Jon Ronson is an English journalist who gets called to help decipher a homemade book delivered to scientists around the world. But beyond that, he is asked to determine if there is some “secret message” being relayed to the recipients or is this some elaborate hoax. In his quest he is led to a larger pursuit, i.e. who is or isn’t crazy, who decides who is crazy, and what does crazy look, sound and act like. And perhaps most importantly, what is the psychiatric community’s part in the ever-exploding field of defining, treating, medicating and maintaining mental disturbances in people.
Ronson travels the world interviewing real people and experts from a Haitian death squad leader, Scientologists, psychopaths in mental hospitals, a CEO from a major corporation “reorganizing and downsizing,” i.e. firing hundreds with seeming glee, an FBI profiler and the man responsible for creating the now widely accepted assessment instrument, the Hare Scale, used to determine psychopathy (which birthed the DSM.).
Of particular interest, is a discussion of the psychiatric community’s bible, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in revision V). This manual chronicles what are considered any and all mental disturbances using criteria and checklists to help determine who is disturbed and what is the particular name of a person’s mental disorder. Ronson also poses questions about the legitimacy of what the DSM purports to be disorders and the process to include them, e.g. computer addiction, binge eating disorder. Ronson also explores ethical issues relative to the sometimes unseemly relationship between the psychiatric community and drug companies.