The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
by Jon Ronson, http://jonronson.com/
Journalist Jon Ronson is fascinated one day when he discovers that a man, who he determines must be crazy, has stirred a whole slew of people by sending them secret message through the mail, when in fact the messages, in the form of handcrafted books, appear to not have any solution to the riddle and only be the result of one man’s craziness. This sparks Ronson’s interest in madness and how it influences not only people but also politics, medicine, and culture. At one point, he takes a course in psychopath spotting from the creator of the official psychopath checklist, Bob Hare.
Ronson puts you in the scenes and makes himself out to be a sympathetic though flawed protagonist/narrator. The book is funny, and asks a lot of really important questions.
There is some dramatic irony (that is, distance) between the Ronson writing the story after the adventures are over and the character in the book who is experiencing these things. I think it’s because he writes in absolutes that the reader can pick up on that distance. For example, he takes Bob Hare’s psychopath spotting course and realizes that Bob Hare is a genius and now that Ronson has taken this course, he can spot psychopaths with the best of them. A statement like that (paraphrased) will make the reader skeptical, as they should be, because eventually he does come to wonder if maybe taking one course doesn’t make him an expert and maybe this checklist of Hare’s is misguided anyway. This is what causes a lot of the subtle humor.
Research indicates that psychopaths can’t feel empathy because their amygdalas aren’t working right. Even though through the whole book Ronson is spotting things from the checklist that apply to himself, he also serves as the psychopaths’ foil because his amygdala is over-active. He has above average anxiety, he learns from a doctor, and it doesn’t help that he’s rubbing shoulders with so many dangerous people.
I read a lot of comments about this book before reading it. People said that now they can’t help but diagnose people in their lives as psychopaths based on the 20 question checklist printed in the book. And while I’m guilty of the same, the book isn’t unveiling this perfect checklist as the way to know if someone is a psychopath. It’s pointing it out as one of the tools used that may not be the best determining factor, as demonstrated by the character of Tony who was locked up for years because he fit some of the items on the checklist, but eventually they realized that even though he scored high on the checklist, he wasn’t actually dangerous and let him out. It questions the DSM book that gives checklists for all mental illnesses. It questions bi-polar disorder in children (for example, an increase in diagnoses could mean that the diagnosing process has changed, not that more kids are having problems).
And if you’re looking for some adventure like one of his previous books, The Men Who Stare at Goats (also highly recommend), Ronson interviews a death squad leader, goes into Ron L. Hubbard’s house, and recounts some fascinating stories like those of David Shayler who went from conspiracy theorist to messiah, a treatment program that tried to fix psychopaths by putting them on LSD, and reality television and how we only put crazy people on TV (which I think is what makes people struggle with what is ‘normal’).
If I have one criticism, it’s that he sets up a lot of great questions (if statistically more psychopaths are in high power, is our society dysfunctional because it’s run by people with no empathy?) but doesn’t answer them. But then again, the best of books don’t have answers. They just need to ask the right questions.
“There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.”
If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not read Auntie Doris’s review of Frank by Jon Ronson?