Book Review: A Dance With the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath by Barbara Bentley

A Dance With the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath by Barbara Bentley

Book Review by Bud Gundy

When a sociopath enters your life, nothing is ever the same again.  You learn what terms such as,“pathological liar” really mean and you stare right into the face of pure evil and realize that you’ve invited it to come waltzing into your world.

I recently read a book about a woman’s life with a psychopath (the words “sociopath” and “psychopath” are interchangeable to a great degree) and it revived many memories I'd thought I'd long put aside, so I decided to write this quick review, along with some of my own history.

I was 24 years-old when I met M.  I had just moved to San Francisco the month before and the gay community was in a state of constant turmoil and mourning from the enormous impact of AIDS.  It is difficult to describe the trauma of those years – the late 1980’s in San Francisco.  It was common to see men openly weeping on the street, death was everywhere and I once saw a man whose face was disfigured by disease in a way I didn't even know was possible, a sight so disquieting that it still haunts me 25 years later.

I was in a state of shock, I knew almost nobody, I was terrified of having sex and I was desperate for my first gay relationship.  In short, I was a very easy mark for M.

His behavior was maddening from the start but he fostered, and I felt, enormous pity for all the things he had suffered that he talked about non-stop.  His most baffling habit was to leave a store, bar or a restaurant no matter what was happening.  He once got up during the middle of meal and left, leaving me to scramble to pay the bill and follow him out.  He never gave an explanation for this bizarre behavior, and in time I stopped asking.

M was not the high-flying sociopath detailed in Barbara Bentley’s, A Dance with the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath.  The man she met and eventually married was grandiose and extravagant, a spinner of elaborate tales that showered him with such glory and praise that they were guests at a Presidential Inaugural Ball and were treated with great deference at military events.  Her account of their relationship, his deceit and dishonesty, is a riveting read, and I found myself nodding with furious agreement many times.

But one story in Bentley’s account made me sit up with shock and amazement.  Even though I’ve long since recognized that almost all of M’s stories were invented for the sole purpose of manipulating me for sympathy and pity, I had never questioned one in particular until I read Bentley’s book.

In Bentley’s case, after many years of marriage and fiscal turmoil, she confronted him about his stories and demanded that she accompany him to a class that he was supposedly teaching in the UC system.  At that point, she was doubtful that he was even employed, let alone a professor on campus, and as they left the house, he faked a sudden medical emergency that resulted in both of them tumbling down a staircase.

Her husband’s need for such a dramatic diversion suddenly clarified a story from my life with M.  We had completed an application to lease an apartment together, and I had received a call from the rental agent.  She told me that all was well with my financial history, but added, “As you know, M has some serious issues in his past.”  She told me that she would stick up for us and that we would get the apartment despite the problems uncovered by the background check.

I had no idea what she was talking about, and I was too embarrassed to ask her for details.

Later that day, I sat down with M and demanded he tell me anything that he was withholding about his past.  Suddenly, he began weeping and wailing, and started spinning a tale about his current roommate.  It was a dramatic story.  His roommate was crazy, and was threatening to kill or seriously injure him.  I instantly forgot about his concealment of past problems and focused all of my attention on his emergency.  M had successfully drawn my attention away from his lies, and even though he was the one being deceitful, I ended up feeling guilty for confronting him.

Bentley also details the way her husband shielded her from his family, even his children, creating elaborate stories about hurt feelings and concerns for the (non-existent) family fortune.  M also kept me far away from his family, and in the 3 years we were together I never once thought it was suspicious that his father, stepfather and mother all died.  During this same period his sister was seriously injured in a car accident.

It simply never occurred to me that someone would lie about the deaths and serious injury of close family members in order to manipulate another person.  Months after M supposedly attended his mother’s funeral, I was cleaning our apartment and found a card, carefully hidden inside a book, that she had mailed to him within the past few weeks.  At that point, our relationship was such a grotesque distortion of normal human interaction that I actually saved the knowledge that his mother was still alive so that I could use it as ammunition during our next inevitable argument.  I still have no idea where he went that weekend he supposedly flew back to Texas to say goodbye to his mother.

Bentley’s husband was a far more ambitious psychopath than M, but they shared a love of finery and they coveted expensive things.  I lived with M back when credit cards were not easy to get, and I received my first one during our time together.  As soon as I opened it, he eagerly asked if we could go shopping.  Stunned, I said absolutely not, that it was for emergencies.  He sulked for a moment or two, but soon went completely calm, and I could see the wheels turning in his mind.  Little did I know he’d been embezzling from his employer (a major bank) for months already, and would continue to do so for another year or so before he was discovered and prosecuted.

Reading a story like Bentley’s gives me comfort, because her husband was such an accomplished liar that she was caught in the thunderstorm of his deceptions for years.  M was more of a run-of-the-mill sociopath and unlike Bentley’s husband, M was the laziest person I have ever known.  M spun self-pitying stories, but they were unimaginative and routine, and his only ambition was to sit on the couch and watch television while smoking cigarettes.  He also never took care of anything, so his fine Chippendale furniture and expensive prints and other valuable objects were scratched, dirty and neglected.

At some point, anyone who is involved with a sociopath realizes that you are sharing your life with a person capable of tremendous evil.  This realization is chilling and you are never the same person afterwards. In my case, I had a number of clues leading up to this moment, the most shocking was learning that he had forged my name on the deposit slips for the embezzled money, a discovery I made when I found the police report about his crimes, which he'd also hidden.

Bentley's clues were far more dramatic, and when her husband attempted to murder her, it is a riveting and shocking read.  Her brilliant, sudden insight into how to survive the attack is one of the most audacious accounts I’ve ever read, and I feel enormous admiration for her intuitive grasp of what she needed to do to ensure her survival.

Bentley’s book is brutally honest about her own gullibility and her need to believe that her husband’s tales of daring and courage were true.  I found it painful to read when I saw my own ignorance mirrored in her actions, but also liberating and I give her great credit for being so forthright.  I was similarly foolish and ignored blaring warning signs - like the mail we would get addressed to other people.  We lived in a brand-new building, our address had never existed before and I was confused as to why we consistently kept getting mail for another man - even after we'd moved into another apartment in the same complex after the Loma Prieta earthquake forced us to move.  It did not cross my mind that he was using aliases.

After I had broken up with him (a drawn-out process, lengthened by my own gullibility) and moved on with my life, I was in a grocery store and got in line when I realized, with a shock, that he was just in front of me, along with an older gentleman.  He looked at me, gave a sickly smile, then pivoted and left the store, leaving the older gentleman to scramble behind, confused.  All of those times he would leave a bar, restaurant or store leaving me running to catch up with him suddenly all made sense - he had spotted someone he needed to avoid and saw no other option other than to simply walk out.

There are many more stories I could tell about M, but let me just conclude with a warning: If you meet someone who has no real friends, is vague about his or her past, is evasive about letting you come into contact with his or her family, the odds are high that you are dealing with a sociopath.

I highly recommend, A Dance With the Devil: A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath.  If you’ve ever been involved with a sociopath, you will not be able to put it down.