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BOOK REVIEWS: ‘PUZZLING PEOPLE’ by Thomas Sheridan, and ‘THE PSYCHOPATH TEST’ by Jon Ronson

Posted on: November 28, 2014

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Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath by Thomas Sheridan

Several months ago I was standing in our local W H Smiths, scanning the bestseller lists, and feeling quietly dismayed to see a book called ‘How To Be A Good Psychopath’ in at No.4.  This came very soon after Channel 4 (here in the UK) had decided to devote an entire evening to telling us that psychopaths aren’t all that bad really, and that they may well be the kind of people we will need in a crisis.  What on earth is all this about? I asked myself, why are we suddenly being asked to not only accept psychopaths, but that we should even aim to be like them!  The answer may well be, as TS points out in ‘Puzzling People’, that we are increasingly heading into a more psychopathic society, controlled by psychopaths.  Where greed and a climate of fear are everything, and it is seen as a weakness to be nice or compassionate.

First off, I would like to take issue with anyone who claims that psychopaths are something we may ever actually NEED in our midst.  Courage and fearlessness are not qualities exclusive to these creatures.  Many “lesser mortals” have it too, in abundance.  I also fail to see how a psychopath would be of any use in a life-or-death situation, simply because they have no concept of caring or loyalty.  Recently released documents from the Cold War era had some silly woman arguing that psychopaths may be needed to rebuild society after the bomb had gone off, at which someone else had roundly pointed out that these creatures are unreliable and untrustworthy, and probably the last damn thing we’d need around us!

Some sensitive, or politically-correct souls, may object to me using the word “creatures” here.  I make no apology.  These people aren’t human, not as we know it, there is a big gaping hole where their souls should be.  In his immensely-readable book, Thomas Sheridan tells it plainly how a psychopath operates.  The psychopaths he is writing about are not serial-killers, these are in fact the ones we may well see around us on a daily basis.  They are the kind of people who may well cause total trauma and misery in their personal relationships, the brutal parent,  the family member who constantly uses emotional blackmail to run everyone else ragged,  the sadistic boss who bullies people at work.  The sort of person who would empty your bank account, run off with your partner, make you ill with stress, and then probably try and make out that it’s all your fault, not theirs, that you’re probably going mad (known as “gaslighting” after the old thriller, “Gaslight”, where the husband tries to drive his wife mad by convincing her she is insane).  The key to a psychopath is that they feel no remorse.  They are incapable of guilt or saying sorry.  It’s simply not in them.

They are constantly on the lookout for victims.  If they target you as one, you may well find yourself being “love-bombed”.  Psychopaths will turn on the charm absolutely.  They will tell you that you are the best thing that’s ever happened to them, and how much they need you.  As soon as they’ve hooked you though, they will be gearing up for their next victim, and you will be left wondering what happened to that charming, lovely person you fell for, who has now been replaced by a vicious, unfeeling robot.  They can be male or female.  Contrary to popular belief, psychopathy isn’t more common amongst men.

If you feel you have ever been targeted by one of these creatures, or you know someone who fits the profile of one, then this book is for you.  It will tell you how to deal with them, how to recover from the trauma they can inflict on your life.  It’s not written in psycho-babble, and will hopefully help clear up any confusion you may have felt for years as to what happened.  I found myself nodding and thinking “yes it all fits” when I read this.  Truly, this book is a life-changer.

‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson

I’ve been a fan of Mr Ronson’s work for many years now.  He’s a journalist who is not afraid to delve into the world of the weird and the wacky.  The Psychopath Test begins like a detective story, albeit one with Dan Brown-type overtones, when a strange, cryptic document is sent to various people all over the world.  Ronson sets out to try and discover who created the document, and why they are sending it out, seemingly at random.  Soon things take on a strange momentum of their own.  He finds himself going to Broadmoor (a high-security prison for the criminally insane in England) to interview Tony, who claims he is sane and is wrongly imprisoned there.

Tony tells Ronson that he faked insanity to get put into a cushy mental hospital, only to find himself being incarcerated in Broadmoor instead, rubbing shoulders with some of the most dangerous men in Britain.  Tony’s quest is to get himself proved sane and released.  Of course it’s not as simple as that.  Tony rated highly on the Psychopath Test, a scale devised by Robert Hare to define who can be technically classed as a psychopath.   The things that at first made Tony’s story plausible, such as his smart suit and charming demeanour, now look highly dangerous and manipulative.

From then on Ronson goes to America to hear about pioneering work that was done into studying psychopathy decades ago, including one where psychopaths were locked, isolated together, in a unit by themselves, fed through straws in the wall.  The idea was to see if psychopaths,  completely denied of their targets, and forced to mix only with each other, would eventually become more human.  Although some did develop more gentler traits, the project was deemed a failure when it was found that 80% of the psychopaths involved went on to re-offend when they were released.

Whilst in America Ronson interviews a ruthless CEO, who fits all the hallmarks of the psychopath.  He agrees to listen to the points Hare lists on the Psychopath Test which define a psychopath (no remorse, superficially charming, highly manipulative etc), but turns all the statements around.  Sort of “yes of course I can be charming/ruthless etc, I’m a boss!”  The psychopath is often proud of their traits.  If people get hurt, have their lives wrecked by their actions, so what?

The most fascinating part of the book for me though was the story of David Schayler, an ex-MI5 guy, who became the conspiracy theorist’s darling when he went public that he didn’t believe the July Bombings were a terrorist attack, but were the work of the government.  In 2007 Schayler went all David Icke, and announced he was the new Messiah.   A dramatic announcement that met with a pretty lacklustre response from everybody.  The most worrying part of this whole story though was that of the woman who had been on the London Underground the day of the attacks, and who refuted the whole power-surge-caused-by-the-government theory.  The conspiracy theorists weren’t having that.  They denounced her as someone who probably didn’t really exist, even when she turned up in person to see them!

Jon Ronson has a long career behind him now of investigating the true oddities in our world, and I’m pleased to see he’s still on top-form.

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