The Psychopath Test
First thing: Jon Ronson looks nothing like Ewan McGregor, who played a journalist based on Ronson in the big-screen adaptation of his The Men Who Stare at Goats. (He's far more adorable, a sort of ebulliently neurotic, nebbishy little Welsh-born pixie.) Second thing: he's learned not to just throw out "psychopath" as an
off-the-cuff descriptor of another person unless he's willing to risk a defamation suit.
And who Jon Ronson is plays an essential role in the success of his journalistic
endeavors. Without the light touch of his self-deprecation, or his kinder, gentler gonzo voice, this look at diagnostic process, self-delusion, narcissism and a certain pathologic drive to power-trip might otherwise be a dry read. But this is Jon Ronson's journey, a sort of meandering, organically plotted route that follows his curiosity to where it takes him.
When an anonymous book is sent to a number of seemingly unconnected academics around the world,
some of them enlist Ronson to help solve the mystery of its authorship and meaning. None less than cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach), whose name
is invoked in the puzzling packages, writes off its creator as a crackpot:
People who are normal (i.e., sane, sensible) don't try to open communication with total strangers by writing them a series of disjointed, weird, cryptic messages.
And Ronson's spidey-sense starts to tingle:
Petter Nordlund's craziness had had a huge influence on the world. It caused intellectual examination, economic activity, and formed a kind of community. Disparate academics, scattered across continents, had become intrigued and paranoid and narcissistic because of it... I remembered those psychologists who said psychopaths made the world go around. They meant it: society was, they claimed, an expression of that particular sort of madness.
Ronson's circuitous "journey through the madness industry" (as the subtitle says) takes him deep into the DSM-IV-TR, an encyclopedia of every known mental disorder that
has served as a diagnostic bible of sorts for the psychiatric community--a plunge which has him
instantly diagnosing himself with twelve different disorders.
I was much crazier than I had imagined. Or maybe it was a bad idea to read the DSM-IV when you're not a trained professional. Or maybe the American Psychiatric Association had a crazy desire to label all life a mental disorder.
In his search for "a second opinion about the authenticity of the labels," he meets with a British Scientologist
who is part of an international team which is trying to "prove to the world that psychiatrists are wicked and must be stopped." Through him, Ronson is introduced to "Tony," a Broadmoor Hospital patient of 12 years who claims to have faked his way in, hoping to spend the sentence
resulting from an assault conviction in cushier environs a la Jack Nicholson's Mac in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Ronson's ambivalence about Tony's story prompts him to check back with the
researcher who first piqued his interest in psychopathy. That's when he
learns about the "Hare Checklist," conceived by former prison psychologist Bob
Hare to systematically root out psychopaths--who cannot be cured and are very likely
to re-offend. His research discoveries are the stuff most laypeople think of when they think of Ted Bundy, for instance:
It seemed from Bob's experiments that psychopaths see blown-apart faces the same way we journalists see mysterious packages sent in the mail, or the same way we see Broadmoor patients who might or might not have faked madness--as fascinating puzzles to be solved.
The surprising power of this book lies in Ronson's internal vacillation between skepticism regarding the seemingly cookie-cutter diagnostic tools and their apparent accuracy, between the utility of something like the Hare Checklist and the dangers inherent if those tools are applied too glibly,
in the wariness with which he concludes we should view absolutes. What of the massive increase of autism rates that occurred when Asperger's was added to the spectrum, and kids who might formerly have been thought of as quirky or eccentric now merited diagnostic labels? What about the apparent epidemic of bipolar disorder in children, the charge against which has been led by a Harvard child psychologist accused of conflict of interest when it was discovered that Johnson and Johnson (manufacturer of an anti-psychotic drug often prescribed for children) contributed funding to his unit at Massachusetts General?
Given the nature of the questions such as these that arise from Ronson's
"journey through the madness industry," The Psychopath Test serves as a thought-provoking introduction to the
recent woes of the
DSM-5, including the failure of the chair of the DSM-5 Task Force to disclose an obvious financial conflict
of interest. (The
chair and several associates working on the DSM-5 were pushing the value of "dimensional diagnosis"
while quietly building a company that would profit from development of
commercially available dimensional instruments--the whole time praising the
publication task force's stellar policy to prevent conflict of interest.1).
Perhaps worse has been the APA's limp investigation and tepid conclusions after
The way Ronson entertains us while touching off sobering realizations is the best thing of all about this foray.
We get to hitch a ride with a brilliantly witty writer who keeps us in stitches while slyly leading us to think twice about what we think we know about madness and its attendant industry.
[Source: Allen Frances, "Holding Psychiatry to a Much Higher Ethical Standard,"] Huffington Post, 22 January 2014]
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Sharon Schulz-Elsing, 2014