The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

[I read this in three parts, writing about each part before reading on. As I wrote, I didn’t know what was coming next.]

20 January 2018
Chapters 1-3
This book made a few ripples when it was published in 2011. It’s a brand of popular journalism that Jon Ronson has polished to a near-perfect gloss. It’s entertaining, and has a self-deprecatory comment and/or a wow-factor event or fact on every page. The praise on the back cover comes from the direction you’d expect—The Guardian and The Observer, because it’s a roller-coaster ride for people who like to keep in touch with things. What could be better? As the uncredited Observer reviewer puts it, ‘The belly-laughs come thick and fast… and you will, I guarantee, zip merrily through it.’ However… if you suspect that there might be a ‘but’ coming from that reviewer, you’re right. I googled the quote, brought up the whole review (by Rachel Cooke), and you don’t need to go any further than the sub-heading to get it: ‘The constant jokes are insanely funny but fail to mask the lack of a deeper purpose to Jon Ronson’s excursion into the world of psychiatry.’

I haven’t read enough of it to know whether that’s how I’ll be left feeling but, so far, I find I’m as interested by Ronson’s post-gonzo style as I am in the weird world he’s decided to write about. (‘Weird’ is a word that Ronson himself uses, often. Come to think of it, so does that other high-profile gonzo reporter, Louis Theroux. Hm.) I’m 90-odd pages into it, and I see that it’s only in the next chapter, ‘The Psychopath Test,’ that he is going to give us what we’ve bought the book for. He’s offered some snippets of it already, as he describes his travels around the world seeking the people—all men so far—who have been trying, sometimes for many years, to get to grips with what Ronson presents as a terrible and dangerous affliction. Sure, he’s occasionally mentioned the popular idea that the success of people in real positions of power, like the CEOs of big companies, depends on the lack of empathy or care for other people that mark out the psychopath. But, so far, he’s hooked us into his world with horror-stories.

It’s set out, like so many popular so-called investigations, as a mystery that the author wants to solve. Not for Jon Ronson a neutral, measured survey of the existing consensus on the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathy, or how this consensus has been reached. Instead, right from the beginning, he adopts the persona of wide-eyed and often naïve layman, drafted into a role he was never looking for by an unexpected call. At first, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with psychopathy at all—but you can see why Ronson would want to use it to pique the reader’s interest, because it’s exactly the kind of McGuffin that could kick-start a thriller….

Some top academics across the world have received identical packages from an anonymous sender, and have been unable to discover anything that links the recipients. Why these particular academics? Why the layers of mystery—like the covering letter in each package that invites the academics to await further details—and the strange, almost random-seeming layout of the short, expensively-produced book each package contains? An academic psychologist has decided that Ronson is just the man to solve it, has met him at a Costa coffee shop near where she works in London—he loves these everyday details—and, within a page, the mystery is set out. So, Ronson has laid out for us not only what the mystery is, but exactly where and how he found out about it. From the start, he’s taking us with him on the adventure.

You can see why I call him post-gonzo. Wikipedia describes gonzo journalism as a genre in which ‘the reporter [becomes] part of the story via a first-person narrative; … it draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire.’ But the early exponents of it (like Hunter S Thompson, possibly the first), wrote ‘without claims of objectivity,’ and that isn’t Jon Ronson’s approach at all. The academic in the first chapter, he tells us, chose him because of his reputation as an investigative reporter, not because of his look-at-me style. Sometimes, sure, as in Chapter 3, he will interview a participant or psychiatrist and reach a conclusion that turns out to be exactly wrong. But, after the pratfall, he likes us to know that he gets there in the end.

This is how it works with him. We’re with him on a journey, during which we’ve heard one or more perfectly plausible witnesses—psychopaths, we’re coming to learn, are even more plausible than doctors with an axe to grind—but, eventually, he discovers a fact or two. In Chapter 3, a large-scale experimental immersive treatment involving LSD—Ronson makes sure to describe it in a way that’s as mind-boggling for the reader as the programme is for the hapless psychopaths—seems to help patients and he wishes it might be more widely used. But, as he learns only near the end of the chapter, actually the programme makes them far worse. One patient, who perpetrated a hideous crime shortly after his release—the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old boy is only one of several such crimes Ronson gleefully describes in these chapters—told an interviewer that the programme taught him only ‘how to be a more devious psychopath.’ Silly old me, Ronson seems to be saying, getting it wrong again. But, he is also letting us know, at least he’s finding out some real stuff.

The description of the murder is part of the wow-factor detail I was writing about. Psychopaths are capable of doing some truly terrible things, and in these early chapters Ronson focuses on them, and not on the more rounded picture we might get from his quoted statistic that probably less than one per cent of the population shows psychopathic tendencies. He’s also mentioned that popular idea that captains of industry, and who knows what other powerful people, are psychopaths—and the juxtaposition of these two things helps to keep us reading. Are we really being manipulated en masse by these murderers?

I doubt it, and I expect that the book is going to make that clear. But… no doubt, given the title of the next chapter, we’ll realise that there is a whole spectrum of psychopathy. I’m sure most readers, like me, want to get on with finding out whether we’re on it.

24 January
Chapters 4-7
So, well past the half-way point. And as you’d expect, there aren’t too many surprises. As promised in its subtitle, in Chapter 4 we get the actual 20-point psychopath test. Ronson gives it to us straight—ok, it’s been a long time coming, i.e. 101 pages into my copy—but there it is, an unambiguous list. (It’s easy to find it online. Here is a link to one, and if it doesn’t work, you’ll find it on another site within a minute if you do a search for ‘Bob Hare Psychopath Test.’) Bob Hare is the guru, another Canadian—the mad-sounding programme in Chapter 3 was Canadian, which the psychiatrist involved in it in the seventies, Gary Maier, called the ‘wild west’ of psychiatry—and he offers big, well-attended three-day courses to spread the word. Ronson goes to one, and is so smug about his new-found psychopath-spotting skills—I think that might be the actual phrase he uses—that we know there’s going to be another pratfall. Or, at least, a reassessment of his own new certainty. He immediately takes to referring to behaviour he observes or remembers according to the checklist—Item 8, Callous/lack of empathy (page 104), that sort of thing—and he loves it.

So he spends the next two chapters smugly ticking off items from Bob Hare’s list. First (among other things, inevitably) he has an interview with a man he met first in the nineties. He had once organised sadistic death-squads on behalf of a Haitian political faction, but avoided deportation from The US after having threatened to whistle-blow on a whole raft of CIA dirty tricks. He’s showing all the signs and, sure enough, when Ronson looks back briefly after parting from him on the doorstep the man has let his mask fall: ‘His face was very different, colder, suspicious.’ Gotcha. Next comes the classic corporate psychopath. He earned a reputation for cold-bloodedly shutting down companies, turning the towns where the plants were sited into ghostly shells. Ronson starts the chapter with descriptions of one of these places, and there are a lot of them after a ‘year-long rampage across rural America, closing plants in Shubuta and Bay Springs’, plus four others he names, ‘and on and on, turning [them] into ghost towns.’ Daringly—Ronson is never scared to let us know the extent to which he puts himself in harm’s way—he goes through the checklist with this monster. And yes, he seems to tick every box. Ronson is so excited he presents his scribbled notes verbatim. He’s pretty sure he’s nailed this psychopath-spotting game.

I was wrong to label this book post-gonzo. It’s classic gonzo, especially in the chapter that follows this apparent success: it’s all about him. It isn’t a pratfall, but he’s feeling a bit silly. A good friend of his, the documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, pulls him up short when he describes how he’s been spending his time. Curtis looks kind of disappointed—in fact, a page into the chapter, he looks ‘despairing’—and, after a difficult conversation for Ronson, lets him know why. ‘You’re like a medieval monk, stitching together a tapestry of people’s craziness. You take a little bit of craziness from up there and a little bit of craziness from over there and then you stitch it all together.’ All journalists do it, he says, and all Ronson can say is, ‘No I don’t. ’And, silently, he blames Curtis for being the ‘well-known contrarian’ he knows him to be.

But the damage is done, and now there are pages of soul-searching. He admits to himself that the textbook psychopath CEO didn’t, in fact, tick all the boxes. Ronson reasons with himself that nobody would tick them all—but he thinks about ‘the vague disappointment’ he felt whenever the man said anything ‘reasonable’ (his italics). Ah. And, this being an interview-based project, he decides to talk to another journalist who might shed some light on whether, as a profession, they are often guilty of just looking for what makes a good story. Having had no success in becoming the campaigning journalist she had wanted to be—don’t they all, she asks—she tells him how she had ended up working as a researcher for a daytime TV show featuring people in dysfunctional relationships. She describes how, after a time, she devised her own simple test for deciding whether the applicants showed ‘the right sort of madness’—the chapter’s subtitle—to make for good TV. Her test—and she assures him how cynical she became about it—was to check out who was on Prozac. Along the way, Ronson describes a famous scandal in America when nobody had thought to do a check. One of the family members interviewed ended up killing herself. The details of what led to this, as so often, are gruesomely lurid.

In fact, that’s really all that’s memorable in this book. The grisly anecdotes, held together by the idea of a supposedly serious investigation. But an investigation into what, in fact? Ok, there are as many psychopaths per hundred among big bosses as there are in the prison population, if not more (something like four percent). Maybe, as somebody has suggested—keeping track of who’s who starts to become tricky after a while—it’s an evolutionary necessity. Perhaps we need people with more drive than empathy to get things done. Or something. But… what was it that Rachel Cooke, the Observer reviewer, had to say about this book? There’s a ‘lack of a deeper purpose’ behind all the laughs. Maybe. So far, I’m seeing it as an entertainment with good anecdotes for readers to tell their friends. But I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve read the last four chapters.

27 January
Chapters 8-11—to the end
I haven’t really said how engaging this book is at times, even if I don’t find Ronson’s humour as uproarious as some people do. As with all popularising non-fiction, the reader picks up on interesting things along the way, and issues are raised that need raising. But to me it feels that Ronson doesn’t treat the serious purpose he has in mind seriously enough. Now much wiser, he wants us to believe, than he was at the start of his two-year journey he still resorts to the same formulas. Almost any conversation, especially in the last chapter or two, ends with a surprise or a twist. Or, if he has a conversation with someone who has some axe to grind—I mentioned those right from the start—he ends it at just the point when they have revealed their own prejudices.

So, he visits a woman with a son on antidepressants, in a chapter in which he he has been alerting us to the over-prescription of exactly these drugs to children. Since the redefinition of dozens, if not hundreds of disorders—I’ll come back to that—a million children in America have been diagnosed as suffering from the bipolar disorder which, he assures us, never actually manifests itself before adolescence. The woman’s son was diagnosed in early childhood, and has been medicated ever since. Ronson asks her innocently why so many kids diagnosed as bipolar seem to ‘outgrow’ a disorder that is considered lifelong. ‘Isn’t that another way of saying they didn’t have it to begin with?’ She shoots him ‘a sharp look’ and, in best Ronson-victim style, tells him ‘My husband grew out of his asthma and food allergies.’ No further comment being deemed necessary, the section ends. Later, ‘Bob Hare was passing through Heathrow’—don’t you just love that?—‘and so we met one last time.’ They talk about the same issue, the over-labelling of near-normal behaviours as mental conditions. But Ronson has to finish on one of his wry little no-comment moments. He tells him that after doing his course, ‘I went a bit power-mad.’ Bob Hare makes a joke—‘Knowledge is power’—but: ‘Then he shot me a pointed look. “Why haven’t I gone power-mad, I wonder?” he said.’ Gotcha, again.

So, this isn’t just about the psychopath test any more. It’s turned into a jog around the issue of how modern psychiatry, especially in America, got into such a muddle. The standard handbook of criteria for defining mental disorders, having once been around 40 pages long, has gone through so many revisions and updates that it grew over a few years to over 800 pages. Robert Spitzer, the man responsible for most of this ballooning, is still alive, and Ronson goes to visit him in retirement. Inevitably, there’s something slightly bonkers about him. He had, perfectly sensibly, wanted to turn the diagnosis of every mental disorder into a checklist, to avoid the often ad hoc-seeming misdiagnoses that were getting psychiatrists a bad press in the late seventies. But, according to the man himself, there was nothing sensible at all about the way decisions were reached at the meetings they had. ‘Of course we didn’t take minutes. We barely had a typewriter.’ Then Ronson takes over: ‘Someone would yell out the name of a mental disorder and … there’d be a cacophony of voices in assent or dissent…. If Spitzer agreed, which he almost always did, he’d hammer it out then and there on an old typewriter, and there it would be, set in stone.’

When copies of the new handbook were trialled, by having the checklists turned into questionnaires, it turned out that of the hundreds of thousands of those questioned, ‘almost all of them felt terrible…. According to the new checklists, more than 50 per cent of them were suffering from a mental disorder.’ Of course, ‘the pharmaceuticals were delighted.’ And Gary Maier—remember him?—takes over the story. He describes how the sales reps would push their products to reluctant psychiatrists like him. When two sweet-talking female reps don’t succeed with Maier, they turn to go. ‘And then the more attractive of the two women said, “Oh, would you like some Viagra samples?” … Like street pushers.’

So, not about psychopathy, then? It’s all interesting, and this is one of the stories that Ronson’s target readership will love to tell. But Ronson, as we know, likes to tie things up as neatly as any novelist. The final chapter opens with Tony, a man Ronson had interviewed in one of the early chapters and uses as a benchmark of the plausible-seeming psychopath. He’s been in Broadmoor for years, having been too successful, he says, at convincing a court that his apparent criminality was a mental disorder. There have been a lot of twists and turns in this story, including one psychiatrist’s assertion that they always knew Tony thought he was tricking them, but they could see his psychopathic motivation…. We get a ten-page account of Ronson’s second visit to see him, which is as much about Ronson’s experience of getting inside the wards for the first time as it is about Tony. There’s a court hearing, to be held in the hospital and—guess what? ‘And the upshot—Tony was to be free.’ Who would have thought it?

And there are other ends to be tied up, or cauterised. One is the Heathrow conversation with Bob Hare. But the last helps to bookend the whole project: Ronson’s final communications with the man he’d tracked down in the early chapters, the one who sent those mysterious packages two years before. Ronson now receives his own copy of the book sent to the random-seeming group of academics. He gets in touch with the man via email, and learns a few details of the making of the packages, musing along the way about how this eccentric act is a symptom not of any kind of disorder, but a statement about the need felt by the human mind to make sense of inchoate reality. Or something. But the man is a games-player, and before he puts an end to the email conversation for good—which he says he will do the next day—he tells Ronson to ‘be patient, eventually you will work out how to proceed.’

But Ronson is a games-player too, and he’s so pleased with his one last flourish he takes a picture of it. He looks again at the book that he received a few days before, and… and you can believe the timing of this if you want. ‘Now I turned the book over in my hands, and something fell out. It was an envelope, with my name on it…. Feeling unexpectedly excited, I ripped it open…’

…and it’s a Rosebud moment. In the envelope is a card, and ‘handwritten inside was the message, which comprised just two words…’ Cue photograph of the message: Good luck.