The Psychopath Test: “the right sort of madness”

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I spend fifteen hours a week sat idly on a bus. Having been on this commute since September, I really ought to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers with whom I spend 32 days of my year on public transport.

But, I fear, after four awkward months on this commute, it would seem bizarre engaging in small talk now – especially when the first leg of the bus journey takes place at 6.15am earl-aye in the morning. And I feel like I would be considerably disappointed meeting them in real life, as I have already created nicknames and back stories for my fellow travellers on the bus to purgatory:

There’s creepy old man who once spent his entire journey watching videos of Britney Spears on his phone; ‘paint me like one of the French girls, Jack’, a gentleman who spreads himself across two seats to avoid human contact; and that one girl who always sits directly in front of me, even if I change seats.

So, I’ve decided to be more proactive on #dansbusjourney, instead of bitching about it on social media. In the year of our Lord (Rassilon) 2016, I have set myself a challenge: read a new book every week and cast my critical eye upon it. I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask you, the handsome and beautiful reader, what works I should source from the literary well; and bless you, you responded.

Thankfully there were no suggestions for Mein Kampf, which has sold out upon being made available in Germany again post-WW2.

Last week it was the academically interesting yet problematic The History Manifesto. This week, it’s Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

***

Admittedly, when this suggestion popped up on the Facebook survey from Nadia Fawcett, I was somewhat concerned. Did this person enjoy the book so much that they went out of their way to encourage others to participate in reading pleasure?

Or was this a subtle hint?

Indeed, halfway through reading The Psychopath Test, I did start to question whether I tick all the boxes on Bob Hare’s PCL-R Checklist. Thankfully as Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, remarked to Ronson:

“If you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.”

Phew.

I have always enjoyed Gonzo journalism, where the journalist directly involves himself in the story. From the pioneer Hunter S Thompson to the recent Louis Theroux, Gonzo brings a more human – and I daresay less psychopathic – approach to reporting.

This is where Jon Ronson excels. His charming anxiety and scepticism are evident in his words, but he never lets them get in the way of his interesting interviewees. He allows these eccentric characters – psychopathic or otherwise – room to breathe and gives them a platform to tell their fascinating tales.

Whilst it may have been easy to mock some of the larger than life players (Scientologists, conspiracy theorists, et al), Ronson is non-judgmental in his role and lets the reader form their own opinions; although on occasion, with tongue firmly in cheek.

From the genocidal Toto Constant to the CEO who mercilessly destroyed the American company Sunbeam (and thereby an entire town), Ronson presents an intriguing array of characters.

Throughout, we follow the narrative of Tony, an inmate at Broadmoor, where we find that psychopaths are not a simple case of black and white; supposedly, psychopaths do dream in black and white.

Like Ronson, you get carried away when learning about the simplicity of the Bob Hare test and start to over-diagnose the disorder. In his case, A. A. Gill. In my case, a particularly frightening primary school teacher.

Hare is a frequent contributor throughout the book and although not psychopathic, his insights are invaluable. For a fee. He’s made a lot of money from psychopaths. You do question whether Hare is too unsympathetic, too prejudice against those who are diagnosed through his test: he appears to be more concerned with the identification rather than the cure (sadly, there does not seem to be one).

A chapter which struck a chord was ‘The Right Sort of Madness’: an analysis of how the media responds to mental health. It receives its name from Charlotte Scott, a former guest-booker at one of those daytime, Jeremy Kyle-esque programmes.

Ronson begins to wonder whether journalists have grasped that “sufferers of certain mental disorders make the most electrifying interviewees” and have devised our own Bob Hare test to identify them.

Charlotte confirms this. She recites her experience in developing her own Goldilocks Litmus test: not too mad, not too sane – just the right sort of madness.

As Ronson covers the potential psychopathy of Wall Street, it would have been interesting to see him explore whether it exists on Fleet Street – it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Psychopath Test is an entertaining and fascinating journey through madness, meeting eccentric characters with great tales to tell along the way. Ronson serves as an endearing curator of facts, anecdotes and wit.

He employs the right sort of madness and The Psychopath Test passes with flying colours.

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