Most of Mad In America’s readers are probably familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel, but just to make sure that those from a non-Biblical background can follow along, I’ll whip out one of my handy psych ward Bibles (this is the New International Version, my favorite) and quote it; it’s pretty short. If you want to find it, the story appears in Chapter 11 of Genesis, the Bible’s first book. I think that, once you’ve considered what I have to say about it, you might even better appreciate why a story of this kind was included at the very beginning of the Bible as one of its most basic truths, as one of the starting points for all the rest of our Western culture that has come ever since, and that you might even see why it serves as an analogy (and a model) for all of voicehearing, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.“ They used brick [to build with] instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.“
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.“
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.
It’s worth noting — it will come up again later — that this is not the first time, even at this early point in the Bible, that the Lord has prevented humanity from attaining heights that He doesn’t want them to; in Chapter 3 of the same book of Genesis, the Lord sends the man Adam and the woman Eve out of the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise, in order to prevent them from eating from the Tree Of How To Live Beyond Time, as I prefer to translate the name. “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be able to take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”
All of which is not to turn this into a piece of literary criticism or religious scholarship — though discussions of voicehearing, psychosis, and schizophrenia very often do (and should) cross over into both — but simply to lay down a framework for understanding how very deep and very far back everything I want to talk about goes, which is to say to the very roots of Western culture at least; there are probably stories from other traditions as well that serve much the same purpose. And why not? So far as we know, voicehearing has been with us for a long time and it manifests all over the world, and the people who wrote the Bible and other accounts of the world like it were, after all, voicehearers. Call it God that’s talking to them if you want to — personally I think of it as the gods, and even the Bible tells you there are plenty of other gods besides the Lord all over the place — but whatever you decide you believe, at least it’s clear that something was talking to them.
In my experience (I’m a voicehearer) voices do not waste their time on anyone or anything. What they have to say is always worth your time, which they will require most of, if they really get going. The big mistake that people make in listening to voicehearers, psychotics, schizophrenics, whatever you want to call them, is in expecting that one of them is going to actually present you with a final result; that at some point they will simply wake up, totally out of the blue, and either totally disavow their “illness” after some critical moment of “insight,” or finally turn into that schizophrenic that everyone says is coming — the Savior of the World, or something like that — which each and every one of them might believe themselves to be, and which they expect everyone else to realize once the rest of y’all finally clue in to what they’ve been telling you about The Magic And Mystery Of It All, shared with them by — you guessed it — the Ones Above Us. But this moment — especially of the latter sort — never seems to come.
Or does it?
The simple fact is that there simply aren’t enough — I’ll emphasize that — there simply aren’t enough people actually listening to voicehearers, psychotics, and schizophrenics to decide if it does, because that would require them to take time to actually dejumble and decode and piece together the story for each and every one of us who is telling them in a different way, within what may be an entirely different framework, and with practically every word quietly protesting the strange nature of what is happening to our worlds. But none of it makes sense, people say to themselves about us, and by this they mean that it doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm; it doesn’t fit the readily accessible, familiar, easily comprehensible framework that all these people are used to living in. People expect evidence, hard evidence of all things, that these strange beings and events and things that we talk about are real. And when people have waited long enough for that evidence and it hasn’t appeared, the tap of their attention is turned off. They write it all off as some sort of emotional distress or something like that of a psychological nature, and the cosmological questions we raise so insistently are never examined. But for us the experience goes on and on and on and on, in private, where no one ever sees the strange events that come to preoccupy us and eventually to shape our lives. It is all nearly invisible from the outside. Only the others who know — others who are going through it too — ever seem to realize exactly how real all of this is, but no one is listening to them any more than they are to you.
But let me tell you a story for a moment. There was an expression, my voices tell me now, that was used a very long time ago that went, “Many paths, only one forest,” meaning that there was only one life in which to walk that individual path through the forest of your one existence. They say that later on someone pointed out that there was, in fact, only one universe as well, only one forest for all of us to walk through. And then someone who thought they were being very profound said, “Many paths, only one poorest,” and that gave them enough of a bumper-sticker slogan to call themselves a religion.
We’re only kidding, my voices and I, but there is a point to it all. Although I did get one hit from someone’s blog when I Googled the phrase, it seems that there never was any “many paths, only one forest” expression in our world, or at least it hasn’t made it into the English language as of yet. The whole idea is completely made up by my voices. But that is one of the sorts of thing that voices come up with all the time, incessantly — this semi-plausible, wise-sounding, primeval-sounding, pseudo-religious claptrap — and they palm it off on you like it’s nuggets of pure gold. Pure bullshit is more like it, and yet it spins as fine as straw when you start to think about any of it. The voices may play games, they might be absurd, and often they are hysterically funny, but at the same time they impart a message that is deadly serious and real in the very context of what they’re talking about. You half expect to see a meme about it on the internet. If you’re like me, you might even put it on there, just for a laugh.
And it’s all brought to you by voices.
If I began to tell you the tale of all the stories that I have been told by all my voices, we would be here hundreds if not thousands of pages from now still wondering what the next chapter holds. And yet, no one really ever seems to question this neverendingness, this bottomless well of ideas and stories and seeming fantasies that emerges from the mouths of all the millions of voicehearers, psychotics, and schizophrenics. No interviewer of a professional nature, for example, whether a psychiatrist or a psych nurse or a social worker or a psychologist, has really ever asked me about the nature and quality of my experience or about where I think all these ideas and stories and images and paradigms that we talk about come from. These things are ornate, detailed, multi-dimensional, complex. If you’re like me and you have reason to conclude that these voices aren’t you, that they possess intelligence and personalities and agendas and insights far beyond and outside your own, that they have a perspective and experience that no part of your own mind could possibly possess, that they have real power in the world, then you start to ask questions about who and what these voices and the cause of all these “delusions” really are. Of what kind of intelligence could all of this stuff be evidence? Whence comes this endless saga? What could they really be telling us? And if they’re real and what they’re saying is in some way the truth, what does that all mean for our world?
Each of us bears up under this deluge alone, but most of us, if my experience is any indicator, do come to some sorts of conclusions about what’s happening that others could understand, that do not fall back on such commonsensical notions as “bad things happen and it screws you up” that take into account one tiny part of what’s involved in the equation while ignoring all the evidence coming in from the larger picture, where practically everyone suffers from a case of what we might call Tower Of Babel Syndrome, where it is the very scrambling of communication itself that is the barrier to understanding what is going on and not necessarily the content itself that is so difficult to understand. It may be, however, that this is the sort of thing you have to home right in on in a specific way, through one clear example, in order to make clear how it works. The best way I can do this is to use what I myself, as a voicehearer, psychotic, and schizophrenic, have witnessed and experienced. If this involves delving into what psychiatry calls “the delusion“ for a moment — soon we will banish that term, I hope, and perhaps call them something like “test realities” — well, I will leave you to consider whether it would be possible to reach the same sorts of conclusions without having lowered ourselves so far as to do so.
The most immediate challenge in dealing with psychotics’ accounts is that the things they talk about appear devoid of a rational context, and so people don’t see how what they’re saying might be logically possible; they can’t understand or believe what we are saying. The simplest way to deal with this is to simply accept that most people do not speak comprehensively or logically about things they themselves are struggling to cope with and conceive of, and to accept that half of what people say basically just means Holy Shit! Did You See That? and that that’s all that they’re capable of summoning up in terms of information or clarity at this time. To make matters worse, schizophrenia often involves a direct attack on your ability to communicate, in forms running the gamut from using strange, new words for things, some of them conceptually new or obscure as well, to directly scrambling the cognitive processes that give rise to speech, often stripping out the context in which such thoughts actually go through the mind and leaving us to try to make sense of fragmented, seemingly nonsensical images. Bear in mind that confusion and memory deficits are no joke, and people are doing the best they can with the often restricted communication tools they still have.
The second thing to do — and this will make everything simpler for you as well when it all gets streamlined in your head — is to simply accept everything they say as true. Garbled, maybe; distorted by gaps in logic, maybe; devoid of context, most likely; but you need to accept that all of it is, maybe only in some remote and presently incomprehensible way, as completely and entirely true as they can make it at a time when their mental resources are being overloaded. The facts of what they say may not line up, but there is a concept or a possibility that they are being prepared for, introduced to, even if it never quite plays out in physical reality. You do not take away their validity by assuming that they themselves are defective because of this lack of physical proof, but proceed in the faith that the world itself may be stranger and more complex than you presently like to assume, and therefore receive all these people like refugees from some strange and terrible regime — at least for those who are suffering, which will likely be most of them — and do so without degrading either them or yourselves any further by withholding from them your sincere belief. Whatever the nature of their experience, begin by honestly trying to see the world, to reimagine it, through their eyes, and to assume that this world is real. It’s full of smoke and mirrors, and it’s presented misleadingly at times, but it’s created by a mind that is learning about you at the same time that you study it. Although it is made abundantly clear that it, unlike you, has vast experience in this sort of situation, and it seems like it doesn’t really want you to know just exactly or entirely what it is.
It helps to look at psychosis as a paradigm-introduction system. The whole idea behind any psychotic vision, if you look at it this way, is to impart to the recipient a new way of seeing the world, a new dimension of a possible reality, and then to see how you react when confronted, at least in your mind, with those circumstances. If you freak out when confronted with the idea of 10,000 screaming angel insect aliens in your head, what does that mean in terms of how your species would be expected to respond in x circumstances when confronted by such-and-such a species? In part, you are simply being studied for the way you come to understand and react to new information and new paradigms. Do you even have the mental architecture to understand them? Maybe yes, maybe no. Your mind is both expanded and dissected at the same time, its routes mapped out. It doesn’t matter if any of what they confront you with as a possible reality can be substantiated in fact. They’re just projected realities that may underlie some entirely different parts of the universe, and all they need is a picture of your neurological mechanics at work in response to them. This is an alien intelligence. It doesn’t think, talk, or act according to the same structures that you do. This is how it learns about and maintains awareness of another alien, which is you. You have been roped off from the herd and they experiment.
So let’s dive into that “delusion” for a moment. Let’s talk about a concept I call the Petri Dish Universe. This is one of a short chain of images or concepts that will connect into the larger picture of what my voices are telling me, which is, perhaps against expectations, a version of our universe that is entirely rational and based in what seems to be a wealth of hard-earned experience and that tells a story we might relate to about what’s going on in our world and what we might do while we’re here. It might even contain a rationale for our existence. Who knows? Let’s see what it all brings.
The Petri Dish Universe concept was introduced to me on the heels of a lot of talk on the part of my voices about the idea of aliens in the universe. When they spoke about aliens they were always careful to define them in a way that was based on as wide open a concept as possible as to what constitutes life; this meant they included things we might otherwise consider supernatural, like angels or demons or gods or God, but which they said were grounded in a physical reality of some sort. Or other sorts of beings, like a Gaia — who may very well be a collective of the swirling ball of hot metal at the core of the Earth that might, like any kind of energy moving through any kind of matter, have developed into life and who (It/She/We/He/Them) may have been listening all these long years to all your most intimate and secret thoughts (think about that for a moment without getting chills). Or some other kind of a metallic being, or another form of a biological being that developed on some other planet or lives in some kind of matter that we don’t interact with on some physics-based level. They covered beings that might live as a form of current inside a crystal structure more sophisticated than we realize, or one that exists on a scale that’s different than ours, for example, being much bigger and composed of atoms with centers whose nuclei contain worlds as complex as one of our galaxies. There is the world of the infinitely small, and it fills the infinitely large. Who knows what kinds of aliens there might be at different stages of the progression from large to small? Might there be worlds the size of electrons in your head that are broadcasting their thoughts and images into the rest of the atoms in your head, right there in your neural networks? Listening in on people’s conversations?
So the idea of the Petri Dish Universe, they said, was that at some point, on some scale in this universe, whether in the Microverse or the Outerverse or the Innerverse or the Multiverse or just somewhere in the Big Outside, there is a simulation where they run an experiment, probably many of them, on what happens to different forms of life under different physical constraints, for instance, just to see what develops and to interact with it. Life actually develops inside, builds civilizations, becomes intelligent, maybe kills itself off. You may be inside it. They study us the way we might study a protozoa, a blue whale, a worker bee, a spider, a goat, a pigeon, a bat, or a virus.
What holds back the other species we call aliens from all destroying each other at this point may simply be the basic primeval fear that something bigger and nastier and deadlier than themselves, or maybe smaller and nastier and deadlier, or whatever combination you want, is going to come along and destroy them if they destroy others. Eternal vengeance is heavy and hangs above everyone’s head, and we need to learn to get along as they have. Both good and evil bow to the necessity of it, and they try to find harmony. It keeps the peace. We stand to benefit from that.
So the lesson that this delusion might teach us is that there is another possible structure to our one specific Universe, which might very well be a Petri Dish Universe, in which live beings grow and are examined and studied and sometimes experimented on. I think you might get the picture.
But there is another side to it.
My voices say that, well, you can leave the story of the Petri Dish Universe aside for a moment and think about what you might call the philosophy of the Petri Dish Universe, which we can call Petri Dish Philosophy, and it says basically that you should simply assume you’re in a small glass dish at all times and that something is looking down at you or listening to you from inside or just by passing by and that it has values about how you conduct yourself in relation to other beings, and it can help you navigate this Petri Dish Universe or it can leave you to wallow in your own self-destruction.
There are values in the Petri Dish Philosophy, they say.
For example, we are looking at a Holocaust of the Animals on planet Earth right now, and don’t fool yourself for a minute that that doesn’t affect how an alien intelligence will view us. We are all animals to each other in this Universe, and the way one animal treats other animals has an impact on how it is perceived. The slaughter and eating of other beings is unacceptable, finite, caput, to be extinguished if you want to survive. It’s the same exact Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done Unto You philosophy that they’ve sent hundreds of thousands of others to tell you about, in different forms and languages, endlessly, all over the Earth. It’s the same story time after time.
In any case, it’s simple. Humanity has the capacity to build The Tower Of Babel, all the way up into the Heavens, and yet we still do things that other beings do not allow. Should we be permitted to attain eternal life? The Lord apparently didn’t think so, and it seems that maybe neither did any of the other gods. So should we be divided, split apart from one another by our confused and fragmented language, and dispersed even as we are judged? For it would seem that judgment is one of the few constants of our experience. What have we specifically done wrong? What have you specifically done wrong? What has the whole Universe been listening to as we sat there thinking up our schemes for how to lie, how to steal, how to defraud the truth of what we really do and who we really are? I once had the thought that there were basically only two sins, and that one of them was lying and one of them was theft, and that, if you really thought about it, it was always theft. You stole the truth from someone, or you stole someone’s time, or their money, or their reputation, or their loved ones, or their life, or whatever. It was all theft.
The Universe seems to feel the same way.
The lesson of the Petri Dish Universe is that here, where we might be a threat to every other kind of being in the rest of our Universe, we have to conduct ourselves at all times as though the other inhabitants of the universe are as important as ourselves, and that we all should take a break from these relentless, selfish, self-centered forces that surround us here on Earth, and repair the planet, and show the rest of the Universe that we can be responsible citizens; that we can save ourselves from our impending self-made disasters.
Those are the kinds of things that voicehearers, psychotics, and schizophrenics experience, when their voices start to come together and connect the dots for us about some of the constructs of the Universe they have to share with us about. It truly is an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary life to be a witness to everything that voices say, to know that the visions they show indicate certain things about reality and aren’t just meaningless fantasies. But each of us is partitioned away from the others like the people were at the Tower of Babel, mostly by the language resources at our possession, including others’ attention, and that is most likely a situation deliberately engineered by a being or by beings much older than we are, much more experienced than we are, and that know us all completely, through and through, as a species of alien just like themselves, and who are never going to really reveal themselves or work with us — they keep sending messages through all those Babelized voicehearers and psychotics and schizophrenics — until we grow up and face the real dynamics of our perilous situation. They keep telling us about the Golden Rule, and somehow we just never listen.
It doesn’t matter which sort of gods you believe in, or what sort of voices have contacted you. If this passage cites the Last Days, it is always the Last Days for us. The Last Days last a long time, but in the end they do slip away. My voices tell me it’s not too late. But what do they know? They’ve only been here for millions of years.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
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.