Joey Buttafuoco and his attorney held a press conference last week to announce their intention to file a lawsuit against Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Mary Jo, of course, just came out with her book, Getting It Through My Thick Skull—Why I Stayed, What I Learned, and What Millions of People Involved with Sociopaths Need to Know. The first words in the book are, “Joey Buttafuoco is a sociopath.” Joey believes he has been defamed.
If Joey proceeds with the lawsuit, he will probably claim libel. Libel is publishing an untruth about another person that harms the person, or harms his or her reputation. (Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation. Slander is oral defamation.)
Generally, two main defenses are available in a libel case. First is the truth. The truth is an absolute defense against a claim of libel.
Second is if the person claiming to be defamed is a public figure. When a public figure attempts to claim libel, he or she must prove “actual malice,” meaning that the person being sued knew the statement was false and published it anyway.
Let’s look at how both of these defenses could apply in the Buttafuoco case.
A lawyer could probably argue that Joey Buttafuoco is a public figure, especially as it relates to everything that happened in this case. After 16-year-old Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo in the face, and with the ensuing media circus, Joey became a minor celebrity. Here’s how Joey tried to capitalize on his celebrity:
- In 2002, Joey participated in Fox Network’s Celebrity Boxing.
- In 2006, Joey and Amy Fisher were reunited at the Lingerie Bowl.
- In 2007, a reality show producer suggested that Joey and Amy Fisher were “reunited,”—possibly hoping for a TV deal.
- Joey also appeared in six movies: Cul-de-Sac, Finding Forrester, The Underground Comedy Movie, Mafia Movie Madness, Skin Walker and Operation Repo: The Movie.
Definition of a sociopath
But let’s look at the prime defense in libel cases: the truth. Here, it would be helpful to see exactly what was said at the press conference announcing the lawsuit.
Joey’s attorney, Stacie Halpern, of Halpern and Halpern, Winnetka, California, either does not understand what the term “sociopath” means, or he’s positioning the case to argue the definition. He says, “Sociopath, in our society, is deemed to be somebody that is somewhat of a monster, somebody you would not want to be in a room with by yourself, somebody that you would not trust with any of your goods.”
The clinical definition of a sociopath does not include the word “monster.” When most professionals use the term “sociopath,” they are referring to someone who has been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Here is the definition of antisocial personality disorder according to The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV):
A person can be diagnosed as antisocial if since age 15 he or she has shown a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. The person must have indicated at least three of the following:
- Failure to conform to lawful social norms
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicted by repeated physical fights or assaults
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent about having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.
Joey Buttafuoco’s behavior
Does Joey fit the bill? Here’s Joey’s public record:
- When Mary Jo got shot, Joey first denied that he was having an affair with Amy Fisher and accused the cops of lying. He was later convicted of statutory rape and served four months in jail.
- In 1995, he was charged with soliciting a prostitute. He pleaded no contest, was fined and placed on two years probation.
- In 2004, he pleaded guilty to auto insurance fraud. He was sentenced to a year in jail and five years probation.
- In 2005, he was charged with illegal possession of ammunition. He served almost four months in jail.
Mary Jo relates more incidents in her book that would also indicate sociopathic traits:
- When Mary Jo was nine months pregnant and riding in a car with Joey, he was pulled over by a cop, and as the officer approached the car, Joey stepped on the gas and took off. When the cops caught him again, Joey wanted Mary Jo to lie and tell them she was going into labor.
- Joey developed a serious cocaine habit and signed their home over to his dealer.
- Joey took out a $60,000 loan to buy a cigarette boat without consulting his wife. Years later, when he couldn’t make the payments and couldn’t sell the boat, he solved the problem by declaring bankruptcy—again without telling his wife.
In my opinion, a professional looking at Joey Buttafuoco’s lifetime pattern of behavior would probably conclude that he has antisocial personality disorder.
Common usage of “sociopath”
But perhaps Halpern intends to argue that in common usage, people associate the word “sociopath” with a deranged serial killer. And because of the general misunderstanding of what the term actually means, calling Joey Buttafuoco a sociopath is libelous.
This, of course, is the misconception that most of us had before we tangled with one of these disordered individuals. And that is exactly the reason why Mary Jo Buttafuoco wrote the book—to bring attention to what this disorder actually is, and how many millions of sociopaths are out there, causing untold pain to the people around them.
For those of us who have lived with sociopaths of our very own, it’s easy to recognize Joey’s behavior patterns in Mary Jo’s book—now that we know what to look for. But all of us were once ignorant, which was why we didn’t recognize the warning signs, and didn’t get out of our own relationships quickly. Some of us were in relationships with these predators for 10, 20, 30, even 40 years before we realized the truth—our partner was a sociopath.
It took Mary Jo 17 years to figure it out—and it was her son who first recognized the actual issue. Then, like many of us, she researched the term, saw the list of characteristics, and finally knew what she’d been dealing with for so long.
Message getting through
Like many of us, once Mary Jo realized there was an explanation for her ex-husband’s bizarre behavior, she felt she had a message to deliver about what a sociopath was and how sociopaths behaved. But this woman had something that most of us don’t have: a well-known name and media connections. Mary Jo already spent a lot of time in the spotlight. Now she’s in the spotlight again, educating people about this personality disorder.
“I realized that people need to know about this,” she said in an interview on PR.com. “That’s the point of drudging it all up and re-living it, and going out there. It’s more that there’s a message there that needs to be delivered. I was with a sociopath my whole life and I didn’t know it.”
Mary Jo’s message is getting through. Lovefraud received the following e-mail two days ago:
I was just listening to the news and heard Mary Buttafuoco say that Joey was a sociopath. Well, I Googled sociopath to find out the characteristics and found that I had been married to one for fourteen years. This was truly an epiphany. For fourteen years I thought that I was the one going crazy.
Thank you, Mary Jo, for bringing much-needed illumination to this topic that for so long has been shrouded in misunderstanding.
Joey Buttafuoco has not yet filed his lawsuit, and perhaps he never will. A judge and jury may very well find that Mary Jo spoke the truth.
Getting It Through My Thick Skull is available in the Lovefraud Store.