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 Ronson 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.