Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test is somewhat better described by its subtitle -- "A Journey Through the Madness Industry" -- than it is by that flashy title, which leads the reader to expect a lot about psychopaths and how to detect them. The central spine of the book -- the most interesting, compelling sections -- are about psychopaths, and possible psychopaths, and the question of determining who is a psychopath, from ex-Sunbeam CEO "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap to a young man Ronson meets in the British high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor, but that's only one aspect of Ronson's larger goal.

Unfortunately, Ronson's larger goal is somewhat amorphous: he wants to investigate how people get tagged with psychiatric categorizations, and how useful that process is, and whether those categorizations really correspond to the real world. This was partially driven by his contacts with Scientologists, who famously dislike the psychiatric profession, since they have their own alternative theory of human behavior and mental illness. [1] And it was partly driven by Ronson's own general bent of research -- he is, after all, the author whose last book was The Men Who Stare at Goats, about military applications of supposed mental powers (which also became an odd movie), and, before that, a book called Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson clearly has a tropism for the quirkier and more colorful sides of the human imagination, and The Psychopath Test sees him trying to apply that more systematically, to see if the major system of taxonomy of those quirks and bits of color (the DSM-IV) makes sense and does what it's supposed to.

Ronson is a reporter of the go-talk-to-people school, which makes his books colorful and deeply readable, but some readers may wish that he had a stronger strain of sit-there-and-read-deeply to give more background and depth to his interviews and experiences. He doesn't really have a thesis to test, just an area to explore, and that area is so large that there's no obvious point at which he can say that he's explored it "enough." So The Psychopath Test is a collection of excellent chapters, ideas, and thoughts that don't precisely add up to one thing -- it's a constellation of thoughts about sanity, moral sensibility, and mental disorders rather than a systematic investigation of any one thing or explication of a specific theory. Ronson, though, is so engaging and immediate a writer that many readers won't even notice that he's bitten off more than any man could chew, though I expect many readers will wish that he'd been a bit more focused on the psychopaths, since they're the ones we want to know the most about.

[1] I will studiously avoid characterizing this theory, since it's outside the scope of this review, and I don't intend to seek out trouble. But those who know anything about that theory may be able to guess my opinion of it.

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