Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jon Ronson Tracks Down the Psychopaths Among Us

In his bestselling book “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the British journalist Jon Ronson took on a goofball U.S. military program where officers thought they could be trained to run through walls and to kill goats by looking at them. In his new nonfiction work, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Riverhead, $26), Ronson digs into the creepy world of psychopaths, the psychologists and psychiatrists who study them and the police agencies in the U.S and England that try to keep violent offenders off the streets.

In the past, Ronson has used his signature participatory journalism technique to hang out with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and write about them. In the new book, Ronson takes a course with the psychiatrist Bob Hare, who has invented the controversial and widely used “psychopath checklist” to identify psychopaths. Ronson interviews a Haitian death squad leader in a U.S. prison who wants people to like him for manipulative purposes and a former CEO named “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, who loved firing people. Ronson finds out about a Canadian program that tried to cure psychopaths with LSD and “naked therapy,” but only turned out to be a finishing school for killers. Ronson’s book is both witty and very scary, exploring the twisted minds of murderers, rapists, lying business executives and political leaders who have psychopathic traits.

Ronson, 44, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in London.

Q. What is your thumbnail definition of a psychopath?

A. I think it is no remorse and a total lack of empathy, which are the most important things. Everything follows from that. If you are a violent person, it frees you up to be violent. It frees you up to be manipulative. It frees you up to win the stampede to the top. Psychopaths become CEOs and religious leaders. Their brain dysfunction is the brain dysfunction that rules the world.

Q. How did you structure the book?

A. I didn’t want to write an academic book about psychopaths. I came up with the idea of becoming a psychopath spotter using the Hare checklist. I went and took Bob Hare’s course as a complete skeptic and came out a complete convert. As much as you can turn psychology into a science, Hare has done that with his checklist. The problem was that I became drunk with power. I started seeing psychopaths everywhere--in my literary rivals, in a person giving me a hard time on Twitter.

Q. You interview Al Dunlap, the former CEO who gutted the Sunbeam appliance corporation and took joy in cutting jobs and destroying lives. How did he handle the psychopath test?

A. Dunlap turned a great many things on the psychopath checklist into business positives. Inability to feel a deep range of emotion? “Why get weighed down by emotions?” he asked. A grandiose sense of self worth? “Believe in yourself!” Manipulative? “I describe that as leadership, getting people to do what you want them to.”

Q. What was the 1960s program at Oak Ridge, a Canadian prison, to cure psychopaths?

A. There was this psychiatrist named Elliot Barker who thought that it would be lovely to have his psychopaths, violent men who had committed murder, naked together and off their heads on LSD for days at a time in rooms with no windows. When the men were released, there was carnage. The program had taught the psychopaths how to fake empathy better.

Q. Can you root out psychopaths in society and what do you do when you find them?

A. The answer to the first part is yes, if you do it in a scientifically correct way. The second part is more difficult. Actually, you don’t do anything. You become aware and it gives you knowledge. If you are married to someone who has psychopathic traits, it’s good to have this information on the back burner.

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