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None of us is immune to the mind's power

By: By David Haas

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jul 06, 2013 06:00 am

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In 1953 British-Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler gave a radio talk, later printed as The Boredom Of Fantasy, on the limitations of the then vastly popular science fiction genre. Admitting a fondness for what he saw as light entertainment, not serious literature, he viewed the literary shortcoming of science fiction as its futuristic gadgetry affording no escape from the human condition. The shortcoming included limitations from defects of the mind. In a pithy example inspired by a well-known classic Koestler asserted, “Let Othello subject Desdemona to a lie-detector test; his jealousy will still blind him to the evidence.”

Life can indeed imitate art. Last month in Edmonton a man was found not criminally responsible for killing his wife – a deed inspired by his intense belief in the face of all evidence that she was having an affair. Among the evidence he was blind to was a polygraph test, which concluded that she was not. The case bears another disquieting similarity to Shakespeare’s tragedy. The wife slayer could say with Othello, “I have done the state some service, and they know’t.” He was an experienced RCMP officer. Unfortunately, those who voluntarily assume onerous public duties do not thereby escape their human frailties.

The 60 years since Koestler spoke have seen an explosion of technology. Progress in detecting and remedying the deficiencies of the human condition have been less striking. The RCMP officer was pronounced fit for duty when ordered to see a psychologist – at a time when his delusion was rampant. Psychologist Gary Greenberg’s 2010 book Manufacturing Depression gives a detailed historical account of the medical profession’s swings between psychological and physiological explanations for mental illness. Koestler introduced an instance of the latter approach into his 1940 novel Darkness At Noon, where the old Bolshevik Rubashov speculates on a specialist detailing where in Stalin’s brain certain policies originated. Certainly medicine now favours the physiological approach over the psychological. Dr. Joseph Satten was a psychiatrist with a lifelong interest in why people commit murder. His 1959 Murder Without Apparent Motive address to the American Psychiatric Association explained some killings as a sudden explosion of long suppressed inner rage. Something in the killer’s present circumstances invoked a murderous anger. It is disquieting that Dr. Satten’s concept has received little attention beyond being outlined at length in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Contrariwise the massive Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) project of Drs. Felitti and Anda has recently demonstrated an undeniable link between traumatic incidents and situations in childhood and adult dysfunction – including criminality, according to one related study.

In 1990 I discussed recovered memory syndrome, then wreaking much mischief in the legal field, with a psychiatrist. He commented adherents did not understand how powerful an instrument the human mind is. It is no less powerful when it goes awry. Medication can have a role in controlling adverse proclivities, but I strongly doubt that appalling criminal sprees like the sexual-sadism of former colonel Russell Williams stems from anything other than a deep-rooted psychological disorder.

Writer David Haas is a long-term St. Albert resident.


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