I’m sitting on….three other reviews at the moment. But over the course of three or four days, I listened to these audio books, and everything else has been put on hold.
I came to these books through a bit of a circuitous route. Jon Ronson was interviewed on the podcast Knowledge Fight, a podcast that critically explores the world of Alex Jones. Ronson has long written about both white supremacy and conspiracy theories, and Alex Jones is firmly planted at the nexus of those two universes. That led me to The Debutante, an audio book on Audible, which led me to The Psychopath Test (available to Audible members through June 30th).
The Debutante: From High Society to White Supremacy
In the late-80s and early-90s, Carol Howe turned her back on her high society upbringing in Oklahoma to become a neo-Nazi. Her journey is detailed by Ronson in this audio book, and is centered around her connections to Elohim City, a white supremacist Christian cult in Oklahoma with ties to Timothy McVeigh. Some believe Elohim City helped in the planning of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Howe turned informant for the ATF in 1994, and kept a detailed diary during her time in Elohim City.
There are some conspiracy theories surrounding Elohim City, Timothy McVeigh, and the mythical “John Doe #2”. Your mileage may vary here, but I think Ronson falls on the side of the connections being more tenuous than many want to admit. What seems unmistakable, however, is that Carol Howe was a deeply troubled woman. Ronson wasn’t able to interview her personally (she’s since changed her name and is now living a more private life), though he was able to track her down. Without her input, this story just kind of fizzles out. It was an engaging story, but I didn’t feel any sense of closure.
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it was generally well done, and I think Ronson was fairly balanced in his exploration of the subject – but I don’t know that he is really the person best suited to tackle this. I once read about something called (among many other things) “Medical Students’ Syndrome”, where medical trainees become convinced they have whatever disease or diseases they are studying. I can identify with this – because every time I get on WebMD, I become convinced that I have whatever I’m looking at. My oldest kid got diagnosed with ADHD in 2021, and I’ve since decided that I, too, have ADHD (though undiagnosed, many people who know me also believe I’m ADHD – so maybe it’s not all in my head). Anyway, it’s a fairly common thing, I think.
Jon Ronson doesn’t necessarily become convinced that he’s a psychopath, but he does something that (at least in my eyes) might be adjacent. He got a little bit of knowledge about the subject, and then used that knowledge to start diagnosing everyone around him.
It makes for an entertaining book – but I’m not sure how reliable his understanding is. After all, there are many criticisms of this book from experts (including some actually interviewed by Ronson).
I liked the book, don’t get me wrong. But throughout the entire thing, I kept wondering if he really thought himself knowledgeable enough to declare someone a psychopath off a single three day course he took, or if he just knew that it would make for a good story. Either way, I would say this is worth a read – but just don’t take it too seriously.