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Book Review

Mind games aplenty in ‘The Psychopath Test’

By Alice Gregory
May 19, 2011

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Diabolical scenarios, mass killings, conspiracy theories. The work of abnormal psyches is the low-hanging fruit that tempts our culture’s most riveting — but often least subtle — storytellers. The rationales of disaster-producing mental patients usually inspire more hack diagnosis than ordered deduction. The “insanity’’ of a Hollywood movie’s villain, for instance, all too frequently serves as a distraction from a sloppy screenplay. As a plot device, the identification of mental illness is our modern deus ex machina. The motivation for terror, if not tractable, at least has an entry in the DSM, the manual of psychological disorders.

Veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson understands how narratively unsatisfying it is to blame catastrophe on craziness. In his latest book, “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry,’’ he investigates — and ultimately solves — an elaborate hoax played on an international group of neurologists. The inquiry into the origin and meaning of the cryptic book sent to the academics leads him to make a more formal study of the personality disorder psychopathy and “the madness industry,’’ which it in no small part sustains. In so doing, he meets a troubled but sane young man trapped in an asylum; a sadistic CEO who fires for fancy; and an illustrious psychologist convinced that many of the world’s most powerful leaders are, in fact, clinical psychopaths.

When the neurologists first ask Ronson to help them untangle the mystery (which includes parodically mad details, such as M.C. Escher reproductions, anagrammatic manipulations of Kafka, and a Swedish translator), he has no idea of the depths he’ll plumb. “[The scientists] assumed the endeavor was brilliant and rational because they were brilliant and rational and we tend to automatically assume that everybody else is basically just like us. But in fact, the missing piece was that the author was a crackpot.’’ It’s in our nature to search for meaning; our impulse to interpret is strong, and there might be nothing so disappointing as a superficially elegant but ultimately unsound diegesis. Ronson skirts this issue by using the hoax more as an animating lead than encapsulating anecdote. By allowing the worried neurologists to speak, he illuminates the contagious thinking of psychopaths; the real terrorism lies in their ability to infect the rational world with their illogic.

Because of Ronson’s relentless self-deprecation and goofy, British humor, it’s easy to tag along without fully realizing the rigor of his reporting, which is itself frenzied with compulsive questioning and obsessive research. Psychopathy is characterized by a deficit of empathy and a surplus of amoral behavior, both of which are usually disguised by the ability to appear outwardly normal — if not downright charming. Either Ronson is purposefully writing from a prankish, postmodern point of view here or his batty charisma really does come naturally to him, even in the face of such sinister subject matter. He readily admits to his own neuroses (an often delightful tactic), but it’s also hard not to suspect that his subjective techniques are deployed as a sort of intimacy-expeditor, which in the context of the book’s content can feel creepy.

Mind games are nothing new to Ronson. “The Psychopath Test’’ is of a piece with his 2005 bestseller, “The Men Who Stare at Goats’’ — adapted into a 2009 box office hit starring George Clooney — which traced the development of paranormal military programs used to interrogate and torture during the war on terror. A preoccupation with menace does not a maniac make, but “The Psychopath Test’’ can surely be read darkly. Throughout his work, Ronson renders a world made up of permeable membranes: The line between sanity and insanity is not always drawn so clearly, and in the tradition of New Journalism, neither is the line between reporter and subject.

Alice Gregory can be reached at aliceagregory@gmail.com.

THE PSYCHOPATH TEST:

A Journey Through the Madness Industry

By Jon Ronson

Riverhead, 275 pp., $25.95