Pharyngula

Reading for non-psychopaths

I’ve met Jon Ronson a few times, including this past weekend, but I can’t say I really know him — we’ve exchanged a few words, I’ve heard him give a talk, I now him as the short intense guy with the very bad hair, slightly neurotic, expressive, and funny. But I read his book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) this afternoon while on the train from Cheltenham to Heathrow, and I have this idea of who he is.

He’s Hemingway. Yeah, you know, the macho, hard-drinking man’s man who would run with the bulls or fish for the marlin or pretend to be a war correspondent, who was all about his image as a man of danger or adventure. Only Ronson is more of a nerd’s nerd, and instead of physical danger, he’s all about deep psychic weirdness. So he writes about conspiracy theorists in Them(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), or weirdos with purported psychic powers in The Men Who Stare at Goats(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), or he charges off to interview the Insane Clown Posse. And now, in this book, he hangs out with psychopaths. He’s much freakier than Papa.

So the book is a tour of psychopaths and the people who study them. I don’t quite understand how a guy as anxious as Ronson could do it, which again speaks to his nerd machismo. Early on, we get introduced to the criteria for psychopathy:

1 Glibness/superficial charm
2 Grandiose sense of self-worth
3 Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
4 Pathological lying
5 Cunning/manipulative
6 Lack of remorse or guilt
7 Shallow affect
8 Callous/lack of empathy
9 Parasitic lifestyle
10 Poor behavioural controls
11 Promiscuous sexual behaviour
12 Early behaviour problems
13 Lack of realistic long-term goals
14 Impulsivity
15 Irresponsibility
16 Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
17 Many short-term marital relationships
18 Juvenile delinquency
19 Revocation of conditional release
20 Criminal versatility

I read that and mentally checked off which characteristics fit myself (I know you’re doing it yourself) — surprisingly, none of them fit me at all, which makes me a kind of anti-psychopath. But then, I started thinking…isn’t that just exactly what a psychopath would say? And all we’d need to do is be really good at #4 to conceal everything else. This is what happens as you read the book; everything gets all twisty and you start getting paranoid and confused, because you start applying the criteria to everyone you know.

Or to entire institutions. Just try assessing the Republican party or the Catholic church by that list. The psychos are everywhere.

It’s good reading, anyway. It kept me engrossed for the whole trip, and left me wide-awake and a little jumpy as I worked my way through the airport.