22 May 2011
So asks Jon Ronson in his latest book, The Psychopath Test - A Journey Through the Madness Industry.
Ronson is probably best known for his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted for the big screen and starred George Clooney. It documented a slightly loony group of American Army men who were convinced they could walk through walls and kill goats by simply glaring at them menacingly (apparently they took the phrase "looking daggers" a tad too literally).
He also wrote a book on fundamentalists, extremists and radicals, even tailing David Icke for a spell. For research, of course.
Having already spent much of his career peering into the fringe boundaries of 'normality,' The Psychopath Test pushes him further into the sphere of madness and the science that attempts to explain it.
The result is entertaining, sometimes
informative, yet a mixed-bag that never really answers the questions he set
out to tackle.
Ronson gets a lot of things right.
First of all, he's a great writer. The book is
peppered with entertaining, funny, and somewhat disturbing accounts of his
interviews with people he comes to believe are genuine psychopaths. Pitting
a self-described neurotic, over-anxious journalist against some of the
world's most dangerous criminals and manipulators is a recipe for a good
story, and in this regard, Ronson delivers.
He treks across the world interviewing potential candidates:
Many deny it, of course, while not-so-subtly revealing the opposite in their answers to Ronson, who dutifully jots down his diagnoses on his notepad.
Dunlap, on the other hand, managed to
turn each item of the Psychopathy Checklist into a "Leadership
Positive". To Dunlap, hey, being a psychopath isn't that bad at all! More on
At least, that's what the doctors thought. But the therapy had simply taught them to be better manipulators, and it seemed to have gone to their heads.
Their recidivism rates ended up being even higher than ordinary psychopaths. It's good to see this kind of anecdotal knowledge about psychopathy reach the mainstream. As psychopathy expert and author of the Psychopathy Checklist, Bob Hare, says, psychopaths are born psychopaths. You can't treat them.
This is one of the highlights of the book: the scattered airport-hotel conversations Ronson had with Hare over the course of his research for the book.
Later, Ronson confronted Hare with a criticism he'd heard from another professional, saying that Hare talked about psychopaths as if they were a different species.
And in what appears to be a one-half "cover-your-ass" and one-half "here's what I really think" reply, Hare said:
And in a conversation with Martha Stout, he asked:
The reference to Petter Nordlund alludes to the mystery that got Ronson started on the path that led to The Psychopath Test.
Several neurologists and other academics had anonymously received a cryptic manuscript entitled Being or Nothingness. One of them contacted Ronson to solve the mystery, which he did.
So what was the answer? What was the "missing piece" to make it all make sense and crack the code?
Like Martha Stout and Bob Hare told Ronson, we assume that people are the same, all trying to live decent lives and be "good".
But that is not the case. And when something
totally foreign intrudes on our humanity, when the predator barges into our
lives looking for a meal, we grossly misinterpret it, projecting our
humanity onto it, reading too much into it (or too little), like the
word-salad of some raving eccentric. And it comes to affect us in ways we'd
never imagined nor anticipated.
As one "enormously wealthy money-man" told Ronson, nothing has changed in recent years.
What does this mean?
After a chance encounter with psychopathy researcher Essi Viding while researching the mysterious manuscript, a colleague of hers relates this story to Ronson:
Another psychopath said that to him, killing
people was like "squashing bugs."
He just leaves it hanging without actually doing any real digging. Despite the opinions he quotes, which I think make a pretty good case for answering in the definite affirmative, he never comes to a conclusive answer, describing his efforts as leading to mixed results.
Early in the book he writes:
But it looks like Ronson just didn't look hard enough.
His search might have led him to another mysterious manuscript, but one with much more importance and which actually gives clinical answers to these "tough" ideas and questions.
Of course, I'm talking about Andrew Lobaczewski's Political Ponerology, which just barely made it out of Communist Poland, the first copies destroyed, stolen, and lost and its researchers hunted, arrested, tortured, killed, and silenced.
Lobaczewski survived long enough to write the book from memory and contact a publisher who recognized the importance of what he was saying:
He was saying it before anyone else, too, but his work has been largely ignored and suppressed.
Recent books like,
...are good and welcome efforts, but they barely
scratch the surface of what Lobaczewski presents in Ponerology.
Ronson cracked open its pages and,
Indeed, with everything from Arithmetic Learning Disorder, to Parent Child Relational Problem, to Caffeine Induced Disorder and Nightmare Disorder, it seems like the DSM writers,
The disorders end up sounding like the outdated ones of past centuries, for example, drapetomania,
Ronson meets up with some Scientologists who are vehemently critical of psychiatry.
Even the mention of the words "mental disorder" raises eyebrows. One of the Scientologists, Brian, introduces Ronson to Tony, the guy who faked madness in order to avoid prison.
According to Brian,
Despite the fact that that wasn't exactly true (his doctors knew he was sane, but they also knew he was a psychopath, which is why they were keeping him), it's pretty ironic to read about the Scientologists' zealous crusade 'against' psychiatry.
First of all, they've got a point.
There is much,
The sheer number of disorders, for which there are no scientifically verified etiologies, and number of people "afflicted" by them is enough to raise questions.
And it seems that the more complicated human behavior gets, the more it is labeled a disorder. But on the other hand, the Scientologists seemed to be dismissing real problems that cause people and families suffering by reflexively labeling everyone "sane" to suit their ideology.
While noticing the contradiction, Ronson gets stuck in the middle-ground, writing in the final chapter:
But Ronson is confusing categories, causing him to come to bad conclusions.
In fact, the solution to the problem can be found on page 58 of his own book, in a quote from Tony's doctor, Professor Maden:
There's a difference between "mental illness" and psychopathy.
Mental illness is what non-psychopaths may or may not have: emotional problems caused by trauma, toxins, abuse, etc. Psychopathy is completely different. Yes, psychopaths may have some apparently useful qualities, but they're incidental to the underlying psychopathy.
Yes, they may be charming and good talkers, but that's an act. Yes, they may not kill, but they manipulate and harm others in different ways. It's just the way they are, and that's the point Ronson seems to have trouble digesting. And it's those very psychopaths occupying the middle ground that can be so dangerous.
...that wreak havoc on entire
economies and societies. Or, if they never get that far to the top, they're
the impossible bosses, the abusive husbands, the corrupt lawyers and police
As a Scientologist told Ronson while visiting Hubbard's home:
Hubbard seems to have identified the problem, but his followers are making the same mistake Ronson does, to the point where they actively petition the release of those very same,
Interesting turn of events, eh?
We see the ripples in the pond, but the jagged rock remains invisible, cloaked behind a veil of normality.
White becomes black, right becomes wrong, peace becomes war, and sanity becomes madness. In fact, that twisting of meanings is a clue to psychopathy. They're masters of "doublespeak", creating verbal traps and impossible situations that leave non-psychopaths bewildered.
Perhaps that's the solution to the catch-22 of modern psychiatry?
A certain degree of "mental illness" is human, even healthy. Like an immune reaction in the body, it's the normal response to the affront of psychopathy on a healthy mind.
...these are not normal human
conditions. They are symptoms and effects of
As Tony told Ronson,
Remember drapetomania? Remember Al Dunlap's "Leadership Positives"?
He had said of,
The answer was staring Ronson in the face, but
he never made the connections.
Couldn't Ronson see the connection between the "Al Dunlaps" of the economic/corporate world and psychiatric/pharmaceutical drug-pushing world?
That the missing key is psychopathy? That that
is the reason for this push to label normal people "mentally ill" and keep
us and our children drugged up, sick in mind and body, while the truly ill
are the ones reaping the benefits?
No, they're not lizards.
Rather the secret rulers of the world are rich, blood-lusting, child-raping psychopaths. Remember the comments about "squashing bugs"?
These people just don't give a shit about mass-murder, raping mothers in front of their children, or children in front of their parents. They don't care about nuclear meltdowns, oil poisoning the Gulf, lung-cancer-causing pollution, disease-causing diets. They are absorbed by it. Fascinated.
They get a kick out of making people suffer and driving them crazy. Literally.
They're the kind of cretins that will cut
themselves and blame it on their wives for custody of children in a divorce,
stab their "best friend" in the back if by doing so they can frame someone
else and get some kind of payoff. Dirty tricks. Fun and games. They're
cunning, manipulative, and ruthless. And this is where Ronson goes from
so-so to just plain bad.
In a section on one of the survivors of the 7/7 attacks, Rachel North, he writes:
Yet the only point he ends up demonstrating is that a lot of conspiracy theorists are stupid and grossly misguided.
No, the 7/7 attacks weren't a "fake stunt" using "pyrotechnics and stuntmen and actors and special-effect blood." Yes, Rachel North was a real victim of the attacks. Yes, real planes flew into the World Trade Centers.
But none of that dismisses the fact that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were false-flag operations, using real bombs, causing real death and destruction, ruining lives and bringing devastation to thousands of families. Yes, making light of the atrocities and harassing victims is callous.
But no, looking for the truth, paying attention to details like the locations and physical features of the blast holes of 7/7 is not callous. Is a police detective callous because he tries to discern the point of entry and exit of a bullet wound? No, he's just trying to find the truth, so that there can be real justice. Ronson's diatribe against conspiracy theorists is as shameful as those conspiracy theorists who spout nonsense and DO act in callous ways.
But even then, there's more to this than meets
Yes, the guy is completely insane. That's a given.
What Ronson ignores is the fact that David
Shayler is the real agent in this whole drama! He's the self-professed
government agent. He even admitted to dressing as an anarchist at a
demonstration during his "stint" with MI5.
The higher to the top you get, the more psychopaths you find. They're in business, banks, politics, intelligence, military, media, academia. They're also cunning, manipulative and ruthless. They're the evil bastards in Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels who get off by killing people and then blaming it on someone else.
Now, I'm sure not many will disagree with me when I say: politicians lie, intelligence agencies are secretive.
They conduct many "black operations" often involving killing innocent people. Corporate interests steer politicians. They also own the media and do not promote news that would have negative consequences for themselves. Again, psychopaths saturate all these industries. Their leadership often overlaps. They have mutual interests.
And again, they're psychopaths.
They were psychopaths too.
Yes, there are stupid conspiracy theorists.
There are also stupid skeptics and debunkers.
That's beside the point of what actually happened.
And it's people like Ronson who stare at the
ripples in disbelief, unable to see the jagged rock staring them right back
in the face.
It turns out there was.
Lee Robins, a sociologist, rallied to exclude it, focusing only on "overt symptoms" instead of personality traits such as empathy. This is a telling point, which I deal with in this article. In it, I also give my thoughts on the "dimensional vs. categorical" debate.
My intuition is similar to Hare's.
Psychopaths are different. They have the shape of a human, the outer form. They walk, talk, speak, eat, and breathe. They may even collect McDonald's toys or statues of predators, like the psychopaths interviewed by Ronson. But when it comes to the inner essence that makes us human, that part of another that we come to love and appreciate, no, they are not human.
They are an intraspecies predator. Not quite human.
While Ronson does an admirable job bringing the topic of psychopathy, and the idea that it runs our world, to the mainstream, he never really gets to the meat of the matter. He collects some of the clues, but lacks the key to give a wider understanding. For that, you need Political Ponerology.
There may not be anything new in The Psychopath Test for regular readers, but I did find it enjoyable for its case studies and Ronson's quirky and engaging style. So check it out.
Just be sure to round out your reading with
something a bit more substantial.