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23rd November
2011
written by Steph

Since Thanksgiving is just around the corner for those of us living in the United States, I feel that talking about a book that takes a trip through the madness industry is apt. Oh come now! I can’t be the only one who finds that large family gatherings are something akin to a trip to the loony bin! If, like me, you tend to find that congregations featuring your nearest and dearest tend to be a bit, well, colorful, OR if you just find yourself interested in mental health issues, I’m sure you’ll find this book enjoyable and educational… Whether it also leads you to mentally evaluate how many of the criteria on Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist every person you meet exhibits, well, that’s just another perk, now isn’t it? Like so much non-fiction, I think that The Psychopath Test is a fun read for those who have a pet interest in a certain subject but aren’t actually experts in that field. Those who have, say, majored in Psychology (as I did at university) will find that there are a lot of tidbits that are already familiar (though certainly I learned some things I didn’t already know), but that there is also a lot of glossing over of material as well as oversimplifications made for the sake of engaging storytelling or enhanced accessibility for the layman. That is why, although I found this book fun and interesting, I also found it exceedingly frustrating. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jonson states anything that is deliberately false in this book, but there were moments where I felt like many nuances were lost (or counterpoints were omitted), so as someone who is more than passingly familiar with clinical psychology (though I will say straight up that although I am working on my Psychology doctorate, my area of expertise is cognition and perception NOT clinical populations) I found myself arguing with this book quite a lot. Just as a fair warning, after finishing this book, I jotted down some notes in my book spreadsheet, and when I imported those notes into Word, they filled an entire page. So yeah, I have feelings when it comes to this book (and yes, a lot of them are crabby and could likely be written in all-caps, but worry not, I've saved you from Caps Lock Steph... this time...). First and foremost, I have to say that when I picked up this book, I was really focusing on the first half of the title, that is to say the part having to do with psychopaths. Whatever it may say about me, I’ve been interested in psychopaths/sociopaths (the terms are pretty much used interchangeably these days) since I was about 14 or 15, so I was really looking forward to reading a book devoted to this disorder. And the parts of this book that did examine psychopathy were actually really fascinating. Unfortunately, Jonson’s discussion of psychopaths only took up about 40% of the book, which I found really disappointing. I guess I should have paid more attention to the book’s subtitle (“A Journey Through the Madness Industry”), because this book really acts as a platform for Ronson to examine all types of madness and neuroses (including his own), with a slight emphasis on, but not exclusive devotion to, psychopathy. I personally found this mishmash of examining psychopathy alongside other disorders (like manic depression and autism) and viewing it with reference to "insanity" a bit baffling, because I would not personally consider psychopathy in the same ballpark as a psychosis or a psychotic episode. Ronson is drawn to the lurid depictions of insanity, things that involve hallucinations and mental disruption, generally the kind of stuff you’d associate with schizophrenics or other extreme personality disorder. In my mind I don’t think psychopathy is the same kind of disorder, not least because unless a psychopath goes out into the world and commits a crime, we are largely unaware of his existence because his condition doesn’t really interfere with his ability to function or lead a normal life. In fact, as Ronson goes to great lengths to point out in this book, psychopaths tend to be very successful in society; one chapter is devoted to Ronson interviewing a top business executive whom he suspects might be a psychopath, and this dovetails into discussion about the fact that many of the traits that psychopaths exhibit are ones that allow them to be great social climbers and titans of industry. It’s a very specific personality disorder that I think is very far-removed from most of the ones that wind up in the DSM-IV, so thematically, I found it odd to jump from talking about psychopaths to talking about people who are simply eccentric, to those who might be manic depressive or possibly schizophrenic. I don’t argue that all of these things aren’t interesting, but for me, I felt that Ronson struggled to create a cohesive book where all of these elements feel vital as opposed to tangents to his central thesis (which I think actually vacillates throughout the book and his “big picture message” doesn’t really show up until very late, which I’ll discuss in a bit). I don’t fault him for wanting a title that will hook readers, and “The Psychopath Test” will certainly turn heads, but I think it was ultimately a bit misleading and too focused given what this book is really about. So apart from me feeling intensely frustrated that this book was so unfocused and digressive at times, I did think that the anecdotes Ronson shares throughout the book are really engaging, especially if you are coming to this with minimal background in clinical psychology. Some of the stories and cases he recounts were ones that I was already familiar with, but even still, they are very salient regardless of familiarity. And I did learn stuff! Namely that when it comes to groundbreaking (and highly questionable!) work done with psychopaths and the mentally ill, Canada kind of takes the cake. Not only is Dr. Robert Hare (who has essentially built his career on psychopaths and developing a checklist for identifying them) Canadian, but some really wackadoo studies took place in Canada in the ‘60s and ‘70s involving prison inmates and LSD and really, it’s so crazy and wild that even if you pick up this book to just read Chapter 3 (“Psychopaths Dream in Black-And-White”), I promise you that you will be titillated and have your mind blown. Also, at one point Ronson makes a passing reference to Karla Homolka, a woman who is infamous to Torontonians, especially to one like myself who grew up in the area where she and her husband, Paul Bernardo, targeted many of their victims. Having not thought of her in ages (I was about 8 or 9 during the time that The Scarborough Rapist was a big thing, so while I knew their names, much of the horror of what was happening was largely shielded from me), this reference caused me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning on Wikipedia as I continued to horrify myself with information about the two, such that I didn’t actually want to go to bed at night and Tony lectured me about reading freaky things before bedtime. That whole thing is my fault, not Ronson's, since he literally only mentions Homolka in a single sentence, but I was the one who had to go out and ferret out all the creepy back story. All to say that even if I had issues with the book, I still found it largely riveting and informative. I will also say that Ronson has a very breezy and engaging writing style, which makes this specialized topic pretty accessible to anyone regardless of background or pre-existing interests. I do think that at times Ronson was his own worst enemy, however, as his constant extemporizing about his anxiety disorder (which is self-diagnosed, naturally) and his possible compliance with the titular psychopath test got old very quickly. I personally didn’t find his nebbish personality nearly as endearing as I’m sure he thought it would come across, and given that this is the kind of non-fiction in which Ronson himself is a key player, it was too bad that I sometimes really hated him. Finally, I think that all too quickly and very suddenly, the book morphs from a relatively fun romp through mental illness that is largely devoid of casting judgments, to a really sappy, ridiculously oversimplified politically correct ending where the takeaway message of the book seems to be that maybe people exist on a continuum and so we can’t easily summarize human beings with single diagnostic labels/disorders. To me, this was such an obvious statement, that I kind of resented Ronson for making it. Obviously if someone is suffering from Alzheimers or AIDS or yes, even schizophrenia, we should know better than to think that these diseases define them, that there is nothing else to these people, but such a viewpoint is also very simplistic. Would it be better that we not diagnose someone with a disease because we might then be tempted to view them through the lens of that disease or there might be some element of discomfort involved with labeling? I know that there is more of a stigma regarding mental illness, but just because we have screwed up notions about what it means for someone to be depressed (in large part because the human mind is so nebulous and much of it remains a mystery), that doesn’t mean that depression is not a serious disorder that requires compassion and also treatment. It's not just people being moody or having a bad case of the blues, just like someone who is schizophrenic is not just wildly eccentric. Bad things happen when these disorders are not identified and treated, so while I agree that there has perhaps been a trend to over-diagnose certain mental disorders and to over-medicate, I resent someone who says something like “oh, well people are quirky and what exactly is ‘normal’ anyway?” I was angry that in the end Ronson seemed to ignore critical things like the fact that the Psychopath Checklist he had thus far been championing doesn’t simply amount to “Is this person a psychopath? Check Yes or No”, but rather is a battery of questions in which someone scores points, and so obviously you can see that there are going to be gray areas and a continuum of scores, and that as fun as it is to poke around and think “Oh, it’s a checklist! I can administer that!” the truth is that NO, YOU CAN’T. Going to one seminar when you have no background or education in mental healthcare does not make you qualified to identify dangerous individuals or mental disorders, just like how my watching 100+ hours of the tv series Bones doesn't make me a forensic anthropologist. Knowledge is power, but limited knowledge is so dangerous because people are tricked into thinking they can make informed decisions because they see the big picture, when really all they have is just a few pixels of a very granular image. I am not saying that Ronson doesn’t raise some important questions or that we should be afraid to question what is established, but Ronson is not an expert, just like even though I correctly diagnosed myself with Shingles once via WebM.D., I still, you know, went to an actual doctor to get it treated, and you’re not going to find me giving myself a flu shot anytime soon, or even changing the oil in my car for that matter. I’m all for going out and learning new things, but it’s important we recognize our boundaries and limitations! Overall, I think this was an interesting read, I just wish that the book as a whole wasn’t so discursive, and that Ronson gave wider berth to grand-sweeping statements and oversimplifications. As someone who studies the human mind, I know how complicated it is, how much we still don't know about it, but to say that the mind is too complicated and too messy, the implication being that we should leave it alone, that annoyed me. I would just really hate for someone to read this and think that we don’t know anything about the mind, that we diagnose people who aren’t normal and try to make them just like everyone else, that these mental illnesses aren’t real and the treatment may be worse than the disease itself , the result being that person writes off this area of research that is really so important. It’s like the people who have decided that vaccinations may cause autism and so they don’t get their kids vaccinated and so instead their kid dies of whooping cough… but don’t worry! At least they weren’t autistic! Ugh. Ronson seems to imply that it is the diagnosis that brings some of these disorders into being, but as far as I’m concerned, you can call a disorder whatever you want or call it nothing at all, if people are suffering and can be helped, let’s find out a way to do so. Refusing to acknowledge that you have a problem doesn’t make the problem go away (and yes, some people will argue that who’s to say that being schizophrenic is “wrong”, to which I say that if you can’t function in society or take care of yourself and may actually pose a danger to yourself or others, that is a problem). Anyway, like I said at the beginning of this tirade, I obviously have a lot of thoughts and passionate opinions on this topic, but I’d wager that most other people don’t, and I think if you're more able to take this book at face value, you will be less prone to rage blackouts than I. If you’re in the mood for some weird stories, some of them quite creepy, check this out. And for those of you who just like to see me get all rant-y and angry: you’re welcome. [P.S. This is so petty, but also: I HATE JON RONSON'S NAME. Whenever I would mention this book to someone, I kept forgetting his name, and would literally have to pause for about 5 seconds while I thought of it (getting it wrong half the time) because to me "Ron Jonson" is a name, but Jon Ronson is not. It sounds like a made-up name. And I may have used both names interchangeably throughout this review because I honestly cannot keep straight which is the real name at this point.] Rating: 3.5 out of 5

7 Comments

  1. 11/23/2011

    I had to laugh at the bit about not reading freaky things before bedtime – me too! :–)

    And yes, I also find the idea of a checklist scary.

    Love your thorough review!

  2. Eva
    11/23/2011

    Hmmm….I don’t mind when popular nonfiction doesn’t go into as much depth as a specialist would like, but I do mind when it makes misleading generalisations. So I think I’ll stay away from this. But I loved your review! 🙂

  3. 11/23/2011

    Aha! I see Caps Lock Steph made an appearance at the very end. She couldn’t stay away after all.

    Great review!

  4. 11/24/2011

    I’ve been wondering about this book, because I like Jon Ronson’s stories on This American Life, but I wondered if it oversimplified too much. The line between making something simple enough for a general reader to digest and oversimplifying to the point of error is a hard one to find. Sounds like this one doesn’t quite strike the right balance.

    Are you familiar with The Sociopath Next Door? A friend recommended it to me recently, and I wondered whether it also oversimplified something complex. (The friend seemed keen to apply a “checklist” approach to people on the basis of what she read, and although I do think knowing some of the general tendencies to look for can be useful, it’s not the same as getting a professional diagnosis.)

  5. 12/09/2011

    @ rhapsody: I always finds it’s the creepy books that keep me up late into the night – the very books that I should only read when it is broad daylight out! 😀
     
    @ Eva: I don’t read much non-fiction, so I’m sure I frequently have unrealistic expectations of it! I’m sure I also wouldn’t be so bothered by books that only skim the surface if I were reading about a topic that I personally hadn’t studied so extensively but just have casual interest in… There were certainly parts of this book that I thought were really interesting, but I found the final “take away” chapter to be really frustrating.
     
    @ softdrink: I can only quell CLSteph for so long before she rears her angry head! She snuck one past me in the end… 😉
     
    @ Teresa: I have actually heard of The Sociopath Next Door (because it showed up when I was logging this into GoodReads)! Like this one it appears to have mixed reviews, but I do think it could be something I’d find interesting (and possibly frustrating) so even though this one didn’t work for me, I could see myself reading that one in the future (though probably I would just borrow it from the library rather than buy it).
     
    @ Alex: Ha! Love your Stephen Hawking’s analogy… I’ve not read anything by him, but I admit that quantum physics is something that interests me, so maybe one day… Though now that you’ve given away the punch line, perhaps I need not bother! 😉
     
    @ zibilee: I think this book is worth your time since there are certainly parts of it that are really interesting and there’s no denying that Jonson has a very engaging style… It just gets very messy at the end, and I feel like he sometimes talks about things with an aura of expertise that he himself doesn’t really have. It’s one of those books where half the information is really interesting and rooted more in fact rather than Jonson’s opinions, and you have to kind of just roll your eyes and/or get indignant with the other half! Thankfully I’m good at both! 😀

  6. That conclusion – “maybe people exist on a continuum and so we can’t easily summarize human beings with single diagnostic labels/disorders” – reminds me of a Stephen Hawking’s book about time, where at the end he simply goes: this long book being said, it’s likely that time doesn’t exist at all. The End. 🙂

  7. 11/25/2011

    I just got a copy of this book, but I am not sure when I will get the chance to read it. I find your discussion on this one incredibly passionate and intelligent, and can agree with everything you have said here. I don’t think it’s cool to trivialize mental illness, and obviously there are so many different diseases and disorders on the spectrum that it seems sort of silly to tackle them all in one book indiscriminately. I also have a fascination with mental afflictions, and though I have not studied them directly in school, I do a lot of research on them and have studied them independently for years. I am now eager to read this one and see what I make of it, though I suspect that I would probably be annoyed with elements of it as well. I really appreciated your review on this one, and took away a lot from it. Thanks for being so thorough and honest. Your critique on this one was extremely valuable to me.

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