Tuesday, 17 January 2012
The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson
What is a psychopath? That is the question at the heart of Jon Ronson’s book which is advertised as: “A journey through the madness industry.” What is a psychopath, how are psychopaths diagnosed, is there a cure, and what is the difference between psychopaths who are institutionalised, and the psychopaths at the top of the institutions: politics, business, entertainment and so on? These are just some of the questions Ronson explores in his study in madness.
In his research for this book, Ronson meets a man who feigned madness to try to escape a prison sentence – only to discover it is impossible to prove his sanity. In a chapter that reads more like the “madness literature” of Catch-22 or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, every action “Tony” takes to show that, in fact, he is not insane, is taken as evidence that, in fact, he is. Or that he is not mad, but still a psychopath.
Ronson catalogues historic diagnoses and attempts at treating psychopathy – and his findings are surreal, sometimes disastrous, often seeming more like a skewed fiction than reality – interviews the psychologist responsible for coming up with the definitive psychopathy test, and starts applying the test to various people he meets: the mass-murderer, the top businessman with ruthless ambition and a love for firing people, the M15 agent-turned-conspiracy theorist. And yes, it certainly seems that the same traits that label some people as “psychopaths” are those that are encouraged in the people judged as “most successful.” Is society really run my psychopaths?
At the same time, Ronson argues, it is easy for people to be misdiagnosed, and especially in this day and age, any strangeness or eccentricity is easily – too easily – categorised as “mental disorders,” sometimes with disastrous results. Where do we draw the line? is the question we are left asking, in the fragile balancing act between “madness” and “sanity.”
I’m not a natural reader of non-fiction, but I found Ronson’s style to be easy-going, understandable considering I have no background in psychology, a curious and fascinating, if somewhat frightening insight into the world of diagnosing psychopathy.