Believe it or not, I’m actually reviewing a book on this book blog! Shocking, I know.
When I tell people I’m interested in true crime, I usually have to follow that up with the caveat that I’m not a serial-killer-in-training or one of those naïve weirdos who think they can change mass murderers through the Power of Love. My main fascination with the subject lies in the psychology behind it: what circumstances would drive someone to do something so abhorrent, how the police use profiling to catch a criminal, and how the justice system deals with people who have done awful things but might not be entirely accountable for their actions.
The Psychopath Test focuses, as the title suggests, on psychopaths i.e: people who feel little to no emotion or empathy. It’s a mental illness that has caused a lot of divide in the psychiatric community, and that’s just amongst those who believe it is a mental illness. Ronson approaches the subject very openly, talking to a wide range of sources from Robert Hare, the man who developed the list of criteria currently used to diagnose psychopaths, to CEOs he believes may have utilised their psychopathic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder, to Scientologists who believe that psychology and those who practice it are evil and corrupt. Possibly the most interesting is ‘Tony’, a man who claimed to have faked insanity to get out of prison for a GBH charge and ended up in Broadmoor diagnosed as a psychopath and desperately trying to prove his sanity. Tony’s story is an intriguing look into the nuances of the psychology, how difficult it is to really quantify mental illness with a series of boxes to check, and how terrifyingly easy it would be to get it wrong and ruin someone’s life. (As it turns out, Tony’s diagnosis may not have been so entirely wrong. Ronson revealed in an AMA on Reddit that Tony has been incarcerated at least three more times since he met him.)
It’s common for people writing about mental illness who don’t have experience of it to become hysterical and fall into the trap of fear-mongering, but Ronson thankfully has a much more sympathetic approach. He himself struggles with anxiety, so he’s aware of how mental illness can affect the way you think and act and doesn’t place blame with the sufferers. There are a few places where he clearly begins to think of psychopaths as ‘other’, especially when he’s in the presence of Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant (founder of the Hatian death squad FRAPH), but interestingly he catches himself doing this and turns it into a very interesting discussion point. It’s a much more sympathetic approach than many journalists would take to the mentally ill and criminals, and I find this open mind set much more enjoyable to explore the subject through.
I have a lot of love for Ronson’s style as he explores all of these issues. It’s light and friendly, and it doesn’t feel like he is trying to push an agenda; instead it feels more like he’s leading you on a treasure hunt for information, taking you on the same journey of discovery he went on because he found it fascinating and hopes you will too. There’s no opening statement telling you how you should be approaching the book, just the story of how Ronson himself was introduced to it and how that story progressed. It’s my favourite style of non-fiction and Ronson’s witty voice makes it a highly entertaining read.
There is a distinct lack of satisfying conclusion which I can see as being irritating for some people, like this reviewer for the Guardian comments, but for me the lack of certainty is part of the fascinating quality of the subject. It seems a little unfair to ask Ronson, a journalist, to answer questions that generations of trained professionals have failed to agree on. However, I can understand that this sort of open-ended investigation may not be for anyone, so if you want any kind of conclusive answers then this may be one to avoid.
This is the first I’ve read of Ronson’s work and I am absolutely going to be seeking out more. The Psychopath Test manages to balance information with effortlessly readable style and leaves you with a lot to think about, which for me is the mark of an excellent piece of journalism. There aren’t always easy answers, but investigation for the thrill of the chase will almost always provide an entertaining read.