Billed as ‘a journey through the madness industry’, the book has several narratives. Ronson starts off looking into a mystery which leads him deeper and deeper into the world of psychopaths. He meets them, learns to diagnose them (by using the Hare checklist, a chapter which had us all looking at friends and family with intense scrutiny) and tries to understand them. It’s compelling stuff – finding out about efforts to treat them, and learning how their brains differ from others, has filled several books already. The second half of the book is a series of stories, as Ronson travels all over the world to investigate the way we view, treat and publicise mental illness today.
We all enjoyed it while we were reading it, but still…there was something we couldn’t quite work out.
Maybe it’s the tone. The book is amusing (though never as funny as the reviews made it out to be) and Ronson’s engaging, anecdotal style is easy and enjoyable to read – it’s like having a really interesting conversation in a pub. But in trying to be entertaining he glosses over things, raising more questions than he answers. He’ll write a fascinating chapter and then drop it, never analysing what it really means.
For instance: a group of Americans in the ‘70s faked symptoms of mental illness and were admitted to hospitals when they were completely sane. It’s an interesting story, but what’s the real significance? Doctors can only go on what they are told, and if a patient says she’s hearing voices, the doctor will assume she is. Ronson tells the tale well, but never informs us of what happened afterwards. What did they prove, or accomplish? Did the test affect the psychiatric community in any way? Did they change their diagnostic methods? We never find out.
It was that lack of detail which bothered us – as a journalist Ronson is never going to speak with medical detachment, but there were moments when diving deeper into a story would have been more rewarding than starting a new one.
With members of The Edge of Reading largely being publishing bods, the editing of the book also came under scrutiny – it’s very patchy, with various stories and theories needlessly repeated. It felt as if the ‘blood-drinking lizards rule the world’ theory was mentioned every other chapter, and explanations were often given for things which had previously been explained.
Each story is riveting, and Ronson’s examination of the often Kafka-esque world of mental health is a good read – but as soon as we started really thinking about the book, we found that we stumbled. Read it, enjoy it – but make sure you have someone to talk to about it afterwards.
On a personal note, I’m not convinced. Jon Ronson wants to entertain, and he succeeds, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Mental illness isn’t a subject I can find funny, and I felt that the book often confused psychopathy and other mental disorders. Ronson does a great job of finding the surreal side of a serious issue, but in the end I was left strangely cold. I feel like I missed the point.
…Or maybe I’m just a psychopath.
P.S: Jon Ronson did a TED talk about the book, which is worth a watch. Take a look.