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Spec Tech: The Poetry of Madness

January 27, 2011

Yesterday I met a young man so interesting but so disturbing that he has haunted my thoughts and it has occurred to me that he may be of interest to you who write on the darker side of fiction. I am an anthropologist, and among other pursuits (magic, spirituality) I study madness. Today I spent a couple of hours with someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Most people who meet criteria for this diagnosis hear voices. That is, they hear people speaking the way you would hear my voice if we were talking: as if from outside, with their ears, as audible as any ordinary voice. This may prompt their development of the strange beliefs—delusions—for which schizophrenia is known. People who hear voices may believe that the CIA has implanted computer chips in their dental fillings, or that the government is beaming down rays on their head, because it is the way they come to account for their sense of being followed and talked about and above all known. They often have the shocking experience that their minds are not longer private, because the voices intuit and broadcast their thoughts. This was something the young man said. He hated the fact that his mind was not his own any more. The voices got to his thoughts before he did, and told him what his thoughts had said.

For the young man, the voices came on the wings of other sound. When he was driving, he would hear voices from the other cars. When the room was noisy, individual sounds would break off and form themselves into voices. When the room was quiet, he heard less, but a muffled echo would become a man in the other room. When he moved his leg, it could speak to him. When his stomach grumbled, it became an angry reprimand. The voices were like the aftertrace of color images, as if he waved his hand upon the air and left language in its wake. Horrifying language: words which sneered and drawled. He knew these voices were symptoms of an illness, but they sounded real to him, and he could not dismiss the possibility that they were people. No one knows why people hear voices, but at least part of the story is that those who do read patterns into ambiguity, one reason that people hear voices in cars and find God on the bus. But I have never before met a man who could thrum his fingers into voice and feel that as he moved the air became dense with words.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    January 27, 2011 10:00 am

    Hmm, interesting. It’s hard for me to comment because I”m not psychologist and I don’t play one on TV. I can see how this would play out well in a novel, though. I would put a spin on it, make all the voices comedic or angelic. Perhaps our man is socially awkward and the voices give him witty prompts. This would work well for our hero until he catches the attention of a “Mrs. Robinson” who is bored in her marriage to a crime boss…

  2. January 27, 2011 12:29 pm

    I love the way you worded this. Schizophrenia is scary, for those experiencing it and those who live near it. Understanding mental illnesses goes a long way to helping these people. Your post describes schizophrenia very concisely and poetically. Thank you for sharing.

    • Tanya Luhrmann permalink
      January 27, 2011 12:39 pm

      What nice comments! Yes; I think what struck me so was the combination of how novelistic, yet how terrifying, his experience was. I mean, I kind of wish I lived that way. But when he was talking I was gripped by horror.

      • Steve Turner permalink
        January 27, 2011 5:10 pm

        I too was gripped by horror as I tried to imagine what this poor man must be feeling as he struggles with living day-to-day like that. Any self-doubts, fears or depression would be magnified immensely by these perceptions – a very tough way to live. As a writer, i found it extremely interesting and thought provoking, thank you for informing us.

  3. January 28, 2011 12:31 pm

    That’s a beautiful post about a tragic disease.

  4. January 28, 2011 2:16 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful post, Tanya. Schizophrenia fascinates me, not least because so many schizophrenics choose to hear the voices rather than muffle them with drugs. I wonder if the degree to which it terrifies those who live with it correlates with the degree of their madness. Maybe if the illness is severe enough, there is no longer much doubt that the voices are real, which might, oddly, make it less frightening. I guess it might also depend on what the voices are saying. As a writer of fantasy and horror, I am always asking “what if.” What if there is an undercurrent of human thought and wisdom that only those of us who are “crazy” can access?

    • Tanya Luhrmann permalink
      January 30, 2011 4:28 pm

      This is great and complicated observation. From the most pragmatic perspective, what makes it crazy is how nasty the voices are. If you hear voices, it’s not a problem unless the voices are mean–Joan of Arc is the best example here. It wasn’t her voices that led to her death, at least not in the way that people with schizophrenia commit suicide to escape the voices. I do think that there is a way of experiencing the world which is unique to schizophrenia, in which you know that the voices are not real–but they really are. You have to be struggling with the illness for a long time, and the voices need to be unpleasant, for this to be true. To me that seems like deep horror: to hear, to know what you hear is false, yet not to be able to believe that it is false.

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