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

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“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.”

Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test piqued my interest the moment I heard about it. The idea of monsters and ghosts can be creepy, but nothing is more disturbing than the idea of a human being becoming the ultimate villain. Ronson makes it clear that not all psychopaths are villains, but he also makes it clear that a psychopath’s lack of emotions and self-control make them significantly more likely to be villains. So, with my predilection for all things true crime, I dove head first into this book.

The book opens with a rather long mystery Jon Ronson was asked to solve that has nothing to do with psychopaths, but helps to explain how he found himself tangled up in the world of psychopaths. This section, while well-written (because everything Jon Ronson writes is well-written) felt superfluous. If you decide to read this book, please hang in there through the first chapter. It gets better, I promise.

Surprisingly, my favorite parts of the book weren’t Ronson’s meetings with Tony in the asylum or with the death-squad leader in prison, but rather the research he did on the history of psychopathy. Ronson describes the different methods used to try and treat psychopaths over the years, one of which included naked, LSD-fueled meditation sessions. (Psychopathy is now believed to be incurable, which is no wonder considering the treatment was naked, LSD-fueled meditation sessions, amirite?) And he explains in extensive detail how mental disorders came to be categorized and diagnosed. Hint: it’s not as scientific as you’d hope.

To be honest, though, I’m genuinely surprised this book held my interest the way it did. While Ronson did talk a lot about psychopaths, the book was more a collection of stories than an overarching study into psychopathy. He spent a lot of time talking to presumed or potential psychopaths, but that’s where his investigation kind of stopped. Avoiding any hard-drawn conclusions, Ronson aimed instead for letting the reader decide whether the subjects he interviewed were psychopathic. This tactic played well with the second half of his book, which pointed the finger back at psychiatry, postulating that perhaps everyone is a mix of crazy and sane, including psychopaths. However, I can’t say for sure whether the tactic played well with me.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. Ronson has an undeniably funny writing style that is disarming and makes you want to continue reading. I’m not in the habit of rating books on any sort of scale, but if I were, this book would get a solid 3.8/5.

Happy Reading,

Mallory