I’m sitting in my parents’ living room, listening to my older brother, Ben, tell the family how he’s recently discovered that his phone is being tapped. His tone is casual, even upbeat, as if he were discussing a stretch of unusually good weather. Ben has always been slightly askew, his worldview occasionally odd and impenetrable, his personality lurching between a kind of angry impatience at the world’s inability to understand him, and an ironic and self-deprecating humor.
“It’s complicated,” Ben hisses in sudden frustration, veering in the direction of angry impatience. He’s irritated at our father, who has asked Ben for the third time to repeat himself. On the one hand, Dad is nearly deaf, and on the other, he is of a constitution inimical to anything that smacks of “craziness,” especially when it involves one of his own sons.
I intercede. I’m the middle child. The peacemaker. I do what I can. “What he’s saying, Dad, is that there are certain, um, ‘special-interest groups,’ ” — here I glance at Ben to make sure I have it right — “who might be listening in on his phone calls.” I say this loudly to accommodate my father’s ears, and the unintended effect is that the words hang in the air, taking on a life and power of their own.
We are all peering intently at Ben now — my parents, my younger brother Michael, and myself — trying to discern whether this evident descent into insanity has marked him in some way. Or perhaps such a mark, overlooked in our desire to believe him sane, has been there all along. I decide that he looks like the same old Ben, or at least the Ben I’ve known for the last twenty years or so: slightly disheveled, scantily employed, socially isolated, but someone who has always been sane enough. Or so he has seemed to all of us.
As much as anything else perhaps, insanity is a social phenomenon. For its existence, it requires other people. One would not say, for example, that Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway was particularly nutty, or at least any nuttier than he should have been given his prolonged isolation on a desert island. But let him return home and start talking to his volleyball on the commuter train, and that’s a different story.
As Ben moves on from the topic of his bugged telephone to the even more astounding revelation that he is widely regarded in his home city of New York as an enlightened figure, a Buddha of sorts, it becomes plain that he has been suffering from delusions in the privacy of his cramped apartment for quite some time and that this conversation marks a sort of coming-out for him. It’s impossible to say why he’s picked this particular visit to open up, but it occurs to me that in a practical sense he’s insane only if we’re here to try to tell him so.
But it’s a role I do not want. Among the half dozen or so emotions I feel roiling about, there are elements of anger and resentment at what I’ve always thought of as my brother’s unique ability to elude responsibility for the turmoil he sometimes creates. Years ago he was a drunk, not the semiquiet kind I fancy I used to be, but the occasionally roaring, violent kind who would do things like pick fistfights with our father or heave himself out of moving automobiles like some deranged stuntman. More often than not, the next day he would profess to remember none of it.
Then there was that lengthy stay in a costly private mental hospital. Despite certain ominous suggestions from his psychiatrist, we had always told ourselves his breakdown was caused by the stress of college, along with too much hard drinking. These days, such a confinement might be respectably passed off as some sort of extended rehab, but in the middle-class Jewish suburbia of my youth, psychiatric hospitals were about as respectable as leper colonies. My younger brother and I were both still teenagers at the time, and the shame of Ben’s institutionalization, no matter what the reason for it, weighed heavily on us. Inevitably perhaps, I began to wonder if such a fate might someday wait for me.
Though I recall just enough of my undergraduate psychology courses to know I’m in way over my head, I immerse myself in the literature of mental illness: Schizophrenia. Paraphrenia. Hebephrenia. Reactive psychosis. Cycloid psychosis. Bipolar disorder. Delusional disorder. So many ways to madness. The more I read, the more depressed I become, and the more depressed I become, the more I read. Just when it seems I’ve run out of illnesses, I’ll find a new one, like the jaunty-sounding “bouffée delirante,” or the dreadful-sounding “involutional melancholia.” I linger over each strange name with a mixture of morbid fascination and half-repressed terror, as if it were some kind of grotesque flower in a nightmare garden containing all known forms of human suffering.
And yet compassion is easier in the abstract. When I’m face to face with my brother, his absurd beliefs, and his stubborn and appalling lack of insight, my predominant emotion is frustration. One might think that madness at its core were nothing more than a vast stupidity.
“Ben,” I say, still thinking it might be possible to reason with him, “suppose someone told you what you’ve told me: that he’s being followed by the FBI; that he’s being conspired against by people in his apartment building; and, oh yes, that he happens to be a kind of Buddha. Try to be objective. What might you think of a person who believes all these things?”
He knows what I’m getting at, all right, but as usual he’s ready for me. “I never claimed I was a Buddha,” he says, with impeccable madman pseudologic. “What I said was other people think I am. I can’t be crazy if I’m not the one making the claim, can I?”
Though I’ve long had an interest in psychology, nothing in the way of a few books could have prepared me for my brother’s illness. At seventeen, I went through my Freudian period, reading The Interpretation of Dreams with the same eager intensity with which a year or two earlier I’d still been reading Superman comic books. But my understanding of Freud was adolescent and incomplete, even hopelessly romantic in its way. When I read that dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” it seemed the most poetic image I’d ever encountered. And not yet comprehending Freud’s essential darkness, I naturally assumed that if the road were royal, then the destination must be a nice place too.
I loved the stuff. Ids, egos, superegos, the Oedipus complex, penis envy: it was as if I’d found some magic key. It wasn’t super strength, or even X-ray vision, but it was a power of sorts, and by seventeen I had learned to take what I could get.
As to Freud’s theories of madness, it seemed absolutely reasonable to me, at that age, that anxiety over one’s sexual preference could lead, at the very least, to lunacy. But I’m over fifty now, my own brother mad, and the Freud of my youth seems the stuff of fairy tales. These days my conception of the human mind is much more along the lines of flimsy raft than royal road.
For the first time in more than thirty years I have a panic attack. Then another. Of what am I afraid?
When I was a freshman in college, my roommate had a breakdown. He was a friendly pre-med student from Maine, the type my mother liked to call a “very lovely boy.” He had a girlfriend back home. One day he decided she was cheating on him. How did he know? He just knew. Every night on the phone the girl wept and begged and pleaded her innocence, but he wasn’t buying it. He stopped going to class. Stopped studying. Stopped bathing.
One night he broke up the dormitory a little, smashed a few windows. That finished it. In stormed the white coats. Whisked him away in the blink of an eye. His feet never touched the stairs.
Two months later he was back, sane enough, as far as that goes, but quiet, withdrawn — diminished, I remember thinking at the time, some vital piece of him gone.
I don’t know how I can tell it’s my mother calling just from the sound of the ring.
“What are we going to do about your brother?” she asks, resuming a conversation we’ve had at least a dozen times before. For all the good it does, we might as well be discussing how to bring peace to the Middle East.
I try to be helpful, even if I am just restating the obvious. “Well, he’s clearly suffering from delusions. He probably needs medication. Maybe a stay in the hospital.”
“Do you know he won’t answer our phone calls anymore?” To my mother, if there were a surer sign of insanity than delusional beliefs, this would be it.
She doesn’t come out and say so, but what she would like is for Michael and me to drive down from the Boston area to Ben’s apartment in New York. I’ve wondered myself if we should do this. But what would we do when we got there? Call a psychiatrist? Call the police? Drag him forcibly to a hospital?
My mother sighs on her end of the line. “You know, your father and I are not young anymore.”
Not too many years ago I would have resented the note of self-pity, the implication that Ben’s illness is a giant inconvenience for her. But now I mostly feel sorry for my parents. They are old, and it must be terribly painful to watch their eldest son crack up this way.
After we hang up, I think about my father, who in a few weeks will be undergoing major surgery. I’m seized by the desire to call Ben, to scream at him if necessary to forget all this nonsense: he’s not a well-known religious figure in the New York area; he’s not enlightened in any useful way that I can see; his telephone calls are not being listened to by “special-interest groups” any more than mine are. But I don’t. For one thing, he probably wouldn’t answer the phone. For another, what good would it do to yell at a madman?
In my early thirties, I slipped into a pit. My wife was gone, the rent was due, and I was out of work. I lay around the house for days, nearly paralyzed by depression and the maddening drone of talk radio. It was December 1981, and the topic of the day was Poland, the Gdansk Shipyard strikes, and that country’s declaration of martial law. It’s not that I became Poland, or Poland me — nothing quite that drastic. It’s simply that our dual emergencies took on a kind of tonal sameness. We breathed, Poland and I, the same dire atmosphere.
Fortunately for me a friend called, and as I struggled to explain my metaphorical kinship with an Eastern Bloc nation, I suddenly heard myself. It’s not so much that I felt crazy, but the awareness that I probably sounded crazy that convinced me to turn off the radio and get out of bed.
Is it possible to be embarrassed out of insanity?
During a family get-together, I study Ben carefully. As usual, he’s the center of attention.
Ben, think about it. Do you really suppose you’re important enough for the FBI to sneak into your apartment to plant microphones in your shoes?
Not only is he utterly unembarrassed by his role of presiding family lunatic, he actually seems to enjoy it.
A psychiatrist once told me I wasn’t the type to go mad. I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but I now think he was saying I’m too neurotic, too vigilant, too generally frightened to lose myself in any substantial way. Not a compliment, to be sure, but madness does demand a heedlessness that’s hard for me to fathom.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in order to be diagnosed with delusional disorder a patient must have delusions that are nonbizarre — in other words a belief in things that, however unlikely, could actually occur in the real world. Also, there must be no behavior that is odd or bizarre (except in reaction to the delusion), and visual and auditory hallucinations must not be prominent. Finally, there must be no disorders of mood, or any general medical condition that might otherwise account for the delusions.
Though these criteria seem to fit Ben, I realize they say less about what delusional disorder is than they do about what it is not.
And yet it most assuredly must be something. Lately Ben is more deeply mired than ever in delusions, having come to the additional belief that the family is conspiring to cheat him of money. He talks sporadically — though with a curious lack of heat, given the imagined circumstances — of hiring a private investigator to “get to the bottom of things.”
Delusional disorder can often be successfully treated with antipsychotic medications, but the sufferer, unshakably convinced of the validity of his or her beliefs, can rarely be convinced to see a doctor, much less to take drugs known for their unpleasant and possibly dangerous side effects. In my brother’s case, the fact that he thinks we’re plotting against him makes things that much more difficult.
“Ben,” I offer, in just one more in a series of such attempts, “I’ll make a deal with you: You agree to see a psychiatrist. If he gives you a clean bill of health, I’ll lend you the money to talk to a private detective.”
It seems like a pretty fair deal to me. Were I my brother, I think I’d take it. But Ben smells a rat. Ben always smells a rat. And in this case, at least, he’s right.
In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus cures a madman by casting his evil spirits into a nearby herd of swine. It’s a nice story, if you’re not worried about the swine, who promptly rush into the sea and drown. It’s almost as though there’s a fixed amount of insanity in the world, and even Jesus can’t change it. The best he can do is spread it around a little.
Two millennia later, and some decades past the age of Freud, treating mental illness is mostly about the drugs: risperidone, chlorpromazine, olanzapine, quetiapine — awkward-sounding names that put me in mind of obscure Greek deities, benevolent one day, dangerous the next.
Ben knows which way the wind is blowing as well as I do, and he sends me a lengthy e-mail to better explain his position:
It has to do with the organized harassment by Special Interest Groups. I think they may have told you they were guarding me or something along those lines. They may have falsely claimed that I behaved in certain ways, wanted — and I emphasize that word (it has a special meaning in certain circles — talk about delusional!) — their attentions, or something along those lines. They may have planted something on the Internet, tapped my computer, misrepresented me in my business dealings, whatever, etc. Anyway, this harassment and slander was eventually discovered and found to be actionable, or maybe they were hired and screwed up the job. Or both. The parties involved agreed to settle as long as their identities weren’t revealed — i.e., to go through you guys. Could be to protect someone’s reputation, protect a higher-up, or it could be to prevent the destruction of a young person’s life?
Now, truth be told, I don’t have any compelling need to relate this, particularly if doing so would exacerbate things or be excessively harmful to somebody who made a sad mistake. And particularly if I am to be compensated for the outrages committed. I know what I know and that’s enough. And I don’t care how or through whom the money is sent. Nor do I care if this brings on another attack of the bananas. Living rent-free inside their heads is a very powerful form of revenge and, basically, they are their own worst enemies.
Assuming for the moment that I’m not delusional — I have believed in the possibility of a lawsuit since the beginning. As for you, I can’t say, but I suspect that something has changed along the way. Don’t know for sure, don’t need to know. A fool believes in what he thinks rather than what he knows, but I live around here, and there are lots of ways to pick things up — from friends and foes. That was one of the problems in the beginning — didn’t know whom was who. I think my “friends” were really my “enemies,” and maybe vice versa.
Reading this, I am astonished at the complexity of my brother’s delusional thinking. I am also moved to pity. What must it be like to live in a world where you can’t distinguish friend from enemy, where even your family is not to be trusted?
At the same time, just beneath the craziness, there’s a quality of moral reasonableness that I doubt I could muster under like circumstances. Despite the bewildering forces arrayed against him, he remains a compassionate and in some ways surprisingly trusting human being. It seems well beyond his grasp to imagine a world in which the bad guys are not subject to the same rules of decency and conscience that he is, a place where those who would harm him will not be punished for their sins.
But I tell Ben none of this. I am too busy arguing with him via e-mail over a deal that would have him seeing a psychiatrist in return for a monthly stipend from the family. He’s out of money and has been paying his way with credit cards, so he may finally be forced to do things our way.
Yet we argue over everything: which doctors he might see, a proposed psychiatric-report schedule, insurance matters. Whatever we suggest, he wants to do the opposite, forestalling, confusing, and delaying at every opportunity.
“No, Ben,” I write, “it would not be OK for you to use the money we send you as a down payment on a lawsuit against us.”
For the first time since learning of my brother’s illness, I feel like giving up. The truth is, lately half the world seems mad. And I don’t mean just terrorists in airplanes. It’s as if there were crazy people everywhere: on the subway as I make my way to night school; idling away the day on benches in our little town common; in my health club.
“I like your shirt,” says the odd-looking man in street clothes walking on the treadmill next to me.
“Huh?” I say, not sure I’ve heard him right.
“Your shirt. I like your shirt.”
I can tell right away. There’s something in his tone of voice: it’s too familiar, too insinuating, too hostile in an impossible-to-pin-down, passive-aggressive way. I do my best to ignore him, but he’s muttering to himself now, something about how you can’t trust anyone these days, especially women.
“What do you do when your friends betray you?” he asks.
He’s talking to me again.
“I wish I knew, buddy,” I say, hurriedly getting off my treadmill and moving to the other side of the room.
Buddy. Could I be any more transparent, any more full of false bravado? The fact of the matter is I’m afraid of this guy. What’s worse, I’m sure he knows it. Why is it that the insane are often so angry, so aggrieved, so dead certain they’ve been screwed over by the world?
Although I should know better, I dash off another e-mail to my brother, challenging him to provide one shred of actual proof that he’s being conspired against. I add, on a final, wounded note, that I don’t think he fully appreciates how painful it is to his family that he does not believe we have his best interests at heart.
To which he replies, “Yes. Well. Imagine how it is for me.”