A Year of Unknown Books: The Psychopath Test

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryPsychopath Test      
by Jon Ronson
Book #4, read during February, 2015

In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explores the history, classification and presence of psychopaths.  Admit it, we all have used this word, sometimes liberally with certain people (come on, we all have that one co-worker or in-law) when labeling someone who acts so irrationally or manipulatively that they are beyond our comprehension.  But how do we know who is crazy, eccentric, or just quirky?  This is what Ronson sets out to explore, and we soon learn that from a clinical standpoint, it’s damn near impossible, but yet all the more intriguing.

We learn from the outset that Ronson’s personality is goofy and insecure, which makes for an amusing journey into what could be an otherwise depressing and humdrum exploration into the history of this facet of psychology.  The backbone of the book is the psychopath test, or the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, created in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Hare to determine whether or not a person is a psychopath based on a series of questions, including pathologically lying, lack of remorse, and grandiose self-worth (see full list here).  We are placed in the room with Ronson as he learns about the test and we, like him, begin to believe that we may indeed be mentally disturbed.  Irresponsibility? Check! Emotionally shallow?  I’ve been there!  Lack of empathy? Sometimes I lack empathy!  However, as one mental health professional tells him, if we believe that we have failed the test and think ourselves to be psychopaths, then we aren’t–psychopaths lack self-awareness and empathy.

The way that Ronson relates his subject reminded me of the true crime documentary, The Staircase.  You are given the facts, and yet all of these “facts” completely conflict, making everyone seem right and simultaneously wrong, leaving you without a concrete conclusion.  Throughout the book, Ronson explores different cases and personality types, attempting to pinpoint the what’s and who’s of psychopathy.  He introduces us to Scientologists who hate psychology, and we’re given some pretty compelling evidence in support, such as sane people overanalyzed and wrongly incarcerated in mental health facilities, children being needlessly medicated (does the ADD crazy of the 90s ring any bells?), and homosexuality being labeled as a mental disorder in older editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM.  On the flip side, we also meet doctors who have spent their lives attempting to remove the stigma of psychopathy and mental illness by radical yet humane treatment, thereby ostracizing themselves within their own professional community.  Ronson creates a compelling case by giving us all sides of everyone’s story, thereby leaving you without a clue!  It’s a torturous experience because you can’t make up your mind, and when you do, you’re given a difference perspective and have no idea what to think of psychiatry, your safety, or if we live in a world of true chaos.

The issue is so complex, and the difficulty of an effective diagnosis can be seen in the individuals interviewed throughout the book.  They beat someone up, but does that make them crazy?  They have sexual fantasies involving hair pulling (hello, Fifty Shades), but does that make them sadistic, and who decides?  Psychiatrists and psychologists trained in what course of study?  Yes, there are unfeeling, disturbed psychopaths out there who want to harm others and feel no remorse.  There are also people all along the spectrum of mental illness who don’t want to harm others. Because of the varied personality types in the world, it seems improbable that the dangerous ones could be weeded out of society until they do harm to others, and even after that, how do we know if they’re truly a danger to society?  Ronson presents us with all of these questions and we are left pondering the answers along with him.

Of the books read thus far for my Stranger by the Book project, I enjoyed this one the most.  Unlike some of the past books, such as Vellum, where I would have only finished the book for a project, I couldn’t wait to turn my audiobook back on and hear more stories of the criminally insane, and the appalling stories of the wrongly accused.  Ronson’s research method and style reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Mary Roach, as she also focuses on a subject and explores its history and current day implications in lay-person’s terms with a sense of humor.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read that is also thought-provoking, entertaining and maybe just a little bit crazy.

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