I haven’t been reading the newspapers for a while so it took me a couple of months to notice that Jon Ronson had a new book out. I’ve been a fan since his Guardian Weekend feature articles of the late 1990s — it was actually his writing that got me thinking about writing myself. I loved the way he combined difficult subjects with humour. When Ronson interviewed Ian Paisley or Â Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed theyÂ came out sounding scary but also very silly, and that was better than them just being scary.
For me ‘Them’ is one of the best non-fiction books ever written — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the chapters about the Bilderberg Group. ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ is also excellent. I have no idea how it came to be made into a terrible film with George Clooney but anyway, in general anything involving Jon Ronson is worth a look. So when I found myself reading the Guardian website during the phone hacking scandal and noticed an ad for Jon’s new book, I had it downloaded in a minute and read it in a couple of sittings.
The style hasn’t changed. Ronson is as honest about how he’s feeling about what he’s writing as you can be. It starts with a random encounter with a friend of a friend who has been sent a strange book in the post but this eventually leads Ronson on to explore what defines a psychopath. One study claims that while just under 1% of the population is a psychopath, the figure rises to over 3% in senior business and political roles. I didn’t know about the history of the definition and diagnosis and how it’s changed in the past 20 or so years with huge consequences for our criminal justice system. I was unaware of how the system changed in the 1990s to try and make sure that psychopaths never left custody in the UK.
The ‘test’ in the title is the so-called Hare checklist which Ronson is trained how to use. By meeting people he’s interviewed previously he suspects might be high on the scale, he shows how genuinely difficult it is to be clear but also shows how high the stakes are through the horrendous stories what has happened when psychopaths slip through the net.
Just as an aside, Ronson is friends with film-maker Adam Curtis who I have to admit I’m less of a fan of. There’s an interesting passage where Ronson is being told by Curtis that he’s reading more into the stories than is really there:
“We all do it, all journalists. We create stories out of fragments. We travel all over the world, propelled onwards by something, we sit in people’s houses, our notepads in our hands, and we wait for the gems. And the gems invariably turn out to be the madness…”
I think that’s my problem with Curtis. He does just stitch together interesting bits and bobs rather than trying to take a broader look at what’s going on.
Anyway, The Psychopath Test is brilliant and well worth a read. I just hope they don’t make it into a movie.
- ‘The Psychopath Test,’ by Jon Ronson, review (sfgate.com)
- The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson — review (guardian.co.uk)
- The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (theglobeandmail.com)