Monday, October 03, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

You don’t have to have read Michel Foucault to appreciate that the madness industry is a crazy business. Can insanity really be measured and quantified? And who gets to decide upon the criteria? Such questions are at the heart of Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test. As the title suggests it is the field of psychopathy that particularly interests him. We quickly learn that it is a total misconception to think that all psychopaths are cold-blooded killers. What psychopaths actually suffer from is a complete inability to feel empathy. And there are thousands of such people at large in the UK. Your boss, schoolteacher, bank manager or local member of Parliament might just be one.

So how do you identify them? Well, you could use Bob Hare’s twenty point PCL-R checklist – a kind of field guide for psychopath spotters. His list includes such human flaws as: grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; and a failure to accept responsibility for one's actions. Ronson meets Hare and, to much comic effect, learns how to spot psychopaths after completing a course in west Wales. Intoxicated by his new powers Ronson begins to identify psychopathic traits in all kinds of people, notably himself.

The people Ronson interviews during his investigations are typically eccentric. There are the guys from Oak Ridge Hospital for the Criminally Insane who dosed psychopaths with LSD and put them through marathon group encounter sessions. We also meet Al Dunlap – one of those hard-nosed bastards brought in by failing businesses to make the tough decisions. Those decisions invariably involving laying off hundreds of workers whilst pocketing a large fee. David Shayler the cross-dressing former MI5 officer makes an appearance; as does the criminal profiler whose information helped convict for murder the unfortunate and entirely innocent Colin Stagg. Many other colourful characters are encountered.

Forming the main subplot of Ronson’s book is the fate of Tony. He claims to have faked his own psychosis in court in order to gain a lighter prison sentence. He did this by quoting extensively from such films as Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange. So convincing was he that he failed the Bob Hare checklist and ended up in Broadmoor. The difficulty in accurately assessing Tony’s mental state perfectly sums up the pit-falls of measuring madness by lists. He might be innocent or he might just be a clever psychopath manipulating well-meaning liberal types in a bid to gain freedom. You’ll just have to read the book to discover the veracity of Tony’s insanity.

The madness industry is subtly satirised by Ronson in The Psychopath Test but it is a non-sneering, non-superior kind of satire. You don’t ever get the sense that Ronson is looking down on his interviewees, even though readers might well be drawing their own negative conclusions about them. Nobody in this book is more mocked than Ronson himself who allows the reader to constantly laugh at his own foibles. Much has been made of Ronson’s brand of ‘naïve’ humour and of how ‘knowing’ it actually is. What his self-mockery certainly does do is win him the confidence of his subjects. He renders himself seemingly harmless and thus gains access to all the good stuff.

*The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson is published by Picador and is out now. It’s both a fascinating and a funny read.