Durham Book Festival – Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test
Is Jon Ronson the Woody Allen of documentary film-making? He shuffles on stage, looks nervously around and mumbles a joke about the microphone being off .
”?There are three hundred and seventy four [listed mental disorders] and it turns out I?ve got twelve of them?. I’?ve got parent-child relational problems, but I think anyone would, if they had my mother?.”
He’s looking pretty furtive. A hint of a twitch. This is not the most promising start to a talk on a book called ?The Psychopath Test?. He?’s beginning to look as though he might have some institutional experience himself. But Ronson?’s not mad, he just likes to hang out with Haitian death squad leaders, religious zealots and corporate maniacs.
There’?s Tony, the Broadmoor inmate who claimed he was insane to receive a lighter sentence, but did the job too well. ”?It?s a lot harder to convince somebody you’?re sane than to convince them you’?re crazy?,” he muses, from inside a maximum security facility.
Tony?s case brilliantly illustrates the precarious line between sanity and psychopathy. Sandwiched between the Stockwell strangler and the tiptoe-through-the-tulips rapist, Tony chose not to socialise with his neighbours.
Which brings us to Item one of the Hare Psychopathy checklist: a grandiose sense of self-worth. Not spending time with murderers – a preference most of us would share- counted against Tony as evidence of madness.
Ronson is quick to critique Hare?s checklist, along with the growing ?checklist culture? within modern psychiatry.
I’?m beginning to feel that Ronson?’s capacity for criticism knows no bounds- yet the really striking thing about this is his incredible precision. He is at his funniest when being serious. Even railing against the iniquities of a capitalist system which rewards psychopathy, or the false diagnosis of childhood psychosis, Ronson is light and level; his sense of perspective unwavering.
Hats off to the man who scrutinises predatory money-lending tactics ? not through a Freedom of Information request, but by creating fictional personae with names like John, Paul, George and Ringo who all live at his address. ?Titch? Ronson, chosen to follow bare knuckle boxing, gambling and porn mailing lists, received floods of correspondence from banks desperate to lend him money.
It seems the banks, along with Ronson’?s other interviewees, subscribe to Item number two on the Hare checklist: Seeing the world in terms of predators and prey.
With a cinematic eye for detail, Ronson recalls visiting megalomaniacal businessman Al Dunlap at his home. He describes the stuffed figures of lions, tigers and rhinos ?like Narnia?. ‘?Do you have a grandiose sense of your own self-importance?’? asks Ronson. Dunlap pauses, standing beneath a giant oil painting of himself. ‘?’Well, you?ve gotta believe in YOU, don?t ya?’?’
Isn’?t it ironic, I ask, that Ronson is fascinated by- in fact, responded warmly – to ? people who lack the most basic empathy or emotional depth? Yes. But psychopaths are ?charming, glib, good company- at the beginning?. It’?s ?great to be one? but terrible to be ?close to or ruled over by one?.
They are ?remorseless?, picking what they want from the world and discarding the rest. They weave a picture of the world that suits their own purposes. They are- with a characteristic combination of wisdom and wit- a lot like the journalists who follow them.