He stared at the sun with one eye for as long as he could bear, secretively cast horoscopes and performed countless experiments in the alchemical arts. Writing over a million words in spidery script, he strove obsessively to crack prophetic codes predicting the end of the world which he believed were hidden in ancient scripture, and used a novel form of math of his own creation to interpret the esoteric meaning of the texts. In his youth, he sometimes wished his stepfather dead and his mother too: in a rage he threatened to burn their house down around them. Sometimes he wished himself dead. In his thirties his hair was already gray, falling to his shoulders and usually uncombed. He stayed in his chambers for days at a time, careless of food. Colleagues learned to leave him undisturbed at meals and to step around diagrams he scratched with a stick in the gravel walkways. They described him as silent and alienated, with flopping socks and broken-down shoes.
* * * * *
She was certain that she had been abducted by aliens who had implanted her with a chip that they used to monitor her thoughts and activities. Annoyed by this invasion of her privacy, she fashioned a hat made of tin foil which, she believed, disrupted the link between the monitoring device and the alien observers. This strategy seemed to work; everything was fine when she wore the cap indoors, but stepping outside, everyone looked and made fun of her and told her to her face that she was crazy. She increasingly became reclusive and withdrawn from the world.
* * * * *
Losing himself in philosophical and mystical monologues, he would make bizarre, fanciful leaps of the imagination. A short uncouth figure, stout, unshaven, not overly clean… he walked in with a frayed notebook under his arm. He was miserably poor. Asked what he wanted, he said a pittance to live on so that he might pursue his research. And the notebook? It was filled with math theorems, of a like never seen before. He claimed they had come to him in dreams through the agency of the goddess Namagiri who wrote the equations on his tongue. “An equation,” he said, “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”
* * * * *
Though addicted to opium and alcohol, and reduced to wandering the street in search of food, he dressed like a dandy and generated endless schemes and bizarre plans to bring himself wealth and fame. Meanwhile, though hardly read or understood by anyone, he devoted heroic energies to his writing, probing the foundations of semiotics, cosmology, logic and mathematics and general philosophy.
* * * * *
He believed in the rationality and self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, staunchly opposed regulation of derivatives trading and credit default swaps, and had total confidence in the self-correcting power of free markets and mortgage lending.
* * * * *
Sensing that he had come to a crucial junction in his life and undergoing a spiritual crisis in the summer before leaving home for university, he started reading an off-beat book of scripture and prayed. Later, he described what happened: it was like the top of his head came off, and he was filled with what felt like warm light and an affective kind of intelligence. He was convinced that the book was true. He would go to university as a religious person; he believed that a personal God had heard and answered his prayers.
* * * * *
Unusual beliefs? Deluded people? Paranoid or psychotic reaction to irrational and unsubstantiated fears, to transitional, uncertain, stress-filled moments in life? Do we know for certain which beliefs and actions are normal, unusual, and harmful?
And if we were to be confronted by one of these individuals and situations, how would we respond? Shame that she is a member of the family? Embarrassed because he’s a friend? Do we call 911? Try to talk them out of their beliefs? Appeal to reason, evidence, common sense, one’s own story, by calling forth our own values and convictions? Should we refer them to mental health teams? Later, do we nod our heads knowingly, sympathetically, when we learn that they have been diagnosed with a mental illness, hospitalized, medicated, eventually put on disability?
The long-haired, unkempt, reclusive alchemist who obsessed over Biblical apocalyptic prophesy? Isaac Newton, posthumously extolled as the archetypical figure of the Advent of the Age of Reason.
The mystic on whose dreaming tongue a Hindu goddess inscribed fantastic equations? His named was Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian genius whose extraordinary contributions revolutionized 20th and 21st century mathematics.
The opium addicted, mania-fueled, melancholic food-stealing dandy who obsessively wrote philosophical tomes to a phantom and uncomprehending audience? C.S. Peirce, now revered as one of the greatest philosophers of the 19th-20th centuries.
The staunch believer in the self-correcting power of free markets and mortgage lending who presided over the collapse of the American economy in 2007-8? Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve.
The university-bound kid with the weird scriptures and goofy religious experience? Me at age seventeen.
Who’s deluded? Who’s possessed with unusual beliefs? And whose beliefs, if expressed and put into practice publicly, actually cause the greatest harm? Are unusual beliefs and attendant behaviors always unwarranted and meaningless? Who gets to decide what is abnormal or normal, and based upon what kind of evidence, really?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions and their consequences. It’s hard going there; it’s difficult for me, anyway, because when I slow down long enough to consider them—to really open up my heart and mind to other people and their beliefs—it can trigger some real confusion and a realization of just how often, culturally, we can look away from, defer and avoid tragedy and isolation, loss and despair, poverty and hubris. It’s no wonder we don’t feel brave enough, patient enough, or sane enough ourselves to deal with it all sometimes. And thus we push them—the people and the questions—out of our minds, get on with life, and pass them on to professionals to deal with.
But let’s think about this. Consider the vignettes of unusual beliefs I shared with you earlier. Consider the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest who practice the Snake Antelope Dance to this day. In their world, it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable for an individual to dance with rattlesnakes in his mouth at designated times and in ritual settings because of a worldview, a landscape and beliefs where these serpents are viewed as messengers to the gods—divine beings who live in the San Francisco Mountains to the west of Hopi mesa-top villages and who hold the power to send or withhold life-giving rain.
By virtue of priestly authority, a Roman Catholic priest presides over the transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ. To those who believe, who grow up Catholic, and in homes and families where these activities take place and are accepted as eminently plausible, such beliefs and rituals make sense. The same can be said of Ramanujan, the Indian math genius—in his strictly observant Hindu home, there was nothing improbable about a Hindu goddess appearing in his dreams and writing math theorems on his tongue.
These things make sense to those who believe because of what students of religion call “plausibility structures.” That is, beliefs and practices make sense because they are taught from birth in the home, affirmed by parents, neighbours and other adult authorities, and upheld by churches, temples, synagogues, scriptures, history, hymn singing, religious buildings and institutional bureaucracies. Plausibility structures are not confined to religion and to what someone may think is irrational beliefs. Worldviews are also conferred and upheld by the plausibility structures of university education, academic degrees, secular ideologies, and professional cultures and standards. Alan Greenspan’s “master of the universe” view of rational self-interest, de-regulation and the self-correcting power of free markets made eminent sense to him because he was surrounded by people who shared his belief, hailed him as an economic sage and doted on his every word—until the economy collapsed. Then he confessed to being “distressed” and in a “state of shocked disbelief.” His plausibility structure was crumbling. Too bad for us, and a little too late.
Soviet psychiatrists, abetted by the machinery of the State, forcibly hospitalized and chemically lobotomized thousands of Soviet dissident citizens in the 70s and 80s despite the outrage of many in the West. Why? Because of the plausibility structure of Marxist-Leninist workers’ utopia and its so-called scientific materialism. Anyone who dissented from this, from the logic of history, who jeopardized their happiness, their careers and family, had to be crazy—and thus they were diagnosed by compliant psychiatrists with “paranoia” and something called “sluggish schizophrenia,” the symptoms of which included “reform delusions,” “perseverance,” “projects for the benefit of mankind,” and “the struggle for truth.” Unusual beliefs indeed! Lock ‘em up in a hospital and drug the nonsense out of them!
Viewed from the outside, the beliefs of Hopi snake dancers, the Hindu mathematician Ramanujan, Alan Greenspan, and Roman Catholics may look unusual indeed. Bill Maher, the comic and social critic, said that a Catholic “has to be schizophrenic to go about life normally for six days a week, only on the seventh to go to church and believe that when drinking the communion wine one is drinking the blood of a 2000-year-old space god.” And before I get too smug about it, while Unitarian principles and practices may seem totally plausible to me, fundamentalist Christians may see us a neo-pagan, earth-worshipping satanic cult. Martin Luther King Jr. decided he couldn’t be a Unitarian because we are “too sentimental concerning human nature” and that we “leaned to false optimism.”
To be frank, I see little essential difference between the Mormon, Sikh, and Orthodox Jewish practice of wearing religious undergarments, of men in turbans, fezzes and yarmulkes, nuns in habits and women in hijabs, or of individuals who don tinfoil caps to disrupt attempts to read their private thoughts, and those clad in Brooks Brothers suits, Boss and Gucci designer clothes and underwear, who drive around in BMWs and Benzes. Each expresses deeply held needs, values and beliefs supported by personal experience, social context, economic class, and plausibility structure. Each comports himself in ways that align with a worldview he embraces and others would, on principle, avoid. Each dresses distinctively in order to remind herself of who she is and that which she finds meaningful in life—what they fear, what they welcome, in order to deal with the uncertainties, needs, trials, indignities, and pleasures of living in a complex world.
I can imagine that belief in alien abduction could be an understandable response to traumas like extended viewings of Fox News, or being shipped off to boarding and residential schools, or being plopped down in the lap of a terrifying stranger with a long white beard, dressed in a ridiculous red outfit who keeps laughing “ho, ho ho!” over and over.
I can well imagine that paranoia could be an understandable response if I was a young man, especially of colour, between the ages of 18-30, who, when he steps out into streets studded with surveillance cameras, knows—knows in ways undreamt of by others—that he is of special, prejudicial interest to those policemen who keep looking at him as they cruise by.
And speaking of race: black and Asian people, according to one report from the UK, and working class Mexican women in the US, are all 50% more likely to be diagnosed as paranoid and schizophrenic than are whites. If you are in a social position characterized by powerlessness and the threat of victimization, if you are poor and living alone in a substandard housing, it may be functional to imagine you are being followed and oppressed. It may be functional to believe and hope that you have a messianic solution to the problems of the world you face day-in-day-out—for you see the Alan Greenspans in charge of the world, and know it’s going to take more power to change things than what you possess alone.
You can see where I am going with this. What was improbable, and what’s most important for me in the story of Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician, is that G. H. Hardy, a Cambridge University math professor, didn’t dismiss Ramanujan as a demented crank. Hardy actually read Ramanujan’s unsolicited letters from India filled with fantastic, unprecedented equations, and invited the young, self-taught customs clerk from Madras to England, to Cambridge.
That is, he listened—he did not try to argue Ramanujan out of his unusual beliefs; instead, he listened and learned and marveled. He patiently sat with Ramanujan for days and months to decipher and make meaning of his theorems. He helped Ramanujan, the devout Hindu, to cope with living in a strange European city by finding ingredients and shops that could cater to his unusual, strictly vegetarian diet, and to track down out-of-the-way places where Ramanujan could continue his ritual practices and worship.
But then, perhaps, it took someone like Hardy, a closeted homosexual, a committed atheist and someone who came from a lower middle class background, to appreciate and not dismiss Ramanujan’s fantastic story. They were both outsiders in a world of High Anglicanism, aristocratic privilege, and sexual respectability.
Let me repeat this: Hardy accepted Ramanujan’s reality and helped him to live with it.
A growing body of research and practice is showing that the most effective, humane and mutually transformative way to help someone deal with unusual beliefs and experiences is not to deny, argue, institutionalize or drug them out of their perceived reality. Rather, it is to invite the person to talk about their beliefs and experiences, and actively listen without judging them or trying to modify their beliefs. Find out about their reality, and then look for ways to help them cope more effectively with things as they perceive them.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.