Monday, 11 July 2016

Book Review - 'The Psychopath Test', by Jon Ronson

When scientists and academics, spread all over the world, find themselves as the recipients of identical copies of strange, hand-written, book titled Being or Nothingness, it gives every indication of being a puzzle to be solved. With its pages filled with cryptic hints that seem to point to some deeper meaning, it only makes sense that the recipients of this strange book would be enticed by the prospect of solving such a wonderfully strange riddle - with each recipient reaching out to others as they began to worth together, and pool their resources.

Journalist Jon Ronson found himself similarly drawn in to this strange mystery when he was contacted by one of the books recipients. His investigation into the nature of this book, and his meeting with its suspected author, is really only the beginning, though - leading him on a much longer investigation into the nature of madness, and the industry that has been built up around it. It is the results of this investigation that are covered in The Psychopath Test.

From there, Ronson finds himself drawn into the equally strange story of a young man who he refers to as 'Tony' - a man who claims to have faked madness in order to avoid a prison sentence, but who now finds himself stuck in an institution. Despite scoring high on the titular 'Psychopath Test', and giving every impression of being an entirely healthy young man, 'Tony' has found that he is unable to convince any of the institution's staff that he is actually sane.

Following that thread, Ronson is compelled to meet with the creator of this test, Robert Hare, in order to form his own impression of the test's effectiveness - and, from there, Ronson finds himself drawn into a wide variety of equally outlandish tales, as he follows this thread wherever it might lead him.

There are many times, throughout this increasingly strange book, where things become so absurd that I found myself doubting that it could possibly truly be a work of non-fiction. The story of experimental treatments conducted on diagnosed psychopaths in the 1960s, for example, seemed too outlandish to possibly be real. They were, after all, treatments that seemed to rely on little more than group therapy sessions, and copious amounts of LSD. Or, perhaps, there is the story of the young woman who found herself going head to head with a group of conspiracy theorists who seemed entirely convinced that she didn't really exist.

Each of these would seem to be better suited as the plot of a particularly surreal brand of black comedy - yet, as Ronson makes clear, these are all things that really happened.

With its willingness to delve into some surprisingly bleak subject matter, it seems likely that The Psychopath Test wasn't necessarily intended to be a funny book - but, thanks Ronson's willingness to simply let the bizarre stories he uncovers play out, it often genuinely is. The easy narrative style that Ronson is able to maintain, throughout the book, allows these occasional moments of genuine absurdity to play out in a way that doesn't feel forced or contrived - and, it is this same style that allows the various shifts from surreal absurdity to more serious drama to take place in a way that feels like a natural progression of the story being told, rather than the jarring shift it could have been.

The idea that a woman might find herself fighting to prove her own existence to conspiracy theorists might seem amusing enough on paper, for example - but, it becomes significantly less so when we learn that this woman is a survivor of the 2005 London bombings - and, that their insistence is based on their firm belief that the bombings, themselves, were faked. With her traumatic experience being dismissed as part of some bizarre government cover-up, her genuine distress becomes more understandable.

Similarly, the bizarre black comedy of diagnosed psychopaths being treated with LSD and 'touchy-feely' group therapy sessions is lost when you consider that, not only did this bizarre and seemingly horribly misguided attempt to encourage the development of their ability to form genuine empathetic connections with others fail, but some of the patients, themselves, later admitted that the whole experience made them better at faking it.

As interesting as the individual encounters and interviews which make up The Psychopath Test are, though, the book as a whole does tend to feel a bit directionless. There is a strong sense, throughout, that Ronson himself only has a very loose grasp of where his investigation is headed, as he is lead from one encounter to the next. Similarly, the overall message we are supposed to take away from the book (assuming that there actually is one to be found) also proves to be rather elusive.

There are clear themes that crop up throughout the book, of course. The somewhat fine line between potentially dangerous insanity and harmless eccentricity is touched on - particularly with the tale of the strange book which acts as Ronson's starting point. And, of course, there is the seemingly ever present danger of mistaken diagnosis - as seen through the story of 'Tony'. But, it all still feels very disjointed - and, there is an unfortunate sense that Jon Ronson, himself, is really more concerned with sharing the strange stories he managed to uncover than he is with providing any sort of commentary on the broader subject matter.

Although, perhaps that isn't the issue that it seems to be, at first glance. The Psychopath Test may feel much more like a series of separate stories connected by a very loose thematic thread than it does any sort of coherent narrative - but, it still provides a fascinating look into a genuinely interesting, if occasionally uncomfortable, topic.

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