Monday, May 16, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads: 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.

My take: It is self explanatory that this review will make me enemies. Fortunately, those who know me are really the only ones at risk.

Like many people, I took my first psychology class in high school and my interest was piqued. My second psychology class was during college, as was my third and fourth. I then diverged into the world of sociology which fascinated me and graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor's degree in sociology. Yay for me! Like the hundreds of psychology graduates, I was now qualified to do one of three things 1) move onto graduate school, 2) sell clothes at a department store or 3) get married and forget all about my career aspirations. Naturally, I sold clothes at JCPenney for one full year before I wanted to slit my wrists - not for suicidal ideation but simply to break up the monotony of my incredibly meaningless life. The following school year, I was admitted to a graduate program in psychology at Brigham Young University.

The following two years were full-time classes, year round then two practicums and, at last, an internship with a couple of classes in the evening. It was intense, enjoyable, and I graduated with a career plan and, frankly, a head far too big to fit through the doors. I had textbook answers and an excellent mentor who had been a pioneer in educational psychology with 30 years of private practice, running troubled youth homes, and teaching at various universities. Most people called him Dr. LaPray. I called him "Daddy." May I also mention how grateful I am to the certified borderline personalities who required long-term care. You are directly responsible for my dad being able to pay my tuition.

The best two classes I took during graduate school was how to administer and read the MMPI and the study of the diagnostic bible, the DSM III-R. I studiously purchased the very expensive book in the bookstore, took it home and read it cover to cover. By the end of the weekend, I had self-diagnosed myself with 19 serious disorders. Fortunately, class began the following Monday and the professor put the diagnoses into perspective. I have also married a social worker since then and he repeats this mantra: Many of us exhibit some of the characteristics found in the DSM. The concern is when the behavior become extreme and dictates our lives, sabotaging our ability to work or interact with others.

Unfortunately, 22 years later, I am still convinced of my own neurosis and anxiety. Ah, well. It's nice to know and embrace the real me.

So what does this have to do with Jon Ronson? Jon and I really do share a debilitating bout of anxiety. My method of understanding it was to study the crap out of it then dedicate the past 21 years to pursuing a career in helping. Also, Jon is brilliantly hilarious. Like me. If I were to be clinical, I'd guess that Mr. Ronson is overcompensating for his anxiety disorder by being brilliantly hilarious. Like me. But then maybe I am simply projecting.

Seriously, though, Mr. Ronson took a circuitous route to rooting out the therapeutic approaches in the 60's and 70's which were completely true and bizarre then went to interview a man who had created a psychopath test named Dr. Hare who empowered all who took his workshop by providing a checklist for spotting a psychopath. He met with murderers in prison wards, cold-hearted CEO's and power-controlling concierge. All psychopaths, of course. Until a friend pointed out that he was using it as a weapon rather than a diagnostic tool. This was a circular story as it led us back to a patient held at Broadmoor, a high security insane asylum for the incurable where one patient pretended to be a psychopath in order to avoid prison. Now he can't get out.

Speaking of diagnostic checklists, Mr. Ronson then explores the etiology of the DSM. My testimony of the DSM is now shaken and I'm starting to rethink my habit of taking the pocket size with me to church so I can secretly diagnose congregation members. I understood the reciprical relationship DSM has with not only insurance companies but also drug companies. Also, every revision adds more disorders that circle closer and closer to normal behavior. The explosion of autistic diagnoses has a lot more to do with including aspergers on the spectrum than the MMR vaccination and has solidified my belief the one truism -

Normal is a setting on your washing machine.

Completely fascinating read and surprisingly funny. My husband kept asking me what I was laughing about. The joke and delivery was so complicated (but easy to spot and understand), it would have been impossible to explain. I just gave him the book when I was finished. Really enjoyable read.


Kaity said...

The Psychopath Test isn't something I would ever read, just not my genre of book. However, after reading and immensely enjoying your review, I almost wish it were the type of book I'd enjoy. Wonderfully written review! I'm glad I continued reading your post after thinking 'hey, love the cover. blah, not my kind of book.'

Kaity - Bitten Books

booksntea said...

This post was great! The bit about diagnosing church members had me chuckling!

I was one of those who took psychology in high school. My teacher encouraged me to further my education in the subject in college because I seemed to excel in the class, but alas, the only psychology I "took" in college involved me sneaking into the big lecture halls in between my classes.

This books sounds really intriguing and right up my alley. It's been a while since I've read a good non-fiction book, so I've definitely added it to my to read list!

- Jackie