The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
I've known of Jon Ronson for awhile. Over the past year or two I happened to catch a few odd clips of him on NPR, but I never caught his name, or the titles of his books. I caught just enough of his interesting stories and distinctive voice to be intrigued, but never quite enough to find him on the internet. And then, entirely by chance, Amazon did me a solid favor by sliding The Psychopath Test into their recommendations. I scooped it up in a sale on Audible, promptly listened to it, and have already moved on to So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Obviously, I'm enjoying Ronson's work. So much so that I've put my reading as well as some home remodeling on hold to write a quick review.
There are a number of reasons why I enjoyed The Psychopath Test, but two stick out to me primarily. The first is simply that it was the perfect choice at the perfect time. I've been working on remodeling my office and I really needed something to listen to while I worked. This particular audiobook struck the perfect balance of being fascinating without being so dense as to distract me. And Jon Ronson is quite a good reader, so it was pleasant to listen to. I mean it in the best possible way when I say that it was like listening to a seven hour podcast. It was humorous, sobering, educational and congenial in equal parts. Reading his own material really allowed Ronson to bring it to life. It's one of the better audiobooks in terms of voice acting and production quality that I've ever listened to.
The second reason I think I enjoyed it so much is the way in which Ronson confronts the subject matter. I am naturally interested in the psychology of crime, but a book describing the definition and presentation of a psychopath could easily be very dry. Ronson sidesteps this pitfall by avoiding academic and clinical observations and remaining firmly rooted in investigative journalism. He goes on a journey investigating the nature of psychopathy, and the book very much allows you to go on that journey with him. It feels more like an adventure than a lecture. Even when he interviewed academics who dealt with clinical subject matter, it still felt like a personal narrative. I found this format enjoyable, though I can see why it might bother someone looking for more in-depth research on the subject. The issues raised in the book are real, though the tone remains light.
As for the subject matter, it's what you might expect from the title. After a brush with some mysterious circumstances on a college campus, Ronson begins considering the effect madness can have on others. These considerations lead him to meet a man locked up in a mental institution. The man claims that he faked insanity to get out of jail time, but faked it so well that he's been stuck in the facility ever since. How do you determine whether or not he's telling the truth? And if he is a psychopath, what should be done about it? This narrative loosely remains at the center of the book. The Bob Hare Test, for which the book is presumably named, is used by many as a primary means of identifying whether or not a person is, in fact, psychopathic. Ronson attempt to use the test to ferret out psychopaths in different walks of life, to varying effects.
As I mentioned before, at no point does he delve deeply into the scientific or clinical research on psychopathy. This just isn't that sort of book. If you're looking for serious discourse on the history, treatment or diagnosis of mental illness, this is probably not the book you're looking for. The Psychopath Test is an entertaining personal narrative about Ronson's quest to understand what a psychopath is and how we should treat them. If this sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to check it out. This is also one of the rare occasions where I'll encourage you to consider listening to the audiobook rather than reading it. Ronson manages to bring the story to life brilliantly and I don't think I would have enjoyed it quite so much on the page as I did hearing it straight from his mouth. Blasphemy, I know, but give it a chance if you're into audiobooks at all.