Folie a Plusieurs
By design, both agents were shrouded in darkness. I could see their silhouettes, the army-like crew cut, the wire-rimmed glasses, the more senior agent's hearing aid. Their hands rested, lifeless and stolid, on the plain wooden conference table that separated us. They were waiting for my response, immobile, patient, pent up aggression in check, heads slightly bowed. The overhead neon lights crackled and fizzled ominously but otherwise the room was soundproof and windowless. I was led there via a bank of elevators and a series of elaborate Escher-like staircases. By now, I was utterly disoriented.
"Shared Psychotic Disorder is
not a new diagnosis." - I explained again - "For a long time it was
known as 'Folie a Deux'".
The younger agent shifted ever so imperceptibly on his plastic chair but said nothing. His colleague repeated his question, wearily, as though accustomed to interrogating the densest of people:
"But can it affect more than one person?"
"Yes, it can. The literature contains cases of three, four, and more individuals consumed by shared delusional beliefs and even hallucinations." - I raised my palm, forestalling his next attempt to interject:
"But - and that's a big but - the people who partake in common psychotic delusions are all intimately involved with each other: they share living quarters, they are members of the same family, or sect, or organization. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever documented an occurrence of shared psychosis among totally unrelated strangers."
This caveat evidently got the young agent's attention. He perked up, straightened his posture, and addressed me for the first time:
"Then what is mass psychosis?"
"A myth," - I said - "assiduously cultivated by an eyeball-hungry media."
The senior member of the team chuckled softly:
"C'mon, doctor. Thousands of people claim to see the Virgin Mary or a UFO at the same time - that's not psychotic?"
"It's a momentary delusion, alright, but it is far from psychosis."
"Can you help us tell the difference?" - The young one was evidently losing patience with the whole exercise.
"I would be able to help you better if you were to tell me what this is all about."
"We can't." - snapped the younger, not bothering to hide his exasperation - "Just answer our questions, will you?"
The older of the two laid a calming hand on the forearm of his impetuous partner:
"Doctor," - his voice was appropriately a resonating baritone - "you have to believe us that it is a matter of utmost importance to our national security. That's all we are authorized to divulge at this stage of the proceedings."
"Have it your way, then. A delusional belief is not the same as a momentary hallucination. People who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary or a UFO, have typically reverted to their normal lives afterwards. The incidents left a very small psychological footprint on the witnesses. Not so with a shared psychotic disorder. Those affected structure their entire existence around their inane convictions."
"Can you give us some examples?"
"Sure I can. There are hundreds if not thousands of cases meticulously documented ever since the 19th century. Some patients became convinced that their homes were being infiltrated by aliens or foreign powers. An unfortunate couple was so afraid of hostile electromagnetic radiation that they converted their apartment into a Faraday Cage: they sealed it hermetically at an enormous expense and took out all the windows and interconnecting doors. They claimed that the radiation was intended to dehydrate them by inducing diarrhea and to starve them through chronic indigestion."
The young agent whistled and the older one emitted one of his soft laughs.
"In another instance, an entire family took on enormous credits, sold their house, and quit their jobs because they delusionally talked themselves into believing that one of the sons was about to sign a multi-million dollar contract with a Hollywood studio. They even hired engineers and architects to lay out plans for a new mansion, replete with a swimming pool."
The young one could no longer hide his mirth.
"Of course, there's the run-of-the mill paranoid, persecutory delusions about how the FBI, or CIA, or NSA, take your pick, are tapping the family phone, or shadowing its members as they go innocently about their business."
"Why would anyone believe such crap?" - Asked the senior one.
"Because the source of the delusional belief, the person who invents it and then imposes it on others, is perceived to be authoritative and superior in intelligence, or in social standing, or to have access to privileged information."
They exchanged glances and then:
"So, it's like a cult? A guru and his followers?"
"Exactly. The primary case - the originally delusional person - does his or her best to keep the others in relative seclusion and social isolation. That way, he monopolizes the flow of information and opinions. He filters all the incoming data and blocks anything which might interfere, upset, or contradict the delusional content. The primary case become sort of a gatekeeper."
They whispered to each other, nodding and shaking their penumbral heads vigorously, but never gesticulating with their hands. Then, following the briefest of silences, the older agent said:
"What if a delusional belief were shared by all the inhabitants of the planet, by everyone, everywhere, almost without exception?"
"Such a delusional belief would be indistinguishable from reality." - I answered - "In such a world, who would be able to demonstrate the delusion's true character and to refute it or replace it by something real and viable? Luckily, it is impossible to engineer such a situation."
"To create a long-lasting, all-pervasive, credible, and influential delusional belief on a global scale, one would need to recruit a source of unimpeachable authority and to force all the media in the world to collaborate in disseminating his or her psychotic content across continents and seas. Even in this day and age, such an undertaking would prove to be formidable and, in my opinion, face insurmountable psychological, not to mention logistical, obstacles."
The younger agent tilted his chair backward on its hind legs:
"So, even if people witness the unfolding of some incredible event on television, attested to by thousands of eyewitnesses and covered by a zillion TV stations, they are still unlikely to believe it? And they are bound to persist in their disbelief when the President of the United States of America addresses the nation to confirm that the event had actually taken place?"
"That's not the same thing." - I explained, as patiently as I could. This cryptic and one-sided exchange was beginning to unnerve me - "An event that unfolds in real time on television and is witnessed by thousands of people on the ground is real, it is not a delusion."
"You are contradicting yourself," - the senior agent rebuked me gently - "As you have acknowledged earlier, crowds composed of thousands of individuals claimed to have seen UFOs or the Virgin Mary but their testimonies render neither apparition real. This is the mass psychosis that my colleague here had mentioned earlier. You objected to the term, but whatever you want to call it, the phenomenon exists: large groups of people see and hear and smell and touch things that simply aren't there. It happens all the time."
"Mass hallucinations do happen." - I conceded - "But, I have never seen UFOs or the Virgin Mary on television."
"That's because you aren't watching the right channels," - grinned the younger one - "Television is a medium that is very easy to manipulate: special effects, stunts, old footage, montage, that sort of thing. Haven't you heard of the urban myth that the whole so-called landing on the moon took place in a television studio out in the desert in Arizona or New-Mexico? It's easy enough to imagine."
I shrugged and straightened in my chair:
"OK, you got me there. If someone with enough resources and authority was hell-bent on staging such a lightshow, he or she could get away with it: witnesses are gullible and prone to auto-suggestion and, as you said, television images are easy to doctor, especially in this digital era."
They remained seated, rigid and staring with hollow, shadowy eyes at me.
I rose from my seat and said:
"Gentlemen, if there is nothing else you need, I should really be on my way. I hope I have been of some ..."
"You have an office in New-York?" - The senior member of the team interrupted me.
"Yes ... I ... That is, my university ... I serve as a consultant to the venture capital arm of my alma mater. They let me use a cubicle in the premises of their New-York subsidiary in the Twin Towers. I am actually flying there tomorrow morning. We have an annual meeting of the Board of Trustees every September 11. Why?"
They both ignored my question and kept staring ahead. Finally, the older agent exhaled and I was startled by the realization that he has been holding his breath for so long:
"Thank you for coming, doctor. I am sorry that this meeting could not have been as instructive for you as it has proved to be for us. May I just remind you again that you have signed a non-disclosure agreement with this agency. Our conversation is an official secret and divulging its contents may be construed as treason in a time of war."
"War? What war?" - I giggled nervously.
They stood up and opened the door for me, remaining in the shaded part of the room:
"Goodbye, doctor, and Godspeed. Have a safe flight tomorrow."