Seeing things

Rosemary Dinnage

  • The Story of Ruth by Morton Schatzman
    Duckworth, 306 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1504 1

The jacket of The Story of Ruth is adorned with praise from the famous: Edna O’Brien, among others, found it ‘disturbing and quite fascinating’, and Doris Lessing ‘a valuable book, an original’. It is a pity it comes in the kind of packaging that will repel the averagely fastidious reader. Duckworth have printed it in type about one size smaller than that of a Janet and John reader, and sub-titled it ‘one woman’s haunting psychiatric odyssey’. Morton Schatzman, who is the author of an interesting book on the 19th-century lunatic Daniel Schreber, has written it in fruitiest Reader’s Digestese, replete with remarks I doubt were ever remarked and dreams I doubt were ever dreamed. Nevertheless, if the style can be stomached, there is plenty of interest in this case-history.

Schatzman, an American psychiatrist working at the Arbours Crisis Centre in London, had a very distressed American girl referred to him by her GP. She had recently become anxious, claustrophobic, sleepless and suicidal, and had also come to hate sexual relations with her husband and to hallucinate him as looking like her father. In view of her life story this was not surprising: the father, who had been away in prison for much of her childhood, had raped her when she was ten, and as a result she had been put in a Children’s Home for seven years. There had been many other traumatic childhood experiences.

In her sessions with Schatzman she revealed that she was hallucinating her father more and more vividly and often – though she showed no signs of any psychotic delusions that the hallucinations were real, and in all other ways her symptoms were simply those of anxiety neurosis or mild ‘nervous breakdown’. Schatzman chose to treat her in an unorthodox fashion, which he says led to a successful recovery: he encouraged her to practise hallucinating deliberately, to control her visions and vary them and act out dialogues with them, to consider hallucinating as an imaginative skill rather than a symptom of madness. One would suspect several influences at work in this choice of treatment: the arguments of R.D. Laing (guiding spirit of the Arbours Association) that ‘mad’ experiences can be valuable; the currently popular Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, in which the patient is encouraged to act out histrionically the personages of his dreams and fantasies; an account of the ‘dream therapy’ of a Malaysian tribe, the Senoi, that has been much discussed (and somewhat discredited) – the Senoi are said to train their children to control their dreams and turn them to good account, re-dreaming a nightmare, for instance, until it has a successful ending. (This latter is reminiscent of Henry James’s account in A Small Boy and Others of a ‘dream-adventure’, an ‘immense hallucination’, in which he turned the tables on enemies who were trying to break into his room by bursting open the door and scattering them.)

Schatzman encouraged Ruth to practise hallucinating friends, relatives, her children; then himself, then her ‘self’: that is, she would hallucinate another Ruth across the room and act out a dialogue with her in order to gain insight into her troubles. She hallucinated her husband making love to her and reported it to be very satisfactory. As the psychoanalysand eagerly produces dreams and fantasies for the analyst, Ruth produced more and more lively hallucinations for her psychiatrist. She was persuaded to project the hallucination of her father onto her own body, so that when Schatzman interrogated ‘him’ she gave a convincing impersonation of a violent and brutal man. She remained sane, and became less anxious, less plagued by involuntary hallucinations, and less bitter about her father.

Schatzman was obviously hoping for psychic manifestations while she was in these states of semi-trance. He plants a tiresome series of come-ons. Would the hallucination leave physical traces of itself behind? If Ruth hallucinated someone turning on the light, would she be able to read? If she hallucinated a conversation and left the tape-recorder running, would there be anything on the tape? If she hallucinated Schatzman and asked him questions, would ‘his’ answers be correct? No, was the answer in each case; any reasonably gifted medium could summon up more clairvoyance than this, and the story – even though Schatzman uses the word ‘apparition’ persistently for the hallucinations – is not of value to parapsychology.

The next stage of Schatzman’s experiments with Ruth was age-regression: having her hallucinate (or rather imagine) herself back to the age of 15, ten, five, a year. This remarkable ability has been demonstrated many times under deep hypnosis, given exceptionally good hypnotic subjects (there is actually a Stanford Hypnosis Susceptibility Scale to assess this). An adult Japanese, for instance, who had spoken no Japanese since early childhood, was taken back under hypnosis to the age of three and spoke Japanese fluently; when he was awake he could not understand his speech on the tape. In the 19th century Pierre Janet cured a girl of hysterical blindness by taking her back to a trauma at the age of six. Ruth, too, produced vivid and in some cases verifiable memories of her childhood: but she differed importantly from the other cases that have been described by being her own hypnotist. She claimed not to be able to remember these trances afterwards, and to be very exhausted by them.

The third stage of the experiments consisted of psychological and physiological tests, at the Maudsley Hospital and the University of Bristol, administered to Ruth both in her normal state and when she was hallucinating. Various verbal tests completed by the adult Ruth and the ‘child’ Ruth showed the childish responses, and the handwriting, to be quite consistent with the age she was enacting – as has been found in the experiments with hypnotic age-regression. Perhaps most interesting were the physical tests. Electroencephalograms were taken while Ruth deliberately ‘saw’ one of her hallucinations against a lighted screen. There were some ambiguous results at first, but at one point the pattern of electrical activity from her brain indicated that she was not seeing the light – the hallucination had blocked it out and inhibited the visual response. Noise was fed into her ears through earphones; when she hallucinated someone switching it off, the brain’s response to sound disappeared. Schatzman does not make it clear, however, how often such effects had been obtained before.

How much in this case-history is sensational or new? There is, first, the question of credibility. Schatzman’s style tells heavily against him here. That neither Ruth nor her husband come across as real people may be ascribed to a simple lack of literary skill, but when Schatzman describes Ruth as having a dream in which she tells him that her anger ‘is like a great big ball of fire’, in which she asks her husband, ‘Could you love me when I’m full of hate and anger?’, and has Schatzman tell her, ‘You mustn’t keep your feelings from being released. Feel the anger. Don’t suppress it any longer,’ credibility sags to the point of collapse. So does it when Ruth, asked to hallucinate Schatzman writing a note to her, declares that it reads: ‘Hello, Ruth. This note is to you. Our research is going to interest many people all over the world. Sincerely, Morty Schatzman.’ Embellishment there certainly is, but since on previous evidence all that he relates could be true, let us take the story at face value, nevertheless.

Hallucinations, first of all, are not as rare as is supposed, nor different in kind from a whole spectrum of dreams, fantasies and images; although they are most likely to occur when people are delirious, drugged, fasting or exhausted, they quite soon start appearing to sane people if they are kept in total darkness. Even ordinary mental imagery is a much more vivid affair for some people than others. Galton, investigating it in the 1880s, interrogated friends and acquaintances of great respectability and turned up cases like the authoress who explained that ‘when I think of the word Beast, it has a face something like a gurgoyle. The word Green also has a gurgoyle face, with the addition of big teeth. The word Blue blinks and looks silly, and turns to the right’; the statesman who found his speeches annoyingly interrupted by hallucinations of his scribbled manuscript, which he had to stop and decipher; the clergyman who automatically saw a series of pictures whenever he closed his eyes – for instance, a crossbow, flight of arrows, falling stars, snowstorm, rectory, fishpond, bed of red tulips, and so on (he was sometimes able, with difficulty, to control and direct the images, as Ruth did, but this is unusual).

Hypnogogic imagery – visions just before falling asleep – are especially common: a study at the University of Sheffield found that nearly half of a group of students had experienced them. Galton knew ‘no less than five editors of very influential newspapers’ who had these night visions – a result of the anxieties of journalism, perhaps? Another distinct variant is eidetic imagery; ‘eidetikers’ – usually children, for the ability fades in adulthood – are able to re-create visual images in photographic detail, sometimes long after they first saw them. (Ruth, who reported that she always won the ‘Pelmanism’ game as a child because she had a photographic memory of the cards, qualified as an adult ‘eidetiker’ when she was tested; when regressed to childhood in her trance states, she had the ability to an even more striking degree.) There is one detailed case on record of a hypertrophied visual imagination: in The Mind of a Mnemonist, the Russian psychologist Luria investigated a professional memory man. The mnemonist’s hallucinatory visual recall enabled him to earn a living by extraordinary feats of memory, but disqualified him for ordinary work. All in all, one must agree with Galton that there is a ‘continuity between all the forms of visualisation, beginning with an almost total absence of it, and ending with complete hallucination’; and that most people could visualise much more vividly if they had not been taught in childhood to discredit these experiences.

Nevertheless, realistic hallucinations like Ruth’s are well out of the ordinary. The University of Sheffield study, for instance, found only 14 out of the 72 participants reported having had a proper hallucination. Even in schizophrenia, auditory hallucinations (‘voices’) are more common than visual ones, and when the latter appear they are taken for real. Schreber, for instance, the brilliantly mad German judge (whom Schatzman wrote about in his first book), described black bears, small yellow men, two suns simultaneously in the sky, people changing heads, a magic building growing out of the earth; and they were real, he insists in his story – God arranged them by special miracles. Ruth apparently was never confused about the reality status of her visions, only frightened and upset by them.

More relevant to her case than schizophrenia are the hysterical phenomena so often reported in the 19th century and now so rare. Hysterical patients in those days would have, for instance, paralysis or anaesthesia in just one part of the body, would go easily into hypnotic trances, or have total amnesia about some of their experiences – they were liable, in other words, to dissociate or repress parts of their experience very thoroughly. Nowadays we express a sense of dissociation less graphically and naively. Hallucinations, which imply a blocking out of the actual world in order to attend to the inner world, were part of the pattern of hysteria. Breuer, in his case-history of Anna O., for example, describes his patient falling into a condition seconde every evening, in which she believed she was still living in the previous year, before her father died. She thought herself to be in the bedroom she had had then, and would walk towards the door when she wanted the window, for instance. Though she ‘knew’ her dress was green, she complained of seeing it as blue; it transpired that on exactly the same day of the previous year she had been sewing a blue nightshirt for her father. Yet she was quite unlike Schreber in that she knew she was ill, and could communicate what was happening and respond to Breuer’s therapy.

We also have to consider, apropos of Ruth’s trances and impersonations, how normal and deeply rooted is our tendency to dramatise our inner life (even to Schatzman’s leaden-footed prose, dramatisation comes naturally: as he ponders Ruth’s case he is ‘haunted by a skeptical inner voice’, ‘hears a whimsical voice whisper’, and so on). We take for granted the extraordinariness of a play or novel that presents us with a whole world of people whom we discuss as if they were real: but the fact that Hamlet did not exist before Shakespeare crystallised a part of himself into the character is really as odd as anything reported here. Writers have reported over and over again that at times their work seems as if ‘given’ from somewhere else; actors and actresses find themselves inventing a whole human being out of the pages of a script. If our ordinary fantasies could be instantly scripted, acted and transposed to a television screen, they would, no doubt, be amazing.

The phenomenon of mediumship (which, like hysteria, was much commoner in the last century) is an instance of this ability to project imaginary personae. Though mediums can acquire information clairvoyantly, the Red Indians and Egyptian priestesses whom they claim as their ‘controls’ are patently projections of themselves. In the 1930s, Whately Carrington, of the Society of Psychical Research, carried out a psychological test very like one of Ruth’s on the highly reputable medium Mrs Leonard. Mrs Leonard claimed that her communications in trance came via ‘Feda’, a Red Indian girl who had died in childbirth. Carrington gave both Mrs Leonard and ‘Feda’ word-association tests and found that the reaction-times and word associations of the two were almost polar opposites: ‘Feda’, he believed, was a secondary personality of Mrs Leonard’s based on her own repressions. And then, finally, there are the physiological tests that showed Ruth to be responding to what she was hallucinating rather than what she was actually ‘seeing’: there are precedents for such mind-over-matter effects too. Experimental subjects have been trained by biofeedback, for instance, to influence the alpha rhythms that appear on their EEG tracings; and Luria reports that the mnemonist could increase the temperature of his right hand, and lower that of his left, by imagining they were placed on a hot stove and a piece of ice respectively.

Nothing in this story, then, is beyond belief – whether or not we are ‘haunted by skeptical inner voices’ ourselves. What is extremely unusual, if it is true, is that such a powerful and dissociated imagination should appear in this century and in a sane (though very traumatised) person. Clearly Ruth’s skill in hallucinating developed fast in order to please her psychiatrist; it is also very relevant that there was a family tradition of ‘seeing things’ that provided an encouraging context, like the cultural context of a shaman or medicine man. In particular, her alcoholic father, whom she both loved and hated, had had hallucinations when he was drunk, so that by hallucinating him during her breakdown she was doubly identifying with him. Whether Schatzman’s form of therapy would always be safe and advisable is doubtful: but it is certainly time, after nearly a century of neglect, that we investigate these byways of the imagination again.