"I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn't? What if it is built on insanity?"
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.
I'm going to avoid giving a chapter-by-chapter rundown of the book. As I said above, it's an entertaining, and easy, read. I'm not a particularly fast reader but wolfed this one down in three sittings over two days. So if you've the time, cash, and/or inclination, check it out. Rather, I want to focus on what I'll call the good, the bad, and the so-so. 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.
Like Martha Stout (whom Ronson quotes in the book), author of The Sociopath Next Door
, Ronson does a great job introducing the concept of psychopathy to readers who otherwise wouldn't be interested in scouring dry textbooks on the subject. He treks across the world interviewing potential candidates: from a convicted UK man who tried to fake madness in order to avoid prison, only to be placed in an institution for the criminally insane; an ex-death squad leader from Haiti who was supported and protected by the CIA; to ex-CEO of Sunbeam, Al "I believe in predators" Dunlap, who gleefully fired thousands before being charged with corporate fraud. Finding them, he confronts his interviewees about their own psychopathy, with surprising results. 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 ain't that bad at all! More on that below.
Then there was the failed experiment at Oak Ridge, in Canada, where psychopathic offenders were treated with LSD and encouraged to "share their feelings", engaging in group therapy where they acted as each other's psychotherapists. The inmates showed remarkable improvement and were released into the world, reformed beings eager to start life anew. 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. For example:
Bob said it's always a nice surprise when a psychopath speaks openly about their inability to feel emotions. Most of them pretend to feel. When they see us non-psychopaths crying or scared or moved by human suffering, or whatever, they think it's fascinating. They study us and learn how to ape us, like space creatures trying to blend in, but if we keep our eyes open, we can spot the fakery. (p. 100-101)
"I should never have done all my research in prisons. I should have spent my time inside the Stock Exchange as well."
I looked at Bob. "Really?" I said.
"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. That part of the brain that doesn't function right. You're standing on an escalator and you watch the people going past on the opposite escalator. If you could climb inside their brains, you would see we aren't all the same. 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. (p. 112)
"If some political or business leader had a psychopathically hoodlum childhood, wouldn't it come out in the press and ruin them?" I said.
"They find ways to bury it," Bob replied. "Anyway, Early Behavior Problems don't necessarily mean ending up in Juvenile Hall. It could mean, say, secretly torturing animals." He paused. "But getting access to people like that can be difficult. Prisoners are easy. They like meeting researchers. It breaks up the monotony of their day. But CEOs, politicians ..." Bob looked at me. "It's a really big story," he said. "It's a story that could change forever the way people see the world." (p. 118)
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:
"All the research indicates they're not a different species," said Bob. "There's no evidence that they form a different species. So he's [the critic, that is] misinformed on the literature. He should be up to date on the literature. It's dimensional. He must know that. It's dimensional." ...
Bob looked evenly at me. "I'm in the clear on this," he said. There was a silence. "My gut feeling, though, deep down, is that maybe they are different," he added. "But we haven't established that yet." (p. 268)
And in a conversation with Martha Stout, he asked:
"What if the wife of a psychopath reads this?" I asked. "What should she do? Leave?"
"Yes," said Martha. "I would like to say leave. You're not going to hurt someone's feelings because there are no feelings to hurt." She paused. "Sociopaths love power. They love winning. If you take loving kindness out of the human brain, there's not much left except the will to win."
"Which means you'll find a preponderance of them at the top of the tree?" I said.
"Yes," she said. The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number sociopaths you'll find there."
"So the wars, the injustices, the exploitation, all of these things occur because of that tiny percent of the population up there who are mad in this certain way?" I asked. It sounded like the ripple effect of Petter Nordlund's book, but on a giant scale.
"I think a lot of these things are initiated by them," she said.
"It's a frightening and huge thought," I said, "that the ninety-nine percent of us wandering around down here are having our lives pushed and pulled around by that psychopathic fraction up there."
"It's is a large thought," she said. "It is a thought people don't have very often. Because we're raised to believe that deep down everyone has a conscience." (pp. 113-114)
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?
Yes, there was a missing piece of the puzzle ... but the recipients had gotten it wrong. They assumed the endeavor was brilliant and rational because they were brilliant and rational, and we tend to automatically assume that everybody else is basically just like us. But in fact the missing piece was that the author was a crackpot.
"Can't you see it? It's incredibly interesting. Aren't you struck by how much action occurred simply because something went wrong with one man's brain? It's as if the rational world, your world, was a still pond and Petter's brain was a jagged rock thrown into it, creating odd ripples everywhere."
"Petter Nordlund's craziness had had a huge influence on the world. It caused intellectual examination, economic activity, and formed a kind of community. Disparate academics, scattered across continents, had become intrigued and paranoid and narcissistic because of it. They'd met on blogs and mesage boards and had debated for hours, forming conspiracy theories about shadowy Christian organizations, etc. One of them had felt motivated to rendezvous with me in a Costa Coffee. I'd flown to Sweden in an attempt to solve the mystery. And so on." (pp. 28, 31)
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.
It was this question that prompted Ronson to ask if it could really be true that psychopaths rule our world, that they shape the form and function of our society. Could this simple, yet radical, idea explain it all? From the "brutal excesses of capitalism itself" to the utter callousness of profiting off the destitution of entire industries? As one "enormously wealthy money-man" told Ronson, nothing has changed in recent years. "And it's not just in the U.S. It's everywhere. It's all over the world." (p. 167)
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: "She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn't know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them." (p. 10) Another psychopath said that to him, killing people was like "squashing bugs."
Think about that.
But anyways, that's the good. As for the so-so, Ronson never really comes to an answer to the question of "could it be true?" 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:
"I could really be on to something ... It really could be that many of our political and business leaders suffer from Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and they do the harmful, exploitative things they do because of some mad striving for unlimited success and excessive admiration. Their mental disorders might be what rule our lives. This could be a really big story for me if I can think of a way to somehow prove it." (p. 34)
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: yes, psychopaths rule the world, and this is how it works. He was saying it before anyone else, too, but his work has been largely ignored and suppressed. Recent books like Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect, Martha Stout's The Paranoia Switch, Hare and Babiak's Snakes in Suits, Barb Oakley's Evil Genes, and Paul Lawrence's Driven to Lead are good and welcome efforts, but they barely scratch the surface of what Lobaczewski presents in Ponerology.
With that said, because Ronson lacked the key to understand what is REALLY going on, I'm going to focus on a few areas where he isn't all that clear and comes to some wishy-washy conclusions. Some of his errors are just "so-so", but some are plain bad.
Ronson starts off with a look at the DSM, the manual for psychiatrists that lists every "known" mental disorder, their symptoms, and the checklists for determining if a person suffers from a particular disorder (or several). Ronson cracked open its pages and "instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones. ... I was much crazier than I had imagined." 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 "had a crazy desire to label all life a mental disorder." (pp. 34-35) The disorders end up sounding like the outdated ones of past centuries, for example, drapetomania, "evident only in slaves ... the sole symptom was 'the desire to run away from slavery'" (p. 54)
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, "He's completely sane! He faked his way in there! And now he's stuck. Nobody will believe he's sane." 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. Here's why.
First of all, they've got a point. There is much "gullibility and inexactness [in] the psychiatry profession" (p. 42). 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:
I think the madness business is filled with people like Tony [a "semi-psychopath" in Ronson's words], reduced to their maddest edges. Some, like Tony, are locked up in DSPD units for scoring too high on Bob's checklist. Others are on TV at nine p.m., their dull, ordinary, non-mad attributes skillfully edited out, benchmarks of how we shouldn't be. There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it. (p. 267)
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:
I e-mailed Professor Maden: "Isn't that like that scene in the movie Ghost when Whoopi Goldberg pretends to be psychic and then it turns out that she actually can talk to the dead?"
"No," he e-mailed back. "It isn't like that Whoopi Goldberg scene. Tony faked mental illness. That's when you have hallucinations and delusions. Mental illness comes and goes. It can get better with medication. Tony is a psychopath. That doesn't come and go. It is how the person is."
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. They're the Al Dunlaps, the Bernie Madoffs, the Benjamin Netanyahus, the Dominique Strauss-Kahns 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 officers.
But getting back to the Scientologists, why did I say their zealotry was ironic? Well, it turns out that in 1966 L. Ron Hubbard moved from his home in the UK forever. As a Scientologist told Ronson while visiting Hubbard's home:
"The conclusions he was coming to ..." Bob said. An ominous tone had crept into his voice. ...
"What was the nature of his research?" I asked.
There was a silence. And then Bob quietly said, "The antisocial personality." (p. 52)
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 "antisocial personalities", whom Hubbard said "cannot feel any sense of remorse or shame. They approve only of destructive actions. They appear quite rational. They can be very convincing." Interesting turn of events, eh?
Perhaps that's the problem. "They can be very convincing." 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. Workplace bullying, soul-killing jobs, abusive relationships, economic depression, modern warfare, chronic stress, social hysteria - these are not normal human conditions. They are symptoms and effects of psychopathy.
But the more we react to true madness (of the psychopathic kind), the more we are labelled as mad. And the real enemy goes unnoticed. Could that say more about psychiatry, and those pushing for such an antihuman approach, than the people diagnosed and drugged in response? As Tony told Ronson, "It's like witchcraft. ... They turn everything upside down." (p. 62) Remember drapetomania? Remember Al Dunlap's "Leadership Positives"? He had said of "grandiose sense of self-worth", "If you don't believe in yourself, nobody else will." Manipulative? "I think you could describe that as leadership." Impulsivity? "Quick Analysis." Shallow affect? That "stops you from feeling 'some nonsense emotions.'" Lack of remorse? "[F]rees you up to move forward and achieve more great things." (pp. 156-157) The answer was staring Ronson in the face, but he never made the connections.
Dr. Allen Frances had told Ronson:
"The way the diagnosis [of childhood bipolar] is being made in America was not something we intended ... Kids with extreme irritability and moodiness and temper tantrums are being called bipolar. The drug companies and the advocacy groups have a tremendous influence in propagating the epidemic."
"Psychiatric diagnoses are getting closer and closer to the boundary of normal ... There's a societal push for conformity in all ways ... There's less tolerance of difference." (pp. 244, 245)
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?
Ronson was actually on to something when he wrote:
All that talk of snakes adopting human form reminded me of a story I once did about a conspiracy theorist named David Icke, who believed that the secret rulers of the world were giant, blood-drinking, child-sacrificing lizards who had shape-shifted into humans so they could perform their evil on an unsuspecting population. I suddenly realized how similar the two stories were, except in this one the people who spoke of snakes in suits were eminent and utterly sane psychologists, respected around the world. Was this a conspiracy theory that was actually true? (p. 138)
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.
Twice in the book he relates his annoyance at being called either a "shill" or "stupid" for not believing the 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theories. While Ronson may be a smart guy in many regards, when it comes to "conspiracy theories", I've gotta go with his detractors. In a section on one of the survivors of the 7/7 attacks, Rachel North, he writes: "Only the most extreme magical-thinkers among [the 9/11 truthers] were 7/7 conspiracy theorists, too: while 9/11 obviously wasn't an inside job, 7/7 OBVIOUSLY wasn't an inside job." (p. 183) 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 the eye.
Rachel North's critics accused her (as Ronson's accused him) of being a "shill", a government agent spouting disinformation. Ronson also devotes several pages to a discussion of David Shayler, ex-MI5 officer, 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theorist, "no-planer", cross-dresser, and second coming of Jesus. 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.
Let me spell it out. First let's start from the big picture. Psychopaths rule our world. The experts agree on that. 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. Now, how hard is it to believe that some of these evil bastards would commit real atrocities against their own people and blame it on some boogieman in the interests of global hegemony? Remember Hitler? Remembering Goring and Himmler and Goebbels? They were psychopaths too. Remember the Reichstag fire? Remember the control of the media, the use of scapegoats, the incestuous relationship between corporate, media, military, economic, and political powers? Is it not completely freaking obvious that there is no evil thing these whackos wouldn't do? That they have done such things in the past and will CONTINUE doing them? And don't you think they'd have agents set up to make anyone exposing these deceptions look loony? Yes, there are stupid conspiracy theorists. There are also stupid skeptics and debunkers. That's beside the point of what actually happened.
Whether it's police agents dressed as "anarchists" at protests who instigate violence, UK troops posing as Iraqi insurgents with bombs and guns, Israeli operatives creating fake Al-Qaeda cells, or any other counterintelligence-type operations, this is STANDARD operating procedure. 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.
Anyways, I'm ranting. One more small point before I wrap up. Noting the absence of psychopathy in the DSM, Ronson wonders whether there had been some "backstage schism in the psychopath-defining world". 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 of SOTT, 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.