Voted One Of The 50 Coolest Book Covers Ever: Jon Ronson and The Psychopath Test

Selected by Shortlist as one of the coolest book covers ever, Jon Ronson finds that psychos are all around us, many in worryingly unexpected places. I chatted to the author after watching him read in Hull...
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Selected by Shortlist as one of the coolest book covers ever, Jon Ronson finds that psychos are all around us, many in worryingly unexpected places. I chatted to the author after watching him read in Hull...

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At a time when the nature of journalism is being scrutinised more closely than Sienna Miller’s inbox we need people like Jon Ronson more than ever. Honest, diligent, non-judgemental; he’s both an inspiring journalist and a great detective, sniffing out fascinating and important stories and refusing to let his notepad rest until he’s followed every lead to the Nth degree and beyond.

In the past his book and documentary subjects have been as disparate as paranormal experiments in the US army, Stanley Kubrick’s obsession with cardboard box design, the sexual misadventures of Jonathan King and the possibility that giant shape-shifting lizards secretly rule the world (turns out they don’t, but they might). Not many of his projects deliver firm conclusions; rather they are free-wheeling explorations into whichever subjects happen to take his interest. He infiltrates seemingly impenetrable institutions and charms even the most reticent subjects into giving up their tales. His every undertaking is thorough and funny and the results always enlighten and entertain. Ronson is part paranoid picaro, part Gonzo journo, a worrier to rival Woody Allen and as startled at the revelations he’s uncovering as he ensures his readers are. He’s the closest thing we have to a real life Tintin, but without the eccentric hanger-ons, plus-fours or racism.

His latest adventure finds him exploring the mind as he tackles the subject of psychopathy. The book stays true to Ronson’s usual brand of nose-following journalism as he travels across Europe and North America seeking out anyone who can help him better understand the nature of psychopaths and how they are handled by mental health professionals, the criminal justice system and the media. Among other concepts, his book ’The Psychopath Test’ explores the notion that the character traits that can be identified and quantified to determine if a criminal or mental patient is a psychopath can also be found in the more ruthless members of the business community – those doing the killing in society have the same brain abnormalities as those making a killing on Wall Street.

Some are psychos, some saddos, but they all add context to Ronson’s central tenet that psychopathy is often misunderstood and (for those suffering misdiagnosis) a dangerous arena.

Central to his quest is The Psychopath (or PCL-R) Test itself, a 20-point checklist of character traits devised by psycopathy guru Robert Hare, which has become the most influential psycho-identifier in the world. It defines behaviours such as ‘grandiose sense of self-worth’ and ‘pathological lying’ which anyone questioning a potential psychopath can apply to their subject to determine if they are indeed a genuine psycho. Ronson takes one of Hare’s training courses and becomes a ‘psycho spotter’ himself before meeting people such as remorseless corporate axe-wielder Al Dunlap, Haitian death squad leader turned mortgage fraudster Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant and former spy-cum-cross-dressing 9/11 denier David Shayler. Some are psychos, some saddos, but they all add context to Ronson’s central tenet that psychopathy is often misunderstood and (for those suffering misdiagnosis) a dangerous arena.

The Psychopath Test begins with a truly Hitchcockian McGuffin – someone is sending leading academics a mysterious book – but soon settles into a determined effort to explain the sometimes murky world of the modern mental health world. There are fascinating insights into the history of modern psychology and events that have occurred in the past few decades which have brought us to current psychopathological thinking. Among the more extreme are the practice of ‘crotch eyeballing’, the Oak Ridge LSD tests and the horrors that await in Mary Barnes’s Shit Room. Everything is laid open to question from the carelessly experimental psychologists to the conspiracy-obsessed media and, similar to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, it’s written in easily digestible layman’s terms. It’s a great read.

Before tackling the book I saw Ronson read passages and take a Q&A at the Humber Mouth literary festival in Hull. His neurotic, (pretend) disorganised presentational style easily charmed the assembled crowd and the evening had far more laughs than a talk on severe mental disorders has any right. During the Q&A he emphasised that he doesn’t like to polemiscize, rather he sees where circumstance and intuition leads him and offers the information up for the reader to make up their own mind. Certainly the book avoids drawing any strong conclusions but this is one of its strengths and only helps to illustrate the ambiguity that still surrounds psychopathy in spite of Hare’s creditable attempts to quantify it utterly.

The whole episode highlights the potential failings of the PCL-R, as once you’ve been diagnosed a psychopath it’s virtually impossible to reverse the diagnosis

One of the most ambiguous characters is ‘Tony’, a prisoner in Broadmoor who says he faked mental illness to avoid a long sentence. It worked and failed, the doctors believe he is a psychopath and he’s consequently serving an indeterminate sentence for a relatively minor offence. The whole episode highlights the potential failings of the PCL-R, as once you’ve been diagnosed a psychopath it’s virtually impossible to reverse the diagnosis, everything you say or do simply validates something on the checklist. It’s the stuff nightmares are very definitely made of.

A day and a half after the Humber Mouth appearance I spoke to Jon on the phone (we had spent the intervening time very differently with me reading his book and him going to the premiere of the last Harry Potter film Harry - Hull for Hogwarts, not a bad swap). As the reading had been attended by quite a few police, probation officers and medical staff I asked him how the book had been received by those associated with mental health. Apparently the Hull turnout was par for the course and the feedback so far has been very positive. ‘I had an email from a psychiatrist when the book first came out,’ Jon said, ‘and he just said “you nailed it”, which was great.’

The book states that about one in every hundred people are psychopaths (although there is a greater concentration in large cities like London, which explains a lot) so I wondered if this meant that there would be a percentage of people in mental health associated careers that are themselves psychopaths? ‘Of course’, says Jon, ‘people are attracted to a world they know. If they have mental health problems they will go into the industry, in part to self-diagnose.’ It’s a worrying thought that someone being tested under the PCL-R may be far less psychotic than the person delivering it. I asked him if he thought there were psychos all around us, either undiagnosed or not visible in public. ‘I’m sure there are. It’s just that they’re behaving like that behind closed doors, making their wife’s life hell, or their kid’s.’

Ronson describes a meeting he had with a family in Rhode Island whose kids take medication for problems they probably don’t have

Perhaps the most worrying aspect the book highlights is the correlation between over-diagnosis of behavioural problems and the influence of the drug manufacturers. Particularly in the US, kids as young as 4 who are probably just a bit hyper (or more likely just behaving like kids) are diagnosed as ADHD or bi-polar at the drop of a hat and dosed to the eyeballs by exasperated, easily-lead parents under advice from misguided doctors in the thrall of the drug companies. Ronson describes a meeting he had with a family in Rhode Island whose kids take medication for problems they probably don’t have. It’s a worrying recent development but equally worrying is the willingness of the media to try and misrepresent the situation, something which was emphasised in no uncertain terms when Jon was asked by ‘a major, big, worldwide publication’ to rewrite this chapter of the book into an article. ‘The editor asked me 5 or 6 times to say that the kids had definitely been misdiagnosed, really pushed me. I couldn’t do that, I’m not qualified in any way to make that diagnosis, I’d only met them for a couple of hours but this editor wanted me to rewrite the chapter to be more damning of the US drug industry. I wish I was brave enough to say who it was.’

Again, it’s to Jon Ronson’s credit that he refused to bow to pressure, refused to bend the truth, refused to do anything other than report what he saw as honestly as possible and leave it to us to decide. This is why I think he’s like a great detective – rather than present their findings as fact detectives simply gather the evidence diligently and impartially, then pass it onto the judge. The Psycopath Test does a great job of gathering some very convincing evidence - it’s out now, you be the judge.

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