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Everything You Wanted to Know about Mental Illness But Were Afraid to Ask Don DeLillo


For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

It was Heinrich who'd told me that exposure to the chemical waste could cause a person to experience a sense of déjà vu Steffie wasn’t there when he said it, but she could have heard it on the kitchen radio, where she and Denise had probably learned abouts weaty palms and vomiting before developing these symptoms themselves. I didn’t think Steffie knew what déjà vu meant, but it was possible Babette had told her. Déjà vu, however, was no longer a working symptom of Nyodene contamination. It had been preempted by coma, convulsions, and miscarriage. If Steffie had learned about déjà vu on the radio but then missed the subsequent upgrading to more deadly conditions, it could mean she was in aposition to be tricked by her own apparatus of suggestibility. She and Denise had been lagging all evening. They were late with sweaty palms, late with nausea, late again with déjà vu. What did it all mean? Did Steffie truly imagine she'd seen the wreck before or did she only imagine she'd imagined it? Is it possible to havea false perception of an illusion? Is there a true déjà vu and a false déjà vu? I wondered whether her palms had bpen truly sweaty or whether she’d simply imagined a sense of wetness. And was she so open to suggestion that she would develop every symptom as it was announced?

I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.

But what if she hadn’t heard the radio, didn't know what déjà vu was? What if she was developing real symptoms by natural means? Maybe the scientists were right in the first place, with their original announcements, before they revised upward. Which was worse, the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter? I wondered about these and allied questions. As I drove I found myself giving and taking an oral examination based on the kind of quibbling fine-points that had entertained several centuries’ worth of medieval idlers. Could a nine-year-old girl suffer a miscarriage due to the power of suggestion? Would she have to be pregnant first? Could the power of suggestion be strong enough to work backward in this manner, from miscarriage to pregnancy to menstruation to ovulation? Which comes first, menstruation or ovulation? Are we talking about mere symptoms or deeply entrenched conditions? Is a symptom a sign or a thing? What is a thing and how do we know it’s not another thing? (125-126)

White Noise
Don DeLillo

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.


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