Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Funny serious psychopathy

During the panel session at our Guardian masterclass on science writing, the excellent author M. G. Harris recommended Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. I had already read and enjoyed The Men who Stared at Goats (even though Professor Brian Josephson assures me I gave too much attention to the 'staring at goats' issue in my book Extra Sensory), so had no hesitation on buying this book on M. G.'s recommendation - and it is even better.

The book starts with a mystery - a strange, expensively produced book that is being sent to a number of academics. No one knows what it means, or who has written it. Ronson solves this mystery, which leads him to taking the plunge into what he describes as the 'madness industry'. It might seem this is a subject that couldn't produce much humour, but what Ronson does so well is brings out the essential human funny bits, while not holding back on some of the surprising and sometimes horrific realities.

Whether he is dealing with a man who apparently is in a secure unit because he pretended to be mentally ill to avoid a jail sentence and now can't get out, to the mind-boggling possibility that over a million US children are being medicated for a mental condition that most of the rest of the world doesn't think exists, the book is a wonderful set of revelations, all tied together in an effortless, page-turner style.

Like Louis Theroux on TV, you sometimes get the feeling that the author is being a touch manipulative, telling us just a bit too much of his own anxieties and feelings to get us engaged - but you can forgive Ronson, because these are just such good stories, so well told.

Is it all true? You could almost say some of this stuff is so weird you couldn't make it up. I think it probably is, even if coloured a little to make the story tell well. Take the plunge and you will meet some fascinating and scary people, understand a lot more about why mental health issues are so difficult to deal with (anything that is diagnosed by the percentage score on a checklist is, at least, worrying) and realise that whether you love or hate psychiatry, there were some prejudices you had that were wrong. Oh, and there are even Scientologists. (Who really hate psychiatry.) What's not to love. Great holiday reading.

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