Last week our nation was again witness to mass murder at the hands of a disturbed individual whose right to bear arms was not infringed. As always, the investigative reporting of the incident quickly shifted from a tally of victims to an examination of the guns used and how they were obtained to, finally, the prior history and mental state of the perpetrator. And here we learned Mr. Aaron Alexis had quite a prior history of violent behavior culminating with delusions of incessant voices in his head that were insistently advocating violent acts. Such behaviors led the national media to characterize him in the vernacular as a “madman”*.
Later in the week, a colleague directed me to an op-ed in the New York Times written by T.M. Lurhman, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. She revealed the results of her studies of delusional schizophrenic people in the U.S. and India and their descriptions of words spoken by the voices they heard. Interestingly, the U.S. subjects described more vividly violent voices than those in India. This observation got me thinking: ‘Who does the schizophrenic person hear?’
Parnas and Sass (2001) and Sass and Parnas (2003) described the phenomenon of schizophrenic delusions and the important observation that schizophrenia is a disorder characterized by an anomalous actualization of ‘self’. The schizophrenic person perceives reality but is unable to corroborate that perceived reality as experiential. Simply put, these two studies postulate that the schizophrenic person suffers from the delusion of being a perpetual observer, and never a participant, of reality, and they provide several illustrative case studies to help us understand this phenomenon.
In one case, the subject expresses great discomfort observing his reflection in window panes of shops along a street because he is unable to cognitively resolve the image he sees and ‘self’; he cannot determine if he, the observer of the reflection, is real or if the reflection is the real ‘him’. In another case study, the subject describes turmoil caused by listening to music. Being unable to appreciate that he hears the auditory stimulus directly, he perceives himself utterly detached from the sound and unable to identify how these sounds are ‘heard:’ it is as if he is observing ‘sound’ only; he is not participating in its perception.
These research results summarized above are provocative in that they suggest delusions of the schizophrenic person are grounded in the reality we all perceive, but become delusions to the schizophrenic because they cannot connect their perception to a real presence of ‘self’. If these studies are correct, perhaps it is also the situation that a schizophrenic person cannot associate the reality of the presence and interactions of others with their real ‘selves’, providing us with indications of whose voices might be heard in the mind of schizophrenic individuals.
What if the voice the schizophrenic person hears is the voice of the man who asked the question “Who will shoot Obama?” at a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia in February 2011?
What if the voice the schizophrenic person hears is the voice of rock and roll musician, 2nd Amendment absolutist, and self-proclaimed ‘Motor City Madman’, Ted Nugent, who told the President to ‘…suck on my machine gun’ or compared the President of the United States and members of his political party to coyotes that should be shot or that we all must “…ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off…” or that he would either be dead or in jail if the president was re-elected in 2012?
What if the voice the schizophrenic person hears is the voice of a candidate for selectman in Sabbatus, Maine who posted on Facebook "Shoot the [President]" just last month.
What if the voice the schizophrenic person hears is the voice of a University of Kansas professor who posted on Twitter last week following the Washington Navy Yard shooting, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters."
Perhaps the voices the schizophrenic person hears are simply the metaphors of everyday speech in the United States. The New York Times and National Public Radio ran stories recently discussing the frequent use of gun metaphors in American colloquial speech. These stories inspired me to compile a list of gun metaphors I have heard:
…gun shy, gun sure, gunner, gun tough, gunning for bear, young guns, trigger happy, trigger point, hair trigger, under the gun, silver bullet, give them ammo, don’t give them ammo, on target, in the cross-hairs, straight shooter, hip shot, take aim, shooting blanks, magic bullet, gunslinger, shotgun approach, shotgun formation, locked and loaded, shot in the dark, bite the bullet, sweat bullets, eat lead, spit bullets, ride shotgun, stick to our guns, jump the gun, go ballistic, she's a pistol, trigger man, six shooter, hot shot, son of a gun, take a shot at, long shot, shot across the bow, shoot the messenger, shooting fish in a barrel, shoot your mouth off, shoot from the hip, shoot yourself in the foot, shoot the breeze, shoot to kill, shoot first (ask questions later), sure as shooting, shoot it down, shooting blind, just shoot me, bullet proof, loose cannon, take your best shot, sniping, keep it in the sights, fire away, caught in the cross-fire, pull the trigger, itchy trigger finger, trigger event, triggered a response, rapid fire, draw a bead, under fire, both barrels, guns blazing, big guns, set your sights, stick to your guns, point blank, holding a gun to your head, misfire, rapid fire, quick draw, dead eye, dodged a bullet, keep your powder dry, firing line, firing squad, looking down the barrel, taking careful aim, half-cocked, high caliber, lock, stock, and barrel, friendly fire, taking flak, big shot, smoking gun, top gun, into the line of fire, cocked and locked, drop the hammer, the whole nine yards, shot through and through, the whole shooting match…
I wondered how many times weekly I hear one or more of these? I wondered if the schizophrenic person hears them, too.
What if the schizophrenic person hears all these words and rationalizes them into a detached cacophony of violent voices in his head where they are no longer nuanced metaphors but disembodied direct commands?
We may never know the source of voices in the minds of schizophrenic people, but perhaps we engage our own ‘societal schizophrenia’ by failing to recognize our violent voices from every day speech may reverberate in the “madman’s” ears.
Parnas, J. and Sass, L.A., 2001, Self, Solipsism, and Schizophrenic Delusions: Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, v.8, p. 101-120.
Sass, L.A. and Parnas, J., 2003, Schizophrenia, Consciousness, and the Self: Schizophrenia Bulletin, v. 29, p.427-444.
**Media characterizations of the Washington Navy Yard shooter as a “madman” stigmatize individuals who suffer from mental health disorders of many kinds. It is my belief that we can simultaneously express our sadness to the victims and their families and also empathize with Mr. Alexis who, through no fault of his, suffered in mental anguish for many years. Let us all pledge to better understand all aspects of this tragic affair so that we may learn and create a better society from it.