Jon Ronson – The Psychopath Test

Oct 16

It starts with something of a shaggy-dog story, this one. A psychiatrist contacts him asking for help in explaining a mysterious 42-page book called Being or Nothingness she has been sent, full of cryptic verse, pictures, and pages which have been cut out. Many leading psychiatrists and academics around the world, have been sent this book – and none of them can work out what it means. Clearly, it’s a riddle to be decoded.

It sounds like the basis for an enthralling story. It isn’t. The ‘mystery’ is solved by the end of the first chapter. What follows is a rather more conventional survey of madness. There’s plenty of interesting material here, and Ronson’s bumbling persona keeps everything very readable. The core of the book is Bob Hare’s Test, and Ronson’s attempts to apply it to the various characters he meets, from a mean CEO to a former Haitian death squad leader, to a man incarcerated in Broadmoor who claims he’d only pretended to be mad in order to get out of prison, and is now deemed too mad to release. The idea that many of the most powerful people in our society are psychopaths – precisely because they are psychopaths – is an intriguing one, but it’s also one of those wonderfully nebulous concepts that is always going to be easy to insinuate and impossible to stand up.

At the risk of spoilers this is a book about the way that various psy-professions have failed to clearly define madness.I’m not sure how surprising many of Ronson’s findings are to the lay-person – I, like many others I suspect, knew all about the Rachel Nickell case, for example (Ronson has a meeting with the disturbing psychiatrist Paul Britton, who influenced many of the ludicrous police decisions). But there’s plenty that’s new and interesting here.

Ronson’s at his most-interesting on the ‘right sort’ of madness – the sort that gets you on reality TV – as opposed to the ‘wrong sort’, whereupon people don’t want to know you. David Shayler embodies both ends of the spectrum –  a little media darling when he was claiming 9/11 was a conspiracy, ostracised once he turned to transvestitism and started claiming to be the Messiah.

The Shayler story is introduced through a fascinating story which I think could almost be another book in itself – the experience of 7/7 bombing victim Rachel North and the various online conspiracy theorists who claim her story is a lie. There’s something about the internet which amplifies one of the strongest psychopathic traits – an absolute inability to empathise with others. I’m becoming more and more interested in this theme, and particularly in how women are on the receiving end of it – recent examples have been the sceptic Rebecca Watson (a victim of ‘free thinkers’), and this blogger.

This is for another day I guess. Is Ronson’s book good? Yes. It doesn’t live up to the promise of the first few pages (but I am nothing if not a reader of base telelogical impulse), but as a primer in the madness industry, it’s a solid piece of work.