12 December, 2011Issue 17.5Science

Email This Article Print This Article


Rachael Goddard-Rebstein

PsychoJon Ronson
The Psychopath Test
Picador, 2011
304 Pages
ISBN 978-0330492263


Given that psychopathy is one of the most highly publicized and easily marketable of the mental illnesses, it should come as no surprise that a journalistic investigation of psychopaths should be a hit. But while Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test has its fair share of coldblooded killers and gory crimes, it stands apart from other works of popular psychology by all those psychiatrists and journalists who cater to the public’s fascination with madness. Instead of following the general patterns of the genre and focusing on the psychopathic mind, either to vilify it or else to examine it as a foreign object, Ronson broadens the scope of his book to investigate a far greater mystery: the role of madness in our lives.

Ronson explores this all-encompassing mystery through a series of separate encounters, each of which segues seamlessly to the next, though the deeper connections between them are only revealed at the conclusion. Each section contains enough quirky humor and distinct ideas to conceivably stand alone; indeed, the chapter on the overzealous application of drugs to treat such questionable conditions as childhood bipolar disorder reappeared, with only minor modifications, as an article in New Scientist. At the conclusion, Ronson manages to tie together all the ideas introduced and stories told while avoiding the rigidity and limitations of a central dogma. In fact, one could go so far as to describe The Psychopath Test as anti-dogmatic; Ronson criticizes the narrow, simplified conceptions of madness that result from the attempts of society and psychiatry alike to eliminate gray areas.

Before exposing the weaknesses in accepted views of madness, Ronson must first fully absorb the influence of the proponents of such views. Perhaps Ronson is more skeptical than he lets on (he always presents himself as an eager and willing convert to each successive idea), but his enthusiasm inevitably wanes when he discovers that those who teach each idea have motives and faults of their own, which are just as limiting as his own bias as a journalist searching for a catchy story. Although he is initially critical of the arbitrary diagnoses of psychiatry, he changes his mind after meeting some of psychiatry’s most vocal opponents, the Scientologists. An encounter with a man who was institutionalized after apparently “faking” madness then sends him veering to the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, as he becomes a disciple of the renowned psychiatrist Bob Hare. Under Hare’s tutelage, Ronson masters the Hare Checklist, that all-powerful method of detecting psychopathy which gives the book its title; a test in which scoring a few points too many could mean a lifetime of incarceration. It is at this point in the book that the temptation to embrace dogma wholeheartedly is at its strongest—once Ronson has memorized each item on the Hare Checklist, he becomes fascinated by Bob’s assertion that psychopaths are “the reason the world is so unfair”. Whether in the realm of “savage economic injustice”, “brutal wars”, or even just “everyday corporate cruelty”, psychopaths are “the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond”; the main disruptive forces in our society.

Ronsen seems to recognize that such a thesis could make for an exciting, dynamic study; almost like the nonfiction equivalent of an action comic, with Ronson as a hero on a mission to root out the villains from “the corridors of power”. All he thinks he needs to fulfill this mission are his new psychopath-spotting skills and some infamous personalities to interview, like the former Haitian death squad leader Toto Constant, convicted for crimes against humanity, and Al Dunlap, the legendary C.E.O with a penchant for firing people whose mass-downsizing ventures earned him the nickname “Chainsaw Al”.

But from the very beginning of its search for psychopaths, Ronson’s basic thesis is consistently undermined. Ronson mocks his own willingness to squeeze anything and everything he can into the categories of the Bob Hare checklist. He does not deny the existence of psychopaths, as demonstrated by his chilling interview with Toto Constant, but neither does he deny the presence of his own journalistic bias and general overconfidence, as demonstrated by his quick categorization of a critic and rival as a psychopath and his attempts to downplay Al Dunlap’s less psychopathic qualities. At first Ronson records these flaws in his own perspective matter-of-factly, as if he is unaware of his own absurdity, but his self-criticism becomes more direct as he turns his attention to the treatment of madness by the media, a group to which Ronson himself belongs.

Ronson is perhaps at his most self aware when dealing with the culture of reality television and the strange case of David Shayler, conspiracy theorist and would-be messiah. Ronson explains why a journalist like himself, who, after all, wants to sell a story, might be just as inclined to reduce someone like Shayler to his “maddest edges”. Yet once attuned to his own motives for classifying people as psychopaths, Ronson’s enthusiasm for Hare and his Psychopath Test noticeably wanes. Rather than rejecting the psychiatric dogma altogether, however, Ronson brings it back at the conclusion of the novel, when he returns to the case of Tony, a man who faked madness. After spending decades of his life living among serial killers in a prison for the criminally insane, Tony at last faces the prospect of release, if only the legal authorities could make up their minds that he is sane. It is at this point that the all the different threads of narrative seem to converge, as Ronson attempts to apply all the ideas he has encountered so far to Tony. Is he a psychopath through and through? A harmless but exploited madman? A semi-psychopath? Even when his fate is settled, the question of his diagnosis remains open to the reader. The book ends, as it began, with a mystery.

Rachael Goddard-Rebstein is studying English at Lady Margaret Hall. She writes fiction and is from Vancouver, Canada.