Journalist Jon Ronson’s “journey through the madness industry” begins with a stressful situation in parallel with a mystery dropped in his lap: First, he’s tapped to use his journalistic prowess to trace a book that’s been sent to prominent academics around the world without a clear source or reason. This project materializes at the same time that he’s legally threatened for defaming the leader of an Australian religious group called the Jesus Christians for calling him a psychopath.
From this compelling starting point, it’s a twisty, windy road through his journalistic explorations, with a first stop at Broadmoor, the UK psychiatric hospital where he meets “Tony,” who claims to be faking mental illness but is diagnosed with psychopathy by his doctors. This leads Ronson onto the Hare checklist, a handy dandy diagnostic tool consisting of a 20-point list of traits, behaviors, and characteristics for determining whether someone is a psychopath by clinical definition. Factors include impulsivity, lack of affect or remorse, “glib and superficial charm”, a parasitic lifestyle, pathological lying and manipulation, etc. As you might imagine, some interesting characters are about to cross Ronson’s path.
And the basic premise is important: “psychopath” gets tossed around lightly as an insult or descriptive term of certain abnormal behaviors without the person to whom it’s applied necessarily meeting these characteristics. So where is the line between clinical and something still nasty but less serious?
It is not illegal to be a psychopath but, still, it’s probably very insulting to be asked if you are one.
The checklist was developed by psychologist Robert Hare, who Ronson tracks down, attending his seminar to learn more about the behavior and characteristics of this curious 1 percent of the population meeting enough checklist criteria to be deemed psychopaths.
In exploring various figures as case studies in testing the Hare checklist (like Haitian death squad leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant), Ronson applies its checkpoints to himself, nervously finding a few fits. What he ends up with is the idea that labeling someone a psychopath is quite a difficult prospect, with heaps of nuance involved.
His journalistic style is processy, and includes a lot of seeing how the sausage is made. Since he’s such an amiable, charming writer, even when he’s self-deprecating or sort of thickly working out ideas for himself, the process is really more fun than it should be to watch. I love that even as he pursues his bigger ideas there are detours into often surprising but no less interesting territory – Scientology, conspiracy theories, etc.
And his investigations always lead to uncomfortable truths, including criticism from psychiatry and psychology professionals about Hare’s checklist, and Ronson’s own misgivings about the nature of extremes in the sane/insane divide and society in general, eventually concluding that we might be too quick and eager to shoehorn people into fitting things like checklist points.
A good example of this is Al Dunlap, a corporate executive known for his mass firings. But is it truly psychopathy, or is it just cold, heartless business tactics and successful entrepreneurship?
And so the morning continued, with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as Leadership Positives. Impulsivity was “just another way of saying Quick Analysis. Some people spend a week weighing up the pros and cons. Me? I look at it for ten minutes. And if the pros outweigh the cons? Go!” Shallow Affect (an inability to feel a deep range of emotions) stops you from feeling “some nonsense emotions.” A lack of remorse frees you up to move forward and achieve more great things. What’s the point in drowning yourself in sorrow?
Although it can be a bit simplistic, with a focus more on telling an entertaining story instead of a deeper scientific dive into psychopathy, Ronson’s conclusions about labeling and the importance of being sensitive to gradations, variants, and proverbial gray areas are worthy and thoughtful.
What jolted me was my own strange craving as a journalist and also as a now-qualified psychopath-spotter to see Al Dunlap in absolute terms.
There’s a running gag throughout of Ronson trying to find ways to apply the checklist to his nemesis, author A.A. Gill. He was rightly horrified by a column Gill wrote about hunting a gorilla, and became determined throughout this journey to label Gill a psychopath. It demonstrates one of my favorite things about Ronson’s journalism, how he can weave his own experiences and examples into his research without detracting or making a project feel uncomfortably, inappropriately about him. Instead, the personal elements becomes illustrative of his greater themes. And in this case, it was just so hilariously written.
Entertaining, enlightening research, storytelling, and psychosocial commentary from journalism’s master of investigating societal extremes.
There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.
The Psychopath Test:
A Journey Through the Madness Industry
by Jon Ronson
published May 2011 by Riverhead