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review: non-fiction

Jon Ronson at the 2009 Toronto International Film FestivalEvan Agostini/The Associated Press

Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs and Michael C. Hall in Dexter are a few examples of Hollywood's perennial fascination with psychopaths. But they are not just cellulose concoctions, they are among us. Bob Hare, the Canadian world expert on psychopathology, assessed 203 corporate professionals and found that 3.9 per cent had a score of over 30 on his checklist - which made them definitely psychopathic. The prison population has an even higher percentage, approaching 25 per cent. Another good reason to avoid jail.

I too, am fascinated by psychopaths, so it was with great anticipation that I began Jon Ronson's T he Psychopath Test. Ronson is a British TV and radio host as well as a humour columnist. He is the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, made into a major motion picture starring George Clooney and the best-selling Them: Adventures with Extremists, a survey of conspiracy theorists, including a group who believed "that the secret rulers of the world are giant pedophile, blood-drinking reptiles from another dimension who have adopted human form."

Ronson is obviously no stranger to controversy, and his journey into "the madness industry" seems like a contemporary version of Alice in Wonderland. At the beginning of his trip, there is even a rabbit of sorts. It comes in the form of an enigmatic puzzle book mailed by a anonymous individual to dozens of leading scientists and academics. One of them asks Ronson to discover the identity of its secret author, who, it turns out, is an academic in Sweden. Douglas R. Hofstadter (author of Gödel, Escher, Bach) helps Ronson in this investigation, and along the way Hofstadter diagnoses the anonymous author as "nuts." Ronson is hooked, madness seems to be everywhere, and in turn he becomes mesmerized by psychopaths.

If this is an update of Alice in Wonderland, then the rabbit hole is in the next chapter, where Ronson, accompanied by a Scientologist eager to debunk psychiatry, interviews a controversial inmate in Britain's notorious Broadmoor Hospital fo the criminally insane. The inmate, named "Tony" to protect his true identity, claims to have been incarcerated wrongly. He says he is perfectly sane, a victim of misdiagnosis. But is he? Is it possible he may be a psychopath pretending to be a wrongly imprisoned normal person?

Ronson decides to get to the bottom of psychopathology. He attends a private teaching seminar delivered by Bob Hare and uses his new-found psychopath-spotting powers to expose a former Haitian death-squad leader and an American business tycoon. Lack of emotion is the pyschopath's most telling giveaway, and Ronson provides some extraordinary anecdotes. In one, a researcher interviews 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." Chilling.

The constant refrain of researchers who study psychopaths is: "Something's missing." At one point, Ronson challenges Hare by citing the opinion of another clinician, who insisted that Hare "talked about psychopaths almost as if they were a different species." Hare angrily refutes the claim but adds, "My gut feeling, though, deep down, is that maybe they are different."

I'll say they are. Consider Hare's previous description of a psychopath from an article in Saturday Night a decade ago. The anecdote is written from the point-of-view of a psychopath who comes upon "an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child's lying on the ground and there's blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down. … You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you're not repelled or horrified. You're just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you're really fascinated by the mother, who's emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother."

Are psychopaths beyond cure? Ronson writes about various clinicians who have tried to rehabilitate them, most notably Canadian Elliot Barker, who devised a bizarre, "Total Encounter Capsule, a small room painted bright green," which he filled with psychopathic inmates at the Oak Ridge facility of Ontario's Penetanguishene, then gave them LSD and had them engage in 11-day marathons of nude group-encounter therapy. Maybe not surprisingly, it didn't work.

But Ronson doesn't linger on psychopaths. He also spends time with conspiracy theorists (one of whom, a retired MI5 spy, becomes a transvestite messiah) and reality-TV producers. It is at this point that he postulates that journalism and madness are intertwined in what he terms "the madness industry." Hence the title.

The journey is sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming and always entertaining. My favourite insight came towards the end, where Ronson writes, "There is no evidence that we've been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what leads us to do rather interesting things." Bravo for Ronson, I heartily concur.

Christopher Dewdney is an author. His most recent non-fiction book is Soul of the World; Unlocking the Secrets of Time.