Friday, July 08, 2005

Language, sideways

I'm not a child psychologist, I have neither training nor degrees in psychiatry, but with the spirit of foolish bravery, I'm going to theorize a bit about language in people who aren't constrained by semantics. Being empirical by nature, I give some real-world examples from which I'll hopefully draw a conclusion.

    One of my relatives is twenty-five or so, but mentally she is perhaps between six and eight years of age. She's very charming and sweet, and is capable enough to hold down a job. One evening I was paying a lot of attention to her, getting into her games (she can find unending amusement in poking you, and being poked, in the ribs) and talking with her. When we were preparing to leave after dinner, she said, "You look like my mother."
    This was a bit of a shock (and I doubt her mother would have liked it, too), but I thanked her for the compliment. I believe she meant I had given her the kind of loving attention her mother gives to her, and she was bestowing on me the fondness she has for her mother.

    Some years ago, in a coffee shop, I was approached by a young man in his late twenties or early thirties. Decently good looking, though a little haggard at the edges; stocky build. I forget the exact circumstances but he ended up sitting at my table, or I at his. After a few minutes of talking and observing, I realized he was mentally distanced from the world. I don't know if his exact issue was schizophrenia or something else, but the affliction was medium: he was able to interact in conversation.
    The only thing I remember him saying was that he "used to be a lot bigger." Which I don't think he meant physically, but the manner of person he'd been, the ego, the self-confidence.

    I'm presently e-mailing with someone who's just barely connected to the earth. The talk is largely one-way, but he does react to some things I say. If he was fully schizoid I don't think there would be any reaction at all. It's very difficult to summarize all he's said, but among myriad points of interest he has two of note. First, he seems fixated on people named Anne. This is the name of someone on a mailing list we all belong to and to whom he wrote directly; of someone he thought I was; of Boleyn, whom he accused me of being; and lastly the name on my email account (Anne Animus.) Second, he has fond memories of boyhood (seemingly the best part of his life, which may have included falconry).
    This all converged in his accusation that "because of my misplaced anger, a Boy Scout died on the Animus River." Call me thick-headed or thick-skinned, but until he made that statement, I hadn't thought he was really that crazy.[1]
    This statement struck me as particularly raw for someone otherwise full of lies, half-truths, and classic delusions of grandeur. As I said, the reality of schizophrenia struck home. It's no fun for the sufferer; they are actually in a hell of sorts, where an unreality grows and swallows up reality. The unreality is alternately more comfortable and more distressing than reality.
    The statement was telling me something important, in the sideways manner on which I'm trying to get a grasp. I think he was telling me about a trauma that divided his childhood and adulthood, the loss of freedom and the shouldering of responsibility. Of course, I have no way of confirming if this is accurate, or the nature of the loss, since he hasn't written to me in a few days.[2]

Concluding in...
    In all three, a very simple and clear physical metaphor has been made to stand in for a situation that can't be described concisely, or too difficult to wrap one's mind around, or has so many complicated notions within it that to articulate them all would cause an explosion. (Which is in itself somewhat the kind of physical metaphor I'm describing!) It would be a very interesting literary foil to play with if working them up wasn't so hard, not to mention the pain to the reader to try to figure them out without benefit of explanation. I imagine that a writer would have to build a character or situation to fair solidity in the reader's mind before letting such metaphors fly.

[1] In my defense, I've also had experiences with people with Usenet psychosis: they're pretty much sane, but so obsessed with their own words that they create extra user names, sock puppets in internet parlance, to talk to themselves and make their Usenet group appear active and lively. Consequently my definition of sane is rather loose. As for anger, I had given him an earful for his self-absorbed off-topic posts. I don't know exactly what he meant by 'misplaced,' but I theorize this is because I asked his sock puppet if it and he were the same person. This upset him greatly, as he seems to consider his sock puppet a gentle female soul in need of protection.

[2] This essay's focus is on the use of language, but I'm not completely soulless. I did suggest to this man, using his own metaphors and symbols, that there was hope for his sanity, and to get help.

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