How Culture Shapes Madness – The Truman Show Delusion and Other Strange Beliefs by Joel Gold and Ian Gold, Free Press, 320 pages ($26). It began with Dr. Joel Gold on “Friday, Oct. 31, 2003.” He had been a psychiatrist at the legendary Bellevue hospital for eight years already. “I was working as the chief attending psychiatrist on the inpatient training unit at Bellevue. Albert was a 26-year-old, single white man from western Pennyslvania. He lived with his parents, had no siblings and worked at a nearby assembly plant. Albert believed that he was the subject of a TV show or a movie. In describing his experience, he compared it to the acclaimed 1998 film ‘The Truman Show’ written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir. The protagonist Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, is watched by the whole world. Adopted in utero by a television corporation, Truman lives every moment of his life being captured by thousands of cameras located around Seahaven, the island community he never leaves until his climactic escape to the “real world.”
Not long after, another delusional patient of his named Brian began operating under the same delusion after seeing “The Truman Show.”
It stands to reason, obviously, that delusions have been part of the human psychic menu since the beginning of the species but this specific one – especially in reference to the fiction of “The Truman Show” – could only have existed in that precise way since the film itself. Brian thought “he (too) was the center of attention for millions of people around the world.”
What’s obviously going on here is that culture is affecting the specific forms of madness. “ ‘The Truman Show’ patients opened my eyes” said Dr. Gold.
So with his brother Ian (who teaches philosophy as well as psychology), he examines the effect of culture on forms of delusion. “By 2008, Ian and I had spent a decade or more wrapping our own heads around concepts of mental illness and found no easy answers. But over the years, we have developed strong opinions about some of the ways influential thinkers have got delusion wrong.”
This book is their fascinating version of what they think they got right. – Jeff Simon