Monday 18 December 2017

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

Picador, £14.99

ONE STEP BEYOND? King George III was considered by many to be mad, but the author concludes that we are all a bit mad
ONE STEP BEYOND? King George III was considered by many to be mad, but the author concludes that we are all a bit mad

Rosita Sweetman

THIS is Guardian writer Jon Ronson's fourth book (Men Who Stare at Goats being his most famous). It showcases Ronson's trademark laid-back style -- a post-modern Gonzo for the 21st Century -- while also getting in some serious digs at the "business" of madness.



There are some breath- taking set pieces, in which Ronson, armed only with a notebook, meets some of the 21st Century's more powerful movers and shakers (and mass murderers) and asks them if they are psychopaths.

His quest begins with a bunch of neurologists, puzzled recipients of an indecipherable book. Ronson, as amateur sleuth/reporter, tracks down the author, and finds a (benign) "crackpot". What intrigues Ronson, however, are the ripples this one crackpot's actions create; is our world as rational as we like to think, or is it built on insanity? And, have we gone overboard on the insanity stakes, labelling even normal human behaviour as a mental condition, and coincidentally, inviting Big Pharma in to "medicate"?

A quick trawl through the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders), once a slim volume outlining 30 or so mental disorders, now a 886-page beast, boasting 374 disorders -- including such gems as Arithmetic Learning Disorder (being crap at sums), Caffeine Induced Disorder (the jitters from skulling too many espressos), Nightmare Disorder (too much rich food before bye-byes), tees Ronson up nicely for the next stage -- Bob Hare, and the Psychopath Test, or the 20 personality traits checklist now used by psychiatrists and mental health workers around the globe.

First hinted at as a different kind of madness by a French doctor in the 19th Century (labelled chillingly "manie sans delire" -- madness without delusions), psychopaths have always been deemed notoriously difficult to smoke out; they make up only one per cent of the population but because they are violent, manipulative, feel no remorse, and are deemed largely "untreatable", the splash they make in the pond is usually noisy and destructive.

Hare's checklist scores potential psychopaths on a scale of 1-40 for superficial charm, proneness to boredom, pathological lying, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, parasitic lifestyle, promiscuous sexual behaviour and so on.

As a young prison psychologist, Hare was up against some tough nuts. He devised a test, which ended with the prisoner getting a powerful electric shock. What stunned him was the psychopaths "didn't break a sweat", even when they were asked to take the test a second time -- they didn't feel fear or remember the pain. When Hare sent his results to a science magazine he was told they couldn't be those of "real people".

Hare believes that psychopaths are different, almost an alien species. No doubt if you worked with people such as Peter Woodcock, who killed because he "wanted to know what it would feel like to kill a human being", you would get a bit cynical, but a checklist that determines whether or not you are the worst kind of lunatic seems a tad extreme, and counter-intuitive -- if all you need is a checklist, why do we need mental health professionals?

There were some crazy experiments in the past, such as at Oak Ridge, Canada, where an idealistic young psychiatrist got permission to work with psychopaths, employing mammoth, naked psychotherapy sessions fuelled by LSD and lots of screaming. That ended in disaster (when freed, 85 per cent of the patients went on to savagely reoffend).

And then there those with psychopathic tendencies who are not locked up, but are rather at the top of the tree, such as very successful businessman Al Dunlap of Florida, who was responsible for stripping assets and thousands of workers from hundreds of firms (and enjoying it). Was he a psychopath? Ronson's interview is a minor masterpiece.

Or the television researcher who spent years tracking down people who were "just mad enough" to make cheap entertainment for a reality show -- was she part of a media machine that borders on psychopathy?

Is the "madness industry" itself -- now mainly a labelling system, delivering patients to Big Pharma, including the thousands of under-fives in America "diagnosed" as bipolar and on up to 20 pills a day -- psychopathic?

Very occasionally, Ronson's post-modern shtick can get irritating. I longed for him, even once, to tear off the cool -guy mask and scream: these guys are b*****ds, and, more crucially, ask why are these guys (and girls) that way and what damaged/destroyed the feeling part of their brains so catastrophically that they get a kick, perhaps their only kick, out of hurting/maiming/ killing others?

The most chilling line in the book has to be from a psychopath who was shown a photograph of a terrified woman and asked to identify the emotion. He didn't know, but it was the same expression he saw on the faces of victims just before he killed them.

In the end Ronson eschews the Hare checklist, and the outer reaches of conspiracy theorists (lizard people, etc), and argues for a less formulaic approach to mental illness overall, an acceptance that we are all a bit mad, "that there is no evidence that we have been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal ... in fact, our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and our compulsions are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things".

The Psychopath Test is a terrific contribution to the madness debate, but I'd still like to know what (human) events produce such damaged people -- long before the professionals or the pills get to them.

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