Friday, 10 June 2011

A Year in Books 2011 - The Psychopath Test

I've been doing a lot of train travel for work recently and so getting through a lot of reading and am a bit behind writing about it, so here is the 2nd year in books post in as many days Jon Ronson's tv career has seen him unfairly described as a poor man's Louis Theroux. He operates in a similar field and has that same almost nerdy bumbling approach than often gets more insight than slicker more aggressive interviewers.
However Louis Theroux hasn't had a book of his made into a film starring George Clooney (admittedly an awful film that really only only had the title in common with the book .. but still)

 The Psychopath test is a bit like Ronson's other 2 books (Them:Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stared at Goats) in that it feels like he almost stumbles into his subject by chance and is quite happy to veer off into different directions as he progresses. As a result sometimes his work can feel like a series of loosely connected anecdotes and encounters.

This books starts with a puzzle. A number of leading neurologists have been sent anonymously a self published book that feels like one big cryptic puzzle. Jon Ronson is contacted by one of the neurologists and asked to find out what it is all about and solve the puzzle. So begins a journey into madness.. The next stage on the journey is a meeting with the church of Scientology and their ongoing quest to show the failings of psychiatry which in turn leads to a Broadmoor inmate who claims to have faked madness to avoid jail and now can't convince anyone of his sanity.

To balance this we meet the Drs responsible for treating the inmate as well as the psychologist who developed the industry standard psychopath test and who argues that many business leaders and politicians, if they took the test, would be seen as psychopaths. This takes the journey to interviewing a deposed dictator and a discredited businessmen as Ronson gets a tad over enthusiastic with his new skill in unearthing psychopaths What is great about the book is that you really feel like you are taking that journey with Ronson. His preconceptions are challenged and his ideas are reshaped only for the solid ground of his understanding to crumble again and a new set beliefs emerge before the process is repeated again. This isn't helped by the fact that everyone he meets comes across as extremely confident and extremely credible whilst Jon himself is wrestling with his own insecurities.

 There is a risk that the Columbo style of disguising sharp incisive questioning and interpretation within personal clumsiness and fears could be overdone (I'm struggling to avoid using the Louis Theroux comparison again) however the humour that runs through the book coupled with some real stop and think about your own beliefs moments make this both an entertaining and thought provoking read about what we mean by mental illness and what we mean by mental health

You can buy the The Psychopath Test here

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