Leeds Book Club will be participating in the Arts and Minds Network‘s new project on raising awareness of mental health issues.
This review is provided by long term LBC Guest Star Super Star +Laura Woods @WoodsieGirl! Hope you enjoy as much as I have!
Visit Laura’s blogs HERE and HERE
I agreed to review Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test for Leeds Book Club’s Mental Health Reading Challenge our of partly selfish reasons: it’s been on my shelf for some time, waiting to be read, and I’d heard loads of good things about it! So I’d be lying if I said this challenge wasn’t just a tiny bit about bumping this book up my reading list…
Mainly though, my attention was caught by the aim of the project, which is all about raising awareness of mental health via discussion about the realities of mental illness versus their portrayal in books. This issue is very close to my heart: although I am fortunate enough never to have had any
mental health problems myself, several of the people who are dearest to me have. Without going into too much detail (they are not my stories to tell), I feel I have a vested interest in promoting more discussion and awareness of mental health, if only to make life that little bit easier for people who are living with depression, addiction, anxiety, or any other form of mental illness. After all, if you are not personally close to anyone with mental health issues, then your impression of mental
health is likely to be formed from the “madwoman in the attic” tropes in fiction, or the “just mad enough for TV” characters that populate “reality” television (more on that later…)
So, what does The Psychopath Test tell us about mental illness? Well…
They say one out of every hundred people is a psychopath. You probably passed one on the street today. These are people who have no empathy, who are manipulative, deceitful, charming, seductive, and delusional. The Psychopath Test is the New York Times bestselling exploration of their world and the madness industry.
When Jon Ronson is drawn into an elaborate hoax played on some of the world’s top scientists, his investigation leads him, unexpectedly, to psychopaths. He meets an influential psychologist who is convinced that many important business leaders and politicians are in fact high-flying, high-
functioning psychopaths, and teaches Ronson how to spot them. Armed with these new abilities, Ronson meets a patient inside an asylum for the criminally insane who insists that he’s sane, a mere run-of-the-mill troubled youth, not a psychopath — a claim that might be only manipulation, and a sign of his psychopathy. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud, and with a legendary CEO who took joy in shutting down factories and firing people. He delves into the fascinating history of psychopathy diagnosis and treatments, from LSD-fuelled days-long naked therapy sessions in prisons to attempts to understand serial killers.
Along the way, Ronson discovers that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their most insane edges. The Psychopath Test is a fascinating adventure through the minds of madness.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this book. I really wanted to like it: Ronson has an engaging, witty style, and his subject is genuinely fascinating. However, I couldn’t quite get what the book was supposed to be about. It came across more as a collection of loosely-themed articles rather than a cohesive whole: one minute Ronson is promising to explore the proliferation of psychopaths at the top of society; the next, he is discussing the often controversial history of psychiatric assessments, and casting doubts on the existence of psychopathy at all. It comes across as if he simply starting looking into areas that caught his interest then wandered off when something more interesting came along – which I suspect is much how it was actually written!
Slightly chaotic structure of the book aside, the actual content is fascinating. From a mental health perspective, probably the most interesting sections are those that deal with how mental
health problems are actually measured and diagnosed: how do we determine what constitutes mental illness? What is actually “normal”? The “psychopath test” of the title was developed by
Robert Hare, and consists of a checklist of behaviour types. Examples include “superficial charm”, “grandiose sense of self-worth” and “lack of remorse or guilt”. A person is “scored” against each of the described behaviours, depending on if they match or partially match, and if they score above a certain level they are classed as a psychopath.
If that sounds like a worryingly simple process for determining someone’s mental status: well, it is. One of the criticisms the book raises is that actually, it’s not quite as simple as dividing the world into psychopaths/not psychopaths. This type of checklist diagnosis is prevalent across mental health treatment, and Ronson outlines some convincing arguments that this approach to mental health has led to a lot of basically “normal” people being filed into neat mental health diagnosis boxes when reality is a little more complicated than that. Ultimately, he goes back to the search for psychopaths with the perspective that perhaps it is not helpful to have that kind of cut off point: the psychopath test divides psychopaths from non-psychopaths based on how many boxes they tick, but everyone will tick some – and probably more on some days than others. Isn’t it more realistic to understand that everyone exists in shades of grey?
The other notable part of the book for me was the section in which Ronson talks to a woman who worked as a TV producer, booking guests for a programme that isn’t named but sounds suspiciously like Jeremy Kyle. She describes how she worked out early on that the best guests for the show were “the right kind of mad” – mad enough to make entertaining, car-crash telly, but not mad enough that they’d go off and hurt themselves or someone else afterwards. To shortcut this process, she used to ask potential guests on the phone what kinds of medication they were on: anything to treat psychosis or schizophrenia was out (too mad) but depression medication meant they were in (just mad enough). It’s a despicable story, and outlines just how morally repugnant these programmes are. But it made me wonder about the people who watch them: it’s easy to point the finger at the
producers of these programmes, but they wouldn’t make them if there wasn’t an audience for them.
I did enjoy The Psychopath Test, although not as much as I’d expected to. I’ve heard lots of people rave about how great it is, and how funny: I didn’t actually find it funny at all, but that might be because I was reading it with a critical eye towards its portrayal of mental health issues! I’d like
to read more of Jon Ronson’s work: I do like his journalistic style, although I think I’d rather read shorter articles by him than a full book.
As for the book’s portrayal of mental health issues: it raises some interesting points, but overall I think it’s quite a shallow look at the “mental health industry”. Of course, it’s not really meant to be an in-depth academic tome! It’s probably a good way to stealth-educate someone who hasn’t thought too much about mental health overall, but just wants a good entertaining read – there’s definitely some interesting, worthwhile observations about mental health overall in it.