The Psychopath Test

by Jon Ronson

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Recommended by John Warner

I have two tests for narrative non-fiction of the heavily researched and reported variety:

1. While reading (and closely upon completion) I have the urge to tell people about what the book is about, both because the stuff in the book is cool, but also because by talking about it, I will look like I now know something cool that other people don’t know.

2. The book is interesting and complicated and nuanced enough that when I do try to explain, it starts well, until the “but also’s” and “and then’s” and “oh, I forgot’s” pile up like Baptists at a post-church buffet, and the look on the face of the person I’m trying to explain the book to goes confused and cloudy until I’m forced to finish with, “you just have to read the book.”

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) passes my tests. I should just stop and say that you should read the book, but bear with me.

Ronson uses a test for “psychopathy” developed by Robert Hare and goes hunting, potentially finding psychopaths everywhere, including at the head of Fortune 500 companies (which makes perfect sense). Ronson, who writes from a place of Woody Allen-style neurosis, keeps things light, even when he’s across the table from possible madmen. Ronson lets the subject lead him, so there’s no overarching narrative, and those who prefer the largely absent author of the New Yorker school may take some adjusting to┬áRonson placing himself so central in the scene, but by sharing his own doubts and fears as the incidents twist and turn, we get to go along for the ride.

Along the way we meet Tony, a man who set out to prove how easy it is to fake madness, and ended up being committed to a mental hospital, unable to prove his sanity because acting sane is a sign of his being crazy. Or Al Dunlap, a famous “turnaround specialist” who seemed to take particular joy in firing people in new and unique ways. You know things are especially odd when a group of powerful Scientologists who befriend Ronson sound like the most reasonable of the bunch.

As to who is and who isn’t a psychopath, or some other form of crazy, Ronson’s exploring made me start to wonder about my own mental health, which shows there’s maybe less science to these things than one may wish.

Or we are all crazy.

Just read the book.

John Warner is the editor of The Staff Recommends and the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant.

14 Comments

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Permalink for this comment Stuart Hughes Apr 28, 2011

I found this from a link on The Morning News, and loved “The Men Who Stare at Goats” so I’m definitely going to buy this book. Sounds great!

Permalink for this comment Andrew Womack Apr 28, 2011

Glad to hear it—let us know what you think when you’re done!

Permalink for this comment Hana May 03, 2011

wow, this sounds so good!
i’ve been reading a lot of serial killer and psychopath books lately and i’m really into that subject! it sounds like a lot of fun (as creepy as that sounds!!!)

sounds very interesting i’ll let you know when i finish! :D

Permalink for this comment Mira May 03, 2011

I’m really into reading this book..thinking a lot about this subject latly and see theres more crazyness out there then anybody will admit. so hope its gonna be fun to learn more!!

Permalink for this comment Superman May 17, 2011

I saw Jon Ronson on the Daily Show talking about this book. Looks very interesting, probably going to buy it.

Daily show link:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/mon-may-16-2011-jon-ronson

Permalink for this comment Andrew Womack May 18, 2011

Thanks for the link. Please let us know what you think of the book!

Permalink for this comment Mary Kennedy Eastham Jun 04, 2011

This book looks fascinating. I worked for some ‘crazies’ in my advertising dayz in NYC, so I’m not surprised CEO’s got listed as
nutjobs! Fascinating…I’ll check it out…

Permalink for this comment Jeff Gates Jun 08, 2011

I like being crazy, or more precisely eccentric. My eccentricities counter the vortex that is typical organizational bureaucracy and dysfunction. But I’ve said enough for now.

Permalink for this comment Merry Jun 13, 2011

this sounds really good! I’ve been looking for something to read, and this sounds like an excellent choice!

Permalink for this comment Lisa von Lempke Jul 04, 2011

It is now so de rigueur to be psychopathic! It’s just a fad.

I was a psychopath long before this public love affair with psychopaths began. Now it’s all fashionable! So annoying.

Permalink for this comment nigel hewitson Jul 05, 2011

my psychiatrist & my psychologist & my community psychiatric nurse & my probation officer & my anger management counsellor & my cognitive behavioural therapist & my rational emotional therapist 7 my Gestalt therapist & my Rogerian person centred therapist & my psyco-analyst & my priest & my guru & my Iman & my Rabbi & my cell mate & my spirit guide all recommend this. but i think it’s crap

Permalink for this comment Russell Blake Jul 09, 2011

Nigel:

Which investment bank do you work for?

Just curious.

XOXO

Russ

Permalink for this comment Jennifer O @ Lit Endeavors Jul 20, 2011

This sounds like a great summer read. Psychopaths are interesting fellows, though I wouldn’t want to be in a room with one. I’d prefer to be safe behind the glass…

Permalink for this comment Chimmie Aug 14, 2011

Heard about this on This American Life, but have yet to read the book! I’m definitely going to, now.

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