For my birthday last year, Andy S gave me a copy of Jon Ronson’s missive “How to be a Psychopath”, an examination of the mental illness industry. I fully confess that I added it to my reading list (a pile of books on my desk) and with two moves etc, it got completely forgotten about until I went through my shelves in December and realised it had gone unread. So over Xmas, I made an attempt to get through a few pages a day (in-between all the other paperbacks and comic-books I cram into the average day).

I have to say, I did enjoy Jon Ronson’s (why did his parents choose Jon?) literary style which was surprising as normally I find journalists who write books quite repellent and smug. Jeremy Clarkson, or least the little I’ve read of his stuff is case and point. However, the way in which he was writing about a controversial subject started to worry me. It wasn’t until I got two-thirds of the way in and I thought “wow, this guy is dangerous”. But then again, that’s kind of the point – here’s an unqualified individual pronouncing how fit or unfit other people are solely based on mere observation. And given how loosely organised the mental health sector is, it’s a disturbing thought that there are plenty of people who make such judgements affecting hundreds if not thousands of others.

Having played Batman Arkham Asylum a lot lately, all I can think about are the doctor/patient interview tapes you pick up around the asylum and how incompetent some of the staff are. Truly the lunatics are running the asylum and even the Joker of all people is diagnosed by some with something called “hyper-sanity” where the difference between one’s perception of what we accept as fact and what we observe in our everyday lives is so twisted that one cannot but help but judge the absurdity of it all. Therefore everything is just a joke; one sick, twisted joke. Again, George Orwell was right when he came up with “doublethink”. Bugger it, I’m off to float like a bubble.
Anyway, the book is an entertaining read purely from a literary angle but it’s difficult to grasp the structure and the overall message. It begins with a puzzle and then like a Wikipedia crawl, hops from one topic to another in a logical way…at least at first. Then the subjects get more and more random and the final chapter is scribed in such a haphazard manner – has the author succumbed to madness?

There are some good points to be made though, what we know as “psychopathy” is something that cannot be conventionally treated to the point that society can feel comfortable with said persons freely intermingling throughout society. But here lies the Kafka-like paradox much the same way as the world according to “Minority Report” is. Can we deprive someone of their freedoms based on something they MIGHT do instead of what they HAVE done based on their perceived mental state (as opposed to say a terrorist conspiracy)? And I think he gives [some of the aims of] Scientology a fair shake/cursory examination though it’s a book about mental health rather than that particular group.

I’m surprised there wasn’t more to be made of the earlier interactions humans had with the mentally ill other than a few references to “Bedlam”. There was a lot mentioned post-Freud/Jung but not much pre. I think that would have provided a nice perspective/contrast.

All in all, it’s a worthwhile read and does make you think about one or two things that we as members of society are happy to delegate to “professionals”. But my worry is that Jon Ronson bounced from topic to topic without really getting into the subject, rather scratching the surface and presenting a somewhat facile narrative. Hey, that’s just my opinion. Still, if you want something that’s not going to tax you too much intellectually but continues to challenge your perceptions then definitely give it a glance.

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