Monday, August 8, 2011

Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test"

This is another book about crazies by Jon Ronson. His interests and his writing style are unique. He loves to delve into borderline crazy people. His previous books on extremists and psychological warfare were fun reads and this one is as well. Purists will complain that there is too much Ronson in the story, but that is part of the charm of his writing style. He puts his enthusiasms and wacko personality into the storyline.

Part of the charm of Ronson is that he can present "the human side" of craziness. He can make eccentrics, or this case, psychopaths seem charming. That is important because we label people and loose the humanity once we pigeon-hole them. In reality, everybody is unique and even in the monsters there is some humanity. A book like this gives you a chance to both broaden and deepen your understanding of the extremes of humanity.

Here's a sample from the book:
Another [psychopath], Joseph Fredricks, was released from Oak Ridge in 1983 and withint weeks attacked a teenage girl with a knife and sodomized a ten-year-old boy. He was released again a year later and attacked an eleven-year-old boy. After being released four years after that, he headed to a mall called Shoppers World, where he abducted and raped an eleven-year-old boy,Cristoperh Stephenson. The boy wrote a note to his parents:

“Dear Mom and Dad, I am writing you this note.”

And then the note stopped.

When the police caught Fredericks, he showed them the boy’s body and said, “He was such a nice boy. Why did he have to die?”
He goes on to document how the penal system's misunderstandings of psychopaths meant they could manipulate the system, be back out on the street, and wreak more havoc. Since Robert Hare's research and his guidelines with the PCL-R, penal systems have been holding psychopaths indefinitely. That is good, but as this book points out, sometimes that means that people get caught in the bureaucratic system and are held even though they are borderline (no diagnostic is 100% and there is no clear demarcation between mad and sane).

Robert Hare's work is important because he's prodded researchers to find a fundamental physical distinction between psychopaths and normal people: they fail to have empathy, react to horror/pain, and have no ability to remember horror/pain. So they end up indifferent to others and see them as "robots" that can be played with. They are repeat offenders because they don't connect the punishment part with crime-and-punishment. Of all criminals, they have the highest recidivism rate.

Here's another bit from the book which I found to be funny, striking, and unnerving:
In the third office I saw a woman with a Little Miss Brainy book on her shelf. She seemed cheerful and breezy and good-looking.

“Who’s that?” I asked James.

“Essi Viding,” he said.

“What does she study?” I asked.

“Psychopaths,” said James.

I peered in at Essi. She spotted us, smiled and waved.

“That must be dangerous,” I said.

“I heard a story about her once,” said James. “She was intereviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.”
Yep. That's the problem with psychopaths. They just don't relate to normal human emotion. They can kill and feel no horror or fear. It just becomes an exercise in dominance and sadistic "play". People like Ted Bundy and Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo are truly dangerous predators. Getting them off the street and behind bars is very important. Understanding psychopaths can prevent people like Karla Homolka from manipulating the criminal system to her advantage.

I don't want to leave the impression that this book is all dark and gruesome. It isn't. It is mostly quirky and fun but with a serious theme running through it and Jon Ronson tries to give fair play to all viewpoints.

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