Monday, February 26, 2007

The Human Stain

Psychological disorders are often poorly handled in fiction and film. When I was in graduate school and would go to see horror movies with non-psychology friends I would often be questioned as to: "What's wrong with that dude, man?" I appreciated their need to know, but the question was often impossible to answer because either 1) the "dude" appeared to be suffering from at least half a dozen disorders simultaneously, or 2) the "dude" was possessed by some evil entity as yet unknown to science. At the same time, I generally found that fiction writers did it much better than screenwriters, but still would make routine and disconcerting errors. It finally got so bad that I simply stopped watching movies of "psychological" interest. To this day, I seldom watch a movie that turns on some psychological principle, such as schizophrenia or multiple personalities. I do still read "psychological" books, but they are not my preferred reading.

So what should a writer do who wants to use an element of psychological deviance in their fiction? Well, one thing you could do is read an article by Tracy Knight in On Writing Horror called "More Simply Human." This is one of the best short pieces I've ever read on the subject, and clearly Ms. Knight knows her subject. She certainly points out one of my particular peeves, how many times writers confuse Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality disorder. They are not the same thing and have far different causes and courses.

Here are some other things that Ms. Knight either did not cover or only talked about briefly.

1. "Crazy" is a vague term that is almost never used by psychologists.

2. The "Insanity" defense is a legal concept and does not correspond exactly to psychological descriptions of insanity.

3. Having a diagnosed psychological disorder does not mean that you will always have it. Many disorders can be cured with little chance of relapse.

4. Psychological disorders come in all levels of severity. Some are quite mild while others completely disrupt the person's life.

5. A person with a psychological disorder, even a severe one, is not necessarily going to exhibit the symptoms of that disorder 24 hours a day. They will usually have periods where the disorder appears to be gone or in remission.

Finally, it is my belief that if someone filmed any of us 24 hours a day for a year or so, and then picked just the right fifteen minutes from that film, they could make any of us appear to be suffering from almost any known psychological disorder. In other words, you ain't so far from crazy yourself.


Steve Malley said...

Thank you for that one. I *hate* when writers fuck up, glass over or totally make up psychological disorders. It's lazy writing, pure and simple.

It's a cop-out. "Why'd the villain do that?" "Cause he's crazy, stupid."

Like when I hear that a guy broke up with his girl because 'she was crazy', my first thought is that somebody didn't look deep enough. Fine for dating, unfor-freaking-giveable in fiction.

The writer was either too lazy to find a proper motivation for the villain, too lazy to do a little tiny bit of extra reading if it *must* be psychological disorder, too lazy to do the rewrites once they saw they were wrong, or (filmakers especially) too damned arrogant to care.

And that it's invariably the villain makes it worse, not better.

Another peeve: mislabelling and overusing 'psychopath' and 'sociopath'.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, the terms psychopath and sociopath, which had useful meanings once upon a time, have become virtually unusuable because so many idiot filmakers confused them with psychotic.

nolasteve said...

I think you are experiencing the TMK (too much knowledge) syndrome. Many writers seem to treat specific details with a casual indifference. It doesn’t seem to make a difference to some readers, but gun experts will shriek in horror at some sloppy detail. They seem to feel that there is an artistic license to achieve an effect regardless of reality. I’ve put down many a book over sloppy details

Charles Gramlich said...

That's a good point NolaSteve. I've done the same thing as you have with books filled with errors of detail, but I'm relatively more forgiving when a writer gets a detail of setting wrong as opposed to a detail of character.

Erik Donald France said...

Charles, your last paragraph is so true! Great post and thoughts, of course. How about post-traumatic stress syndrome? That seems like a nice catch-all. Chris Rock does ask, in one of his routines, "What ever happened to crazy? Given the number of issues students lay claim to to gain extra time on tests, it does make me wonder about the labels and their representations. Another confusion is between psychotic and psychopathic, between "having spells" and going on "murderous rampages."

Drizel said...

I studied Phyc, and actually have a degree in it;)....nobody knows this about me, the thing is it is hard for writers to define things they don't know about.(Check my blog if you wanna...not advertising, I wrote about Skizo...just a thingie I made up the other day called:our words) When I did my writing course the Dr. said that you should never write about something you don't know....and this I think to be true in all aspects of life(speak if you know about it).
Well my piece of cheese shared, I enjoyed the post:)

Michelle's Spell said...

This is so true -- I much prefer movies and fiction that present things without too much explanation -- when is life ever that simple? Labels just confuse things -- and the details are the thing.

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent point, Charles. I'm the same way about watching -- or refusing to watch -- most TV shows and movies about lawyers, because of all the misinformation and/or compromises with reality the screenwriters put in their scripts in order to increase the drama of the show. I know it may be a literary necessity, but it's irritating. And then there are the things they get wrong...Aaargh!

On the other hand, I make an exception for lawyer shows that are funny -- e.g., BOSTON LEGAL, which I just discovered a few months ago. I am now addicted to it, because of the humor, the great cast, and the thought-provoking storylines. And, I have to say, often the legal arguments employed by the lawyers (especially by Alan, played by James Spader) are truly ingenious and just might work in reality.