I picked up The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson on pure impulse. I’m a little fascinated by psychopaths (for what reason I couldn’t possibly say — maybe a train-wreck sort of thing), and while I haven’t seen or read Men Who Stare at Goats, I’ve at least heard of it. Good enough, right? I read the book in a single day, and I had mixed reactions. It’s funny — Ronson keeps the jokes coming, and the amazed, goggle-eyed stance — but it left me a little uncomfortable about his journalism. Psychopathy, and the entire mental health industry Ronson calls into question, is a huge and terrifying subject. Doing pratfalls around it is only going to do just so much good, or contribute just so much insight.
The book begins with a fairly long story that’s related to psychopaths only by the thinnest of threads: Ronson is investigating an elaborate prank, a beautiful handmade book that has been sent to neuroscientists and other academics all over the world and appears to be in code. Ronson eventually discovers that there is no code to be cracked: the book is the work of a person who is obsessive and harmlessly mentally ill — a discovery which prompts him to find out how mental illness, and particularly psychopathy, might be the small lever that moves our society in large ways.
From here, the book moves quickly from one notion to the next. Ronson immediately stumbles across Bob Hare’s Psychopathy Test, a supposedly definitive 20-point checklist for the diagnosis of psychopaths. This bit is as much fun for the reader as it is for Ronson: the temptation is to measure it against friends, family, politicians, that guy in the DMV. But in the wrong hands, it’s a powerful weapon, placing people in locked facilities potentially forever, since there is no known cure for psychopathy. (Strenuous attempts during the 1960s and ’70s to cure psychopaths with therapy resulted in worse recidivism rates; these therapy sessions, by teaching the psychopaths how to fake empathy, essentially put them through finishing school.) Ronson’s newly developed skepticism about Hare’s test leads him to Scientology and an acquaintance with “Tony,” a young man who claims he faked his way into Broadmoor by imitating the Dennis Hopper scenes from Blue Velvet. But “Tony” seems like a real psychopath to Ronson. How do you tell?
Ronson meets with several other possible psychopaths, trying to diagnose them himself with Hare’s test: a business magnate who derives pleasure from shutting down factories and firing people; a death squad leader in prison; a conspiracy theorist who eventually claimed he was the messiah. Eventually, Ronson comes face to face with the primary editor of the DSM-IV (coming up on its fifth edition now), Robert Spitzer. This is the man under whose influence we have come to believe that checklists such as Bob Hare’s are all we need for diagnosis of hundreds of pages of disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder (temper tantrums) and relational disorder (unhappy with a relative.) Ronson asks Spitzer whether he thinks the DSM has created a world in which normal behavior and psychiatric diagnoses — with the help of big, hungry pharmaceutical companies — have become perilously blurred. Spitzer thinks. “I don’t know,” he says. It ought to be a punchline, but it leaves me kind of queasy.
In the end, Ronson raises a few interesting questions about an enormous subject, but his analysis is shallow, and he does back-flips over the surface when I’d like him to dig in his heels and get serious. He makes faces for comedic effect and points to peculiar connections between things that turn out not really to be connected at all, or not importantly connected, like two cans with string. This book was fun to read, but to what purpose? If there is a larger proportion of psychopaths at the corporate supervisory level than in the general population, what does this mean and what shall we do? Every psychopath Ronson spoke about or interviewed was a man; is this condition gendered? If we are massively overdiagnosing a condition that doesn’t exist (childhood bipolar), then how did this happen and what is the connection to psychopathy? This was a fun, fast read — but it could have been a podcast. I’d have liked more.