The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry
by Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books, 2011
It is easy to convince people that you are mentally ill. Claim to hear voices, threaten to hurt yourself, stop showering … basically if you just freak out enough people over time, you can probably be guaranteed a fresh new drug prescription and maybe even a few days in a psychiatric unit. But how would you go about convincing people that you are sane? That is a much harder task.
In his new investigative adventure The Psychopath Test, journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson does not just question the definition of insanity, he also expresses reservations about current methods used to diagnose it.
The book begins with a mystery so juicy it reads like fiction. A group of academics invite Ronson to help them figure out who sent them a partially constructed manuscript riddled with cryptic clues and an anonymous letter that taunts, “Good luck!”
Inspired to discover what kind of mind would pull such a prank, Ronson sets out on a journey to understand what defines insanity. Along the way, he meets a patient in a psychiatric hospital who claims he lied his way in to avoid a prison sentence and is now stuck inside after receiving a high score on a psychopath assessment checklist. The man’s insistence that he is sane is perceived as a symptom of his madness. Is he a victim of a psychiatric system hell-bent on “defining people by their maddest edges,” or is he indeed a psychopath weaving a twisted tale for his own amusement?
Determined to tell the difference, Ronson turns to psychology’s most influential experts to teach him the art of diagnosing and spotting a psychopath. Armed with his new understanding, he practices on CEOs, politicians, war criminals—even himself. But instead of making things clearer, his sharpened perspective seems to have muddied the water further. He begins to wonder whether in the quest to categorize abnormality, the field of psychiatry has lost track of the many shades of normal.
The book is a page-turner. Ronson is charming and tackles poignant issues. “Should we define people by their madness or by their sanity?” he asks. How many so-called mental illnesses are just normal behaviors by another name? How permanent are the labels we assign? The line between sanity and illness has never seemed so blurred, but Ronson walks it with style.