Clues is a brief memoir of
Marvin Cohen, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He chronicles the strange events that lead
him to believe that the government or some other sinister organization is
persecuting him and is surreptitiously drugging him. What makes the book particularly striking is its ability to
convey the logic behind the fears of paranoia and to help the reader understand
the experience. Cohen starts out living
in Boston's North End working at a computer software company. He describes in short chapters a series of
seven "clues" that suggest to him that he is the victim of some kind
of intrigue, such as odd comments people make to him as he passes them in the
street or strong sexual feelings that suddenly strike him.
As Cohen is well aware, there is
plenty in the world that might lead one to be afraid, and he ends his book with
brief appendices that set out some of his current theories to justify his
fears. These include ideas about
antipsychiatry, the political ambitions of China and Russia, and secret
services. As Cohen himself says,
readers may dismiss these fears as mere symptoms of his illness, but he takes
them seriously. This show about how
even when people acknowledges their own paranoia, they can find it hard to let
go of their fears.
Epistemologically, it can be hard
to provide clear criteria for when fears are well-grounded and justified. Sometimes fears about conspiracy are indeed
justified because there are conspiracies and evidence about conspiracies. The best-executed conspiracies cover their
tracks and so the fact that there is no proof of a conspiracy does not prove
that there is none. Where one draws the
lines between delusion, eccentric theories and reasonable widely shared but
uncorroborated theories is a matter of continuing debate among psychiatrists
and philosophers. It might be tempting
to postulate that the most important factor is not the evidence for a theory,
but rather their pragmatic consequences.
So long as people's bizarre theories do not lead them to harm themselves
or others, they should be free to believe whatever theories they like, we might
say. But there are plenty of cases
where what is commonly agreed to be reasonable beliefs about the malicious
intentions of others leads people to take action to defend themselves and even
put their own lives at risk. (The
official beliefs of the US and British governments about the presence of
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 currently seems a good example, and
brings the issue of when beliefs are paranoid into sharp relief.)
So while Clues is a very
personal book, it may provide material for researchers and may also be
informative to more general readers.
© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and