Like all the best ideas, Caresaway started when a writer walked into a pub. The pub was the Monarch in Camden, where the local Sceptics in the Pub had gathered to hear Jon Ronson talk about his new book, The Psychopath Test. The writer was me.
Ronson’s talk was a longer version of what he said to TED, embedded below. He planted the seed of a story when he said that while around 1% of people are psychopaths, the percentage is much higher in two different populations: incarcerated prisoners and senior business executives.
When Ronson was taking questions, a fellow skeptic stuck his hand up and asked what was the difference between a psychopath who ended up in prison and a psychopath who becomes a millionaire businessman. Ronson answered that it was probably to do with the social stratum they’re born into. A psychopath raised at the bottom end of the social scale is likely to drift into criminality and spend much of their life in prison. If a psychopath’s parents send them to a good school and a prestigious university, they will manipulate their way up the business world.
Another skeptic asked whether psychopathy could be cured. No, said Ronson, but even if it was possible, it may not be ethical to do it. Unlike people with most personality disorders, psychopaths tend to be quite happy being psychopaths. They do not get depressed, but retain a high opinion of themselves and an optimistic view of their future regardless of their circumstances.
Aha, I thought, so you could not only cure depression by making someone a psychopath, but you could make them successful in business. There’s a ready-made story in that!
Well no, because at the time, I had only a vague idea of what a psychopath is. I knew they lacked empathy but that was about it. I promptly read The Psychopath Test, in which Ronson describes his own tour through the world of psychopathy. Ronson learned that like most personality disorders, a psychopathy is defined by rating symptoms on a checklist. If you score 30 out of a possible 40, you’re a psychopath.
A textbook psychopath lacks any sort of empathy or sympathy, which makes them able to lie and manipulate with such a facility that most people simply cannot believe anyone can be so dishonest. They have a dangerous combination of a constant need for stimulation, impulsivity and inability to set long term goals, which makes them toxic within any organisation: they will always want more power or pay than they have, and they don’t care whether they demolish the organisation in their quest for it. Contrary to what Hannibal Lecter has led many of us to believe, there is no link between psychopathy and either intelligence or propensity toward violence, although the three traist can co-occur. A psychopath with a taste for violence is a very dangerous creature indeed and if they happen to be intelligent as well, you get Ted Bundy. Fortunately, such a coincidence of traits is very rare.
I didn’t want to add yet another member to the massed ranks of fictional serial killers, but Ronson had got me very interested in the psychology of psychopathy. The next book I read on the subject was Snakes in Suits co-authored by Robert Hare, the man who came up with the psychopath checklist in the first place. It was both a description of how psychopaths operate in the corporate world and an instruction manual on how to spot them. I used it as an instruction manual on how to create a fictional psychopath.
Thanks to Ronson and Hare, the psychopaths in Caresaway are literally textbook psychopaths. Real psychopaths may pass the threshold of 30 points without having all the traits on the checklist, but I gave mine every single trait I could work into it.
As I wanted to explore the idea of why psychopathy might be induced, the obvious answer was as a treatment for depression. From there, character development largely took care of itself: I wanted a character who would be trapped between being a decent person with depression or a happy psychopath. Then I blundered into a blind alley: the first protagonist I came up with was an investigator who would become aware of strange happenings involving a pharmaceutical company. No story I sketched out from there compelled me to write it and the story was stuck in my idea swirl until I realised I’d bottled out of what it really needed. I needed to tell it from inside the mind that was swinging between depression and psychopathy. Once I’d worked that out, it spilled on to the page.
I’ve been lucky to have two excellent editors work on Caresaway. Melanie Nelson at Annorlunda solicited the opinions of several people who suffer from depression to make sure that element was realistic, although I should admit that it has not been similarly vetted by any psychopaths. She also suggested I remove the name of a certain litigious real estate tycoon that one of the characters namechecked.
Nerine Dorman did the heavy lifting of the editing, as well as stopping me from embarrassing myself in the parts of the book set in Cape Town. If you happen to speak Afrikaans, yes that spelling is intentionally phonetic in deference to the fact that most Anglophone readers won’t know what to make of the correct spelling. I am deeply grateful to both Nerine and Melanie for their work on making Caresaway what it is.
Jon Ronson on The Psychopath Test: