Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test

Last month I read another book by Jon Ronson, which was equally catchy, but much more interesting. "The Psychopath Test" is a meandering book, if a short, confusing book can be called "meandering," in the sense that Ronson starts one place and ends up somewhere completely different, with many many twists along the way. I never quite figured it out. I believe the book was about psychopaths: what a psychopath is, in terms of the person himself, his behavior, the diagnosis, the basis of the definition, etc.

The subtitle of the book, "A Journey Through the Madness Industry," and the way I came about reading this book, is the most interesting (and least touched) part of the twists and turns: the fact that journalism is in the business of marketing madness. Journalists and media seek out madness that is just mad enough to make a story but not mad enough to lose the audience. The reason we, the readers/watchers/consumers, eat up certain madness and not others, is that it rings true: "The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we're becoming and in a recognizable way... We are entertained by them, and comforted that we're not as mad as they are." He goes on that journalists are also in the "business of conformity:" they present mad people not as examples of people to emulate, but as warnings. People can be themselves, but not crazy like they see in teh media (and in the psychology bible DSM-IV).

This is a fascinating premise, a story that tells a lot about modern medicine and madness and media, especially in the United States. And it's not what Ronson dwells on- it's one short chapter. Rather, he goes on and on about a couple psychopaths or possible psychopaths that he meets, and sells it as investigative journalism. I'm not buying it: it seems more like a long, semi-sarcastic piece you might see in the Village Voice or some such free paper. The potential is there, but the book falls short. Don't bother getting on the hold list at your library, like I did.


Janet said...

I haven't read the book, but This American Life had an good show about pyschopaths. Jon Ronson had one act about interviewing Al Dunlap, former CEO of a company my dad used to work at. The other acts were better.