Jon Ronson’s latest book is a frightening, often funny and ultimately humane journey into the world of madness. He spoke to Melanie Sheridan about danger, anxiety and psychopaths.
Madness, insanity and garden-variety craziness. Author, journalist and broadcaster Jon Ronson has made a career out of it. From his documentaries and his radio programmes to his newspaper columns and published books, the often irrational, sometimes endearing and frequently incredible quirks of the human mind have formed a leitmotif, punctuating almost everything he does.
For his first book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, Ronson spent time with conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics, ideologues and nut jobs, all the while maintaining perspective on their humanity. In his best-selling The Men Who Stare at Goats he revealed the existence of a top-secret US military unit very seriously trying to defy the laws of physics, and through it uncovered the irrationality – and insanity – driving America’s war on terror. And now his newest book, The Psychopath Test, explores the madness that makes the world go round, from mass-murdering dictators to mass-market television producers.
“Seriously, I’m not sure how it happened,” Ronson says of his extraordinary career, made all the more extraordinary by the knowledge – made explicit in The Psychopath Test – that he suffers fairly acutely from anxiety. Which seems counter-productive for someone who puts himself in potential harm’s way for a living.
But he says there have only been one or two occasions where he’s been in actual danger. One was when he went to visit the Aryan Nations while researching Them. “They were really serious, frightening skinheads. I felt at risk being there. I went past all the signs saying ‘no Jews’ so if I got beaten up, I couldn’t even blame them. They did warn me!’ ”
“I’ve always felt that I’m really good at noticing people’s weaknesses, and that is my dark super power.”
Noting that anxiety sufferers frequently “don’t have anxiety about things that they should have anxiety about”, Ronson says his is similarly irrational. “If I’m on the phone trying to get hold of my wife and I can’t I’ll be convinced there’s been some kind of terrible accident. But if I’m with a psychopath, I’m not really that nervous. It’s kinda odd.”
It is odd, but is no doubt part of what makes him such a successful writer. His apparent fearlessness in pursuit of the story is juxtaposed, however, by his ability to empathise with his subjects, no matter how mad they seem. “I’ve always felt that I’m really good at noticing people’s weaknesses,” he says, “and that is my dark super power. That’s probably something I share with a psychopath actually; they’re good at pinpointing people’s weaknesses and so am I. But I do it for overly empathetic reasons. They do it to manipulate people.”
Ronson’s acknowledgement that he shares traits in common with psychopaths goes to the heart of his skill as a writer: he understands that underneath all our crazy, we are all human, all subject to the same emotions.
Except psychopaths aren’t and this is the irony of The Psychopath Test. Take Toto Constant, a Haitian death squad leader during the early 90s following the coup d’état in that nation. Ronson was worried what Toto’s reaction to the book’s representation of him would be, but not because he feared the reprisals of a convicted assassin. Rather, he didn’t want to hurt Toto’s feelings. “But it’s ridiculous to be worried about hurting Toto’s feelings because there aren’t any feelings to hurt.” Also “he was responsible for rape and murder on a wide scale so it’s stupid to actually care what he thinks about it.”
The greatest danger The Psychopath Test poses is not a potentially angry reaction from the people in it whom Ronson identifies as psychopaths, but the potential for readers to use it as justification for amateur misdiagnoses of those around them. “I try to get people to read between the lines of my books,” the author says. “However, the seductive dangers of diagnosing innocent people as psychopaths is definitely one of the things I cautioned against.” (Apparently US conservative political commentator Sean Hannity has already used it to diagnose President Obama as a psychopath).
“They were really serious, frightening skinheads. I felt at risk being there. I went past all the signs saying ‘no Jews’ so if I got beaten up, I couldn’t even blame them. They did warn me!’ “
The scariest thing about the book, however, is the extent of the psychopathy it uncovers. Not in individuals but in the foundations of our daily life. The subtitle is key: a journey through the madness industry. What starts out as an investigation into the idea that one person’s broken brain can have implications for many people ends up as damning proof that our society is built on insanity. It covers much broader ground than its title suggests — from TV producers’ sociopathic manipulation of stars’ emotions for greater ratings to the pharmaceutical industry’s symptomisation and subsequent medicalisation of our culture to satisfy its psychopathic profit motive. There’s almost enough crazy in each chapter for its own book.
Ronson freely admits that some readers may be put off by the slightly wayward manner in which The Psychopath Test navigates this kaleidoscopic subject matter. “I think for some people the book’s odd structure works, but others wish they were just reading Snakes in Suits,” he says, referring to the well-known book on psychopaths written by psychologist Robert Hare, whose 20-point clinical checklist for identifying psychopathy gives Ronson’s book its name.
“I hope people like this about the book,” he adds. “I like it: the idea that the psychopath checklist leads to other checklists which leads to children being diagnosed as bi-polar, which is evidently ridiculous. For me that’s not meandering; for me that’s a clear path and I thought it was important to broaden it out in that way.”
He admits, however, that it is a vaguely experimental structure partly born from the fact that he’s heading towards his mid-40s and thought there was no reason not to experiment. “Why not make the book begin like a Paul Auster novel with a mysterious package? It’s a somewhat unorthodox technique, and I knew some people wouldn’t go for it. But I’m not Ben Goldacre; I didn’t want to write a popular science book. I like unfolding narratives. So I thought why not experiment with making the unfolding narrative much more unexpected, why not expand and push the boundaries of structure in non-fiction books?”
The Psychopath Test is published by Pan Macmillan/Picador and is out now, RRP $32.99.