Mad Men: Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test

A travelogue of insanity with the author of Them

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry | by Jon Ronson | Riverhead | 288 pages, $25.95

Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry starts off like a mystery thriller. A neurologist working at the University College London Institute of Neurology receives an odd package in the mail, postmarked Gothenburg, Sweden, containing a strange and exquisitely illustrated book. Random words have been cut out of the text; half of the pages are blank, and the others contain disjointed sentences or curious, cryptic verse. Handwritten on the envelope it says: I will tell you more when I return!

A handful of other academics have received these packages, too, and many of these have been exploring leads, finding each other online, and pooling their analytic, code-cracking skills to answer the book’s riddle. Some presume it to be an elaborate viral-marketing stunt. Others just consider it the meaningless prank of a madman.

After some serious investigation and international travel, Ronson comes around to the madman theory. And while the neurologist who first approached him seems disappointed by this, Ronson is fascinated. One man’s craziness, he writes, “had had a huge influence on the world. It caused intellectual examination, economic activity, and formed a kind of community. Disparate academics, scattered across continents, had become intrigued and paranoid and narcissistic because of it.”

Thus begins the reader’s off-road journey with Ronson; and the author makes for good company. The Cardiff-born journalist, filmmaker, and television personality is also the author of Them: Adventures with Extremists, where he makes it his mission to meet Klansmen and jihadists, and The Men Who Stare At Goats, a book about bizarre psychological military experiments (including staring at a goat until it dies). He has made a specialty in the subcultures of obsession, and The Psychopath Test— a long form, inquisitive, reported meditation on what it means to be insane—fits with the rest of his work.

Intrigued by the concept of “the psychopath,” a chilling label for one who appears charming, yet is completely void of empathy, Ronson journeys to Broadmoor, a British psychiatric hospital housing many serial killers. After learning that one man, Tony, since released, wound up institutionalized after faking insanity years ago, assuming it would make for a cushier sentence. Ronson wonders what he would do in a similar situation. “I automatically started thinking about what I’d do if I had to prove I was sane. I’d like to think that just being my normal, essentially sane self would be enough, but I’d probably behave in such an overly polite and helpful and competent manner I’d come across like a mad butler with panic in his eyes.”

The agreeable, self-deprecating, first-person voice makes The Psychopath Test read more like a reporter’s notebook than a serious work of non-fiction. The process of investigating is recorded here, not just the leads and findings, but the sort of details many authors would edit out. (Ronson often mentions his own anxiety, and how, if his wife hasn’t called for a while, he immediately presumes she’s dead.) Such digressions would normally be exhausting, but Ronson, like his favorite psychopaths, has a certain charm about him.

He takes an expensive, three-day course with Bob Hare, a leading figure in the diagnosing of psychopathy, during which he learns the practice of administering a forty-question exam whose score may put a man or woman away for life. A Harvard Medical School specialist tells him that sociopaths love power, and that “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you’ll find there.”

So fascinated by the prospect that Wall Street disaster could be the fault of those with broken brains and no capacity for human empathy or conscious, Ronson admits to going on a bit of a witch-hunt. “I had to journey,” he writes, “armed with my new psychopath-spotting abilities into the corridors of power.”

He interviews a high-powered CEO, once charged with fraud, whose mansion is filled with stone statues of snarling predators, and listens as the man neatly translates many of the traits on the psychopath checklist as “Leadership Positives.” He visits criminal psychopaths, too, meeting with the incarcerated Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, Haitian death squad leader, who, among other pleasantries reportedly sliced the faces off of his rivals. Toto is a charming man who said he borrowed a new shirt to meet the reporter. “Who is the unfeeling one?” Ronson wonders. “I only came here to hone my psychopath-spotting skills and this poor guy borrowed a special shirt.”

Such encounters help Ronson formulate (yet rarely answer) a vast spectrum of questions, none of which he probes too deeply: What effect does it have on the power structure if psychopaths really do tend to filter to the top? What does it mean to diagnose a person as insane, or to misdiagnose them? What does it mean to label a person as abnormal anyway? Or, if a person fakes craziness to escape punishment, and then finds himself imprisoned and having to prove sanity, what does it say about psychiatrists who do not believe him? What if a child is misdiagnosed as mentally ill when she is just eccentric or annoying?

Many of these questions, as Ronson notes, are particularly important to those whose job it is put others into frames. When recalling the story of an innocent (yet awkward, lonely, and eccentric) man arrested for a brutal murder based on a character profile of what the murderer was probably like, Ronson feels a certain pang of familiarity. Drafting up this character with so little to go on “was in some ways an extreme version of an impulse that journalists and nonfiction TV makers—and perhaps psychologists and police and lawyers—understand well. They had created an utterly warped, insane version of Colin Stagg by stitching together the maddest aspects of his personality. Only the craziest journalist would go as far as they did, but practically everyone goes a little way there.”

Ronson includes the criticism of his project by a friend: ‘“You’re like a medieval monk,’ Adam said, “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.” Which sums it up, to some extent. The Psychopath Test is neither a tremendous exercise in analysis nor a richly investigative work. But as a scattered collection of very interesting cases and well-reported anecdotes told by a genial tour guide, it’s well worth a read.

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Caroline H. Dworin is a writer in New York. Tags: , , , ,