Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 (cbriii) #17 "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry" by Jon Ronson

I first saw The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011) when its author, Jon Ronson promoted it on "The Daily Show." The two Jon's discussed how his new book looks into the traits of psychopathy and how many corporate CEO's, etc. display these traits. I had just finished The Devil in the White City, which features a psychopath, and I was interested in learning more about how their minds worked. And the idea that there were people in power who were psychopaths--or perhaps people were able to obtain power because of their psychopathy sounded pretty fascinating.

But I found the entire book to be disappointing and frustrating. I am a big fan of Jon Krakauer because of his intensive research, intricate descriptions, and fair analysis of his subjects. The Psychopath Test was exactly the opposite. The book includes a series of loosely connected interviews with the author, somewhat related to mental health. There is not enough detail to get even a vague understanding of one subject before he abruptly switches to whatever other person he has decided to interview. Although each interview may have been interesting as an interview, there is not enough information to make a book. Why this book was even bought by the library and why it has positive reviews on Amazon is a complete mystery to me.

I was mistaken in thinking that the entire book was an in-depth look at psychopaths. However, even the part of the book that discusses psychopaths is incredibly unhelpful. Ronson jumps from some harmless guy in Norway who sent a cryptic book to a bunch of professors to a man in a mental hospital in Britain who is stuck there because his psychiatrists have determined that he's a psychopath. Needing more education on the subject, he visits an American psychologist who has come up with a "psychopath test." With this new information, Ronson interviews a business mogul who became famous for firing half of his workforce. The rest of the book moves on to how shows like Jerry Springer try to get crazy people on their show, but not too crazy. He looks at a crazy conspiracy theorist, and quickly discusses how more mental illnesses are being diagnosed and treated with drugs--especially bi-polar disorder in children.

I had two major problems with this book and Ronson's writing. The first is the lack of focus and analysis. Ronson almost touches on a number of very interesting questions and dilemmas regarding psychology, but he never gets into any of it. He never does enough research to have an enlightened discussion, and he never does any analysis. Psychologists can be a crazy bunch of people and they're often wrong. Should they really have the power of determining who is a psychopath and may be a danger to society? How do we know they're right? Are we letting a doctor who actually enjoyed shocking his prisoner patients make these decisions? What are the levels of psychopathy? What do they think causes it? Does it help people succeed in some instances? What is causing the increase of diagnosing children as bi-polar? What are the effects? What can be done about it? The entire book I was waiting for him to get into the meat of the issues, but instead he would just jump to his next subject.

The other frustration was that I felt manipulated by Ronson. He didn't have enough information to keep an entire book going, so instead of just telling us what he learned, he handed it out piece-meal in order to achieve some sort of effect. It's possible he was trying to take us on the same journey he took when he was interviewing people, but I just found it irritating. For instance, when Ronson goes to interview the business mogul, he tells us about the parts of the interview that may have made the business mogul appear to be more like a psychopath. It isn't until the next chapter that he mentions the parts that make him look more normal. If I can't trust the author to tell me the whole story, then I can't trust anything he's writing.

"We aren't all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal misshapen society. They're the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond?" --Wait, does Ronson really believe this? Does he think he's found the cause of human suffering? Because it's a pretty sweeping statement with absolutely no support. And instead of looking into this question, he just moves on.

In describing psychopaths, Jon Ronson states they lack remorse. "It's the feeling we get when we're suddenly startled--like when a figure jumps out at us in the dark--or when we realize we've done something terrible, the feeling of fear and guilt and remorse." --The feeling of guilt for doing something wrong and the feeling I get when I'm startled and scared could not be more different. Perhaps psychopaths don't feel either, but I'm not sure why Ronson is equating the two.

The two paragraphs above are just a couple examples of what bothered me about this book. Perhaps some of my disappointment comes from my expectations of something different but I have not been more annoyed with a book I've read in a long time.

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