Riverhead, 2011, 288 pages
The Psychopath Testt is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths, teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power.
He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath. Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.
While Jon Ronson reveals a great deal about his own neuroses in this book, he casts little light on the psychopaths he is allegedly researching, though he does give some interesting insights into the "madness industry" of psychologists who have studied, categorized, labeled, and tried to treat psychopaths, mostly without success.
Ronson begins with a strange introduction to the field of psychology and mental illness thanks to a group of Scientologists, who chose him to "expose" the evils of psychology. Scientologists believe that all mental disorders are because of engrams accumulated from past lives or space aliens or some shit like that. L. Ron Hubbard had a particular hatred of psychologists. Ronson spends a little time discussing the peculiarities of Scientology, but this book is primarily about psychopaths and what makes them tick... and what makes the people who study them tick.
After reading The Psychopath Test, it is not hard to believe that you have to be a little bit crazy to study crazy people. (Look out for those Abnormal Psychology majors...) From the arbitrariness of what goes into the DSM (did you know that far more copies are sold to interested non-academics/non-practitioners than to mental health professionals?) to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool that's become a quick and dirty way to label someone a psychopath, to the Rosenhan Experiment, the history of psychology is filled with enough self-reinforcing bumbling and egomania to make one think the Scientologists may have a point.
While Ronson's book is a collection of interesting anecdotes and observations, digressing into the overmedication of children, misdiagnoses of autism, and the brutality of capitalist devotion to "shareholder value," between interviews with ex-death squad leaders and allegedly psychopathic CEO Al Dunlap, it's a bit weak in its critique of science, and sheds little light on his subjects.
Martha Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door was more illuminating. (Ronson does quote Stout.) Ronson does, however, give a bit of a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath in a way that Stout only addressed abstractly: how do sociopaths/psychopaths (there is no technical difference between them) see themselves? Do they recognize that they are "broken"? Do they ever want to be cured, and can they be? (Short answer: no.)
Ronson's interview with Al Dunlap was particularly interesting, as he actually confronted Dunlap with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and the allegations that Dunlap, according to this tool, scored high on the psychopathy scale. Dunlap proceeded to point out that every behavior presented as evidence of being a psychopath could also be interpreted as someone who has a forceful and driven personality who gets things done. True enough, there is a lot of evidence that psychopathy is an asset in positions of power, like boardrooms.
Ronson is able to see how some of his subjects ape normal human reactions and manipulate people the way they'd handle a TV remote control, but others, like Al Dunlap, are more ambiguous. Is Dunlap really a psychopath, or just a merciless asshole? As both Stout and Ronson point out, even genuine psychopaths are rarely serial killers; most live law-abiding, respectable lives, though never out of any actual respect for the law or society.
Verdict: An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.
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