S.A. Jones ignored her creative writing teacher’s advice to never write about mental illness in a novel … but has spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of whether mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. And how do you write about a form of mental illness that defies the beginning, middle and end that the novel demands?
Image by Benjamin Watson, Flickr.
It is February 2011 and I am stuck. Comprehensively, wickedly stuck. The manuscript that I have pummelled, vivisected and re-wired refuses to assume an orderly shape so, in desperation, I enrol in the Advanced Year of the Novel course under the tutelage of the redoubtable Andrea Goldsmith. It is our first session and Andrea, in her magnificently peremptory way, dispenses some advice: ‘Be cautious of using the first person for an entire novel. And don’t write about mental illness. Ever’.
I look down at my opening paragraph:
‘My name is Isabelle, and I have decided to die’.
First person. Mental illness. Two strikes and I am out.
Fast forward three years and that troublesome manuscript – Isabelle of the Moon and Stars – is finally out there. A real book. I took Andrea’s advice regarding point of view but stuck with the mental illness theme. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with how, or if, mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. ‘Mental illness’ is a broad church, covering everything from bi-polar to schizophrenia to delusion to anxiety to obsessive compulsion. It is almost easier to say what it is not (normal, apparently) than what it is.
The tension between ‘normal’ and ‘aberrant’ has obvious thematic attractions for writers, driven as they are to look with a critical eye at what passes for unremarkable or ‘natural’. Who can forget the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, pawing over the walls; her ‘madness’ a perfectly rational response to the restrictions and repressions of ‘being female’ in Victorian England? Or Bertha Mason, an archetype of suppressed female sexuality, bursting out of Thornfield Hall in a halo of flames and fury in Jane Eyre?
Books set against an institutional backdrop can problematise the normal/abnormal construct particularly well. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted both suggest that the arbiters of health – doctors, nurses, administrators – can, in their despotism and omnipotence, be as deluded and certainly crueller than the patients they are charged with curing. It’s a trope I played with (and I use ‘played’ quite deliberately) in Isabelle. Isabelle’s ‘madness’ comes complete with convenient labels. But what of Jack, her boss, who throws himself with gusto at whatever management fad is in favour that week? Who glances at his management texts for comfort and exhorts his team to get behind the strategy du jour – P3 (People! Performance! Planning!).
Isn’t it ‘mad’ that such nonsense is not only taken seriously, but as evidence of competence? And what of Evan, Isabelle’s best friend who had a religious experience as a grieving child that now drives his sexuality and decision-making as an adult? Is that ‘mad’?
But if the novel as a form can effectively explore dualities like mad and sane, unhinged and rational; there was one limitation I kept butting my head against during the writing process. Isabelle’s particular malady is hyperthymic depression and anxiety disorder. If you are (blessedly, mercifully) ignorant about what this means, let me give you a primer. You function well for fairly long periods of time then there comes a crash. Inexplicable. Total. Remorseless. My heroine, Isabelle, calls it The Black Place.
There are many dread things about The Black Place: the physical pain of the attacks, the constant fear of the next haunting, the vicious tussle to keep her purchase on her body.
But the worst thing, absolutely the worst thing is how memory-less it is. Once in possession there is no agency, no goodness, no hope and no memory of what it is to be anything other than The Black Place. No matter how many times Isabelle suffers the experience, in the moment of it, it is impossible to recollect that it has happened before and that it passes. That there are good days on the other side.
Isabelle’s malady is characterised by repetition. By wearying, haunting sameness. But fiction needs to move. It needs light and shade, conflict and change to push it along. This was my central creative problem: how to honour the truth of the experience but shoe-horn it into the conventions of the novel?
I began to wonder if the particular strain of mental illness I was working with would always be best served by poetry: windows into physical and emotional states sufficiently brief and self-contained to stave off reader boredom. I kept returning to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems and to Wilfred Owen’s snapshots of shattered minds and bodies and wondering if I was working in the wrong genre. Or in the right genre but with the wrong illness.
It is surely no accident that among the successful novels about mental illness are the ones where the maladies generate their own drama. (Let me pause here. I am in no way suggesting that any particular mental illness is more or less ‘dramatic’ than any other. I speak of drama here as it relates to the novel as a form). The memoirs Running with Scissors, Madness: a Memoir and Touched with Fire take psychosis and mania as their subject. And there are novels that explore breakdown: the collapse under pressure of an unsteady personality edifice and its rebirth. It’s a conceit used in novels by Wally Lamb, Sylvia Plath, Maggie O’Farrell and others; the fault-line in the ‘old’ personality often caused by a trauma. I also used this device in my first novel, Red Dress Walking. It aligns neatly with the genre demands of the novel: inciting force, conflict, climax and denouement or – if you prefer – beginning, middle and end.
But what to do with the malady that just won’t change? That has neither the mystery of an onset story nor the ‘glamour’ of a breakdown? That just is. How to write about the everyday heroism of people who face down their own black place and get out of bed and make it into work and keep friendships going and refuse suicide as an option day after day after day after day. Can the novel do that?
Crafting an ending for Isabelle was particularly problematic. Endings demand that the loose ends are tied up and some closure is achieved. I often find endings the least satisfying part of a novel precisely because the form demands a resolution rarely achieved in life and certainly not with an illness that, while it may be treatable, is not ‘soluble’ (I confess to a particular antipathy for the suggestion in some books and films about mental illness that the afflicted are ‘cured’ by love).
I solved my dilemma by more or less hitching the plot to the cycle of the illness. In doing so, I hope to suggest that the cycle of the illness itself provides infinite beginnings, middles and ends.
S.A. Jones is the author of the novels Isabelle of the Moon and Stars and Red Dress Walking.
Jo Case, author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, reflects on Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘coming out’ as as being on the autism spectrum this week – and the conflicting responses from the autism community, which range from outrage to gratitude.
Jerry Seinfeld declared this weekend, in an interview with NBC, that he believes he’s on the autism spectrum. ‘Basic social engagement is really a struggle,’ he said. ‘But I don’t see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset.’
My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now high-functioning autism) eight years ago; he’s now fifteen. After his diagnosis, I realised other members of my family, including me, are on the autism spectrum. My son knows he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and is personally reconciled to it, but he’s wary about letting his peers know, for fear of being judged by a label they don’t understand – one that’s often portrayed in a negative way. He is passionate about comedy and aspires to be a writer and performer.
My son and I have a kind of game we play, where we identify and claim cultural figures as ‘Aspies’. (Kubrick, Jesse Eisenberg, Community creator Dan Harmon.) Almost none of them – except Harmon – have publicly identified as being on the autism spectrum. It’s empowering to have these role models, people who demonstrate that while autistic traits pose challenges, they can also be gifts. That autism shouldn’t restrict what we aspire to in life, though it might inform how we might go about getting it.
Awareness of high-functioning autism has grown since my son was diagnosed eight years ago, but there’s still a fairly narrow understanding of what it means and what it might look like. While people once thought ‘Rainman’ when they heard ‘autism’, the first response is now Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, followed by Silicon Valley IT workers, math geniuses, and perhaps engineers or academics. Surely, the wider the variety of role models that exist, the wider the choices seem for those who identify as autistic. And the more high-profile role models who are willing to identify with a marginalised community, the better.
Not everyone in the autistic community agrees. Kim Stagliano, mother of three autistic daughters and editor of The Age of Autism, was just one of the many who were outraged and insulted by Seinfeld’s statement. They feel that Seinfeld’s self-diagnosis is invalid and that it was irresponsible of him to publicly align himself with the autism spectrum without a medical diagnosis. The issue, it seems, is they believe Seinfeld does not have ‘serious behaviours and issues and challenges’: he’s one of the world’s most successful entertainers, he has a wife and three children, he’s well respected. To his critics within the autism community, his successful life devalues their everyday struggles – and puts funding for autism research and treatment at risk.
It’s much harder to attract funding for ‘difference’ than for ‘disability’. And since the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was discontinued, replaced last year with ‘high-functioning autism’, it’s become harder than ever to differentiate the staggering variety of experiences on the spectrum when talking about autism. Parents of those at the ‘lower-functioning’ end, who might be non-verbal, unable to connect with the wider world, and require intensive care, can feel marginalised when they don’t see their experiences reflected in the high-achieving success stories who have turned their ‘special interests’ into career triumphs through hours of obsession and focus.
‘This is autism,’ tweeted Stagliano at Seinfeld, accompanied by a photograph of her family. ‘Gorgeous young ladies who need 24/7 lifetime care.’ She told the Washington Post that she’s tired of those in the spotlight making autistic symptoms sound fashionable. ‘It’s a medical diagnosis, not a personality or a gift.’
Other members of the autism community have welcomed Seinfeld’s actions. ‘Think about what this does for a closeted autistic person who goes into the workplace knowing that their co-workers have just seen somebody they know, respect, and have a positive opinion of, like Jerry Seinfeld, identify in this way – it’s a valuable and important step in building a greater tolerance for autism,’ says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Advocacy Network (and autistic person).
John Elder Robison, bestselling author of a series of autobiographical books on Asperger’s Syndrome, including Look me in the Eye, agrees. He also defends Seinfeld’s much-criticised ‘self-diagnosis’, pointing out that most adults on the spectrum start out by recognising something in themselves that might explain how they experience the world, and asking ‘might I be autistic?’
Some of the reactions against Seinfeld’s diagnosis mirror the myths about what the autistic spectrum looks like. But he has friends! He looks people in the eye! He’s a performer! He has a sense of humour!
Autism is not about what a person looks like on the outside; it’s about how they process the world inside their heads. Sometimes that’s obvious to onlookers, sometimes it’s not. There are many things people on the spectrum can learn, but don’t do instinctively. Like looking people in the eye, taking turns in conversation and other social skills that neurotypicals (non-autistics) take for granted.
Given that many autistic people must learn to perform as ordinary-seeming humans in order to ‘pass’ in everyday life, it’s not surprising that some of them transfer this to a career. The autism professionals I know have privately confirmed that actors on the spectrum are not uncommon. It’s the same with writers (and directors). Experiencing the world you inhabit as an outsider and having to constantly decode everyday social interactions to make sense of them is a solid grounding for transforming observation into art.
The idea that autistic people don’t have a sense of humour is a myth; like many autism myths (including that of no empathy), it’s now accepted that the difference is that the triggers for humour and the sense of what’s appropriate in different contexts may be different in someone with autism. But autistic people often have a very keen sense of humour; international expert Tony Atwood says that ‘many have a unique or alternative perspective on life that can be the basis of comments that are perceptive and clearly humorous’.
Creative endeavours that involve highlighting the absurdities, contradictions or hidden patterns of everyday interaction – like observational comedy – are especially suited to some people on the autism spectrum. Tony Attwood says that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome ‘is trying to understand our social customs in much the same way as an anthropologist who has discovered a new tribe will want to study its people and customs.’
Autistic advocate Temple Grandin says that autistic people are like dogs; we tend to sniff each other out. I first wondered if Seinfeld might be on the spectrum (then dismissed it as my habitual over-analysing) when I read a 2012 New York Times profile that described his approach to creating comedy. It was obsessive, highly detail-oriented and routine-driven. He described needing physical and mental space to step into his comedic persona (or, ‘costume’) before he steps on stage, likening it to Clark Kent transforming into Superman. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson in 1981, he practised his five-minute set 200 times beforehand.
Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. ‘It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,’ he says. ‘I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.’
It’s hard to come out as being on the spectrum. I know: I’ve done it. I did it because I wrote a memoir about my son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome and coming to accept it as a difference rather than a disability; learning to let it inform our lives but not define them. I quickly realised that I couldn’t ‘out’ him without publicly owning my own identity on the autistic spectrum. And it’s lonely out here.
While critics perpetuate the myth of the ‘trendy diagnosis’ that people clamour for to make themselves feel special, I observe the opposite. I don’t know anyone who has identified as autistic without their child being diagnosed, though I’ve had many people confess to me they might be, only to just as quickly dismiss the idea.
Labels can be restricting. It’s challenging and vulnerable to own a label that admits the public self you present is consciously crafted, that social situations make you anxious, that you lack an instinct for understanding your peers. It opens you up to being judged and criticised as less than genuine, as defective in important ways – though it can also be a path to self-understanding … and ultimately, self-acceptance.
I can’t see what Jerry Seinfeld, possibly the world’s most famous comedian, has to gain in terms of profile, career or monetary reward by identifying as on the autism spectrum. And as a smart man who is obsessive about research and getting things right, I imagine he’s done his homework and come to his conclusions based on that.
On Tuesday, the same day I talked over breakfast about Seinfeld’s declaration, my son told his friend – casually, in the course of conversation – that he’s Asperger’s. It’s the first time in three years of high school that he’s said as much to his peers.
The negative reaction to Seinfeld’s self-outing makes it less likely that other high-profile figures on the autistic spectrum will do the same thing. But the fact that he spoke up at all makes it that little bit easier for the rest of us to own our difference. And for that, I’m grateful.
Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s (Hardie Grant).
The finalists have been announced for the 2014 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism; winners will be announced on 4 December. You can read the full list of finalists online.
The longlist in the book category is:
· Paul Barry, Breaking News: Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession, Allen & Unwin;
· Mathew Condon, Jacks and Jokers, University of Queensland Press;
· Rafael Epstein, Prisoner X, Melbourne University Press;
· Sophie Cunningham, Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy, Text Publishing;
· Paul Kelly, Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation, Melbourne University Press;
· Madonna King, Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, University of Queensland Press;
· David Marr, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell, Black Inc;
· Margaret Simons, Kerry Stokes: Self-made Man, Penguin;
· Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Text Publishing.
Gary Shteyngart has published a diary of his Little Failure book tour in the New Yorker.
At previous readings of Little Failure, I’ve had weeping fellow Russian immigrants my age or younger ask me to sign copies of the book for ‘a failed paralegal,’ ‘a worse failure than even you,’ and ‘Shit-for-brains.’ ‘You are the Russian Judy Blume,’ I was told once, in Chicago, which made me tear up a little.
One of his stops on this year’s book tour was, of course, at the Wheeler Centre. You can watch the video below.
An article that’s been furiously doing the rounds of literary circles over the past fortnight is the tale of YA author Kathleen Hale, who wrote for the Guardian about becoming obsessed with a particularly harsh online critic, on Goodreads … and becoming embroiled in a saga that played itself out on the internet. Was she trolled, or is she a stalker? Should authors respond to their critics? Do amateur online critics have a responsibility to consider the author? All these questions have been raised and debated. Danielle Binks has written a great piece for Killings that considers the arguments.
Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated film Her showed a near-future where a man falls in love with his operating system (compared to Apple’s Siri). Last week, the New York Times published a story about a 13-year-old autistic boy who has become best friends with Siri. This is not, unlike Her, a cautionary tale about technology, though … his mother writes about all the benefits of the friendship, including the way Siri models manners and her inexhaustible capacity to answer a cavalcade of questions.
Like autism, ADHD is commonly thought of as something that affects boys and men – though it can also affect women. Apparently (also like autism), it manifests differently in women, which is partly why it’s less often diagnosed; half to three-quarters of women with ADHD are undiagnosed. ‘Women with the disorder tend to be less hyperactive and impulsive, more disorganized, scattered, forgetful, and introverted.’
Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, has been adapted into an HBO miniseries that will premiere next month – and it looks promising. The cast includes Frances McDormand (in the title role), Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray, and it’s scripted by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright). Here’s a peek at the trailer.
The Guardian has run a fascinating interview with Peter Piot, the researcher who discovered (and named) Ebola in 1976. He traces the discovery of the virus in a Belgian lab, his trip to Africa as part of a team to help track it down … and the moment he developed all the symptoms and feared for his life. He urges the need for new strategies, to prevent it becoming a pandemic.
Over at the Readings blog, they’ve gone Gone Girl crazy (try saying that aloud!). Crime book specialist Fiona Hardy and digital marketing manager Nina Kenwood went to see the film together, and have published their post-cinema debrief. And Nina has produced an in-depth comparison between book and film, assessing the strengths of each in a number of categories. The winner? Book!
A neuroscientist who accidentally discovered, mid-research, that he’s a clinical psychopath, gives a fascinating insight into how his brain works, from both a personal and a scientific point of view, over at the Atlantic. He also makes a convincing argument for why children can and should be recognised and diagnosed as psychopaths at an early age, to prevent them from becoming violent.
What’s the biggest challenge for successful space missions – including the coming attempt to colonise Mars? Among them is a problem both seemingly simple and insanely complicated: the mental health of astronauts. More than one space mission has been called off due to astronauts' psychological problems. And it’s not just hallucinations due to cosmic rays or lack of exercise for gravity reasons. ‘Studies have found that many basic mental abilities, like attention, task switching, bodily co-ordination and problem solving seem to work less well in space.’
After a week in which too many good people died, Bronwyn Meyrick reflects on death, drawing on some very different books that debate the existence (and dubious comfort) of an afterlife, and blend neuroscience and experience.
Image by 55Laney69, Flickr.
Last week, a friend, not a close friend, but a friend all the same, died suddenly. He was not even 30 years old. Earlier the same week, the famous actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was a bloody genius, but is also said to have had his demons. He was just 63 years old. This week, on Wednesday, BKS Iyengar, the founder of the eponymous Iyengar form of yoga, died. He was 95 years old.
I read a book recently about near-death experiences − Proof of Heaven − by American neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander. A few years ago, Alexander caught a strain of bacterial meningitis so bad that he was left in a coma. In fact, he was in such a bad state that he was expected to die. While in the coma, Alexander says that he observed himself journeying beyond this world, passing through a white light into the ‘deepest realms of super-physical experience’: an ‘immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting’. Apparently this is reasonably typical for near-death and out-of-body experiences, but Alexander claims his was an encounter with heaven. During the coma, a part of his brain, the cerebral cortex, had stopped functioning. And so, reasons Alexander, because it’s the cerebral cortex part of your brain that creates such near-death experiences, his experience offers proof of heaven, and so grants the book its title.
Eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks is not very satisfied with Alexander’s reasoning. Being the party-pooper that he is, Sacks argues that a person needs a functioning cerebral cortex in order to create a near-death experience and therefore his experience was a humanly one (as opposed to a divine one). However, it’s quite probable that Alexander’s experience occurred while he was coming out of the coma – i.e. when his cerebral cortex was starting to work again – thus making it nothing extraordinary.
Another, very different, book on death is Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published essay collection On Mortality, which is really about dying. Hitchens depicts his experience of being diagnosed with, and eventually subsumed by, oesophageal cancer. But as he bears witness to the loss of his instrument − his voice − Hitchens is not soothed at all by the possibility of an afterlife, fictitious or not.
I’m no scientist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. But I have to say that I found the conclusions that Alexander drew from his experience somewhat tenuous. I’m not religious either. I remember trying, and failing, to explain this to my second-grade teacher.
Nevertheless, in a way I felt an affinity with Alexander in feeling that there must be something more to this, this universe. I think it’s beyond the realm of scientific proof, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant – it’s just that no amount of triangulation will get you the answer. It’s not necessarily something pre-determined or orderly, but there are definitely greater forces at play in this universe than I’ll be able to compute. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because sometimes things happen that are extraordinary and you just can’t work out how they happened.
But also, maybe it’s because sometimes people die − really good people − for seemingly no good reason at all, when there really should be one.
Bronywn Meyrick is a Melburnian currently based in South Korea. This piece was first published on Medium.
Adam Alter, professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, reveals the world is full of such hidden forces that shape our every thought, feeling and behaviour, without us ever realising. Understanding these cues, Alter argues, is key to smarter decision-making, more effective marketing, and better outcomes for ourselves and society.
I spent my primary and high school years in Sydney, and often my teachers told the class to ‘kiss’, or keep it simple, stupid. They were trying to tell us to stop using the word ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ would do; to stop saying ‘on the mat was perched a feline’ when ‘the cat sat on the mat’ was clearer, simpler, and easier to understand.
I’m a big supporter of this march towards plain English. It embodies some of my favorite human characteristics: unstuffiness, unpretentiousness, unabashedness. It’s also a big improvement over the way we communicated in the 1800s and 1900s. Take the classic English legal case of Davies v. Mann, decided in 1842. Justice Erskine in the Court of Exchequer handed down a judgment that represents the height of convoluted legalese. In describing the facts of the case, Justice Erskine wrote:
The declaration stated that the plaintiff theretofore, and at the time of the committing of the grievance thereinafter mentioned, to wit, on, etc., was lawfully possessed of a certain donkey, which said donkey of the plaintiff was then lawfully in a certain highway, and the defendant was then possessed of a certain waggon and certain horses drawing the same, which said waggon and horses of the defendant were then under the care, government, and direction of a certain then servant of the defendant, in and along the said highway; nevertheless the defendant, by his said servant, so carelessly, negligently, unskilfully, and improperly governed and directed his said waggon and horses, that by and through the carelessness, negligence, unskilfulness, and improper conduct of the defendant, by his said servant, the said waggon and horses of the defendant then ran and struck with great violence against the said donkey of the plaintiff, and thereby then wounded, crushed, and killed the same, etc.
Another way of expressing the facts would be to pluck just 12 words from this mess (bolded above): ‘The servant of the defendant negligently struck the donkey of the plaintiff.’ You lose some meaning, perhaps, but not enough to justify turning 12 words into 160.
New Zealanders have embraced the march towards plainer English, so much so that an organisation called WriteMark hosts an annual Plain English Awards ceremony. In 2012, for example, Annette Hamilton won the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation Award for simplifying a mangled Telecom New Zealand sentence. The original sentence told the customer, unhelpfully, that:
One of our technicians will enable the DSL port on the DSLAM at our exchange and we will send you an e-text when ADSL is active on your line.
Hamilton’s jargon-free alternative told customers only what they needed to know:
Your broadband connection is underway. We will send you a text message when it is ready for you to use.
Some academic papers are so filled with jargon that no one in the world can understand them. In March this year, a journalist reported that editors removed more than 120 fake academic articles from journals between 2008 and 2013. These articles had been peer-reviewed, which means that ‘experts’ decided they were worthy of publication. The journalist wrote her own example with the help of an online article-generator, a nonsensical postmodernist mess that sounded intelligent but meant absolutely nothing.
Not all complexity is bad, though. Humans are very sensitive to complexity in the environment around us, and often it guides us to make wise decisions. One classic example comes from the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Contestants answer trivia questions with the ultimate goal of answering a very difficult million-dollar question. Ogi Ogas and John Carpenter were two very successful contestants on the US version of the show. Ogas is a neuroscientist and author, and Carpenter is a tax officer. They both answered 14 questions correctly, and ultimately arrived at the million-dollar question.
Ogas struggled. The host asked him the question and asked him to choose one of four multiple-choice answers:
Which of these ships was not one of the three taken over by colonists during the Boston Tea Party?
Ogas, a fan of flowery prose, described the experience on his blog:
My neurohormones whipped from black misery to shining ebullience, saturating my brain in a boiling cauldron of epinephrine and endorphins. I gaped at the azure screen in front of me as the ultimate question coalesced in hot white font …
… I immediately had an intuition that one of the ships at the Tea Party was Dartmouth. I reflected on Dartmouth, using it as a prime. I repeated the ship’s name aloud and silently to myself. Gradually, the name of another ship formed in my mind, echoing each repetition of Dartmouth: Beaver…And then, faintly, like the reflection of the moon on a midnight lake, the name of a third ship dimly waxed upon the murk of my mind: Eleanor.
… I blinked. Suddenly, I became aware of the wobble of the chair, the murmurs of the audience…Intuition? What are you thinking?! You’re risking a house! You can’t possibly know the answer to this arcane question! There’s no such thing as intuition!
… I believe I’ll walk with the money I’ve got. That’s my final answer.
Ogas decided not to answer the question, and instead left with the handsome sum of $500,000. As his blog post explains, he was sensitive to cues that betrayed his uncertainty.
Carpenter’s experience was very different. The show’s host, Regis Philbin, asked him:
>Which of these US Presidents appeared on the television show, *Laugh-In*?
A. Lyndon Johnson B. Richard Nixon C. Jimmy Carter D. Gerald Ford
Just once during the show, contestants are allowed to ‘phone a friend’ for help. Carpenter decided to phone his father. No one had ever won the million dollar prize in the US in 1999, when Carpenter was on the show, so the audience waited anxiously, believing that Carpenter was unsure of the answer. His father answered the phone:
Carpenter’s Father: Hello.
Host: We’ve got your son John with us; he’s doing pretty well. He’s won a half million dollars and he’s going for a million dollars. He needs your help to get there …
Carpenter: Hi, Dad … I don’t really need your help, I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna win the million dollars … because the U.S. president that appeared on Laugh-In is Richard Nixon. That’s my final answer.
Carpenter had known the answer as soon as he saw the question. In contrast to Ogas, who experienced all the hallmarks of mental uncertainty, Carpenter knew the answer as surely as he knew his own name.
Humans, like Ogas and Carpenter, are very sensitive to cues that signal certainty and uncertainty. In much of my research, I’ve focused on one such cue, known as disfluency. Disfluency is the experience of struggling to make sense of any mental task—pronouncing a difficult word; making sense of a complex sentence; answering a tough mental puzzle; reading a word printed in ornate font, and so on. Ogas’ experience was disfluency whereas Carpenter’s was perfectly fluent.
Fluency, like plain English, is usually desirable. Why print an essay in hard-to-read Impact font when you can print it in easy-to-read Times New Roman font? Why force your readers to work harder than necessary?
The answer is that, like Ogi Ogas, we need help recognising what we don’t know − that we need to spend a bit more time and effort making sense of the world before we respond. Nowhere is this truer than in the land of education, where I began my discussion, and where keeping it simple, stupid, is usually desirable. With Danny Oppenheimer and Nick Epley, fellow psychology professors in the United States, I explored the benefits of disfluency in a number of experiments. For example, we asked two groups of people to answer the same mental puzzle. For half of them the question was printed in easy-to-read font:
If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
For the other half, it was printed in hard-to-read font:
If a bat and ball cost $1.10 in total, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
The question is deceptively tricky. At first, almost everyone decides that the bat costs $1 and the ball 10 cents, since those two numbers add neatly to $1.10. Solved! Not so fast, because the bat only costs 90 cents more than the ball. The correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents (and the bat $1.05), but many people rest with their intuitive response and answer the question incorrectly. When we presented the question printed in the easy-to-read font, only 63% of people gave the correct response. In contrast, when we printed the question in the hard-to-read font, a more impressive 82% answered correctly. Researchers see the same pattern with other, similar questions, too. When they ask people how many animals of each type Moses took aboard his ark, 88% answer ‘2!’ when the question is printed in clear font, but only 53% give the same response when it’s printed in hard-to-read font. The answer, of course, is not ‘2’, but rather ‘Noah boarded the ark, not Moses’.
With some of his students, Oppenheimer carried this idea into the classroom. At a school in Ohio, they created fluent and disfluent versions of the course material in six courses, including English, mathematics, and chemistry. The fluent versions were printed in clear font; the disfluent versions were printed in one of several harder-to-read fonts. Lo, several weeks later, when the students took their exams, the students who studied from harder-to-read materials achieved scores that were, on average, 16% higher than the scores of their counterparts who studied from easier-to-read materials. Disfluency seemed to deepen their attention and, consequently, how much they learned.
Keeping it simple, stupid, is a valuable and valid aim, but occasionally it pays to inject brief bursts of artificial complexity into our lives, and the lives of our children. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt to pay only superficial attention to the world around us − but sometimes, if careful, systematic thinking is the only route to the right answer, keeping it simple fares more poorly than keeping it complex.
Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department. His research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behaviour.
This is the edited transcript of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address given at the Wheeler Centre last week.
Lunchbox/Soapbox events are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre 12.45-1.15pm. Lunchboxes available from the Moat lunch cart for $10 – or bring your own!
Adam Alter is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave (Bloomsbury). An assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, his research focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Adam’s publications include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Psychology Today and the Atlantic.
Adam will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May. In the lead-up, we spoke to him about loving academia, why it’s powerful to get feedback from children on your work, and his advice for aspiring writers: write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explaining your aspirations and asking for advice.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The first piece I had published was an academic paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.. My grad school advisor and I found that you could predict the performance of shares on the stock market based on their names: companies with simpler names do better than those with complex names, particularly when they first enter the markets. My first piece in print in a mainstream outlet was an op-ed in the New York Times. I summarised some of the ideas from my book to argue that people become different versions of themselves in different locations: walk through a messy place and you become a litterbug; walk through an area filled with people and you become misanthropic. Basically, there are hundreds − thousands? − of versions of each of us, each version reflecting the world around us at any moment in time.
What’s the best part of your job?
The variety in what I do. I conduct academic research, write academic papers, teach students, advice Ph.D. candidates, write books and articles, consult companies and government agencies, speak at conferences, non-profits, company events, college ceremonies, and so on. Academia is terrific, because you can study exactly what interests you. You carve out a path that combines all the elements that you enjoy while minimising the ones you don’t enjoy.
What’s the worst part of your job?
This is a much harder question − which is good news! The worst part, I think, is that people move around so much in academia that your close friends and family members end up scattered across the globe. I left Sydney to study in the US, and I’m now married and settled in New York City. I love living in New York, but my parents and brother are in Sydney, and most of the friends I made at grad school and as a professor are in Europe or Australia or Asia or Africa or South America or other parts of North America − and very few of them are still in New York. If I could bring together everyone who was special to me (and move New York to a warmer part of the country!), I’d consider my job close to perfect.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Last week one of my colleagues told me that his ten-year-old son is studying a chapter from my book, Drunk Tank Pink, at his school in Brooklyn. In the chapter I talk about the power of labels − how important it is to be careful when we describe people by their race, ethnicity, religion, physical size, and so on. The students are working on projects based on the chapter, and they’re presenting their findings to the entire school. I’m visiting the class in May to talk to them about the book, and more importantly, to hear what they found interesting, important, and puzzling. It’s always flattering to hear that an adult enjoys something you’ve written, but for me it’s much more powerful to get the same feedback from a child.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice was to turn everything into a story. Humans transmit information across the ages as narratives, and the bits of information that endure are embedded in stories. One reason why people remember religious texts for thousands of years is that they’re packed with great stories. This year, Darren Aronofsky is releasing Noah, a film about Noah and the Ark. Growing up, I watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments over and over and over again. I’m not religious, and you don’t have to be observant to appreciate those stories. In the end, any piece of information can be fashioned into a story. The best writers sell their ideas by puffing them up with details, anecdotes, and tangents that turn dry information into something digestible, transmissible, and memorable.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Nothing specific pops out, but much of what I’ve written has been published in places where readers offer comments. It’s always interesting to hear what people like, what they dislike, and how they connect your writing to ideas that hadn’t entered your mind till they explained the relationship.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Life would be different, but I’d still teach and advise and consult and speak.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Absolutely. I’m not sure there’s any skill that fundamentally can’t be taught. Some people are naturally stronger than others − at writing and everything else − but teaching brings you closer to your potential. I’ve been taught so much by so many excellent writers, much of it in the form of specific approaches or concrete tips. Either you know about those techniques, or you don’t, and the difference is a matter of education.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explain your writing aspirations as specifically as you can, and ask them for the single best piece of advice they have to offer. Most won’t reply, but some will, and when you hit the wall as you begin to pursue your aspirations, you’ll be able to reread the advice of someone who hit and managed to climb the same wall years earlier.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I try to buy my books from small, local bookstores, but they’re disappearing in New York City and everywhere else. When I can’t find books at the store, or need them in a hurry, I’ll order them online.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
When you write fiction you can take any personality characteristic and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. I’d pick a character that reflects that approach − a fictional genius (like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Gregory House), or someone with otherworldly street smarts (like House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart). There’s plenty of time for fun and good food later; I’d try to learn as much as possible about what makes this fictional genius tick.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Philip Roth’s novella, Goodbye, Columbus. It’s an impeccably told story, and Roth’s protagonist, Neil Klugman, seems so real that you see aspects of him in almost everyone you know. But the main reason why the book had such an effect on me is that it tells the story of transience and change better than any other piece of writing I’ve read. It tells of one mostly glorious summer in Klugman’s life, which, as all summers do, eventually ends. That concept really speaks to me, because I’ve lived on three continents, in large cities and in small towns, sometimes surrounded by close friends and family, but at other times relatively isolated. When things change − for the better or for the worse − I always think about (and sometimes reread for the thousandth time) Goodbye, Columbus.
Adam Alter will talk about Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces That Shape How we Think, Feel and Behave at a Lunchbox/Soapbox event at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May, 12.45pm.
We share our favourite finds from around the internet this week.
A brain-imaging study of 18 violent, psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, the largest such study undertaken, suggests they can summon empathy when prompted. ‘Empathic circuits that are unconsciously activated in the brains of normal people may be dormant or switched off in psychopaths – not absent, as commonly thought. Those circuits, the study showed, can be activated after psychopaths are prompted to see a situation from someone else’s point of view.’
Germany will close all its nuclear power plants by 2022 – German photographer Michael Danner visited 17 power plants, to document them before they disappear. ‘I wanted to document these sites because to a lot of people they are just a name or an idea,’ he told Wired. He’s tried to take an objective view of the plants, and to photograph them in the context of the countryside they’re located in, and the huamns who work there.
Shape-shifting writer Neil Gaiman has taken on a new guise, adding to his roles as graphic novelist, YA and adult novelist, and occasional journalist – now, he’s a video game designer.
Wayward Manor is inspired by Gaiman’s love of both supernatural and slapstick genres. The game follows the misadventures of a ghost who wants nothing more than a peaceful afterlife, and to kick out the motley crew living in the house he once called home.
Watch: Gaiman’s 2011 appearance at the Wheeler Centre
Natalie Portman will make her directing debut with a film of Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The book details Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem in the chaotic period at the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, as well as the writer’s experiences during the early years of the state of Israel and teenage years on a kibbutz.
Oz has been working on a screenplay, and says that he sold the rights to the Jerusalem-born Portman five or six years ago. ‘I agreed because of my high esteem for her work. She’s an excellent actor,’ he said.
Watch: Amos Oz on Israel: War, Peace and Storytelling
Last week, the Atlantic ran a week of photo essays, featuring regions of the US covered by the photographers of the Documerica Project in the early 1970s.
The project was put together by the Environmental Protection Agency and its goal was to document adverse effects of modern life on the environment – but photographers were also encouraged to capture the daily lives of ordinary people.
The DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – is recognised today as the bible of psychiatry. A comprehensive list of all the mental illnesses that officially exist and their symptoms, this book is extraordinarily powerful: the words within its pages have influenced countless lives.
But have those lives changed for the better? Is the DSM a scientific benchmark or, as some have attested, is it – like changing skirt lengths – driven by fashion?
Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer was the man who created the manual’s elevated standing (and hefty size). When he took on the job of editing DSM-3, in 1973, it was just 134 pages long, and hardly anyone had heard of it.
‘For six years Spitzer held editorial meetings at Columbia. They were chaos. The psychiatrists would yell out the names of potential new mental disorders and the checklists of their symptoms and there would be a cacophony of voices in assent or dissent – the loudest voices getting listened to the most. If Spitzer agreed with those proposing a new diagnosis, which he almost always did, he’d hammer it out instantly on an old typewriter. And there it would be, set in stone.’
‘That’s how practically every disorder you’ve ever heard of or been diagnosed with came to be defined.’
When the new DSM was published, in 1980, it was 494 pages long.
Ronson describes the result, with 83 new disorders, as a ‘gold rush for drug companies’; Spitzer agrees.
‘I love to hear parents who say, “It was impossible to live with him until we gave him medication and then it was night and day”,’ he told Ronson happily.
Bipolar disorder was one of those additions to DSM-3. In 2000, childhood bipolar – previously thought to be rare, even non-existent, before adolescence – was added to the DSM-4.
Allen Frances, editor of DSM-4, has recently talked about regretting his role in the further expansion of classified mental illnesses (32 more disorders were added and the manual grew to 886 pages under his editorship). What he calls the ‘false epidemic’ of childhood bipolar is one of his most pressing areas of concern.
Childhood bipolar really took off at Massachusetts General Hospital, where prominent child psychiatrists developed the theory that developmental differences in children mean that they have a different bipolar presentation from that of adults. ‘Rather than clear-cut cycles of mania and depression, bipolar kids were said to have continuous irritability, moodiness, and behaviour problems,’ wrote Allen Frances for Huffington Post recently.
He says that the backers of this approach lobbied hard for their new definition to be included in the DSM, but it was rejected for lack of scientific evidence. ‘This did not inhibit the enthusiasm of the new thought leaders in child psychiatry as they spread their new gospel.’
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan wrote a long profile on childhood bipolar for the New York Times in 2008. She reported that ‘nearly every clinician [she] spoke to said that bipolar illness is being overdiagnosed in kids’; in studies by the National Institute of Mental Health, ‘only 20 per cent of children identified with bipolar disorder are found to meet the strict criteria for the disease’.
Why does this matter? Children diagnosed as bipolar are medicated with antipsychotic and mood stabilising drugs that have serious side effects. Complications include major weight gain, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and possibly shortened life expectancy.
‘The problem is not that medications are being used at all (sometimes they have to be), but that they are being used so much, so carelessly, so early in life, and for such inappropriate and sometimes trivial indications,’ says Frances.
Jennifer Egan found that the drugs used to treat irritable, aggressive children are often the same as those used for bipolar disorder; she spoke to one of those psychiatrists who were influential in the redefinition of childhood polar, Janet Wozniak (director of the pediatric bipolar-disorder program at Massachusetts General Hospital). All but one of the manic children in her original study had ADHD; Egan found that ‘a severely irritable child who has ADHD could be, theoretically, only one symptom away from a bipolar diagnosis’.
Gabrielle Carson, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has studied childhood childhood mania for many years, disagrees with the new childhood bipolar. She told Egan that it is rare in children under ten and presents in the same discrete episodes of mania and depression as bipolar adults, not in chronic irritability.
She believes that a large group of aggressive and explosive children who are ‘diagnostically homeless’ are being relabelled as bipolar – and that this is a concern.
Jennifer Egan also spent time with the families of children diagnosed with bipolar.
One family, where the parents are both bipolar, had two bipolar children; the whole family are medicated for it. This may not be as odd as it seems; a recent study shows that children with even one bipolar parent are 13 times more likely to develop the disease.
Marie’s daughter Phia was ‘overstimulated almost from birth’, becoming hysterical in response to ordinary sights and sounds – her mother couldn’t wear coloured shirts, for example. Phia tormented her brother and had silly moods that spiralled out of control. ‘She was asking for medicine for at least a year or so,’ Marie told Egan. She asked, ‘Isn’t there anything they can give me to help me calm down?’
Much of her extreme behaviour eased with medication, though it has fluctuated, with her medication adjusted accordingly. Phia’s friends don’t know she’s bipolar and she worries the would judge her for it; Marie says her parents and siblings don’t believe her children are bipolar and disapprove the medication, while the school also has doubts. Marie herself has questioned it; the the burden of responsibility for her children’s diagnoses weighs heavily on her.
‘I re-experience some mourning or grieving for the kids with each medicine change,’ she told Egan. ‘The unknowns are so daunting and somehow I feel guilty for taking such risks.’
In 2006, in Boston, Massachusetts, four-year-old Rebecca Riley died of an accidental overdose of the antipsychotic medication she’d been prescribed for her bipolar disorder (diagnosed when she was two-and-half). Her parents, who were convicted of murder, had ‘got into the habit of feeding her the medicines to shut her up when she was being annoying,’ wrote Jon Ronson.
Her mother, Carolyn Riley, was interviewed by 60 Minutes after Rebecca’s death. Ronson reports the following exchange:
Reporter: Do you really think Rebecca had bipolar disorder?
CR: Probably not.
Reporter: What do you think was wrong with her now?
CR: I don’t know. Maybe she was just hyper for her age.
Join us next Tuesday night for our Intelligence Squared debate on whether Our Children Are Over Diagnosed. Melbourne Town Hall, 6.30pm-8.30pm.
Speakers for the proposition are Jane Caro, Martin Whitely, author of Speed Up and Sit Still: The Controversies of ADHD and Jon Jureidini, child psychiatrist, professor in psychiatry and paediatrics at Adelaide University and spokesman for Healthy Skepticism.
Speakers against the proposition are Nicole Rogerson, CEO of Autism Awareness Australia and director of the Lizard Children’s Centre, Katie Allen, paediatric gastroenterologist and allergist in the field of Food Allergy at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, and Jane Burns, public health academic and advocate, and CEO of Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre.
Our picks from the internet this week.
There’s been a huge buzz this week about the much-anticipated launch of Guardian Australia, which finally happened on Monday. Original Australian content includes David Marr’s first piece as staff writer, reporting on George Pell’s testimony on the issue of abuse in the Catholic church.
Elmo Keep has been vocally arguing against the Guardian’s reposting content from a selection of Australian websites without paying the original writers (which is not unique to the Guardian, we should say), and has pointed interested readers to her recent article on the problems with the free economy.
This collection of one-star Amazon reviews of books in Time magazine’s 100 best novels of all time is hilarious …Of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, the reviewer says, ‘Obviously, a lot people were smoking a lot of weed in the ’60s to think this thing is worth reading.’ John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is incredulously dismissed as ‘about dirt!’. And someone writes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: ‘I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!’ This was our favourite, though, on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:
I bought these books to have something nice to read to my grandkids. I had to stop, however, because the books are nothing more than advertisements for ‘Turkish Delight’, a candy popular in the U.K. The whole point of buying books for my grandkids was to give them a break from advertising, and here (throughout) are ads for this ‘Turkish Delight’! How much money is this Mr. Lewis getting from the Cadbury’s chocolate company anyway? This man must be laughing to the bank.
We serendipitously stumbled on this beautifully written, wryly funny little memoir essay about working in publishing in New York, by writer Jessica Francis Kane, yesterday. It’s a delicious trip down the memory lane of the recent past, when press releases were faxed and phone calls were the main method of communication (not an email in sight). And it’s the all-too-familiar story of a book-loving English graduate who wants to be an editor, but falls into publicity instead. Jessica Francis Kane is now the author of the novel The Report and the short-story collection The Close.
When I’m home, all the friends and neighbours who have heard I work in publishing think I’m an editor. Explaining to each of them what a publicist does is tiring. After a few glasses of wine, however, it gets easier. It’s a bit like be
A new book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, gives a fascinating peek at how famous writers were packaged and pitched to the reading public – before they were famous.
And on the topic of writerly nostalgia, we stumbled on this deliciously gossipy, luxuriously long article from New York magazine on the links and friendships between American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace before they were famous. There’s some great writing and little-known facts in here.
Did you know David Foster Wallace had Mary Karr’s name tattooed on his arm and once threw a coffee table at her? Or that the first time Jonathan Franzen heard from a peer was when DFW wrote to praise his first novel? ‘I was desperate for friends,’ Franzen later recalled.
New research shows that ‘fearless dominance associated with psychopathy’ could be an important predictor of how well a president performs. The analysis drew on personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush.
‘Fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, correlates with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations,’ concluded lead author Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.
In the Mad Men-era, women at Newsweek were told that ‘women don’t write here’, even though they had been through the same college educations as their male colleagues. Women like Nora Ephron and Susan Brownmiller escaped to more welcoming environments. But in 1970, 46 women sued for gender discrimination, in the first lawsuit of its kind.
When the rest of us saw that guys who graduated from the same schools without any professional experience got hired as reporters and writers over us, that’s when we decided to do something. But we were so insecure and so intimidated about trying out as writers that we asked a few guys to teach a writing course for women.
Times changed, of course. Next Thursday, Julia Baird, former deputy editor of Newsweek, will be at the Wheeler Centre to talk about media and politics in America, with Richard Fidler, Siobhan Heanue and chair Sophie Black.
Are you polishing off a story, ready to send out to magazines and journals? Well, if you are, take a look at this Indiana Review article – which has been doing the rounds of the local literary internet this week – first. Does it fit one of the three categories that make it unlikely to get past the first hurdle?
They are: ‘The Sad Garage Sale’ (Carver already did this one, better than you’re likely to), stories of epiphanies around a sick bed, and ‘Scholars Misbehaving’ (unless you’re Michael Chabon writing The Wonder Boys).
The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘psychopathy’ have a chequered history in psychiatry. Widely used in the mid-20th century, they’ve become more contested in recent decades as the psychiatric community tries to define a psychopath with scientific rigour. Deborah Cameron, a Scottish feminist linguist, wrote in 1987 that the word ‘psychopathy’ has become an “infinitely elastic, catch-all category”. An article by R. Blackburn the following year in the British Journal of Psychiatry argued that the word was more of a moral judgment than a scientific category.
Around that time, a psychiatrist called Robert Hare developed a checklist to determine whether or not someone was a psychopath. That checklist became the basis for Welsh journalist Jon Ronson’s investigation of psychopathy, The Psychopath Test (previously mentioned here, here and here).
These days, psychopathy is back in vogue, largely thanks to Ronson. His research found that psychopaths, as defined by the Hare checklist, make up one per cent of the general population – but that there are four times that number at the highest levels of business and politics. (To see the video of Ronson’s recent Wheeler Centre appearance, click on the image below.)
It’s an assessment that Conrad Black, a Canadian former media baron and owner of The Age, might well agree with. Just today, in an article in the Business section of the Huffington Post, Black has published a damning assessment of Rupert Murdoch in which he labels his nemesis a psychopath: “My admiration for his boldness and acumen and our previous 25 years of more than civil relations make it unpleasant, despite his unspeakable assault on me, to have to conclude that he is, in my personal belief, a psychopath. I think behind his nondescript personality lurks a repressed, destructive malice. His is, and has been proved to be, in some measure, a criminal organization.” Of course, Black’s diagnosis is highly unreliable: he’s now serving time in the US for white collar crimes after long having been the subject of News Limited newspaper opprobrium.
In a feature published in today’s Age, US psychologist Christopher Ryan likens monogamy to vegetarianism, saying a monogamous lifestyle is possible but not necessarily what human beings are predisposed to adhering to.
Christopher Ryan is the co-author – with his wife, psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha – of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. He’ll appear at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, delivering this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic of ‘Sexual Vegetarianism’.
You’ll see them in shopping centres every weekend seeking sedation: people trying to buy their next high.
Reduce greed. There’s your answer. Thank you and good night.
Nothing new, nothing fancy, nothing even slightly original. Here’s a tip to increase your happiness. Just stop trying to fill that gaping hole inside yourself with more stuff. Or shelving for the stuff. Or a bigger house for the shelving. It doesn’t work. It just makes the hole bigger. Everything won’t be fine if you just get new light fittings, replace the curtains or buy a new mobile phone. No one needs 12 doona covers. Everything will be fine if you take a big breath and stop buying crap you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.
Does anyone else want to slap half the people around you and say “You’d have more peace if you just spent less money”? People complain about how hard they work, how little money they have and how their relationship is at breaking point. And then what do they do? Exercise? Meditate? Work less? Nope. They buy themselves a cappuccino machine they’ll only use twice, an exercise bike that will be the most expensive clothes hanger they have ever owned, shoes they’ll never wear and then sign up for cable TV. And then put their hand up for more overtime.
Next time you find yourself itching for some retail therapy, think about what would really turn off that desire button inside you, not just put it on snooze. Take a look at your wardrobe overflowing with clothes you don’t wear, your shed chockers with tools you don’t use or that entertainment unit groaning under the weight of the hundreds of dollars of DVDs and CDs that you’ve never played. Remember how excited you were and how you truly believed, deep down in the soul of your being, that each purchase would bring you happiness. How it would soothe those wounds of feeling unloved, unappreciated and unhappy. How you had to have it. The thrill of the purchase,
the excitement of the homecoming and then the punch in the stomach when your credit card bill arrived.
Middle-class whingers complaining about how hard they are struggling need a good slap. They are offensive to true battlers out there who stock up on their brand of margarine when it’s on special and don’t buy new socks but mend the ones they have.
Someone handed me $300 cash the other day. It felt like a million dollars. It felt like far more money than 10 times as much sitting in my bank account. Because I could see it, feel it, smell it. These days money is invisible. People don’t actually know how much things cost them. If people had to slave away and earn the cash before they could acquire the things they wanted, given the choice and knowing how much sweat it’d taken, they’d go for the cash. The invisible money culture is not only ravaging the environment, it’s corroding lives and destroying happiness. Putting it on the credit card or taking money out of the mortgage? It’s all invisible money.
I call it the Veruca Salt syndrome. I want it and I want it NOW. People have to have the big house, the new car, the new kitchen, the new clothes NOW. Once upon a time people saved, they waited, they went without. Same happy. Some say more happy.
The symptoms of affluenza, luxury fever and conspicuous consumption can all be alleviated by the simple mantra “I have enough”. The worried-well need less, not more. The stressed-out full-timers who live on Mortgagee Mountain, between Default District and Foreclosure Falls, dig themselves in deeper as they attempt to find peace in the purchase of plasma TVs so each member of the family can watch Big Brother in their own room of the McMansion.
People are in debt up to their eyebrows and they tell me it’s good for the economy. But it’s destroying our spiritual economy. Is this the spiritual recession we had to have? Kids want to lie on the grass watching the clouds roll by with chilled-out parents. Not be dragged through shopping centres by harassed mums and dads trying to anaesthetise their existential pain by purchasing more stuff to plug in and more stuff to store.
On any perfect 25-degree windless Sunday you will find Chadstone, Northland, DFO and all those soul-destroying cathedrals of emptiness chockers with people attempting to sedate. Take two transactions and call me in the morning. They’d be better off spending a few hours sitting in a church. And that’s coming from an atheist. Greed and consumption addict people and they spend weekends trawling shopping centres chasing the next hit.
Happy is the man who is content with what he has. And the woman who needs only one pair of good shoes and a library card. Maybe I should follow the advice of the graffiti I read last week: SHUT UP AND SHOP.
By Mark Mordue
The Rolling Stones song ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a seduction song thinly veiled in romance. The urgency and strut that it exudes, Mick Jagger’s startling use of falsetto – it’s all about getting a woman to leave her husband and join him in bed.
By surrendering to her desires and to his, the singer will come to that woman’s emotional rescue. It’s likely to be a very temporary liberation, however. As Jagger hints early in the song, “Don’t you know promises were never meant to keep.”
There are often gaps between what we say and what we mean, of course. Some conscious, others subconscious. Our listening can involve similar arts of opportunity and self-deception. There are messages we don’t want to receive. Others we need to have, whether they are present in what someone says or does – or not.
Our emotions are rarely singular, and pass over us like one cloud hiding another and perhaps another again. The argument would be we should use our mind to read that weather more clearly, to make sense of those feelings that impel us, and then to see ourselves and perhaps act more wisely. Or to surrender – because we want to surrender – to something that at first glance is irrational, wild, destructive or thrilling, as the case may be. To be rescued, as it were, from the rational world that dulls us and even imprisons us.
Art is a kind of tarot for our feelings, a set of stories and symbols through which we can see ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time the connection was more ordered and universally understood, a universe of bodily humors from which character and all human destiny stemmed.
Though we lack such an elaborate and living map of the self today, I find I am still able to read another map, a map that is not fixed but somehow flowing, visible within the arts available to me. And that through these encounters I can examine what my feelings are – and even reinvigorate them by listening to music or reading a book when modern life seems to extinguish those sparks.
In a recent interview, Laura Marling – the young English singer most often compared to Joni Mitchell – declared herself to be an anti-romantic rationalist, to be all about logic over feelings. Marling is a woman barely 21 years old who’s produced a supreme second album entitled A Creature I Don’t Know (oh the irony). It’s hard to recall a record of such up-tempo and annihilating dispensations emerging since Chrissie Hynde appeared on the scene with The Pretenders some 30 years ago. Though arising out of an English folk-pop background, Marling’s voice also echoes the smoky, side-on snarl of Hynde at her best. Her lyrics are not only literary, they venture into a dark yet ultimately optimistic aloneness that seems rare: neither soporifically happy, nor darkly cliched. She works towards stripping away illusions about romance while sustaining a deep poetry and sense of mystery to her lyrics.
At the same time I started listening to her new record and absorbing her world-view, I found myself hurled backwards – somewhat nostalgically – by the documentary Autoluminescent. A depiction of the life and loss of former Birthday Party guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, Autoluminescent takes some of its hard-edge romance from the influence of 19th century French poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both of whom Howard echoed in his looks, lyrics and ambience.
In the documentary, Howard talks about writing his first important song, ‘Shivers’, when he was only 16. He had noticed his schoolmates indulging in their emotions to hysterical extremes. It was all too much. Thus the withering lines of a jilted young man who might well be Howard himself: “’I’ve been contemplating suicide/but it’s really not my style.”
Howard could look back at the song and laugh at his own bravado, and his insight into excess emotion. “Says me”, he observes wryly in the documentary, “a guy who has always had a glass heart on his sleeve.”
Howard died last year of liver failure brought on by complications wrought by hepatitis C, contracted from intravenous drug use as a young man. Ultimately Autoluminescent is about promise unfulfilled, but it’s also about the great things Howard gave us as a musician and songwriter. It’s a legacy at once genuinely tragic and yet luminous, leaving you with a far-from-singular feeling – one that might best be described as ecstatic grieving.
A great artistic encounter brings something truthful to how we feel about ourselves and see the world. It’s a mysterious tension – an overlapping, contradictory richness – that somehow makes sense without ever reducing things to an easy answer or summary. It may be this is the only emotional rescue we can ever count on. In the meantime, we continue to seek our freedoms in the strangest ways – as often as not in spite of ourselves – jolted back into awareness by a wave of music, a line of poetry, a painting, a song … then continuing on our way.
Mark Mordue is the 2010 Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year. He is currently working on a biography of Nick Cave.
No longer is alarmism about modern-day psychiatry the preserve of conspiracy theorists and Scientologists. That a forthcoming appearance at the Wheeler Centre by Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, has sold out is an indication of increasing interest in mental illnesses and the psychoactive pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat them.
A recent two-part essay in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, ‘The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?’, raises alarming questions about the state of modern psychiatry and of the role pharmaceutical companies are playing in the development of widely-accepted treatments. Angell writes that a major 2001-2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US found that almost half the adult population fit the criteria for having suffered a mental illness at some point of their lives. One in ten 10-year-old boys in the US now take stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and there are half a million children in the US on antipsychotic drugs.
While psychoactive drugs undoubtedly have a beneficial effect for many sufferers of mental illness, perhaps the saddest aspect of current US psychiatry is, according to Angell, its links to poverty. “As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid.” To qualify for SSI, applicants are generally required to be taking psychoactive drugs. The result? A study found that “children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.”
On Monday, 26 September, the Wheeler Centre will be hosting Sad, the first of three events in the Sad/Angry/Happy series on the emotions. For this event, chair Noni Hazlehurst will be joined by politician Andrew Robb, comedian Ben Pobjie and Dr Nicole Highet of beyondblue.
Emma Forrest’s career as a writer almost predates her adolescence. She’s toured with pop bands, written a column in the Times, published several books including three novels, and dated stars of stage and screen. She’s also struggled with debilitating mental illness. This is how she described her descent into madness in a 2008 Guardian article advising sympathy for Britney Spears:
“I was 22 in 2000, living in New York on contract to this newspaper and about to have my first book hit the shelves … Beginning as writer’s block, [the psychosis] evolved into a profound self-loathing made visible around my studio apartment by a knee-deep mess of newspapers, magazines, books, clothes … It starts to be a psychotic break when one moves from depression to being afraid of opening the refrigerator because the monster that yells, ‘Zool!’ at Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters might be there. But I didn’t see how crazy that was … By the end of 2000, I was self mutilating a few times a week and having four scaldingly hot baths a day, trying to feel something and trying to make the hours pass, like Britney, driving in circles, padding out her days.”
After a serious suicide attempt, Forrest ended up in hospital, where her illness stabilised. Her path back to wellness began following her return to New York, when she began seeing her psychiatrist, whom she refers to as Dr R. In her memoir of the time, Your Voice in My Head, Dr R looms as a large, beneficent presence. In her words, he helped Forrest “fall out of love with madness”. In her memoir, Forrest writes about Dr R’s unexpected death, and having to learn to be happy on her own. Nowadays, Forrest is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.
A new book claims that, while one in 100 people in the general population are psychopaths, in the boardroom the ratio is four times higher (go to 18m40s). In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, calls psychopathy “the madness that makes the world go round”. In a Youtube video to promote the book he adds, “there’s a preponderance of psychopaths – people with a complete lack of human empathy – at the heart of the political and business elites”. Here’s a review and here’s an interview.
Jon Ronson became interested in psychopathy when he was contacted by a patient of a hospital for the mentally ill he calls ‘Tony’. Tony convinced Ronson he had faked his mental illness to avoid a prison term for a crime he’d been charged with. When Ronson spoke to hospital authorities about the case, they agreed that Tony had faked his mental illness, but that the fact that he’d faked a mental illness to escape criminal conviction was a sign that Tony was a psychopath.
The author uses Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist to conclude that corporate figures such as ‘Chainsaw Al’ Dunlap might just qualify. The list includes: glibness/superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning/manipulative behaviour; lack of remorse or guilt; short-lived and egocentric emotion; callousness/lack of empathy; failure to accept responsibility for actions; susceptibility to boredom; poor behavioral control; and lack of realistic long-term goals (full list here).
Literature has a long and proud history of psychopaths, arguably beginning with the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade staves off the murderous impulses of a psychopathic king with the power of storytelling. Film has made much mileage of psychopaths, too, particularly Stanley Kubrick. But among psychologists, the word ‘psychopath’ itself is controversial, particularly its classification, alongside sociopathy, as a subset of antisocial personality disorder.
Explore by area of interest