The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

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Read 03/02/2017-08/02/2017

Rating: 3 stars

I like Jon Ronson. I find his journalism slightly whimsical, even though it deals with serious subjects. He’s like Louis Theroux in that respect.

The Psychopath Test starts off funny. Ronson has a wry, self-deprecating, slightly neurotic delivery that brings out a need to laugh at some of the weird things he encounters in the pursuit of his research. It feels incongruous to laugh at times, but it’s human nature to use humour to deal with the strange and perplexing. The book starts with a plot that would make a good novel. People around the world working in AI, neuroscience, all manner of research into the brain and how intelligence works, have been receiving a copy of a strange book, containing cryptic messages. One recipient of the book, which is entitled Being or Nothingness, invites Ronson to solve the mystery of who wrote the book and why it is being distributed in the way that it is.

This invitation leads Ronson to encounter some strange people, including the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I have on my shelf because I read Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations and became intrigued by Bach and the Golden Ratio. Not quite intrigued enough to pick up Douglas Hofstadter’s 777 page tome, though. As the woman who tasks Ronson with unpicking the mystery of the cryptic book tells him,

It was the kind of book … that everybody wanted on their shelves but few were clever enough to really understand.

That’s me told. Perhaps I’d better read it.

The quest also leads Ronson to ponder the nature of mental disorders. He is worried about his own sanity and whether he is doing okay at being a human being. When he buys himself a copy of the directory of all known mental disorders, DSM-IV, of course he self diagnoses, and of course there are a dozen things wrong with him. He is interested in why there isn’t a definition of psychopathy in The Psychiatrists’ Bible. To understand why, he contacts a Scientologist who is a member of an international network known as the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights. Their task is to prove that psychiatrists are a force for evil. I’ve watched Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and I’ve met a couple of psychiatrists on my journey through life. I know who I think is the more malevolent group of people.

This encounter leads to another, and then another, and another, as Ronson delves into the world of psychiatry and some of the more surprising ways that severe mental illnesses and personality traits have been treated. Although Ronson’s delivery of the facts never wavers in its wry, self-deprecating, slightly neurotic style, the things he is relating make the book more sober. I spent more time blinking in incredulity than laughing.

What was interesting to me were the stories of rogue psychiatrists whose treatment of patients was abuse dressed up as radicalism. Of the few psychiatrists I have met with during the course of my mum’s treatment for dementia, none has been rogue, but all have given me pause to wonder whether medical students specialise in psychiatry because they have a mental illness of their own, or fit into one of the more extreme personality traits. As my brother once put it, sometimes meetings with mum’s psychiatrist felt a bit “Physician, heal thyself”. The willingness of each to prescribe drugs whose efficacy they weren’t sure of to treat an illness that can only be accurately diagnosed through brain pathology after death has also given me some sympathy with those who believe that many psychiatrists are too reliant on drug treatments. So I’m not entirely on the side of psychiatrists. The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and sometimes psychiatric treatment seems like guesswork. Ronson’s book didn’t provide me with anything to change my mind about that.

I was also interested in Adam Curtis’s take on Ronson’s obsession with psychopaths. I like Jon Ronson’s books, much as I like Louis Theroux’s documentaries. The thing that makes me like them is the exposure of the subjects’ extremes, done in a non-threatening, casually innocent way. That sense of the journalist disguising themself as an ingenue in order to pay out rope by which their subject will hang themself. Curtis, with whose work I am unfamiliar, says this:

We create stories out of fragments. We travel all over the world, propelled onwards by something, we sit in people’s houses, our notepads in our hands, and we wait for the gems. And the gems invariably turn out to be the madness – the extreme, outermost aspects of that person’s personality – the irrational anger, the anxiety, the paranoia, the narcissism, the things that would be defined within DSM as mental disorders. We’ve dedicated our lives to it. We know what we do is odd but nobody talks about it. Forget psychopathic CEOs. My question is, what does all this say about our sanity?

I was interested in this in relation to the media response to the election of the 45th President of the USA, and the way horror at his excesses is mixed with glee at how newsworthy he is. It’s not only for Presidents that the ends justify the means. They often do the same for journalists.

Curtis’s words are a turning point for Ronson. He starts to reassess his own gung-ho attitude to diagnosing psychopaths, and comes to the conclusion that mental illness is a sliding scale. There are different degrees of illness. The danger is in over-diagnosing. The practice of issuing a definitive diagnosis is often underpinned by pressure from drug companies, especially in America, where they fund research institutes and have a vested interest in getting health professionals to diagnose illness requiring treatment by their drugs.

Ronson’s investigation takes some side streets on the way to this conclusion. He encounters a production assistant whose job was to screen people for daytime reality TV, to select the people who were the “right kind of mad”. He encounters truth deniers about the terrorist attacks on September 11 and 7 July. He meets parents of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder at extremely young ages.

At the end of the book, he has a final encounter with the man responsible for Being or Nothingness, the mysterious book that sets him off on his investigative journey. He considers how he has pigeonholed him as eccentric and obsessive. And then he comes to a quite beautiful conclusion:

There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.

So here’s to the human race, in all its varied aspects, and here’s to the creativity we show in our wonderful weirdness. Just watch out for the ones who mean us harm.

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