May 31, 2015

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

(Note: Don't worry, I am still slogging through the Hugo nominees. After that last abomination, however, I needed a bit of a break.)

This is one weird little book. It feels short, even though it's 272 pages. I think that's because the author uses white spaces like I use the words "and" and "the"; there's usually at least one, if not more, per page. This tends to disrupt the flow of the narrative a bit, but since he is examining the so-called "madness industry," I suppose it fits right in.

This is a little literary mystery that is never really solved, and which leads our admittedly anxious, jittery author into a side tangent involving psychopaths and other forms of mental illness. (He does admit the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are interchangeable, but I believe the latter term is the one currently favored.) Several people are mailed a book entitled Being or Nothingness with parts of the pages cut out, with no indication of who mailed it or why. The author's attempt to figure this out leads him in several different directions, and finally to a study of various forms of "crackpots."

There's some scary forms of mental illness in these chapters, including a bit on the Church of Scientology that should make you run screaming in the opposite direction; a history of psychiatric diagnostics that involves such things as "nude psychotherapy sessions" in a pool, complete with a photo; the man, Bob Hare, who came up with the actual 20-point "psychopath checklist" (yes, such a thing does exist); the CEO of a corporation who closed plants and fired employees and "redefined a great many psychopathic traits as Leadership Positives"; an asshole named David Shayler who denies that the London 7/7 terrorist attacks really happened (I've run into his whackjob cousins in this country, who deny that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre took place), and who provides the best paragraph in the book:

"She won't look at the evidence," interrupted David. "I'm getting the same sort of vibe off you here, Jon. A viewpoint arrived at without evidence is prejudice. To say Muslims carried out 7/7--those three guys from Leeds and one from Aylesbury--to say they did it is RACIST, Jon. It's racist. It's racist. You're being a RACIST to Muslims if you think they carried out that attack on the evidence there."

There was a short silence.

"Oh, fuck off," I said.

Heh. The author's fragmented, jittery writing style tended to grate on me after a while, but at that moment I felt like standing and applauding.

The most interesting chapter is Chapter 10, which talks about both the overmedicating of children (for supposed ADHD and bipolar disorder), and the tremendous expansion of the listed mental illnesses in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Some of them sound more than a bit specious, and even the person who helped write that book admits he may have made a mistake on some of his criteria. This is sobering, and scary to think about.

The book ends with the author receiving his own copy of Being or Nothingness, with the same pages chopped out as all the other copies. He emails the person he believes is doing this (although I'm not sure he really knows for certain) and there the book ends. We've come full circle, and we're just as vague and mixed-up as when we started.

That's the whole point, I suppose.

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