Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Testing Psychopaths


Recently finished reading Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Test. It will be the next book up for discussion at the Croydon Waterstones Book Group. I am looking forward to what others think because I am having a difficult time with it.
Centred on a questionnaire that is used to determine where somebody is a psychopath we follow Jon around various institutions, prisons, conference centres and coffee shops.
I heard Jon Ronson speak at World Book Night, and he is a cracking performer. But the book annoyed me in the end. His approach feels like something from the ten years ago, the ‘Investigative Innocent’. It works like a kind of Anti- John Pilger. Basically the journalist hangs around with people who are famous, self-styled experts, or obviously deluded. It works best if they are all three. Then ask nice reasonable questions in a non-threatening way. This is why I suspect it plays well in Britain, when deployed against brasher, more outspoken cultures.
For me the investigative innocent began with Nick Broomfield in ‘The Leader, His Driver and the Drivers Wife.’ For TV this approach has been dragged to the depths by Louis Theroux. So much so it is hard to imagine there are any weirdo’s left in American prison that have not been visited by some cheery British ingĂ©nue.
A similar approach to lighter subject matter is used by Tim Moore in Revolutions, Dave Gorman or Jonathan Randell in Twelve Grand. In these books an average middle aged white male (normally a journalist) decides to follow some whimsical journey. Later there is an effort hammer a level of profundity into the outcome.
It would be unfair to suggest Jon Ronson is a copyist. He has been at this genre for some time. He is one of its best. But the Psychopath Test feels derivative and dare I say, pointless.
 Nick Broomfield’s film was so powerful not just the approach was fresh and new. But also there was a point. At that time Eugene Terre'Blanche was the leader of an organisation that threatened to drag South Africa into a bloody civil war. By the time the like of Louis Theroux got to him he was seen as a buffoon, an irrelevant side show. Nick Broomfield was the one who unmasked him. There was a point. The innocent investigative tactic worked.
The main gripe with the Psychopath Test is that it was hard to see the point. There were some brilliant interviews, some really interesting history. There were some worthwhile thoughts on the dangers of labelling people, the pressure from Big Pharma and media interest in the deluded. There was some limited and inconclusive exploration of whether there are psychopaths in senior corporate roles.  But apart from an engaging whimsical journey was there a point?