\u2014John Hinckley Jr., in a letter to Jodie Foster, written shortly before he stalked and nearly killed then\u00adPresident Ronald Reagan in 1981.
The paranoid generate plots. They create systems of belief founded on whispers and intelligences of suspect origin. They are the individuals versus society often found in 10th grade novels and juvenile poetry, who subvert the establishment and are continuously on the run from cabals and government. They are recluses who plan great crimes and commit petty ones. Their plots often feature historical implications and death threats, crimes with no witnesses, and the famous.
clinical terms and diagnoses psychologists employ in the discussion of paranoia can apply to the culture we inhabit. The Cold War brought about a nagging sense of impending apocalypse, a creation of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire with dark means of watching or controlling us. McCarthyism, our national persecution complex, imbued Americans with the belief that Communism was a virus destroying our body politic. Soon after, our government created a delusion of grandeur, assuring us we would win Viet Nam, have the smartest children, and always be at the top of the global economy. Occasionally, the paranoids in the government hatched their own plots: radiation experiments, Watergate, most of Hoover at the FBI, Iran\u00ad Contra. These schemes were a dream come true for civilian paranoia, since imagined conspiracies grew indistinguishable from the real. The Chinese injected me with plutonium, and the government approved. The CIA is following me, stealing my glasses. The Contras have occupied Baltimore, at the encouragement of the Bush administration.
With changing decades, America poured like concrete into its cities, and the specter of communism gave way to the specter of crime. This gave Americans an attitude of acute ambivalence toward the cities which, although prophesied as new centers of civilization, sprawled into unmanageable, unmappable, capitals of fear and confusion. Industrial smog blurs a person\u2019s sense of self. Where once she had a town and family to support her and her identity, the city dislocates these and sends her reeling into a high\u00adrise of unknowns. It becomes difficult for citizens of the city to connect with their surroundings, and this disconnection brings fear. The fear scares the inhabitant into stagnation \u2014 stick to the routine and you won\u2019t get hurt \u2014 until the routine fails in the face of the urban sprawl, maybe after personal experience or simply extreme fear of crime. The citizen then realizes no routine can escape the chaos, a discovery that leads to the breakdown of the pattern and the scattering of thoughts. This condition is schizophrenia.
disaffected young man who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981. His life is so paradigmatically schizophrenic, it borders on the clich\u00e9. What makes Hinckley remarkable, however, is that he succeeded in doing what only a handful of paranoid schizophrenics have ever done: he touched the Master.
Schizophrenia, generally speaking, involves three primary subtypes, alluded to above. First, the schizophrenic may be paranoid, e.g. he believes himself to be a historically significant person or victim of persecution. Second, he may be occasionally catatonic, or prone to sitting around, saying and doing nothing for quite a while. Third, he may suffer from hebephrenia, or disordered, chaotic thoughts. (Incidentally, schizophrenia is not equivalent to Multiple Personality Disorder.)
Each of these subtypes has its own set of symptoms and peculiarities, and Hinckley seems to have at least brushed with almost all of them. The symptoms of schizophrenia include delusions, hallucinations, loss of boundaries between self and nonself, blunted or inappropriate emotional expression, socially inappropriate behavior, loss of social interests, and deterioration in areas of functioning such as social relations, work, and self\u00adcare.1
Schizophrenics also are wont to express happy ideas in a sad manner, or vice versa. As with paranoia, many of these symptoms can be projected onto society at large. In other words, what is true for Hinckley on a particular level, is in many ways true of our culture as a whole.
Most people know two things about John Hinckley: (1) He tried to kill President Reagan, and (2) he was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. Behind these two facts is a schizophrenic life deeply entangled in the Martin Scorcese film Taxi Driver. In that movie, a cab driver named Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is disgusted with the filth of New York City, and decides to do something about it. He becomes obsessed with a campaign worker (Cybil Shepherd), stalks a presidential candidate with intent to kill, determines to rescue a twelve\u00adyear\u00adold prostitute (Jodie Foster), and then kills a handful of sleazy types in a grisly scene. The papers make a hero out of the vigilante Bickle.
In his early college years, Hinckley identified closely with Bickle. He all but lost the boundary between self and non\u00adself, reality and non\u00adreality. The similarities between Hinckley and Bickle are striking, and it is remarkable that Hinckley was able to translate the film so effectively into real life. When in college, Hinckley fabricated a girlfriend so his parents would send him more money. In Taxi Driver, Bickle writes a rambling letter home, in which he exaggerates the relationship between himself and Cybil Shepherd\u2019s character. \u201cHer name is Betsy,\u201d he writes. \u201cI am sorry I can tell you no more due to the nature of my work for the government.\u201d At college, Hinckley underwent long periods of depression and despair, mirroring Bickle\u2019s feeling that \u201cthe days move on with regularity, each one as same as the next.\u201d This may have been the near\u00ad catatonic phase of Hinckley\u2019s life. For Bickle, the days were so similar, he may as well have not moved at all. During a recess from college, Hinckley again lied to obtain money from his parents, and went to Yale to meet Jodie Foster, who played the prostitute Bickle tries to save. Hinckley met Foster, though she brushed him off. Shortly after, Hinckley began collecting guns, in emulation of Bickle, to be sure, but also as a paranoid reaction to the crime he saw rising in the cities. The change in regularity for both Hinckley and Bickle comes with the purchase of guns, a fact which indicates their shared feeling of inadequacy or weakness when trying to cope with the mass of people. After frequent target practice (also a scene in the movie), Hinckley began stalking President Carter.
The stalking of a national figure points to a paranoid fantasy. Often, the schizophrenic imagine relationships with famous people, as if to put themselves in the same circle of power as the object of their stalking. In that sense, the schizophrenic is parasitic, drawing power from important people in order to compensate for their own feeling of impotence. Shortly before attempting to kill President Reagan, Hinckley said in a recorded message, \u201cI can\u2019t hurt anybody, really. I\u2019m a coward.\u201d The ability to remain close to a famous person \u2014 such as a President \u2014 even while agents try to prevent you from getting close, is a victory, a statement of worth.
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