Uncertainty and ‘Madness’

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

Philip K. Dick

The black and white image above shows autumn trees with mostly bare branches. A girl dressed in white is re-attaching the fallen leaves to the tree with string while a man in a suit appears to be addressing her.

This is a still from the 1912 film ‘Falling Leaves’ from the pioneer of filmmaking Alice Guy-Blaché. In the film a doctor (the man in the picture) has told a family that their sick oldest daughter will die by the time “the last leaf falls”. The girl’s younger sister Trixie (the girl in white in the picture) interprets the doctor’s words literally and is trying to save her sister by re-attaching the fallen leaves to the tree. As a child Trixie understands that death is a goodbye, but not that it is inevitable. However, by the end of the film the doctor does find a cure and thankfully saves her sister’s life. We may believe that it was the doctor’s cure that saved her, Trixie may believe otherwise.

It seems to me that people (myself included) often believe things that aren’t necessarily true, and not just as children. My rational mind believes it was the doctor’s medicine that saved the girl’s life, but a part of me wants to believe it was her sister’s magical thinking. Are beliefs like this normal for children but mad for adults? Is it mad to believe something that isn’t true? How do we determine truth? These are very philosophical questions designed to provoke questioning rather than answers. If a doctor told me that someone I loved will die by the time the last leaves have fallen, I may wonder why they were being so vague and poetic, but I’d also be extremely upset. Sometimes grief can be overwhelming and lead us to do things we wouldn’t normally do or believe things we may not normally believe.

It seems appropriate at this point to mention the current COVID-19 pandemic which has occasionally put me and others I know in touch with a sense of madness, and many of us in touch with grief. Our lives have become disrupted in so many ways with some shared challenges and some that are unique to us. To me there is no ‘correct’ way of grieving nor is there a ‘correct’ way of existing in this pandemic. Some of our ways of coping may seem mad to others, and although it may sound like a cliché it is OK not to be OK. It’s obviously unknowable what the long-term implications of the pandemic are for people’s mental distress but I would expect this to have hugely complicated and long-term effects. I have recently overheard people talking about how we cannot trust the media’s reporting on the pandemic, and how the pandemic itself is not real but a conspiracy to reduce our population engineered by our world leaders. It is easy to dismiss such views as ‘mad’, and harder to listen to the anguish underneath the words.

A word or two on ‘madness’. This word is not generally used when talking about what we currently call ‘mental health’ or when diagnosis is involved. Much has been written about whether using the word is appropriate at all today, and on the history of the word and its use in ‘othering’ people. I believe it’s valuable to be critical of any definitions of human distress – from terms like crazy, mad and insane, to more modern acceptable terms like mental health, mental illness and psychosis (see my previous blog entry on Definitions).

The film ‘Fallen Leaves’ brings up several associations to me when thinking about madness. The first is how I was drawn to this film and to write about this subject during the autumn as we move into a new lockdown in England. It also brought to mind climate change, and how as a child I remember in school being encouraged to make group presentations on the subject (referred to as global warming back then) and various renewable energies that could help. I remember how simple stopping climate change seemed as a kid, and as I reflect it seems mad (insane, crazy, distressing) that so little has been done to address it. Maybe it’s pushing the metaphor too far but an individual like me putting out my recycling might be as effective as tying fallen leaves to a tree, unless the wider systemic cure we’ve known about for several decades is implemented. Anyway, David Attenborough said it better than me.

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