Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Horror

Several readings this week—to me—exemplified in beautiful ways the horror I feel at facing such disorders as Korsakov’s and Capgras’ syndromes. The true wonder that we feel when imagining and learning about the worlds of patients with these disorders is, perhaps, fundamentally derived from the fact that they horrify us to some extent.

We read about Jimmie D., who remarked, “‘I cannot say I feel ill. But I cannot say I feel well. I cannot say I feel anything at all’” (Sacks, 36). Surely there is nothing more strange or frightening than feeling nothing at all. The memories that Jimmie lost are coupled with a loss of much, much more. Sacks himself said, “The fact that one can lose the greater part of a lifetime has peculiar, uncanny horror.” (40)

We read—for a very short while in “The President’s Speech”—about Emily D. Here we find a woman who has developed tonal agnosia, an inability to detect alterations in a person’s tone of voice. She copes with it by requesting that people speak in proper, non-expressive prose. The horror in this is that she was once, herself, a poet!

Then, of course, there’s Witty Ticcy Ray, who—while he finds ways to cope with it—must always be bouncing back and forth between two unnatural modes of existence, never really confident of which is the real Ray.

There are many more in these readings that scare me, but this is a diverse enough sample. In all of these cases, the root of fear—my fear at least—seems to be traceable to a commonality between the cases: all of them, in some way, force us to reassess the definition and nature of identity. How is a man himself when he forgets himself, forgets his life, forgets how to feel? How is a poet herself any longer if the only thing she can understand now is prose? Which of the Rays is the real Ray—the one with the deficits caused by Haldol or the one with the deficits caused by Tourette’s? And for God’s sake, how can you retain your identity if you—like those in certain cases of Capgras’ syndrome—have a desire to kill the ones you love the most, thinking they are imposters?

There are no answers to these questions, and that frightens me. But we can look to Jimmie D. when he is at Communion, look to Ray when he transcends his sickness, or to José who learned to express his feeling through art when he could not effectively talk. These can help to alleviate the fear and hopelessness that seems to plague some of these cases. They may be short moments of reprieve, but they are enough to make it all worthwhile.

1 comment:

Madeline said...

I too felt horror when I read some of Sacks' descriptions. But then I had to ask myself - does my horror come from actual knowledge of what existence was like for such individuals, or from my own imagination of what it would be like to live with their deficits?

Or to put it more simply, do these people actually have horrible lives, or is it simply horrible for us - with neuro-typical minds - to imagine what it would be like to live like them?

If someone has a terrible deficit, is it less horrible for us, as observers, if he or she is unaware of it? Sacks makes the case that sometimes it can be MORE horrible:

" ... Human Brain and Psychological Processes, which tonains several full-length case-histories of such patients, fully comparable in their terrible coherence and impact to 'the man with a shattered world' - comparable, and, in a way, more terrible still, because they depict patients who do not realize that anything has befallen them ... patients who may not suffer, but be the most God-forsaken of all" (109-110).

I find issue with Sacks' description of patients of any kind as "God-forsaken" or "de-souled."

I believe that we find horror in Sacks' patients when we imagine ourselves in their places. It is terrible to conceive of an existence separated from things - like memory or understanding of the intonations of speech - that we consider central to our identity.

But it is important to consider that the patients themselves experience no such horror. They either do not realize what they have lost, or, in the case of Jose and Ray, never had certain abilities in the first place. For them, their condition is their normal existence, and if it is difficult for them to exist in such a state and live in the world, they find ways to adapt.

We find horror in "losing" memories or abilities. But it may be that the horror is in the thought of loss, not the loss itself. Consider the aphasics in "The President's Speech," Ray in "Witty Ticcy Ray," and Jose in "The Autist Artist." They undoubtedly lack things that "normal" people like us have. But they also have abilities, and ways of seeing the world, that we don't have. It is easier in these cases to imagine their lives not as a "God-forsaken," hellish experience, separated from what makes them human - but as a kind of alternative existence.