The Psychopath Test
by Jon Ronson
Riverhead Books (2011)
Last year, I got a kick out of not only reading Jon Ronson's TheMen Who Stare at Goats, but the movie was pretty good too. So, when I found out Ronson had a new book out called The Psychopath Test, I sensed another trip into the delightfully--and disturbingly--weird. Thankfully, Celia over at Adventurers withCecelia Bedelia was charitable enough to send me her advanced review copy.
The book starts off with Ronson being approached by a neurologist who has received a mysterious book entitled Being or Nothingness, authored by someone calling himself "Joe K." Forty-two pages, half of which were blank, and the other half expertly published with what might otherwise be dismissed as gibberish. Ronson quickly learns identical books have been anonymously sent to scientists around the world and have become a quiet enigma in scientific circles--kind of a barnyard oddity among the high-minded.
What ensues is a down-the-rabbit-hole investigation, leading him to not only the identity of the author, but a psychiatrist with a test by which to judge whether any person is a psychopath. Ronson jumps from Great Britain to America and back again on his journey into madness--literally getting the fifty-cent tour of madhouses and diagnosed psychopaths.
The elements of this story are like a kaleidoscopic view into mental illness. Ronson meets with members of Scientology as they continue their crusade--and witch hunt--against every psychiatrist in the world, a diagnosed psychopath who has been rotting away in an insane asylum for over a decade because he initially faked mental illness to avoid prison, a convicted dictator whose abhorrent actions may have been the manifestation of his own psychopathy, a ruthless CEO who took delight in firing people and attaining profit and riches at all costs, and a slew of psychology and psychiatry professionals who appear at times as crazy as the people they treat.
A few things strike me as engrossing and disturbing with this book. One was the ease with which a person could be essentially be labeled insane and locked away and forgotten, like some Orwellian nightmare. Then, there was the idea of people so devoid of empathy that they have complete disregard for the people they hurt and the lives they ruin, yet walk freely among us and attain such high levels of success. The notion that many CEOs and world leaders are really psychopaths is both scary as hell, and a wee bit plausible when you watch the six o'clock news.
Another great aspect to the book is Ronson's introspection towards his own sanity, hypochondriac reactions to tell-tale signs of psychopathy, and the missteps he takes throughout his investigation. He does nothing to put himself over as the hero of the tale, but shows himself in an honest light as a flawed and susceptible human, just like any of us would be if we looked behind sanity's curtain.
If you've read Ronson's previous work, this is one more example of his way of making the strange and eclectic more accessible to the mundane. There's humor and horror all over the place in this book, and what's best: you just might question your own sanity at some point in the book. Sure, if you think you're crazy, you're not--but chances are you're still going to wonder at one point while you read this book.