It is unclear quite what to expect from a man who notes as his proudest achievement a book that investigates the nature of psychopathy. My preconceptions were certainly not met by the corduroy-suited, ruffled-looking character that made his way to the microphone with a staccato pace denoting a certain nervous energy. Swigging his bottled lager, with a downward gaze suggestive of a tendency to avoid eye contact (despite the bright lights of the theatre removing such a risk almost completely), Jon Ronson’s bespectacled aesthetic bears a striking resemblance to a cross-culture amalgamation of Francis Boulle (of Made in Chelsea fame) and Bertolt Brecht. It is not the demeanour of a man who has compared himself to both Proust and Vonnegut, nor one that shares the psychopathic characteristics with which he must now be so familiar.
With the air of a stand-up comedian Ronson recounts a toe-curling social faux-pas, to a surprising degree of comic success; the only hint of his interest in psychology being a reference to the amygdala – the area of the brain related to impulse control. Despite his constant references to being riddled with social anxiety and an inability to communicate, Ronson clearly enjoys this medium of expression and seems to be in control of the audience, as they laugh when prompted and listen attentively.
It is unclear quite what to expect from a man who notes as his proudest achievement a book that investigates the nature of psychopathy
Ronson then introduces the first of two speakers, each of whom relates a personal history describing the results of psychiatric diagnosis. These stories are fascinating, beginning quite unassumingly, before unravelling in a gripping, plot-twist fashion that is both shocking and immersive. Ronson’s previously inexplicable comic opening now makes sense; the effect of the stories would not have been possible without the expectation defying opening, cleansing the palate of an audience waiting to be shocked. The two speakers, Mary and Eleanor, deserve commendation for their bravery and candour. Their compelling and almost disturbingly relatable accounts allow the audience to consider novel aspects of a subject matter little discussed.
However, the authenticity of these stories was muddied by Ronson’s clear objection to the psychiatric profession’s system of nomenclature that, as Ronson would have it, medicalises personality quirks and worsens distressing psychological experiences, condemning its subject to lengthy ‘internments’ in psychiatric wards. Astonishing pieces of information – such as the link between sexual abuse and hearing voices being greater than that between smoking and lung cancer – are not allowed to sit with the audience to realise their true enlightening potential, and are almost crudely attached to Ronson’s agenda.
Ronson’s previously endearing nervous titter at his own jokes took on a more disrespectful and belittling tone
In fact the degree to which he uses these accounts to support his argument seems inappropriate given the hardship and emotional trauma both Eleanor and Mary have undoubtedly faced. I began to find myself extremely off put by Jonson’s interview style, which tried to marry the earlier comedic frivolity with a biased investigative focus. Through questions such as “Did the voices complain about the long trek between tonight’s venue and hotel?”, Ronson’s previously endearing nervous titter at his own jokes took on a more disrespectful and belittling tone. His self-deprecatory manner began to appear false against his own clear belief in his view point, pride at being a humanist and blatant plugging of his podcast series.
Overall, this piece is well worth seeing, only it is best to retain some cynicism from the off. Some extremely interesting questions were raised, and no institution of thought, in this case psychology, should be allowed to stand without critique. However, this does not remove the need to remain conscious of the great suffering that those with mental illnesses undergo. Though there are incidents of systemic failings, the system is also of great use to many sufferers, and the absence of such recognition in Jon Ronson’s show leads not only to a one-sided argument, but very worrying consequences for those already scared to speak up and seek help for extremely dangerous and personal conditions.