Back in May and June, the media blitz for The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson, was in full swing. I finally got around to reading the book.
Ronson is a British journalist who apparently specializes in writing about nut cases. He wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney and Jeff Bridges. He has a BBC radio show that, according to the New York Times book review, is considered comedy. But he’s famous, and people like him. I guess I wish that he’d used his clout and notoriety to do some good with this book.
Its full title is The Psychopath Test—A journey through the madness industry. The title is accurate. The book is essentially a history of how the disorder was identified and how the study and treatment of psychopathy evolved, with the stories of a few psychopaths included, most of them killers.
Ronson makes the most important point of the book almost in passing. He describes several meeting with Bob Hare, the respected psychopathy researcher who created “the psychopath test” that gives the book its title (the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R). Ronson includes a scene in which he is in the U.K., driving Hare to the airport.
Hare says that he wishes he hadn’t spent all his time studying psychopaths in prison—he should have also studied them at the stock exchanges. (I’ve heard Hare make similar statements.) Ronson writes:
“But surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial-killer psychopaths,” I said.
“Serial killers ruin families.” Bob shrugged. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
This—Bob was saying—was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths … We aren’t all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They’re the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond.
I thoroughly believe that psychopaths are responsible for most of the human-caused pain in society. Ronson actually came out and said it. But unfortunately, he didn’t continue to make the case. After the statement on page 112 of the book, he never returned to the thought.
One other part of the book was enlightening. Ronson spends a few pages discussing the evolution of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), now in its fourth edition, with the fifth edition underway. On page 239, he explains why the mental health field has not agreed on what to call this disorder—psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, whatever. He writes what he learned from Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who became editor of the third edition of the DSM:
I’d always wondered why there had been no mention of psychopaths in the DSM. It turned out, Spitzer told me, that there had indeed been a backstage schism—between Bob Hare and a sociologist named Lee Robins. She believed clinicians couldn’t reliably measure personality traits like empathy. She proposed dropping them from the DSM checklist and going only for overt symptoms. Bob vehemently disagreed, but the DSM committee sided with Lee Robins, and Psychopathy was abandoned for Antisocial Personality Disorder.
So there it is—the beginning of the dispute about naming the disorder and how to diagnose it, which has only kept the general public confused.
You might be entertained by this book—Ronson’s writing style is engaging, and the historical background is interesting. But if you’ve had a close encounter with your very own psychopath, you aren’t going to learn anything to help in your recovery.