As with most diagnoses, this book contains good and bad news. First the good news: Jon Ronson’s journey through what he calls “the madness industry” is a lively, engaging and often funny piece of work. The bad news: Canada appears to be overrepresented when it comes to stories about psychopaths.
Ronson is well-known to British audiences as the wry host of TV and radio shows, and as a humour columnist. Canadians will be more familiar with him as the author of the book behind the 2009 George Clooney comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats. His latest effort looks at the meaning of madness and its effect on the “normal” world. Ronson begins by investigating the origin of a cryptic book sent anonymously to scientists around the world. After solving that, he visits an inmate who faked insanity to avoid prison, only to be permanently locked up in a mental hospital for being too convincing. He spends time with conspiracy theory nut jobs, Scientologists, reality TV show producers, and psychologists and other academics—all of whom display varying degrees of madness. So what does “abnormal” really mean?
Of particular interest to Ronson are psychopaths—those among us who lack the capacity for empathy or meaningful emotional connections. It’s estimated that perhaps one per cent of the population is so constituted, although some claim that figure is higher among corporate leaders and career criminals. UBC psychology professor emeritus Robert Hare, who invented a checklist for psychopaths, figures prominently. Later, imbued with the power to spot psychopaths, Ronson finds he goes a bit mad himself.
Additional Canadian content in Ronson’s assessment of the madness industry includes the disastrous Oak Ridge institution experiments of the 1960s. At a maximum-security mental hospital in Ontario, convicted psychopaths were given a steady diet of LSD, subjected to bizarre socialization rituals and then declared cured. Some reoffended within days of being released. A variety of familiar criminals, including Karla Homolka, also make cameo appearances. So do Canadians have a greater tendency toward madness? Ronson isn’t saying. He’s too busy trying to stay sane.