It is late summer and the time of year when I get to catch up on books that have been piling up in my office.
One of these, Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, had been on my radar since I read a positive review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times a couple months ago and knowing Ronson’s other work (including The Men Who Stare at Goats), I was eager to dive in.
Ronson has a talent for picking out quirky characters and fringe topics and knitting them together with sharp (and, frequently, cutting) prose. In The Psychopath Test, he mingles with Scientologists, denizens of Broadmoor (an English psychiatric hospital once known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum), David Shayler (the former MI5 spy turned conspiracy theorist turned messiah), and numerous other intriguing individuals. Although he describes himself as highly anxious, Ronson does not shy away from awkwardness in his interviews or skewering those with whom he disagrees.
This makes for entertaining reading, but I worry that it may lead to distortions and this is where my main issue with the book comes. Ronson’s central goal seems to debunk (or at least) unsettle the psychiatric establishment. He aims to show that the insiders of what he refers to as “the madness industry” are themselves mad and that fairly normal people end up being labeled and destroyed by a system riddled with problems. But Ronson doesn’t use the tools of science to accomplish his task. Indeed, his account is profoundly unscientific.
Rather than really engaging the research, Ronson relies on interviews with scientists, patients, and others—and it often seems that he uses these interviews to build support for his preset conclusions, rather than allowing his investigations to drive his theory, or lets his theory be driven by his personal reactions to the players involved (i.e., this guy is a jerk, therefore his research is rubbish). Consider Ronson’s epiphany concerning “what a mutually passionate and sometimes dysfunctional bubble the relationship between therapist and client can be.” The spark and proof for this statement is the fact that one psychiatrist, Gary Maier, who he interviewed “sounded mournful, defensive, and utterly convinced of himself” when arguing that psychopath patients who later reoffended after his treatment program was shut down did so because the dissolution of the program suggested to them that the therapy was ineffective. Ronson may be right about the “sometimes dysfunctional bubble” but he hasn’t made his case at all.
Perhaps more worrisome is the haphazard way Ronson goes about wielding the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist noting whenever he comes across someone—an arrogant CEO, a reviewer who crossed him, etc.—who seems to show signs of one item or another. Certainly that’s part of the point (that such checklists can be used haphazardly), but I often got the sense that Ronson genuinely believed, after having taken a three-day course, that he was now able to spot the psychopaths in our midst. And overall I thought he gave short shrift to the training and experience that go into wielding the DSM. A layperson flipping through the manual will immediately diagnose his spouse with 15 conditions; a trained psychologist will not.
So, my final verdict? Check out one of Ronson’s other books instead — he’s a talented writer but this book left me feeling cold (which may or may not make me a psychopath).
* * *
Sample of other Situationist book reviews: