Around 2009 I was unwell. I didn’t know it, but I was not ok. I had began to feel tired. Looking back now this comes as no surprise. For the previous six years I had been working on a novel called One Inch Punch.
I had stopped taking care of myself: mentally, emotionally, physically. I was insomniac, drinking too much, sleeping odd hours, not exercising. I was obsessed with the novel. I lived the book, day and night. I dreamed the text. I woke up in the morning with dialogue in my head. I had images of the various characters fluttering like butterflies around my conscious and subconscious. One Inch Punch had become a monster, and how I loved my monster. It slept beneath my bed and gazed at me as I ate and worked at my desk. How I loved my characters. In a sense they had become more real to me than my friends, my family, indeed the world itself. Life had become something of a distraction. All I wanted to do was go on writing. I wanted to trace the life of a failed genius, this guy, this fictional Gordon Brock. I named him after my obsession with the band Hawkwind, whose lead singer’s surname was Brock. before I started writing pers se, I was noting things down, for a long time. I started from the beginning, from Gordy’s experience of being bullied as a kid to his life as a philandering psychotherapist who wrote garbage self help books that kept him rich and idle, to the end of his marriage, to his meeting in middle age with his nemesis, Ed Frasier one freezing winter day when both of them were Christmas shopping. Now lets be clear on this, my Gordon was not a nice guy, not what you might call an attractive character, not filled with the milk of human kindness. Gordon Brock was an asshole. As Senator David Norris said so hilariously at the launch of the novel “He was a bit of a bollox.” (scan forward in the video to 2.38 min) Absolutely true, but it didn’t matter. I loved him. I loved Gordon Brock, iq 174, his wife Martha Reynolds Brock, his Mom and dad who loved him so, his worst enemy Dr. Ed Fraser (we always need a nemesis to struggle against, I guess), his school teachers, his son Joshua. I was world building, and it was fun. This book was my life for six whole years. I had wanted to write about the impact of childhood bullying and torment for a very long time before, and here, when I found my Gordon in my dreams, there came my chance. I didn’t give a shit about publishing this book. I wanted to keep going forever. Writing was my life my religion, my prayer, my meaning, as Depeche Modewould have itMy own Personal Jesus. It was the most fulfilling thing I could ever do. Naturally I didn’t tell people this. Ones life partner might somehow take umbrage on hearing such madness. Anyway I went on. Sarah went to work. I cooked, cleaned, walked the dogs, and took a shower now and then, went to literary events with great reluctance, and joyfully returned to my desk to return to my own personal virtual reality. And then it all ended and the lights went out and they stayed out. I got sick. I crashed and burned. Everything fell apart, and then things got worse…
Being a rather impressionable little boy, that is, when I was a little boy, I recall one of the most terrifying creatures of my childhood was Frankenstein, not Victor Frankenstein mind, but the Monster, or The Creature, also known as Adam, something I was reminded of by a friend. For now I am not talking about the book, but the movies. This huge bolt necked square headed silent killer that walked slowly and never stopped until you were dead was a prototype Terminator that was out to get me. Scary. Frankenstein haunted my dreams and my waking life. I had no doubt this creature existed. That scientists were building him somewhere, and that Victor Frankensteins Monster was a truly malevolent force. I became profoundly conservative in my thinking. I needed things to be safe and ordered and filled with ritual and nice middle class motifs. This was because my mind was frightening me. It was because he, the Frankenstein Thing was evil. Science was a doorway to a terrifying unknown. We should not mess with the natrual order of things.
This is of course was long before I actually sat down and read Mary Shelleys remarkable book and saw that this was not what the book was about and that the Creature was a fascinating damaged and complex being.
I mentioned earlier I was an impressionable little boy. I guess I am being a tad disengenuous. I was a scaredy cat. I was filled with phobias and terrors and oversensitivites. I had too many ideas and dreams, and I couldn’t control them or cope with them. Also I had no one to talk to about them. I had an incredibly vivid imagination and ghost stories and such like really gripped me. Frankenstein was real to me and something had to be done about it. I had to understand the monster. Getting to sleep at night became a real challenge. I tried strategies. I listened to the radio. I played music. I left the light on. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. And eventually, I dropped off asleep only to see ghosts and monsters of the Frankensteninian ilk lurch out of the shadows and come ambling for me with arms outstretched and a dull empty gaze that spoke of murder. I would wake with a start and go downstairs and drink a glass of milk or something and try to settle myself. I didnt know what to do with all these ideas and dreams. It seemed to me that the world of science, of creativity was filled with possibilities for good or ill, but it seemed also that no matter what we did, how many countless brilliant advances we made, we were always left with the fruits of our creation, our monsters, our Frankensteins. In the future there would be the mass production and corporatization of pharmacology that we have now, along with drone warfare, robot troops and police, mass surveillance, and Donald Trump. Back then in the sixties and the seventies there were science fiction novels and small indications of the future one would occassionally see on Television and the Movies. The problem was that all the top minds in the world of the arts predicted a bad end to our journey into scientific progress, despite the fact that millions of lives were being saved by science and that statistically the numbers of people being killed in wars and other conflicts were dropping precipitiously. It all made no sense, that is until I realized what they were talking about was not what science cured, but that our potential for self annihilation was now absolute. That was the real monster. Not the Creature.
One of the things that cured my terrors was the experience of enlightenment. I actually picked up Shelley’s novel and read it. Victor Frankenstein was not the mad gothic genius with a cliche eastern european scientific sidekick working in some fire and brimstone lightning filled huge secret laboratory. He worked alone. Mainly in dissection rooms. His goal was to create the perfect human, a creature free of human foibles and defects. And by all accounts he succeeded. Except like all very intelligent sensitive beings, the Creature, as it was called, longed for human companionship, for love and meaning and because it, the Creature, was isolated and shunned, loneliness and rejection drove it insane and led to its downfall, not least because Victor Frankenstein destroyed the Creatures potential mate and condenmned it to a life of isolation an desperate meaninglessness. The Creature was eloquent, poetic, thoughtful, sensitive, and given to long philosophical soliliques. Victor Frankenstein was a classic romantic character. In him we have what is now a veritable movie and fiction trope of the lonely genius labouring to create a better world using the gifts of intellect and skill, trying to replace blind assumptons with knowledge, undermining groundless fears with the power of insight. Instead of doing that, Victor created a being that had no place in the world, a being that went mad and had to be destroyed, a lonely desperate highly gifted creature who because he was a new type of transhuman, he had no peer, no companion, no home.
I am no longer afraid of the Creature. I feel a great sadness now about his fate. His creator, Victor Frankenstein killed his bride and left him to go mad and become a psychotic killer. Deep down The Creature dreamed of going to South America, far from everybody, and living quietly with his mate, a female Creature, someone who would understand him, share his life as an equal, drive away the sense of his unbridgeable distance from others, a distance he neither wanted nor created for himself in the first place. The truth was that Frankensteins Creation had no place in ths world. If he and his bride could take a rocket ship to the stars, perhaps he might still be out there, but alas he was a being ahead of his time, so the tragedy of Frankenstein is the tragedy of his creation. Each destroyed the other. As the meme generators on the internet so like to remind us, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the so called monster.
What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…
Have you ever been the patient of a really bad psychotherapist? Lets be honest, there are more than a few of them out there. I actually seriously toyed with the idea of becoming one at one stage of my life. Except I was somewhat drawn by the writing life, and that was that.
Two things separate the good therapist from the bad one, assuming they have been properly trained and have had sufficient therapy themselves to be relatively free of transference and projection and all the other things we do that affects our relationships. Firstly the capacity to objectively listen with out prejudice and secondly the capacity to apply knowledge coupled with experience to an individual patient. Most if not all of the many bad therapists I have had over the years failed on either or both of those fronts. One stand-out moment which typifies my negative therapeutic experiences happened during a session some years ago and it led me to discontinue the therapy. The therapist turned to me in a moment of obvious frustration, and asked me was I by any chance writing a book about him?
I beg your pardon, I said?
And he repeated the question.
Why, I asked?
Well, the therapist said, rather solemnly, these sessions we were engaging in were more like two therapists discussing the practise of psychotherapy, than a patient going to and talking with a therapist.
I was pretty appalled and very angry.
I said no, I wasn’t writing a book about this. I am in trouble, big trouble. That’s why I am here. I don’t need to do that kind of research to write.
I then went on to say by the way that was a bizarre question. One of the most I have ever been asked in therapy.
I mentioned I had completed a draft novel I wasn’t really happy with. I went on to say that the novel had a therapist as the central character. I offered him a look at a draft of it to satisfy himself I wasn’t using his rather dull unimaginative personality as a blueprint (and no, I wasn’t being unkind, he was a dreadful bore)
The therapist said that wasn’t necessary.
But I pressed the issue. I said that as the issue had been raised, it was hard to see how this could not become a central issue during the therapeutic encounter.
I wasn’t there for copy. I was there because I was in trouble. My marriage was in difficulty at the time. I was very anxious and depressed about family of origin issues. I felt trapped. Hopeless. this was the third therapist I had been to with no help. As I didn’t get the help from either that quack therapist I needed, or from other equally awful therapists, I got more depressed. And things went downhill. Feeling helpless and unsupported has something of a domino effect. Things cratered to such an extent that I had a major depressive episode. After that I went to a psychiatrist and was misdiagnosed as bipolar. I completely accepted the diagnosis. I told friends and colleagues. I did radio interviews about it. This went on for a few years. Then, by sheer luck I met a good therapist who told me I was no more bipolar as I was a professional safe-cracker or an astronaut. Not that her word was enough, by the way. I met a few others who said the same thing. I took the hint and stopped seeing Psychiatrists. It was such a good move.
Along with the indignity of being misdiagnosed as bipolar, I have been put on some of the most awful mind numbing medications. The medication had withdrawal symptomatology far worse than the condition they were supposed to treat. After a couple of attempts I got off the meds. Things have massively improved. Years have passed. No ill effects.
How does this kind of thing happen? How does a depressed writer get diagnosed with a pretty serious condition which he does not have? Well, it’s easy in one way to see how it might happen. I mean when I am working on something I feel fantastic. The ideas come fast and I have a lot of energy. Afterwards I am tired and lethargic. As any writer or indeed anyone creative will tell you, one goes to rather extreme emotionally and spiritually exhausting places to write books. One isn’t in it for the money. Believe me there are easier way to make money. One writes because its what one was born to do. To not do it, to settle for less, is very dangerous thing to do. So this is the creative cycle, not the manic depressive cycle. There is a substantial difference, and a good therapist sees this.
‘The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’ (wikipedia) – or if you are a writer, you just might get lucky some day…
The Discreet Charm of being Labelled
But it doesn’t work out like that. Labels stick. Like the bad writer stuck in a rut that pays, once you write your best seller or get your government grant or run enough magazines or give courses, you are labelled. And once that happens, everyone expects more of the same. You get comfortable. You feed the crowds. Similarly once you got the label, it stays. After initial diagnosis, there is little re-visitation of ones symptoms. One is labelled and medicated and that’s that. Aftercare was a twilight zone experience for me. Our health system makes you go see a trainee psychiatrist who is under the care of a Chief Psychiatrist. One sees a different one for every appointment, for the most part. They don’t know you, usually never met you before, and usually never will again. They are polite, friendly, witty, personable, professionally distant, and usually very busy. They have a few minutes to read your file, and on this basis, they interview you. This little psychodrama happens once every month or two. The pubescent psychiatrist is usually a doctor on psych rotation, someone who gives you twenty minutes and then ends the session with a prescription. Not ideal, to say the least. I had to aggressively lobby for therapy, and for the most part I got it only by the skin of my teeth. This rather hands-off approach of out patient psychiatry is something that needs urgent attention in my view.
Then there is a deeper issue at work here. It leads me to the notion of how in our cognitive processes, belief tends more often than not to precede evidence. Evidence should always precede belief. Otherwise one is guilty of cognitive bias. I displayed symptoms of bipolarity. But I was not bipolar. I had creative cycles. I was depressed due to life circumstances. I needed help. I needed the good therapy I had been looking for, not a cheap and easy diagnosis. I needed a good therapist. Not years of medication.
Then there are examples and studies. I found a really interesting one in my reading. In the early 1970’s, much to the huge outrage of the psychiatric community a psychiatrist called David Rosenhan conducted a case study which led to some rather fascinating results. He persuaded seven friends, none of whom had any case history of any kind of mental illness, to enter various mental hospitals to see if they could persuade members of the mental health care community that they were mentally ill. This was between 1969 and 1972. What did these sane folks do to convince the doctors they were sick? Well they all claimed to hear the words “thud, and “empty” and “hollow” and they all got admitted. Every one of them. And they were all diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. They were given a total of 2100 pills (they had been taught to ‘cheek’ their meds before going in), only two of which were ever actually swallowed. Other than lying about their names and lying about hearing the words, they were told to be completely honest. After Rosenthan had gotten his diagnosis, staff began to read into his actions. For instance, his study required him to make notes. This was described as ‘writing behaviour’. One of the other impostor patients was and artist and drew these fantastic line drawings of the hospital they were in, they too were described as indulging in ‘drawing/painting behaviour’. Finally Rosenthan couldn’t get out of the hospital. The only way he could actually get out of the hospital was to tell the doctors that they were completely correct in their views, that he Rosenthan was insane, and that he was getting better bit by bit.
This is not dissimilar to the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who suffered a very real and very debilitating breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital, a hospital which he simply could not get out of. His method was to tell the doctors that he was feeling better incrementally. He would every day tell staff that things were getting better for him; that he was feeling just a little bit better than yesterday, till they let him go. Check out his second book Lila for a description of this process.
The point of all this is the question of belief. These professionals couldn’t distinguish between sick and well folks. My therapists couldn’t do that either. If you are seen as a patient and not as a person, your views of reality-no matter how valid – are somehow seen as secondary. This is because the belief that the doctor imposes on the patient presupposes disbelief of the patient’s valid world-view. I can even report that this is how exactly I experienced my treatment. I accepted the doctors word for what was ‘wrong’ with me. I accepted it and trusted them, despite the fact that the more I read about my condition, and the more I discussed my condition, the more doubts I had about whether or not I actually had Bipolar Disorder.
No, Really – I Engage in Writing Activity
But back to Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum told the doctors repeatedly that he was actually a professor of psychology. They asked him did he often feel he was a professor of psychology. I told my doctors I was a writer, that I had written novels and plays, poetry and articles. They didn’t believe me. They had to ask asked my wife (now deceased sadly) and my doctor, who assured them that yes I was indeed a writer. It’s what Rosenbaun refers to as the ‘stickiness of psycho diagnostic labels’ – prejudicial thinking, the imposition of an unscientific mindset on presenting symptomatology.
It would be somewhat facile to suggest that there is an easy way through what I see as a complex and rather perennial difficulty. What is sanity? In a world deeply troubled, what is a sane mind? Obviously we are all grasping at an answer to this question. Suffice to say that though there is no absolute answer to this question, we live in a world of consensus based on an ever expanding pool of knowledge and research and clinical experience to draw from. The people who diagnosed me were most definitely trying to help a person who was in a lot of pain. Sadly, though they did help, they left me in something of a mess for quite a while until I figured out what they had gotten wrong, and thanks to the brilliant help of a few really gifted therapists, I did. I wonder if there are more creative people out there who have similar experiences. Those who are of a more creative bent, who pursue the extremities of human experience, are naturally inclined to suffer trauma, and at times to become unwell. Its unfortunate that the labelling of a creative person can also lead to the labelling of their work, indeed the tenor of their entire lives. This reflects badly on our culture and on our society. Though it is true that some creative folk most definitely do suffer throughout their lives from various flavours of psychiatric disorders, many others I am sure, like myself, were subject to misdiagnosis based on a consensus misunderstanding of creativity. I live in the hope that my and many others experience will form a teachable moment and shift our cultural understanding of the needs of the creative person.
One of the most refreshing and unusual pieces of television I have seen is the strange story of Olive Kitteridge. An HBO mini series based on the Pulitzer winning book by Elizabeth Strout, Olive (Mc Dormand) is an interesting character to be sure. Sharp tongued, incredibly witty, dismissive, self contained, cerebral, self reliant, she is an unpopular and foreboding character in the neighbourhood of Maine, US where she lived her life.
Olive is most likely clinically depressed (her father committed suicide). She is married to a loving kind intelligent humorous man called Henry, works as a maths teacher, is world weary, misanthropic, and deeply irrevocably bored. Henry, though not quite comprehending the full complexity of Olive’s detached, acerbic, cold disassociation from any kind of emotional life, still loves her. It is a complicated love each has for the other, involving much compromise, excessive personal space, denial, and suppressed anger. Both their love for each other also covers over their desires for a more compatible partner, the confession of which occurs under the intensity of a near death experience for both of them. Olive pines for a witty intellectual Jim O Casey (who dies in a car crash), and Henry secretly longs for other, more emotionally available women (a young widow who ends up marrying another man). Perhaps more than anything, aside from the depression she endures, is the fact that Olive never achieved anything that actually fulfilled her. She is more a blocked force than a spent one. Filled with much intellectual energy, and yet afraid to act in a world she has already depressively rejected, Olive hates herself and yet cannot forgive the foregone conclusion of her own failure.
Depressingly, she remains on the periphery of her own life, a person sitting watching her life quietly drift away. She is bored, bored beyond any possibility of feeling anything other than a sense of gathering annoyance with the world and what she perceives to be irrevocably absurd, and behaviour that is vain, selfish and cruel on the part of humanity. Death haunts her – her fathers death, the suicides of friends she tries vainly to save, her own death and her longing for death. Surrounded by the absurdity of death and clouded by depression she seemingly sits close to edge of oblivion while simultaneously scoffing at it. The anger she feels against herself is equally directed at persons, family and those unfortunate enough to cross paths with her. Exacting, angry and jealous – she is nonetheless capable of acts of tremendous compassion. She understands depression,understands that the condition has in many ways shaped her personality. She sees it in the behaviour of other self destructive depressives. She saves many people from ending their own lives, as well as spotting someone accidentally falling into the sea. But nothing, no altruistic act gives her joy or leads her out of the cell of her isolation and frustration. She sees time as the worst enemy. She watches the years pass. She watches one cycle of life ends all too quickly, meaninglessly replaced by another. And Olive feels her own time passing by. She wants some meaningful connection or to do some meaningful action. But she cannot. Whether if a fear of being in the world breeding her depression, or whether it is depression holding her back, it seems she is doomed to forever remain frozen in a kind of amber of unfulfilled desire.
Ultimately her own inner void swallows her (it always does) and she reaches the point as an old woman that she wants to kill herself. And yet she cannot. Children playing in the woods interrupt her suicide attempt, and she snaps out of it and has something of an inner breakthrough. She had reached her lowest point and there at that point she discovered a place of self belief she never hitherto known. The world remains utterly incomprehensible, pointless, and yet it is somewhere she is not yet ready to leave. And she watches birds fly off. A wonderful mini series that looks unflinchingly at untreated depression and the ravages of suicide on the lives of others, and a deeply touching examination of an unfulfilled life, Olive Kitteridge is simply a gem – and I haven’t read the novel – yet.
“Killing a Priest on a Sunday, that would be a good one.”
A Catholic Priest, especially on a Sunday, while he celebrates Mass, acts In Persona Christi (in the person of Christ) transforming the bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ, re enacting the transforming healing and redemptive act of Jesus through his life death and resurrection, all focused on the moment of Crucifixion and resurrection, which is were the point of Mc Donaghs title Calvary comes from. This is a movie about death and resurrection, about the death of an old order, the condemnation of corruption, and the on-going self analysis and self questioning Irish Society must go through in order to resurrect itself. Its also funny.
Dealing with more issues relating to contemporary Irish society than one could shake a stick at (the decline of faith, the corruption of bankers and their non subsequent imprisonment, the consequent increase in affluence and education on the population, bankruptcy, the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Clergy and its devastating effects on belief in the Church, the erosion of a cohesive sense of identity in Irish Society, the decline of Catholic Culture, Suicide and its after effects, the meaning of marriage, forgiveness, love, sex) starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran and Isaach de Bankolé, this is a must-see despite its flaws: for the writing is as excellent as are the performances by the actors.
I use the word flaws because the movie gives a somewhat unbalanced view of both society and clergy in order to make its many sharp edged points. Set in a small Sligo town whose windswept countenance truly gives an uncomforting feel to every encounter with its population, one experiences a portrayal of the Catholic Clergy, with notable the exception of Gleeson’s warm wise and lovable character, as idiots or corrupt, which is unfair. The other problem with the film is its reduction of the society which Fr. James mixes in as representative of archetypes rather than real substantial people, mainly for the purposes of portraying the black comedic elements in the film. One has the atheistic doctor scientist, the sensitive daughter of the priest who has tried to kill herself because of her despair at an unloving world, the depressed soulless self loathing corrupt property owner, the furious bankrupt pub owner, the world weary writer finishing his final masterpiece on a lonely island and the victim of horrific sexual abuse. Where are the mothers and the fathers and the cinema goers and the ordinary shoppers and the tourists and ‘the lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows’ (to crib T. S. Eliot) who comment and chat and come and go and for whom life goes on as it always has? This is a film filled with intellectual pyrotechnics and lacking in a touch of everydayness.
So in the first moments of the movie the aforementioned victim of horrific sexual abuse confronts Fr. James in the confessional and says he will kill James the next Sunday, because James is a good man and it would be worse for the Catholic Church than killing a bad priest. The other point being that the real criminal, the true abuser, is dead. This is Fr. James’ personal Calvary. James has seven days to his death. He knows he will die in seven days and though he can get out of it, he doesn’t. Just as Jesus knew he was going to die for others’ sins, so James too will accept death for the purposes of atonement for the crimes of others. He goes through his week seeing his church burned down, his dog killed, his sobriety wrecked, his integrity and authority as a clergyman treated with disdain, and the final awful moment when he too is treated by a worried father as a possible paedophile simply because he is a priest. Its too much. James goes on to his Calvary on the beach. And there in the final moments of the film we reach a kind of resolution. The incalculable psychological, spiritual and personal devastation that child rape leaves upon its victims is played out in the final scenes of this film, the betrayal, the pain, the loss of selfhood, the loss of power, the bleeding and the horror, are beautifully portrayed in the moments as the movie closes.
Watching it as someone who long long ago lost his faith but understands the mythology and the poetry of this cult of death, this is a powerful and beautiful piece of work, a call for honesty and truth and reconciliation, and most of all the imprisonment of those who abuse children.
The excellent Battle star Galactica, which I loved watching, does have a heavy dose of theism running through it, which makes it even more interesting to watch because it touches on subjects other more conventional series rarely dare to go near. Not only that but it holds the view that those who do not embrace Gods Plan for them, are in trouble. For instance Gaius Balthar the brilliant womanising egomaniac scientist who caused the death of billions (incidentally hands down my favourite character) is consistently in one form threatened with death or ruin or being found out (which would entail the death penalty) if he doesn’t do Gods bidding, which is usually the Cylons’ bidding. Its an interesting if not delightful vision of God, and an even more delightful vision of God who didn’t do squat to stop mass genocide by encouraging Gaius not to allow the beautiful Cylon alien lover into his life and into his mind.
The existence of evil (genocide, evil deeds, disease, war etc.) doesn’t disprove the existence of God. It also doesn’t prove it. Its just that God seems more interested in making Gaius Balthar a believer than stopping the death of billions of his beloved children. The existence of a well designed universe (the stars, planets, the beauty and order of the universe, human and non human intellect etc.) neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. It does however demonstrate a well ordered universe for which a good explanation is needed. If in the case of the well designed universe or the existence of evil or the existence of consciousness or miracles or private revelation, the balance of probability shows in favour of the existence of God (it actually doesn’t by the way – not by a long shot, but go with me on this one) rather than not, this does not in any way constitute what even remotely might be considered a proof of Gods existence. Probability can never replace evidence. You cannot employ scientific methods on a subject (God) and start weighing probabilities. Its something of a desperate attempt to prove the ultimately disprovable. R. Swinburne has a book on it, which I finished recently, or rather dragged myself kicking and screaming through recently. You can get it here. Be warned though, its heavy going and feels at times like logical legerdemain than good argument.
Battlestar Galactica however is addictive viewing. The world ends and a race of robots chase forty thousand human survivors across space as they search for a mythical Earth spoken of in scriptures and prophecies and suffusing the dreams and longings of the leaders and followers with equal measures of hope and despair as they struggle internally to survive with what little they have left. They are outnumbered, outgunned and with a divided leadership with something of a penchant for massive internal strife. Worse still there are enemy agents in their midst, agents that are almost so human that they are indistinguishable from humans, agents who are capable of sexual and psychological manipulation at the highest levels of leadership and of the intelligentsia, of regeneration, resurrection and rebirth. These enemies within, these humans who are not humans who do not know they are not humans, but robots who have yet to be ‘switched on’ Manchurian Candidate style are in a position to destroy the leadership of Battle star Galactica and perhaps the entire fleet. So the enemy is everywhere. These are foes in which no amount of intelligence gathered is ever lost, even if you shoot them out an airlock into the cold emptiness of space. They also have a plan, and they seem to have won the war. This space chase for the last forty thousand survivors is a a mere mop up operation, so one might think.
The kinds of tension that such a virtual pressure cooker of circumstances is the complex mind bending, reality distorting, hyper-violent story of Battle star Galactica where nothing is as it seems and God has a plan to save mankind, right down to the tiniest of events, down to what appears to be the most tragic and impossible of circumstances. No event is trivial, no death accidental. Randomness or evolution or natural selection or dreams and hopes and the ancient prophecies are all emanation from the all good all wise all loving God, who has gifted all his beings, whether they be human or robot or a blend of both (Cylon is the name for the robots, and they have evolved into being part machine part organism). Some of the brightest and most brilliant are inadvertent puppets of the Cylons until they discover what evil they have done through their selfishness and negligence and some of the most nondescript of the crew do the most good and make the smartest moves of all. No one in this show is free of wrongdoing, just as no one is completely evil.
This is a series that thankfully defies description and defies convention in the best possible way. Its a space opera and its not. Its feminist and yet some of the female characters commit horrifically unethical acts, pro gay both in the military and in civilian life and yet this is not even an issue that is open to debate, pro equal rights and yet filled with all kinds of injustices, pro democracy yet it feels at times like a military dictatorship. It debates just war theory, the death penalty, the ethics of torture, abortion rights, the limits of democracy, the power of unions in an unjust labour situation, the power and necessity of sexual self expression for a healthy being, the stratification of society, education rights, the value and values of spirituality, the debate between science and religion, polytheism versus monotheism versus strict scientific rationalism versus atheism, historical inevitability and the cyclical nature of history, and the meaning of comedy.
Most of all this is a story that though set in a science fiction genre. As the story progresses, it talks all the time about a plan, a plan set in motion since the beginning where an all benevolent being wants his children to live together in harmony. This theology is of course debated, dismissed, disparaged, and renewed throughout the story. In the end the answer is there is no answer, but a deepening of the mystery of the human and non human will to live, will to power and will to survival and will to understand, the necessity of reconciliation, and the egoless embracing of wisdom.
You might be wondering why I called this blog post ‘All along the Watchtower”. Aside from it being one of the most marvellous songs ever written by Bob Dylan performed by Jimi Hendrix, and it being a catchy title for a blog post, its a song deeply embedded in the storyline of Battlestar Galactica. It acts as a mnemonic and a mantra for the continuing self discovery of the central characters. its one whose use you will hopefully love as much as I did when I was finally made to watch this wonderful series.
*Please check out an update on this blog post which explains how this diagnosis, which at the time of writing this post I accepted, turned out to be a mis-diagnosis*
I have suffered from Bipolar Disorder for as long as I can recall, certainly the last 32 years or so. I have had several major depressive episodes in my life and I am now stable for the past couple of years, thanks to the love and support of friends and loved ones, excellent psychiatric assistance from the Health Service, and medication that I take daily. Both my parents have in their own way suffered and manifested symptoms of their own disorders and my extended family have in their own lives been subject to extreme bouts of either psychosis or severe depression or delusional disorders. One cousin I remember taking me aside and explaining to me in careful detail how he stored up sleeping pills in case he wanted to kill himself and liked hanging around train tracks just to watch the trains speed past. I have seen relatives talk to imaginary saints and invisible people – sometimes for hours at a time, or starve themseves almost to dealth, be taken into hospital with undiagnosable ailments or simply fly off the handle in uncontrollable bouts of rage. I have come home from holidays and seen the walls of bedrooms covered in the most miniscule writing. I remember trying to understand what my uncle had written but was unable to. I thought to myself: golly this must have taken him ages to write! He was taken into hospital again as he had obviously gone off his meds. The stories are endless and have given me endless material to think over and write about. Why am I writing about this? Am I trying to ‘out’ my family? Not at all. Most of the people I am talking about here are no longer with us, but the one thing that does remain with me was the terrible stigma that acompanied their illness. For instance today I had an appointment to see my psychiatrist for a check up, and who did I meet in the wating room but a former neighbour of mine, someone who used live four doors up from me. He nearly wilted with embarassment to see me there. I smiled and shook his hand and tried to engage him in conversation, but he was clearly too embarassed to talk to me. The experience reminded me of long lost relatives and all they went through. It was not enough that that they had to cope with a condition they could barely control, or for the most part their illness made their lives unmanagable, but they were somehow treated as somehow to be pitied or less worthy persons than others who didnt have a psychosis or a mental disorder, something to be kept a secret and divulged under the strictest confidence. I hear stories of people who are diagnosed with some psychiatric condition or other, who hear voices and their immediate reaction is shame and secrecy, a shame and a secretiveness that goes back to an era where to hear voices was to be tempted by the devil, the prejudice and delusion that mentally ill people are posessed, that it means a family is somehow cursed, that all this brings shame on a family, or that parents feel they have failed their children in some way. Its a very natural reacton, and it has a historical and cultural basis and it needs to be addressed. I often have wondered if my writing has come from that place where my bipolarity resides. I often feel the rush of energy when I write which is associated with mania. I often feel when I write that its like as though I am taking dictation, from where or how it comes I do not know. Certainly I know that living publicly rather than keeping my mental illness a secret has made an enormously positive impact on my life. I think there should be more of it, no question.