The Psychopath Test, By Jon Ronson

Lifting the lid on the madness industry

Reviewed,Nina Lakhani
Sunday 26 June 2011 00:00
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There is nothing quite like a real-life whodunnit.

This one begins when a flummoxed neurologist asks the investigative journalist Jon Ronson to help solve a cryptic puzzle which she, and other leading academics, have been sent anonymously. "Aren't you struck by how much action occurred simply because something went wrong with one man's brain?" he asks the neurologist, upon solving the mystery.

After the first rollercoaster chapter of The Psychopath Test, you know you're in for another terrifying but hilarious ride, this time through the world of the madness industry. Which it turns out is no less terrifying, or indeed mad, than that of the paranoid extremists in Ronson's Them or the US military psychics in The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Ronson learns how to spot a psychopath and then sets off, as only he would, to find out whether their trademark lack of empathy for other humans means that, as some psychologists believe, they are actually the ones running the world. (Think politicians and bankers.) He tests his new psychopath-spotting skills by meeting a ruthless death-squad leader, a CEO whose legendary passion for sacking staff caused huge waves on the Stock Exchange, and a Broadmoor patient trying to get out.

Ronson also explores the ever-expanding bible of mental disorders which has condemned millions of children to powerful drug "treatments". The catalogue, now bulging with almost 900 disorders, suggests that Ronson's own over-anxious brain qualifies him for 12 separate conditions, including nightmare disorder (people chase him shouting "You're a failure") and arithmetic learning disorder (he's not good with numbers).

Ronson's writing is wonderfully understated because he trusts the material and his interviewees to speak for themselves. The technique also produces some comedy gold. For example, the Broadmoor patient faked mental illness to avoid prison by repeating lines from Blue Velvet and Hellraiser. Not so funny are the 12 years he has since spent trying to convince experts that he is sane.

As with previous adventures, Ronson spends time with a motley crew: psychiatrists, Scientology leaders, the MI5 whistleblower David Shayler, and parents who medicate their children. He never doubts that devastating madness exists, but he discovers a powerful industry which increasingly shifts the boundaries between who and what society classifies as normal, and what it rejects as abnormal.

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