All they want out of life is a good time, a little action, and immediate gratification of their every desire. If they can use you to accomplish these goals, nobody is more exciting, charming, or seductive. If you stand in their way, you’re dogmeat.
At the core of the antisocial personality, Dr. Bernstein says, is “a lust for stimulation of all sorts. All the other characteristics seem to arise from that central drive for excitement.” He compares antisocials to adolescents, and says they seldom mature until they reach age 50.
Maybe this is true of run-of-the-mill drug addicts, many of whom are diagnosed as antisocial. But it made me wonder if Dr. Bernstein ever met anyone who was victimized by a sociopath. Yes, they do want excitement in their lives. Yes, they use others to get it. But as many of us can attest, the “drive for excitement” just doesn’t go far enough in describing the motivations of these people. As Dr. Liane Leedom writes in her upcoming book, they are “driven to do evil.”
The description Dr. Bernstein gives of the antisocial personality is accurate, as is the description of how antisocials snare their victims. The author terms it “hypnosis.” He also talks about “grooming,” in which sociopaths seduce you to cross one little line at a time.
But the book also gives the impression that you can deal with a sociopath. Dr. Bernstein lists the “10 elements of vampire fighting strategy,” with advice like “know them, know their history, and know your goal,” and “get outside verification.” He also advises the use of contingencies, as in, “If you do X, Y will happen.” And you have to be prepared to administer Y.
Never, however, does Dr. Bernstein suggest that you might want to get the sociopath out of your life. That scares me. If Emotional Vampires was the first book that someone picked up on the topic of personality disorders, particularly sociopaths, I think the reader would be woefully uninformed. Most of what Dr. Bernstein says is accurate, and the strategies he offers might work for someone on the low end of the disturbance continuum. But if you’re dealing with a full-blown sociopath, I wouldn’t rely on his advice to solve your problems at home.