Jon Ronson is the bestselling author of Them, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and The Psychopath Test. His new book, Lost at Sea, is a collection of feature stories he’s written about cults, psychics, credit cards, robots, murders, Stanley Kubrick, Insane Clown Posse, and the town of North Pole, Alaska.
The Millions: How would you describe the subject matter of Lost at Sea?
Jon Ronson: Well I called it Lost at Sea for a reason. It’s a collection of stories I wrote over 15 years, but I think there are themes and the biggest theme, for me anyway, is how everybody in the book, including me, feel in some way as if they’re lost at sea, and are grasping for something to get them through. And the thing that they often grasp for is something that’s kind of irrational, makes no sense, is ridiculous. But the book is never, I hope, condescending. It’s always kind of empathetic. And it becomes almost a celebration of irrationality as a human character trait to be cherished.
Other themes come through which really interest me. People’s fear of humiliation is a weird recurrent theme. The number of times people in the book — I noticed this when I was doing the audiobook for Audible — the number of times people say, “The thing that I was most afraid of in life was being humiliated or looking stupid, and here it was coming true.”
TM: Did you set out to be a recorder of the world’s weird people, or did you just end up with them?
JR: I ended up with them. For some reason I feel most alive when I’m doing those sort of stories. The other day I was in a housing project in Tennessee interviewing an amazingly eccentric person and I just loved it, I loved being there. I felt so happy to be there documenting this story from the shadows, from the fringes of society. And I could probably analyze myself to work out why I like doing those stories most of all, but the fact is I just do. I always feel really privileged to be in a place where people don’t normally get to go, and that includes Broadmoor [Hospital] in The Psychopath Test and every story in Lost At Sea.
There’s a story that’s not in the hardback but will be in the paperback with Phoenix Jones the real-life superhero who I went off fighting crime with. He dresses up in a superhero suit of his own making and I went out busting crime with him and it was terrifying. I love Phoenix, yet going off to fight crime with him was a kind of ridiculously stupid thing to do. He decided to break up a gang of 30 armed crack dealers with nothing but his superhero outfit on. And his was bulletproof and I only had like a t-shirt and cardigan. But even in a story like that I thought I’m in a place where people don’t get to go and it just makes me so happy.
TM: As someone who generally writes about society’s abnormalities, why do you think people agree to talk to you?
JR: Well I’m always very honest in my approach, but I’m also kind of passionate. And I’m very non-judgmental. I never feel superior to the people I interview, because I think that it’s my irrational character traits that see me through too. It also helps that I know George Clooney. When I put in the email, “You may know my book The Men Who Stare at Goats, it was recently made into a film starring George Clooney.” It’s like a kind of magical door opener.
TM: Maybe they think that he played you in the film, so that you look must look like George Clooney.
JR: That could help. Or that George Clooney might make another movie and it will be their story and George Clooney will play them.
But I do think that the main reason is that I come from a place of curiosity. I want to solve whatever mystery the person I’m approaching is part of. It always comes from a place of genuine interest. I’d be interviewed by me. I feel that would be fine.
TM: It comes across in Lost at Sea, and in Psychopath Test, that people expose themselves with very little prompting. Do you find that to be true?
JR: If I’m completely open and honest with people when I’m with them and genuinely curious and genuinely passionate, people are open and honest back to me. I think if I went in judgmentally, and from time to time I do, it never works out. I always try never to interview people I don’t like, who I want to attack.
TM: What about Sylvia Browne? [In “Is She For Real?” Ronson goes on a cruise featuring celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne, who he notices gives bad news when she’s in a bad mood (“Am I ever going to have a better relationship with my father?” “No.”), good news when she’s in a good mood (“I want to know if my son will come back safely.” “Yes, honey.”), and comes across as narcissistic and manipulative.]
JR: Yeah, well she’s somebody who I didn’t like and did want to attack. The best example in Lost at Sea is the Dave McKay story – the guy from Jesus Christians – we ended up just hating each other. A lot of people do like that story and some people have said that it’s their favorite story of mine, but I feel really uncomfortable with that story because it ended up just being a war between us. And we both sort of shut down. So it became this story about the war and about shutting down. That does no good, because I don’t add any joy to the world with that story.
[Dave McKay is the leader of the Jesus Christians, a religious sect. As chronicled in “Blood Sacrifice,” McKay encouraged his members to donate their kidneys to complete strangers as an act of altruism. At one point he says that he knows of a woman who will die without a kidney, but he’s not going to instruct one of his members to donate theirs to her because he knows Ronson would call that manipulative, and he wants her death to be on Ronson’s conscience.]
TM: Do you have a threshold for craziness? Have you ever maybe started a story and then realized that the person wasn’t crazy enough or the topic wasn’t weird enough?
JR: Yes. I once spent three months trying to write a book about the credit card industry. This was before the crash, and my editor always reminds me that if I had carried on with the book it would have come out when the crash happened. But the problem was that I wrote the piece “Who Killed Richard Cullen” [about a man in crippling debt] which is in Lost at Sea and became really fascinated with the credit industry and wanted to expand the story into a book. Now that one story took me six months to write, and then I spent the next three months figuring out how to expand it onto a book and basically what I realized was that all these people who work in the credit industry – the list brokers, all these people who’ve got these devious tricks to keep us ensnared – are a) really important and doing really malevolent things, but b) so boring, that it was kind of impossible to write about them in any kind of entertaining way. So I say in The Psychopath Test — and it’s really kind of a wrench in my heart, this line – if you want to get away with wielding true malevolent power, be boring, because we want to look good as writers, so we want our prose to be colorful and exciting. We don’t get there with list brokers, or credit people, because they’re so dull.
TM: Do you still get mail for Titch? [While writing “Who Killed Richard Cullen,” Ronson made up several alter egos and signed them up for subscriptions and mailing lists based on their varied income levels and tastes, in order to see how they were targeted by credit offers. Titch Ronson, who was enthusiastic for guns and porn, was ardently courted by credit card companies.]
JR: Yes I do. I’m relying on the person who now owns our old apartment in London to send the mail on, and so once every couple of months he sends a package and there’s still letters to Titch in every package. I am like one of those journalists who becomes a heroin addict to get in with the drug gang and then can’t kick the heroin. Titch is like my heroin addiction. He follows me around.
TM: Are there any other stories like that that you can’t seem to shake?
JR: Psychopaths definitely.
TM: I was wondering your experience with psychopathology affects the way you watch election coverage.
JR: I try not to blithely diagnose people I don’t like as psychopaths because in fact The Psychopath Test is almost – well not almost; it is – a cautionary tale to not do that. But I still get really excited when somebody in a position of great wealth and power behaves in a way that’s straight out of the psychopath checklist.
And I worry slightly that sometimes people read The Psychopath Test in the wrong way. The first half of the book you have great fun becoming drunk with your psychopath-spotting powers and start diagnosing all your enemies as psychopaths. But then the second half of the book becomes a cautionary tale not to do that. I do sometimes worry that people really like the first half of the book and then don’t bother with the second half. For instance I heard that Glenn Beck, when the book first came out, used it on the radio to diagnose Obama as a psychopath. So we all bring a lot of our own baggage to the psychopath test.
TM: Do you think you’ve ever successfully diagnosed a psychopath outside of your research for The Psychopath Test?
JR: Something kind of extraordinary happened shortly after I wrote The Psychopath Test. I was doing an interview, completely unrelated, with a spy. I was at his house and what I noticed was that he wasn’t really answering my questions, and his answers were really long. He talked for like 20 minutes, completely unrelated to the question I asked him. And that reminded me of something Robert Hare [the psychologist who developed the psychopath test] said, that sometimes psychopaths make totally lousy interviewees because an interview is an empathetic process. He didn’t seem to be the least bit interested in answering my questions, all he wanted to do was grandstand. He just wanted to talk at me.
I remember what Robert Hare said so I thought, ok I’m just going to ask one or two questions from the psychopath test, so I said to him “When you were at school, were you a bully?” And he said, “Yes! Yes I was.” He said I used to hide behind a tree and I would jump out and I would hit people with my bag and it had a brick in it. Like he was going to hurt them a lot. I said, “How did that make you feel?” and he said, “Good.” And I said, “How does it make you feel now looking back on it?” and he said, “Still good.” He did add that the people he would jump out at and hit with a brick were bullies. And then I said, “So are you the sort of person who doesn’t really empathize with other people?” And he said, “No, I don’t really.” He said, the only time I’ve ever got upset — because the people he’d hurt or killed, because he was a spy — the only time I get upset is when a dog dies. Then I’ll cry and I’ll cry but the people I’ve hurt I just don’t think about. And all the questions I asked him were things I’d picked up from the psychopath test.