three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
By: 
Jon Ronson
user_rating: 
0

A Journey Through the Madness Industry

A-PsychopathTestBesides being the author of several best-selling books, Jon Ronson is a documentary filmmaker and a contributor to the radio show This American Life.

The Topic: As the author of Them: Adventures with Extremists (2002), as well as The Men Who Stare at Goats (2005) (the account of a "New Age" psychic unit within the U.S. Army that was the basis for a 2009 film), Jon Ronson has more than likely met crazy people before. Ronson is now on the trail of the psychopath--a person who can appear perfectly normal but who lacks any sense of empathy for his or her fellow human beings. When he is startled by the number of psychopaths who can be outed by the book's titular test (not to mention the ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Ronson engages with those who are skeptical of contemporary psychiatry.
Riverhead. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594488016.

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Ronson's writing is wonderfully understated because he trusts the material and his interviewees to speak for themselves. The technique also produces some comedy gold." Nina Lakhani

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Ronson, who is both fiercely intelligent and self-deprecating, successfully combines humor with an unsettling subject, and the result is a compelling read." Mark Stoeltje

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite or because of his disparate talents, above all Ronson is a consummate journalist, doggedly and imaginatively following the money, otherwise known as the straightest line to the truth." Meredith Maran

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ronson's paddling around the swampy parts of sanity again in The Psychopath Test, a book that manages to be as cheerily kooky as it is well-researched. ... Ronson has an eye for the absurd, but he also has a heart. ... All of his research shows that as much as he--and society--want to use checklists to determine who's bonkers, sanity usually rests in the hands of the definers." Carolyn Kellogg

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Ronson, a popular British journalist, seems to have begun writing without a clear idea of what he was after, beyond trying to ferret out psychopaths and learn how their symptoms are defined. ... [But] not very far into the mostly nimble and beguiling Psychopath Test, Mr. Ronson is off to the races." Janet Maslin

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, The Psychopath Test works best as a morbid travelogue, a meandering tour of the drab mental institutions and laboratories where, for better or worse, our definition of sanity is formed. Though it's never clear where Ronson will end up--or even, really, what he's trying to find out--he's such an appealing tour guide, it doesn't really matter." Meredith Blake

Salon.com 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ronson's touch is light and he's not afraid to play the feckless neurotic for laughs, but that doesn't obscure the serious questions raise[d] by his investigations. ... [C]onclusiveness is pretty much the opposite of Ronson's brief in this outing. ... For those willing to think for themselves, this makes for a refreshing change." Laura Miller

Observer (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Ronson's new book is provocative and interesting, and you will, I guarantee, zip merrily through it. But it also reveals, sometimes painfully, the limitations of his journalistic technique." Rachel Cooke

Critical Summary

There is no question that critics enjoyed Jon Ronson: those who reviewed this book described him as everything from a comic expository writer on the order of Mary Roach to one of the best satirical writers working today. But most also agreed that while The Psychopath Test is hilarious, they could not discern any greater purpose to the book other than giving Ronson a chance to interview some truly disturbing people. Given his track record in this area, most reviewers also felt that was enough to recommend the book. Ronson's own effort to draw grander conclusions--the implied critique of psychiatry that runs through the last third of the book--doesn't have sufficient grounding to work. However, Ronson's interviews, and the chance to consider whether, say, your boss is a psychopath or not, makes for an enjoyable work--one to borrow from the library rather than purchase for your own.