By Brian Donaldson
WRITER, broadcaster and one-time keyboard player for Frank Sidebottom, Jon Ronson has spent a substantial chunk of the last decade thinking about psychopaths and, following an earlier tour, he’s taking the results of that work back on the road this autumn.
His 2011 book, The Psychopath Test, followed on from other published successes such as Them: Adventures With Extremists, in which he met the likes of David Icke, Ian Paisley and Alex Jones (a right-wing conspiracy theorist who now, apparently, has an ‘in’ to the White House); The Men Who Stare At Goats, an investigation into psychological warfare tactics in the US army post-9/11, which became a movie starring George Clooney; and Lost At Sea, a collected volume of his writings for The Guardian covering serious stuff such as the credit industry and a self-help guru who once stood trial for murder alongside less serious stuff such as the Alaskan town where it’s Christmas every day and awkward conversations with his next-door neighbour.
The Wales-born New York-based journalist and humourist also has a packed broadcasting CV which includes co-writing the new Netflix original movie Okja and directing Channel 4 documentaries like Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and The Secret Rulers of the World. And now he’s on the latest leg of The Psychopath Test tour, which is coming to Brighton on November 10, and which has a secretive element he would like to maintain hush-hush for the benefit of his audiences. He will be welcoming on stage two guests who have been at the sharp end of psychopathic behaviour in one case and, in the other, the clinicians who define serious mental illness.
“My two guests’ experiences are amazing and certainly among the most jawdropping stories I’ve ever written about in 30 years of being a journalist, but they rely on the audience not knowing what happens. It should be like an M Night Shyamalan film. Of course, people can Google them and spoil it for themselves, but I would definitely recommend them not to. When we’ve done this show before, I have never heard gasps so loud from an audience at some of the moments in their stories.”
The original book featured a series of vivid individuals and larger-than-life stories. There was Al Dunlap, an American businessman who made his fortune thanks to an unusually high ruthless streak. Then there was Tony, a man who faked madness to escape a prison sentence for serious assault, only to spend the next 15 years in Broadmoor.
Jon learned that the study of psychopathy revolved largely around the work of Canadian psychologist Robert D Hare. The Hare Psychopathy Checklist features 20 personality traits, which can help build up a picture of how someone can be defined as a psychopath. As research, Jon attended a course of Hare’s checklist, which sought to give people an insight into what constitutes a psychopath and, rather usefully, passes on the skills for them to be able to spot one from a relatively safe distance.
Jon, though, has problems with the sweeping diagnoses within this research. “One of the items on the checklist is impulsivity and another is being cunning and manipulative: but how can you be both? Yet, if you put those to one side, the nuances of psychopathic behaviour have been anatomised by Hare in a brilliant way, but it is a very powerful weapon that gets misused constantly.”
On the night, Jon will have a lot to pack in, including monologues inspired by stories in the book, chatting with his guests, showing some film footage and at the end hosting an audience Q&A. “The reason I’m pleased with this particular tour is that it’s really good for anyone who hasn’t read the book and it’s also totally good for people who have read it as there’s enough new stuff for them, so it works for both audiences. In the Q&A section, people can ask absolutely anything and then I’ll sign books for as long as people want me to do that.”
It was around 2009 when Jon Ronson started thinking about psychopaths and how both psychologists and clinicians define them. While it might not seem like the most obvious subject for a fun night out, he views it as exactly that, especially when compared to the live shows related to his last book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the mob mentality within social media which seems capable of tearing individuals apart for one regrettable error or off-colour remark.
“My selfish motivation for doing this tour is that when I brought out my book on public shaming, the stories in that book were so bleak that giving talks wasn’t as much fun. Some people in the audience would really disagree with me and get annoyed, and so after doing that for about a year, I thought, I really want to do something on stage, which is a bit more fun. And even though the subject matter of The Psychopath Test is dark and complicated, it can also be very funny. What my guests went through was so terrible, yet we make it funny on stage.”
One perhaps unexpected by-product of Jon’s writing and experiences has been the subsequent film versions. In The Men Who Stare At Goats, Ewan McGregor played the ‘Jon’ character while Domhnall Gleeson was ‘Jon’ in Frank, a film co-written by Ronson and loosely based on the life and work of the late Chris Sievey aka Frank Sidebottom, the Manchester indie music and comedy star with the papier-mâché head. And now, The Psychopath Test continues to be the subject of Hollywood’s rumour mill.
“The last I heard, it was still progressing in the right direction, but in Hollywood there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, although it feels like it’s heading the right way, though, with Scarlett Johansson attached to play a version of me. Can I say that, in the movies, I have had Ewan McGregor, Domhnall Gleeson and now hopefully Scarlett Johansson playing versions of me, and all of them have played superheroes with extraordinary powers. I just wanted to point that out.”
If Jon Ronson has a superpower, it’s being able to continually sniff out extraordinary true stories and bring them entertainingly and insightfully to a whole new audience.
Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Night is at the Brighton Dome, Church Street, Brighton, at 7.30pm on Monday November 13. Phone 01273 709709 or visit brightondome.org.
Picture: Emil Bendixen.