Grey areas of madness: an interview with Jon Ronson, on The Psychopath Test
Picador, Australia, 9780330451369 (paperback)
InÂ The Psychopath Test Jon Ronson takes us onÂ journey through the mad ‘industry’ of madness. And it’s not all acid-tripping psychopaths. Ronson follows leads to high-security prisons, a mansion filled with predators… and to L Ron Hubbardâ€™s coca cola stain. What results is an inevitably open-ended, sometimes frightening and often hilarious look at a hugely complex subject. Ronson is well-known for his journalism and his books Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats. WeÂ managed to miss each other when he was in Melbourne, but we caught up over Skype when he was back in England. His first admittance was that he wished heâ€™d had more time in Melbourne and less in Sydney, as it more seemed his â€˜sort of place.â€™ As if I didnâ€™t like him enough already through his work (and Q&A appearance) this started us off on the right foot. He also does have a lovely accent (he’s from Cardiff) and it was a pleasure to speak with him.
AM: Are you working on something at the moment?
JR: Iâ€™m trying to write a new book. Iâ€™m going through a period of self-hatred. No, thatâ€™s not true or fair. Iâ€™m going through that period with the new book where Iâ€™m trying to figure out how to tell it and what itâ€™s about. Itâ€™s sort of exciting. Iâ€™m doing a few stories as well. Everythingâ€™s good.
I like how thatâ€™s how The Psychopath Test begins: youâ€™re following this lead with a mysterious book and you donâ€™t really know yet that youâ€™re going to be writing about madness…
Exactly. I like it as a way of writing, you know, completely organic and allowing it to twist and turn in an un-prescriptive way. I do like that as a method. Ultimately I think it always makes for a better piece of writing. Because if youâ€™re pre-planning everything… surely itâ€™s gonna become very formulaic.
And you might miss other interesting threads that you can follow.
Exactly. You know, the idea that the journalist should feel completely free to change their opinions as it goes along… Iâ€™m quite happy to believe one thing and then completely change my mind back again. I think a lot of journalists donâ€™t like that because it makes them feel like theyâ€™re not being authoritative. I think a lot of journalists have a real thing about wanting to come across as authoritative. So if they find a piece of information that goes against…
Yeah, they donâ€™t want to take the contradiction on board. They want to sort of skirt around the contradiction, whereas I love taking contradictions on board.
I like that, and thatâ€™s how you become involved with some of these groups â€“ like the scientologists â€“ because youâ€™re taking in all these different points of view. With your style of journalism, or perhaps just your personality, you do manage to get invited into the inner echelons of some of these groups, or receive invitations from people who donâ€™t often talk to journalists. Do you think that method contributes to that, that open-mindedness?
I think it definitely does, and also I very, very rarely have a hidden agenda, and if I do have a hidden agenda I make it completely clear to the reader that thatâ€™s whatâ€™s going on. Also, Iâ€™m particularly good at empathy. For instance tomorrow, for this new book, Iâ€™m meeting the woman who invented PETA. And Iâ€™ve been reading some of PETAâ€™s writing and the ALFâ€™s writing and Iâ€™m completely sucked into their belief system, in quite a naive way. By the time I approach people for my interviews, I can say to them in all honesty Iâ€™m finding this stuff Iâ€™ve been reading incredibly compelling and moving, and I think people like that passion. Some journalists donâ€™t have that passion, but I think I genuinely do feel that passion and I get sucked into these belief systems. Iâ€™m sure I get access to people easier because of that. But itâ€™s real, Iâ€™m not tricking anybody.
That comes across strongly for the reader, because it allows for them to go in with a bit of an open mind. It works really well.
I mean, Iâ€™m sure if I read anti-PETA stuff and anti-ALF stuff… This is slightly different because the meeting Iâ€™ve got tomorrow is not going to be about PETA, Iâ€™m going to try to get them to talk about some significant things they did that is actually completely separate, but Iâ€™ve always felt that way [excited about different points of view], right back from the beginning about 15 years ago. I would always get really excited about getting to go to a Ku Klux Klan compound or getting to hang out with hardcore conspiracy theorists, you know, rather than think of it as a chore. I actually think of it as an amazing mystery.
I remember people saying to me, when I was doing this thing about the Ku Klux Klan, â€˜donâ€™t you just hate having to go to the Ku Klux Klan compound? Isnâ€™t that like the worst thing to have to do in the world?â€™ And I always think, well, of course itâ€™s stressful, but itâ€™s also a kind of rare privilege to go to… shadowy places.
And to learn how people come to be in that sort of environment?
And what the environment is like first hand, and what little quirks can I see? Yeah, it feels like a privilege.
So you were talking to all these people for The Psychopath Test with that kind of openness and then you came across the Bob Hare checklist. I really liked it when you went to the conference on psychopathy. Itâ€™s very convincing, and I can imagine, too, being swept up in it. Then you took that checklist out into the world…
Itâ€™s funny, I think the reason why the Bob Hare thing worked as a piece of writing is because I went in as a sceptic. Iâ€™ve always thought that with nonfiction your ambition should be as high as it is with fiction. For instance in fiction something happens that changes the way the protagonist sees the world, and changes their life. You expect that in a novel, donâ€™t you? You expect the character to go through some kind of huge change â€“ just by the fact that itâ€™s a novel. Iâ€™ve always had the same ambition for nonfiction. Thatâ€™s one reason why the Bob Hare chapter really works. I went in as a sceptic thinking: donâ€™t be ridiculous, youâ€™re not going to be able to spot a psychopath just by their sentence construction and the way that they just seem. By the end of the course Iâ€™d completely changed and Iâ€™d become this kind of evangelical psychopath-spotter. I loved it and thought: if I can make that transition work in the chapter, then the reader will be thinking the same thing. The reader will go from being a sceptic to being an utter believer, so the reader will experience that massive change. And I think that really worked. But of course, as you learn later on in the book, becoming a psychopath spotter has its pitfalls. It can turn you a little bit power-mad yourself.
That was the other nice thing about the book â€“ I felt that I could make the reader go through the same journey I went through, you know, become a power-crazed psychopath-spotter and then come out the other side learning the error of their ways.
It really worked for that, when I was reading it I started to think about people Iâ€™d grown up with or extended family members…
And then by the end of the book were you thinking maybe being a psychopath spotter isnâ€™t all itâ€™s cracked-up to be?
Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the main themes of the book that you end up with is â€˜categorisationâ€™, how it can be hugely powerful. Sometimes itâ€™s very good and useful, other times maybe not so good, but how do you actually tell when it is or isnâ€™t?
Yeah, and as you said at the beginning I had no idea that thatâ€™s what the book would become about. It does mean each time you write a book youâ€™re taking a huge leap of faith, and so is your publisher. You canâ€™t know that youâ€™re going to end up with something that works if you donâ€™t know what the bookâ€™s about when you set off â€“ itâ€™s a bit like the way Mike Leigh makes films, isnâ€™t it? You donâ€™t actually know what itâ€™s going to be about when you set up. But if it works… then that process makes it rich, I think â€“ the sort of organic nature makes it richer.
I guess the most worrying thing that comes up regarding categorisation is when you look at drugs for children, exploring whether we go a bit too far. Drug companies use categories that psychologists have come up with and then they use them in all sorts of ways. Do you see that as being a pretty big problem?
There are certain areas that some people were really hoping Iâ€™d get into in the book â€“ polemicists, who felt really strongly about certain issues. People were saying: â€˜you have to attack Aspergers as a definitionâ€™, â€˜you have to attack ADHDâ€™, you know, â€˜these diagnoses are getting out of controlâ€™. And when I looked at Aspergers and ADHD I just didnâ€™t have the stomach, really, to attack them. I thought: this is way too complicated. For some people, a diagnosis of Aspergers is incredibly useful. So it felt wrong to me to attack those things. But the one place where it seemed like there really was a pretty black-and-white abuse going on was childhood bipolar disorder. In the same way that psychopaths are being diagnosed from a checklist of overt characteristics, kids who have temper tantrums are being labelled bipolar. Because if youâ€™re a three year old in the grip of a temper tantrum it basically seems like an adult with bipolar disorder. So youâ€™re getting kids diagnosed as bipolar and put on anti-psychotic medication because they score highly on a checklist, you know? And all the studies point to bipolar disorder not existing until adolescence.
And the drugs can have severe effects…
Yeah, well theyâ€™re anti-psychotic, itâ€™s powerful medication.
You do a good job of bringing up the issues but not drawing a lot of conclusions from them. Just making people aware.
One of the reviews of my book said that I probably consider drawing a firm conclusion to be a sign of madness. And in this instance I kind of do. I think itâ€™s such a complicated, grey, messy area that going to one pole or the other is just factually wrong. So in a way the book is kind of anti-polemic, itâ€™s anti-ideology. Some people are disappointed. The people who donâ€™t like the book, who are luckily few in number, wish I would draw a firmer conclusion; they wish I would go to one extreme or the other. I just couldnâ€™t do that, if thereâ€™s truth in both camps it would be wrong to ignore one truth in favour of another.
As we were talking about, you bring yourself into the work. I was interested in the stuff about your overactive amygdala and I sort of related to that…
It was overactive just this morning.
Yeah? (Verbally hugs Jon.)
Itâ€™s all over now.
Hope youâ€™re all right.
Iâ€™ve only just tidied it up.
Well, I hope the rest of the day is calm. I was thinking though, I mean at least for me, thereâ€™s another side to this kind of anxiety that… I get myself into doing a lot of things because itâ€™s this agitation. You know, you have this agitation to do things, to find out things. Itâ€™s like thereâ€™s two sides to it. So I was wondering if itâ€™s also one of the things that actually drives you to work as much as it also at times holds you back?
Absolutely, and I think thatâ€™s probably the case with an awful lot. I wouldnâ€™t give myself a particularly big disorder but, you know, people I know who do have big disorders â€“ it can lead you to do really interesting, creative, worthwhile things. My guess actually is, pretty much every successful person is disordered in one way or another. Itâ€™s all some kind of psychological abyss that theyâ€™re trying to fill in.
You know I do think that the people who are very happy to just have a completely ordinary working life, where they donâ€™t have to earn that much but itâ€™s fine because their outgoings arenâ€™t that high, and theyâ€™ve got a nice routine, and theyâ€™ve got a happy family, and theyâ€™ve got a nice hobby on Saturday, they go to the football, you know… those are the people who are probably the sanest. Because they donâ€™t need to have this kind of mad scrabbling around. Iâ€™m a season ticket holder at the Arsenal and when I do that kind of routine thing I find it incredibly calming. Itâ€™s the thing I like the most about my life, the ordinary stuff. And yet, Iâ€™d bet you a million pounds that Richard Branson and all the really, really successful people feel compelled to be that way because of some kind of disorder. And itâ€™s very rarely psychopathy. It could be any kind of panic disorder, or anxiety. Yes, I wouldnâ€™t feel this constant need to sort of do things if I wasnâ€™t so anxious.
Almost the madness/creativity thing?
I think that happens all over the place: madness. That question at the beginning of the book as to whether madness is a more powerful engine in society than rationality? I think thatâ€™s undoubtedly true.
For good and bad.
Yeah, absolutely, for good and bad.
Thank you so much, Jon. I hope the rest of your day is good, and calm.
Jon told me he was off to buy a new printer and chat to the head of TED that evening about possibly doing a talk at the next conference. I look forward to watching that online in the future.
I just want to acknowledge that both Jon Ronson and I are aware that severe anxiety and panic disorders, as well as other mental illnesses and disorders, can be incredibly crippling and inhibiting.
I have two signed copies of The Psychopath Test to give away! All you have to do is leave a comment here, on the Facebook page wall, or on Twitter (tag #madnesscomp) letting me know what your favourite book or film about madness is, and why. The â€˜whyâ€™ part should be 25 words or less. Have your entries in by Friday 28 Oct, 5pm.
photo credit: Barney Poole