How can you tell if you, or someone you know, is a psychopath? Reading Jon Ronson’s superbly entertaining exploration into the way we catalog each other and the benefits and dangers inherent in affixing labels to people, I found myself doing exactly what Ronson describes himself doing the first time he picked up the DSM-IV–I started diagnosing myself and worrying about the contents of my own head. Luckily, by the conclusion, I felt reassured that I was probably fine, but the question remains: if I can’t be sure about myself, how easy is it to be sure about someone else? And what’s the cost of being wrong?
Ronson’s stories and the portraits he presents of the people he interviewed are quite compelling reading. There’s Tony, who is stuck in an institution for violent psychopaths but maintains he isn’t insane and that he claimed to be so only to escape his jail sentence. The trouble is no one believes him, because psychopaths apparently never want to admit they’re insane, too. Then there’s the former CEO of Sunbeam, who may have had a bit too easy of a time firing people, and a man goaded into coming up with insane sexual fantasies by an undercover police officer hellbent on proving he’s a murderer.
As a librarian with a professional interest in the idiosyncrasies of the cataloguing process, I was fascinated to read the chapter detailing the history of the DSM itself. While I don’t follow Ronson all the way down his path, I am overall sympathetic to the point that all systems of categorization are flawed, the people behind them often full of strange prejudice (just look at Melvin Dewey! that guy was a total jerk!), and the application of any given taxonomy to the complicated stuff of life is never an exact science.
But make no mistake — this book is fun reading. I was engrossed and fascinated the whole time, and I adored the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of Ronson himself.
This is some well done pop nonfiction, and I’m definitely going to read The Men Who Stare at Goats. Highly recommend this one.