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The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry Paperback – May 1, 2012
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“Because of Ronson’s relentless self-deprecation and goofy, British humor, it’s easy to tag along without fully realizing the rigor of his reporting, which is itself frenzied with compulsive questioning and obsessive research.” -- The Boston Globe
“A rollicking, page-turner of a book... no ordinary piece of investigative journalism… Ronson’s storytelling skills are strong enough to enliven even the necessary reflections that would be one yawn after another if entrusted to a lesser writer.” -- San Francisco Chronicle
“…A book that manages to be as cheerily kooky as it is well-researched.” -- Los Angeles Times
“Engagingly irreverent…” -- New York Times
“[A] fascinating and humane book…” -- Washington Post Book World
“…Both terrifying and hilarious.” -- O, The Oprah Magazine
About the Author
Jon Ronson’s works include New York Times bestseller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Lost at Sea, The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones, and international bestsellers: Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Ronson lives in New York.
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Top Customer Reviews
- Robert Hare, Ph.D
I've been hooked on Jon Ronson's writing since 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' was first published. Ronson cuts right to the heart of important topics by having the guts to ask the difficult questions. His literary style is equal parts journalistic rigour, deep compassion and incisive observational humour that often shines the light of ridicule on darker human behaviours. 'The Psychopath Test' explores psychiatry, psychopathology, medication and incarceration of 'dangerous' individuals. The book reads like a mystery novel, which - driven by Ronson's compelling prose - makes it difficult to put down.
The story begins with a meeting between Ronson and a history student who has received a cryptic book called 'Being or Nothingness' in the mail. The same book has been received by several individuals around the globe, most of whom work in the field of psychiatry. The book contains 42 pages, every second one blank. (This made me wonder...in 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', the ultimate answer to life, the Universe and Everything was 42. Was this relevant? Was the mysterious author of 'Being or Nothingness' implying that his cryptic messages, if decoded, could lead to enlightenment?)
Ronson's journey leads him to 'Tony' in Broadmoor, who - when charged with GBH and facing prison 12 years earlier - had faked insanity in the hope of being sent to a comfortable psychiatric hospital. Instead, he had been sent to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital (home to Britain's most dangerous psychotic prisoners), where he was being held indefinitely. Tony explains that he had picked characteristics of various movie lunatics then pieced them together into his 'insane' persona. Getting into Broadmoor had been easy, but getting out was proving immeasurably harder. A senior psychiatrist admits to knowing that Tony isn't insane, as a truly insane person wouldn't manufacture a new personality in the hope of avoiding prison...but a manipulative psychopath would.
Ronson meets Bob Hare, creator of the PCL-R Test, a 20-step Psychopath Checklist which gives individuals scores between zero and forty; the higher the score, the more psychopathic the person. Hare reveals that inmates at prisons and psychiatric institutions aren't the only ones who score highly on his 'psychopath test': many CEOs and directors of corporations qualify as psychopaths too. This prompts Ronson to wonder 'if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.'
Al Dunlap closed Shubuta's Sunbeam factory (the economic heart of that community), showing no empathy while firing workers and effectively killing the town. While laying off employees, he even spouted jokes such as, "You may have a sports car, but I'll tell you what you don't have. A job!" Bob Hare flags Dunlap as a psychopath, so Ronson sets out to meet the man. When Ronson asks probing questions based on the PCL-R checklist, Dunlap's responses mark him as a textbook psychopath.
Hare explains the science of psychopathology: a part of the brain called the amygdala doesn't function in psychopaths as it does in other human beings. When a regular person experiences extreme violence or carnage (or even photographs of such scenes), his amygdala becomes overstimulated, provoking an extreme anxiety response in the central nervous system. When a psychopath experiences the same stimuli, his amygdala does not respond: no anxiety response occurs. This explains the psychopath's lack of empathy.
'The Psychopath Test' is a compelling read. Ronson's fluid style is the perfect balance of rigorous research, keen observation, poignancy and humour. Congratulations to Jon Ronson on another phenomenal achievement.
I audibly gasped when I read that paragraph because it seemed like so much common sense. Our world is as screwed up as it is not because of global warming and corrupt political systems, but because the individuals running it, economically, politically, and socially, are irresponsible, self-absorbed, selfish, egotists who have a grandiose sense of themselves and care little or nothing about the impact of their decisions and actions on others. They have virtually no sense of empathy and are generally pathological liars. They are impulsive and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Usually, they demonstrated behavior problems early in their lives and have conned and manipulated their way through it.
These are a handful of the 20 items on Hare's Psychopathy Check List (PCL) which was first published in 1991 and has been translated into a dozen languages and has been the subject of many conferences, scholarly articles, workshops, seminars, books, and is generally regarded as the diamond standard of the profession. It has its detractors, of course, and though Jon Ronson touts it mightily throughout his "journey through the madness industry," even he has some reservations drawing the line between normal and psychopathic behavior.
The problem is that our society, especially certain elements of it, reward may of these traits. Corporate executives, for example, who devastate the employees of the companies they manage, and in fact even "enjoy" firing them are awarded large bonuses because profits matter more than people in much of the corporate world. Taking care of number 1 is an American virtue, and the novelist Ayn Rand built a reputation telling her readers how noble selfishness is, just as the 80's hit film, Wall Street made a mantra from the phrase, "Greed is Good."
Had Ronson stuck to his central idea and focused on helping us to understand how psychopaths have screwed up the upside-down world we live in today I think he would have produced a major work with universal application. While he does cross several fields (usually providing one or two examples from each) he could
have given us a wider range of examples that don't differentiate much between serial killers and business fraudsters (Hare remarks "Serial killers ruin families...Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.")
As it is, the book seems to flit around from one subject to the next with less cohesiveness than it should have. Ronson flies to Germany to follow up leads, haunts the halls of mental institutions, interviews many Scientologists (who have an ax to grind against psychology and psychiatry). On the one hand, psychopaths are responsible for all the world's woes; on the other, he questions whether they really exist at all. He rehashes many of the critiques of the psychiatry DSM-IV volume which underscore how virtually impossible it is to accurate describe any aberrant behavior--then reminds us that the manual says nothing at all about psychopaths.
This book is a valiant effort, and I think Ronson is on to something. But like Einstein's search for a unifying theory of physics, a unifying theory of destructive human behavior is still a bit beyond our grasp.
The subject of the first chapter is Omar Bakri Mohammed, the so-called leader or Islamic Fundamentalists in Britain. After reading the chapter though, you get the feeling that Omar is all talk. He uses Jon for rides and makes him pay for things because he is broke and does not own a car. Conversations between Jon and Omar also prove that Omar isn't nearly as bad as he wants to be.
Later chapters cover Ruby Ridge, the David Koresh incident in Waco, David Icke vs. the ADL and people who believe that a small group of men rule the world (Bilderberg Group.)
Through every chapter, Jon manages to fit in and is able to interview his subjects in a very relaxed manner, thereby allowing them to speak freely with him.
-- The Klu Klux Klan leader who won't allow his Klansmen to use the "N" word.
-- David Icke, who believes that we are descendents of 12 foot tall aliens who now control us through select leaders.
-- A writer for a conspiracy magazine who thinks everyone is following them or hiding something from them.
-- Rachel Weaver, daughter of Randy Weaver (Ruby Ridge), who in great detail tells Jon the story from her point of view. (A sad story, no matter what side you may take)
There are so chapters that don't quite fit in with the rest, but they are interesting anyway. In between laughs, you'll be discover that most extremists are not that different from me or you, they just took it further.