3.12.2015

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

I tend to roll my eyes when I hear a book described as a “romp." It has always struck me as Too Precious By Half.

But that was before I read Jon Ronson. I recant! I recant!

One wouldn't think a book on psychopaths could be considered fun, but this one is.

The titular “Psychopath Test" is a diagnostic tool created by Bob Hare to evaluate for psychopathy. The book isn't about the test per se, but uses the story of the development and use of the test as a proxy for our understanding of psychopathy. This could easily become a Serious Study on Mental Illness, but Ronson treats it playfully, largely through his own self-deprecating humor.

In addition to his self-deprecation, he has a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he profiles the possibly psychopathic CEO who owns a truly excessive collection of predator statues: bears, lions, birds of prey, etc. Even more pleasurably, he has a knack for playing up his subjects' inability to themselves appreciate the ridiculous; his sly rendering of his interview with said CEO was delightful. 

“Lions," said Al Dunlop, showing me around. He was wearing a casual jacket and slacks and looked tanned, healthy. His teeth were very white. “Lions. Jaguars. Lions. Always predators. Predators. Predators. Predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did I had to go make happen."

Item 5: Conning/Manipulative, I wrote in my reporter's notebook. His statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of “predators and prey," or that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others. 
“Gold, too," I said. “There's a lot of gold here, too." 
I had been prepared for the gold, having recently seen a portrait of him sitting on a gold chair, wearing a gold tie, with a gold suit of armor by the door and a gold crucifix on the mantelpiece. 
“Well," said Al. “Gold is shiny. Sharks." 
He pointed at a sculpture of four sharks encircling the planet. “I believe in predators," he said. “Their spirit will enable you to succeed. Over there you've got falcons. Alligators. Alligators. More alligators. Tigers." 
“It's as if both Midas and also the Queen of Narnia were here," I said, “and the Queen of Narnia flew above a particularly fierce zoo and turned everything to stone and then transported it here." 
“What?" said Al. 
“Nothing," I said. 
“No," he said, “what did you just say?" 
He shot me a steely, blue-eyed stare, which I found quite debilitating. 
“It was just a jumble of words," I said. “I was trying to make a funny comment but it all became confused in my mouth."


If you are one who feels that grim subjects must always be Approached With the Gravitas They Deserve, and feel that lighthearted treatment of grim subjects is Disrespectful To the People Impacted, you will not enjoy this book. 

I, however, deeply enjoy lighthearted treatments of grim subjects; further, I felt that the conceit of using the diagnostic test for psychopathy as the thread we followed throughout the narrative made for a very interesting look at the limits of our knowledge of mental illness in general and psychopathy (if you can even define it as a mental illness, which is debatable) in particular. 

What is a thing if no one can agree on its definition or diagnosis? What does our desire to label others say about ourselves?

This pageturner of a book approaches these questions in a light and easily digestible way. It's a book that can easily be read in one sitting or one afternoon, so if you have even the slightest interest I would say it's worth your reading time. If only for the giant menagerie of tiger statues.