In the famous ‘mirror scene’ of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rhetorically confronts himself with aggressive remarks. He seems to say, “You see what you see; now what are you going to do about it?” When you gaze into the mirror abyss, it gazes back, and there is no fleeing. Bickle, a war veteran who no doubt witnessed atrocities, doesn’t implode inward but explodes outward and confronts a world in which corruption and degeneracy have been normalized, and people conform by looking away. He does as the voice of his conscience bids him in an effort to bring redemption.
Long before Bickle was even flicker in Scorcese’s eye, the radical Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing lashed out at blind conformity and the psycho-social regimen that coerced individuals into moral assimilation, even at great cost to their psychic integrity. Said Laing in The Politics of Experience (1967), “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last 50 years.” Conformity can provide safety and certainty, but by necessarily submitting to authority it contains a strong potential for evil.
Bickle and Laing came to mind as I was reading Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness by the brothers Joel and Ian Gold. The Golds claim to have discovered a new behavioural pattern that suggests a growing psychological condition they are calling the Truman Show Delusion. As the name suggests, it is a conviction that one is being watched and televised, as if imprisoned in a reality TV show, wherein everyone is a player acting out a script. Joel Gold writes, “The delusion raised questions about the interplay between mental illness and our environment, and larger questions about the relationship of mind to culture.”
Ian Gold adds that he believes such Truman-like “delusions have to do with our relationships with other people, and the new media creates a larger community with more threats and opportunities.” One thing that our increasing online activity results in, the Golds imply, is a deterioration of our boundaries with others. We become more interactive, with internet activity, texting, emailing, and cell phone chatter. Maybe this what CEOs Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt of Google mean when they argue that we can no longer have the expectation of privacy.
Suspicious Minds is not only about the Truman Show Delusion, although that is certainly a fascinating development. The book explores delusions in general. The brothers underscore just how fragile and suggestible the human mind is, which is both a blessing and a curse. Humans have wild and freely associative imaginations that allow for dynamic, alternative-minded reality, but such freedom can be a maze that is difficult to navigate, and there is the constant danger that the clew we hold may have been planted by a structuralist minotaur with a hidden agenda.
The authors hook the reader with the Truman Show Delusion, which then disappears for a hundred pages or so before re-appearing. Meanwhile they provide a rather standard history of mental illness, from roughly the start of the Enlightenment to the present. This is interspersed with absorbing case studies of delusional patients. Foucault it is not. Although a psychology student would find the most value in Suspicious Minds, it is also a worthwhile read for the layperson, too.
Another surprisingly readable and interesting psychology title I came across recently is Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, also by two brothers, Jason and Daniel Freeman. This book posits that a growing percentage of the West’s population is engaged in paranoid thoughts. They say that right now a startling 25% of those around us believe someone is out to do them harm, either by words or deeds. As the authors put it, “the days when paranoia could be written off as a meaningless sign of insanity are long gone. In this book we put paranoia centre stage. It’s only right, because paranoia is centre stage in our culture and in our individual lives.” Paranoid thinking, while not necessarily psychotic, is nevertheless seen as a precursor to delusions such as the Truman Show Delusion. In both instances, there is an intensified sense of threat and a perceived rupturing of boundaries.
These books remind me of the themes I found in another book, which I reviewed in these pages a few weeks ago: Thomas P. Keenan’s Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. It’s interesting to compare them, because Keenan’s catalogue of technological creepiness goes much further in explaining the growing ego ‘disruptions’ that we face as a result of ceding our privacy to the world of interactive digi-stim. In fact, in a disturbing follow-on to his book, Keenan’s describes incidents where marketers have used directional speaker technology to target shoppers and place voices in their heads (leading to increased sales, of course). While it’s refreshing to see in the Golds’ and Freemans’ studies an explicit acknowledgement of the role culture and environment play in leading to paranoid thinking and delusions, they make no effort to express culpability for the role their psychiatric profession plays in creating these conditions.
Certainly, the deterioration of privacy has a lot to do with this trend toward more ‘abnormal behaviour.’ The Golds at least reference that the Truman Show Delusion is in many cases directly linked to 9/11 trauma (they describe one poor ‘Truman’ who thought 9/11 had been staged as part of his reality TV sub-plot), but they make no mention of the comprehensive and penetrating surveillance state. This is partially excusable for Paranoia, which came out in 2010, well before the Snowden revelations pulled the blinders off, but not so excusable for Suspicious Minds, which is a very recent release. Do the authors really see no connection at all between the deep intrusions of the surveillance state, and the corporate algorithms and trackers digging at our desires?
It reminds me of what R. D. Laing acknowledged all those years ago: psychiatry is often in the business not of helping the individual per se, but of finding a way to have that individual adjust and assimilate to the system, no matter how absurd or abnormal that system is. And that’s a benign criticism that doesn’t even address breaches of patient confidentiality, or, as outlined in Anatomy of an Epidemic, the collusion with Big Pharma to hook people on debilitating psychotropics. And it ignores the trust-annihilating outrage of psychologists teaching government spooks how to torture more effectively.
I’ve heard Taxi Driver criticized for glorifying vigilantism, but that misses the point. Scorsese is not revelling in street justice. He’s pointing out that even this one-man lashing out against systemic sleaze and corruption can be accommodated, even lauded by normal society, because it looks like reform. But of course Bickle changes nothing much in the end, although a no-longer-innocent girl is set free. To change the system, we must all become cabbies confronting ourselves in the mirror.
– John Kendall Hawkins is a freelancer residing in Australia. His op-eds, features and book reviews have appeared in publications in the US, Australia and Europe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.