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“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed.”

May 10, 2011

I have a bit of a bugbear about how “insanity” is written in a lot of fiction, in particular in popular fiction (regardless of the medium, but TV/Movies are the worst offenders, since they don’t tend to provide any kind of internal monologue, and thus rely on behaviour to communicate “insanity”) I have a lot of problems with “insanity” as a concept, which sets up a feedback loop. I disagree with how people think about insanity, so the portrayal of it as such annoys me, and the portrayal further feeds into those erroneous ideas in the popular consciousness.

In popular discourse, the words “insanity” or “insane” (or other synonyms) are used to indicate that a character has gone “out of his mind.” They’re not simply “mentally ill,” or a “eccentric” but rather have crossed some imaginary line which places them into another category – one which labels the character as fundamentally different in his way of thinking than everyone else. Insane characters say, believe, and do things that are in no way based on the reality that every other character shares. More often than not, a “diagnosis” (I’m getting a lot of use out of quotation marks today) of schizophrenia (or a subtype) is mentioned.

A characters’ schizophrenia generally manifests as either lighty comic, with characters spouting chuckle-worthy nonsense in the vein of “Crazies say the Darndest Things.” Not a great start. More often, however, insanity is portrayed as something sinister and dangerous. This is understandable to a point – that which we don’t understand is scary, and it’s very hard to understand a person whose motivations are based on a reality that is not the same (or similar) to yours.

In particular, insane characters are generally portrayed as prone to violent outbursts.

Some real data: (From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19668362)

Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.  (Emphasis mine)

That is to say, the drunk/ drug using guy is as dangerous as the schizophrenia patient.

And despite these comic-mocking or fear-mongering portrayals of insanity, we get one other facet of insanity in popular fiction – Truth-Seers. In particular in genre fiction where psychic phenomena or supernatural forces are at work, the insane are portrayed as seeing something we don’t. Except for one problem. Vindication that what that character has been “hallucinating” is actually real is usually enough to provoke a significant improvement in their mental health overnight. They weren’t crazy, you see, just misunderstood. Like I said earlier, true insanity involves crossing an arbitrary line that divides you from everyone else. Once it’s established that their reality is real, they can’t really be insane, can they?

The foregoing is one of the reasons I’m really enjoying Fringe. I watched the pilot long ago, and it didn’t grab me – I thought that, in Walter, we were getting another Savant/Miraculous Cure type insane character. But when I persisted, I was pleasantly surprised. Or perhaps pleasantly is a poor choice of words…

Walter’s “insanity” (indeed, they rarely use that word) is portrayed in a way that is both tragic and human. . I wasn’t expecting there to be this kind of treatment of insanity in a show so obviously billed as a “mad science” show. Which it is, and there are certainly plenty of moments in which Walter gets very excited about a morally ambiguous or outright bizarre experiment. (Which, to be honest, I find more endearing than threatening. Because science is exciting.)  There are moments of comedy, and there are moments of threat, but at the heart of it, Walter is a sympathetic character.

Walter is evidently a very, very intelligent man, but the damage to his mental health has left him unable to properly care for himself, and perhaps more tragically, barely able to remember things he once grasped so easily. The Walter Bishop we come to know is, intellectually, a shadow of his former self – and this must be particularly devastating for a man who made his intellect and rationality a pillar of his own self-image. The joy he feels (and intellect he demonstrates) when he starts to understand an event or sees something fascinating and new to investigate is heavily contrasted with his sadness and embarrassment at his problems with basic functioning. His obsession with food and narcotics, while often funny, still has a shroud of pathos over it – each slip into a food conversation during something important is another example of his mind betraying him.

What I really enjoy, however, is the portrayal of the journey back from the rock bottom we first encountered him at. Despite being removed from St. Claire’s, despite his theories being frequently proved correct, despite being reunited with his son, there is no miraculous fix. The road to self reliance is long and tortured, and as sad as hell when you see him stumble. But there is progress. Insanity/Sanity is not portrayed as line that is only crossable in one direction, or even as a binary state. It is a continuum, one which you can move along in either direction (though it is tragically easier to go one way than the other. Overwriting old behaviour and thinking is far harder than acquiring it in the first place.)

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