A subject of interest that recently ignited my curiosity is that of the Psychopath. OK perhaps I shouldn’t have watched Channel 4’s recent air of Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath on a Friday night, but I did. The term “psychopath” often brings to mind images of sadistically violent individuals such as Ted Bundy or the fictional character or Dr. Hannibal Lecter from the famous “The Silence of the Lambs”. However, whilst such emotionless and morally deprived individuals are confronted by abhorrence and a distinct separation from the normal personality spectrum, the sobering issue remains that the defining characteristic of a psychopath shelter a much broader spectrum of individual personality traits than you would think.
What is a psychopath? This is the question occupying my latest read, “The Psychopath Test” in which the distinctive self-deprecating reporting style of Jon Ronson invites the reader on a ‘journey through the madness industry’. Alongside a comical yet often unsettling narrative, Ronson’s provocatively investigates questions such as “How are psychopaths diagnosed?” and “What is the difference between psychopaths who are institutionalised and the psychopaths artfully succeeding at the top of institutions (business, entertainment and politics)?”
Ronson systematically probes the history of psychopathic diagnosis and treatment, through a series of surreal and off the cuff interviews and letters. Namely, he interviews the psychologist behind the definitive psychopathy checklist, Robert D. Hare, before methodically applying the checklist factors to various people he meets (as well as himself throughout): the mass murders, the top businessman with ruthless ambition and a love for firing people, the MI5 agency-turned-conspiracy theorist. Through such, Ronson highlights the transparency with which these same traits that label some as psychopaths are those that are encouraged in the people judged as the “most successful”. With that in mind, the eerie notion is proposed, is society run by individuals with varying levels of psychopathic tendencies?
In the book, Ronson meets and interviews a man named “Tony” who feigned madness by plagiarising Dennis Hopper in the film, “Blue Velvet” and imitating the work of Ted Bundy, to escape a prison sentence. In reality, it appears it is a lot easier to prove insanity than it is to convince someone you are sane, since this Tony was unable, no matter how he behaved, to escape the condemning walls of both the Psychiatric classification system and its institution, Broadmoor. Echoing the dealings of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, it is slightly unnerving that it seems that as a society, we are keen to detect anomalies in individuals and quick to classify varying personality traits as incurable personality disorders. Perhaps, this is why the number of disorders classified in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM) increased from 106 in 1952 to 297 in 1994’s edition… Psychopaths asides, this opens a bigger question; Are we inaccurately classifying tidiness as OCD; listening to our “inner goddesses” (see 50 shades of grey) as being a schizophrenic, and having a small crush on Brad Pitt as Celebriphilia?
In the end, Ronson argues that both Hare’s psychopath check-list and the DSM-IV criteria are hazardous weapons. If more and more disorders become fractionated and fine-tuned, it will soon be the case that almost any score on any test might be attributed to one disorder or another, prescribing patients a Catch-22 situation; drug companies the capacity to thrive and our children, alongside being diagnosed with ADHD (because that last candy bar sent them nuts), receiving books like “My Bipolar, Roller Coaster, Feelings Book” in their stockings at Christmas…
Are we all becoming hypochondriacs? Oh wait, that is another classifiable disorder. The question “Where do we draw the line?” is the one we are left asking at the end of Ronson’s often neurotic self-diagnosing journey, between the fragile balancing act between “sanity” and “madness”. Unearthing precarious truths and provoking us to question how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges, “The Psychopath Test” proves to be a compelling read.