By Dr David Laing Dawson
We are worried that our young people playing first person shooter games will mistake these fictions and entertainments for reality. That they will drive on city roads the way they drive in Grand Theft Auto. That they will believe the pedophile posing as a teenager on Facebook is someone they could trust, who understands them so well. That they will believe incessant texting between ten BFF’s constitutes productive and healthy socialization.
Well, it does happen. And we need to monitor those boundaries closely.
But there may be another, more subtle consequence of ubiquitous, accessible, omnipresent entertainment.
I suppose throughout history our popular conceptions of reality, of health, of medicine, the way things work, were often drawn from the fictions of folk tales, ancient texts, stories told around the campfire. But it is only within very recent history that we have had access to, and been inundated with, entertaining fictions twenty-four hours a day. What influence does this have on our folk philosophies, our sense of how the world works? And how much does this creep into official and professional conceptualizations?
Even before Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, writers of fiction used the literary conceit of creating two characters embodied in one to explore psychological inner conflict. I think the first film version of this story was made in 1931. And since then numerous films have been made using this literary technique. The most famous being The Three Faces of Eve, based on a book that was initially presented as a case study, but later, (and admitted by the author) found to be the use of the literary device of embodying the conflicted mental states of a troubled woman in separate invented characters. And from this arose Multiple Personality Disorder. It moved from fiction to reality in popular culture, then professional culture, and spawned a counseling industry. It is hard to resist, that moment when the voice of the 30 year-old white woman changes to that of a black man from New Orleans and tells you a new story of origin. Very dramatic.
Of course it was all fiction, the product of fertile imagination and our hunger for the exotic – in each case the product of a collaboration between a naïve therapist and a troubled but impressionable patient.
MPP still shows up now and again as a device to satisfy the plot of a television movie of the week, but has otherwise, I hope, disappeared from serious psychological literature.
But no sooner did multiple personality disorder remove itself to the museum of human folly, than we were inundated with stories of recovered memory, of children remembering scenes of rape and torture, satanic ritual and sacrifice, events that they had forgotten until prompted by a counselor. It didn’t seem to matter to therapists recounting these stories that a.) In the United States the FBI knew of no cases of satanic sacrifice ever happening (except in movies and TV), and that b.) Many of the stories included outrageous details involving animals from other continents, or time travel, or aliens, and c.) Memory just doesn’t work that way.
Lawsuits abound from the Recovered Memory Therapy activities. Some launched by the alleged victim of the alleged perpetrators, some by the alleged perpetrator, and many filed later by the alleged victim against the therapist who “planted these memories.”
(Sexual abuse does occur all too frequently, and counselors and therapists should create, in their relationships with their clients, an atmosphere in which a bona fide memory of this can be shared – but to seek this in the childhood of someone who does not remember it ever happening, through hypnosis and persistent suggestion, is wrong, and a serious misunderstanding of memory.)
Much of this has been an embarrassing chapter in our professions. Some years ago a local psychiatrist, testifying in a Satanic Ritual case, was quoted as saying, “Children don’t lie.”
Perhaps she meant that children often blurt out a truth that an adult wouldn’t, such as “You’re fat.” or “Your breath smells.” But of course children lie, and usually in a childlike fashion, just as teens lie in a much sneakier fashion, and adults lie in a sophisticated fashion. And children want to please the adult questioning them, and they sense quickly the kinds of stories that please that adult.
And then we have “flashbacks”. Okay. A true psychological phenomenon is an intrusive memory or intrusive image, a memory or image that intrudes unbidden in one’s consciousness, most commonly when alone and idle, but also, and disturbingly, at other times. This is a hallmark, of course, of PTSD.
But flashback is a word drawn from cinema. It is a clumsy technique in literature, but very useful and dramatic in film. And in film it is used as a dramatic means of explaining, of showing, the past events that led to this current event. It is also used in film to visually depict an inner state or a memory. Sometimes it is shown shadowed and vague, probably a fairly accurate visual representation of a thought. But sometimes it is shown in full colour narrative with intact dialogue. And good filmmakers handle the flashback with parsimony to ensure suspense.
But film, theater, drama, follow rules that don’t apply to real life. The story arc. The character arc. The tying up of loose ends. The reveal. The always understandable, easily followed cause and effect. The satisfying ending. And for an ending to be satisfying in cinema we need to understand cause, the forces driving the narrative, at least before we fade to black. And these causes need to be things that provoke outrage, anger in the viewer, along with a fantasy that had we been there we could have fixed or prevented this. Even when the true villain is a natural disaster the filmmakers symbolize the cause in a single despicable human character. This is theater and film. I watched another last night. The main character appeared to be suffering from ASD and some OCD. He was also seeing and conversing with a ghost, and he believed he was the Son of God. All of these afflictions disappeared when the ghost led him to flashbacks that allowed him to grieve the loss of his father. Ahhhh. But it was entertaining with William H. Macy as the therapist, and, of course, as film must be, believable within the rules of its own fictional universe.
It is what film must do. Delusions, psychotic symptoms, hallucinations must be either resolved by some denouement, some revelation (often shown by flashback), or, in a twist of plot, found to be true. The paranoid delusional conspiracy theorist is actually onto something, and the CIA is unhappy about this.
Other marvelous literary/cinematic devices include the appearance of a ghost, often delivering a message or a guidance, and the hearing of voices, whether from someone on screen or off screen. “Luke, Luke, beware the dark side.” Again, offering either guidance or warnings.
Now in reality, visual hallucinations are usually a sign of brain impairment, injury, toxicity, dementia. Although mistaking a shadow for a person or a ghost momentarily is rather common late at night after watching a horror movie.
And voices. A previous blog described the many conditions within which this phenomenon occurs, and to some extent the nature and kind of hallucination in each case. But cinema is not bound by medical realities.
I offer this history of literary devices and cinematic techniques finding their way into popular or folk wisdom, and then professional culture (multiple personality disorder, recovered memory as examples) as a way of asking if it is happening again.
Might the current phenomenon of psychologists pursuing “trauma” as an underlying cause of psychosis, of trusting “recovered” memory, of trusting those fully formed flashbacks of which their clients speak, of seeking prophetic meaning in “voices”, and the whole Hearing Voices Movement for that matter – might all this be another example of the fictional devices of film and television drama creeping into our folk wisdom and then into the received wisdom of some professionals?