Jul 272011

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I studied psychology in university and used to be quite interested in the psychopath, what made them tick, how to deal with them (warily). Back then, there was no scientific or physiological explanation for the psychopath. And the view was they were incurable. They never changed. It was my misfortune to run into a couple or three. It always amazed me how well they sucked in almost — well, not almost, every person I knew. To me, they had little red flags over their heads saying, danger, charm offensive. If I could, I stayed far away. It’s why to this day, if I see or meet someone who’s obviously charming, my hackles go up. Yet these psychopaths I’d met would take in people, convince people of the truth of their stories, whatever those stories were, manipulate people into doing their dirty work, and people would only figure out their sheep’s clothing-like nature when they did something stupid or were caught out in a lie. Unfortunately, by that point, damage had been done. They are really really good liars. The best. Now, I should mention these people were not known to the police, had not seen the inside of the criminal system to my knowledge. That’s why I was interested in this book. For so long, talk of psychopaths has mostly focused on those in prisons, yet I’m convinced they destroy people and companies in ever-widening ripples from families to friends to neighbours to employees and strangers. Others have too as that film so famously explored. But I wondered how this anxiety-ridden journalist would handle meeting one and finding out more about them.

Jon Ronson writes in a breezy, easy-to-read way, and sprinkles his book with humour that makes you bark out loud at the suddenness of it. Psychopathy may seem like a serious subject, but the humour shifts the subject, his own attitudes, and his perceptions of the people he meets so that you see what you’ve just read a little bit differently. At first, it was all connected, but then he seemed to go off tangent. He described a man who sounded like he had mania, not psychopathy, which confused the heck out of me. And then he went off on another tangent talking about reality shows (which sound way more prevalent across the pond than here and way more bizarre than what I’ve seen in Canada). I scratched my head. Is this book about psychopathy or something else? Still, his writing — and my own interest in things psychological that I’d thought had disappeared, but apparently not — kept me devouring the book.

When I read the last line, I felt unsatisfied, like I’d been given a tease of three different morsels, but not enough to fill me up on each one. The premise of the book is psychopathy, yet he never finishes that theme. He does circle it, starting and ending with a prisoner he met in Broadmoor. But what was the point? Other than an incomplete story, which is as life is. Then he switched to talking about psychiatry and the DSM and how it shaped how we look at psychiatric diagnoses, as well as how the pharmaceutical industry has used it to increase (new) psychiatric diagnoses. But he didn’t finish that theme either. Frustrating! He wrote just enough for the reader to realise that a good book on the madness industry was warranted. And then his talk about reality shows and their deadly consequences raised the eyebrows, but he veered away just as you wanted to know more, to think about it more through the contemplations of the author and interviews with acknowledged experts in the field and perhaps discussions of the latest research. This third theme could’ve been a whole book on the reality show industry and how it encourages madness.

Perhaps he could’ve written this book better so that his introduction to the diagnosed psychopath at Broadmoor led in an obvious way into an exploration of the madness industry and thence to the reality show industry. But he never connected the mania guy to Tony the psychopath guy to the dead sister of the reality show contestant. The only connection was his travelling. Not enough. In short, the writing was entertaining; the structure sucked.

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