The Uphill Slide

There is always something.

Getting to Know You


While searching the shelves of donations to Book ‘Em, I found The Psychopath Test A Journey Through The Madness Industry written by Jon Ronson. I borrowed it. I already had Without Conscience The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, PhD. but had only casually browsed that one. Dr. Hare is well-known for the development of a widely used checklist to diagnose psychopaths. Ronson’s book is eminently more readable. He is not an expert or scientist but a journalist researching the subject. His research took him to Scientologists, institutions housing criminal psychopaths, investigation of unorthodox treatments, possibly psychopathic business leaders and tragically misdiagnosed children among other characters.

When I found Dr. Hare’s book at the thrift store a couple of years ago, I wondered if I knew any psychopaths. How could I? Wouldn’t I know? Yet according to Essi Viding, about 1% of the non-incarcerated population might be classified as psychopaths. With a population of 305,704 in Pittsburgh, then possibly 3057 people might be psychopaths. With the prison population though, Viding declared the figure was about 25%; those are the inmates responsible for more than half of the violence in prisons. Add to those a possibility that some of that 1% may be employed in the prison system. That raises the fear level of violence against an imprisoned family member. Is that cruel and unusual punishment to put inmates into a place with a greater chance of meeting up with a psychopath? But what to do with these inmates who cannot be treated? Are those the figures for juvenile detention centers too?

How do you know if you’ve met a psychopath? Unfortunately, you might have a hard time discerning that in the beginning. They can, it seems, be quite charming; by the time you notice differences in emotions between you and that person, it may be too late to escape the pain of the encounter. Perhaps you should just bail if there’s even an inkling, but then no one’s perfect. Surely that person is not a psychopath. Dr. Hare believes that some in positions of power in the business world may be psychopaths. Should you quit your job if you think your boss is a psychopath? But can you really label anyone as a psychopath without a clinical diagnosis? I suppose it depends on how close you get. There have been articles in the past year by supposed professionals diagnosing public officials with narcissism without a clinical diagnosis. Should we take their warning? If that’s true, then we only get what we want if that is what our narcissistic public officials want. But nobody gets what they want all the time, except maybe the narcissist.

Ronson attended one of Dr. Hare’s seminars and learned the elements of his psychopathy checklist. Then Ronson began to facetiously diagnose people in his life. He suggested that A. A. Gill, a critic who had written unfavorable reviews of Ronson’s work might just be a psychopath. Ronson checked off the lack of empathy for Gill citing a column the critic had written on October 25, 2009 for The Sunday Times. In that column Gill wrote an account of killing a baboon on safari:

I took him just below the armpit. A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger. You see it in all those films. What does it really feel like to shoot someone, or someone’s close relative? (p. 108)

Were these feelings a psychopath might express? Is empathy the same for humans versus animals? Was killing an animal just a substitute for killing a human being? He wanted to understand the feeling of killing and the feelings of a family of a victim. Did that suggest a lack of empathy or a wish to better understand empathy? Would a psychopath even try to understand such emotions? It is a disturbing account for many and got a lot of flak from animal rights organizations. It probably got him more readers too. Writing provocatively can sell newspapers. Eight years later because of Ronson’s mention, I am reading things Gill wrote. He made many such controversial remarks. And one check-off on that psychopath checklist does not a psychopath make.

Professionals in mental health treatment make mistakes and disagree with each other. Ronson was led by Scientologists to Broadmoor in the UK, a psychiatric hospital filled with infamous psychopaths who committed murders and rapes and other violent crimes. Housed in that hospital was Tony (pseudonym) who claimed that he was sane. He committed a crime and decided to feign mental illness to serve his sentence in a mental hospital and not a prison. He said he got ideas of what to say from movies, and he convinced the doctors. Then he realized his mistake and spent years trying to convince the doctors he wasn’t a psychopath. Eventually, he was released. But was he a psychopath? Were the things he said first lies or the things he said later to get a release?

So watch out for psychopaths. And beware of some of those clinicians and doctors with misdiagnosis and prescribing too many drugs. Mental health treatment is vital and has come a long way but is still in the Middle Ages. Treatment for psychopaths and narcissists? Seems not very successful especially considering denial.

Here is to our minds. After meeting Douglas Hofstadter Ronson (2011) shared this:

And then in 1993 his wife, Carol, died, suddenly, of a brain tumor. Their children were two and five. He was left overwhelmed with grief. In I Am a Strange Loop he consoles himself with the thought that she lived on in his brain; “I believe that this is a trace of her ‘I’, her interiority, her inner light, however you want to phrase it, that remains inside me,” he told Scientific American in 2007, “and the trace that remains is a valid trace of her self—her soul, if you wish. I have to emphasize that the sad truth of the matter is, of course, that whatever persists in me is a very feeble copy of her. It’s reduced, a sort of low-resolution version, coarse-grained….Of course, it doesn’t remove the sting of death. It doesn’t say, ‘Oh, well, it didn’t matter that she died because she lives on in my brain.’ Would that it were. But anyway, it is a bit of a consolation.” (p. 25)

Ronson, J. (2011). The Psychopath Test A Journey Through The Madness Industry, New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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