Quick: what is rare and wonderful? The standard answer is probably something like ‘true love’ or 'flowers blooming in a desert,' but for me, the obvious reply to that question is an engaging non-fiction book. This isn’t to say I spurn non-fiction. On the contrary, I read it every day in the form of articles, features, news stories, and even facebook updates (if you can classify those as non-fiction).
However, the odds are stacked against non-fiction in book form – I’d rather pick up a novel. I like history, travel, cookbooks…and that’s about it unless something superb catches my eye or imagination. Such was the case with Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. In fact, I liked it so much that I’m buying my mother (a very practical and no-nonsense reader, when she DOES read) a copy for Mother’s Day.
In this madcap journey, a bestselling journalist investigates psychopaths and the industry of doctors, scientists, and everyone else who studies them.
The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath.
Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.
Character mapping and brilliant writing, punctuated by anxious self-evaluations of the author’s own mental state and personality issues, combine to make this book both stimulating and entertaining reading. Ronson dives headfirst into the world of psychotherapy, sociopathy, and sometimes, quite frankly, conjecture. He goes on an adventure spanning continents to find just where and how psychopaths, mental illness and normality intersect, and in the process uncovers myths, marvels and machinations within the madness trade.
One of the most interesting points of the book occurs when Ronson researches the reactions of most humans to admitted psychopaths. It seems that humans do know when they are looking at something ‘wrong’ or ‘off,’ though it may not always be apparent at first glance. Ronson’s recounting of his own experiences with this were of the ‘can’t look away!’ variety. On the flip side, I thought that one of the weakest points of the book was its short foray into childhood mental illness and diagnoses. That bit did not seem to connect into the whole, though it too was interesting.
In the end, The Psychopath Test reads like an adventure story, and almost a fantasy at that. Ronson weaves a mystery or three in with anecdotes, medical evaluations and biographical details on a disturbing topic. He does so with flair and finesse, and what results is an eclectic and unputdownable study of humanity (and how that very nature can go wrong). Final reaction: best non-fiction I have read in two years.
Recommended for: those curious about human nature and its darkest side, anyone normally allergic to psychology and self-help (that’s me!), fans of fantastic journalism and non-fiction, and anyone with a taste for the non-gory bits of CSI and Law & Order.
[disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Psychopath Test from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin]