Sophie's Reviews > The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
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Jul 24, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, psychology, read-in-2011
Read in July, 2011, read count: 1

This was an interesting one. First of all, I'd like to say that it's a quick and often funny read, quite a feat for a book about psychopaths. I appreciate nonfiction that moves along quickly and makes me laugh. Ronson isn't quite to Bill Bryson-levels of awesomeness, but he's pretty good.

Teal Deer thoughts ahead.

The central question he ends up with is: Are we, as humans, increasingly defining ourselves and each other by our "maddest edges?" I like that question. It makes me think about my own experiences with "the madness industry," taking psychoactive drugs, being labeled as one thing or another. The problem, I think, comes when you try to treat all forms of mental illness as though they have anything in common at all, besides having something to do with the brain. Or when you try to treat psychology and/or psychiatry as a monolith; some people are greatly helped by taking medication while others have been greatly harmed. Some people have found help as a result of getting a diagnosis of mental illness, while others have found it only leads to problems. No two people are going to have the same experience, even with the exact same diagnosis and the exact same treatment.

The chapter on the history of the DSM is fascinating. In some ways it's useful to have a checklist of symptoms in order to make a diagnosis--it removes SOME human judgement from the process. However, there is no way to remove ALL human judgement, no matter how "unbiased" your checklist is. The editor of the DSM-IV, Allen Frances, actually admits that he inadvertently started three "false epidemic[s] in psychiatry": Autism (including Asperger's), attention deficit disorder, and childhood bipolar. It's no coincidence that these three are most often diagnosed in young children, even though bipolar depression, for example, is supposedly something that most often shows up in late adolescence. The author implies that parents are looking for a diagnosis for their "difficult" children, in the hopes that there will be some medication that will help them stop being so "difficult." He even details one case in which the child died when her parents gave her too much of her legally prescribed medication.

Myself, I have attention deficit disorder. I fit all the checklists, and I did when I was a child. But I'm not sure whether a diagnosis would have helped or hindered when I was young. Would it have stopped my parents putting pressure on me to do well in school, only to make me feel like they were treating me as an inevitable failure? Or would they have put me on medication and then continued their pressure for me to do well? (The diagnosis finally came when I was nineteen, and honestly, it didn't change much.) Really, I think the thing that would have helped most would have been a radical restructuring of my education (and the recognition that different ways of learning are not BAD ways of learning), but that wasn't an option and it's rarely an option for children diagnosed with ADHD nowadays.

Sometimes I do think labels like ADHD do more harm than good. Some have theorized that the diagnosis comes out of our strict schooling system and the societal expectations we place on people to be productive and self-disciplined, rather than an actual disorder. Wouldn't it be better to simply figure out better ways to educate children, including those who have trouble concentrating and getting things done on time? I'd rather see the stigma removed from people like me than have a "cure" discovered and implemented.

(I could be wrong, but I think some people in the Autism/Asperger's community feel similarly.)

I find it interesting that the author goes out of his way to point out the culpability that pharmaceutical companies have in perpetuating these "epidemics." That's a big part of my mixed feelings about psychiatry--how do I know whether these drugs are really beneficial when it's of the companies' best interests to push their drugs at any opportunity? Anti-depressants used to be reserved for the most severe cases of depression--now they're commonplace. I'm sure the drug companies have a lot to do with that.

I want to be clear here that I am NOT one of the anti-psychiatry Scientologists Ronson meets in his book. But I think the profession needs to take a hard look at itself and its reasons for doing what it does. I guess I'm saying I have a lot of ~FEELINGS~ about this subject, and this book was good at making me think about them.

I do appreciate that Ronson touched on the socioeconomic factors of mental illness--"I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor [psychiatric hospital] and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family"--and I'm intrigued by the forays he takes into the world of reality tv, where "the right kind of madness" is put on display for our amusement. I think the book takes off into rambling tangents occasionally and the author loses sight of his original questions and reasons for writing the book, but the questions he ends up with are just as interesting, so I don't mind too much.
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Sophie I forgot to mention that the ostensible subject of his book, psychopathy, is still fascinating to me and I'd like to see it explored further, especially the research on lack of amygdala response in those considered psychopaths.


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