Monday, January 9, 2012

The Psychopath Test--Jon Ronson

‘I heard a story about her once,’ said James. ‘She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.’ (10)Reporters have to decide whether to be participant observers or detached observers. In other words, will they actively write themselves into their story, or take the stance of a neutral observer, the camera eye? Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test (and previously The Men Who Stare At Goats, about the military’s fascination with the paranormal), brazenly inserts himself into his writings. This allows him to write sentences like the following: “I’d never really thought much about psychopaths before that moment, and I wondered if I should try to meet some” (10).

Some readers disdain this style of writing, finding it showy and selfish—just give us the facts. And when such writing is done poorly, I am in full agreement. But in the right hands (write hands?), I adore it. Ronson has the right hands, and also the right topics. His doubts about psychiatry and the diagnosis of psychopathy become our doubts. His style allows us as readers to feel like participants in the madness he investigates.

Ronson’s investigations take him inside Broadmoors, England’s highest security psychiatric hospital, where he meets “Tony,” who pretended to be a psychopath in order to avoid prison. Now the psychiatrists are convinced he is a psychopath. And to Queens, where he interviews Toto Constant, an exiled Haitian warlord whose men committed horrible crimes against humanity. Who may or may not be a psychopath, and may or may not have been working for the CIA. And to Wales, to talk to Bob Hare, creator of the Hare Checklist, the tool used to diagnose psychopaths. As well as to New Jersey, where Ronson talks to Robert Spitzer, who takes us behind the scenes in the creation of the DSM-III, where “practically every disorder you’ve ever heard of or have been diagnosed with came to be invented.” And to the shadowy world of David Shayler, former MI-5 spy who later became a 9/11 and 7/11 denier and a self-proclaimed Messiah.

Ronson is often glib, frequently self-deprecating, and always entertaining. This does not, however, mean that he does not raise serious questions. Indeed, all these investigations and interviews (and I have by no means mentioned them all) raise more questions than they answer about madness, psychiatry, and the “madness industry,” Ronson’s term for the pharmaceutical companies and all their tentacles. Ronson does not deny the effectiveness or necessity of psychiatric care and treatment in some circumstances (unlike the Scientologists, whose anti-psychiatry attitudes he discusses in his book). But he leaves us wondering about the health of the mental health field and our definitions of mentally ill:

“There is evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things” (271). So concludes Ronson in this book, which is itself a rather interesting thing.

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