It was an early October evening and I was meeting Jon Ronson for coffee in a coffee shop near my home in South London. The coffee shop was painted in the calming hues of a South London coffee shop. Jon Ronson was a quite pale-looking man with spiky yellow hair and John Lennon-style granny glasses of the type associated with John Lennon, through which he gazed at his cappuccino coffee as he stirred it with the plastic utensil provided. His lack of resemblance to Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a fictionalised version of Jon Ronson in the film The Men Who Stare At Goats based on Jon Ronson’s bestselling book The Men Who Stare At Goats, was quite marked.
I made a note in my notepad. Jon Ronson bears a quite marked lack of resemblance to Ewan McGregor. I would have to make sure to include that observation in the article I would be writing about the interview afterwards.
I was here to speak to him about his recent book, The Psychopath Test. ‘How did the idea for the book come about?’ I asked.
Jon Ronson shrugged and glanced at the floor for a moment. ‘Well, I’d written a few articles on the subject for some colour supplements, and I thought, why not pad them out and make a book of it?’
‘When you say articles on the subject, you mean –‘
‘Psychopathy,’ he said. ‘Well, madness in general. Well, things to do with madness. In general.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘Because I couldn’t help noticing, reading the book, how little of it was actually about psychopathy’. I pronounced the word ‘about’ in italics for emphasis.
Jon Ronson stirred his coffee. ‘You think so?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of the book's eleven chapters, only four could reasonably said to refer to the psychopathic condition. Two chapters are about a Norwegian sending out copies of a book as a kind of cryptic experiment. One chapter is about a man who ran a toaster company who you conclude is not a psychopath. Another is about a woman who used to book people for talk shows. There’s also a chapter about David Shayler, who is undeniably loopy but clearly not a psychopath, a chapter about a failed psychological profiler who you keep on comparing to Cracker, and finally there’s a chapter about the increasing medicalisation of behavioural non-conformity.’
Jon Ronson shrugged. ‘Yes. I thought there was an important book to be written about the subject of how various behaviours which are mildly eccentric are now labelled as conditions which have to be treated with drugs.’
‘And you thought you’d write that important book?’
‘No,’ said Jon Ronson. ‘I thought I’d get all the people who wanted that book to buy mine instead.’
It all started in the late 1990’s. Jon Ronson realised that as a journalist, he could get paid twice by repackaging articles written for colour supplements and TV and radio shows into books. For his subject, he chose people who were in some way mentally ill or very eccentric. He would throw in a few psychology-related facts towards the end of each article in order to make it look like something more than merely an exercise in exploitation, and would make sure that at least twenty-five per-cent of each article would not be about the interviewee but would instead concern itself with Jon Ronson’s favourite subject - Jon Ronson.
‘So you didn’t enjoy my book?’ asked Jon Ronson between sips of his coffee-shop coffee.
‘No, it was very readable,’ I replied as I looked up from my notepad. ‘It’s just that – ‘
‘It’s just that it reminded me of those BBC documentaries, where it’s all about a celebrities’ ‘journey’, where they do the narration while driving a car across America, on their way to interview various scientists and academics and other celebrities, where the whole documentary ends up not being about whatever-it-was the celebrity was trying to find out about, but instead being about how the celebrity feels about whatever-it-was they were trying to find out about.’
‘And you have a problem with that?’ said Jon Ronson, putting the final word into italics quite aggressively.
‘I know what else it reminded me of’. It was no good. I had to say it. I couldn’t hold it back any longer. ‘It’s like reading a novelisation of a Louis Theroux documentary.’
Jon Ronson looked at me coldly, as if I’d hit a sore point. I’d clearly hit a sore point. I remembered too late that his book had contained a mere half a page on the Coalinga Mental Hospital, when Louis Theroux had done a whole documentary about the same subject.
I paused in my interview for a moment of self-analysis. Had I gone too far? I remembered, in italics, the Hare list that Jon Ronson had quoted extensively and quite repetitively throughout the book. Item 5: Self-absorption. Item 9: Gratuitous repetition Item 10: Blatant padding Item 15: Gratuitous repetition
I made another note in my notepad. Break up interview scene with factual asides, even if they’re just mindlessly repeating what I’ve said before.
It was in the late 1990’s that Jon Ronson realised that being a journalist wouldn’t be enough. He would have to be a brand. And therefore he would make sure that at least twenty-five percent of every article he wrote would be concerned with his favourite subject – Jon Ronson.
‘Any other criticisms?’ said Jon Ronson, helpfully asking a question to prompt an answer I’d already prepared, though I was growing increasingly irritated by the way he would end each question in italics for emphasis.
‘Well, regarding that chapter about the medicalisation of mental illnesses. You give the strong impression that a large number of mental illnesses were, in fact, made up by Robert Spitzer during his time editing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with people shouting out suggestions of mental illnesses at unminuted editorial meetings.’
Jon Ronson shot me a sharp look. ‘So?’
‘So don’t you think it’s a little irresponsible to strongly suggest that mental illnesses such as anorexia nerovsa, bulimia, autism, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder are not genuine illnesses that have had their diagnoses and treatments backed up by huge amounts of medical research?’
Jon Ronson fell silent. I waited for him to answer. But the silence lasted four minutes. Finally, he said, 'No.'
There was something else I had to mention, so I thought I would mention it. ‘And I couldn’t help noticing that the impression your book gives, that many mental illnesses are the invention of drug companies, is very similar to the position held by followers of the Church of Scientology, to whom you refer in uncritical terms throughout the book, thanking them for their assistance, even going so far as to use their propaganda as the basis for your ‘research’.’
Jon Ronson denied being a spokesman or apologist for Scientology. We got the bill, paid it, and left, going our separate ways.
If anyone is interested in psychopathy, a good place to start is the Wikipedia article on Psychopathy. If you are interested in the Hare Psychopathy checklist, which forms pretty much the entire basis of Jon Ronson’s book, you can find it in the Wikipedia article on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. And if you are interested in the medicalisation of mental illness, there’s also a Wikipedia article on that. Recent studies indicate that all of the facts contained within The Psychopath Test can be found on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet, whilst there are many relevant facts that can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet that are nowhere to be found within The Psychopath Test.
Later that evening I received an email from Jon Ronson. My wife was in the next room watching an episode of The West Wing on television. The one where they have a thing with cheese. But I only mention that to set the scene, I couldn’t actually hear the programme or anything.
‘Just checking,’ said Jon Ronson in the email. ‘That you realise that the interview which took place earlier today didn’t really happen, and that in fact the entire article was made up for satirical purposes.’
I didn’t think it needed to be said. I paused. I had just written a 1,400-word parody of Jon Ronson’s book. What did that say about me? Was I becoming obsessed? I remembered item 20 on the Hare checklist. Item 20: In the end it all comes back to Jon Ronson.
‘Oh, and one more thing,’ he said. ‘Always remember to end each chapter on a cliff-hanger.’
A few days later I heard from Jon Ronson’s lawyers.