My Guilty Pleasure
7:03 am
Mon August 13, 2012

You'd Have To Be Psycho To Not Pass This 'Test'

Carol Rifka Brunt is author of Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

There's this moment in Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test that caught me completely off guard. It comes a little less than halfway through, shortly after he's outlined the 20-point psychopath checklist. I'd read through the list and although most didn't really apply to me there were a handful that gave me pause: "Item 3: ... proneness to boredom," "Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals," "Item 15: Irresponsibility."

I found myself vaguely wondering whether there might be a touch of psychopathy in my own personality.

I let my mind trip back to times in my past when I might not have been quite as conscientious as I should have been, when my heart may have been colder or harder than the average person's. I'm caught in this little reverie when suddenly — BAM — like Ronson read my mind — comes the line "If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one." I laughed out loud. He caught me red-handed.

Here's why pop psychology books are my guilty pleasure. Not self-help books — I'm talking about books that purport to reveal the inner workings of the mind, the secret ways humans view and process the world. The guilt is in the fact that even though I say "humans" what I really mean is "me." What I'm really interested in is the way I think. It's a total indulgence.

I read The Psychopath Test not just to learn about people who suffer the disorder, but to compare myself with them. To say "Look, I'm not a psychopath. I don't have "superficial charm" or a "parasitic lifestyle." See? See??

This book managed to trigger not only guilt, but also its sisters — shame and embarrassment. I was just a few pages in when I began to regret my choice of reading material. Not because it wasn't a good book. I was gripped by the anecdote about a mysterious cryptic book that's been sent to numerous academics across the world. Later I was even more awed by his portrayal of "Tony from Broadmoor" a man who claims he faked being a psychopath to avoid being sent to prison, only to find that now nobody will believe he's not a psychopath. Then there are Ronson's encounters with Bob Hare, the man who developed the psychopath test of the book's title. All good. All compelling.

My regrets were about the implications of its title. Reading this book in an airport lounge, I wondered if people thought I was taking a psychopath self-assessment? Are they edging away from me? Then a whole different thought emerged: What if the title draws a real psychopath to me?

I tipped the book into my lap and angled my body away. Then, to make extra sure nobody could see the cover, I folded it over.

But once onboard the plane I thought again. Who cares what anybody thinks? I'm not ashamed. I feel no guilt. Hmmm ... but wait ... "Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt." What if this means I am a psychopath after all?

My Guilty Pleasure is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.