missingdaughter is the mother of a daughter who went missing in college; she disappeared into a “safe place.”
What happens when there are no limits to how we define ourselves?
What is real? It used to be obvious.
People become lost seeking identities.
Our story: With our own daughter, we witnessed a total erasure of self. Her history, appearance, real concrete facts, our family history–obliterated. Flipping through dark rooms on the internet = gone.
Artificial identities can be created, and they have grown exponentially since the birth of the Internet. Immediate, intimate, brain-searing, stranger-advice and images all become siren calls for the disturbed who are looking for way to channel pain or explain it. But could it be that sometimes the imagery and intimacy of the Internet Siren are the cause of the identity meltdown, the disturbance?
Lila Greenfeld , a professor at Boston University, writes:
As I argue in my recent book Mind, Modernity, Madness, the reason for high concentrations of severe mental illness in the developed West lies in the very nature of Western societies. The “virus” of depression and schizophrenia, including their milder forms, is cultural in origin: the embarrassment of choices that these societies offer in terms of self-definition and personal identity leaves many of their members disoriented and adrift.
The US offers the widest scope for personal self-definition; it also leads the world in judgment-impairing disease. Unless the growing prevalence of serious psychopathology is taken seriously and addressed effectively, it is likely to become the only indicator of American leadership.
It’s not that the delusional didn’t exist before the advent of the Internet. They did. But perhaps the Internet spreads things, like a cold virus wreaking havoc on an airplane.
Madness and Identities
An article by Carl Elliot, A New Way to Be Mad, tells of an odd disorder– the desire to be an amputee. I found this article (written in 2000) fascinating, because many of the author’s cultural observations, as well as the behaviors described, foretell of the expanding transgender movement we see today.
The phenomenon is not as rare as one might think: healthy people deliberately setting out to rid themselves of one or more of their limbs, with or without a surgeon’s help. Why do pathologies sometimes arise as if from nowhere? Can the mere description of a condition make it contagious?
Language can make a condition contagious. Language can create an identity.
But we shouldn’t be surprised when any of these people, healthy or sick, uses phrases like “becoming myself” and I was incomplete” and “the way I really am” to describe what they feel, because the language of identity and selfhood surrounds us.
The Internet magnifies the language and the message.
On the Internet, you can find a community to which you can listen or reveal yourself, and instant validation for your condition, whatever it may be.
Says one amputee in Elliot’s article, who also turns out to be transsexual.“There was a huge hole to be filled and the Internet began to fill it.”
Fifteen years after Elliot wrote his piece, there are now seemingly infinite descriptions of trans and queer identities on the Internet. Some involve role-playing. There are sexual fetishes and micro-definitions of selfhood. Yes, some are relatively tame, and simply answer queries about awkward adolescent angsts. But the intimate stranger playing the teacher-role will invariably suggest that your child has an alternative identity.
Elliot says in his Atlantic article that “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn is an influential novel in certain psychopathology communities. Apparently, it is compelling to some to be different, to distinguish oneself from the cookie cutter masses–to be distinct, better?
I started to notice that term, Geek, coming up a lot with my daughter. I suppose it means different things to different people. She seemed to use it to define herself as intellectual—in the way that a genius might not have the best possible social skills. And then the term queer reared its head. Queer as in non-binary, different, none-of-the-above. Looking into it more, I see that the Geek and Queer world collude and collide on the college campus. To take but one of countless examples, http://www.queergeektheory.org/ is a site and study by a Women’s Studies/LGBT Studies Professor at The University of Maryland. Queer-geek, apparently, is a new definition of selfdom.
We live in an age of micro-identities. Micro-identities will splinter you into a gazillion tiny quarks. Do you want to live in Quarksville?
Could the rise of transgenderism be a transient mental illness?
Why do certain psychopathologies arise, seemingly out of nowhere, in certain societies and during certain historical periods, and then disappear just as suddenly?
In Mad Travelers/Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses, philosopher and historian of science Ian Hacking discusses the phenomenon of transient mental illnesses and how they arise, limited to a certain time and place, and how they spread in ecological niches.
Niches require vectors, and Hacking emphasizes four that are essential for a transient mental illness to thrive:
1) Medical. The illness should fit into a larger framework of diagnosis, a taxonomy of illness.
2) Cultural polarity The illness should be situated between two elements of contemporary culture, one romantic and the other tending to crime. What counts as crime or virtue is itself a characteristic of the larger society.
3) Observability. The disorder should be visible as a disorder, as suffering, as something to escape.
4) Release. The illness, despite the pain, provides a release that is not available elsewhere in the culture where it thrives.
Hacking writes of “the fugue,” a transient mental illness first named and observed in late 19th century France. It was considered a dissociative disorder, and arose in young men expressly by their excessive/obsessive wandering—and resulted in the loss of self and memory. The first identified patient with this newly-termed illness was named Albert.
Albert and his doctors establish, in a hyperbolic way, the possibility of the fugue as a diagnosis. Everything I am about to describe could be fantasy. Everything could be what in the trade is called “Folie à deux”, half madness, half folly, produced by the interaction of the doctor and the patient.
Hacking writes about how this new diagnosis took flight; a disorder that had barely been described was now considered commonplace. “Mad Travelers” also talks about anorexia as a transient mental illness:
The suffering is manifest, but are we talking about behavior that is produced by stereotypes of female beauty, combined with a way of rebelling against parents, or are we talking about a “real mental disorder”?
Could we not be talking about the epidemic of transgender here?
In another work, Rewriting the Soul Multiple Personality and The Science of Memory, Ian Hacking writes of semantic contagion:
When we think of an action as of a certain kind, our mind runs to other acts of that kind. Thus, classifying an act in a new way may lead us on to others.
How do we form our identities? Hacking’s observation applies to many ideas and the identities that flower from these ideas. We all know that pornography is widely available on the Internet. I had previously considered pornography as something that some men got hooked on; something that would be natural for a teenage boy to click on. But I think the viewing of pornography is more common in girls than many parents would like to think. There is a realm of queer pornography–queer, as a steppingstone to transgender. The pornography of the dark internet is brain-warping, soul-warping. Call it identity-warping if you’d rather.
One thing that some pornography does is to disseminate new modes of action, new descriptions, verbal or visual.
What we have seen with our daughter seems to be a dissociative disorder—a total disconnection from and loss of self. Hacking’s books are both about dissociative disorders, or what used to be called hysteria. Can one not think of mass hysteria when we see so many young people declaring themselves “trans”?
When Hacking writes of transient mental illnesses reinforced by the psych community, he includes the epidemics of fugue in 19th century Europe (young men wandering the continent with no memories), as well as the multiple personality disorder explosion in America of the 1970s-1980s.
In the New Yorker issue April 3rd, 2017, Rachel Aviv writes in “The Apathetic” about a mysterious illness affecting refugee children in Sweden. Some of these children whose families were denied asylum have fallen into a coma– a cultural response? a transient mental illness? that expresses their pain. One child, Georgi, describes the experience of being trapped in a glass box—dreamlike—until slowly he realized that the glass wasn’t really there. “The glass wasn’t real. And now—now I understand that it wasn’t real at all. But, at that time, it was very difficult, because every move could kill you, I was living there.”
Transgenderism has found its ecological niche in Western culture, here and now. I first thought of the college campus and high school campus as possible ecological niches, until I realized that the trans condition has metastasized and is now found widely across the Western world. To be clear, Western world means societies that affirm transgenderism, promote it, give it special protected status, and naturally pay for all the treatments to become a different person.
Hacking describes what he terms the “looping effect”: people become aware of how they are being classified, which then results in the person altering their behavior and self-conceptions in response to their classification.
Classifying a phenomenon as a medical condition amplifies and colludes with broader cultural forces to create the condition. Susceptible young people who think they have this “condition of trans” are being fast-forwarded into medical treatment–permanent, harmful, devastating treatments that maim the individual, the family, and the wider society. We now have a transient mental illness mating with a social theory (gender theory was invented in the 1970s as an offshoot of feminist theory) to produce a mutant: a perfectly fine, healthy young man or woman mutilated to resemble the opposite. It is dehumanizing.
Ian Hacking uses the term “semantic contagion” to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category.
Speaking of semantics, my references to transgenderism reflect the “new transgenderism” and not the old. I do not refer to the very young being gender-confused—persistently gender– confused. I refer to a movement that muddles sexuality and gender and opens the gender-revolving door to any who enter, as in, choose thy gender and medicalize it and surgicalize it.
There is much re-writing of history among the young adults proclaiming transgender. Hacking, in Rewriting the Soul, addresses memoro politics:
The doctrine that memory should be thought of as a narrative is an aspect of memoro politics. We constitute our souls by making up our lives, that is, by weaving stories about our past, by what we call memories.
Ask a parent about their daughter who has suddenly announced that she is a “trans man” without any signs of her being gender-atypical and then you discover that many in her friend group are doing the same. Social contagion. Mass hysteria. Memoro Politics. The looping effect is magnified by the identity-seeker.
When we are young, in our formative years, we are heavily influenced and shaped by our environment. Current brain development science tells us we are still in-process until age 26 or so. Our experiences and exposures and perceptions shape our developing character. The young person who gets sucked down the wrong tunnel of the Internet is in danger of derailing from their true selfhood. The notion of gender identity seems based on gender stereotypes. Since when are all men the same and all women the same? Of course, much of gender is based on culture but not all–so what? Duh—girls are not born loving pink.
What about sexuality? Some people are sexually fluid; some are firmly rooted in one camp from an early age. Yes, for some there is a biological, perhaps genetic influence. Others have their sexuality tweaked by obviously, experiences, but in these days much experience is virtual: viewing a screen behind a closed door—extreme stuff that creates identities, names the identities, labels the person. Again, brain-warping, soul-warping, warped.
Science and Progress
If “progressive” ideas have brought us the notion of gender destruction with the ultimate goal of body destruction, no thank you—I’ll take our original form.
Thomas S. Kuhn writes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the scientific community can be guilty of linear thinking.
When a revolution (in science) repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces, as a fit subject for professional scrutiny, most of the books and articles in which that paradigm has been embodied.
Kuhn suggests that scientific education would be better off with the model of the art museum or a library of classics, not the repudiation that can be a drastic distortion of a discipline’s past. Kuhn believed that science didn’t advance in a steady march of incremental progress; scientific insight could happen in great bursts. One interpretation of this is that ideas of years or decades earlier may be valid–or the correct theory. A discovery could burst forward in science, have a breakthrough, and the progress/idea could also rain down as a cloudburst.
It is one thing to be young and experiment with presentation. But when we medicalize and surgicalize a social movement, a transient mental illness, we cause harm to every one of us. As with Georgi, the young Swedish boy in The Apathetic, who felt trapped in a glass box, how do we break the glass and release our children trapped in the transgender glass box?
The Wide, Muddy and Turbulent River Trans
I think of the many streams of young people attracted to transgenderism. I think of a river composed of many tributaries, of a drainage of dendrites: the girl without a strong identity who goes searching, the girl who was a bit tomboyish but still happy being a girl, the teen girl who identified as lesbian until the muddling of sexual identity and gender identity pushed her over the bank, the socially awkward, those identified as being on the autism spectrum, those with serious mental illnesses that alter perception, the self-haters on the gamut spanning cutting, anorexia, transgender, the boy who identified as gay and then took it a step further, the teens lost on identity-sucking websites, those hooked on pornography of a certain kind, the gamers and cosplayers who forget what is real, all of those young lives, each unique, each precious, all of them young men and women with their entire lives ahead of them sucked down the wide and muddy and turbulent River Trans and out to sea.
When your child re-writes history and does everything, she can to cease to exist, she re-writes your history too. There is the daughter you have known since birth. You know her. Yes, I grant that we can never truly know another. But when your child takes a 180 degree turn from herself, from her family, from all who know and love her, when she hates herself and hates you, it is a death.
We do not exist in a vacuum. We are all connected, a part of our immediate family, extended family, friends, village. When an individual is lost, the entire village will search. If we don’t, we will all become lost. Moral relativism, individual libertarianism, whatever, we say, that’s cool, I’m Ok–You’re OK, whatever you want to do—as though that person exists in a vacuum and has no connections.
When everything is okay, nothing is okay. We all lose.
The below is excerpted from
A Poem Epilogue by James Dickey (1966)
Variations on Estrangement
Something for a long time has gone wrong,
Got in between this you and that other one other
And now here you must turn away.
Beyond! Beyond! Another life moves
In numbing clarity begins
By looking out the simple-minded window,
The face untimely relieved
Of living the expression of its love.
Shy, sad, adolescent separated—out
with its nerveless vision
Of sorrow, its queen-killing glare:
The gaze stands alone in the meadow
Like a king starting out on a journey
Away from all things that he knows.
It stands there there
With the ghost’s will to see and not tell
What it sees with its nerveless vision
Of sorrow, its queen-killing glare: