Jon Ronson: Madness of Labels and Journey of Psychopathy


The story starts with journalist Jon Ronson at a friend’s house, leafing through a copy of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Ronson found 12 mental disorders listed in the manual, which used to be a slim pamphlet in the 1950s but has now grown to 886 pages with 374 mental disorders listed. Ronson reflects on the idea that self-diagnosis may not be a good idea and the potential issues with psychiatry labelling normal human behaviour as mental disorders. This experience led him to meet with a group of Scientologists who are critical of psychiatry and their attempts to prove to him that psychiatry is a “pseudo-science” by introducing him to a patient at Broadmoor Hospital who had faked madness to get out of a prison sentence.

Ronson then tried to interview individuals who may be considered psychopaths, reaching out to people from Enron and “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, an asset stripper known for closing down 30% of the workforce in failing businesses. Dunlap agreed to meet with Ronson at his grand Florida mansion, filled with sculptures of predatory animals. Ronson went through a list of psychopathic traits with Dunlap but noticed that he was becoming more “psychopathic” as he desperately wanted to put Dunlap in the box of “psychopath”.


During the interview, Dunlap denied many of the traits and turned them into a positive for himself. For example, when Ronson asked if Dunlap had a superb sense of self-worth, Dunlap replied that you must believe in yourself. Ronson also noted that whenever Dunlap said anything that seemed non-psychopathic, he thought he wouldn’t put it in his book. This realization made Ronson realize that becoming a “psychopath spotter” had turned him a little psychopathic.

Ronson reflects on how journalists often do this, travelling worldwide with notepads and looking for the “gems” or the most extreme aspects of a person’s personality to write about. This can lead to a distorted view of reality, as journalists define people by their “maddest edges” rather than the full spectrum of their personalities.

The discussion also touches on psychopathy and its classification within the psychiatric community. It’s crucial to remember that not all psychopaths fit the stereotype because “psychopathy” is frequently connected to criminal activity and violent tendencies. Many people with psychopathic tendencies succeed in their occupations and may function well in society. Society must comprehend the subtleties and complexity of this condition since there is a widespread notion that psychopaths are necessarily bad or harmful.

Furthermore, Ronson’s experience with Dunlap raises the question of how much we can truly know about someone based on a checklist of traits. The concept of psychopathy is not black and white, and it is important to consider the context and individuality of each person. Using a checklist as a diagnostic tool can be problematic, as it needs to consider the nuances and complexities of an individual’s behaviour and personality.

Overall, Ronson’s talk reminds us to question our assumptions and approach to understanding mental disorders and individuals with psychopathic traits. It highlights the importance of considering the context and individuality of each person rather than solely relying on labels and checklists. It also emphasizes the need for a more nuanced and holistic understanding of mental disorders rather than viewing them as clear-cut and simplistic.



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