Thursday 31 March 2022

The Question in Bodies 39: Bug (2006)

So some time ago, a colleague tagged me in a difficult discussion on Facebook about race, sexuality and religion. There was this one guy there who – let's just say his views weren't on the top two rows of the D&D alignment chart. I was brought in as an expert witness or something. But a read of the thread assured me that nothing I said was going to mean a thing.

Halfway through, the offending participant had said, after being challenged on the extreme nature of his views, “I had best friends try to stage a mini-intervention for me.” People who loved him had tried to get him to see sense. It hadn't worked.

That’s a red flag. If the people who love you are concerned enough to try this and you nonetheless haven't yet afforded yourself sufficient capacity for self reflection to think about why, in their love, they care enough to do this for you, you're in a place where ideology overrides healthy human relationships, and frankly you're not going to be deprogrammed by some rando on the internet.

At about the same time, the final result of the NXIVM case hit the news, and we heard of the fate of Allison Mack. Mack, an actor, engaged in human trafficking on behalf of self help guru Keith Raniere. She physically tortured and emotionally abused converts, enthusiastically, training them to be perfect sex slaves for her leader. In the end, having cooperated with the court, she was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. On the day of her sentencing, she wrote an open letter to her friends and family, and to the family of the cult’s victims:

“At the time, I believed I was helping… I also want to apologize to all the friends and loved ones I have hurt throughout this process... I know many of you fought hard to show me the truth... but I didn’t listen. I pushed you away and silenced myself toward you when you were trying to save my life. I am sorry I was so stubborn. I am sorry I was blind to your care and deaf to your pleas. I wish with everything in me that I had chosen differently... I lied to you, again and again, in order to protect the delusion I was so deeply committed to believing.”

What got Allison Mack into deep water is exactly what we saw with our Facebook Fascist. The point that he revealed that people who loved him had tried to bring him back and failed is the point where any hope that he might have been engaged with rationally and intelligently was reduced to its metaphorical component atoms. He's in thrall to the sort of viewpoint where his ideology is more important to him than personal human connection and fellow-feeling.

Even if you completely ignore the ideological stand itself, however hideous it is, this is the actual point where you can tell it's messed up.

Because when it matters more than love, it endangers your soul. And there might be a moment when it can be engaged with, but it sure as hell isn't going to be on a Facebook thread.

How do you get to a place like that? It's easy enough to say that the people who fall into these places are vulnerable, but that isn’t the whole of it. It is a specific sort of vulnerability that causes a person to wind up brainwashed, or radicalised, or whatever you want to call it. And it is a sort of vulnerability that is easily hidden, and it affects people who are obviously broken and people who appear gilded with success. I think it comes from a desire to connect. Evangelical religions make a big deal of their rallies, and their witnessing, and their door knocking. But people join because they want to be among friends. The hucksters and chancers behind QAnon know this, setting up shop in existing online communities. I’ve seen it happen, watched one acquaintance with a research interest in synchronicities and the way folk memory changes things fall deep into the Q pit. It was shocking how easily it came to pass. But it comes from community. It comes from shared experiences. Which is why a group of women who had pretty much everything already wanted to be better, and trusted their friends, and wound up so invested in being a cult leader’s sex slaves they had his initials branded on their bikini lines.

And this is why it’s so impervious to love. Because it has replaced love, it sits in the place of love like some bloated, carnivorous demon.

All it needs a crack in the wall, a place where love is lacking.

Bug (2006)

In William (The Exorcist) Friedkin’s 2006 drama Bug, adapted from a stage play by Tracy Letts, we see a small, personal radicalisation, as the lonely, trauma-blasted Agnes (Ashley Judd) falls under the spell of delusional conspiracy theories. Agnes lives in a motel. She waits tables, and fools around with friend-with-benefits RC (Lynn Collins). Her no-good ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr) is out of jail and stalking her. The sight of an unattended trolley in the store makes her inexplicably sad. Occasionally she smokes crack. She's in a bad place, and we know very quickly that there is no way to a better one. In the end, the choices for a person like Agnes lie only in the direction of her inevitable descent.

Enter Peter (Michael Shannon), a man who RC brings back to the motel after what we are given to assume is a typical night of partying. Peter is a little intense. He is quiet and socially awkward, but for all that he is also, crucially, attentive. Agnes hasn’t met anyone like him.

Peter has that one skill common to people who have survived abuse: he pays attention to the state of people, he knows how to recognise the basic signs of pain and danger. It isn’t a particularly hard skill to learn, and yet people who don’t have it think it is a supernatural thing. Sherlock Holmes’s supposed genius powers of ratiocination (and those of Auguste Dupin, who the idea of Holmes was pretty much nicked wholesale from) really just boil down to looking at people: a guy acts like a soldier, has a limp and a suntan, there’s been a war on in the Middle East. It’s not rocket science. But you’d think it was telepathy, given the reaction people have to you. It carries with it a trap, of course – when people keep telling you that you see things no one else sees, it is the easiest thing in the world to believe that it is a superpower. Before you know it you’re calling yourself an empath and sharing memes on social media about how introverts are better, and then, congratulations, you're insufferable.

In Bug, when Peter – who, like the John Watson of literature, has come back broken from a war in a desert (one thinks of Gulf War Syndrome here) – discerns fairly easily that Agnes is lying about not having children, it opens the floodgates, the pain behind that. And then she opens up to him more. He has some odd ideas, the sense that he is being surveiled, persecuted. But she still winds up sleeping with him. Because he is the best man she’s met.

And this is why, when Peter’s delusions begin to come to the fore – he keeps getting bitten by insects, which were sent by sinister, powerful agencies that are using him as an experimental subject. The further into Peter’s conspiracy hole Agnes goes the more outlandish his theories become, but more invested Agnes becomes. The appearance of Jerry only confirms which side Agnes feels she should be on, and by the time RC turns up and realises that Peter is delusional, Agnes is ready to throw over the one friend she has for the of Peter’s increasingly manic theories. She is soon enthusiastically joining Peter in papering the walls of the motel room with tinfoil; she begins to feed his paranoia with her own. They enter a sort of feedback loop, each statement building on the next, until the shared delusion reaches its furthest logical extent.

While Bug betrays its origins in theatre – the vast majority of the action happens in one room, and there are only five characters of any substance, three of which only enter the plot in the context of Agnes and Peter – the performances in the film are uniformly excellent and it portrays in heartbreaking detail how quickly and completely Agnes falls prey to Peter’s delusions, body and mind: the apparently invisible stings of an ”aphid” develop through itching and gouging into deep wounds.

What we see has a known psychopathology – it’s called folie à deux (literally, “madness in two”). Characterised as a shared delusional state, recorded cases seem to follow a model where one person has a delusion and a second, who has a reason to be emotionally invested in their relationship with the first, accepts and adopts the first person’s delusions and eventually feeds them.

But of course, delusional psychopathologies are notoriously slippery things. At what point is a conspiracy theory, an ideological standpoint, an opinion about history or medicine, or a religious belief just an odd belief, and when does it become a psychiatric condition? The easiest and most obvious answer to that is that it becomes an illness when it detrimentally affects one’s quality of life and/or endangers the safety of the person with the delusion or the people around them. But I don't think that's the whole story. A lot of the ways in which we approach these things are socially constructed. Consider Lorraine (not her real name), a person I've known my whole life. When young, Lorraine began to hear disembodied voices and frequently saw angels, demons and ghosts. In the 1970s she attended a Spiritualist church, and the leadership there recognised in her the potential to be a psychic medium. In her training, they made sure that Lorraine knew that not all the voices told the truth and that most people would not understand her abilities and that therefore it was best to only talk about these things in certain contexts. Lorraine is quite elderly now, and is quite entrenched in her beliefs, which by now include the certainty that black magicians are performing rituals against her and that some of her neighbours are possessed by evil spirits. It is a matter of a couple of minutes to find a list of the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and note that her experiences correlate with most of the accepted symptoms, but it’s also irrelevant, because Lorraine functions in society and in a framework that means that she has never come into contact with psychiatry, and likely never will. Is she schizophrenic, then? I will never know for sure. Only her experiences matter.

Psychiatry is a massively important discipline, but its limitations show themselves in the very context in which we might think it would be the strongest, in delusions. The ways in which we construct our view of the world are only illnesses when they are decided to be. In the 2020s, when conspiracy theories are running rampant across Western society, it’s almost moot as to whether they could be called ailments. Were the Capitol insurgents of January 6th, who adopted wholesale the delusion that the US election had been stolen, and were willing to attempt a ramshackle, incompetent coup for the sake of it, victims of a treatable disease? If a delusional belief is pathological when it is harmful to society, does that mean that COVID truthers and general antivaxxers are actually mentally ill? Is QAnon a case of folie à milliard? Is the charismatic evangelical who prays outside the shop owned by the gay couple because it is an “area of spiritual oppression” just sick?

And of course, the answer is, we don’t know and it doesn’t matter. These things are terrible because they just are.

Often these beliefs are the result of a conversion experience, a process of realignment that is always, whatever it is, psychologically traumatic. Medication and therapy might mitigate some of the effects, So it is with Agnes. Trauma, grief and substance abuse have beaten her into a place where she is ready to vanish into the pit and Peter is kind, and attentive, and sees her as worth something, and when you are in that place, let me tell you, even that slightest ray of light, the slightest sign of being wanted lights the fuse for the bombing out of your soul. She was already destroyed to begin with and her only agency lies in how her inevitable annihilation might proceed.