Mel Gibson’s 1997 movie “Conspiracy Theory” stars as Jerry Fletcher in which played the wacky paranoid Jerry Fletcher who saw conspiracies everywhere and had his own conspiracy newsletter, almost presaged the now more recognized emerging self-assumed ideology of the “targeted individuals” that was highlighted the day of this writing June 10, 2015 in the New York Times. It is a fascinating article and an uncanny almost eerie instance of art imitation life or perhaps predicting life and future reality. Almost prescient as some cinema works by talented directors and screenwriters sometimes produce.
Delusional fads, as I tend to call these fantastical false beliefs that have gripped our imaginations since the days of the Salem Witch Trials and other waves of social weird beliefs have come and gone for ages. Another movie that is another instance of the growing genre of Big Brother and Others spying on us all was Gene Hackman’s terse dark movie concerning an ex-“Agency” technical spy whiz who had retreated into protective extreme isolation. Enemy of the State from 1998 was a startling portrayal of the nightmares of the past few years’ revelations courtesy of Edward Snowden’s leaking of the extent of the NSA’s ostensible spying on everyone through the open digital conduits into our lives, from terrorists to citizens to world leaders, some of or closest allies.
Today’s New York Times article, “United States of Paranoia: The World of Gang Stalking,” is unique in describing the now growing self-help or self-constructed explanations and movement of persons with odd paranoid, even delusional beliefs of being spied upon. These people who can come from all walks of life, and are often not at all readily identifiable or typical of the more overtly chronically psychotic schizophrenics who to the knowing observer whether a mental health professional or painfully aware relative of such a person. Their lack of insight or acceptance of their putative and in likely many instances, true mental illness, has long been known and typical of their mental state and “presentation.” In point of fact, persons with well organized, intact and very compartmentalized “delusional disorders,” usually have a startling lack of awareness of the aberrancy of their states, and vehemently resist and fight any such attribution. Also, they are tragically very often not responsive to psychiatric antipsychotic medications, something that is not at all well understood yet. But the growing reality and breadth of brain research approach more and more demonstrating that their brains are different from persons not afflicted with these internal realities that so pervasively hamper and drive their views of reality. Further, along this line of knowledge, many traditionally psychotic persons have characteristically no insight into their illness at all as part of their overall condition causing them to go off their stabilizing medication regimens over and over. This is a source of one the highest cost factors in the chronically mentally ill, repetitive readmissions over their lifetimes to restabilize them back on the medications and restoring them to more ordinary functioning.
Medicine, psychiatry and even science in general, have long had “fads” no different I suppose than any other endeavor formulated by humans and our still capacity for being a product of the state of knowledge and attitudes of our times. Many social ideologies have had currency over social attitudes that later came to be seen, re-evaluated and modified or corrected. In the USA, one such contemporary discredited ideology that the vast majority of us of almost all political persuasions would agree was fallacious were the many economic tenets of communism of the 20th century. The one party state, the proletariat of the people, socialist economic statism, and many other totalitarian concepts. Nowadays most would agree the even more extreme extensions of the communist state existing in North Korea with its now three generational idolatry of the “Dear Leaders of the Kim dictatorship, would qualify as socially abhorrent, crazy and toxic in almost every respect.
An example of a fad or unproven theory of medicine only a few decades ago was the gastric ulcers were caused by all kinds of things and treatment consisted of use of bland diet or partial resection of the stomach and/or duodenum. I remember being totally surprised by the research news that ulcers were also caused by a bacteria, H. pylori. This required a total paradigm shift and as we would say, “Who woulda’ thunk it?” The earth being flat is a long debuked centuries old theory of the world. Evolution is still disputed and some religious quarters there is still held the notion that only six thousand years or so ago, humans appeared and was contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Mental illness was seen as evidence of guilt, sin, or the fault of the person, or a curse from some displeased deity, or more recently caused by a “cold mother.”
Only a few decades ago, psychopathology had its epidemiological fads such as widespread claims of wild “Satanic abuse” out in the woods, repressed memories, almost widespread claims of multiple personalities in the 1980’s. I recall at the start of my psychiatric training some forty years ago, seeing the last of a couple of decades of instances of pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy, and “hysterical blindness,” kinks of psychiatric syndromes that have by and large disappeared. The farce of repressed memories culminated a few decades ago in North Carolina in the nationally infamous case of the “Little Rascals” preschool in Edenton North Carolina. A mother and adult son proprietors of a well-regarded family preschool business were accused of secret and widespread child sexual abuse. An investigation ensued that was a literal witch hunt based on the then fad of the theory of repressed memories. Misguided psychological investigators dedicated to this concept were brought in and later shown to have coached, led and suggested all manners of false reports given by children interviewed. This tragedy ruined the mother and adult son, with both being imprisoned, the son up to seven years or so. Several years later the older children as teens began to recant their testimony and it took a second independent investigation led by the able and impartial expert on such issues, Dr. Mark Iverson of UNC-Chapel Hill to demonstrate what had happened and overturn this gross miscarriage of justice and misguided ruination.
Now we are witness to a novel turn in the development of misguided psychiatric fads and socially sanctioned fads described in the NYT article cited above. The revelations about the NSA are not only abhorrent to our democratic ideals but also serve to provide a deceptively convincing basis for conspiracy theories so recurrently widespread and fascinating. We now know all too uncomfortably that Orwellian-like governmental secretive agencies have been spying at least somewhat on us, that Big Ear Dishes in closed military bases in West Virginia, Maryland and goodness knows where else, can intercept reportedly all emails, cell phone conversations and even perhaps my burps after drinking a carbonated soda too quickly. It is magically and compellingly appealing to the vulnerable with fragile powers of reasoning, altered senses of reality to ignore and furnishes seemingly factual basis for conspiracy theories never extant in history.
But like the television sarcastic commercial has said for years, if one has read it on the Internet, it must be true…
God and reason help us all.