I think I missed the memo on the season of goodwill. This month my reading has been less about peace and festive feeling to all mankind and more about the horror that can lurks in the minds of men. And women, to be fair.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson started me off. Jon (who also wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists) returns to his pet subject – that much-debated tipping point where eccentricity becomes genuine madness – this time looking at the nuts and bolts of madness from the business end. How do we define a psychopath and is there any place for them in society? In fact, is being a psychopath a hindrance or an excellent business trait to have? And how can we stay assured of our own normality when we are increasingly being defined by our maddest edges?
The book isn’t a dry treatise but a lively international exploration; jumping from interviews with Scientologists to showdowns with CEOs who display more than a touch of the psychopath themselves; bantering with Tony, a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but now can’t get out of there; studying psychopathy with Bob Hare, the psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test that put Tony behind bars.
It’s a thoughtful-provoking subject but Jon writes with a sense of humour and an eye for the absurd that makes this book an easy and enjoyable read. The Psychopath Test been out for a while and already devoured and dissected by the media but don’t feel you’ve missed the boat. The good news is that, if you haven’t already read it, the paperback coming out in January will drop the price to an eminently grab-able $18. If you’ll forgive the terrible pun, you’d be mad to miss it.
Set off by the this, I ended up re-reading Crazy Like Us, which examines how differing cultures and societies intrepret madness and specifically how the West’s dominance in many forms of medicine and mainstream culture means it is effectively exporting its own views on madness. Ethan Watters argues that America, as the world leader in generating new mental health treatments and categorising disorders, has started to define mental illness and health both at home and abroad and in doing so has changed the mental illnesses themselves.
Examining everything from how marketing for Paxil sought to actively stigmatise depression in Japan to the “contagiousness of mental illness” (using the hysteria that afflicted thousands of women during the Victorian era as an example), Watters puts forward a fascinating argument that will make you re-examine everything you already think about mental health and mental illness.
This last one isn’t non-fiction, but I couldn’t resist the chance to snap up a Stephen King I had somehow missed (got to love a writer so prolific he can occasionally surprise me with a book I haven’t read yet). Desperation follows the King classic formula – take a diverse group of people, stick them in a creepy spot (in this case, Desperation, Nevada – billed as “not a very nice place to live and an even worse place to die”) and add nothing but trouble and watch as they all go mad.
Complete with some of the usual King characters (Alcoholic writer? Check. Child wise beyond their years? Check.) and a disturbed and disturbing villian (a looming and psychotic cop who prowls “the loneliest road in America” rounding up innocent motorists to imprison and kill) the town of Desperation is set to become the battle ground for Good vs Evil. And Evil seems to be holding all the cards…
It’s a classic King formula but one that that he uses for a reason – Desperation works. Wonderfully. It’s by turns terrifying and heart-breaking, and will have you cancelling your road-trips for the forseeable future and checking the eyes of any law enforcement you meet for the tell-tale signs of madness. And checking your own while you are at it…