‘Could you do a bit of research about psychopaths?’ a client recently asked me.
‘With pleasure.’ I said, rubbing my hands with delighted anticipation.
The book we’re working on is a sordid tale of family fraud involving millions of dollars and a particularly ruthless, potentially psychopathic, family member. And so off I went, starting with Jon Ronson’s wonderful The Psychopath Test to establish some basic character traits.
In that book, Ronson quotes a description of the archetypal psychopath by the Canadian psychologist, Bob Hare, who created the eponymous test – a checklist of behaviours and characteristics commonly found in psychopaths.
‘[psychopaths are] predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs.’
They sound nice. Hare goes on:
‘Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.’
Well, who wouldn’t want to read a bit more about them? So, my research over the past month or so has taken me into the disturbing world of international finance, corporate greed and malfeasance, and other dens of white-collar vice and criminality. I’ve read with grim pleasure about the exploits of ruthless, charming, manipulative, intimidating ‘entrepreneurs’ (predators) who have ripped off everyone they came across, leaving the victims destitute and the entrepreneurs inconceivably rich. And, usually but not always, in jail. Hoorah, at least, for that.
It’s been an education.
Doing the research has been interesting in a broader sense too. While it’s been enthralling to follow the stories of these people, I have to retain the focus on the story in hand. After all, this is my client’s story and, while these are addictive, ridiculously entertaining tales of psychopathic criminality, there’s a balance to be struck between understanding the mindset and seeing the whole story through the lens of psychopathy.
It’s something that ghostwriters must grapple with in every book we write: how much research should we do? Too much and our over-familiarity could blunt the edge of the questions we ask, missing the more basic information that the reader is in search of; too little and we’re in danger of missing a fascinating nuance or vital theme that the author presumes we understand.
In this case, I now feel like I understand more about psychopaths than I ever wanted to but realise I must avoid what Jon Ronson admitted to doing: trying to frame everyone he met in terms of the Psychopath Test. My story needs to be told without bending its elements to the established traits of psychopathy. Otherwise, I might be seen as trying to manipulate the truth which is, um, getting dangerously close to … psychopathic behaviour. Oh.