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Review: The Psychopath Test

June 17, 2011

Title: The Psychopath Test
Author: Jon Ronson
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2011

Synopsis:

In Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test, he goes on ‘a journey through the madness industry’.

Review:

I’ve found Ronson’s books and documentaries to be interesting, funny and, more importantly, insightful. He’s a breed of journalist who positions himself into the story, where we are invited to join him in following his footsteps, so to speak. It’s a conceit that can become rather, at times, annoying but Ronson does manage to keep it from becoming overbearing. The main thing about Ronson’s work is that his writing style has the effect of reading like fiction; it’s not your typical non-fiction. And I mean fiction in the sense that it feels as if he has written himself as a character to help solicit us into this journey rather than it having any fictitious information.

His journey takes him from the world of psychiatry, the controversial and strange experiments to cure psychopaths, the media’s role and even himself. His approach is fair and balanced, apart from when he writes about A.A. Gill (critic) and he allows each side to have point.

He writes about Eliot Barker and his Total Encounter Capsule to help cure psychopaths. This is where a group of psychopaths stripped naked, took LSD and stay in a room for hours on end. Instead of being cured the therapy actually made them worse, made them into better psychopaths. One psychopath, Peter Woodcock, said that the therapy allowed him to fake empathy better.

I think one of the most interesting parts was when Ronson wrote about the increase in mental disorders, and the increasing habit for doctors to prescribe medication. The DSM went from a small textbook to a mammoth 800+ book where supposedly every single mental disorder is written. However, it has been said that the writers had been overzealous and this has caused an abundance of diagnosing that could be just normal behaviour. For example, there has been an increase in the case of childhood bipolar disorder but it has been contested that there is no such thing. Robert Spitzer (one of the authors of the DSM) said that some of the things written could have been a mistake.

Another interesting part is about the daytime shows ‘where extended families mired in drama and tragedy yell at each other in front of a studio audience.’ p. 182 Ronson writes about a guest-booker on one of these shows, where she selected the ‘right’ people for the show. The show didn’t want ‘really’ crazy people who could kill themselves but people who were ‘just mad enough.’ p. 185 I felt that the parts of the media’s role was worthy of an entire book. The media and even the public’s portrayal of disabilities, be it physical and mental, is a lot of times quite shocking. There is a sense that some people look upon people with disabilities as inhuman. The most recent example of this is the Panorama programme on private care-homes.

The book is funny at times, although more so in the beginning. In one part, Ronson looks at the DSM-IV (textbook with all-known mental disorders) and proceeds to diagnose himself:

“Even sleep offered no respite from my mental disorders. There was Nightmare Disorder, which is diagnosed when the sufferer dreams of being ‘pursued or declared a failure’. All my nightmares involve someone chasing me down the street whilst yelling, ‘You’re a failure!’ p. 35

I suppose the problem I had with the book is that because it’s written as a journey, Ronson doesn’t seem to have an overall thesis; his position changes as he goes along. It might appear refreshing in the beginning but often, nearing the end, I was hoping to have some structure to appear.

In the end, it is a well-written book and it has some very interesting parts. It is definitely worth a read.

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