The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

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“I wondered if the only difference between a psychopath in prison and a psychopath on Wall Street is a rich, stable family.” – Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson describes himself as someone who writes “funny stories about unfunny things,” which is certainly true of The Psychopath Test. Part investigative journalist and part humorist, he finds himself in bizarre circumstances as he travels the world searching for a satisfying answer to his query: what is a psychopath, and can we trust the industry of psychiatry to properly spot them in our midst?

It turns out, the answer is not really.

The nonfiction work starts off with a seemingly too-absurd-to-be-true story about a book called Being or Nothingness, a strange  and abstract manuscript that was anonymously sent to prominent scientists and psychologists around the world. Sounding like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, Ronson is called in to investigate its meaning. Most of the recipients assume Being or Nothingness is a puzzle sent by a fellow genius, and there will be some sort of scholarly award for whoever figures it out first. However, much to everyone’s embarrassment, Ronson learns the author is some random guy who is just plain crazy and has lots of time on his hands. But still, this random crazy person single-handedly managed to create a global ripple effect, even if it ultimately meant nothing.

This discovery leads Ronson to wonder if crazy people in influential positions can cause massive and horrible consequences –  which seems to have been the case with the former CEO of Sunbeam named Albert Dunlap (nicknamed “Chainsaw Al”), who took joy in firing thousands of employees. Ronson decides to explore the “madness industry” to find out about psychopaths and general behavioral disorders, to learn what makes “crazy” people different from “normal” people in the eyes of society, psychiatrists, and pharmaceutical companies.

The journey leads him to meet many colorful people: one man who claims he is completely sane but has been trapped in a criminal asylum for over a decade, a psychiatrist who pioneered the use of naked LSD therapy sessions for serial killers, and a former Haitian war lord who now collects plastic toys from Happy Meals. Ronson also immerses himself into the exclusive world of Scientology (where sanity seems to be a relative term) to learn about its endless war against the psychiatry business.

Ronson’s result is a fascinating ride filled with years of snarky anecdotes. The books attempts to give the reader “the power of knowledge” so we can identify psychopaths among us (using Bob Hare’s famous psychopath checklist) – but then shows us that personality disorders can be found in all of us.

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