New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
High Profile

Strange but true

For two decades, the journalist Jon Ronson has been exploring the margins of human nature, from conspiracy theorists to psychopaths to 'men who stare at goats'. Nick Thorpe got his number in New York.

HP1.jpg

You're known as someone who is fascinated by people on the fringes. Where did that fascination come from? Can you trace it back to your childhood?

I've sometimes thought that because I didn't fit in very well in school, maybe I was forced into the role of an on­looker, and maybe for that reason I identified with people on the fringes.

You didn't have a privileged upbringing, did you?

No, absolutely not. I went to a private school in Penarth for a little while, until I was 12 or so; but it was a terrible school - you know, constant beatings. And it wasn't fancy. I mean, I think I would have enjoyed the beatings a little more if the walls had been wood-panelled.

What sort of values did your parents instil in you?

Well, I did go to synagogue every week for a little while. We had a car crash in 1975, in which somebody died in the car in front. (Already I'm telling you stuff I've never told anybody!) It was late and dark and we were in the fast lane and there was a car in the middle lane and they hadn't closed their boot properly and it flew up, and the guy panicked and drove into the fast lane. My dad said: 'We're going to crash.' I rem­ember seeing flames on the windscreen - and then my brother and I were crouching on the verge and our car was completely engulfed in flames. My dad had broken his back. He ended up in hospital for months.

And he decided that the reason we had survived was because of God. So, we were forced to go to synagogue every week. That's the punchline to this story.

And what did you make of that?

I resented it. I know you're a Christian, so I apologise for my resentment, but… You know, the men and women had to sit separately, which seemed ridiculous to me even then, at the age of eight. And there was all the rituals - I wouldn't say they were Hasidic but they were definitely extremely Orthodox. I had to go to Hebrew school and everything. It was just a pain in the arse.

What were the influences that eventually prompted you to go into journalism?

There was an arts centre in Cardiff that I used to go to all the time and they'd show interesting films - I re­m­ember seeing Woody Allen films and Martin Scors­ese's [The] King of Comedy, and listening to the Beatles and the Sex Pistols and Tom Waits. I learnt that there were mys­ter­ious worlds beyond the world of Cardiff that were ex­plorable - and my way into that was journalism.

You've become well known for your faux naif approach. What led you to that?

I think if I ever was genuinely faux, it was something I was doing when I was finding my feet, and my voice. I mean, there isn't a faux word in The Psychopath Test,1 for instance.

I go into worlds that I don't understand and try and solve the mystery of them. It's genuine en­quiry, genu­ine naivety. Faux naivety implies that you already know the answer and you're just pretending not to. It implies a certain duplicity, and I don't think I'm in the least bit duplicitous.

HP2.jpg

OK, but still there's a certain calculation in the way you approach (for example) Noel Edmonds and his game show Deal or No Deal in your 2006 piece in the Guardian,2 surely? You're thinking: This'll be funny if I put it like this.

I certainly look for funny lines and I'm thrilled when I get them - to me, it's like finding a jewel in the carpet. As I said in The Psychopath Test, if you want to get away with wielding truly malevolent power, be boring, be-­cause people like me won't write about you because we want to look good, too, with our engaging prose.

At the time when I wrote that Guardian story, I was having a rotten time with a book I was trying to write about the credit-card industry - I was de­pressed. So, when I was in the middle of the Deal or No Deal world it was joyful to find the likeable, funny, ab­surd human side of all the sadness there was backstage. An awful lot of people can't handle the game's randomness and they try and come up with structure - psychic ways of trying to work out what's in the box, or complex mathematics. So, it became a piece about all these people trying to control life's randomness.

You always come across as very open-minded. You seem to find things in even the most repellent extremists that you actually quite like.

I certainly try to. I can only think of one occasion when I have found somebody completely without merit, and that was a man called Dave McKay, who was the leader of the Jesus Christians.3 He suggests to his members that maybe they should donate their spare kidneys to stran­g­ers, because Luke [3:11] says: 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.' An awful lot of them decided that they would and they invited me in to document it. I didn't necessarily have a problem with that aspect of things - in fact, it was incredible that they did it - but when I began to ask whether Dave was co­ercing them into doing it and whether some of them were too young to make [such a] decision - you know, legitimate questions - he went crazy, and vicious.

It culminated in him sending me an email that said that there was this woman in Scotland called Christine who needed a kidney - and I'd met Christine and liked her very much - and she'd taken a turn for the worse and he could instruct one of his members to give her a kidney, but if he did I would only accuse him of man­i­pulation and so he had decided to let Christine die and let her death be on my conscience.

He's the only person I can think of in whom I could­n't find anything to like.

Which is saying something, given that you have spent time with neo-Nazis and a PR man for the Ku Klux Klan. Do you find you can feel empathy for these people only by being less empathetic towards their eventual victims?

I suppose the fact is, when I go in to meet somebody my natural instinct is to like them. Which I think is just the way I am, and also probably good for the kind of writing I do. But of course I'm empathetic to their victims, too. Long sections of all my books detail the suffering of the victims of the people I write about.

Do you think you get a better story by befriending people rather than being confrontational like a Jeremy Paxman?

Yeah, I do sometimes. Paxman is all about pressurising somebody into revealing themselves, hoping that when they lose their temper, or feel publicly shamed, they'll say something outrageous or extreme. You know, I like
watching that as much as anyone, but I don't think it's what I want to dedicate my life to doing. I want to dedicate my life to getting people's nuances. I see myself in the same world as somebody like [Werner] Herzog.4

Though maybe your humour is more overt than his…

You know, if I fail to find humour I think I've failed. But I feel very uncomfortable about ridiculing people.

In 1996-7, for a documentary you were doing, you spent a year following around Omar Bakri Muhammad, who was then the leader of the now proscribed organisation al-Muhajiroun. At one point, you even looked after some money he had collected for Hamas and Hezbollah.5 Does there ever come a moment, in situations like that, when you feel you ought to say something?

You have probably pinpointed one of the most difficult moments I have ever been through, you know, mor­ally. Omar was loading the money into his car and he'd forgotten his coat, so he said: 'Can you just look after it for me?' There was about £5,000's worth of loose change in these huge plastic novelty Coca-Cola bottles. If I'd grabbed them and made a run for it, I'd have probably got to the corner and Omar would have come out and said, 'What are you doing?' In that situation, the best I could do - and actually all I could do - was stand guard for the 30 seconds till he got his coat, and then be completely honest and write about it and put it out there.

So, do you see what you do primarily as entertainment, or are you trying to change the world in some way?

Well, I think both of those things - and also [I want] to understand the world better, to understand why people behave the way they do. Quite often, when I meet psy­cholog­ists and psychiatrists, they say to me: 'We're all in­terested in the same thing, aren't we?'

I interviewed an 'extreme porn' star the other day and I said to her: 'Who do you do this for? For you or for the viewers?' And she said: 'I do it for the world. I
do it for everybody.' I feel the same way about my wri-ting: I try and do it for everybody.

You're the opposite to John Major, I guess, when he said that we should condemn a little more and understand a little less.

I'm absolutely the opposite of that. You know, I have a problem with condemnation, because it implies an aw­-ful lot of self-assurance on the part of the condemner. Nobody is superhuman. Condemners have to be aware of their own weaknesses and biases and difficulties.

I found this quotation today from [the editor of the Daily Mail,] Paul Dacre: 'Since time im­memorial, pub­lic sham­ing has been a vital el­e­m­ent in de­fending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping en­sure that citizens - rich
and poor - adhere to them for the good of the greater community.'6 Now, I know what he means, but the prob­lem is that, for it to work, the 'public shamers' have to be do­ing it for completely altruistic reasons. The problem is, quite often they have nefarious intent.

HP3.jpg

You're a populist at heart, aren't you? Do you think you simplify things?

No, I think I take things that other people simplify and I make them complicated.

But, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said (though it may have been somebody else, I can't remember): 'I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.' I certainly feel that.

In your TED talk last year,7 you said that journalists take 'the outermost aspects of our interviewees' personality and we stitch them together [and] leave the normal
stuff on the floor.' Is that just the nature of the genre?

It's something I think should be avoided.

Although it does make for funnier reading, doesn't it?

Well, as I say, there's simplicity this side of complexity and there's simplicity the other side of complexity; and one is something to be avoided and one is something that should be cherished.

What do you say to those who suspect that sometimes you fictionalise your journalism? Is that permissible?

When you do anything except publish the transcript, you're shaping a story; but there's a very big difference between shaping a story and making things up. If journalists want to make things up, they should become novelists.

Have you ever written anything you really regret?

Let me think. Years and years ago, I made a documentary series about critics for Channel 4 and one of them was about Christopher Tookey of the Daily Mail trying to get [the 1997 film] Lolita banned. I felt we turned him too much into a caricature.

But in general you stay on the right side of the line?

Well, I certainly feel that the older I get, the better I get at it. The older you get, the more you realise that, you know, we're all filled with flaws and life is difficult and we're just trying to get through it. It's much harder to go into any kind of non-fiction situation and portray yourself as better than the people you're writing about when you realise how hard life is.

You've long taken an interest in other people's religious faith. Am I right that you would call yourself a humanist?

Well, I am a 'distinguished supporter' of the [British] Humanist [Association], but I don't necessarily feel I de­serve to be. I'm a humanist to the extent that I believe that people are good and that we should be kind to each other. But I don't believe in being Dawkins­ish. I don't be­lieve in anything that just sort of closes the door.

(I've got nothing against Richard Dawkins personally - in fact, I've met him and he seemed nice. And I think The God Delusion could probably be very helpful to some people - some kid in some small town in America could get great comfort from it. But his brand of scepticism isn't something I feel comfortable with at all.)

So, is it certainty that's the problem, rather than faith?

Yeah. I mean, I think certainty is one of the great problems in the world. It's one of life's great tyrannies -
and we all succumb to it. You know, we all hate it when our politicians 'flip-flop' - it's considered one of the great weaknesses in a politician.

In 2000, you wrote about going on an Alpha course.8 I
got the impression that you rather liked Nicky Gumbel.

Yeah, I did, I liked him very much, and I loved going on Alpha. In fact, I did Alpha again for a documentary for Channel 4 a few years later. I did get Nicky into - well, he got himself into a little bit of difficulty as a result of that story, though. Somebody asked him: 'Why does the Bible condemn homosexuality? I have a friend who's gay and to him it's completely normal.' And Nicky said: 'Well, first of all I want you to know that I have many, many gay friends and there's even an Alpha course for gays running in Beverly Hills, which I think is marvellous; but if a paedophile said [that paedophilia] was com­pletely normal for him, you wouldn't think that was OK. I wouldn't for a second compare being gay to being a paed­ophile, but unfortunately the Bible makes it very clear that gay people do need to be healed. However, I would strongly advise against using the word "healed" to them - they hate that word!'

There was a point when, you said in the article, you genuinely wondered whether God was speaking to you.

We had an awful lot of trouble [conceiving] our son, Joel - I remember a friend of mine who never managed to have a child saying that every month was like a funeral without a corpse - and as I was thinking about this, sitting at the back of HTB, Nicky quoted from the Book of Joel [2:25]: 'I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.' So, afterwards I said to him: 'Do you think that was a coincidence or a message from God?' And he said: 'You'll have to decide that.' And I said: 'Yeah, but what would you say?' And he said: 'I would say definitely a message from God.'

I chose not to believe it was a message from God.

Have you ever had an experience of religion that made you think, 'Actually, I could go for this'?

That was the one that made me come closest.

And what put you off?

Well, [Nicky saying] that gay people need to be healed. You know, that's kind of offputting, isn't it? The whole sense of… I didn't want to be involved in anything that condemns other people's - I'm not a condemner.

But also I'm not sure I believe in God…

Gumbel likes to quote CS Lewis's contention that Jesus was either the Son of God or else a lunatic - he couldn't have been just a great moral teacher. Do you buy that,
or do you think it's possible to be a great teacher but still be mistaken about something as basic as whether or not you are God?

Yes, I think that is possible. And in fact one of the things The Psychopath Test is about is, you know, the madness at the heart of great thinking.

You talk in that book about the handbook of mental disorders, DSM-IV, and you say that you reckon you suffer from 12 of them…

I think that the reason people like The Psychopath Test so much is because it really comes from the heart.

Are you really as anxious as it suggests?

Anxiety is a big part of my life. Which is why, ac­tually, writing a book about psychopathy was such a good idea for me, because it is like the neurological op­posite of an­xiety. To find a subject that comes from a really im­portant part of your own life but in a slightly counterintuitive way is exactly what writers should be doing, so I feel kind of lucky and blessed that I chanced upon that subject for the book.

Do you know where your anxiety comes from?

God knows. I veer towards nature over nurture - you know, towards thinking people are basically born the way they are. I'm aware that that's massively controversial.

It's comforting in a way, isn't it, to think that there is nothing you can do about it and you just have to be kind to yourself.

I mean, you can do things about it - you know, [cognitive behavioural therapy] can help anxiety. Medicat­ion, I guess, can help it, although I've never really had any. So, it's not hopeless.

HP4.jpg

Would you describe yourself as an introvert? I've read that you love to go to the cinema on your own.

I would say I was extremely introverted - and more so as I get older. I can barely go to parties - and if I do, I have to go off to the toilet and sit in a cubicle for a few minutes [every so often] to calm myself down.

Is introversion sometimes mistaken for lack of empathy?

Well, if anybody does mistake it, they're wrong. I think introverts are extremely empathetic.

I guess it's reassuring that you can't be a psychopath if you're anxious - although the expert opinion, you say, is that almost one in a hundred people are.

What are the key traits of psychopathy?

Lack of empathy, manipulativeness, lack of remorse, poor behavioural controls, impulsiveness, a grandiose sense of self-worth…

Which you realised are all features of life in the corporate world.

Yeah - and journalism. In the book, I detail every time I have to kind of [demonstrate a trait] from the psycho­path checklist9 to make the book work.

But, yes, corporate life, too. I visited one absolutely ruthless CEO and I went through the psychopath test with him and, sure enough, he redefined many of the items on the checklist as 'business positives'.

So, do we actually need psychopathy in some ways, if society is to develop and progress?

No, I don't think so. I don't see anything good… I think that if psychopathic character traits were eradicated from society, society would be better. There is a book out there called The Wisdom of Psychopaths10 that says the opposite, says that we can learn from psychopaths; but I'm not sure I buy that theory - because if you haven't got any empathy, you're malevolent.

Doesn't capitalism depend on such traits to some extent?

Well, capitalism in its most ruthless, extreme manifes-
tation. I mean, I'm living in America at the moment and everything here's a fucking market. But does it have to be like that?

What took you to the United States?

I guess, the spirit of adventure - like the early pioneers. We just thought it might be fun for a while. I do miss Britain.

Is it easier to find - how can I put it? - extreme people in the US than in Britain, perhaps?

I just look for great stories. Whether somebody is 'ex­-treme' or not is certainly not… Some of my best stories don't actually involve extreme people. I think that is one of the ways that my work has changed over the years - I still want to write stories about people who light up the page, but it's much more satisfying, I think, to write about complicated people.

I see that you've published online a piece, called 'One Cut', which is about ordinary people and social justice.11
I guess that you couldn't sell it to a newspaper because
it wasn't extreme.

I couldn't sell it to a newspaper for a slightly different reason, actually. I set out to write a piece that was anti the [public-spending] cuts - it was about what would happen to the kids who attended a drop-in centre for anxiety disorders when the place was closed down. So, I spent months following these kids - and they all got better! And as a consequence, people who were against the cuts didn't want to publish it.

It took me by surprise that the kids all got better. Obviously, I was, and am, against the cuts; but I had to write to the truth of what happened in that particular story, and that's what happened.

I went to see a TV executive here in New York rec­ently and he said, 'Oh my God, I am so bored of people coming in here saying, "I want to make a docum­en­tary about ethical businesses"! Who cares?'; but I think soc­ial-justice stories are incredibly important and I very much want to write them. Two of the best stor­ies in Lost at Sea are social-justice stories - and I'm trying to write one for my new book about public shaming at the moment.

So, actually I have as much ambition to write good, well-written, entertaining social-justice stor­ies as I have any type of story - in fact, more so.

It's often said that as people get older they tend to drift to the right. That doesn't seem to be the case with you.

I would say the opposite. I mean, I wouldn't say I was ever right-wing but I was certainly ambitious when I was starting out - I wanted to carve out my place in the world, and that's sort of right-wing, I suppose. And now I care an awful lot more about social-justice issues - possibly because I don't feel I need to carve out my place in the world so much any more, because I already have done. But also, as I said, the older you get the more you realise just how impossibly painful and hard life is and you want to do something about it.

Are you the kind of person who gets all tearful during
Les Misérables - or the Olympics?

Oh, yeah. Jesus! I find those things extremely emotional. I think Jessica Ennis was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me! I am very moved by culture and great achievement. Children doing well in theatri-cal situations, as well - I find that intensely moving…

HP5.jpg

What would you like to be remembered for? I take it that being played by Ewan McGregor in the film of The Men Who Stare at Goats is not going to be top of your list.

It's funny how dissociated I felt from that movie - it just didn't feel like an important part of my life at all.

So, what do you want to leave behind you?

Entertainingly written, kind of absurd, funny narrat­ive stories about things that really matter.

Actually, I am very excited about a new movie based on one of my stories, called Frank.12 I think it's going to
be brilliant. I co-wrote the screenplay - it's about being in a band.

 

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

I think I'm an optimist - but I'm quite unhappy.

 

At the end of The Psychopath Test, you observe: 'There is no evidence that we've been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.'

Is that the nearest you come to a credo?

Well, never in my life have I written something that was more wish-fulfilment than that - I knew that as I wrote it. It was like the author writing the happy ending even though he knows that the happy ending isn't that easy. But I'm glad if it provides comfort to people. Our anxieties are so painful, so upsetting - but if you can't see things in an optimistic way, you know, what hope is there?

--

NOTES

The Psychopath Test:
A journey through the madness industry
(Picador, 2011)

2  http://bit.ly/7ZiLSL. The story is included in
the new collection Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson mysteries (Picador, 2012).

3  The story is told in
Lost at Sea.

4  Interviewed in Third Way in May 2012

5  The story is told in Them: Adventures with extremists (Picador, 2001). Omar Bakri Muhammad was interviewed in Third Way in March 2003.

6  From a speech to the Society of Editors in November 2008 - see http://bit.ly/TxHgIh.

7  http://bit.ly/RUtJq9

8  http://bit.ly/9AOvI. The story is included in
Lost at Sea.

9  A psychodiagnostic tool developed by the criminal psychologist Robert D Hare

10  Kevin Dutton's The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success (Scientific American, 2012)

11  http://jonronson.
posterous.com/one-cut

12  It will be released
later this year, starring Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson. It is co-written by Peter Straughan and directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

--

BIOGRAPHY

Jon Ronson was born in Cardiff in 1967. He attended Cardiff High School and then studied journalism at the Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University) before dropping out in 1988.

For the next three years, he played keyboards in the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey! Big Band and also managed the indie band The Man from Delmonte.

In 1991, he started co-presenting with Craig Cash a late-night radio show on KFM in Stockport. When they were both sacked in 1994, he was recruited as
a columnist by Time Out.

In 1995, he was allocated £420,000 to make a series of six half-hour programmes for BBC2 entitled The Ronson Mission. He was subsequently engaged to make documentaries for Channel 4: New York to California (1996), Tottenham Ayatollah and the four-part series Critical Condition (both 1997), Dr Paisley, I Presume (1998), New Klan (1999), the five-part series Secret Rulers of the World (2001), The Double Life of Jonathan King (2002), Kidneys for Jesus (2003), I Am, Unfortunately, Randy Newman and the three-part series Crazy Rulers of the World (both 2004) and Revelations (2009). For More4, he has made Death in Santaland (2007) and Reverend Death and Stanley Kubrick's Boxes (both 2008). From 1996 to '98, he also presented a late-night chat show for Channel 4 called For the Love of….

His first book, Clubbed Class, was published in 1994. It was followed by Them (2001), which is to be filmed by Universal Pictures; The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), which in 2009 was turned into a film starring George Clooney; The Psychopath Test (2011); and Lost at Sea (2012). He also contributed the memoir
'A Fantastic Life' to the 2004 anthology Truth or Dare.

From 2004 to 2008, he wrote a weekly column for the Guardian telling 'true tales of everyday craziness', collected as Out of the Ordinary (2006) and What I Do (2007). Since 2011, he has had a video column on the Guardian's CiF website titled 'Esc and Ctrl'.

He produces and presents the BBC Radio 4 seriesJon Ronson on…, which has been nominated four times for a Sony award, and in the United States he contributes to Public Radio International, and especially This American Life.

He currently lives in New York with his wife and son.

This interview was conducted on January 21, 2013.

 


Leave a comment