Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Night

Jon Ronson

Cardiff own best-selling author and world renowned documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson returns to the Welsh capital at St David’s Hall on Thursday 16 November.

Over the last 20 years, Jon has made his name for his ‘gonzo’ style of journalism and investigations of controversial fringe politics and science. In 2011, he released the fascinating book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which delved into the topic of psychopathic behaviour via the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and examined its reliability.

The book forms the focal part of his Psychopath Night at the National Concert Hall of Wales. Within its pages, Jon interviewed people in facilities for the criminally insane as well as potential psychopaths in corporate boardrooms, and he reached a staggering conclusion…You don’t have to be Norman Bates to be a psycho – they’re all around us in our everyday lives!

Jon chats with Neil Collins about his extraordinary experiences.

You’ve spent many years since your youth based in London and New York, but are you looking forward to coming back to Cardiff? I hear you have some fond memories of St David’s Hall.

I was walking past St David’s Hall about two weeks ago with my son and we popped in so that I could show him where I was performing. I remember it being built, which was incredibly exciting at the time. I went to see Dexys Midnight Runners there in the early 80s, and another band who I can’t for the life of me remember the name of!

A couple of years earlier, the Sophia Gardens Pavilion had fallen down in the snow. I remember seeing The Specials and Genesis and all these other amazing bands there when I was about 12 or 13. It was terrible news back then as a lot of big bands used to perform there, but then St David’s Hall was built about a year or so later.

That would’ve been about ‘83/’84 as I left Cardiff in ’85, so I had about two years of St David’s Hall, and it’s a great honour to come back to speak there. It could’ve been a bit embarrassing if not many people had turned up, but thankfully it looks like we’re going to sell out!

There was an incident you’ve referred to in your books where you were thrown into Roath Park Lake by bullies in your childhood, and you have described your days at Cardiff High as some of your worst. It appears you didn’t have the happiest of times here.

When I was back recently I went to see my friend Dick Johns, who was my best friend at Cardiff High School. He’s a storyteller and I saw him do a wonderful reading at Chapter Arts Centre, and there were a couple of other people from Cardiff High there like (the writer) Bethan Morgan. It was really nice to see them all and they were important formative years, but it reminded me that there weren’t many people at Cardiff High who were like us and interested in the stuff we were into.

Dick was able to transcend being badly bullied, but I didn’t. So whilst I have some really fond memories of Cardiff – going to Chapter, St David’s Hall, the theatre and hanging out with Dick Johns; the truth of it was that it was a rough time for me. I just didn’t belong there – I knew it and they knew it, and I was treated pretty badly. That’s why I have mixed memories.

You did have better times working at CBC Radio before leaving Cardiff to study a Media Studies degree at the Polytechnic of Central London. Did those experiences lay the foundations for your future career?

Those days at CBC saved me in a way. My mother persuaded me to become a volunteer at CBC, and I was always looking for little glimpses of the life I could have.

There was a DJ there called Binda Singh, who took me under his wing and put me on the air and straight away I felt “This is what I should be doing.” Volunteering at CBC was pretty much what got me into doing Media Studies in Central London because I wasn’t academic at all, so CBC was a real turning point.

Of all the psychopaths you’ve met on your travels, which one freaked you out the most?

In The Psychopath Test I met a Haitian death squad leader called Toto Constant and it’s very clear that he’s a very dangerous man completely without remorse or conscience. A proper psychopath. Many people have died at his hands.

It’s not just terrorists and faraway psychopaths though. When I was writing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I could see the malevolent power all of us are capable of on social media when it all goes out of control. That’s just as frightening in a way as its people behaving terribly in more subtle ways.

Of the psychopaths depicted in the movies, which would be the most accurate and least accurate? Apparently Norman Bates was more psychotic rather than being an actual psychopath.

Psychopaths aren’t psychotic. I suppose it’s possible for some people to have both psychosis and psychopathy, but there’s no psychosis in checklist. I remember when I was writing The Psychopath Test, Dr Robert Hare said to me about the Sissy Spacek character in the Terrence Malick movie Badlands was the best psychopath that he had ever seen because it’s all surface.

I remember having this epiphany that Cartman from South Park was a classic psychopath, and I said to (South Park creator) Matt Stone “when you were designing Cartman, were you thinking of him in psychopathic terms?” And he said “No, we were thinking of the worst possible human that we could create”, so it’s interesting that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were aiming to create someone terrible and it just so happens that he turned out to be a classic psychopath.

A bad psychopath in the movies would be anyone who has hallucinations or psychosis or loses sense of reality because none of those things happen.

What would be your earliest encounter with psychopaths? Were any of your teachers, colleagues or bosses psychopaths?

When I got drunk with my psychopath-spotting powers during the writing of The Psychopath Test, I succumbed to my vices like so many people. I was starting to think there was a former editor of mine might’ve been psychopathic. There was also somebody on Twitter who was stalking me a little bit.

But I’m pretty sure I was right about Toto Constant and a few other interviewees. I think it was inevitable given who I have spoken to over the years and the places I’ve stayed that I would encounter some people who would score high on checklist.

Who in the celebrity world would you identify as having psychopathic traits?

A message from the show and book is that one shouldn’t go diagnosing people as psychopaths particularly as the way you see people on TV may not be the way they actually are. You don’t know what people are like behind closed doors, so it’s a bit psychopathic to diagnose strangers. It’s ok with fictional characters, but with actual people I don’t think we should do it.

In the first half of The Psychopath Test, the reader becomes drunk with their psychopath-spotting skills, but in the second half of the book I kind of dissect that and come to the conclusion that it’s not a good thing to do, so it becomes a kind of cautionary tale.

I like the way readers go through the arc that I did in that you get incredibly excited with this new power, but you soon start to think “This isn’t good”. I’m very glad that the second half of the book does what it does, as the reader goes on a full-circle journey.

You’ve recently written The Elephant in the Room about Donald Trump. If anyone is a psychopath, it would surely be him wouldn’t it?

Well, there’s lots of stuff we don’t know about Donald Trump. Yes, it’s a psychopathic characteristic to lash out in anger, and be impulsive and get angry easily but damaged narcissists do that too, and there are a lot of narcissists who aren’t psychopaths.

Even if I was ok with diagnosing people from afar as psychopaths, I don’t think you should do that with Donald Trump. I think he does definitely have issues, but I don’t think it’s certain that those issues are psychopathic. I just want his term to be over. I think he’s dangerous and I’m looking forward to the next election and him not winning!

Have you received any criticism for your study of psychopathy in portraying a serious matter in an entertaining and darkly funny way?

No, I haven’t. I think I’ve always been good at knowing when it’s ok to be funny, and when to stop. I read a review years ago of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which complimented that. I think I’ve always being quite instinctively good at finding that balance, and as result I don’t seem to have received too many criticisms. I’m pretty good at judging the tone of it, and I think people want to laugh as long as it’s respectful and not punching down easy victims.

A film version of the book is now reportedly on the horizon with Scarlett Johansson set to portray a “version” of you. What do you make of that?

Well that’s how I like to think of it, but (the screenwriter) Kristin Gore has said to me “She’s not really a version of you at all!”

I honestly haven’t read the screenplay so I don’t know how it’s evolving. I think it’s really important if you’re the provider of the source material to not interfere too much in the process. I’ve been on both sides of that. I knew when I was writing the Frank screenplay (biopic about Frank Sidebottom) that I just needed the space and freedom to just write it however I wanted, so I haven’t interfered with how The Psychopath Test movie is going. They’re really smart people involved – Kristin Gore, Jay Roach, Brian Grazer the producer, so I’ll just let them get on with it and if it happens then great.

Do you find yourself still pinching yourself to have huge stars like Scarlett, Ewan McGregor and George Clooney acting in roles from your books?

Yes, but I’ve spent so much of my life fretting and worrying about everything, that I kind of wish I could sit back and think “Oh my God, so many amazing things have happened to me”, but I’m just not that sort of person! I’m always thinking “That story was good, but oh shit I can’t make this one work!”

I wish I could sit back a bit more, but I just think of that film 10 Rillington Place when (Richard Attenborough’s character) Christie gets arrested and says “I’ve lived a very varied life.” I wish could sit back and think “I’ve lived a very varied life.” Instead I just fret all the time. I don’t pinch myself that much – not because I’m arrogant, but because I’m neurotic.

The thing I’m incredibly proud of is when something has been good. I think that Okja, the movie I co-wrote is really good and I think that most of my books are really good as is The Butterfly Effect. I can take satisfaction from doing work well, but the satisfaction never lasts as I’m then thinking “Well, I did that well but I’ll never doing anything well again!”

I seem to remember you saying on Have I Got News for You that you were tired of writing books. You’ve previously written the screenplay for Frank. Now Okja is on Netflix, and The Butterfly Effect on Audible. Do you see yourself delving more into film and podcasts in the future?

That was around the time that So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed had a lot of noise surrounding it. Everyone had an opinion about that book and it got me down as an introvert. I don’t like noise, and I just needed a break from it.

But I’m starting to think about books again now. I think I needed a couple of years off from writing them as it’s so exhausting and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was like a hand grenade when it came out, so I’ve deliberately spent the last year doing things that were more fun. One being Psychopath Night which I’ve enjoyed doing; one being The Butterfly Effect about the porn industry, and the other was writing Okja. Those things were all more fun than writing books, but I do hope to write more books. I really want to.

In a nutshell, what makes Psychopath Night unmissable?

It’s the moment in the show when the audience gasps. I’ve got two guests who I bring onstage and I get them to tell their stories, and the moment when the audience gasps so loudly is what makes the show unmissable!

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