Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, 2011. I came into a loan of this book quite fortuitously. I'd heard Ronson interviewed on The Sound of Young America and on This American Life within a week or so of one another, and was intrigued. A friend happened to have it on her desk when I was visiting, and since she won't have time to read it for a space, she loaned it to me. It's almost as though I was meant to read it.

Ronson is an entertaining and engaging writer, though a tad sporadic: there are times when his stories about his own neuroses are a meaningful help to his argument, and times when I found them off-putting. That statement may be an expression of taste: I didn't mark examples to share. The story begins when he's contacted by a neurologist about a mysterious manuscript that's been sent to a number of different scientists, all of whom are unable to decipher it. Ronson's skills as an investigative journalist help him to find the author, and lead him into musings about sanity and a variety of challenges in mental health. Those musings lead him to an interest in psychopathy, the focal point of the book. He tries to make sense of psychopathy's definition, how it is diagnosed, how it is treated, and how psychopaths live in the world. His exploration includes a look at the history of psychology, and more general issues as well. Much of the book revolves around Bob Hare and his work--the development of the test for psychopathy, and the workshops on how to use it. I was deeply amused as Ronson uses the test with a CEO best-known for firing many, many people, to assess the prevalence of psychopathy in the corporate world. These explorations aren't just funny set pieces, mere side-notes to the argument, but are a marvellous way of exploring Ronson's increasing discomfort with the assessment of psychopathy and the label in general.

It's as he engages Scientologists and their attacks on psychiatry that Ronson's book reveals something just as fascinating as his subject matter: his own struggle as a journalist to maintain objectivity while entering into relationships that will help him engage in his research. The encounters with Tony--an incarcerated diagnosed psychopath--and Brian, a scientologist campaigning against psychiatry, are compelling and very well-written. We see it again in Ronson's depiction of his relationship with Bob Hare: though never studied as self-reflectively as that with Tony, it's even more intriguing, and we're left wondering about a certain level of monomania.

All in all, it's an unsettling book. I enjoyed it, but was left even more concerned than when I began it about how mental health labels are used, particularly in relationship to criminal justice issues. The only resolution I came away with was to decide to add The Men Who Stare at Goats to my to-read list.

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