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WARNING: Movie spoilers included!

Thanos: Sociopath with a Heart

“…and then, to gain the Soul Stone, I killed my daughter, my Gamora, who was my everything…”

By the time this client told me this about his past, I had already diagnosed him with both Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). The first is characterized by grandiosity, preoccupations with limitless power, beliefs in his own special purpose that no one else understands, entitlement, exploitation of others, lack of empathy, and arrogance. “Megalomaniac” fits well here. The second is characterized by repeated law-breaking, aggressiveness, and lack of remorse.

After hearing the history of what brought this person to me, of his mission to create sustainable life and joy across the galaxy by acquiring the power to randomly murder half the galaxy’s population, of his various murders (all mentioned fairly casually) to acquire that power in the Infinity Stones, I was very certain I was sitting across from someone with APD. This is the official terminology for what has been known in the past as a sociopath or psychopath. His antisocial behavior was (barely) masked under the narcissistic justification of his mission to end the suffering of overpopulation… But all antisocial behaviors nonetheless.

Naturally, I would have also diagnosed him with Schizophrenia, as the whole premise is pretty delusional. But seeing a 15-ft-tall purple man occupying the entirety of my office’s loveseat left me a little more open-minded to the possibility that some of what he was saying was true.

As I listened, I began to waiver on that second diagnosis of APD.

I got the sense that even he was surprised he was coming to see me. He explained that he came to both grieve the loss of his daughter and face a deep sense of “internal unrest” he was feeling.

He paused after naming his daughter, and I saw tears slide silently down his face.

Intervention

I used the pause to attempt a reflection of what I’d heard thus far:

“So, in the future, you have already successfully annihilated half the galaxy’s population, bringing the possibility for prosperity and peace among the survivors. You accomplished everything you set out to do, but you feel no satisfaction in it, because you had to sacrifice the one person who mattered most to you.”

Thanos nodded and continued to weep silently.

Strange. Few people with NPD and APD have strong attachments to anyone; people are only valued inasmuch as they can be of benefit. There’s usually no attachment outside of desiring a person for exploitation and personal gain.

But that was no longer the case with Thanos’ daughter. Hell, she had tried to kill him a couple times, and yet he wept, lost for words (which I also took to be a rarity for him) in a confusion of remorse at having to end her life to accomplish his goal.

“I wonder: have you ever felt this kind of grief before? With parents, friends, lovers?”

Thanos looked at me like I was stupid.

“I will take that as a ‘no’ then,” I smiled. “So I wonder if your internal unrest stems first from the confusion and unfamiliarity of truly loving someone, and second from how that love (and its loss, at your own hand no less) deters from the triumph of realizing your dream. Does that fit?”
Thanos was quiet, peering at me, face unreadable. Usually a good sign that something is resonating, but somewhat unnerving given this person’s history (or future?) of random murder.

After what felt like forever, Thanos quirked his head to the side.

“Love…” he said, voice dripping with indignation. “You’re saying that’s what’s bothering me, what tears my soul and keeps me from sleeping? Love has always been irrelevant,” he paused. “Though, it was apparently useful for gaining the Soul Stone.” His huge shoulders sagged. “My heart broke when I lost her, my little one, my fighter. But, in that moment, I thought it would be worth it, a worthy exchange, one she would have willingly died for if she truly understood me, if she could truly see the paradise I saw, the paradise I was creating.”

His narcissism was kicking up again here. I decided to go with it, connect with as much love as was there, but also wrap in his self-admiration.

“Long ago you had seen, in this struggling little girl on a dying planet, the fighter, the determination, the defiance in the face of the enemy. You had seen yourself in her. And you raised her to be your little one, even a little you. She became a part of you.” His eyes widened with these statements, some truth clicking into place for him.

“You thought, after killing her, after destroying a living, breathing, beautiful piece of yourself, that it would be worth it.” I paused, then asked softly, “Was it worth it?”

Outcome

He stared at me again, for several minutes, expression blank, some internal battle raging inside but carefully concealed.

“I…don’t know,” he hesitantly stated, tone as flat as his facial expression. A flash of blue light blinded me, and he was gone.

I still don’t know if what Thanos felt was love, which requires something fundamentally antithetical to someone with APD: empathy. Did he mourn out of guilt for ending the life of a person he loved and cared for, a person whose happiness and wellbeing he valued? Or did he only feel regret because he projected onto her an image of himself, and his narcissistic pride could not fathom why he might intentionally harm anything that was his? Is empathy, the ability to deeply understand and feel another’s emotions, really any different from seeing ourselves in another person?

No answers on these. But one thing I’m sure of: Thanos was not your average all-powerful giant alien sociopath. And I wasn’t sure I’d seen the last of him yet either.

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