May 2011

Jonathan Crowl

nonfiction

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

I avoid reality television not for morals, or snobbery, or protest. It’s because I get sucked in, and when I do, I lose things: like time, and in some cases, humility, like when I watch Jersey Shore and feel more evolved in comparison.

On a personal level it’s harmless. But it’s also a trait shared by millions of viewers, one that drives up ad earnings in exchange for one thing: a manic madness that never declines.

Consider this the seemingly benign surface of one of the many industries cashing in on mental instabilities. In The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, author Jon Ronson examines this and other ways businesses cash in on mental disorders.

Ronson’s book opens slowly, perhaps its greatest weakness. Though carried by the suspense of a mystery, the first chapter reads like a wild goose chase that struggles to plug in to the overarching theme of the book. Although it ultimately does, the connection doesn’t alleviate the relative crawl of the first 30 pages. But when Ronson transitions into the focus of his work -- what insanity is, and to what degree it determines the course of society -- The Psychopath Test picks up its pace and never looks back. Ronson relays his unfolding research as a narrative, one where he stars prominently as an individual wondering which part of his mind had more control: reason and logic, or his personal madness of excessive anxiety?

This anxiety plays out in humorous but useful ways, such as Ronson engages his own critics on an Internet message board and comes away with new information that sends the book in a new direction. Such confessions are rampant through the book, helping to form Ronson fully as a character and also to achieve something much greater: the transparency of the author’s reportage. The procedure of his research and critical thinking are well-documented and easy to follow. While receiving a lesson on journalism, we also learn to trust the narrator as we sleuth alongside him as the story progresses.

By the middle of the book, the story is running at a breakneck pace. Ronson has introduced us not only to psychiatrists, psychologists and an array of possible psychopaths, but also to a Haitian political leader in exile, a mega-rich corporate CEO and a producer for reality television. New examples  -- not only of psychopathy, but also the way businesses and even you in your home help prop up industries that thrive on madness -- make the world spin faster.

Ronson opens Chapter 2 by stating that there are 374 “known” mental disorders. By the final chapter we know better than to trust this -- “known” should be replaced by “recognized,” with an asterisk noting the sometimes trivial process through which these abnormalities have been identified. The author opens fire on the American pharmaceuticals industry, which by coercion and growing public paranoia has managed to send diagnoses and prescription drug sales skyrocketing in recent decades. The upshoot closely corresponds to the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), which expanded its documentation of mental disorders from the second edition’s 134 pages to a whopping 494 (it has since been expanded to 886 pages in the fourth edition; the fifth is due out in 2013). Ronson provides some insight as to how disorders are added, rejected and modified, and it is clear the DSM series is the subject of intense scrutiny by mental health professionals around the world. Even so, the diagnosis and medication -- and in some cases the classifications themselves -- remain under a cloud of gray.

It would be unfair to reduce Ronson’s work to its maddest edges; it is a fine book filled with riveting information that should make any rational reader nervous. In the end there is little black and white beyond the ink and pages themselves, but this is not Ronson’s fault. Diagnosis, whether of childhood bi-polar, psychopathy or the myriad conditions between, is a work-in-progress, an imperfect science in the hands of educated intellectuals. This is an important consideration for readers of The Psychopath Test who might be tempted, as Ronson was, to self-diagnose (he did so quite poorly; expect the same of yourself). The madness industry deserves to be approached with skepticism and a critical eye. But Ronson knows first-hand the perils of a layman playing doctor; diagnosis isn’t an exact science, but it is a complex one. Knowledge is power, but in this case it may be a loaded gun aimed directly at your foot. So for God’s sake, leave the labels to the professionals.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1594488010
288 Pages