Does madness make the world go around? British journalist Jon Ronson poses that provocative question in The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry. Ronson has long displayed a fascination with unhinged characters like the Special Forces operatives in The Men Who Stare At Goats, or the paranoid ideologues of Them: Adventures With Extremists. In The Psychopath Test, Ronson finally tackles the subject implicit in his previous work: mental illness. Unsettling, darkly humorous, and unpredictable, Ronson’s book is an exploration into the notion of sanity.
As the title suggests, the primary subject of Ronson’s book is psychopaths—the unfortunate souls who suffer from “insanity without delusion,” as French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel first labeled the disorder. After learning the Hare Checklist, a diagnostic tool used to identify psychopaths, Ronson becomes convinced that there are psychopaths lurking in every corner of society—from maximum-security prisons to the halls of power. He meets with Toto Constant, the charismatic leader of a Haitian death squad, and “Tony,” an inmate who claims to have faked his way into a British mental hospital by quoting Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet. Ronson’s jittery anxiety and arid wit contrast delightfully with his subjects’ cool megalomania, and he has a knack for pointing out just the right creepy detail, like Constant’s collection of Happy Meal figurines.
The book goes awry in its final third, when, for obscure reasons, Ronson changes course and launches a critique of the psychiatric community. Suddenly, The Psychopath Test is no longer about psychopaths; it’s about the over-medication of children and the way reality television exploits the mentally ill. Ronson, it seems, is trying to warn readers about the dangers of finding madness in every human eccentricity, but the abrupt rhetorical shift is confusing, and the argument far too ambitious to make in a few brief chapters.
Ronson is a filmmaker and a frequent contributor to This American Life, and his background in these media is evident in his writing. At times, The Psychopath Test reads like a television script: His prose is spare and unpretentious, and he relies heavily on long, unexplicated passages of dialogue. This technique is ideal for odd, darkly humorous moments, but less useful when Ronson aims for more pointed commentary. Another problem is that, in search of outspoken critics of psychiatry, Ronson turns to the Church Of Scientology, which is a little like going to Glenn Beck for a measured critique of Obama’s foreign policy.
In the end, The Psychopath Test works best as a morbid travelogue, a meandering tour of the drab mental institutions and laboratories where, for better or worse, our definition of sanity is formed. Though it’s never clear where Ronson will end up—or even, really, what he’s trying to find out—he’s such an appealing tour guide, it doesn’t really matter.