It isn’t often that I find myself actually gagging to get my hands on a particular book but Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’ is an exception. The thesis of the book is that psychopaths are not only amongst us, but they run most of our blue chip companies and indeed, in all probability, run our governments too.
Jon Ronson is an acclaimed author, journalist and film maker and so he hasn’t just plucked this out of the air. Also, as a graduate in psychology and having worked in mental health services for many years, I am fully aware of this idea and have been so for a very long time.
According to the UK classification of mental disorder, psychopathy is not a mental illness. Lack of empathy with others, complete self absorption and the kind of ambition that will not brook dissent will only land you in hospital for psychiatric assessment if you kill or rape someone. Otherwise you are entirely free to work in a bank, run a country or even judge the odd TV talent contest. And this is how it should be. Not long ago the previous government mooted the idea of incarcerating all those who scored highly on the psychopath scale just in case they ‘did something.’ That was, and remains, patently absurd. Either we live in a society where one is innocent until proved guilty or we do not. Also, ‘the state’ would have to incarcerate many of those who actively implement its policies. Well according to Jon, myself and a lot of those who work in mental health they would.
There is an argument for the idea that most politicians are psychopaths. A brief jaunt into history will help to bear this out. How much empathy for others do you think Josef Stalin had, or Hitler or Richard Nixon or Margaret Thatcher? It was ‘all about them’ which is typical of those who have a diagnosis of psychopathy. Even more worryingly, take a look at all the bankers and financiers who have rendered much of the world bankrupt and see how much of a toss they give. I think the word ‘zero’ is what we’re looking at here. Scary? I think so. But before we get too carried away with the fact that ‘they are amongst us’, doing dastardly things, there is another side to psychopathy too.
Sometimes the drive to fame and fortune that seems to fuel so many people who could be described as psychopaths can work in society’s favour. Driven people do stuff – they write great and powerful books, they discover cures for terrible illnesses and they often make us laugh until we cry. I’ve met diagnosed and dangerous psychopaths and many of them have been quite charming. In terms of the great tapestry of human diversity, they add colour, edginess and many benefits to life. In no way do I think these people should be automatically incarcerated. I don’t think anyone should be. But I do also think that knowledge is power and that we need to be aware that many of our leaders, movers and shakers could very well be psychopaths. We need to bear that in mind when they look at us with puppy dog eyes and tell us they care. This happens generally just before an election.
Back in 2000, I wrote a book called ‘A Chemical Prison’ which featured a ‘classic’ psychopathic killer called Muhammad Ersoy. Charming, attractive and utterly ruthless, Ersoy was eventually arrested by my detective Çetin İkmen whilst playing a very dangerous mind game with one of İkmen’s colleagues. Currently he is in prison. But that was a long time ago and he could be up for parole soon. I am, I admit, wondering what to do with Mr Ersoy. Or rather, possibly, Mr Ersoy may well be wondering what to make me do with him.