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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sociopath alert: Susan Stillwaggon

It seems that these days we read on a regular basis about sociopaths who fake illnesses in order to gain sympathy and attention. This particular offshoot of sociopathy is sometimes called Munchhausen's Syndrome, and demonstrates how sociopaths have an endless craving for love and sympathy, two emotions they never feel themselves. There is a variation of this syndrome called Munchhausen's-by-proxy, in which people make their children sick in order to gain the sympathy and attention they crave.

Yesterday the NY Post ran an article with the headline, Mom told 9-year-old son he had cancer, collected thousands in donations: cops.

An excerpt:

A South Jersey woman told her 9-year-old son he had a deadly cancer when he was really just fine — and led him on by holding fund-raisers and bake sales where she raked in thousands to pay for his sham care, cops said.

Susan Stillwaggon, 35, duped her son, Nick, her husband, and her entire Pennsauken community into believing the boy had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cops said.

The boy thought he was terminally ill, while she accepted about $2,000 from donors, cops said.

Even her trucker husband Chuck believed his son was dying of cancer, cops said.....

The mom admitted the lie to cops but wouldn’t say it was for money troubles, police said.

“Her response to me was, ‘I need help,’ ” Pennsauken Police Detective Cheryl Duffy said.

Stillwaggon is now hospitalized. Her mom told a local news station she had suffered a breakdown.

She faces charges of theft by deception, forgery, endangering the welfare of a child and using a child to commit a criminal offense.

Recently I seem to have specialized in pointing out sociopaths who don't really need pointing out. I realize it's more interesting to hear about people you might not have suspected, but Susan Stillwaggon illustrates too many facets of sociopathy to pass up.

All you really need to know about her to know she's a sociopath is that she would tell her 9-year-old son he was dying of cancer when he wasn't. Most of us lie to 9-year-olds to make them feel better about themselves. The depth of depravity to which you'd have to sink to tell any child -- let alone your own son -- that he was dying when he was not is unfathomable to those unfamiliar with sociopathy.

Or, all you'd need to know is that she did the same to her husband, making him think that his son was dying. Imagine how he felt. (And imagine how he feels now.)

Or, all you'd need to know to ascertain her sociopathy is that Stillwaggon basked in the warm glow of sympathy she got from her community, knowing all the while that it was based on a false premise, but enjoying it anyway. Most of us cannot imagine feeling anything but the most extreme nervousness -- and then guilt and shame, after perpetrating such a hoax. But Stillwaggon is immune to those feelings.

Finally, when she was caught, her response, rather than a shamefaced admission of guilt, was to say, "I need help," and check into a hospital, as if she were somehow the victim of this entire episode. Sociopaths, when caught, often feign some form of mental illness, as if to prove that they had no choice but to act as they did. It's essentially the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity defense.

Another example of this would be Kenneth Bianchi, one of the two Hillside Stranglers, who faked a multiple personality disorder after he was caught, and actually had most of the doctors fooled for a while.

Finally, Stillwaggon illustrates yet another facet of sociopathy: that they come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Here is the picture the Post ran of her with her son:

She looks like every other doting suburban mom, not someone you'd cross the street to avoid. But inside that seemingly affectionate exterior lies the same absolute absence of compassion that serial killers have. (The only difference between Stillwaggon and them is that she doesn't need violence to get off sexually.)

The natural reaction to hearing about this case is to feel sympathy for the son; and the son, more than anyone else in this sordid story, certainly deserves sympathy. But I wouldn't necessarily bet that he doesn't grow up to be a sociopath himself. Hopefully he has gotten enough love from  his father, and established enough of a bond with him, to prevent sociopathy. But if the father works as a trucker, that means he's absent much of the time, and the son's main influence has been the mother. So it's hard to see how he could have established the kind of solid bond with a parent it takes for a child to grow up to be decent.

At this point the ideal scenario would be for Mr. Stillwaggon to divorce his wife and get sole custody of their son, and for Susan to spend some time in jail (preferably, with other inmates who know about her crime). But it may already be too late for the son.


W O D said...

SPs are always fascinating.

Unbelievably alien to empaths.

I always believe it was nature not nurture

John Craig said...

W O D --
I find them fascinating as well, though I think that sociopathy is mostly a matter of nurture. (And I'm a nature guy when it comes to just about every other trait.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -

I seriously doubt that Susan Stillwater had a "breakdown." These people are unbelievable. I really hope that the child is able to grow up, not ending up with his mother's disorder. The father needs to fight for his son, getting him free from his mother's warped way of thinking, being.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Not sure whom you're addressing, but I agree with you completely. Sociopaths don't suffer nervous breakdowns as a rule because they don't get nervous. Her "breakdown" strikes me as an obvious setup for a not-guilty-by-reason-of-faked-insanity defense.