Full text of Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson at TED conference
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The story starts. I was at a friend’s house, and she had on her shelf a copy of the DSM manual, which is the manual of mental disorders. It lists every known mental disorder. And it used to be back in the ’50s a very slim pamphlet. And then it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and now it’s 886 pages long. And it lists currently 374 mental disorders. So I was leafing through it, wondering if I had any mental disorders, and it turns out I’ve got 12.
I’ve got generalized anxiety disorder, which is a given. I’ve got nightmare disorder, which is categorized if you have recurrent dreams of being pursued or declared a failure, and all my dreams involve people chasing me down the street going, “You’re a failure!”
I’ve got parent-child relational problems, which I blame my parents for.
I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. I’m kidding. And I’ve got malingering. And I think it’s actually quite rare to have both malingering and generalized anxiety disorder, because malingering tends to make me feel very anxious.
Anyway, I was looking through this book, wondering if I was much crazier than I thought I was, or maybe it’s not a good idea to diagnose yourself with a mental disorder if you’re not a trained professional, or maybe the psychiatry profession has a kind of strange desire to label what’s essentially normal human behavior as a mental disorder. I didn’t know which of these was true, but I thought it was kind of interesting, and I thought maybe I should meet a critic of psychiatry to get their view, which is how I ended up having lunch with the Scientologists.
It was a man called Brian, who runs a crack team of Scientologists who are determined to destroy psychiatry wherever it lies. They’re called the CCHR. And I said to him, “Can you prove to me that psychiatry is a pseudo-science that can’t be trusted?”
And he said, “Yes, we can prove it to you.”
And I said, “How?”
And he said, “We’re going to introduce you to Tony.”
And I said, “Who’s Tony?”
And he said, “Tony’s in Broadmoor.”
Now, Broadmoor is Broadmoor Hospital. It used to be known as the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It’s where they send the serial killers, and the people who can’t help themselves.
And I said to Brian, “Well, what did Tony do?”
And he said, “Hardly anything. He beat someone up or something, and he decided to fake madness to get out of a prison sentence. But he faked it too well, and now he’s stuck in Broadmoor and nobody will believe he’s sane. Do you want us to try and get you into Broadmoor to meet Tony?”
So I said, “Yes, please.”
So I got the train to Broadmoor. I began to yawn uncontrollably around Kempton Park, which apparently is what dogs also do when anxious, they yawn uncontrollably. And we got to Broadmoor. And I got taken through gate after gate after gate after gate into the wellness center, which is where you get to meet the patients. It looks like a giant Hampton Inn. It’s all peach and pine and calming colors. And the only bold colors are the reds of the panic buttons. And the patients started drifting in. And they were quite overweight and wearing sweatpants, and quite docile-looking. And Brian the Scientologist whispered to me, “They’re medicated,” which, to the Scientologists, is like the worst evil in the world, but I’m thinking it’s probably a good idea.
And then Brian said, “Here’s Tony.” And a man was walking in. And he wasn’t overweight, he was in very good physical shape. And he wasn’t wearing sweatpants, he was wearing a pinstripe suit. And he had his arm outstretched like someone out of The Apprentice. He looked like a man who wanted to wear an outfit that would convince me that he was very sane.
And he sat down. And I said, “So is it true that you faked your way in here?”
And he said, “Yep. Yep. Absolutely. I beat someone up when I was 17. And I was in prison awaiting trial, and my cellmate said to me, ‘You know what you have to do? Fake madness. Tell them you’re mad, you’ll get sent to some cushy hospital. Nurses will bring you pizzas, you’ll have your own PlayStation.'”
I said, “Well, how did you do it?”
He said, “Well, I asked to see the prison psychiatrist. And I’d just seen a film called ‘Crash,’ in which people get sexual pleasure from crashing cars into walls. So I said to the psychiatrist, ‘I get sexual pleasure from crashing cars into walls.'”
And I said, “What else?”
He said, “Oh, yeah. I told the psychiatrist that I wanted to watch women as they died, because it would make me feel more normal.”
I said, “Where’d you get that from?”
He said, “Oh, from a biography of Ted Bundy that they had at the prison library.”
Anyway, he faked madness too well, he said. And they didn’t send him to some cushy hospital. They sent him to Broadmoor. And the minute he got there, said he took one look at the place, asked to see the psychiatrist, said, “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding. I’m not mentally ill.”
I said, “How long have you been here for?”
He said, “Well, if I’d just done my time in prison for the original crime, I’d have got five years. I’ve been in Broadmoor for 12 years.”
Tony said that it’s a lot harder to convince people you’re sane than it is to convince them you’re crazy. He said, “I thought the best way to seem normal would be to talk to people normally about normal things like football or what’s on TV. I subscribe to New Scientist, and recently they had an article about how the U.S. Army was training bumblebees to sniff out explosives. So I said to a nurse, ‘Did you know that the U.S. Army is training bumblebees to sniff out explosives?’ When I read my medical notes, I saw they’d written: ‘Believes bees can sniff out explosives.’”