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” —Travis Bickle, who stalks and nearly kills a presidential candidate in the film Taxi Driver (1976) “I’ve got to do something to make you understand.” —John Hinckley Jr., in a letter to Jodie Foster, written shortly before he stalked and nearly killed thenPresident 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. The Modern Psychosis. Paranoia is not limited to the psychologically unstable. The same 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 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’s 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 highrise 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 — stick to the routine and you won’t get hurt — 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. Proverbs for Paranoids #1: You may never touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures. Postmodern Psychosis. The greatest example of schizophrenia is John Hinckley, Jr., the disaffected young man who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981. His life is so paradigmatically schizophrenic, it borders on the cliché. 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 selfcare.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.
1Grolier’s Encyclopedia, 1993.
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 twelveyearold 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 nonself, reality and nonreality. 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’s character. “Her name is Betsy,” he writes. “I am sorry I can tell you no more due to the nature of my work for the government.” At college, Hinckley underwent long periods of depression and despair, mirroring Bickle’s feeling that “the days move on with regularity, each one as same as the next.” This may have been the near catatonic phase of Hinckley’s 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, “I can’t hurt anybody, really. I’m a coward.” The ability to remain close to a famous person — such as a President — even while agents try to prevent you from getting close, is a victory, a statement of worth.
For many paranoids, the President is the fountainhead of conspiracy. The collected power of 250 million people in one accessible, cosmetic, public figure makes for easy association with the troubles of those millions. In the mind of the paranoiac, if one wants to eliminate his problems, he first builds his own power by stalking the president, as though in preparation for a much greater task and, at the right moment, kills him. The action steals the power of the President and invests it in his assassin. “One day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy,” predicted Hinckley on a postcard to Foster. One symptom of paranoia is the notion that a person is a historically significant person. That this idea is characteristic of abnormal psychology indicates the meaninglessness of the normal life in contemporary society. According to psychological norms, individuals should be lost in the crowd, faceless and flat among the masses. Citizens of the city may often find themselves feeling this way, given the difficulty of observing the highrises and throngs, and steel believing oneself significant. Few rise to that level of importance, and those few are generally famous. The desire to contribute, to be wellknown and famous, is not unusual. Many, if not most, fantasize about the possibilities regularly. That desire seems to be at the root of Hinckley’s behavior. Attempting to overcome the crowd, Hinckley committed a reprehensible act, just as Bickle does in the last scenes of Taxi Driver. Before the attempted assassination, Hinckley considered two other alternatives to killing Reagan. Maybe I’ll hijack a plane and demand Jodie Foster as ransom. A typical way to gain power quickly; very popular in the early 1980s. The other choice — recently in vogue — was mass murder, a favorite past time for violent paranoids. Colin Ferguson, the Long Island commuter train gunman, thought the world was at bottom a racist conspiracy out to persecute him. The Postal Service, the country’s largest and most widespread bureaucracy has a history of paranoid attacks by frazzled employees seeking to escape the machine. Hinckley’s plan was a peculiar inversion of Bickle’s rampage. He considered mass murder at Yale, wiping out the country’s wouldbe upper crust, the cabalistic hands behind the puppets. Whereas Bickle wiped out the pimps and sleazy johns, Hinckley would storm the future of America. Instead of these, he went after the history of America, in the form of Ronald Reagan. This action, more than any other, would propel Hinckley into textbooks alongside Reagan. “Inside this mind of mine, I commit firstpage murder. I think of words that could alter history.” In Taxi Driver, Bickle stalks and is about to shoot a leading presidential candidate, when the Secret Service spots him and he flees. Hinckley succeeded where Bickle failed: the former drew and fired, touching the master of masters, the actorpresident, the Great Communicator, the
Great Conspirator. Hinckley, in a moment, leaped from anonymity into timeless notoriety, by exploding the hierarchy that oppressed him. This is the postmodern burst into celebrity. Hinckley’s identity became synonymous with the image of the crime, just as Lee Harvey Oswald’s merged with the Zapruder film and the struggle in the police station basement. As with Bickle, Hinckley’s ego was validated in the media coverage. What he wanted was fame, to be on the same level as the President and a beautiful actress. Unlike Oswald, Hinckley lived to see it. It is appropriate that Hinckley’s act intertwined with the media, because it originated in a fiction, a film. Hinckley’s merging of the real and the fiction began when he saw Taxi Driver and reached its zenith when he fired. Proverbs for Paranoids #2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immortality of the Master. The Larger System. American culture in general fits the diagnosis of John Hinckley. The widespread yearning for significance, the selfobsession, the dominant idea of historical impact and moral justification are all typical of the American spirit. Hinckley’s rambling thoughts (“This mind of mine doesn’t mind much of anything unless it comes to mind that I am out of my mind”) are typical of postmodern literature. When authors attempt streamofconsciousness, freeanddirect discourse, and similar narrative techniques — even with psychologically healthy characters — their efforts often read like journals of the schizophrenic. According to critic Albert Borgmann, “the nation’s mood is sullen.” Borgmann wrote these words at the nadir of the economic recession, and recent statements of selfappointed experts on our generation seem to agree. Jimmy Carter made similar declarations fifteen years ago when he was president. He observed the country was stuck in a “malaise,” a period of inactivity and lack of motivation. Carter’s comments came at around the same time John Hinckley, Jr., was suffering depression and despair, a period of inactivity and lack of motivation. Carter was a better psychologist than we might have guessed. It is characteristic of schizophrenics to undergo periods of despair and then burst into a flurry of activity. Hinckley broke out of his depression, but then entered mania, collecting guns, trying to rescue prostitutes, and finally, shooting the president. At the same time, America began to escape its own despair. With Ronald Reagan at the helm, (and thanks to gimmicks like junk bonds, which seemed to intermingle real money with imaginary money) the American economy gathered unprecedented strength and inflated to dangerous levels. After his manic period,
Hinckley moved to a hospital. After American’s manic time of economic growth, we plummeted to the other end of the economic spectrum. Concurrent with American financial insanity, cocaine began the glamour drug of the jet set, and the addiction of the poor. It cut across social boundaries like the best postmodern trends, completely reversing the previously established hierarchy. Cocaine ruined the famous and the wealthy and made millionaires of sixteenyearolds. The drug put everyone who used it on the same desperate level, severed from reality. Use of cocaine enhances one’s reality. Users claim they see and hear more clearly, feel strong and potent. These feelings are typical of a postmodern phenomenon known as hyperreality, in which the artificial exceeds the benefits of the real, at least on a superficial level. A significant psychological byproduct of longterm use of cocaine is toxic psychosis, or druginduced paranoia. Cocaine, then, seems like the perfect schizophrenic drug, in that it mixes reality with unreality, encourages mania followed by despair or catatonia, and results in paranoia. On another level, cocaine and similar drugs had much to do with the rising crime level in the United States during the 1980s. The tide of crime sponsored a kind of national paranoia toward the drug and its users. The widespread use of cocaine helped to prevent anyone from feeling removed and safe. Proverbs for Paranoids #3: You hide, They seek.
The Fearful Life. This paranoid schizophrenia has led to a new way of living for many Americans, from crossing the street at the sight of another person to buying a gun or moving farther away from the city. Human relations have changed because an almost inherent fear in everyone toward everyone else. The gun control debate centers on the fear of crime, and devices such as The Club and Mace sell to millions, as though a plume of peppergas will mask the larger fears destroying a person’s peace of mind. The close relationship between paranoia and capitalism is clear. Retailers push often useless commodities onto terrified consumers, capitalism is in some way responsible for the economic conditions that precipitate crime and fear, and certain groups have turned to the private sector for solutions to crime. Giant real estate developers have begun building smallcity sized development in the Nevada desert outside of Los Angeles. Simple adjustments such as carrying a can of Mace or not going to ATMs after dark are no longer enough. Living without fear, for some, requires not only changing one’s lifestyle, but changing one’s life. Developments such as these aim to protect the mental and physical wellbeing of their inhabitants. “People want safety from threats both real and imagined,” one development
manager says. The developments tend to adopt a smalltown, rather than bigcity, look to appeal to the residents’ nostalgia for the crime and fear free days of the Eisenhower era. The management decides the size and look of mailboxes, gardens, and (of course) property walls for each house under its jurisdiction. They limit freedom not to provide safety, but rather to provide the look of safety. Says one commentator, the development is “a simulacrum of a real place.” Indeed, at least one development has hosted its share of fringetypes, including a mass murderer. The opportunity for a truly safe, largescale environment seems to be deteriorating rapidly. “Even Eden — designed by God — had its serpents,” one critic observes. Proverbs for Paranoids #4: Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves deliberately into paranoid situations. Our society seems incapable of functioning without schizophrenic tendencies. The cyclical nature and the obsessive nature of the country seems as naturally ingrained in American history as television and the Masons. We cannot help but plot or build conspiracy theories. These paranoid activities pass the time, serve as an intriguing alternative to formal education, and perpetuate the flow of information. We place ourselves in paranoid situations precisely because it gives us the opportunity to be paranoid, to create our own story. Any conspiracy, whatever its subject — JFK, UFOs, radiation — always adds to our cultural identity. The consipiracy is our mythmaking device, our attempt to understand what machine drives the world around us. Sources: Borgmann, Albert. Crossing the Postmodern Divide. Grolier’s Encyclopedia, 1993. Guterson, David. “No Place Like Home,” Harper’s Magazine. 11/92. Newsweek, May 24, 1982. 5661. Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. (All “Proverbs for paranoids”) 2948 words
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