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Name that PSYCHO! A look at J. Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”
To put it lightly, I’m an impatient reader. A long-time writer, I find myself constantly editing as I scan the page, making it difficult to get to that inner place I yearn for, where the words turn into a world. Whether I’m ADD or just have great taste, unless there’s a deadline, I read most books in bits and pieces, and it often takes months. On the flip-side, if one grabs me, I tear through it in hours. Long story short, I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test in half a day and am so sorry it’s over.
I’ve always liked his work. Hell, given my background (which includes The X-files and Paranormal State) his subjects are tailor-made for me. Them explored conspiracy theories. The Men Who Stare at Goats looked at the confluence between the military, paranormal and mysticism. Yeah, the latter was sort of made into a film, but it couldn’t capture Ronson’s strong suits – his personal, wry-yet-anxious prose and the engaging travelogue structure.
While both are highly recommended, each had something missing. Beyond a clear fondness for the strangeness of humanity and a vague “I dunno” when it came to the big what-is-reality questions, they lacked a certain gravitas. In The Psychopath Test, Ronson’s ambivalence, though funny as ever, is no longer merely glib.
To be fair to the earlier works, that could, in part, be due to the subject matter. It’s easy to believe that conspiracy theories or the military fringe, while providing inklings into human nature, are simply bonkers no matter how you slice them. Murders and murderers, the nature of evil, by nature hit harder. But I think The Psychopath Test cuts deeper for a more important reason – because it’s as much about the word psychopath as it is about the people.
The structure is happily the same as ever. From Scientologists to Psychos to Psychiatrists, Ronson interviews and meditates on the crazies and those struggling to deal with them. There’s the fellow facing a prison sentence who intentionally convinces the authorities he’s insane. Hoping for an easier, shorter stay in the hospital, he winds up stuck there. Then there’s the callous, self-aggrandizing former CEO who may have a lot in common with Jason Voorhees.
The book hangs its hat on The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which becomse a sort of mantra. Much as colleges seek students with high SAT scores, a thirty or more on this baby attracts a different sort of attention. After learning enough about the test to hurt himself and others, Ronson applies its assumptions not only to known war criminals and masters of business, but also to himself, his friends and the people who created the diagnosis in the first place. And while we hear plenty about those left dead via predatory killers, we also meet those left dead via misdiagnosis.
Along the way he recounts some fascinating history, like the Rosenhan Experiment in which eight sane people presented themselves at different mental health institutions. Each complained they’d heard three words in their head; empty, hollow and thud. All were diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Though the “voices” didn’t recur, and they behaved normally, none were able to leave until they admitted they were insane and took their meds. One subject was held 52 days.
Sure, you may say, after all, they pretended to hear voices, but there’s more! When one well-known institute insisted they could not be fooled, Rosenhan announced a second phase, inviting them to spot imposters. Said institute shortly found 41 patients they considered fake. Only this time, Rosenhan hadn’t planted any imposters. The results shook the psychiatric world and led to the birth of the DSM-III, the Wikipedia of mental disorders.
That’s just a small taste.
While there’s nothing particularly new about the gray line between madness and sanity, The Psychopath Test straddles and hammers away at it with wit and perception, often bringing clarity to the murky difference between fallible language and the fallible humans the language tries to define. But that’s the problem with reality and words, isn’t it? Which is why I have trouble reading to begin with.
Any book that can get to that issue in such an engaging and entertaining way, is, in my eyes, worthy of the highest praise.
So, yeah, I liked it.
Note — I’ve sprinkled pics of famous film psychos throughout this post as eye candy, selfishly culminating with the cover of my own upcoming book, Ripper, out next March from Philomel. Yeah, you can probably name some of them, but what about all?