Gut Instinct Isn’t Enough: Chapter 8

Everyone talks about “gut instinct,” but what is it? Is it really something you feel in your gut? In your heart? In your head? Does everyone have it? Are some people better than others at listening to their gut?

I’ve never talked to anyone who doesn’t believe that’s the case. People seem to believe that we all have a “gut instinct” about things, and that some people are better at recognizing it than others.

When we were dating, Wyatt and I used to walk along the railroad tracks next to his house for hours. They were abandoned tracks, but they still smelled of creosote and oil and tar. The gravel was pierced by only a few weeds with the strongest tap roots, weeds that looked like dandelions to me but that never produced flowers. They speckled the gravel bed like green stars.

The tracks took us places that cars couldn’t reach anymore. If they ever did. One of those places was an old cabin that was falling in. It was made of square, hand hewn log, and it had been perfectly symmetrical before one corner of the upstairs loft collapsed and blocked one of the four matching square windows—two on each side.

We’d creep inside and poke around. It was only about ten feet by twelve, so it wouldn’t have taken long to explore except there were layers of newspapers all over the inside walls that they’d used for insulation. Somehow they’d survived the weather. I guess the sidewalls had stayed strong and the roof was still there. Hardwoods last for centuries. I wondered why the one corner of the loft had collapsed, and I wished whoever owned it would come fix it.

The newspapers were bewitching. I’d stand in one spot and read the first layer. It was news from maybe 1868. I can’t even remember the exact dates now, but it seems like I read the news from a span of twenty or thirty years. And it was similar to the news today. A couple had recently wed. Someone had been recently robbed. Politicians were fighting. And so on.

The language was more formal; the situations described were more proper—at least in the retelling. I’d get lost in the stories, and I can remember Wyatt coming to stand behind me and wrap his arms around me and nuzzle his chin in between my neck and my shoulder. My “gut instinct” fluttered. He whispered in my ear.

“I love the way you get lost in these stories.”

He squeezed me for a moment and stood still, seeming to cherish the love.

“You’re a different kind of person, Helen. So passionate.” He wrapped his hands around my hip bones. “I love everything about you.”

I turned to meet his eyes and held his gaze with the kind of warmth that felt like uninhibited love.

I believed that’s what it was.

Was my “gut instinct” wrong about Wyatt? I’ve asked myself that question a million times since. When someone seduces you and only later belittles you—or wraps his hands around your neck rather than your hips—it’s easy to wonder about “gut instinct” and personal failures. Should I have been looking for red flags? Maybe. But the issue when you’re dealing with a psychopath is that the red flags you might expect are most often not what you get.

I come back to this point again and again because when we overestimate our ability to “get” people through our “gut instinct,” we are more vulnerable to charming, high-functioning psychopaths. Because they can make us feel so good, so loved, and so understood. The red flags we expect—like little signs of a deceitful nature or callousness or flakiness, or even what we call love-bombing—these red flags are not always going to be there right away. Just as there are master criminals who never get caught and sloppy criminals who do, there are also psychopaths who never expose themselves and psychopaths who do. Your chances of “getting” a masterful psychopath through your “gut instinct” aren’t great. These people are called “disarming” for a reason. Because they disarm you.

If you marry a high-functioning, masterful psychopath, you will eventually see their other side. You’ll come to understand, painfully, the inner workings of someone who doesn’t care about anyone but who thrills over manipulating anyone and everyone. But don’t expect the world to see or believe your experiences. Because people on the outside are still standing in the glowing light of your partner’s psychopathic charm. And believing that their “gut instinct” would alert them to any issues.


Follow these links to previous chapters and a community of support on

Chapter One: Everyone’s Ex is a Psychopath
Chapter Two: Labels and Lists Might Not Help
Chapter Three: There Are Degrees of Conscience and Empathy
Chapter Four: Richard Parker is Not Your Friend
Chapter Five: Who is a Potential Victim?
Chapter Six: I Wouldn’t Let That Happen
Chapter Seven: If I Explain It Right, He’ll Care

Or you can find The Other Side of Charm: Your Memoir at major booksellers.