What Novelists and Playwrights Know

Saturday, 14 August 2010 16:05

 . . . . . . and What Psychologists and Psychiatrists Don’t Know. This is a lecture that I gave at the British Library on June 1, 2010.

I started thinking about writing a book about lying in those months when we were being told about the certain existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. But, of course, in the years I was working as a clinical psychologist in the NHS I was dealing with lies all the time. There were the lies we tell when we want to defend a much-loved theory, such as, ‘Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance.’ And there were the lies my clients had been telling themselves since they were small children. The most common lie was, ‘I am, in essence, bad and have to work hard to be good.’ If you want to get depressed, this is the lie you need to tell yourself.

Why we lie to others and why we lie to ourselves, and the consequences of these lies form the subject matter of this book. I defined truth and lies in terms of what is known about how our brain operates. I was not writing in terms of truth being a virtue and lying a vice, but in terms of how to live wisely by always telling ourselves the truth, and lying to others very sparingly, and then with great care.

Neuroscientists have shown that we are incapable of seeing reality directly. All we can ever know are the guesses our brain creates about what is going on. For a guess to be true there has to be evidence to support it. However, no matter how much evidence a truth has to support it, there is never enough to make it absolutely true. Absolute truths may exist, but our brain is incapable of identifying them.

Ideas that have little evidence to support them are fantasies. Fantasies are tremendously important. They can comfort us, relieve our bad feelings, and allow us to explore and experiment without having physically to do so.

A lie is words or actions that are intended to deceive. When what we know is limited or wrong we might misinform someone, but without the intent to deceive this is not a lie.

When the words ‘lie’ and ‘lying seem too harsh we seek other words and phrases, as if we want to hide from ourselves the the shoddy and sordid act lying often is. Or we put the word ‘white’ in front of ‘lie’ and claim that, in using a white lie, we are being virtuous. Often we are being kind and thoughtful, but in white lies, as in all lies, our ultimate purpose is to protect ourselves from what we fear the most, that moment when we find ourselves falling apart, shattering, crumbling, disappearing, in all being annihilated as a person.

Such an event is part of everyone’s experience. When we were small children we would predict what was going to happen next, and, because we knew so little of the world and people, our prediction would be wrong. We would find ourselves and our world falling apart. Adults, if they were wise, would hold us tight until we got ourselves together again. When we become adults we find that there are few wise adults who will hold us when our predictions fail and we start to fall apart. We have to find ways of protecting ourselves from this terrible experience. Lying is the most popular means of protection. We all become skilled in seeing off in the far distance a faint possibility of a threat to the integrity of our sense of being a person, and we lie.

Our sense of being a person, what we call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’, is the structure that forms out of the ideas that your mind and your brain have created. All these ideas are guesses or theories, and they can be invalidated by events. David Laws thought he could keep something secret from the press. When he heard that the Telegraph had uncovered his secret, immediately he would have felt that he was shattering, crumbling, perhaps even that he was falling through an infinite universe. What we call ‘getting over the shock’ of such an event is the strategies we have developed to hold ourselves together when we start to fall apart. Some of us scream and shout and run about, while the rest of us go very, very quiet.

Common though this experience of falling apart is, psychiatrists and psychologists have ignored it. Psychiatrists allude to it when they talk about ‘panic’ and ‘panic disorder’, but they do not recognise its significance.

However, there are two groups of people who not only recognise the significance of this falling apart but make it the centre of their work. These are novelists and playwrights. In every novel and play, be it comedy or tragedy, there is a part where one or more of the characters discover that they have made a major error of judgement. They fall apart. This is the crisis. The denouement is the consequences of this falling apart. Often the end of a play or novel is where the central character leaves the stage, a sadder but wiser man.

Occasionally I am invited by a director of a play to talk to the cast in rehearsal about the characters in the play. One director I have worked with twice is Michael Wynne whose latest play The Priory won the Best New Comedy Award at the Oliver Awards last March. It is a funny, delightful and very thoughtful play that intertwines many more stories than the one I am going to talk about here.

Michael used a very old plot to illustrate how we live now, where ‘we’ are a group thirty somethings who work in the media. The old, much used plot is where a disparate group of people meet together in an isolated place. There is a crisis. The characters’ ideas are invalidated, and this experience changes them.

In The Priory a group of seemingly successful thirty somethings meet to celebrate New Years’ Eve in an old priory, now a luxury guest house standing alone in the woods. As each guest arrives we gradually discover that each of them has constructed a facade of fantasies and lies to persuade other people and themselves that they are more successful than they actually are. Into this come two younger people, Adam, Daniel’s young lover, and Laura, Ben’s fiancé. Daniel is telling himself that Adam is interested in him and not merely in having sex. Laura is telling herself that Ben loves her and will look after her.

Ben’s passion is his iPhone. He says, ‘It’s amazing. It makes me so happy. I’ve got my whole life on this. My diary, address book, maps, everything. I was the third person in London to have one, of the original ones. Camped out the night before. This is the latest version. I really don’t know what I did before this.’ (Before iPhones were invented there were men who identified with their cars.)

Later on in the evening when music is needed, Ben uses his iPhone’s store of music by attaching it to speakers. By this time everyone has been drinking and some have been taking drugs. They are all dancing when the lights go out. Someone, it seems, is moving about outside the priory. In the melee that follows, Ben’s iPhone is knocked to the floor and Laura inadvertently puts her high-heel through it. It’s now a dead iPhone. When Ben discovers this he falls apart. He blames Laura and rejects her. Laura cannot cope with rejection.

As the party proceeds everyone is so caught up in their own personal dramas that none of them notice that Laura is falling apart. Each of them, one way or another, is unwittingly embarked on a course that will strip away their lies and fantasies and face them with the truth of their life. Most of this takes place off stage. Only Laura enacts her falling apart on the stage in the full view of the audience.

Charlotte Riley who played Laura at the Royal Court did so brilliantly, revealing the bottomless depths of Laura’s loneliness and despair, and her immense self-hatred.

The means of relieving her intense feelings and of punishing herself is at hand, namely a large, sharp knife that had been used to slice the celebratory cake. She picks it up and careful and deliberately makes a deep incision on the inside of her arm.

When I saw Charlotte’s performance I wished it had been recorded as a video for compulsory viewing by every doctor and nurse who comes into contact with young women who cut themselves. Many of such professionals fail to understand the loneliness, despair and self-hatred these women experience. Instead, they describe these women as being ‘manipulative’ and ‘attention-seeking’. What kind of care and attention are these women getting when they have to make deep incisions on their body in order to get someone to help them?

At the end of the play Laura is in hospital and the others are leaving perhaps wiser than when they had arrived. However, the audience are left wondering whether Daniel has actually given up his fantasy that his young lovers care about him.

The Priory presents examples of invalidation and annihilation as they occur in ordinary life. In his novel 1984 George Orwell shows us how invalidation and annihilation are used in totalitarian states to destroy individuals and thus enforce obedience. This novel was first published in 1949, but it is as relevant now as it was then. Orwell also showed how we use and abuse other people in order to save ourselves from annihilation.

Orwell wrote this book at the end of the Second World War when the full horror of the totalitarian USSR was being revealed. In 1950 the Korean War began. It was this war that established the totalitarian state of North Korea. It also introduced the concept and practice of brain washing.

I read 1984 in 1950 when I was at university and the danger of being taken over by the USSR was very real. In recent years television has stolen Orwell’s names for total supervision by the state and for the ultimate torture, and drained then of all meaning. You can no longer be frightened by the words ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ as I was when I first read 1984.

1984 describes a society governed by the lies the State had created, and where every citizen is required to conform to whatever the State demands. The protagonist is Winston Smith, an ordinary man who believes that he has found a way to avoid being seen by Big Brother when he is with his lover Julia. In this he is mistaken. He and Julia are arrested.

Winston is subjected to a prison process whose aim is not to inflict painful punishment but to destroy his sense of being a person. With this gone he will no longer be a threat to the State. He will live and breathe, but he will be a nothing.

The last stage of this process is Room 101. When Winston enters this room most of his ideas about himself have been stripped away from him. Two important ideas remain. He believes that he is an essentially decent person, and that he loves Julia and will protect her.

However, his interrogator O’Brien knows what Winston fears the most. Winston is strapped into a chair, unable to move. He is presented with a wire cage. Orwell wrote,

‘It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats . . .’

O’Brien starts to move the cage towards him.

‘Suddenly the foul musty odour of the brutes struck his nostrils. There was a violent convulsion of nausea inside him, and he almost lost consciousness. Everything had gone black. For an instant he was insane, a screaming animal. Yet he came out of the blackness clutching an idea. There was one and only one way to save himself. He must interpose another human being, the body of another human being, between himself and the rats . . .

. . . in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment – one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over, ‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’

He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the rats. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulfs between the stars – always away, away,’

Thus Winston, by betraying Julia, destroyed the two ideas that were left to support his sense of being a person. There was nothing to stop him falling into the gulf between the stars.

The empty person that Winston had become was not a fiction that Orwell had imagined. Accounts by Primo Levi and other writers about life in Hitler’s concentration camps talk of the Musselmen, people who are completely obedient to the guards. They move like automatons and never interact with the other prisoners.  At the end of the war amongst the thousands of refugees were people, often children long separated from their family, whose horrendous experiences had left them without any tolerable points of reference around which they could create a sense of being a person. When the psychiatrist Robert Lifton studied the soldiers who had been brain-washed by the North Koreans, he found that the ones who were the most vulnerable to this technique were young Americans didn’t have a philosophy that they had developed for themselves out of their experiences. All they had were the simple ideas that they had been taught in school and church, and these they easily lost.

Amongst psychiatric patients are many who can hang on to a fragile sense of being a person only by defending themselves with those techniques that psychiatrists call the symptoms of mental illness. Many psychiatric patients have been the body that someone else, often a family member, has used to save themselves from some unpleasantness or deprivation.

We don’t have to be threatened with complete annihilation to resort to interposing another person’s body to protect ourselves. It is as common a practice as eating, and is the basis of the cruelty we inflict on one another.

Take, for instance, the practice of denying climate change. At present this is a very popular form of lying. Climate change threatens us both physically and as a person. Suppose you live on a part of the British coastline that is threatened by rising sea levels. Your home, that part of the country are part of your identity. When your home disappears under the waves, part of you goes with it.

Rather than face up to this terrible threat, many people are saying that the scientists have got it wrong, nothing bad is happening or will happen. What they are actually doing is interposing the bodies of other people between themselves and the threat. These are the bodies of the Inuits as the melting ice destroys their livelihoods, the Bangladeshis and the Pacific island people whose land is disappearing under the rising seas, the Indians whose water supply is drying up as the glaciers melt, the African farmers whose fertile land is turning into desert, the young African men and women who risk and often lose their lives in crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, and many, many more.

I began this lecture by talking about the politicians who lied to us about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and already a new parliament is presenting us with yet another example of a politician lying. It is hard to tell what exactly the lies were that David Laws told and which led to his resignation. It seems to be a matter of not just what he may have said to others, but the lies he had been telling himself. In the end the lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous lies of all because they undermine our ability to determine what is true and what is false.

To work out what is true we need to understand how everything we know is a guess, and how our guesses can be invalidated. We need to understand why sometimes we feel that we are falling apart, and why we fear this experience so. We need to recognise why it is so important to tell ourselves nothing but the truth. On those occasions when we feel it is necessary to lie to others, we should do so carefully, because we know there will be there will be consequences we did not intend. And we should always remember that no one has the right to interpose another person between themselves and danger. Life has always been difficult, but the economic and environmental issues we are facing means that, to have a reasonable life, we need to look after one another, and be truthful with one another and with ourselve

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 04:50