Today, I’m reviewing Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. I heard about this book during a few episodes of Stuff You Should Know and added it to my Goodreads list. The description over there is compelling — it’s no wonder it quickly made its way to the top of my reading list.
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-fueled 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.
All in all, I’m giving The Psychopath Test three out of five stars.
I wanted to love this book. It was a fast read — Ronson’s style is definitely narrative nonfiction. Throughout the book, he takes us through the madness industry: first, a psychologically thrilling hoax; next, a rendezvous with scientologists; then, to a convention where he becomes acquainted with a widely-respected psychopath checklist, and later, through the stories of presumed psychopaths. It’s a compelling series of events, or to use Ronson’s words, a journey.
Unfortunately, I just didn’t love the book. Ultimately, my disappointment (or maybe ambivalence?) stems from its disorganization. I get the sense that Ronson wrote it as a series of essays meant to be read individually rather than a book meant to be read cover-to-cover. Stories repeat in different chapters (not cross-reference, fully repeat). Chronology is not respected. It’s confusing. It’s careless. It’s not a great way to make a compelling argument.
Truthfully, I could have overlooked the organization issues if the book contained a cohesive argument or conclusion, but it doesn’t. Maybe that’s just a hazard of Ronson’s profession — he’s a journalist — but he presents a lot of information, most of which conflicts and even condemns other information in the book’s pages, and never comes to a concrete conclusion. I can, of course, come to my own conclusions about the “madness industry,” but if I spend 275 pages reading about Ronson’s journey, I would like to know what he definitively thinks about it all. Hmmph.