Grey areas of madness: an interview with Jon Ronson, on The Psychopath Test
Picador, Australia, 9780330451369 (paperback)
In The Psychopath Test Jon Ronson takes us on 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 Hubbard’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. We 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 he’d had more time in Melbourne and less in Sydney, as it more seemed his ‘sort of place.’ As if I didn’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: I’m trying to write a new book. I’m going through a period of self-hatred. No, that’s not true or fair. I’m going through that period with the new book where I’m trying to figure out how to tell it and what it’s about. It’s sort of exciting. I’m doing a few stories as well. Everything’s good.
I like how that’s how The Psychopath Test begins: you’re following this lead with a mysterious book and you don’t really know yet that you’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 you’re pre-planning everything… surely it’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… I’m quite happy to believe one thing and then completely change my mind back again. I think a lot of journalists don’t like that because it makes them feel like they’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 don’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 that’s how you become involved with some of these groups – like the scientologists – because you’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 don’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 that’s what’s going on. Also, I’m particularly good at empathy. For instance tomorrow, for this new book, I’m meeting the woman who invented PETA. And I’ve been reading some of PETA’s writing and the ALF’s writing and I’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 I’m finding this stuff I’ve been reading incredibly compelling and moving, and I think people like that passion. Some journalists don’t have that passion, but I think I genuinely do feel that passion and I get sucked into these belief systems. I’m sure I get access to people easier because of that. But it’s real, I’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, I’m sure if I read anti-PETA stuff and anti-ALF stuff… This is slightly different because the meeting I’ve got tomorrow is not going to be about PETA, I’m going to try to get them to talk about some significant things they did that is actually completely separate, but I’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, ‘don’t you just hate having to go to the Ku Klux Klan compound? Isn’t that like the worst thing to have to do in the world?’ And I always think, well, of course it’s stressful, but it’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. It’s very convincing, and I can imagine, too, being swept up in it. Then you took that checklist out into the world…
It’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. I’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, don’t you? You expect the character to go through some kind of huge change – just by the fact that it’s a novel. I’ve always had the same ambition for nonfiction. That’s one reason why the Bob Hare chapter really works. I went in as a sceptic thinking: don’t be ridiculous, you’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 I’d completely changed and I’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 – 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 I’d grown up with or extended family members…
And then by the end of the book were you thinking maybe being a psychopath spotter isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be?
Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the main themes of the book that you end up with is ‘categorisation’, how it can be hugely powerful. Sometimes it’s very good and useful, other times maybe not so good, but how do you actually tell when it is or isn’t?
Yeah, and as you said at the beginning I had no idea that that’s what the book would become about. It does mean each time you write a book you’re taking a huge leap of faith, and so is your publisher. You can’t know that you’re going to end up with something that works if you don’t know what the book’s about when you set off – it’s a bit like the way Mike Leigh makes films, isn’t it? You don’t actually know what it’s going to be about when you set up. But if it works… then that process makes it rich, I think – 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 I’d get into in the book – polemicists, who felt really strongly about certain issues. People were saying: ‘you have to attack Aspergers as a definition’, ‘you have to attack ADHD’, you know, ‘these diagnoses are getting out of control’. And when I looked at Aspergers and ADHD I just didn’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 you’re a three year old in the grip of a temper tantrum it basically seems like an adult with bipolar disorder. So you’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 they’re anti-psychotic, it’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 it’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, it’s anti-ideology. Some people are disappointed. The people who don’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 couldn’t do that, if there’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.)
It’s all over now.
Hope you’re all right.
I’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, there’s another side to this kind of anxiety that… I get myself into doing a lot of things because it’s this agitation. You know, you have this agitation to do things, to find out things. It’s like there’s two sides to it. So I was wondering if it’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 that’s probably the case with an awful lot. I wouldn’t give myself a particularly big disorder but, you know, people I know who do have big disorders – 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. It’s all some kind of psychological abyss that they’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 don’t have to earn that much but it’s fine because their outgoings aren’t that high, and they’ve got a nice routine, and they’ve got a happy family, and they’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 don’t need to have this kind of mad scrabbling around. I’m a season ticket holder at the Arsenal and when I do that kind of routine thing I find it incredibly calming. It’s the thing I like the most about my life, the ordinary stuff. And yet, I’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 it’s very rarely psychopathy. It could be any kind of panic disorder, or anxiety. Yes, I wouldn’t feel this constant need to sort of do things if I wasn’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 that’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 ‘why’ part should be 25 words or less. Have your entries in by Friday 28 Oct, 5pm.
photo credit: Barney Poole