Interview: Jon Ronson - The Psychopath Test
Author on madness, public appearances and panicking unnecessarily
This article is from 2011.
During his career, he’s met a sports commentator who believes giant lizards rule the world and encountered Christians who donate human kidneys for Jesus. In his new book Jon Ronson learns the skills for spotting psychopaths. Brian Donaldson wonders whether it’s all getting to him a bit
Jon Ronson is speedily picking his way through a tiny plastic tub of pretzels. ‘Wasn’t it a pretzel that George W Bush nearly choked on?’ I say, a little worried that Ronson might suffer the same terrifying experience right in front of me in this quiet ‘green room’ in Stoke Newington town hall. ‘Mmhmh, yeah,’ Ronson manages to say as he chomps at another snacklet and then, quite unexpectedly, tips the pretzels onto the table so he can get easier access to the litter of salt lying on the bottom of the container.
Downstairs in the main auditorium, local MP Diane Abbott is officially opening the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Soon, Ronson will appear on stage to talk about his most recent book, The Psychopath Test, though not before he has tweeted about Professor Richard Wiseman – author of Quirkology and Paranormality – who is using slides during his performance, in which he aims to prove that ‘sightings’ of ghosts are almost always totally bogus.
‘I’m on next. I wish I had a slide show. I can’t follow a slide show,’ announces Ronson to his followers. Possibly 30 seconds later: ‘They’re loving his slide show. He’s showing clips. I’m fucked. This is like going on after All Media. My tongue’s swelling up.’ After the event he will tweet @StokeyLitFest that, ‘I was, unusually for me, panicking unnecessarily.’
If Ronson’s writings are to be believed, he is constantly in a state of high anxiety or at least some level of discombobulation. Early on in The Psychopath Test he admits to feeling a surge of fear when he is abroad on an assignment and trying to call his London home. When no one replies, he will immediately picture unspeakable horrors happening to his wife, Elaine, and his son, Joel. Then he will finally get through and all will be well, until the next mini rush of panic.
When The Psychopath Test came out in May, he heard that Will Self was due to review the book for The Guardian. Ronson was positively beside himself. ‘My first thought was, “Well, that’s me fucked.” And then I thought, “How terrible that all these people are liking the book yet Will Self is going to turn up in the middle of it and ruin everything. Well, you know what, I’m going to email Will Self and I’m going to say to him, ‘It’s your prerogative to give it a bad review, but I want you to know that lots of other people like this and I think it’s a terrible shame that you were given the opportunity to write the book’.” And then of course he wrote his review and liked it. So yet again, I was panicking unnecessarily.’
The book features a gallery of vivid individuals, such as Al Dunlap, an American businessman who has made a fortune thanks to a ruthless streak which has allowed him to shut down companies and put workers on several scrapheaps, seemingly without a shred of empathy (a classic psychopathic trait, that).
Then there’s David Shayler, the former MI5 officer who blew the whistle on a plot to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi before fleeing into hiding, emerging later to announce himself as the new messiah before reinventing himself as a transvestite called Delores. Most troubling of all, we meet Tony, a man who faked his own madness to escape a prison sentence for serious assault, only to be shipped off to Broadmoor where he spent the next 15 years. Once locked up, he got busy attempting to convince people of how normal he is (loads of psychopaths do that).
Meanwhile, Ronson learns the Robert Hare checklist with the 20 personality traits which can help to build up a definition of psychopathy. Quickly scanning the checklist for the first time, Ronson spots two or three that immediately apply to him. Later, he will go on Hare’s course, which gives people an insight into what constitutes a psychopath and, more excitingly, passes on the skills for them to be able to spot one from a relatively safe distance. What may have pleased Ronson in Self’s review more than anything was this: ‘Let me state for the record: at his best, Ronson is one of the finest comic writers working today … Ronson achieves a gag-rate that puts him on a par with that master nebech Woody Allen.’
The fact is Ronson is extremely amusing. No matter the subject he has investigated down the years (whether it’s David Icke proclaiming the Royal Family to be giant child-eating lizards in human form or former pop impresario Jonathan King being jailed for abusing boys or Dave McKay the Jesus Christian behind the donation of human kidneys in the name of their saviour), he has been able to find the funny detail in a person’s behaviour or statements or beliefs.
But all this looking for the silliness in sinister people, does it not have the danger of being a little contrived, especially when a deadline is looming? ‘I think all you can do is be as moral and as humane as you can because if you don’t do it, if you write about ordinary boring people, readers and commissioners don’t like it,’ says Ronson. ‘I did a piece about the Alpha Course and I was cautious to show people as being normal and nice, and it did kind of badly, because we’re so used to seeing crazy, fragile narcissists on TV for our entertainment. Just look at The X Factor and the roll call of the deluded, especially last year when they had a bunch of autistic people with a sex worker in the middle.’
Ronson is pleased with his book, especially pleased that it seems to have gone down better with women than previous books, such as The Men Who Stare at Goats, a more ‘niched work’ that was later turned into an unlovable film starring George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges with an Americanised Ewan McGregor in the Ronson role. ‘Women,’ Ronson says, ‘enjoy the fact that I’m talking about my own anxieties in the book and I think they’re also interested that I’m talking about psychopaths because psychopaths might … kill them. So I think they like being forewarned.’
When we met at the beginning of June, Ronson insisted that his appearance in Edinburgh would be the only bit of non-leisure time he had pencilled in for August. ‘Because I get so anxious about malingering, what I know will happen is that for three days I’ll feel so guilty that by August 4th I’ll be back working. I’m better than I used to be because I’ve got my iPhone and I check that now and again, which allays my anxieties.’ Does all this make you difficult to be on holiday with? ‘I like to go for brisk walks and my family don’t, they just want to sit by the pool so sometimes we argue about that. But this summer is going to be different. I’m going to be amazing on holiday.’
Jon Ronson, Charlotte Square Gardens, 24 Aug, 4.30pm, £10 (£8).