Given that, at one point, Jon Ronson describes himself as 'essentially [just] a humorous journalist out of his depth,' you might be surprised that the Cardiff-born writer and documentary filmmaker proved to be one of the Assembly Rooms genuine blockbusters, with the queue for his one-appearance-only turn snaking round the side of the venue like a constipated anaconda. His appeal could seem even stranger, given his somewhat shambolic, un-starry appearance on stage - with just a bottle of water and a couple of his books on the small table next to him. But Ronson undoubtedly has a way with words, not least in his opening unpublished tale about when his then nine-year-old son nagged him for the swear word worse than 'f***'; Ronson eventually told him it was 'limone' (the Italian for 'lemon'), and then felt incredibly guilty about lying to him (His son, of course, did eventually learn of the 'C word', and how to use it at his father).
Though still best known for his book The Men Who Stare At Goats - about the US military's investigations into New Age concepts and potential applications of the paranormal (it inspired the film starring George Clooney) - Ronson's main focus on this particular afternoon was his 2011 book, The Psychopath Test, in which he examines the apparent growth in the number of recognised mental disorders;the revered Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, has expanded significantly during the last century. Are mental disorders and syndromes genuinely increasing, or does the increased thickness of the latest (fifth) edition of DSM actually betray an innate tendency for psychiatrists to label everyday reactions to life as actual disorders, to reduce people to diagnoses?
One of the people Ronson met while researching the book was Tony, who had been advised to feign madness to get off a long prison sentence for GBH, had successfully done so, and then ended up being held in high security Broadmoor Hospital for an even longer time. As Tony explained to Ronson, it's far more difficult to convince people that you're sane than that you're mad; especially if you're classified as a psychopath. As Ronson suggested, a diagnosis of psychopathy almost seems like a psychiatrist’s easy way out; if you tick enough boxes in the standard ‘Psychopath Checklist’ (and quite a few business leaders do, apparently), the one can simply shut down any need for further diagnosis.
Ronson is an engaging and self-mocking speaker, capable of getting across some quite complex and stimulating ideas succinctly and with humour. Despite his own apparent anxious nature (at one point, using the DSM, he self-diagnosed himself as having a dozen disorders – though he didn't mention if a fear of public speaking was among them), several hundred people were more than happy to listen to what he had to say on a Sunday lunchtime in Edinburgh.