Jon Ronson’s new (ish) book The Psychopath Test is subtitled “a journey through the madness industry” and contains, amongst other things, accounts of a seemingly completely sane man who has been detained in Broadmoor mental hospital for twelve years, a number of extreme and ill-advised psychiatric experiments, some of their subjects which later went on to commit murders, the harrowing direct and indirect effects of the London 7/7 bombings on an eye-witness and the heartbreaking suicide of a vulnerable woman betrayed by the callous producers of a reality TV make-over show. Bizarrely, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.
Ronson makes no pretence at being an objective, or even particularly organised, observer of the disturbing and unconventional individuals and phenomena he writes about. He’s got more in common with the Hunter S. Thompson school of journalism than the peer-reviewed academic journal approach, though his anxious, uber-self-conscious mode of investigation couldn’t be more of a contrast to the fearless pharmaceutical-fuelled gonzo style. His previous books Them (on political and religious extremists) and The Men Who Stare At Goats (about top secret and fairly unbelievable psychological techniques being pioneered by special sections of the US army) were essentially loose collections of interviews and encounters with shadowy fringe figures that were often pretty tangential to the books’ ostensible themes but always made for compulsive reading due to Ronson’s skill at empathising with the unlikeliest of characters and conveying his unease and sense of ridiculousness at the situations he found himself in. The Psychopath Test is very much in this mould, although this time most of the people he interviews are, on the surface anyway, respected members of society: the psychologist who came up with a handy 20 step checklist for identifying psychopathic tendencies, a bestselling popular science author, the bigshot business executive who made millions while ruthlessly downsizing long-standing local companies. Typically Ronson contrives a meeting and then plays the klutz, artlessly pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in his subject’s carefully massaged life story and then hurriedly backtracking and dissembling. Sometimes he doesn’t need to do anything to get someone to expose their own absurdity other than turn the microphone on – the former MI5 whistleblower David Shayler comes across as a ludicrous attention-seeker who latches on and noisily champions any conspiracy theory the internet can throw up.
All of the above is not to say however that the whole book is played for laughs. Ronson is clearly very interested in and concerned about his subject (to the point that he notices himself getting slightly obsessive over his new-found skill as a psychopath-spotter), and when he’s talking about the people who have become victims of bad science or irresponsible authority figures his writing is as clear, passionate and affecting as the subject deserves. It’s pretty informative as well, and presents as balanced a view of competing theories as you could wish for (one of the author’s most endearing qualities is his acknowledgement that he tends to change his mind a lot, based largely on who he was last talking to). Anyway, after a period of struggling with the effort of finishing a book I raced through The Psychopath Test in a day or so – highly recommended.