When I worked as a private investigator, two clients suffering from paranoid delusions asked for my firm’s services. Not that their mental state was obvious at first—both (one male, one female) were presentable, middle-class, middle-aged, intelligent, and articulate.
The man wanted us to investigate his bowling league, for he believed ugly rumors were being spread about him.
The woman wanted us to investigate her psychiatrist, with whom she claimed to have had an affair and who now was trying to ruin her reputation.
To be brief, none of their fears bore up under scrutiny. When we tried to report those results, however, which we considered positive and reassuring, we were repulsed out of hand. Rather, both clients believed that we had been co-opted by their enemies. We were clearly now “one of them.”
My boss had a friend who was a brilliant psychiatrist (and crackerjack blues harp player, thus his nickname, Dr. Blues), who informed us that paranoia (unlike paranoid schizophrenia) is virtually untreatable, because the problem is a deep underlying anxiety that the paranoid delusion actually resolves.
The delusion is the cure, so to speak. Its onset is typified by a sudden, urgent, seemingly irrefutable revelation that the problem lies with certain others who are plotting against them. By offering facts and logic in response, we threatened to take away the one thing giving them peace of mind: their belief that nefarious others were plotting against them.
We stopped taking such clients at that point, and tried instead to get them to consider therapy (which usually only made them angry).
We also began using the phrase, “It’s like talking to a paranoid,” to describe any conversation with someone who stubbornly, rigidly “stuck to their guns,” no matter what facts or logic you availed. Their minds were made up. And your contrary beliefs only made you suspect.
This memory has been coming to mind quite a bit lately. If the reason isn’t already self-evident, allow me to explain.
Clint Watts, a former FBI Special Agent and a consulting cybersecurity expert, tweeted this after the recent election:
I contend [the] biggest determinant in last night’s election results was not geography, race, religion, socioeconomic status, age, or gender, but instead…..information, perception and belief.
In other words, the election results could be explained on the grounds of which story voters told themselves about the current state of the presidency, our nation, and our culture.
Historian Heather Cox Richards also noted that the string of lawsuits being filed challenging the election results are legally baseless but that’s not the point. They aren’t there to “right a wrong,” because there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. “[I]t is all about creating a narrative,” a narrative that will allow the losing side to once again confirm the insidious, treacherous power of the enemy.
This isn’t unique in our history. Another historian, Richard Hofstadter, detailed in his seminal article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a long tradition not of actual lunacy but “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people.”
Of particular concern is that, in that tradition, “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”
What are the key elements of this style?
- The stakes are always ultimate. There is “an apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which [the adherent’s] hostility [is] commonly expressed,” involving “the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values,” with the present seen as a turning point for all of civilization.
- The apocalyptic element is not coincidental. Both Christianity and freedom (typically in the form of private property, religious liberty, or cultural traditions) are perceived as under relentless, uncompromising attack.
- There is also a millennialist, “last days,” Book-of-Revelations anxiety that incorporates “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.” (Child-molesting cannibals, anyone?)
- The logic inspiring the belief in the conspiracy “is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.”
- This same mind marshals mountains of evidence on its behalf, though this evidence, to an outside observer, is not just unconvincing but muddled, even crackpot. But to the believer it is self-evident. It’s true because it confirms the conspiracy.
- There is an implicit attribution of agency to accidents, surprising events, and the opposition’s mistakes. Rather than resulting from human limitation or error, they are instead the devious machinations of a traitorous cabal holding secret levers of power seeking to undermine the nation. That cabal through history has been comprised variously of Masons, Catholics, immigrants, international bankers, communists, socialists, the military-industrial complex, “coastal elites,” or the current bugbear, the “Deep State.”
- “Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated…This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
- Such movements are “not merely of natural enthusiasm” but are also exacerbated by “the vicissitudes of party politics.” They attract the support of reputable statesmen who have “only mild sympathy with [the movement’s] fundamental bias, but who as politicians [can] not afford to ignore it.”
In the penultimate paragraph of his essay, Hofstadter offers this:
“[O]ne of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.”
Ring any bells?
Why do I bring this up here? There is a great deal of talk of late of the special, even transcendent power of story. That we as storytellers possess a luminous gift—and play a uniquely central role in shaping the common, unifying themes that bind our culture together. That we have special access to deeper truths beyond the clamor of mere facts.
I believe this is simplistic, sentimental self-congratulation of the first order—something any honest writer should shun. And a statement like “I am more focused on the truth than the facts” may be harmless in the hands of an artist, but in other hands it can justify the burning of witches. Or caging children.
The current cultural divide does not result from a lack of powerful stories. Quite the contrary—both sides have a slew of cogent narratives in their intellectual armory and use them relentlessly to defend their irreconcilable positions.
The “information silos” in which the two sides reside have only been further fortified with the power of the Internet, where “evidence” abounds to defend virtually any position, no matter how wild-eyed.
It’s as though we are watching a boxing match in which the adversaries are kept apart by a sheet of plexiglass two inches thick and ten feet high. All they can do is prance and strut around in their half of the ring. Meanwhile, all of us beyond the bright lights have wagered our futures on the result.
Even when the same sorts of stories arise, the two sides often have entirely different perspectives on them, something noted by Clint Watts above in his remark concerning the decisive influence of “information, perception and belief.”
- Is the top one percent comprised of benevolent job creators, or wealthy parasites feeding off the working class?
- Are minorities a historical underclass now insisting on an equal role in our society, or a mass of conniving whiners playing the victim card to advance their own self-interest?
- Is government a collective effort to solve real problems, or a machine designed to crush individual liberty and rob hard-working citizens through taxation?
- Is systemic racism real, or a cynical ploy to undermine the white community and the police who protect them?
Each of these contrasting positions are animated by a narrative. Even if evidence can be marshaled to reveal the weakness in one story or its opposite, far too many cling to their interpretation for the meaning, coherence, and comfort it provides. This is known as confirmation bias, another incidence of “truth over facts.”
Even if a story is embraced by certain people on both sides, their views of that story may differ widely. I often wonder how many readers saw in To Kill a Mockingbird not a tale of the struggle for dignity and racial equality but a paeon to small-town southern life when things were simpler and less contentious.
I know for a fact that my experience of The Collector by John Fowles differed greatly from that of three men who considered it a guidebook for sexual sadism and murder.
It’s the only book I physically threw down at the end because the implications of the story horrified me so deeply. I felt that way because Fowles took such extensive pains to humanize Miranda, the abducted woman at the core of the story. She becomes so real that her ultimate fate is shattering.
At least, it was for me. For a man named Christopher Wilder, who abducted, tortured, and murdered at least eight women, it was titillating. Leonard Lake and Charles Ng found it so inspiring that they named their own plot to abduct, confine, and murder women Project Miranda.
That’s an extreme example, but it bears consideration. No matter how hard I try to write a “universal” story, there will be some readers devoted to a completely different perspective who will take from it what they want.
Let’s climb down off our pedestals and admit we lie for a living. Picasso put it this way:
“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that it is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”
I’d be careful about embracing that view blindly. Don’t overlook the humility in that qualification, “at least the truth that it is given us to understand.” I would say that our lies point toward something we regard as truthful. And if we’re candid with ourselves, we feel a curious dismay over the fact that we needed deceit to do the job.
We are not holy bearers of truth—or Truth—any more than journalists, researchers, or actors. Truth isn’t what’s called for—honesty is. Honesty about ourselves and what we’re trying to do.
I think we’re trying to give our readers a unique emotional and/or intellectual experience, one only our stories can provide. And by creating that experience we offer our readers an opportunity to get more deeply in touch with their own thoughts and feelings.
I cannot control how my reader will react, however, nor should I try, especially in service to some ginned up platitude concerning universal truths. That’s not fiction; that’s manipulation. It’s propaganda in artsy drag.
As for the paranoids—I will never reach them through stories. I will only reach them, if even then, by sitting down, face to face, and showing them I do not have cloven hooves.
Maybe not even that will work, and perhaps I can do that through what I write. But if I do, it won’t be because I revealed some higher truth. Rather, it will because I revealed honestly my simple, humble humanity.
P.S. It was only upon finishing this post that I realized it would be going up on Friday the 13th. I suppose, in its own way, it does address a certain horrorific reality. That, I guess, will have to serve.
Have you ever had a reader respond to something you’ve written in a way that surprised you so completely you wondered if they’d even really understood what was on the page?
When writing, do you think of readers with wholly different perspectives and how they might respond to your words? If so, how does that change what you’ve written?
For example, does trying to understand that different perspective also broaden or deepen your view of your theme or story world? Does it add emotional texture or additional detail you had not considered previously? Or do you consign that function to your characters, and make them as varied as possible given your story world?