Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

I once worked with a girl who seemed to have the ‘touch’ when it came to finding interesting books to read and recommend.  She never steered me wrong, and I enjoyed every book she recommended that I check out.  This included a book by journalist Jon Ronson, titled Them: Adventures with Extremists.  I read the book, and laughed my way though Ronson’s exploration of the world of the nutty, the conspiracy theorists, and the dangerous.  I was happy to hear that his book The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie (I still need to read and see it, actually), so when I was last in the book store, I poked around to see if any of his other works were on hand, and found my latest read, The Psychopath Test (in the psychology section of all places – that felt like a miss-filing to me).

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is an account of Ronson’s exploration of a specific part of our society, in this case, the psychopath.  Ronson’s work sees him meeting with a whole host of people in an effort to understand psychopathy and what makes these people tick.  Supported by research into the field and his own journey to educate himself on how to spot these people, Ronson gives his reader an account that is at once light-hearted and chilling.  From meetings with incarcerated psychopaths, to individuals whom you’d feel more comfortable knowing weren’t out of society, to well-known mental health professionals, Ronson incorporates multiple points of view in his assessment of the way our society deals with the psychopathic.

As I learnt through reading The Psychopath Test, the psychiatric world is governed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM, currently in its fifth edition), which provides a list of all recognized mental disorders, as well as checklists that mental health practitioners should use to assess their patients.  At the time of Ronson’s writing, the fourth edition of the Manual did not include an entry for psychopathy, rather, the traits these individuals exhibit were classed under other personality disorders.  I don’t know if the newest addition addresses this short-fall, but the people in the mental health field that Ronson spoke with believed it should be.  In the spirit of the DSM’s checklists, Bob Hare developed his own checklist for identifying psychopaths, known as the Hare PCL-R Checklist.  This tool is currently used internationally to identify individuals with psychopathic tendencies.  

As with Them, Ronson’s writing style is incredibly interesting and engaging.  I found I was drawn into his journey and wanted to know as much as I could about the people he was meeting with and learning about.  The one aspect I wasn’t a fan of in this book was the subtitle, which is “A journey through the madness industry.”  I get the feeling this was tacked on by an editor or publisher after the manuscript was turned in – there is very little discussion about the ‘industry’ that is supported by mental health experts, and much more on the identification of psychopathy.  The book seems to be at war with itself in what the title implies, and what the content actually is.  But, if you take the title out of the equation, the book stands on its own as an interesting and dynamic read.

A final thought on the psychopath test and The Psychopath Test: I don’t think Ronson could have gotten away with publish a book on this topic without including Bob Hare’s list of indicators.  If, like me, you read through the list and see psychopathic tendencies in yourself, not to worry.  In the best point made in any work I’ve read recently, Ronson points out that, if you’re worried you’re a psychopath, you’re probably not, after all, you’d be counter-indicating item 16 on the checklist: Failure to accept responsibilities for your own actions.  Sooooo…. phew. 

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  Then read Ronson’s other works – he’s witty, intelligent, and a wonderful communicator through the written word.  A big thanks to my friend Hala for recommending I check out his work, because I’ve enjoyed it for year.  

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