Sep 27, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (& Advent with Austen)

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test - A Journey through the Madness Industry opens when journalist Jon Ronson is called to help a neurology professor unveil the mystery behind a book she received in the mail: a carefully produced and cryptic object that has been sent to several academics around the world and over whose meaning they cannot stop puzzling. Ronson’s investigations make him consider the fact that most of us operate under an assumption of sanity – we expect things to make sense and have a logical explanation. But in the world he’s about to enter, this isn’t always the case.

Ronson’s research puts him in contact with Tony, a young man who has been locked in Broadmoor for years after faking madness using classic movie lines to escape a heavy prison sentence. You’d think that the doctor’s inability to spot his obvious appropriations of pop culture would speak volumes about their lack of reliability – and yet there’s more to Tony’s story than meets the eye. Ronson also meets Bob Hare, the author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, the most commonly used psychometric tool to assess psychopathy. Ronson is put off by Hare’s tendency to refer to psychopaths almost as if they belonged to another species, yet when reviewing the history of alternative and more compassionate treatments, he comes across rates of recurrence that give him pause. The result is an inevitable period of confusion: in a world where experts are at such odds with each other, who do you trust?

My favourite thing about The Psychopath Test was the fact that it balanced a resolutely critical approach to unfounded expertise and sloppy science with an acknowledgement that there are people out there with serious problems who need professional help. Ronson is aware that mental illness is very much real, and he takes care not to sensationalise, dehumanise, or exploit those who suffer from it. But his compassionate approach goes hand in hand with a refusal to flinch away from asking uncomfortable questions to experts who have very few certainties but often pretend otherwise.

Ronson knows that the reality of mental illness doesn’t diminish the fact that we live in an age where there’s a lot to be gained from pathologising human behaviour - or as he puts it, reducing people to their maddest edges. There is also a problem with approaches that divorce madness from its surrounding social context. For example, many of the items on the Hare checklist can be positively recast as “leadership skills” if identified in a sufficiently powerful person. This causes Ronson to wonder “if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.”

A lot of the ground The Psychopath Test covers was familiar to me: as a psychology major, I studied not only the DSM-IV, but also “On Being Sane in Insane Places” and Thomas Szasz’s anti-psychiatry movement. But my familiarity with both sides of the argument didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book – quite the contrary. It was very interesting to revisit the difficult questions I first encountered all those years ago, and it was wonderful to see such a highly readable book that puts it all so clearly and encourages critical thinking without pooh-poohing people who suffer from very real problems.

I read The Psychopath Test in a single day in August, right in the middle of my I-can’t-concentrate-on-anything funk. I didn’t expect a non-fiction book to pull me out of it, but there you go. Ronson combines thoughtfulness, complexity and intellectual rigour with engaging, accessible prose and a wonderful sense of humour. I’ll be sure to seek out his other books.

Favourite passages:
I didn’t know what to think. There are a lot of ill people out there whose symptoms manifest themselves in odd ways. It seemed untoward for Lady Margaret – for all the anti-psychiatrists, Scientologists or otherwise – to basically dismiss them as sane because it suited their ideology. At what point does querying diagnostic criteria tip over into mocking the unusual symptoms of people in very real distress? The CCHR had once sent around a press release castigating parents for putting their children on medication simply because they were ‘picking their noses’ (…). The thing was, parents weren’t putting their children on medication for picking their noses. They were putting them on medication for picking them until their facial bones were exposed.
But as her list continued it was hard not to wonder how things had ended up this way. It really did seem that she was on to something, that complicated human behaviour was increasingly getting labelled as mental disorder. How did this come to be? Did it matter? Were there consequences?

When Robert Spitzer stepped down as editor of DSM-III his position was taken by a psychiatrist named Allen Frances. He continued the Spitzer tradition of welcoming as many new mental disorders, with their corresponding checklists, into the fold as he could. DSM-IV came in at 886 pages.
Now, as he took a road-trip from New York down to Florida, Dr Frances told me over the phone he felt they’d made some terrible mistakes.
‘It’s very easy to set off a false epidemic in psychiatry,’ he said. ‘And we inadvertently contributed to three that are ongoing now.’
‘Which are they?’ I asked.
‘Autism, attention deficit, and childhood bipolar,’ he said.
‘How did you do it?’ I asked.
‘With autism it was mostly adding Aspenger’s, which was a much milder form,’ he said. ‘The rates of diagnosis of autistic disorder in children went from less than one in two thousand to more than one in a hundred. Many kids who would have been called eccentric, different, were suddenly labelled autistic.’
I remembered my drive to Coxsackie Correctional Facility, passing that billboard near Albany – EVERY 20 SECONDS A CHILD IS DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM.
Some parents came to wrongly believe that this suddenly startling outbreak was linked to the MMR vaccine. Doctors like Andrew Wakefield and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey promoted this view. Parents stopped giving the vaccine to their children. Some caught measles and died.

I think the madness business is filled with people like Tony, reduced to their maddest edges. Some, like Tony, are locked up in DSPD units for scoring too high on Bob’s checklist. Others are on TV at 9p.m., their dull, ordinary, non-mad attributes skilfully edited out, benchmarks of how we shouldn’t be. There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting over-labelled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it.
They read it too: Devourer of Books, Linus’s Blanket, Layers of Thought, The Girl from the Ghetto, Book Sake


Advent with Austen

And now for something completely different: Advent with Austen, an event I’m helping my fellow bloggers Alex, Yvvan, Teadevotee and Iris host, invites you to celebrate all things Austen during all of the advent – that is, between November 27 and Christmas Eve. You could read Austen herself (of course), read a biography or a book about her work, read a modern reimagining or sequel, or watch one of the many TV and film adaptations. Yvann has posted all about the rules, different levels of participations (which are named after Austen characters), and side events, so I’ll point you towards her blog. I hope you’ll consider joining us! As for me, I’m planning to use this as an excuse to finally read Persuasion and watch a TV adaptation. Perhaps Northanger Abbey?


  1. ooh I love the Advent with Austen event! I will pick a book out to read and step away from my YA for a while. I loved Pride and Prejudice and definitely want to read more. I have set myself up a Challenge Me Post where others get to choose what I read over 2012 - one book a month. So hopefully I will be able to try some new style books to me.

  2. It's funny how sometimes it takes a non-fiction book to take you out of a reading slump, isn't it? That always makes me want to read more non-fic:) I read an article about this book a few months back which was interesting precisely because it seems so difficult to pinpoint and categorise mental illness.

    I'm drawn to Advent with Austen but I'm already behind with my own (very loose) reading plans. I was just thinking about Persuasion too as I realised I've only ever read P&P!

  3. I desperately want to read this book. I've read Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists, and found both fascinating in a variety of ways. His tame Gonzo approach also pulls me into his books. He's also excellent at self-promotion, and I've read excerpts from The Psychopath Test on The Guardian, NPR, and heard an excerpt on This American Life :) His points about the actual test and how it can be viewed as leadership potential has seemed to particularly catch a lot of people's attention.

  4. I can't believe I've never heard of this book before. I really need to get my hands on it! These are such important questions he's asking, and they're important in more than just an abstract sort of way. This are issues that affect so many on a daily basis. Thanks yet again, Ana!

  5. This book sounds very interesting! Also I think Persuasion is the second best Jane Austen book. The protagonists are just so likeable. And the other characters so delightfully awful. :D Advent With Austen sounds fun.

  6. OMG I am going to bombard you with tv adaptation ideas, but which ones to prioritize?!! Indecision is a killer.

    Ok so I think that the Persuasion adaptations from 2007 and 1995 are great. But this BBC Sense and Sensibility is the bomb: Why look, is that Dan Stevens from DA? I do believe it is. And the recent ITV adaptation of Northanger was so much fun as well:
    The BBC did a really competant Emma production which not everyone likes, but I enjoyed so much I've watched most of it twice:

    Related Austen series - Lost in Austen which I loved because HELLO LEAD ACTRESS IS AWESOME and some modern adaptation things I can't tell you about because spoilers, but trust me it's great:

    I do not rec the Mansfield Park adaptation ITV made alongside the other two productions, or the Keira Knightly P&P film (others will probably disagree).

    And it goes without saying that you have to watch the BBC P&P mini-series if you haven't already, but I expect you have :)

  7. Argh! I had an opportunity to get my hands on this book at SIBA but didn't. I was trying to restrain myself. That will show me.

    I am totally doing this Austen event. I've never read Sense & Sensibility, and I know my daughter will want to watch the movie. (We just finished a re-watch of P&P ala Colin Firth. OMG)

  8. I grabbed this book at SIBA and have picked it up and looked at it a few times since returning home. It does sound like a fascinating examination of the issue, and I can imagine that it would probably suck me in just as it did you. I will have to let you know what I think of it after I have finished. Great and thoughtful review today, Ana!

  9. Oh this sounds SO INTERESTING. I definitely have to find a copy. It's a perennial dilemma: the science we have on mental illness is far outstripped by the thousands of people whose lives are destroyed by mental illness. The need treatment, and they need it NOW, and if psychiatrists act unsure of themselves, the outcomes are going to be even worse. And for some people the treatments will work! And for others, maybe some palliative effect...and for others, disaster. It's such a complex problem, complicated even more by the fact that societal pathology causes mental illness to be epidemic in poor communities - and treatment is so expensive, and poor people don't vote.

    How do you find these books, Ana? you're my hero!

  10. I actually *just* finished reading this book as well! I think you may have liked it better than I did, because while I did find some parts interesting, there were large portions of the book that annoyed me because I did feel at times like Ronson presented an overly simplistic view of the mental health industry and its issues.

    Not to say I didn't enjoy the book, because I did, and like you, read it really quickly after dealing with a prolonged reading slump, so clearly it's a book worth talking about!

  11. Who was it that said "if you're poor you're mad, if you're rich you're eccentric"? I find I'm fascinated with psychiatry and somewhat skeptical about psychology, so this might just the book for me.

  12. Vivienne: Ooh, it would be wonderful to help come up with suggestions for you for next year! And I'd love to see you join us for Advent with Austen.

    Sakura: It is very difficult! Categories can make things easier and more manageable because they're a useful way for us to know what we're dealing with, but they also have so many drawbacks.

    Kate: I need to check if the library has those two!

    Debi: I have no doubt you'd love this book :)

    Horace Tripalong: A lot of friends of mine actually rate Persuasion as their favourite Austen. Needless yo say, my expectations are high, but I don't think I'll be let down.

    Jodie: Thank you so so much for all the recs :D I'm particularly drawn to the ITV Northanger Abbey and to Lost in Austen. But you kind of made me want to watch them all :P

    Sandy: I hope you have another chance to get it at some point! Also, so glad to hear you'll be joining us for Advent with Austen :D

    Heather: I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Mumsy: I first heard of it when scanning the program for the Edinburgh Book Festival, since Ronson was doing some events there. But unfortunately I didn't actually have the chance to see him - it's too bad, because I have the feeling he'd be an excellent speaker.

    Steph: The impression I got was that Ronson included the views of people who saw the mental health industry in very black and white terms, but that he distanced himself from them in the end and brought a little more complexity and nuance into the discussion. But of course I know a lot less about the subject matter than you do, and I know that the more familiar with a field of study you are, the higher your standards become.

    Alex: I would love to hear your thoughts on it. I don't know who said that either, but this book shows how often it is true.

  13. I was afraid this might be too dry and academic, but it sounds like it's not. I'll have to re-think it!

  14. I love the excerpt about autism. I'm kind of glad they're getting rid of Asperger's as a label because a) I never thought it was particularly distinct from autism and b) I think it's silly to diagnose every weird kid with a mental illness.

    Apart from that, what Mumsy said!

  15. I read and reviewed this one back in May, and found it to be well-written, entertaining, and enlightening. In fact, I gave it to my mom for a Mother's Day gift, and she liked it and read it aloud to my dad. I too look forward to reading more of Ronson's work.

  16. This sounds fascinating. I wouldn't have looked twice at it without your review, so thank you!

  17. I've had my eye on The Psychopath Test for a while now and your review has just made me think I really, really need to find a copy soon! Great review, Ana :)

  18. I really had to laugh when I read your review of The Psychopath Test because I recently listened to an episode of This American Life (a podcast which is available free of charge on iTunes, for those who don't know it yet) where they were talking about the exact same test & its concequences.
    This is a book that needs to be on my wishlist until my TBR stack is well below 300 unread books, but then, I'll read it and I am pretty sure I will enjoy it :)

  19. 'Advent with Austen' is wonderful! Can't wait for it to start :)

  20. I've been wondering about this book for a bit, and it's funny, your review almost reads like a review of a fictional work. You clearly found it engaging and insightful, and have convinced me to pick it up one day!

    Also, Advent with Austen sounds perfect - I hope to join in somehow!

  21. I've read Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists and enjoyed it a lot. This was pre-blogging days but I was making a top ten and it made my top ten of that year. Thanks for reminding me that I should read other books by him.

    The ITV Northanger Abbey is really delightful. I highly recommend it.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.