REVIEW: "The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson

Title: The Psychopath Test
Author: Jon Ronson
Narrator: Jon Ronson
Format: Unabridged aBook
Run Time: 7 hours and 33 minutes
Publisher: Macmillan Digital Audio
Audible Release Date: 03/06/2011


Taken from Goodreads

In this madcap journey, a bestselling journalist investigates psychopaths and the industry of doctors, scientists, and everyone else who studies them. 

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath. 

Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges. 


By now you all know I love Audiobooks (which I saw someone call aBooks the other day and have decided to copy them). I've spent many hours of my life absorbed in audio fiction and have loved almost every minute. This, however, was my first encounter with audio non-fiction and, to be honest, I'm still not sure what I think! 

I'm used to aBooks being performed to an extent. I love it when narrators "do" the voices of each character and I love how they use their voices to bring the words on the page to life in the same way that we all do when we read fiction. I don't know about you, but when I read a book, I give every character a voice and each and every voice is always an echo of my own. 

In Ronson's book, this isn't the case. He is reading his own work and although he encounters many individuals along the way, they are not characters. He reads his work in the same way an articulate pupil might read their work in one of my English classes. That sounds more negative than I mean it. I suppose it would sound a bit daft if Ronson tried to imitate each of his interviewees. He's a journalist, not an actor. In a very round-about way, I suppose what I'm trying to say is simply that listening to a non-fiction aBook was a very different experience to listening to fiction. 

Ronson's book is... confusing. No, that's not right. The book itself isn't confusing; after all it's written for the layperson and not as an academic study. What I mean is that my reaction to the book is confusing. I liked it. I did. He was witty and self deprecating at times, especially when discussing his own anxieties. I laughed when he talked about how, upon receiving an encyclopaedia of mental illnesses, he immediately was able to diagnose himself with a whole bunch of them. I marvelled at how he bravely sat down to interview some rather unsettling characters and how he dared to tell them he wondered if they might be psychopaths! These were aspects of the book which kept me listening. 

And yet... I felt like I wasn't quite rewarded with what I was waiting for. When the audiobook ended I scrolled through the Audible library on my iPhone looking for part two. But there wasn't a part two. This is sort of how I feel about the whole book... like I was waiting for something that never quite happened. 

As I said earlier, Ronson's investigation was never meant to be an academic paper and I didn't buy it hoping for one. But there were times during the book when I really wanted Ronson to just go a little deeper. I wanted him to go far more deeply into the world he had discovered: a world in which almost every mundane aspect of day to day life can be categorised as some form of mental illness or another. I wanted a more thorough discussion on the parents who feed their kids drug after drug because they've labelled them as having one syndrome or condition or another, when their "symptoms" sound like their just, well, kids! I wanted to hear more bizarre theories about 9/11 and 7/7 and how the perpetrators of such theories rationalise their particular brand of insanity. I was particularly interested in some of his comments on how the diagnosis rates of certain illnesses have increased over recent years and I really wanted him to explore this. 

I did some amateur sleuthing of my own while writing this and discovered that between 2003 and 2009 the number of people diagnosed with Autism doubled (I read up a lot on this... and then found this convenient graph which illustrated these findings in a quick 'n' dirty sort of way). I wonder how much this figure has increased in the last three years. I wonder how much associated "cousins" of autism (such as aspergers) have added to these rates. I wonder if the publication of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time in 2003 and the resultant "knowledge" of the condition* added to the increase. I wonder a whole BUNCH of things. 

If the purpose of the book was to leave me with more questions that answers, then it was a success. But I can't help thinking that that kind of journalism is sort of...lazy. Every time I wanted Ronson to delve a little deeper, he skirted aside or made a joke. 

Overall, I did like this book, though my review might suggest otherwise. I wish it had gone deeper but it certainly aroused my curiosity and inspiring an audience to ask questions can't be a bad thing. I just wish there had been a few more answers than question.


See? I told you I was confused. 

[*Arguable knowledge. Haddon himself admits to having done no research on the condition. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but you'll notice a remarkable amount of its scathing reviews were written by people with the condition. In Haddon's defence he doesn't use the term Asperger's in the book, and later admits to regretting that the word was added to the cover's jacket. ]

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