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.

Click here for a complete Page Views archive.


Caroline H. Dworin is a writer in New York.