By Dr David Laing Dawson
I confess I have been watching too much CNN of late. This is not conducive to good mental health. But one of the things very apparent this week has been the struggle on the part of hosts, interviewers, guests and pundits to find a clear narrative in the Las Vegas story. Somehow there seems to be a need for this real life event to conform to the conceits of fiction.
Perhaps this should not be surprising for so-called reality TV does just that. It takes recordings of (albeit within a contrived and manipulated context) real human behaviours and organizes them in the editing room to fit, to satisfy the demands of story telling and fiction. Perhaps the presidency of Donald Trump is another symptom of fiction infiltrating reality; he certainly treats his job as if he is still the producer and star of a reality TV show. “Maybe this is the calm before the storm.” “What storm, Mr. President?” “You’ll see.”
Fiction requires a definable conflict, clear motivation, and an inciting incident. In a Hollywood movie the inciting incident occurs 5 to15 minutes in. Fiction supplies a background that explains the principal characters’ personalities in simple terms. Each character has an arc of development. The second act comprises variations on the theme building to the third act resolution. We are seldom happy with an inconclusive ending. We crave identifiable heroes and villains. We crave motivation in the form of a logical sequence of events, or something with which we can empathize. For a series to work each episode must end in a cliffhanger. If not a cliffhanger at least a little foreshadowing.
Fiction abounds in our lives these days. We can spend every waking hour engrossed in fiction and not run out of new shows. And so it should not be surprising that the conceits of fiction are falsely shaping our perceptions of reality, or our expectations of reality. They even creep into popular psychology and mental health jargon. They have crept into our body politic. They have enthralled a substantial number of Americans into believing such a sorry specimen as Donald Trump would make a good president. They form the parameters of our questions about the Las Vega shooter.
I see this influence in the current search for specific childhood traumas that might explain the development of psychotic illness. I see it in the words “trigger” and “closure”, borrowed just like Multiple Personality Disorder and “alters” from fiction, in “recovered memory” and “flashback”. I see more than a bit of fiction in the popularity of CBT.
But real life seldom conforms to the rules of fiction. Lives are messy. Variables are plentiful. Folly is more common than conspiracy. Motives are seldom clear. Judgment is always limited. Feeling states can be fleeting or persistent. Pain, addiction, depression, and psychosis all cause tunnel vision, an inability to see anything beyond that which might alleviate the suffering. People do not acquire insight and learn great lessons within a 60 or 90 minute narrative.
It is reasonable I suppose, and very human, to try to figure out what mental state could guide a person like Mr. Paddock to do what he did.
But while we try to figure this out it distracts from the simple truth that a human being can slip into the kind of mental state that leads to the acquisition and use of immense fire power. If that serious lethal weaponry is readily available. If that serious lethal weaponry is readily available it will be acquired and used by someone to kill.
I was at a party last night. A wedding celebration. Several generations, kids to octogenarians, many people I did not know. The theme was Halloween or Goth so devils, fallen angels, bent priests, strict nuns, metal, blood, and hints of S & M abounded. The music was loud, the bar open, the speeches emotional, and, as with any such celebration, some of the relationships quite complex. With Trump and Las Vegas not far from anyone’s mind, they intruded into the otherwise congenial conversation. And I wondered out loud what it would be like attending this kind of event in the USA. Would I be calculating how many guests were packing (indulging in concealed carry that is), would I worry that one of the bride’s sketchy ex-boyfriends might arrive with semi-automatic weapon, would I feel this relaxed and safe, would I worry more about the morose uncle putting away his fifth glass of whiskey, would I worry about the veiled insult within one of the speeches?
My American friends. You are crazy. Do you not understand the sense of peace and security and safety that comes from knowing the man next to you is unlikely to be carrying a gun?