Review: The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson

 So … another odd choice for a book at bedtime but to be totally honest, I bought this and read it in an afternoon.  Jon Ronson is a columnist in the Guardian, a publication of which I am a little bit of a fan.  I read the article he did explaining his motivations for writing this book and when it was marked down to half-price, well, it was really only a matter of time.  This is a book that proposes to ‘take a journey through the madness industry’ and takes its name from the Bob Hare Psychopath Checklist, which even Bob Hare thinks is overused.

So, Jon Ronson is brought in to consult when a group of academics are mysteriously sent hand-made books entitled Being and Nothingness.  This is finally exposed as a rather odd prank played by a rather odd man living in Sweden but Ronson is caught by how much havoc this apparently random act has caused.  This leads him to start thinking about what madness really means, considering the DSM-IV-TR which lists all 374 known mental disorders, twelve of which Ronson instantly diagnoses himself with.  Naturally though, you can’t question the authenticity of mental disorders without running into the Scientologists, which Ronson duly does.


Any area where the Scientologists have the position of expert sets my alarm bells ringing – one summer I worked in University College London, just off Tottenham Court Road which has a Scientology centre.  Nearly every day, I returned with my gaggle of teenagers from whatever tourist attraction we had been visiting and had to pass by the Scientologists who hung around the door and invited people in to take the Personality test.  I tended to take that part of the street at a bit of a run as they made me nervous, but it was even worse one day when I walked past with a colleague who stopped, smiled kindly at the enthusiastic Scientologist and said patiently, “I’m sorry but when I moved to London, I promised my mother that I wouldn’t join any cults”.  

Jon Ronson

Anyway, Ronson goes off with the Scientologists and through them is introduced to “Tony”, The Sane Man in Broadmoor.  “Tony” was convicted of GBH but decided that it would be easier to fake madness and be put in a ‘cushy’ hospital rather than prison.  Instead, he got twelve years in Broadmoor.  And counting.  Let that be a warning to you – he would only have gotten seven years in prison for GBH.      However, the psychologists and psychiatrists have concluded that by trying to pretend to be insane, “Tony” has proved that he is in fact a … drum roll … psychopath!

So here we are, the crux of the matter.  Ronson considers the work of various experts in the field but where the book really hits its high note when it introduces the Bob Hare Psychopath Checklist.  It’s funny, you read it and my natural reaction was to think back over people who have Done Me Wrong and diagnose them … I managed to score a certain someone of my acquaintance an impressive 14 out of 20.  This only made me giggle more when on the next page, Jon Ronson started doing the same thing about people who had given him bad reviews over the years.  Of course, after that I suddenly fretted in case some of those might apply to me, but then Ronson introduced Martha Stout from Harvard Medical School who kindly reassures the reader that if you are worrying that some of these criteria might apply to you, then you are definitely not a psychopath.  Hurrah!

Armed with the Psychopath Checklist, Ronson wanders the globe to meet and categorise psychopaths.  He meets someone who is guilty of genocide, another who is a so-called ‘corporate psychopath’ who hears the so-called signs of being a psychopath, then spins them into Positive Leadership Qualities.  Bewildered, Ronson then considers David Shayler the former M15 spy turned conspiracy theorist/transvestite.  I can see why Ronson felt like he needed to include someone who went crazy on the Internet since it is a true adventure playground for crazy people but that chapter still felt like a bit of a non-sequitur.  

Ronson moves on to the troubling world of criminal profiling, concentrating on the troubling case of Colin Stagg who was wrongly suspected of the murder of Rachel Nickell because he ‘fitted the profile’, a mistake made much worse when the Police set a honey trap to get him to confess.  Sadly, while they were doing this, another woman and her small child were killed by the true guilty party.  This again underlined the weaknesses of making decisions based on categories that may not apply to different people.  Then, Ronson is invited back by the Scientologists to hear about the ridiculousness of psychiatry – this leads him to discuss the numbers of children in America diagnosed with Childhood Bipolar Disorder, a disease which most seem to agree does not in fact exist.  The investigatory portion of the book ends with the sad story of Rebecca Riley who died from an overdose of anti-psychotics aged five.  From the funny, we finish with the tragic.

Ronson is an odd narrator, I was familiar with his journalistic style which is a bit Hugh Grant circa Four Weddings, eg. slightly apologetic/neurotic and ever so polite.  His anxiety is a big deal but at least in this book there was a bit less about his son Joel, whose progress I have tracked since the lad was about four although these days he comes across as much less spoilt.  He is an engaging guide through the ‘madness industry’ but there are times when the schtick wears a bit thin.  He is writing about things which are in fact very very serious.  A number of my family members have suffered with depression, during my time at university I have also witnessed a couple of people having what can only be described as ‘episodes’.  I am not with the Scientologists, I believe in mental disorders.  Yet still, when I was working in America I was horrified by how much the children over there are medicated for the most mundane of maladies.  

When it comes down to it, I enjoyed this book – it was very easy to read and it explained an area of the world which I have had very little experience of.  From what I do know of depression, there are times when it can feel like a CD when it skips, you’re stuck in a pattern that you can’t get out of and sometimes you need help.  As Ronson points out, although the Scientologists pour scorn on the diagnosis of Rhinotillexomania (nose-picking), this in fact refers to a phenomenon where someone picks their nose until it exposes their facial bones.  Madness is real.  People can only get better while we remember that.  Still, there are some disorders that are ridiculous, such as Drapetomania which only ever applied to black people and referred to their insane urge to run away from slavery.

What is clear though is that the Psychopath Test as dreamed up by Bob Hare can only help you so far – there is the anecdote of the nice middle-class girl who tested as a psychopath but had no violent outbursts because she had come from a good home and so had morals to fall back on.  We can’t simply spot psychopaths like some sort of armchair Spiderman and that is I think the point of this book.  Nobody is perfect, at some point in our lives we will all do things that mean that we fit in the criteria of the psychopath test, that does not mean that we are psychopathic menaces to society.  Everybody is different, we cannot always understand what is in each other’s hearts – as someone who works in the education sector, it worries me how many children are being diagnosed with autism and ADHD because they are children, they are learning, they will make mistakes, that does not make them crazy or weird or subnormal.  In categorising and isolating the ‘abnormal’, we are forgetting to truly love our fellow man.

four-stars
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The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Published by Pan Macmillan on June 3rd 2011
Genres: Humor, General, Psychology, Social Psychology, Science, History, Social Science, Social Classes
Pages: 304
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781447202509


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