Compelling journey into the world of psychopaths

Jon Ronson, author of  The Psycopath Test, at The Auditorium, University of Sheffield Student's Union, in ,the Off the Shelf festival, Oct 17, 2011
Jon Ronson, author of The Psycopath Test, at The Auditorium, University of Sheffield Student's Union, in ,the Off the Shelf festival, Oct 17, 2011

WHEN you key the name Jon Ronson into an internet search engine, up pops “Jon Ronson Psychopath” which might be alarming to anyone other than the author of a book called The Psychopath Test.

“Luckily it is evident I am about as far away from a psychopath as it is possible to be,” chuckles the writer, who is coming to talk about his book at Off the Shelf next week. “I am more likely to be a ready victim of a psychopath.”

In any case one of the things which comes across from the book is that our perception of psychopaths as just serial killers from slasher movies is wide of the mark.

“You always look for a moment when a subject becomes so interesting you will go on a two-year journey to write a book,” says Ronson, whose previous titles include Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats, made into a George Clooney movie.

“That moment came after the psychologist who developed the industry standard psychopath test said to me that while one in 100 of the general population have the attributes, you will find a much higher rate at the top of the tree.”

In other words, captains of industry and high-flying politicans are more likely to be psychopaths – “people who are the very opposite of Hannibal Lecter.”

“For me I am always looking for a journey to go on and so I wondered if I could learn to become a psychopath spotter and go into the corridors of power to stop them.”

With his characteristic wit and wonderment, Ronson takes the reader on a compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness.

On the one hand he meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked mental illness to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, unable to prove his sanity. On the other he confronts Al Dunlap, CEO of the Sunbeam toaster factory, who made jokes at the expense of the workforce he fired and the Mississippi community he destroyed.

Ronson ponders “if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.”

Having investigated the Ku Klux Klan and Crazy Rulers of the World he is used to going into potentially dangerous situations, so did he feel in any danger this time round.

“I feel I am quite careful now, so didn’t come to any physical harm, though possibly mentally,” he says.

In addition to his books, Ronson has made 17 documentaries but has no plans for more. “My kind of ideas aren’t in vogue any more at Channel 4 and I understand why,” he reflects.

“It all seems to be stuff with Big Fat titles about bashing gipsies but they get millions of viewers. The thing that slightly angers me is that some people have taken the format that Nick Broomfield, Louis Theroux and I perfected and used them for shallow peep shows.”

He plans to concentrate on writing books, although he is continuing to work on his Radio 4 series, writing columns for The Guardian and developing an internet series about people trying to control the web.

“The Psychopath book has done well, especially in America, and I want to follow up on that.

“I actually had one of those idea breakthrough moments this morning but I don’t feel like talking about it because someone might steal the idea.”

Jon Ronson and the Psychopath Test is at the Auditorium at the University of Sheffield on Monday.