"We woke up one day and something big was gone"
Journalist and author of The Psychopath Test Jon Ronson ends his TEDtalk on an ominous note. “What would you have done?” he puts it to the audience. His own book and supportive research had been crucial to freeing an inmate from Broadmoor, an actual real-life “asylum for the criminally insane”. Consequently, the former inmate invited Ronson to coffee to thank him for his work. Ronson confesses never having attended.
“What would you have done?” Ronson’s invitation for us to step into his shoes, after his talk illustrates the difficulties with both the “Psychopath Test” (an actual test developed by Dr. Robert Hare) and the medical science of psychiatry that treats the mental disorder of psychopathy, holds up a kind of dark mirror to us all. Earlier, Ronson had reminded us that “the things that seemed most normal about Tony (the former inmate), was evidence according to his clinician that he was mad in this new way.” And right in the very beginning Ronson primed us with a question as to psychiatry’s own motivations as a discipline. “…Maybe the psychiatry profession has a kind of strange desire to label what is essentially normal human behavior as a mental disorder”.
By the time we wend our way into the final moments of the talk, we must clearly have some doubts about the validity of the test, if not the validity of the very notion of psychopathy as a mental aberration. And yet, Ronson’s own choice not to meet with Tony is not merely a sign of reticence on his part, but indicative that some belief might still be vested in both the Test and the practice of psychiatry and the notion of psychopathy. And if we follow along in that choice, if we ourselves agree that we would not have met with Tony in that situation, does that point to mental disorder on our part?
Ronson’s first flirtation with psychiatry, and his justifiable curiosity as to his own catalog of disorders happens by chance. The DSM, the manual of psychiatric disorders, lies randomly on a friend’s bookshelf and Ronson picks it up and begins self-diagnosis. The very dramatic chords that accompany this critical moment in the evolution of Ronson’s thinking cue us in to a broader reality—this is not the safe curiosity of science. This is the other kind of curiosity, the moment of horror, the moment right before we should look away from the screen, but don’t.
What if Ronson had never picked up that book? Would things have worked out differently? Would Ronson have been “safe”? This chance encounter that leads to a reimprinting of a psyche (a low-level reimprinting for Ronson, granted) is exactly the crux of writer Gregg Hurwitz’s new arc on Batman: the Dark Knight. Begun in issue #10’s “Hollow Man” (a clear reference to the TS Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men”), this new arc explores the idea of reimprinting. What if one of the primary Bat-Villains, the Scarecrow, somehow found a way to leverage Batman’s deepest fears an restructure his personality with those?
This issue follows exactly that scenario, and exposes Gregg’s formidable grasp of the Dark Knight’s inner fears. “Because it’s not snakes and spiders,” Gregg had said to me in a low, almost confessional tone, right before the release of issue #10, “and it’s not even the Joker or the Penguin”.
As Gregg walks us down a Pit and the Pendulum-esque path where the Scarecrow openly tortures the Dark Knight with ‘Crow’s own trademarked fear toxins, we find ourselves drawn deeper into an uncomfortable truth—that much like Ronson’s own (at first) casual flirtation with the idea of psychopathology, the Dark Knight’s own missteps is an essential curiosity. The trauma of the Batman Gregg convinces us, does not lie in his past but in his present. How did the Batman come to be? By what deep mechanism did this tireless engine, this force of nature, evolve from the sad ashes of a childhood tragedy?
This curiosity, and the attendant uncertainty which Ronson himself manifests (to understand the Batman’s own psychic uncertainty, you’ll have to read the issue, because the twist is too delectable to just blurt after a “spoiler alert” warning), makes a savage statement about the Batman. And offers a vision of the character so unique, I’m left to wonder if Gregg has merely equalled Chris Nolan’s magnificent trilogy, or if he’s already surpassed it.
So treat yourself. Get issues 10 though 12 of Batman: the Dark Knight and read them in one sitting. But keep the Ambien handy because you’ll need it. And when you do, youtube the original version of “Danny Says”, the Ramones version of the song on their 1980 album, End of the Century. Not only because the pokey love song is the perfect counterpoint to the band’s ongoing gospel of punk rock (and it is), not because Phil Spector took the band back to the proverbial scene of the crime where he produced his famous Wall of Sound recordings in the 60s, not because the song itself is a counterpoint to the brutal excavation of the Bat-psyche (and it is this too). But because, you want to ask yourself while you’re reading, is Dee Ramone’s account of events really to be trusted? Did Phil Spector really hold the Ramones hostage for some 13 days?
Because more than anything, that little tidbit of Rock N Roll lore will put you in exactly the right frame of mind, for the absolutely phenomenal ending to the first year of Batman: the Dark Knight.