Years ago I taught experimental psychology. A friend from grad school was a clinician in a regional hospital for the criminally insane. He invited me to visit. I had, of course, taken various courses in clinical psychology and visited institutions for the variously ill, but this was different.
I was no longer in school; the men in the day ward were not there to display their symptoms for my studied attention. They had, in a way not yet clear to me, become my responsibility; and we had become equals in pursuit of understanding. I remember seeing the madness in a completely new way. The man walking back and forth across the room timing his crossings to intercept anyone on the main passage and stepping in front of them asking, “Is it one o’clock yet?” another rocking in a chair, others idling away the hours in private patterns of action (and stillness): when it came right down to it, they were no different than a colleague in my department, than a student engaged in crime to pay for school, than me. They were acting out the madness of the world around them. They were at the place were the painted margin ran over the clean edge; it was the luck of the draw whether the brush stroke of a life was made near that edge or in the unnoticed middle.
I tried to organize their separate realities into a whole, into the reality that would be appropriate just for that room. It made sense to me, in that moment, that they were the society of that space and that there should be a whole to be made of their many parts, that there was a whole to be made of their perceptions in that place, not the superimposed realities of the doctors and psychologists and orderlies.
It was hopeless. There was no way to organize more than the coarsest commonality: They, almost all, wished ‘it’ to be other than it was; ‘it’ being the immediate details of their lives and, often, the collected ghosts that haunted them and sometimes drove them the way a master would drive a slave. Some had, in their madness, taken on the character of the master, accepting the cartoon prescriptions of reality as truth – they, complexly, drove themselves as both master and slave.
As I walked around the hospital, visiting with patients and staff, the more overwhelmed I became with the recognition of microcosm: my daily life was physically safer (in part due to the walls around this hospital), but it was not more sane. These men had adapted to the events that surrounded them, with the consequence that they disconnected from realities that most of society agreed on. But most of society agreed on ‘realities’ that were disconnected from the biophysical realities of life on the planet.
There was a great deal less clarity in my mid-twenties than I feel recalling those moments 40 years later. But the seeds had been planted, and that I clearly knew at the time. It has been a great adventure watching them grow.
In that time our dilemma has grown deeper, while the essential dynamics have remained the same. Like the men in that room, first adapting to a madness in their formative years and then responding to each other’s madness in the hospital (their daily lives), their capacity to distinguish reality was reduced to recognizing bodily sensations and inappropriately acting them out; the rest of the world is not far removed from this description.
A madness has settled over us. I read news (sic) reports and opinion pieces; all begin in the middle. There is a long list of assumptions that when unchallenged, or better, not rejected out-right, render whatever is said nonsense. We live in a roiling sea of socially structured misconception; it could be no other way given how we have arrived in this moment.
On the first occasion when the man approached me and asked his one and only question, I looked at my watch and named the time for him. It was quickly clear that his concern with the hour served another purpose. This is also true of so much that we, the rest of the world, do; and yet we continue to respond as if “Is it one o’clock yet?” were a real question.