This is a story about madness. It begins with a curious encounter at a Costa Coffee shop in Bloomsbury, Central London. It was the Costa where the neurologists tended to go …
What it’s like
Jon Ronson is largely known for getting interviews with mental people. Jihadic extremists, conspiracy theorists and high-ranking military officers who believe they can walk through walls all featured in his previous books. This time it’s psychopaths, both free-range and locked within Broadmoor asylum. And as usual, Ronson gives us insight into the unceasing composure of the investigative journalist:
‘She won’t look at the evidence,’ interrupted David [Shayler, a 9/11 denier and conspiracy theorist]. ‘I’m getting the same sort of vibe off you here, Jon […] To say Muslims carried out 7/7 is racist, Jon. It’s racist. It’s racist. You’re being 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.
Not to mention the steely fearlessness of the investigative journalist:
My interview with David Shayler – the ‘fuck off’ included – was broadcast one night a few weeks later on BBC Radio 4. I began panicking during the hours before it aired. I believe my amygdala went into overdrive. Was I – in telling David Shayler to fuck off – about to open a Pandora’s box? Would I incur the wrath of the 7/7 Truth movement? Would they come after me, guns a-blazin’?
This demonstrates Ronson’s formula, which makes me laugh out loud and groan with admiration/envy simultaneously. For the reader, he tells his investigations as a personal journey, full of relatable angst and self-doubt and surprise and discovery. For the interviewees, he’s such a self-deprecating listener that the people he talks to forget their antagonism and open up to him like an agony aunt or a protegee.
That also goes part way to explaining how he gets welcomed into the Scientology fold in this book, invited as special guest to their big functions. Also how he befriends a psychopath and gets a personal invitation to his tribunal hearing. Somehow he still remains onside with them even after being published saying he disagrees with them – David Shayler invites him back for a homely chat, for example.
It’s even better listening to him reading his own work, like the extended extract he read on This American Life a few episodes back, or in his TED Talk. His accent is brilliant, and listening to this guy talk like, say, a corner shop owner while telling stories about hanging out with psychopaths is just fantastic.
What it’s about
Ronson makes a few big points in the book; kind of introduces them in gradually as he narrates his adventures.
1. Psychiatry, like medicine itself, has evolved from horrifically non-scientific beginnings.
For example, as recently as the 1960s, some psychopaths were being treated in nude therapy sessions, during which they would be required to talk to their own genitals. Much later these courses were shown to have actually increased recidivism rates from 60 to 80 per cent.
Another example from the book: in 1973 a psychologist sent 8 mentally healthy volunteers, including himself, to consult specialists at different mental hospitals, where the only untruthful thing they were allowed to say was that they heard a voice in their head that said ‘Empty’, ‘Hollow’ and ‘Thud’. They were all subsequently diagnosed as insane, committed for an average of 19 days, and given powerful anti-psychotic drugs. When the experiment was reported, one hospital accused him of trickery and invited him to send more fakes, guaranteeing they’d spot them this time. After a month the hospital revealed they’d identified 41 fakes. The psychologist then revealed he’d sent none.
2. Today, a score from a psychiatric assessment can result in lifetime incarceration.
Tony, the Broadmoor inmate diagnosed as a psychopath, has been in prison for most of his life. He claims he faked mental illness in his police interviews to try and avoid jail, and that every attempt he makes to prove he’s sane gets used as further evidence of his illness. Is he a victim of a dodgey system, or just exhibiting the cunning manipulativeness of a psychopath?
3. Is it right that we treat scores from tests like the ‘Psychopath Test’ as such absolute, scientific metrics? Have we given too much power to a small number of clinicians?
Ronson goes to a course on administrating the Psychopath Test and discovers the tool gives him a feeling of power. He finds himself diagnosing most people he doesn’t like as psychopaths. His conversations with psychiatrists – including the inventor of the test – reveal they have their own doubts, too.
4. Is it possible that the acts of the psychopaths amongst us have a huge impact on our society?
There are theories that many people in positions of power – company CEOs, politicians, Wall St bankers and so forth – get their because their psychopathy helps them do the job. The people who make decisions for mass layoffs or welfare cuts or military attacks – are they fundamentally different types of humans to the rest of us? What does this say about our objectivity in treatment, if some psychopaths are given lifetime incarceration and others are allowed to wield such power?
5. Is psychiatry getting hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry?
He talks to parents of kids as young as 3 who’ve been prescribed anti-psychotics for their behaviour. After the (medication-caused) death of one young girl, the mother wonders whether the girl was just precocious for her age. The preeminent professor of childhood psychiatry is shown to have been acting in the interests of Johnston & Johnston. And so on.
Ronson does a good job showing that psychiatry isn’t perfect. But he does acknowledge the seriousness of the mental illnesses some people have and the benefits of treatment.
And this is the one thing I come away from this book missing: a clearer picture of psychiatry’s successes as well as its (highly troubling) grey areas.
For example, Ronson paints ‘Tony’ as a very grey-area character. Sure, all the psychiatrists who’ve assessed him over the years agree he’s a psychopath. But is he really? Ronson himself, after reading through the psychopath test, wonders if he himself falls into several of the categories it lists.
Well, in the same episode of This American Life that ran Ronson’s excerpt from this book, the TAL staff all take the test themselves. They’re interviewed by a psychiatrist who scores them. At the start of the episode they interview each other on how they think they’ll go. Some are worried – they had run-ins with the police when they were younger, or whatever.
At the end of the episode is the big reveal. And (from memory) we find that none of them scored a single point. So, in other words, maybe scoring not just a few points but enough to classify you as a psychopath is actually a really really big deal. Maybe Tony’s case isn’t as ambiguous as we thought. We don’t know. More clarity or data would have been good in the book.
Edit: Interestingly, shortly after posting this I started getting comments submitted from a person who accused the British Government of being behind 7/7, Jon Ronson of being a psychopath himself, he and I of being blind followers of govt propaganda, etc.
Right away I started stressing. How can people be so wrong about stuff and not embarrassed by it? How can I let these inflammatory comments sit there without typing a response? Will this start a troll war? If I don’t post the comments, will they then accuse me of being part of the conspiracy? Do I need to prove my intellectual independence by providing responses?
I had a breakthrough this morning when I realised I own this space and can kick out people I don’t like just for the reason I don’t like them. So I’m deleting the comments and filtering any others.
If you want to write about conspiracies and insult Jon Ronson, I’m sure there are already welcoming spaces on the net for that. Go there instead.