Beach & Coastal Walking, Random Rambles, Reviews
Comments 10

The Goat Who Stares at Men

Pangs of guilt again recently, readers, over my neglect of TGTW, which will shortly be celebrating its first birthday.

No excuses but the boring “too busy” to offer — any more and I’d give away my Dark Secret, the denouement of which is fast approaching. I’m not enjoying this secrecy thing as much as I thought I would — it’s bloody hard work in fact — but I suppose I have to stick with it now.

Not too much longer…

What else? I haven’t done much walking of late. After the achievement described in my last post, I deserve a slack spell, but really “The Project” has kept me too busy for much more than a daily ramble to Mug Shots, Sandgate, for my morning caffeine hit, then home again and back to, er, “work”. My real work (the paying kind) finished two weeks back, and the fun of unemployment, like the glow of a new romance, is also, sadly, wearing off.

Just over a week ago I had a visit from old friend and fellow plotter Chris. We got some chips from Doug’s, the famed waterfront seafood emporium in these parts, and sat down on the seawall a long while catching up, comparing plans and tales of woe.

Chris’s guarded grin in this picture…

..and my more obvious one in this one…

..stem from the presence just out of frame of a chubby, garrulous, slightly manic young fellow who saw me aiming my camera at the horizon and proceeded to overwhelm us with a high-speed exposition of the workings of the weather, the planetary bodies, and the universe in general.

It’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone say this immortal sentence:

Astrophysics is a bit of a hobby of mine.

But I do hope it’s not the last.

After he’d got the message that we’d learned enough for one lecture, we watched him shuffle off, and Chris turned to me and said, “Rain Man.”

We’ve both had our share of troubles of late, and while a fat, ripe moon climbed over the rim of the Pacific…

..I produced an almost-full bottle of Famous Grouse that’s been gathering dust on my shelf since I gave up the booze nearly a year ago.

Chris surprised me, but not much, by almost immediately taking a big fat swig from it, and then hugging it like a baby into the evening.

Several times he’d pass it to me and I’d come dangerously close to buckling and joining him in combination celebration and sorrow-dowsing, but I held boringly firm to my stupid, pointless ideals and stuck to my take-away latte.

“The way my head is right now,” I explained, “If I start, I won’t be able to stop.”

Inevitably, we relived parts of our epic journeys through Japan in 2008. We shared our various dilemmas. And we did some seasonal gift-exchanging.

As well as the scotch, I gave him some music and a pair of hiking pants that have never fitted me well (oh, God, I’m cheap).

From Chris, a book jammed with escape plans…

..and one you might have noted, appropriately positioned, in a photo in my last post, in which I outlined the symptoms of my latest mania:

“It’s got style in spades,” Chris observed, and he was right. Pop psychiatry, I suppose you’d call it, blended with some hilarious gonzo. Anyway, far more readable for me than your average Jung or Freud, and indeed the book does a decent job of trashing the whole western analysis phenomenon.

I read it over a few days and thoroughly enjoyed Ronson’s amusingly nerdish, comically paranoid investigation of the concept of psychopathy. The author (responsible for 2009’s The Men Who Stare at Goats) travels the world — though, tellingly, most of his time is spent in the psychopathic heartlands of America and Britain — cornering some of the major figures on both sides of the electrified, razor-wired fence.

The book centres on the Psychopathy Checklist formulated by Robert Hare, pioneer of the school of thought that psychopaths (about 1% of the population) are physically different from the rest of us: their lack of empathy, murderous cunning, lack of impulse control, etc, stem, Hare believes, from underdevelopment of the amygdalae — a word you’re all too familiar with by the book’s conclusion — in the brain’s medial temporal lobes.

Ronson gets to know a patient in Broadmoor who may or may not have been unfairly diagnosed using Hare’s prized checklist, meets an unquestionably psychopathic Haitian mass-murderer, and investigates the now widely accepted notion that many captains of industry are undiagnosed psychos wielding legal but often no-less-dangerous weapons.

The truly frightening thing is that Hare sees these people as essentially untreatable, though Ronson seems to conclude that it’s not misshaped hardware alone that produces the men and women of psychopathic infamy. Ronson is a master of interviews, distilling what must have been hours of talk-time into succinct and often darkly hilarious dialogue.

A favourite scene is his interview with notorious corporate head-hunter (in the firing rather than hiring sense) Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, the villainous creep who wiped out entire communities in his role of professional job-slasher. Ronson tangibly quakes with unease while touring Dunlap’s mansion, replete with statues of eagles, lions and other predators (psychopaths idolise predators, Hare informs us) and putting it to him over lunch that, just maybe, Dunlap is, well, a psychopathic monster.

“So, that list…?” said Al. He looked suddenly intrigued. “Go ahead,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

“OK,” I said. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, let’s do it…”

“OK. Item 1. Superficial charm.”

“I’m totally charming,” he replied. “I am totally charming!”

He, Judy and Sean laughed, easing the tension.

“Grandiose sense of self-worth?” I asked.

This would have been a hard one for him to deny, standing as he was below a giant oil painting of himself.

I learned a lot about the human brain with this book. Ronson loses focus with a side-trip into Over-Diagnosed Modern Syndromes Land, but overall it’s a fun ride considering its often disturbing subject matter.

And like its author, I found myself constantly applying the Checklist to my own psychology. Perhaps I’m biased, but like Ronson I had to conclude (a little disappointedly, it must be admitted) that, my amygdalae seem to be well — boringly well — formed. For one thing, I feel things a little too strongly to be a bona fide cold-blooded psycho. And I like to plan.

Which reminds me. Back to it…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. EW Phreak says

    I’ve been saying this for a while now and I think I’ve been proven correct. Long distance hikers have no taste in footwear…

    • The suspense is quite literally killing me. I long for certainty!

      T.B. seems to be going ok. Don’t think he’s made the NYT bestseller charts yet, though.

  2. Robert says

    Nice surprise to see you’re still nearby! Another great post and now I’ve another book to read…

  3. That’s a relief. That you’re not a psychopath, I mean. And well done for resisting the whisky. I’ve been alcohol-free myself for the past few months after my French walk. Though I fear Christmas will have to be endured somehow.

    • I might need a second opinion about my psychopathy, SW. I’m wondering if a complete absence of Christmas spirit is on Hare’s checklist. I don’t think alcohol alone will get me through it — might need something in a narcotic.

  4. Astrophysics is a bit of a hobby of mine.

    Saw that book reviewed over here. I met similarly interesting people in the course of my work, years ago, in social care. Someone I knew once walked into my office while I was working at a computer and quietly removed my jacket from the back of the chair I was sitting on. He took it to a second hand shop down the road and sold it. Why? He’d run out of cigarettes and wanted to buy some.

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