Jon Ronson possibly has the most interesting job in the world. As a journalist, radio presenter, author, script writer and documentary film maker he has his fingers in all sorts of pies, but ultimately, he says, he researches what he’s interested in. Anything from Deal Or No Deal to trolls on Twitter, Jon Ronson follows his nose, sniffs out the bizarre and the misunderstood, and then uses his words to truly make you think in an alternative way. It’s a rare talent and I’ve found all of his work unpredictable, exciting and unbelievably shocking – and therefore really enjoyable. Ronson will be in York on Friday 11th November for his ‘Psychopath Night’, a discussion of his overwhelmingly successful book The Psychopath Test and featuring two very interesting guests. I spoke to Ronson about his upcoming visit, ringing him in New York to find out more about him and his latest mission.
I wondered what had sparked the idea for The Psychopath Test. Ronson remembers a specific conversation he had with a Harvard psychologist who told him “Psychopathy is so powerful it’s remoulded the world. We are all victims of psychopaths because psychopaths run society. You’re much more likely to get a psychopath at the top of the tree than at the bottom – in the corporate world, in politics, in business.” He had this discussion in 2009, a time when “nobody was thinking about it. I had never heard anything like that. I suddenly had this brainwave. I was cycling through Primrose Hill and thought ‘Oh my god. I should learn how to spot psychopaths and then with my powers I can journey into the corridors of power to see if I can stop them’.” Ronson certainly recognised this as a defining moment; “There’s a moment in journalism, it’s happened to me a few times in my life, where I come up with an idea and I think, whatever happens it’ll be interesting.”
It certainly was interesting. Ronson then began his research process, communicating with specialists in psychopathy all over the world. He came across Dr Robert Hare, a Canadian who wrote the ‘Hare Psychopathy Checklist’, a 20-part test to detect psychopathy. After months of communication, Ronson was invited to attend a conference where he learned about the details of the checklist and how to put it into practice – this is where his adventure began.
Ronson mentions many people in his book, but the two that most stand out are Tony and Albert J. Dunlap. Both men are also mentioned in Ronson’s TED talks and his Oxford Union Address which you can watch on YouTube. Tony was a man detained in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital who claimed that he was a victim of the psychiatric industry as well as being a prime example of how difficult it is to convince people that you are sane and ‘normal’. Albert J. Dunlap is a corporate leader whose priority was to make profit for a company’s shareholders above all else, and he became famous for his ruthlessness in firing thousands of employees in one sweep to cut costs and increase wealth.
I asked Ronson if he anticipated the immense success of The Psychopath Test, which, when published in 2011 remained on the bestseller list in the UK for the whole of 2012. He replied that he didn’t because “with all of my other books I have to really convince people that they want to read it”, and laughed that “people don’t need convincing to read a book about psychopaths.” However, Ronson has received some criticism, interestingly from Dr Robert Hare himself. Hare published a statement in 2012 outlining his concern that “readers not familiar with the literature on psychopathy will take seriously what Ronson has written” and that “Some will have the erroneous idea that, with a ‘simple list,’ they too could be armed against psychopaths. As a recent email to me stated, ‘I would like to know about psychopath-spotting courses in my area’’.’
Ronson responded to this: “At first he [Hare] loved the book, and then about a year later he decided that he didn’t love it. And then what happened I think was that the book became more successful than anybody anticipated. Suddenly I was the person that people wanted to talk to about psychopaths.” Ronson was invited onto Conan and many other TV and radio talk shows to give his view on psychopathy. He says, “I think Dr Hare rightly felt ‘Fucking hell, I’ve been studying psychopaths since the 70s, Jon Ronson’s, you know, not ‘an expert’. He’s basically somebody who journeyed into this world for a few years, wrote a book that’s really entertaining but psychopathy’s my field.’ But I totally get that.”
I moved on to ask Ronson his view on the presidential campaign in America, where he now lives with his wife and son. “Actually I’ve just written a mini 15,000 word book, The Elephant in the Room, so I spent the summer kind of journeying with the Trump campaign.” I asked Ronson the obvious question on the real ‘elephant in the room’; “Would you say that Donald Trump is a psychopath?” Ronson laughed and answered “I’ve been really reluctant to say… because one of the lessons of the book is that it’s kind of psychopathic to label people as psychopaths. But I have to say he is constantly behaving in ways which are straight from the checklist, it’s uncanny.”
Ronson is most concerned, however, by one of Trump’s famous qualities: “One of the starkest ones I think is his pathological lying. Not only that he lies pathologically, but that he’s not the slightest bit embarrassed. Most people are embarrassed to be caught lying, and they feel guilty and remorseful and he doesn’t.” The ebook exposes some of the people on the inside of Trump’s campaign, including Roger Stone and Alex Smith (who is also featured in Ronson’s book Them). It definitely reveals Trump’s most extreme side as well as some of the hypocrisies and ridiculous elements of his campaign. One of the most memorable of these is the fact that people are forbidden to enter the arena for Trump’s rally with squirt guns or paintball guns, but bringing a real gun is completely normal and in fact encouraged.
The Psychopath Test is only one of Ronson’s many investigative adventures. Them: Adventures with Extremists, is a ‘quest to locate the secret rulers of the world.’ An accompanying television series was made called The Secret Rulers of the World for Channel 4, and it’s easy to compare this work to Louis Theroux’s later documentaries of similar themes. His most recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed explores the re-emergence of public shaming through the medium of the internet, particularly over social media sites such as Twitter. Public shaming has been used as a form of punishment since the dawn of time and actually phased out as a state punishment in the UK in 1837 after there were increasing calls for some compassion.
Ronson has interviewed many victims of public shaming for his book, the most famous of whom is Justine Sacco, whose tweet went viral during the time that she was asleep on her flight from Heathrow to South Africa. It read: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ Rightly, people were outraged, however her punishment for this mistake on Twitter, which was only intended for her 50 followers, lead to her losing her job, receiving death threats aimed at both her and her family, and consequently a mental breakdown. Ronson examines whether this is just or whether the punishment perhaps outweighs the crime. One of his most famous titles is Men Who Stare at Goats,which has been made into a film starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey. It tells the story of Ronson’s investigation into a secret unit within the US Army which defied all normal military practice and instead focused on the power of the mind. The men in ‘The First Earth Battalion’ believed ‘that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them.’
I ask Ronson how he felt about being played by Ewan McGregor in Men Who Stare at Goats, to which he responds: “I was also played by Domhnall Gleeson in Frank.” This is a film starring Michael Fassbender and is inspired by the life of Frank Sidebottom (the comic persona of Chris Sievey), memorable for his costume of a spherical papier-mâché head. Ronson co-wrote the film, having been a member of Sidebottom’s band and he is also featured as a character. This means “I’ve been played by two people in Star Wars!” Ronson remarked excitedly. “I’ve been played by two Jedi, actually… I’m not sure what a Jedi is.”
After looking up Gleeson’s role in the upcoming Star Wars film I hate to report that he is actually on the dark side, but Ronson doesn’t need to know that. When I asked if he enjoyed working in film production his answer was complicated: “Here’s the unglamorous truth about it: it’s a long process. I worked as a screenwriter, then I visited the set, then there were lots of complications with agents and lawyers, so that by the time you get to watch the premier it just doesn’t feel as magical as you might think.” Ronson’s role as a screenwriter means that he gets a very specific experience: “In terms of movies, the writer has a certain place in the process, but that place is sitting at home writing the script. So do I like sitting home writing? Um, I mean, yes. Writing’s stressful and I find it tiring but I really enjoy it.”
Ronson’s most recent film project is Okja which is due to be released in 2017. It stars Lily Collins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton and follows ‘a young girl named Mija who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend – a massive animal named Okja.’ Ronson mentioned that he has been spending time with the stars of the film who are “all really lovely” and it’s this part of the process which is really “glamorous and exciting.” Ronson reflected that “Making a movie is like building a house. Everybody’s doing their work, everybody is working very hard, everybody is part of the machine, but it’s much more like going to a construction site than it is going to the theatre.”
I asked what his next project is, expecting him to tell me that it is all top secret and he can’t say anything more. “I can tell you that I’m making an audible series about the tech takeover of the porn industry”, he revealed before adopting his secretive stance: “But I’ve got a couple of things I’m just starting which I can’t tell you about.”
I’ve hugely enjoyed speaking with Jon Ronson. As I researched him every new piece of information I discovered seemed to be more interesting than the last, so much so that I actually began to feel quite nervous about interviewing him, especially as he tends to have a way of humorously analysing those he speaks to with his psychopath-spotting powers. I had to try and make sure that my questions were in no way filled with superficial charm, appearing grandiose, cunning or manipulative, revealing of a lack of empathy, seeming impulsive or coming over as irresponsible. However, while speaking with him all of this ebbed away and as he called out to greet his son, who must have just walked through the door, I was reminded instantly of his point throughout – the fact that we are all human.
This is one of Ronson’s main emphases in his advice to aspiring journalists: “Write about something you really want to write about… passion and enthusiasm shines through the page. Also, care as much about the quality of the writing as the quality of the information that you’re trying to impart. A lot of journalists… care about getting the story but don’t care about the way they tell the story – I think both things are equally important. Oh, and hustle. We’re hustlers in terms of getting our stories placed, we’re hustlers in trying to convince people to be in our stories… you’ve got to be very tireless. And beyond that, I’d say for me you’ve got to be empathetic and humanistic, to not make your interviewees feel like they’ve been mugged. To try and see the world through the eyes of the people you’re writing about. I think that’s incredibly important.” So if you’re looking for something interesting to read or watch, remember the name Jon Ronson – you’ll be forever intrigued and never bored. M