Book Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon RonsonPosted: September 4, 2013
This is hands down one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, the book living up to it’s subtitle “A journey through the madness industry”.
Initially recruited to investigate a mysterious puzzle of a book sent to academics across the world, Ronson soon changes his focus to the “mad” people in society. From this jumping off point he examines psychopathy and how it is dealt with in society.
He meets Scientologists focused on discrediting psychiatry, which sets him up to meet “Tony” a young man held in Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital who claims that he faked madness to avoid prison, only to be diagnosed as a psychopath and who may spend his entire life in Broadmoor.
Ronson then discovers the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a 20 point test administered to determine whether someone is a psychopath or not. He meets Bob Hare, who invented the checklist and who seems to show a jaded, cynical view of psychopathy. Ronson learns how the test work and begins to use it to analyze everyone he meets, going slightly power mad.
He attempts to ascertain whether a Haitian death squad leader is a psychopath and whether a ruthless businessman also exhibits the signs.
But Ronson also looks at the problems arising from the HPC and also the worrying trend of medicating young children for childhood bipolar, including a tragic death due to over medication. Several issues also come into play- the media’s treatment and exploitation of people with mental health problems, whether a certain level of madness can be useful and where exactly is the line between genuine madness and eccentricity.
I was blown away by this book, it’s chock full of great anecdotes and startling facts, especially a section where Ronson looks at the treatment of mental health problems in the 1960s, when less was known and there seemed to be very little regulation, allowing psychiatrists to try out supremely unconventional approaches with mixed results.
Throughout, even during it’s darker and more disturbing moments, Ronson manages to write with verve and wit. There’s a kind of sardonic tone that he adopts at times, and he is cutting at times, but on the whole there’s a warmth to his writing, and he allows his own weaknesses and fears to creep into his writing.
He owns up to becoming slightly mad with power when he learns the HPC, viewing himself as special and gifted, and acknowledges a sense that perhaps something within him is not normal, and that is why as a journalist he is drawn to outsiders and oddballs.
The people he meets along the way are an interesting bunch, with stories that range from tragic to surreal, and all open up to Ronson in their own ways. Like Louis Theroux, Ronson seems to have a knack for engaging with people many would shy away from and while he pokes fun at them and highlights their absurdities and flaws, but it never feels unfairly savage.
The topic of psychopaths might seem heavy or depressing, but the execution is so well done that it never bums you out, and I read this book with complete absorption, and it was the kind of book which has you recounting little factoids and stories from to the people around you. An utter gem an well worth checking out.
Verdict: Engagingly written and a fascinating read, Ronson is a talented writer with an eye for human behaviour and a great sense of humour. It’s an intriguing insight not only into mental health, but how it is treated in our society and the way it permeates society to a deeper extent than I’d previously given thought to. 9/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.