First published on 4 Oct 2011. Updated on 5 Oct 2011.
I meet Jon Ronson in the foyer of his hotel. He's the kind of person you instantly want to spend time with. Coming forward with a slightly geeky energy and introducing himself with a big smile and genuine enthusiasm it's easy to work out why so many fundamentalists, radicals and, well, psychopaths have agreed to talk to him over the years - it's hard to imagine saying no to the man. He claims severe jet lag but seems in fine form, making jokes over coffee.
Jon is here to promote his latest book The Psychopath Test at The Wheeler Centre, as well as appearances on Q&A and The 7.30 Report. In the book, Jon investigates the PCL-R, a test that psychologists have developed to identify psychopathic tendencies. As a man who probably feels altogether too much generalised empathy, remorse and anxiety, Jon is understandable fascinated by the idea of a person who feels none at all. “It was like, my anxiety versus the psychopath’s total lack of anxiety, we’re like neurological opposites.”
Testing with the PCL-R test has led to some psychologists theorising that as many as one in 100 people out in society have psychopathic tendancies – a worrying thought, especially for Ronson. His appearance at the Sydney Opera House was in front of 1400 people. "So one in 100, that’s 14 people. And you have to assume there would be more, because surely psychopaths enjoy going to talks about psychopaths." So that's 30 psychopaths in attendance - carnage!
In fact Jon has interviewed dozens of psychopaths and potential psychopaths in the researching of his book. If this sounds like a scary prospect, it’s par the course for Jon who has put himself in any number of terrifying scenarios in search of a great story. For his book Them: Adventures with Extremists he spent time with white sepremacist group Aryan Nations. “They surrounded me, all these kind of psychotic skinheads surrounded me and they started asking me if I was Jewish. They asked for my genealogy. Mind you, I did go past all the signs on the way that said JEWS NOT ALLOWED, so I did think to myself, if I die, it’s kind of my fault. So there’s that.”
“Then, when I was being chased by the Bilderberg group I felt totally out of my depth. I really thought I was going to die… For days they were following me, hiding behind pillars. I mean, for fuck’s sake!”
“Also, I was in Seattle recently, with this guy called Pheonix Jones, a real life superhero. He’s the best. Anyway he took me to confront some crack dealers at 4am. They were going, “If you don’t get off our block” and they were like pointing to their waist-lines. I really thought I was going to die.”
Each story is hilarious, and delivered in a deadpan British accent by a man who in no way looks like a thrill seeker. “I’m not one of those adrenalin junkies, even though I always write about dangerous things. I always remember meeting a journalist who was like a kind of war reporter who told me he only feels like himself when he’s in a war. I feel least myself when I’m in a war!”
Ultimately the danger is merely a byproduct of what really interests Jon, which is us. “Why do people behave in the inexplicable ways that they do?” he asks at one point. Whether those people are extremists, psychopaths or even his family, Jon writes to try and make some sense of the ‘Wrongness’ in people that can make them so terrible or just so terribly human.
“I often think the two things are kind of weirdly similar. I wanted to explain to people that this madness which is happening a million miles away in Them, and Goats and The Psychopath Test is actually not that different from the craziness that infects our lives on a daily basis. The fights with our neighbours and our parents and our kids. These are similar sort of bubbles of irrationality, little mini-madnesses, so that’s why I deliberately started writing about these kind of things.”
Goats is of course The Men Who Stare At Goats, Jon Ronson’s book, and now a wildly popular George Clooney film. In the book Jon uncovers a top secret military operation to train psychic spies who could walk through walls and kill goats with the power of their mind. I asked how the army generals and experts he interviewed felt about seeing his interpretation of their work. “Oh, they hated it. Almost everyone in the book hated the book. I’m always really happy when the people I write about really like it, but in the case of Goats, most people were really unhappy and it was really difficult. And then, suddenly, there was news that Goerge Clooney would be making the movie, and everyone was suddenly delighted with me again. I wish George Clooney would come and fix all my troubles!”
So far the reaction to The Psychopath Test has been far more positive. Jon has received enthusiasm for the book on all sides from all corners – from committed and diagnosed psychopaths, from proponents of the PCL-R test, even from the anti-psychiatry Scientologists. “Oh, the Scientologists are happy with the book, I believe,” Ronson reveals happily. “Well they certainly haven’t conspired to destroy me. In fact they must be happy because I just got an email from them inviting me to their big party in October, but I’m not going to go, because I have a thing on.”
I ask Jon if he has a side to take on the issue of mental health treatment – is he a skeptic or a true believer? Ronson’s position is a nuanced one. Although his book clearly identifies problems and potential abuse risks with the very idea of a checkbox test for psychopathy, he does stress that after his research, he believes it’s generally pretty accurate. The psychopaths are out there and they are at large. “I don’t want to be a mental illness denier. I find mental illness deniers really annoying. There’s this kind of thesis that anxiety disorders don’t really exist because we live in an anxiety-inducing world, but anxiety disorders do exist, plainly, and to say otherwise... it’s as bad as saying that 9/11 was an inside job.”
Perhaps most interestingly, Jon explores the idea that far from being punished, psychopaths generally thrive in our market-driven world. In the book he goes to meet Al 'Chainsaw' Dunlop, a “turnaround specialist” who made a fortune by ruthlessly downsizing companies into profit in the 1990s. Could a man like Dunlop be a psychopath? And if so, what does that mean for the corporate world that feted him?
Well the case of Dunlop is an altogether trickier proposition, Jon thinks we’re right to be alarmed about the ruthless evolution of corporate culture. “The American health insurance industry. That’s an example of an industry that for some reason has become completely psychopathic, where they have conspired to basically make money at the cost of human life, in a kind of cunning, manipulative way.”
“My guess is that a few well-placed psychopaths have become so alluring that lots of non-psychopathic people feel compelled to behave in that way. Whether it’s to swim and not sink, that you have to be like that to stay afloat. It’d be really interesting to do a case study to find out if the health industry was like fair and lovely until someone turned up who was a complete cunt, who made everyone start being a cunt. It’d be really interesting.”
More of Jon Ronson’s work, including his fantastic radio work, can be found at his site.
The Psychopath Test, Picador