Jon Ronson’s bestselling nonfiction works include The Psychopath Test, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is the only one of his books to become a film starring George Clooney (so far).
The Welsh-born writer began with a column in Time Out, before getting the opportunity to film a series for the BBC2 called The Ronson Mission—of which he is not particularly proud. The series did lead him into filmmaking, however, culminating in a documentary called Tottenham Ayatollah, about the Islamic militant, Omar Bakri Mohammed. The experience formed the basis of his first bestseller, Them. Ronson went on to become a kind of a latter-day gonzo journalist and filmmaker, writing and producing for the likes of The Guardian, This American Life, and even giving his own TED talk that’s basically a primer on how to spot a psychopath.
His latest is Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. An anthology of a decade’s worth of experience and adventure documenting the “dark, uncanny sides of humanity,” Lost at Sea offers profile after profile of the strange, unnerving, and occasionally preposterous things we are willing—and sometimes are all too eager—to believe. Through twenty-two often hilarious, occasionally chilling, and always surprising pieces, Ronson investigates some of the strangest corners of our hopes, fears, prejudices, and most fervent desires.
Upon getting ahold of Ronson by phone, I was well aware that my list of questions ran far longer and wider than the actual boundaries of space-time an author can reasonably be expected to stretch in order to answer them. We came away with one of those non-stop, fascinatingly meandering, frequently interrupting, talking-over-each-other, freewheeling kind of conversations. I have whittled, hacked, and streamlined it down to the version you may read below.
The Rumpus: I watched your interview on The Daily Show and Jon Stewart called your book “investigative satire.” Does that description work for you?
Jon Ronson: Yeah, I like it. Or maybe “investigative humorism.” I think it works. I want to immerse myself in an unfolding adventure in the way an investigative journalist does: drown yourself in the details and sort of lose yourself in the maze of the story, but come out on the other side not with a polemical treatise or a finger-wagging expose, but a with really nice piece of narrative nonfiction; to look at the nuances of the human condition in a funny way. So I go about it sort of in the way investigative journalists do, but I think my outcome is probably slightly different.
Rumpus: Your book purports to document “how deep our collective craziness” lies.
Ronson: Yeah, I kind of like that. In the old days, I would definitely put myself on the kind of level of rationality above the people that I was interviewing, and the older I got the less comfortable I felt with that position, because I felt it was kind of imperialistic and hierarchical and kind of not fair. Because, sure, I may not believe in the kind of crazy things they believe in, but the older I get the more I realize we’re all driven by irrationalities and compulsions. It’s unfair to make yourself look better than the people you’re interviewing. Which is why the “collective craziness” is nice. I think the world is changing a bit: we’re less inclined to sort of gang together to humiliate people and we’re more inclined to be a little bit more egalitarian about each other’s weaknesses. Do you think I’m right in that? I mean, have you sort of noticed that at all?
Rumpus: There was a book I wanted to bring up. It’s called The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, by Matt Huston.
Ronson: No, I don’t know it.
Rumpus: It’s pretty fascinating. It basically talks about how even the most secular, atheistic among us—which I would certainly count myself as—we all cling to different forms of magical thinking as a way to order our lives, give them purpose, and escape our own mortality, more or less.
Ronson: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with that. But I think it should be something we’re not ashamed of. It should be sort of like, “Well, okay, fuck it. It’s fine.”
Rumpus: Yeah, his point is that this is in many ways a good thing. This is a way of ordering ourselves. I wanted to get your take on this: do you think the subjects you document have similar subconscious motives? Or is that just too reductionist?
Ronson: No, I think they do. I completely agree with everything you just said. I come from the skeptical, secular world, and I give talks at skeptic conferences, and I like them. And I do think it’s important to draw a line in the sand between what’s true and what’s not true, and especially after 9/11 when you had those Truthers terrorizing people online, which I write about in The Psychopath Test… With a situation like that, it’s important to note a difference between rationality and irrationality… What I did notice going to these skeptic conferences was a certain sense of superiority. You know, we, the rational scientists, are sort of great and impeccable, and you, the believers in irrationality, are kind of lesser people.
Rumpus: Do you find it hard at all—you know, I can only speak from personal experience, which is that I’m from small-town, rural Ohio, where at a young age I encountered or dealt with people who thought Darwin is this conspiracy liberals cooked up to make your kids not believe in Jesus. So where do you come down on something like that?
Ronson: Wow. Well, obviously I come down on the side of rationality and liberal secularism completely. In fact, I was at Westminster Cathedral in London not so long ago, and I was talking to a tour guide, and he said he had led a group of American tourists, and when they walked past Darwin’s grave, one of them spat on it.
Rumpus: Right, as if algorithmic evolutionary processes are all just a silly cult this one British guy dreamt up.
Ronson: Oh, it’s enough to put a chill through you. So the question is, you have to be sure of what’s right and what’s wrong, but how do you do that in a way that’s utterly humane and humanistic? I don’t want to attack the people who believe in stuff, I don’t want to consider myself better than them. I want to consider myself on sort of a level as them.
Rumpus: You want to not be Richard Dawkins.
Ronson: Yes, in fact my friend Rebecca Watson was attacked by Richard Dawkins. She was in an elevator…
Ronson: You know this story?
Rumpus: I do know this story.
Ronson: Well there you go, exactly. I’ve no doubt there is some seventeen-year-old girl in some small town like the town you grew up in who was feeling suffocated, who read The God Delusion, and it kind of massively improved her life. But I feel very uncomfortable with the way Richard Dawkins and his crowd deal with believers in that sort of brutal way.
Rumpus: Well, not to get off on a whole tangent, but one of Dawkins’s contemporaries, Daniel Dennett, wrote the book—Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—that was kind of the synthesis for what I’d long held true, which is that religious ideas and their services and their structures do serve a purpose for people, and you have to be very careful in the way that you approach your rationality.
Ronson: Exactly, well maybe it’s the whole John Stuart Mill thing. And I don’t really know very much about John Stuart Mill—this actually comes from a friend paraphrasing him—but Mill said, “Anything goes, as long as people don’t get hurt.” So maybe that’s the idea. But I’m saying that as a complete John Stuart Mill ignoramus.
Rumpus: Let me use this to segue into the Insane Clown Posse. It’s the first and, by far and away, the funniest profile in the book, because it turned out their extremely violent and misogynist shtick was supposedly a front to reveal the truth about God; they revealed themselves essentially as a Christian rock band.
Ronson: I know it’s kind of hard to get your head around that. You know, if you’re going to write that deeply about God, you should probably at least do it in a way that someone will notice within twenty years.
Rumpus: And I hate to say it, but in this piece they sound so pitiable; they’re talking about how scientists can go fuck themselves for trying to explain where giraffes come from. People ridicule their music, but they clearly both suffer from some kind of depression and anxiety. It just struck me that they’re only attempting to articulate issues and ideas in much the same way as any mainstream religion. Their question of, “How big is your ringmaster?”, in its way, is as profound or not profound as a lot of things in mainstream Catholicism.
Ronson: And how your voice just happens to be a voice that is ridiculous to millions of people. I mean, what a tragedy that is. I always felt very lucky: I remember the first time I ever got onstage, it was my first talk when Them came out… As I approached the stage, I thought there was nothing in my temperament that suggested I was going to do this well. I’m introverted, I’m quiet, I’m quite socially awkward. And by a stroke of luck it just happened that I was okay at it, and people liked it. I remember thinking, Oh good, this is going to make my life much easier.
And the poor Insane Clown Posse are like the opposite. You’ve only got the voice that you’ve got, and if everybody thinks it’s kind of ridiculous and absurd, no wonder they’re trapped in depression and anxiety. Every time they open their mouth, I suppose everybody laughs at them. Violent J said to me, “You know what? If Alanis Morissette had written this fucking song, everyone would think it was fucking genius.” Which I’m not sure is entirely true.
Rumpus: You visited with some tech geeks and billionaires attempting to create intelligent, self-aware robots. Do you think at some point we will have to redefine consciousness to include beings with circuit boards instead of neurons? Or is this the story of very wealthy people attempting to chase immortality in their own secular, scientific way?
Ronson: Well, they believe it, no question. And a lot of people believe…that these people are really onto something. I don’t know much about neuroscience, but I have to say I came out thinking that what they’re trying to do is not going to work because firstly, you’ve got the tipping point theory of robot consciousness, which is that if you just pile enough information into a robot, it will, at some point, just burst into spontaneous life. So then why has Wikipedia not burst into spontaneous life? Then you have this thought that if you can completely model the human brain, then you can model consciousness, and that doesn’t seem to me to be a very practical notion. And they keep saying that it’s going to happen in ten years, and they just keep saying it, and that feels slightly snake-oil salesman to me. However, I thought Martine was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.
Rumpus: Her story was almost crazier than the robot story.
Ronson: I mean, imagine inventing the concept of satellite radio for cars… And then going to the library and inventing a treatment for pulmonary hypertension. I mean, fucking hell. That’s just unbelievable. Rarely do I come away from an interview thinking I just met someone incredibly inspiring. Especially because I come from Britain and we shy away from words like “inspiring.” But with Martine I came away just shaking my head in awe. However, I do think this idea of robot consciousness is possibly where her brilliance runs out.
Rumpus: Often these are stories of people wishing for things beyond the material world or at least our earthly world. You have parents believing their slightly hyperactive kids are “Indigos”—psychic children who are the next step on the evolutionary ladder. You and the pop star Robbie Williams hang out at a UFO convention.
Ronson: Yes, there’s a real connection between those two stories: that the irrational beliefs come from a very rational place on both of those occasions. I should say a very “real-world” place. The parents of the Indigo kids—their beliefs are a direct consequence of the pharmaceutical industry being out of control, and I write a lot about that in The Psychopath Test, how the pharmaceutical industry behaves in a psychopathic manner. The rationality of the Indigo mothers is a direct consequence of the irrationality of the pharmaceutical industry. And I think the same thing is true for Robbie, because Robbie had become a thing that a generation of kids dreamed of being, and he actually found it incredibly stressful and wanting because of all the terrible pressures on him. So his belief in aliens and some kind of higher power comes from the fact that he is sort of an alien and a sort of higher power, and as a consequence he’s looking for something greater.
Rumpus: It’s people using scientific fantasies to construct similar types of wishful thinking about our place in the universe.
Ronson: I think with Robbie, there are millions of people dreaming of being Robbie Williams—or One Direction or Simon Cowell, this top-strata celebrity—and when you become that thing and kind of hate it, it’s a strange and interesting part of human nature that you would go looking for something even greater.
Rumpus: So moving on to someone like Paul Davies of SETI, who’s tasked with being the first person to speak to aliens should we ever hear from them. This could go from being the least important job to the most important job in the history of Earth in literally ten seconds. Do you think the world should be considering our first contact playbook a little more carefully?
Ronson: Well, I like his defense: if we were [democratically] given the chance to decide, then we’d probably send up Call of Duty, or Lady Gaga or, you know, if we were really on top of it, some Mozart or 2001: A Space Odyssey… I rather like when Paul Davies points out that these humanoids would have no idea what any of this was. I think the reason he’s so looking forward to aliens coming is because he’s so much more intelligent than any other human, so this is his last chance to meet someone who’s somewhat on the same intellectual level as him.
Rumpus: I grew up a massive Stanley Kubrick fan, so I resent you enormously for getting the opportunity to sort through his personal boxes after his death, which I liken to looking through Shakespeare’s notes.
Ronson: I know, unbelievable. What a break that was. I do have to tell you, though, it was wonderful and amazing, but like all mysteries, the closer you get to the mystery, the more sort of real-life it becomes, and after a while going through the Kubrick house, it wasn’t like Alice in Wonderland. After a while it became a little bit of a tough day with thousands of boxes to look through… However, what an amazing way to spend a few months of your life.
Rumpus: As you got closer to his thinking through his notes, did he take on the trappings of a normal, obsessive person?
Ronson: I don’t want to demystify him. But have you seen Room 237? It’s this documentary that’s just come out about Stanley Kubrick conspiracy theorists all reading hidden messages into continuity errors in The Shining. It’s really interesting, but what they’re doing is taking continuity errors they can’t imagine Kubrick would ever make. They’re reading this huge amount of stuff into continuity errors, but I think the fact is Kubrick was fallible. Actually, the vast majority of stuff in the boxes, what it really shows is not a super-human man but a very human man who just cared a lot about making a film that was really good… The closer you get by looking through the boxes…[he’s] not a sort of crazy hermit obsessive, but someone who is perfectionist in a way that’s completely appropriate.
Rumpus: I think all writers and artists hope that someone ends up poring over their notes, trying to figure out what every little jotting meant, but Kubrick rose to this stature of just total myth.
Ronson: But there were very practical reasons for this. One was that he would see directors going on TV to promote their films and would think, “God this guy is so geeky and his story is so terrible it’s actually making me not want to see the film.” One of his assistants told me that. One of the reasons Kubrick never gave interviews was not because he was incredibly mysterious and enigmatic but because he actually didn’t want to be disappointing… Now what is true, though—and I have no explanation for—was that there was no published photograph of him for like seventeen years.
Rumpus: You also spent a lot of time talking to people who are more or less cult leaders. At least they walk the line between pastor, guru, spiritual leader, and outright fraudster. In some instances it’s very obvious, like the psychic Sylvia Browne, who comes off as a total fraud and buffoon. In other cases, such as Nicky Gumbel and Richard Bandler, they hew closely enough to our religious traditions or tangible psychological reasoning that it’s harder to dismiss them. What is the line between these two roles? Or is it totally fallacious to think there ever could be one?
Ronson: Well, I would draw a line between Nicky Gumbel and Richard Bandler. Nicky Gumbel—his whole thing is about the Bible. He’s an Evangelical Christian who has a strange homophobic thing going on. He would say, “There’s nothing homophobic about me, I have many gay friends,” but then he went on to say—and he admitted this is the thing he most regrets saying in public in his entire life: “You know, if a pedophile said ever since he was a young kid, he was into… You know, I’m not equating homosexuality to pedophilia, but the Bible says that homosexuality should be healed—only I strongly recommend you don’t use the word ‘healed’ to them. They hate that word.”
Nicky told me a couple of months later that that quote caused him some trouble. Besides those two things, I really liked Nicky Gumbel a lot, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit coerced… It was actually a very pleasant experience, whereas doing NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming], I felt very coerced. I couldn’t walk to the toilet without ten Richard Bandler acolytes wanting to know what I was doing, so I felt suffocated and coerced. Then later on, Richard Bandler, I sent him a request to be in my book about psychopaths…
Ronson: Well, I don’t think he is a psychopath actually. He said to me later, “When I found out you wanted to put me in your book about psychopaths my first thought was, ‘I’m going to break his fucking legs.’” I don’t think Richard Bandler is a psychopath because Richard Bandler is full of compulsions and anxieties, and psychopaths tend to not be particularly anxious or have weird compulsions. But what he was was a very intense, difficult person.
Rumpus: I was very impressed with your evenhandedness, because I would be off on a polemic after half the stuff you’re writing about. I wouldn’t be able to help myself. It did strike me that you gave people the benefit of the doubt. You gave them every chance to explain themselves.
Ronson: It’s because I don’t feel my job is to make myself look good. I’m always a little bit suspicious of the kind of…crusading journalist. It feels like a little bit of posturing: “Look at me, the journalistic superhero.” I think it’s fine to write about your own frailties and weaknesses, and it’s fine to try to see the world through the eyes of the person you’re interviewing even if the person you’re interviewing is abhorrent.
Rumpus: Hold on, though, because your pursuit of the collective craziness leads you to sketch a really brilliant piece about how credit card companies and other lenders pursue sub-prime individuals, who then become enormously indebted. Obviously, you had the same kind of private debt crisis in Britain as we had here. You had these heavily deregulated banking sectors, this free market orthodoxy—what economists call the “efficient market hypothesis”—that says institutions like banks and mortgage-lenders don’t need any rules. Is this one of the most dangerous collective crazinesses in your whole book? You clearly did have an editorial position on that.
Ronson: Yeah, I did, very much—but, I started with the question: okay, Richard Cullen committed suicide. Who’s fault was it? Was it Richard Cullen’s own fault for behaving in an irresponsible way? Or was Richard Cullen essentially an innocent victim of a very manipulative, devious system? And I came to the latter conclusion. I found it fascinating that there’s a whole strata of society up there who are deliberately and consciously and invisibly trying to exploit our weaknesses for their own gain… My father is a conservative and would never see business in that way. It took me quite a long time to reframe my mind to see business in that way… I wanted to find out what happened [to Cullen], and it was a completely all-consuming six months.
Rumpus: Yeah, I could see where the story was going, but nevertheless it’s always shocking. You know, you kind of assume that for the most part, people all have good intentions, and in this case you say to yourself, “Okay, your business model is to go after people who are going to get themselves in trouble?”
Ronson: Yeah, and remember this is happening before the crash. It wasn’t known…that this was happening. I mean it was thought amongst people who were really watching the industry, but nobody was really watching the industry because everyone had their flatscreen TVs and everybody was loving the easy credit. So nobody wanted to be told this party was fragile.
Rumpus: Did you see in it the Ayn Randian myth that, well, “My rational self-interest is producing a socially desirable outcome. These people need credit, and I’m providing it to them”? Did you see any of that rationale?
Ronson: Oh, absolutely, people were thinking that. I wonder how many of them knew—you know, these clever economists—how many of them knew that it was a house of cards destined for disaster? And I don’t know the answer to that. It’s possible none of them knew. But I’ve got a very clever friend named Adam Curtis, who’s a British documentary-maker, and he was saying to me around that time that this wasn’t going to last… He knew that it was all going to collapse, so there were people out there who knew it.
Rumpus: This goes to the second piece that covers the same terrain, “Amber Waves of Green.” You profile people on different scales of the economic distribution, including a Haitian dishwasher in Miami, a struggling family in Des Moines, and a billionaire. You note that the only one of them who seems politically enraged is the billionaire, who believes the rest of society is out to leech off him.
Ronson: Absolutely. Now to Wayne Hughes’s credit, I don’t think he felt that way because he was a bad person. I think he felt that way for entirely ideological reasons. He said it was an emotional thing for him. For him, America is built on unregulated, free market capitalism and anything else is abhorrent, so I absolutely believe he means it in a very genuine way. However, as Nick Hanauer put it to me, if it’s true that the rich are the ones who create the jobs, then America should be drowning in jobs given how rich the rich have gotten. But I liked Wayne Hughes. I really felt he was genuine. He’s not an exploiter; he believes his view, and that it’s best for America. You know, he was chief fundraiser for all those American Crossroads ads, the pro-Romney ads. He must have been furious at what he got from them… He gave more than anyone else, to my knowledge.
Rumpus: I don’t know if you heard but Mitt Romney just got caught telling his donors that Obama won because he was giving “gifts” to everyone—like health care and relief from student debt.
Ronson: Unbelievable, right? The idea that, oh, how terrible is it for people to feel “entitled” to health care and food and education. You know, the right in America is a lot further right than the right in Britain, and I think the right’s going to collapse unless they move further to the left. That’s what British conservatism realized, and if American conservatives don’t realize that, they’re screwed. They’re destined for exile.
Rumpus: On the flipside of the equation, the family in Des Moines and the Haitian dishwasher—the fact that they’re not angry, is that a part of America’s collective craziness now? That we are so entrenched in our class positions that we cannot see the way the system distributes opportunity disproportionately to the top echelons of society?
Ronson: Well it’s a very interesting question. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s an American thing. You know, Frantz’s [the Haitian dishwasher] view that everything that happens to him is okay as long as people talk to him respectfully is a view held by very poor people all over the world… And then I’m thinking about the Des Moines couple, Rebecca and Dennis, their view that, “We would do it too. We would find a way to pay 18% tax, too, if we could.” Is that peculiarly American? A part of me wants to say yes, because respect for the higher class is more of an American notion than a British one. There’s a saying if you see a Rolls-Royce or limousine go past in America, you think, “Maybe someday I’ll be the person in that limousine,” and in Britain you say, “Maybe if that limousine gets close enough, I’ll get out my key and scratch it.”
Rumpus: Why did you use “Lost at Sea” as the title of the book? It’s a shorter piece that describes the people who go missing from luxury cruise liners. When a young woman goes over the deck in the middle of the ocean and no conspiracy theory, no magical thinking will ever bring her back, does this somehow act as a commentary on the ultimate hopelessness of some mysteries? That they just are, and that’s all you can say about it?
Ronson: No…the reason I called the book “Lost at Sea” is because we are all lost at sea. We’re all trying to get ahold, out adrift with irrational thought and magical thinking, and we’re all the same. It’s an egalitarian title. So everybody in the book is lost at sea, from Richard Cullen, to the people in Sylvia Browne’s audience, through to me and my readers. It’s kind of an empathetic title. I really like your interpretation of the title, though. That’s quite good, too.
 It’s important that I explain here that this story does not involve Richard Dawkins “attacking” Rebecca Watson, but only rhetorically attacking her in a blog comments section. What happened is, following a conference, Watson was in an elevator alone when one of the male attendees followed her in and proceeded to make her incredibly uncomfortable in his forthright attempts to invite her back to his hotel room (not to mention, Watson had just finished speaking about how ill-advised such advances are). After Watson wrote about the experience, Dawkins made a surprise visit to the comments section of a blog where he wrote a sarcastic letter to an oppressed Muslim woman. Sample sentence: “Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.” Suffice it to say, this was not the most well-received thing Dawkins has ever written, and spurred a great deal of discussion about misogyny within the atheist/skeptic community. Think of it like an atheist-writers old school hip-hop beef.
 This is Martine Rothblatt, inventor of Sirius Radio. Ronson is also about to leave out that Martine was born a man named Martin. I want to convey this information in a completely non-judgmental way, but I think it adds a 32nd curveball to the already-incredible story of a billionaire, self-taught inventor who wants to re-create her lover in robot form.
 This question set-up actually led to an enormously interesting ten-minute side discussion about how SETI recently massively reduced the statistical probability that there is life on other planets. Ronson had just heard this theory of “hot Jupiters,” which he then had to look up again because, like most of us, he’s incredibly informed, but can never remember “where he got informed by” (as I put it), or how this fascinating information came to be in his brain—only that it’s there and it’s pertinent. He sent me a link to a recent article from Space.com, describing how hot Jupiters tend to scatter other planets within their solar systems as their orbits move closer to the sun, and their gravitational pulls cause chaos for smaller bodies. This makes it unlikely that stars orbited by giant, hot Jupiter-esque gasballs could be home to planets that could sustain life. Ronson finished with, “And I thank you for listening to my TED talk on hot Jupiters.”
 Upon realizing that I had heard of Room 237 and, in fact, had been anticipating this film the way fourteen-year-old girls anticipate Justin Bieber performances at the American Music Awards, I let out an extremely unprofessionally, nerdy, “Ooooh, I have heard of that!” Directed by Rodney Ascher, Room 237 is currently at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the trailer looks, in a word, sick.
 Neuro-Linguistic Programming is kind of hard to describe unless you read about it, but basically it’s kind of a way of psychologically manipulating people to do what you want them to do. I guess you’re supposed to use it in business meetings and on dates and whatnot.