I’m going to make the assumption that you have at least something to do with Facebook. I admit to spending a fair bit of time with this medium. I use it to communicate with people around the world, to share ideas, to promote the artistic work of colleagues — and sometimes my own.
Of course, there have been a few flare-ups. Political topics such as gun laws, immigration, religious freedom, etc., are always good for getting tempers hot. But where things have gotten genuinely weird for me have been on another level.
I “met” a woman who’s a poet and book reviewer via FB. I thought her writing was pretty good, and she graciously reviewed one of my early novels for an influential book blog. She seemed completely legit. So I invited her to a reading I was giving at a trendy venue in Brooklyn, where I was going to perform with some very cool musician friends.
We arrived and I recognized my FB contact sitting at the bar by herself, opposite my agent and publisher. I said hi, thanks for coming, and told her we were going to set up for the show, and that I’d be out to have a drink with her in a few minutes.
It was literally a few minutes later when I came back to the bar to find her gone. I asked my agent if he’d seen her. “Seen her? I’m surprised you didn’t hear her! She went ballistic. Threw her drink at us and started ranting that we were making her feel old. It was completely wild!” Totally unexplained.
I later found no fewer than 23 messages on my phone, all of them vitriolic beyond belief and completely deranged. I was floored. She’d seemed so nice and normal.
The second episode was odder still. I’d developed an idea for a graphic novel. I started searching for an illustrator to collaborate with — and I found one online. She lived in the Bay Area, where I’m from. She in fact appeared to be living on the same street my father had been when he died.
She was openly a follower of Wiccan beliefs, but that didn’t faze me. When I’d lived in rural Australia there was quite a witchcraft community around, and I’d often found things like pentagrams burnt into grass — even goat skulls. Besides, the Bay Area has been freaky-deaky my whole life.
I sent her the story synopsis and she was intrigued. We started corresponding regularly. But I wasn’t seeing any design work (and in my experience, people who are really professionals in this arena can’t keep from drawing). Instead, she began to relate an ever more complicated health history that involved no fewer than three major car crashes. There was a spinal injury, kidney stones and an STD. It went on and on, and I started to get worried.
Then she asked me in a message if I was actually from the Bay Area. I wrote back promptly, relating three key things that had happened in my life on her very street. Well!
She wrote back that I had placed a spell on her and that I was the reason her kidney stones weren’t healing! She informed me that she’d kill me the next time I gave a reading in the Bay Area.
Now, I’m not one to get overly alarmed about threats. But today, with all the guns around, and with so many people on medication, or off their medication, you have to take that kind of thing with some seriousness.
What’s curious to me about both these incidents is that quite a bit of electronic correspondence of a professional nature was engaged in before the outbreaks. I ask myself if there was something about me that triggered things. Or did they absolutely have nothing to do with me? I wonder, if I’d met these people face to face from the beginning would I have known something was wrong?
I’m not suggesting by these two stories that there aren’t some crazy men out there. I know a few of them, too. My argument is, first, the old one that sanity and apparent “mental health” is easy to fake. It’s especially easy to hide problems when technology gives you a mask and you’re communicating through what might seem to be a transparent medium, but which is anything but. I’ve noticed how insidious online worlds can be — how you can think you’re having all this social interaction when, in reality, you’re alone in a room.
I’d even go so far as to suggest that social media networks are a form of mental illness and instability that’s so pervasive we don’t notice it or define it as such. This has long been a core problem with the concept of disease. If everyone has it, is anyone sick? Freud raised that issue long ago.
More importantly, what if none of us is really who we think we are or appear to be? What if our degree of sanity and mental health is very context-specific and not at all the consistent thing we’d like to believe (for better and worse) that it is?
We have this notion today that people with mental-health problems can be easily and immediately identified. I’m not sure this is at all true. I think there are many more people than we’d like to acknowledge who are seriously unhinged but who are able to function in the world and to present a picture of normalcy because they’ve learned how to do it and because we’ve collectively shaped our society in ways that protect the illusion of normalcy as completely as possible.
Until one day, for whatever reason, the mask drops.
KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is local author of ten books translated into 22 languages. He’s on Facebook and at: www.krissaknussemm.com