Monday, June 06, 2011

We are all mad now

Until five years ago, I had never heard of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the big book that tells you what kind of mental illness you've got. Then I became an abstracter in the field of social sciences, and it was mentioned a lot (obviously) in the literature. Then I left abstracting and expected never to hear of it, or most of the other scales or 20-point measurement tools that researchers employ in order to categorize people, ever again. In the last year, though, the DSM been popping up a lot in news-stand publications because a new edition of it is being prepared and disagreements are surfacing over what to include and what to leave out, and there also seems to be a bit of a schism taking place over how much weight the DSM should carry, full stop.

Jon Ronson's new book, The Psychopath Test, talks more about this quotidien end of the mental disorder industry (or the "madness industry" as he calls it) more than you would perhaps expect in a book that you believe to be about psychopaths, who, as we all know, are really scary and other. Jon Ronson meets a lot of people in the course of this book who are scary and other to you and me and who act in ways that we would never act and do things that we would never do (and we are glad we would never do, really, even if sometimes those things appear to bring huge physical rewards), but who have never been diagnosed as psychopaths (and maybe they're not, is part of his point). He also meets people who have been diagnosed as psychopaths and who don't really seem that different from the rest of us, not really. He meets academics and spies (warning: there is a bit in the book about the 7/7 bombings. I only point that out because I know it's an event that still looms large in the memories of some of my friends and I wasn't expecting there to be anything about it in this book, but there is, so just be aware of that) and regular people and he relates their words and tells their stories in what seems to me to be a fair and sympathetic manner, even if the people themselves aren't immediately sympathetic individuals.

One of the strengths of the book is that it gives you the opportunity to conduct your own further reading. Ronson skims the surface of a number of related topics here--Scientology's opposition to psychiatry; the possible physical differences between psychopaths and everyone else; the medicalization of normal behaviour; class differences in health provision; the border areas between sanity, insanity, and eccentricity; the history of psychological experiments on prisoners; conspiracy theorists; the media's treatment of people with mental problems--offering a taster of each one so you can decide for yourself which bit you're most interested in and go off and read about that.

The only real issue I had with it was Ronson's characterization of journalists as people who deliberately seek out people who are odd or different or mentally ill and focus on their weirdness and difference. Several times he says that this is what journalists do. Well, it's not what some of my favourite journalists do. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, goes out of her way to do the opposite: to find the normal people who are struggling to keep it together and live a normal life, often in odd or different or weird circumstances. But I guess deciding that other people are just like you when they're clearly not is one of the things that mad people do, eh Jon?

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