I liked it very much. Ronson’s style of writing is easy to read and often laugh-out-loud funny, although there are parts of the book that also made me gasp in astonishment. Don’t get it expecting to read an academic study on psychopathy (as some people who have reviewed the book on Amazon.com appear to have done, and who are then pissed-off to find it’s not). It’s not that at all. It’s more an exploration of some of the ways in which humans can behave, for better or worse. His jumping-off point is the strange story of a mysterious book: Being and Nothingness by an author Joe K (not Jean-Paul Sartre) copies of which were sent, out of the blue, to a number of neurologists and other academics. Ronson is invited by one of the recipients to get on the trail of who was behind the book, and along the way becomes intrigued by what defines mental illness.
From there he meets Tony, an inmate of Broadmoor (one of Britain’s three high security psychiatric hospitals) who claims that he faked a mental disorder in order to get a lighter sentence, but who is now stuck there, because nobody believes he is sane.
At the end of his book, Ronson returns to the story of both the mysterious book and Tony. Along the way, he meets many people involved in the “madness industry”; those who define the various labels of madness, those who wear the labels and those who use the label-wearers to make a living.
I found chapter 8 – The Madness of David Shayler – the saddest. Partly because it tells of the impact on Rachel North, who survived the Kings Cross bombing of 7/7, only to discover that conspiracy theorists claimed that there were no bombs and that she herself was a government mouthpiece who had been tasked with disseminating disinformation. And partly because it tells of the journey of David Shayler from being a former MI5 security officer to someone who believes that he is the Messiah. Ronson charts the degree of media interest in Shayler and concludes:
David Shayler’s tragedy is that his madness has spiralled into something too outlandish, too far out of the ball park and consequently useless. We don’t want obvious exploitation, we want smoke-and-mirrors exploitation.
At the heart of the book is the Hare PCL-R Checklist, used to identify psychopathic traits. Ronson meets Bob Hare, the inventor of the checklist, on a number of occasions. The checklist becomes a leitmotif in the book, with Ronson musing on particular checklist items whilst describing the behaviour of those he meets, or even whilst describing his own behaviour and thoughts.
It’s a good book.