Interview with Jon Ronson

Posted by Goodreads on December 5, 2011
Jon Ronson is not afraid to put himself on the line for a great story, especially when he gets to venture to the fringes of society. In his first book, Them, he follows extremists of various stripes in a quest to find out why so many of them believe that a shadowy cabal rules the world. His second book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, details the covert attempts of a top-secret military unit to walk through walls and kill goats by just looking at them. Now The Psychopath Test, his latest book, delves into the murky and often terrifying world of psychopaths and the people trained to spot them.

A psychopath is a person who, for whatever reason (a leading hypothesis is an underdeveloped amygdala), displays personality traits including lack of empathy, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and a tendency to lie. Armed with a checklist devised by leading psychopath expert Dr. Robert Hare, Ronson sets out to find the psychopaths currently serving time in the world's prisons, as well as those running major corporations. The Welsh writer and documentary filmmaker spoke with Goodreads about the role psychopaths may have played in the global financial crisis, the perils of psychiatric labeling, and what to do if you suspect someone you know might be a psychopath.

Goodreads: This is your third book about people who at least seem crazy or are driven by some sort of crazy idea. What is it about madness that attracts you as a writer?

Jon Ronson: I suppose what attracts me at the beginning of every story is mystery. I like to solve mysteries, and quite often mysteries occur in the corners of society. Typically in the corners of society, people have this unorthodox way of being and thinking. So I think that's why I often end up with characters that could be labeled mad. This is the first time in my one of my books that the characters have the label of madness, unlike my previous books where it has been the elephant in the room. In this book they are confronting it head on.

GR: You mention labeling, and a lot of the book is concerned with who is mad and who gets to decide who is mad? Where do you stand on the authority of psychiatry? Do you have any sympathy at all with the Scientologists and their skepticism of the specialty?

JR: I was surprised by how people were really desperate on both sides to draw me into their ideology. On the one hand, you have Scientologists and Scientology fellow travelers who really thought that psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry was corrupt to the core and wicked to the core. On the other hand, you have the opposite, which is the psychiatry mainstream. They think they can fix anyone who doesn't believe what they believe, like a Scientologist. Both sides were so keen to get me to reel into their way of thinking. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they're extremely passionate about their point of view or maybe it's because my last book [The Men Who Stare at Goats] got turned into a George Clooney film, and they suddenly thought I was quite influential and wanted me on their side for that reason. In the end I strongly resisted both sides and ended up squarely in the middle, thinking that psychopaths exist. Some people think I'm anti-the Hare checklist, but I'm not. I'd also like to think of the book as a cautionary tale to not reduce people to labels. You have to be more humanistic than that.

GR: Do you think the psychopath mentality played a role in the ongoing financial crisis?

JR: Absolutely. When you look at where the crisis began, it began with the subprime market, which was all about ensnaring people who couldn't afford to pay back the loans. Ensnaring those people with loans to keep them enslaved for life. That strikes me as a psychopathic ideology through and through.

GR: Goodreads member George asks, "In your research and writing, which did you find more disturbing: the psychopaths behind bars or those in the boardroom?"

JR: It is unquestionably those in the boardroom. A criminal, murderous psychopath ruins the lives of a finite number of people—their victims, their families, friends, and their loved ones. A proper high-scoring corporate psychopath can remold society at will. I don't mean to get political, but it really does seem to be true. Think of the suicides, think of the destruction this recent financial situation has caused. If you come to the conclusion that the recent financial collapse is due to corporate psychopathy, it can destroy a generation. So, statistically there are more deaths because of corporate psychopathy than because of serial killer psychopathy.

GR: After writing The Men Who Stare at Goats, you got a lot of questions from people who think they are victims of mind control (enough to make it a FAQ on your website). In reaction to this new book, have readers started asking you whether they are psychopaths or if their loved ones are psychopaths? What has been the reaction from the psychopath community, in so far as there is one, to this book?

ML: Yes, there is one. In fact, I received an email the other day that I posted to Twitter (I got his permission). He said he was a psychopath who was quite sick of being a psychopath, and he was trying to get himself cured. It was quite fascinating. And I've gotten a few emails like that from people saying they are psychopaths. I've had a lot of emails from people saying their uncle, brother, sister are psychopaths. It's probably in the thousands by now. And sometimes you wonder whether they are just trying to shove the person they don't like into a box. And other times it has been very compelling and obviously correct. I never write back to fans to say, "Yep, they are quite clearly a psychopath." Quite often I write back and say, "Thank you so much for getting in touch, but I can't really pass judgment on your boyfriend." But I am secretly thinking, "psychopath."

GR: Goodreads member Adrian asks, "What should we do if we think someone we know is a psychopath? If they are untreatable, what are the steps you can take to deal with it or limit the damage they might cause?"

JR: I think you should be wary. Most psychopaths want no more than to play manipulative mind games with you, cheat on you, or screw you in a workplace environment. The vast majority of psychopaths just want to do that. I think it is important to have the knowledge to spot them and to have that power to be wary. If they're digging inside your head to screw with you, at least you can realize that it is because of their malfunctioning amygdala, at least you won't take it personally. It brings awareness to why they are doing it, and it makes you stronger. This comes from personal experience where people in the past have screwed me, and I wish I would have known then what I know now, which is that I would suspect that they're psychopaths.

GR: Goodreads member Alex asks, "You order the events in your book to have a narrative flow and you put a lot of yourself into the book. Would you ever consider writing a novel?"

JR: I think about this a lot, and the answer is no. Fortunately, I don't have the capacity to make things up. I'd love to because that would mean I wouldn't have to put myself in contentious situations. But I only want to write nonfiction books that have a narrative. There's one exception: I've written a screenplay, which is hopefully going to go to production next year. I co-wrote it with two other people, and I don't think I could have done it without them.

GR: Describe typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JR: I wake up around 7 a.m., 6:30 a.m. if I'm feeling really good, and I wander to the coffee place and buy two huge cups of coffee that will last me all day. In terms of shots, I think it is eight shots of coffee. I then walk back to my home, and the first two to five hours I am good to go. My brain is astonishingly clear, and I write a lot. After that time, I feel tired and want to go back to bed. I am not able to maintain that level of clearheadedness throughout the day. So I do a four-hour stretch. I think a lot of writers are depressed because they have a stretch of time of extreme clarity, and then they are not able to do much for the rest of the day. I think it makes a lot of writers miserable, so I decided a long time ago that I wouldn't spend the afternoons descending into misery. Instead I exercise. I go for an hour run or an hour on the cross-trainer. In the afternoon I really can't do any writing unless I'm forced to, so instead I do research, send emails, and, around 5 or 6 p.m., I stop and watch crap TV.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

JR: Definitely Kurt Vonnegut. When I was 18, 19, or 20, he was a massive influence. But when I read him now—I shouldn't say this because he is a master—it's a bit superficial and slightly Hallmark-y. But back then he was very influential. I love the way he put himself in his novels, and I think I learned from that. I also learned that from Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and P.J. O'Rourke. All those Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy American writers like Norman Mailer, Truman Capote—that whole crowd.

GR: What are you reading right now?

JR: I'm reading Robert Harris's The Fear Index. It's a good page-turner. You get slightly annoyed that he only seems to care about making the plots exciting. Quality dialogue between characters is not highlighted, so people say benign things to one another and talk in clichés. But his plots are unbelievably intense and exciting. I'm also reading a book called Translate this Darkness: The Life of Christiana Morgan. Basically, she was this Harvard researcher who ended up being the muse of this young Harvard psychologist named Henry A. Murray (as well as C.G. Jung), and they had a tumultuous relationship that ended in her suicide.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Claire (last edited Dec 08, 2011 10:31AM) (new)

Claire I really enjoy reading Jon Ronson's articles and loved this book, entertaining while informing, I hope we see more from him, I am sure we will with such a curious nature. Great interview, will post a link to my blog review.

message 2: by George (new)

George Great interview. Thank you for including my question.

message 3: by Barbara (new)

Barbara This should be an interesting book. I'm wondering, though, if there is any difference between a psychopath and a sociopath.

message 4: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Barbara wrote: "This should be an interesting book. I'm wondering, though, if there is any difference between a psychopath and a sociopath."
He addresses this in the book, and quotes a therapist who says the terms are now used interchangeably in her field.

message 5: by Donna (new)

Donna Thompson I appreciate Jon Ronson for his knowing look in his photo and his words to match. I shall read his work.

The Romance Bookie This book was SO interesting! I usually never read anything like this, but it was recommended to me by someone, and so I said, "What the heck!" and picked it up! I feel like I got so much out of it after reading it! In between I just couldn't help going to the person nearest me, "Hey, listen to this..." and reading them out yet another interesting fact, from the book!
Great read, highly recommended!

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