It starts with a puzzle - and journalists love puzzles. A mysterious book is mailed to a handful of people in very specific occupations across the world. The book, "Being Or Nothingness," has no author, blank pages, limited text and few clues to its purpose.
Author Jon Ronson is on a mission to solve this mystery. His book, "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," begins with his search to find the mysterious book's author when he learns from some of the book's recipients that it may have been written by a psychopath. But what, exactly, is a psychopath?
Ronson's research takes him from his native London, across Europe to Germany, then to the United States and Canada, where he interviews hundreds of people along the way: psychologists, criminals, those with mental illness and those who treat mental illness, doctors, business people, townspeople, former asylum workers and more.
He eventually meets Dr. Robert Hare, creator of the PCL-R Test that initially was used to diagnose Anti-Social Personality Disorder (the disorder is later renamed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised). The test was not included in versions of the DSM ("Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders") which is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is considered the "psychiatrist's bible." Don't worry, that's about as clinical as this review will get - Ronson did a great job of putting complex medical diagnoses in readable terms.
Through his interviews with Hare, he learns that inmates in prisons and psychiatric institutions are not the only ones who score highly on this test - many CEOs and "Wolves on Wall Street" also could be included. Ronson discovered that nearly one out of every 100 people can be considered a psychopath, which means - is it you? Is it me? Is it the person next to me? (Don't worry, if you ask this question, you aren't a psychopath, according to Hare's checklist.)
So Hare created a surprisingly simple 20-step checklist to determine who had psychopathic behaviors and tendencies. Psychopaths generally have high scores in the following attributes:
1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
6. Emotionally shallow
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
9. Need for stimulation or proneness to boredom
10. Parasitic lifestyle
11. Lack of realistic, long-term goals
14. Poor behavioral controls
15. Early behavioral problems
16. Juvenile delinquency
17. Revocation of conditional release
18. Criminal versatility
19. Many short-term marital relationships
20. Promiscuous sexual behavior
Now, before you start categorizing everyone you know (like I did), remember that this is just a checklist, a guideline for clinicians. What Ronson also discovers is that some people can be borderline psychopaths, who are high-functioning and extremely manipulative.
Ronson spends time with a patient in an asylum who claims he is sane; a death-squad leader who ends up getting jailed for mortgage fraud; a CEO who took joy in firing people, shutting down factories and essentially ruining small towns; those who worked with serial killers; a female blogger attacked by conspiracy theory extremists; Scientologists opposed to the psychology industry; college professors; and well-known scientists and psychologists.
And what Ronson learns is that determining who is a psychopath isn't as easy as completing a 20-point checklist - what about those who are "normal" but have a few of the psychopath-defined behaviors? Where do they fall? And how does medication and the pharmaceutical industry play into all this?
There are times where I felt Ronson was either being easily swayed by those he was interviewing or was just going along to "get the interview." It was hard to decipher, at times, what his intent was with the book. Was it to solve the puzzle in the beginning? Change policies or standards within the psychology industry? Or was it to expose flaws in the mental health industry that leads to increased incarceration of the slightly insane? It was tough because Ronson repeatedly writes how psychopathic people prey on others using charm, deceit and violence. Was he being manipulated, too? Was I, as a reader?
While Ronson does solve his first mystery, which started him down this path researching psychopaths, he doesn't answer his own question about whether or not psychopaths exist at all. During his research and reporting, he questions whether psychopaths can really be categorized by a test that scores from zero to 40, with anything scoring 30 or higher to be considered psychopath behavior. What about those who score 29? Where do they fall? This is why many in the medical field critique the DSM, because it can be very difficult to accurately describe certain behaviors. And psychopaths are not specifically referenced as an official illness in the DSM-IV volume, which was the version in use at the time of Ronson's book.
If you've read Ronson's previous works, "Them: Adventures with Extremists" and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," then you know that his writing is solid, as is his reporting. It's quite possible that Ronson does not attempt to answer these questions because there is no right answer, which makes you wonder if that really is a psychopath living next door.