Jon Ronson | The Psychopath Test

in Books/Reviews by

My first exposure to Jon Ronson’s work was the film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which featured prominent actors George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. The dramatic narrative of the film revealed the U.S. military’s attempts to exploit psychic warfare, recruiting so-called psychics and exploring the potential military applications for telekinesis, clairvoyance, and other spooky actions willed into being from a distance. While I was aware the film had significant differences from Ronson’s book of the same name, I was nevertheless excited to begin reading The Psychopath Test, feeling it would provide a similarly intriguing account of “the madness industry.”

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry provides a mostly chronological account of Ronson’s investigation of the world of psychopaths, with the occasional pertinent flashback or tangential point of explanation. Ronson’s book certainly lives up to its subtitle. It really feels as if the author is the driver on a roadtrip through a psychotic landscape while the reader rides alongside him in the passenger seat, gripping anxiously at the dashboard. Ronson’s own journey through the madness industry begins with a cryptic anomaly, Joe K.’s Being or Nothingness, an unusual conundrum that leads him to explore what defines a psychopath, questioning whether the criteria for diagnosing a psychopath is even valid, and trying to discern the prevalence of psychopaths in the world around us.

Ronson begins exploring madness after encountering the strange circumstances surrounding Joe K.’s cryptic text, Being or Nothingness.  This unusual book is brought to Ronsosn’s attention when a neurologist, Deborah Talmi, from the University College London Institute of Neurology contacts the investigative journalist in the hopes that he might be able to solves the book’s puzzle.  Being or Nothingness arrived as an unmarked package in her university mailbox, and when she opened it she discovered the book along with a letter addressed to Professor Hofstader.  A sticker attached to the book’s cover warns the recipient to read the letter before perusing the text itself.  Thumbing through the work, Talmi grew more and more fascinated with the strange text.  Being or Nothingness has forty two pages, but the text is only printed on twenty one pages; words are carefully cut out from some passages, not merely blacked out with a marker; and it is rife with both oblique and transparent references to Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Einstein, and numerous other prominent thinkers.  Talmi is baffled by this puzzling package and soon discovers that other academics received identical packages.  Collectively, these academics tried to decode the riddle, and, while theories abound, they could not come to much agreement.  Hence, Talmi approached Ronson to investigate the mystery.  Without revealing his findings, suffice it to say that his discoveries provide the impetus for his broader investigation of the madness industry.

As Ronson embarks on his journey through the looking glass, he arms himself with the tools to identify psychopathic traits in individuals, completing Bob Hare’s training course governing the application of his PCL-R – the revised psychopathy checklist.  Ronson admits his skepticism going into the training seminar, but explains how it was quite persuasive nonetheless. Armed with the ability to spot psychopathic traits, Ronson is confident in his capacity to act as an amateur sleuth, and he begins spotting psychopathic tendencies in people all around him, including himself and those trying to aid in his investigation. Throughout The Psychopath Test Ronson identifies whenever an event matches up with an item on the checklist, earmarking his own nervous anxieties, the cold confidence of academics and psychiatrists, the lack of empathy in journalists and corporate big wigs, and the manipulative nature of those already diagnosed as psychopaths. As he interviews CEOs in their mansions, condemned “psychopaths” in institutions, and the psychiatrists in charge of such institutions, Ronson guides the reader with his own intuitions, but there’s always a level of doubt that is present as well. What makes all of this so fascinating to the reader is that Ronson really succeeds in providing reasonable accounts for thinking all of these different people (or groups of people) sound psychotic, yet his doubts remain valid. This creates a profound level of suspense in the reader, as we question our own opinions of his diagnoses.

As Ronson’s investigation proceeds, he meets with diagnosed psychopaths in prisons, alleged psychopaths in the business world, and psychiatrists who shape the industry.  He meets with people like Toto Constant, who was found guilty in absentia of leading horrendous death squads in Haiti and presently serves a thirty-seven year sentence in the U.S. for mortgage fraud.  Another psychotic he interviews, named Tony, had committed grievous bodily harm and claims to have faked madness to be incarcerated in an institution rather than prison; his plan backfired, however, and he was sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum with the worst of the worst in England, where he would likely never be released because psychopathy is considered untreatable.  Ronson meets with Al Dunlap, former CEO of Scot (the tissue company) and Sunbeam (a company that manufactured toasters), who made his career on viciously downsizing those companies and taking pleasure in firing employees. Ronson’s encounters with these individuals are filled with both the suspicion they might be psychopaths and the doubt that he’s qualified to really make such a damning diagnosis. As such, Ronson retains a certain level of objectivity. Nevertheless, the most terrifying moment I recall from the text is in an interview with Robert Spitzer, the editor of DSM-III, a book which has been employed by many professionals in the industry as the Bible of mental disorders. When asked if he ever ponders the possibility that he may have moved the industry into territory where professionals overzealously diagnose patients, he responds that he never thinks about it. When Spitzer is pressed on the issue, he admits he may have included some disorders mistakenly. This is a rare occasion when Ronson does not point out that Spitzer’s own callous regard for the people misdiagnosed by his influential book is, according to the PCL-R, characteristic of psychopathy. After reading so many points that Ronson associates with items on the checklist, the silence on this point actually reinforces the horrific implications of this event.

Ultimately, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is an insightful account of the madness industry that doesn’t overstep the author’s credentials. He makes no claim to be an authority on the matter, but regards himself more as an amateur sleuth. This approach allows the reader to relate on a more personal level. Ronson is not a haughty elitist, labelling everyone as a psychopath and scoffing; rather, he remains humane, which helps him secure sincere responses from his interviewees and reassures the audience as well. The Psychopath Test is a thought-provoking and compelling page turner. I had difficulty putting the book down. Once I had finished reading it, I only craved more.