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Author: Jon Ronson

Title: The Psychopath Test

Publisher: Picador

Hardback: 287 pages

ISBN: 978-0-330-49226-3

Price: £16.99

Publication Date: 03/06/2011


Having finished Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test, I quickly realized that, as Ronson himself had done in his book, I was becoming somewhat of an amateur witchfinder-general of the psychopath-spotting world. Armed with my rudimentary knowledge of Robert D. Hare’s PCL-R Test [Psychopathy Checklist-Revised – a 20-step psychopath checklist which gives individuals scores between zero and forty; the higher the score, the more psychopathic the person], gleaned from the pages of Ronson’s book, I had begun to run through many of my family and friends, scoring them according to Hare’s test with trigger-happy zest as I ticked off each part of the checklist that applied to them!

And then, little-by-little, I realised that I had stumbled straight into the trap that I had read Ronson stumbling into only a short time before. Because Hare’s checklist is so seductively simple and easy to understand that it reels you in before you know it. Much like the title of this book.

For The Psychopath Test is not actually exclusively about psychopaths – even thought the name might suggest that it is.

I can certainly see why Ronson and the publisher decided to use the title. It is very strong and does grab your attention. But it proves to be something of a misnomer, as only part of the book really deals with psychopaths and psychopathy.

For the book also deals with – and explores – psychiatry, the incarceration of ‘dangerous’ individuals, the prevalence of medication in contemporary society, and how we recognise and deal with ‘madness’ in society. In fact, it is the book’s subheading – A Journey Through The Madness Industry – that best describes the scope of Ronson’s topics [but it would be a remarkably boring and uncatchy title, so I’m not surprised that it was kept as a subheading!].

Written with the wit and clear, uncluttered style that has become Ronson’s trademark [he is the author of Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats], The Psychopath Test is an incredibly engaging, page-turning read – not something that I normally would associate with non-fiction books on mental illness.

Reading in many ways like a mystery novel – it starts with a mysterious manuscript that has been sent to various academics around the world – the book finds Ronson undertaking an incredible, surreal journey that brings him into contact with a gallery of fascinating, odd, occasionally dangerous people, often from the fringes of society or at the very least from the fringes of normal behaviour. So you find Scientologists, psychopaths-next-door, the leader of a Haitian death squad, and a cross-dressing former MI5 agent rubbing shoulders on the page.

The gonzo-style of Ronson’s narration – along with the manner in which he blends the various stories together – sometimes makes you wonder whether it is in fact a work of non-fiction at all. So surreal and weird are some of the situations that he finds himself in that you could be forgiven for believing that it was made up [but rest assured, frequent jaunts onto the internet whilst reading The Psychopath Test by your truly revealed that everything that Ronson talks about is real!].

And there is something about his ‘character’ in the book that is so naïve and disingenuous that people are willing to open up to him. Indeed, the guards at one institution that he visited laughed at him for looking like Harry Potter [just look at the author image in the back of the book and you will see quite how apt a description this is!].

But, whilst I found this an incredibly fascinating book to read, it was not without its negatives. In fact, its major strength is also its major weakness. It is such a quick and easily digestible read, skipping as it does from surreal story to surreal story, that Ronson is able to raise a number of serious and focused questions [such as the appalling number of children in contemporary society – especially America – who are being prescribed drugs for their ‘mental illnesses’] but is rarely able to go beneath the surface in any one area.

Of course, it should be remembered that it is a massive area that Ronson is trying to cover, and it would be impossible to cover everything – and go into great detail on each section – in only 287 pages. For, in The Psychopath Test Ronson is – to quote one of his journalist friends – like a “medieval monk … stitching together a tapestry of people’s craziness. You take a little bit of craziness from up there and a little bit of craziness from over there and then you stitch it all together.”

There are undoubtedly longer, weightier, more serious books on psychopathy and the realm of mental illness out there, but none of them will manage to be as witty, serious, horrifying and wonderfully absorbing as Ronson’s manages to be. Highly recommended.
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