Sunday, August 5, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Call Me Crazy...

A few years ago, my husband and I were woken in the middle of the night a couple of times by a neighbor calling the curse of God down on us from the street. Her relations were very apologetic about this, and explained that she'd gotten away from them, and that her conviction that we were Satanists who were putting spells on her was probably something to do with the fact that she used to live in our house with her grandmother, though they weren't sure what. In any case, they were pretty sure it was nothing directly personal, but they warned us that, since they had a hard time riding herd on her, we should be careful about locking our doors. She showed no sign of being violent, but if her delusions were centered around our house, her becoming convinced that she needed to get into it was a distinct possibility.

A few days ago, this woman stopped me on the street to apologize for her own behavior, thank us for being understanding about it, and tell me she liked my dress (which happened to be one I'd made myself - always the best compliments). She's got the right meds now and is doing much better, enough better to be as embarrassed as her relatives were. But honestly, something like that, you can't hold against somebody any more than you'd hold it against a cancer patient that she threw up on your shoes.

All of which makes me think about those fantasy and horror novels in which things happen in objective reality that are so off-the-wall and outside of human experience that everyone in the story except the protagonist assumes that the protagonist must be mad. But in those stories, the protagonist is the only one seeing clearly, and his seemingly-mad actions - the magical ritual or secret violence at the heart of the fantasy and/or horror - are the things that prevent disaster. Or sometimes there's a madman in a mystery story, and his madness will either lead him to do something terrible, or leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the real villain.

And the thing is this: In neither type of story (generally) is the reader in any doubt about whether there's insanity in the case or not. But wouldn't the emotional impact of a story be enhanced if the reader does spend most of the story changing his mind about what is and is not reality?

I have read stories that did this. Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, does a stand-up job of messing with your head in this way; and there's a Stephen King short about a kindergarten teacher who becomes convinced that the children in her classroom have been replaced by aliens in which the teacher's point of view is maintained so meticulously I couldn't be sure whether she was right, or not. But it is a tremendously difficult thing to do in the context of a market dominated by genre expectations and with a relentlessly genre-savvy audience.

It would also be an extremely uncomfortable thing to do, and would require the kind of specialist knowledge about the subjective experience of mental illness which racks up the emotional cost of writing to an even more uncomfortable pitch. You'd want to do it with sensitivity toward the mentally ill; who, face it, could be anybody. And you'd be forced to go to the weak places in your psyche; the fault lines along which your own mind could break.

You wouldn't have to have direct experience of mental illness yourself; but you'd have to have been close to it enough times to put yourself into the head of someone who is in real doubt about whether he's mad, the degree to which he can trust his senses, and what to do about it. And that's a difficult, scary place to go. A friend of mine (who I trust will excuse me for telling this story) who had herself committed during a bad patch said during her process that she was "a bacterium in a petrie dish." When her husband repeated this to me, I - like him - knew what she meant; she was speaking metaphorically, about the unfortunate fact that to be a mental patient at this phase of our understanding of mental disease is to be an experiment. We'd discussed this many times when she was lucid. But those committing her assumed she'd meant it literally. When she was lucid again I asked her which of us had been right - had she been trying to convey that idea to the medical persoonnel, or had she truly felt herself to be a bacterium? Her answer was "yes;" and this blurring of the mental line between metaphor and reality is a terrifying thing.

It is also where the interest of this story concept lies.

But that blurring doesn't only happen in mental illness. Perfectly healthy people with religious beliefs also treat certain metaphors as realities, because the realities they express are too difficult for the finite human brain to encompass without the metaphor. If you weren't familiar and comfortable with the cultural background and symbolism of communion, you'd have a hard time bending your head around the concept that crackers and grape juice are the body and blood of the son of God, or believing that any nice sort of person who believed that would then eat it!

So if the problematical concept about which the reader is intended to be uncertain echoes real religious beliefs, it should be easier for us to raise that doubt. Also, easier to piss off a lot of people and get banned...because you weren't playing nearly close enough to the edge when you decided you wanted to address perceptions of mental illness in this story, oh no! You could have a fringy cult, something pagan, or one of those numerous schisms of the Protestant church that either die on the vine or become full-fledged churches; perhaps a leader who thinks he's a shyster but someone from the lower ranks sees all too clearly what's Really Going On, and both of them have their character flaws arranged in such a way that the reader flip-flops constantly between versions of reality as envisioned by this book...

Doing this would be worthwhile, with the right characters and concept at the heart of it; but finding those characters and that concept - well, that's the hard part, isn't it?

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