Jon Ronson has a way of telling a story that keeps it interesting while keeping it thoughtful. He is not a careful analyst of ideas, and he is not an academic, but he is good at conveying a variety of issues through a few episodes. It is a messy assemblage, but it works. The theme is the difficulty of deciding on who counts as a mental illness, and especially who counts as a psychopath. The great charm of the book is Ronson's readiness to go and meet people that others would not meet, and his reporting of their conversations. He meets with a violent criminal in jail, a person accused of mass murder, a CEO who has fired hundreds of employees to maximize profit, psychiatric experts, and assorted oddballs. Although the book is subtitled "A Journey through the Madness Industry," it's better described as a few conversations with people somehow connected with mental health issues, with some humorous commentary.
Although the book meanders a great deal, it is mainly about psychopathy. Ronson meets Robert Hare, the creator of the renowned checklist, PCL-R. The full version of the list is copyrighted and available for sale, and indeed, its use is licensed, providing Hare with a royalty, but a summary of it is on Wikipedia. Ronson is at first skeptical about the list, but after he attends a seminar where clinicians learn how to use it, he becomes enthusiastic and starts diagnosing all sorts of people with psychopathy. Diagnosing others makes him feel powerful, especially when he realizes that it is not just the violently criminal who can be diagnosed, but also many CEOs and other people who wield power. Ronson further sees psychopathic tendencies in himself -- especially a tendency to feel no empathy for the suffering of others -- and this worries him. He explores some cases where psychologists have been overconfident about the power of their approach to find criminals, and meets with Paul Britton, the man who created criminal profiling in the UK, but whose career was ended by a wrong prediction and inappropriate recommendations about how to trap a man who turned out to be innocent. Ronson also meets with famed psychiatrist Robert Spitzer who was the main force behind DSM-III, and gets him to talk a little about the possible misuse of the psychiatric diagnostic manual. Especially interesting is Ronson's discussion with Allen Frances, who was chair of the DSM-IV Task Force, since the psychiatrist says that they made a mistake in opening the floodgates for the diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder and Asperger's disorder.
So The Psychopath Test does a very nice job at raising important questions about how to think about people who kill or hurt others with little compunction, how our legal systems and health care systems should deal with those people, and whether psychiatry can provide the answers. It's an entertaining book that will provoke thought. It doesn't have any clear answers, but it would be unreasonable to expect it to.
· Jon Ronson site.
· Whodunnit? Criminal profilers were once the heroes of police work, nailing offenders with their astonishing psychological insights. So why did it all fall apart? Jon Ronson, The Guardian, Saturday 15 May 2010
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York