Read Jon Ronson’s “Psychopath Test”

The Guardian posted an excerpt a while back which I enjoyed reading, so when the library finally received its copies of the book I made sure to get on the list to read it.

Ronson spends a chunk of the book with “Tony,” a man who faked insanity so well that he avoided one relatively short jail term but wound up doing all that time and more behind the gates of Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. Doctors there were eventually convinced it was psychopathy that led Tony to such extraordinary efforts to manipulate the courts and the medical teams.

Ronson dives into the history of psychopathic study a bit, too, outlining some of the bizarre attempts that were made to understand and fix such people (short answer: might never be possible, and has been known to make them worse).

He also read books by Bob Hare and contacted him about the work he did to create what’s known in the field as the PCL-R Checklist (included in the excerpt) and partook in one of Hare’s seminars so he could learn how to grade potential psychopaths with it.

The interviews in the middle of the book are where he puts his new skills to the test, meeting with Toto Constant, once a paramilitary leader, C.I.A. informer, and head of a death squad in Haiti, and Al Dunlap, a Sunbeam CEO who joyfully fired people (among other things).

He suggests somewhere in the book that it’s kind of a power trip having that ability and I can see why. You read the list and start thinking about the people you know and work with, celebrities, politicians, and other folks in the news and on TV and wonder…

In doing this, Ronson is reminded that journalists are always on the hunt for the eccentrics when it comes to finding things to write about. So are those who cast for Springeresque talk shows, he discovers. They look for “the right sort of madness” to intrigue viewers but not so nuts as to be dangerous. Ronson comes to the conclusion that people in those kinds of jobs have created their own versions of a Hare test to pass and fail potential media darlings.

David Shayler was one of those darlings for a while. Once an MI5 officer, his rabid interest in conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and 7/7 got the better of him and now he wanders around dressed like a woman and claims to be the next Messiah. His conspiracy wing-nut ideas got him a lot of press at the time but his saviour complex has pushed him a bit too far into Looney Country and he’s lost some of the “credibility” his fans thought he had.

Ronson spends part of the book looking at the history of mental illness as the content of the enormous compendium that holds all the descriptions of all the syndromes currently invented by psychiatrists, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Psychopathy isn’t in the book. He interviews one of the creators of the thing, Robert Spitzer, to find out why. It turned out that there’d been a schism between Hare and Lee Robins, a sociologist who argued (successfully as it turned out) that “clinicians couldn’t reliably measure personality traits like empathy.” (p. 239) Lack of empathy is one of the items on Hare’s list. They opted to call it “Antisocial Personality Disorder” instead, but Ronson reports a suggestion to rename it “Hare Syndrome” at some point. No idea if that would appease him or not, though.

There’s more in the book, obviously, but it was a fairly quick read and every anecdote was an interesting one. The mysterious books that led him to look into mental illness to the scientologists who’ve successfully ruined the careers of some iffy psychiatrists, Tony’s destiny.

who does admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that

About 1minionsopinion

Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
This entry was posted in books, In the Media and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.