I was absolutely engaged by this book--kept me hoping for more from beginning to end, and though it's written with verve and enthusiasm, although perhaps a bit too breezy from time to time, it never quite lives up to its promise, or, in fact, the startling possibilities of its unsettling premise. That premise is stated succinctly on page 112 (of my Kindle edition). Drawing heavily on the pioneering work of Bob Hare, Ronson provides us with a tentative answer to some of the most perplexing we face in life: "Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths. That part of the brain that doesn't function right....We aren't all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They're the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond."
I audibly gasped when I read that paragraph because it seemed like so much common sense. Our world is as screwed up as it is not because of global warming and corrupt political systems, but because the individuals running it, economically, politically, and socially, are irresponsible, self-absorbed, selfish, egotists who have a grandiose sense of themselves and care little or nothing about the impact of their decisions and actions on others. They have virtually no sense of empathy and are generally pathological liars. They are impulsive and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Usually, they demonstrated behavior problems early in their lives and have conned and manipulated their way through it.
These are a handful of the 20 items on Hare's Psychopathy Check List (PCL) which was first published in 1991 and has been translated into a dozen languages and has been the subject of many conferences, scholarly articles, workshops, seminars, books, and is generally regarded as the diamond standard of the profession. It has its detractors, of course, and though Jon Ronson touts it mightily throughout his "journey through the madness industry," even he has some reservations drawing the line between normal and psychopathic behavior.
The problem is that our society, especially certain elements of it, reward may of these traits. Corporate executives, for example, who devastate the employees of the companies they manage, and in fact even "enjoy" firing them are awarded large bonuses because profits matter more than people in much of the corporate world. Taking care of number 1 is an American virtue, and the novelist Ayn Rand built a reputation telling her readers how noble selfishness is, just as the 80's hit film, Wall Street made a mantra from the phrase, "Greed is Good."
Had Ronson stuck to his central idea and focused on helping us to understand how psychopaths have screwed up the upside-down world we live in today I think he would have produced a major work with universal application. While he does cross several fields (usually providing one or two examples from each) he could
have given us a wider range of examples that don't differentiate much between serial killers and business fraudsters (Hare remarks "Serial killers ruin families...Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.")
As it is, the book seems to flit around from one subject to the next with less cohesiveness than it should have. Ronson flies to Germany to follow up leads, haunts the halls of mental institutions, interviews many Scientologists (who have an ax to grind against psychology and psychiatry). On the one hand, psychopaths are responsible for all the world's woes; on the other, he questions whether they really exist at all. He rehashes many of the critiques of the psychiatry DSM-IV volume which underscore how virtually impossible it is to accurate describe any aberrant behavior--then reminds us that the manual says nothing at all about psychopaths.
This book is a valiant effort, and I think Ronson is on to something. But like Einstein's search for a unifying theory of physics, a unifying theory of destructive human behavior is still a bit beyond our grasp.