Whatever You Say I Am

I was saying to a friend, recently, that I'm a lot harder on non-fiction than fiction. Even when I don't wholly enjoy a novel or short-story collection I don't tend to judge it too harshly. I like to talk fiction, move around inside it, make connections. With non-fiction, there's often a thesis in the setup (memoir isn't wholly excluded from this), and that invites critical inquisition of the text, even if the thesis as a whole is solid (see my unhappiness with Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided). That's my theory on how I read, anyway.

The Psychopath Test danced right through all my argumentative tendencies, and stands as a solidly interesting read. Jon Ronson is an extremely talented writer and pure investigator. The Psychopath Test doesn't come from a single thesis, but rather the coalescing of several incidents and interviews that he'd done, which all seemed to make sense together in hindsight. For example, Ronson had interviewed "Tony" in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital for This American Life. Tony was living among serial killers and sex offenders as a consequence of claiming madness to get out of a jail sentence for aggravated assault. The psychiatrists at the time of his sentencing believed the quotes Tony had pulled from violent movies to be his own thoughts, and declared him insane. The NPR interview seemed pretty open and shut when I'd heard it years ago. Stupid kid does something stupid, and follows with stupid plot to Get Out of Jail Free. When he seems sane, the hospital thinks his treatment is working, and says they need to keep him. If he plays insane, he clearly needs to stay as well. Tony is stuck.

The Psychopath Test however, goes a bit further with Tony's story.
Seems Tony's doctors know very well that he faked his way into Broadmoor.
"Tony[...] did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison." [...]It was now the consensus. Tony's delusions --the ones he'd presented when he had been on remand in jail-- just, in retrospect, didn't ring true. [...]"Oh!" I thought, pleasantly surprised. "Good! That's great!" I had liked Tony when I met him but found myself feeling warier of him those past days so it was nice to have his story verified by an expert
However, the action of making up those stories in an attempt to escape prison, as well as many other indications have Tony diagnosed as a psychopath, according to the Hare Checklist.
But then I read Professor Maden's next line: "Most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy."[...]Faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence, he explained, is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you'd expect of a psychopath. Tony faking his brain going wrong was a sign that his brain had gone wrong.

The genesis and applications of the Hare Checklist, named after and created by pioneering psychologist Bob Hare, are ostensibly the main focus of the book. Ronson gives a thorough introduction to the history of the treatment and diagnosis of psychopaths, with pertinent peripheral information about psychiatry/psychology — and its opponents — in general (there's a very interesting chapter on the history of the DSM, which is going into its fifth edition). Ronson then takes the checklist on the road and investigates whether psychopaths are disproportionately represented in the top ranks of corporate executives. The Psychopath Test refuses to have a central thesis, rather Ronson simply and entertainingly reports the facts as he can find them, and the events as they happen. Both Scientologists and psychiatrists are treated with fairness, and neither escape scrutiny. Ronson gives enough of himself, though, to keep the book engaging and avoid being dry recantation of names and dates. This is simply an excellent, well-researched non-partisan look at a specific subset of psychiatric definitions.

When I was in University I took a first-year psychology course as an option. One of the things our professor told us was that we would wind up diagnosing ourselves with all sorts of mental disorders when reading the text book. We were told to ignore this phenomenon (is there a name for it? I never knew), and do our best not to be concerned when we checked off symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, or food related disorders. We were asked to leave naming of our psychoses and neuroses to the professionals. An interesting subtext of The Psychopath Test is how Jon Ronson begins to do just this, as he becomes more knowledgeable. No, he doesn't think he's a psychopath, but he discovers — he thinks — that he's in whatever the exact opposite category is. He's too anxious, too interested in other people, he feels fear more physically*. At the same time, he begins diagnosing random people with psychopathy, after taking one class with Bob Hare. That, if anything, is one of the lingering and more important messages in The Psychopath Test: A little learning is a very dangerous thing.

*It's theorized that psychopaths had a low or non-functioning amygdala. Once Ronson hears about this, he feels his go in to overdrive rather too often.

1 comment:

Just a Lil Lost said...

I meant to read this when I saw the author on Daily Show(?) or Colbert.. looked interesting!

It's going to bug me now.. that "self diagnoses" phenomenon TOTALLY has a name that I can't think of. Was told the same thing in my first & second year psych class.. lol