The Painted Bird and Captain Picard

There’s a great novella by Jerzy Kosinsky called The Painted Bird, about a boy who is separated from his guardians during a war.

You can probably read it in one Saturday afternoon sitting. As I recall, there’s not even a sentence of dialogue. It’s all told in the past tense from the perspective of adulthood as the boy wanders the countryside, staying in village after village with this or that family of illiterate peasants. All the while, the distant war moves like a weather system over the landscape. This city boy, who went to school, is schooled instead in superstitions and gradually it becomes clear that this is taking place in the middle of WW2.

We are shown that the pesantry are effectively living 16th century lives and the modern world has passed them by.*  When I think of how utterly unprepared my bi-polar parent is for modernity, I’ve remembered that 1965 book.

The violence in the book happens off stage for the most part. The war is effectively a large weather system in the background. No, the awfulness is depicted as being done with relish by the uneducated peasantry upon each other and anyone who happens to be within sight. Why? For petty reasons and for what can only be described as magical thinking. If someone knows how many teeth you have, a spell can be cast to make you ill, that sort of thing. They have so little control over their lives that they rely on magical explanations.

It’s at the level of ‘so and so’s cow gave more milk today, so I should put a hex on his wife so that she votes Tory or something.’

Silvano Arieti described how creative people think as ‘magical thinking.’ He meant it to mean that an artist or scientist can see connections between ideas that result in new understandings. On this blog, I’m writing about tending to bi-polar people in such a way you don’t cut your own throat to escape, so I use’magical thinking’ to mean the knotted tangle of yarn in their heads. Programmers use the expression ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ with the bi-polar, all outputs are random, no matter how high quality and regular the inputs.

A universe inside one ego. Or id, as the case may be.

Essentially, you and the universe are extensions of their egos. Basically, they’re in the grip of a universe ruled by unknowable magical forces.

If you’ve never experienced it, see Patrick Stewart’s excellent Macbeth. In the dinner scene, Macbeth is tormented by Banquo’s ghost. However, in this version of the play (which I saw in London  –gosh– a few years ago) we don’t see Banquo. Instead, we see Captain Picard freaking out to something no-one can see. Poor Macbeth is, as Stewart said in many an interview at the time, utterly in the grip of emotional and superstitious forces driving him to disaster. Objectively, you and I look on to see a man going to pieces.

Please consider this illustration.

That’s what it’s like dealing with a severely bi-polar parent.

If you tell a story to my bi-polar relation about something that took place without that person around — at my office, for example —  the next time the subject comes up, expect to hear about it as though that person was there. Stories are always viewed from the  perspective of them as central actors.  It seems quite a dull universe with only them in it. But, their egos are the centre of gravity for all things.  The solution is to not tell them anything, and provide no narcissistic supply.

Dealing for decades with someone who relies entirely on magic for their operational understanding of the universe is exhausting. For the mentally ill person, everyone and everything is an extension of the ego. Other people aren’t real to then. I’ve developed a theory that Christians re-wrote history in a PR stunt when they took over the Roman Empire. Some marketing exec in the early Christian Church claimed that the Romans had been throwing them to the lions; I am convinced that this is not the case. I am sure it was bipolar people being fed too the great cats by their relations.

Practical Advice

  • Don’t tell them anything.
  • Limit them to yes and no choices. Open-ended conversations about causation and choice — the Devil with it. Not worth the grey hairs.
  • If they need to choose between options for major things, you choose the A or B options and ensure that these are presented. My parent has a way of choosing M or Z — some irrelevant nonsensical constellation of responses that have nothing to do with anything. Give’em A or B or walk away.
What do you mean A or B?

Back when I was a reporter, I knew a complete prick who was the senior civil servant for a regional government. All of the mayors and reeves of the area were on this council. Lots of big-fish-in-small-pond egotism. When the politicians met for their monthly event, they’d vote on this or that policy. He’d always present the motions with an A, B or A, B and C option. He’d trained them well. They could choose from the options but never get to mix and match. If they didn’t like the policies presented, the motion and its policy were withdrawn and tabled until next month so he could redraft them accordingly. As much as this ‘Sir Humphrey’ was arrogant jerk, he was very good at his job.

You may wish to consider this.

When presented with a decision, and the average person would choose between one or two reasonable options, my parent would always choose some irrational unrelated option that made no sense. Learn to prep the ground ahead of time: Choose A or B, not M or µ. Have your A and B ready for any bank or legal work ready ahead of time on paper if necessary. The magical connections the person makes in her or his head may otherwise be random and therefore frustrating to you.

What about the charge of paternalism? Well, this is a question of ethics not to be discounted. If the A, B and C options are defensible in that the options are reasonable and practical, I think you’re on sound moral ground.

* Not that surprising, really. By and large, only one third of the wehrmacht was motorized and in Canada at least, literacy wasn’t a requirement for the Infantry in WW2. The Great Depression in America proved devastating to public education, too.


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