Toronto Star

October 3, 1999

Suspicious Minds


'The Triumph of Paranoia in everyday life'

By Ian Dowbiggin
The Toronto Star

In his provocative new book, Suspicious Minds, P.E.I. history professor Ian Dowbiggin argues that ``aspects of delusional psychology have made inroads into society, politics, government, education, movies, music, literature and the legal system.'' This is an excerpt from his first chapter.

ERNST WAGNER was a troubled, suspicious soul. A German school teacher who lived at the beginning of the 20th century, Wagner was convinced that other men knew he was a frequent masturbator and discussed it behind his back continually.

Worse still, he believed they knew about an act of bestiality he had apparently committed earlier in life. These thoughts tormented him daily, though no one seemed to notice. He finally reached his breaking point one night in 1913. That evening, he murdered his wife and four children by slitting their carotid arteries while they slept.

The next night Wagner, having run to a neighbouring town, set fire to several houses. When the inhabitants ran from their flaming homes, Wagner opened fire on the male villagers, killing eight and severely wounding 12 others before he was apprehended.

After being arrested, tried and convicted, Wagner lived out the rest of his life in an asylum for the insane. He survived to witness Hitler's coming to power, and his last days were spent applauding the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies. His mental status never deteriorated like a schizophrenic's, confirming that his condition constituted a separate and distinct disease.

That disease is paranoia. Almost a century later, Wagner's delusional psychology is very much alive.

As a medical term, ``paranoia'' dates back at least to classical antiquity. The word ``paranoia'' derives from the Greek words for ``beside'' and ``mind,'' meaning ``out of mind'' or ``thinking amiss.''

The ancient Greeks and Romans used the word to refer to mental illness generically. However, it wasn't a technical term in medicine until the 19th century. Before 1800, those who exhibited paranoid delusions were normally diagnosed as melancholic.

With the emergence of modern psychiatry in the 19th century and the dramatic rise of industrial, urban living, paranoia became a topic of compelling interest to psychiatrists. They built up a huge literature chronicling the ravages of the disease in the lives of countless men and women.

Since the early 20th century, paranoia has gradually lost its popularity amongst psychiatrists. In recent decades, many have been proclaiming it a rare condition, responsible for only a tiny percentage of psychiatric cases. Some might imagine that paranoia, like hysteria, is itself disappearing as a medical diagnosis.

The term ``paranoia'' has been dropped altogether in the 1994 edition of the psychiatrists' ``bible,'' the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Since delusions of grandeur and persecution occur in a variety of disorders, including schizophrenia, alcoholism, severe depression, tertiary syphilis and Alzheimer's disease, psychiatrists traditionally have been reluctant to admit that there is such a thing as true paranoia.

Many prefer to attribute paranoid symptoms to other diseases. Other psychiatrists maintain that some delusions are more properly defined as symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder or mood disorders like depression.

Reports of paranoia's demise, however, may be premature. A small group of psychiatrists in Europe, Canada and the United States are struggling to both retain and expand the paranoia diagnosis, now called ``delusional disorder'' (DD).

One Canadian psychiatrist claims that the incidence of DD in the general population may be as high as one to two per cent - in other words, as frequent as schizophrenia. Another estimate has it that more than 10 per cent of mental hospital admissions are for paranoid states.

Determining the actual number of clinically paranoid people in society is probably impossible. (They) tend to be able to function in society. Frequently they are well educated. Unlike those with more debilitating mental disorders like schizophrenia or depression, paranoids often hold down jobs, pay taxes, raise families, partake in personal friendships.

Many refuse to seek medical help in the first place, preferring to nurture their delusions in private. They distrust anyone who doubts the reality of their delusions, especially physicians, and often receive medical treatment only after committing outlandish or criminal acts. What is beyond question is that many emotional disorders involving paranoid delusions go undetected until it's too late.

As some psychiatrists admit, the recorded cases of delusional disorders may simply be the tip of the iceberg . . . . There is a whole class of people who are not considered to be mentally ill, who often are not treated by psychiatrists, who are frequently described as paranoid, yet whose prognosis is generally favourable. According to the 1994 DSM, they suffer from ``paranoid personality disorder.''

This class of people is opinionated, touchy and hostile. Lacking a sense of humour, defiant of established institutions and authority, and often imagining they are physically sick, they accept nothing at face value and are fascinated by the search for hidden meanings.

Even bankers, brokers, consultants, engineers and systems analysts . . . are not immune to the paranoid psychological style

As one 1970 psychiatric textbook stated, ``The paranoid reads more between the lines than he sees in the lines themselves, thus overlooking the obvious.'' No wonder paranoids are typically injustice collectors, relentlessly believing that misfortune is never accidental or deserved but is always due to the malevolence of others. Their presence, depressingly familiar to many of us, testifies to the inroads paranoia has made into modern society.

Paranoid thinking is based primarily on a belief in delusions. Paranoid delusions make sense to otherwise reasonable people, not just clinically ill individuals, because they ordinarily contain a kernel of truth. They are, in the words of the DSM, ``non-bizarre'' delusions, those ``involving situations that occur in real life, such as being followed, poisoned, infected, loved at a distance, or deceived by a spouse or lover, or having a disease.''

However, even the psychiatric profession admits that judging whether a delusion is bizarre can be subjective. ``One person's bizarre is another person's strange but plausible.'' It's as if psychiatrists themselves are losing their nerve when it comes to saying what is and isn't a delusion. If they won't say, what hope is there for the rest of us?

These psychiatric reservations reflect the fact that in our turn-of-the- millennium world almost anything goes . . . . Paranoia, write Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, authors of Political Paranoia, ``is seldom a complete delusion. It is typically a distortion of a truth.''

As the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies. Or just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you aren't being followed.

The truly striking phenomenon of millennial paranoia is how readily it afflicts society's opinion-making elites, those who should know better, such as today's ``New Class.''

To Canadian author Kenneth McDonald this ``New Class'' includes ``political clergy, union leaders (especially white-collar unions), the government-paid staffs of women's groups and francophone and ethnic associations, university professors, senior civil servants, human rights and language commissioners, senior business people, print and electronic journalists, writers and actors and playwrights.''

Even bankers, brokers, consultants, engineers and systems analysts, people we assume are primarily practical and pragmatic, are not immune to the paranoid psychological style.

Oliver Stone, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Shirley MacLaine, John Ralston Saul, to name just a few: All are educated and none is impoverished; indeed, they generally enjoy affluence and fame.

Some are genuinely powerful, influencing the flow of money and information across borders, running philanthropic organizations and institutions of higher learning or directing huge media corporations that dominate the terms of public debate and discourse.

But that hasn't stopped its members from acting and sounding like the descendants of the millenarian charismatics who fired the paranoid imaginations of medieval peoples.

Instead of demystifying paranoia, they abdicate their responsibilities by indulging it. They foist their own alarmist versions of reality on the public . . . .

TV shows repeatedly project paranoid images, encouraging us to believe we're all essentially luckless and powerless victims, solitary misfits adrift in a cold, menacing universe, vulnerable to unpredictable twists of fate or the malevolent schemes of others. People, they tell us, are right to be paranoid. Rather than subjecting cultural paranoia to reality testing, our elites prefer the nihilistic notions that say that politicians are all the same, religion is nothing but a neurosis, everyone's in it for themselves, we all have our own agendas.

This variety of cynicism, dubbed ``debonair nihilism'' by the American philosopher Allan Bloom, holds that everything is simulation. But if everything's simulation, there's no ``real'' out there; no original is being copied.

In the paranoid's mentality, old boundaries and polarities vanish so that it's impossible to make universal judgments. Everything admirable can be dismissed with a simplistic slogan or formula. The very idea of reality is in question.

As Christopher Lasch shrewdly observed in The Revolt Of The Elites And The Betrayal Of Democracy (1995), those who make their living as ``symbolic analysts'' - for example, processing data or creating visual images for the entertainment and advertising industries - ``inhabit an artificial world in which simulations of reality replace the thing itself.''

They are the natural leaders of a paranoid society. Little wonder that people turn to Hollywood for political commentary and moral judgments.

Such an attitude is infectious. We have become knee-jerk debunkers, constantly sniffing the wind for telltale signs to confirm our cynicism and suspicions. Sadly, about the only thing people commonly believe in is paranoia itself, the need to maintain an ironic, hostile and distrustful distance, ready to half believe everything and to fix conviction in nothing.

Just as paranoids believe only their own delusions and refuse to accept anything else at face value, so they seem content to assume the existence of things they can't see, touch, taste or smell.

Irony and gullibility go hand in hand with acute suspicion in the paranoid mind. Today's paranoid is inveterately suspicious but not really skeptical, alternating between a boundless, almost sweet trust and a judgmentalism as severe as that of a fire-and-brimstone Puritan preacher.

The paranoid subjects things and people around him to a fiercely dismissive hostility but falls captive, strangely, to some of the worst nonsense in recorded history.

Thus, the age of paranoia, though characterized by rampant doubt and cynicism, paradoxically coincides with the end of skepticism, the loss of the critical ability to discern truth from falsehood. Skepticism isn't suited to the flitting quality of the paranoid mind. Today's mainstream paranoid says, ``I treat the people and things around me with humorous, hip disdain. I withhold my admiration from what I am expected to honour. I reserve it for the things that don't make sense.''

How else to explain why we pay more attention to Shirley MacLaine the New Age guru than Shirley MacLaine the performer?

In this millennial day and age, when expert prophecy and trend-spotting are huge industries, it is all the more important that we recognize these features of paranoia . . . . how these aspects of delusional psychology have made inroads into society, politics, government, education, movies, music, literature and the legal system; how they have affected the relations between the sexes and the races.

Excerpted from ``Suspicious Minds: The Triumph Of Paranoia In Everyday Life'' by Ian Dowbiggin, with permission of the publisher, Macfarlane Walter & Ross.

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