Hello and welcome back to the series which is updated once in six months, where I look at the world through the ideas in a popular book that most of us only pretend to have read. And I subject you to the essays I would’ve written had I been an English Literature major. (Not to brag but y’all gave me an A+ the last two times so I guess I could replace ‘subject’ with ‘treat’ *wink*).
Guess which book we’re doing today. It can’t really be called a modern classic, but it’s not Paradise Lost-old either. You’ll be able to guess; I’ll give you two words: psychology and quiet.
Yep. It’s The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. The extremely hyped psychological thriller that people either love or hate. The debut novel. The (apparently) genre-defining book the 21st century has produced. Every Psych major has read it but most of the common population is just waiting for the movie. What a disappointing species.
Needless to say, this episode is gonna be quite a bit of a departure from the previous two, which were both dystopian books which compelled me to analyse our reality, the external world through their lenses. But this, oh boy, we’re venturing into the Upside-Down today. A world which is so much more complex and scary than the one we see outside. The human mind.
I found the title itself very reflective of psychotherapy. Beyond describing the USP-heroine of this book, there’s this little hidden wordplay in it. To be a good therapist, you have to be silent and patient with your, well, patient. Apart from the story they’re telling you, you have to pay attention to their silences as well. Non-verbal cues convey a world of meaning that might be too much for words. It’s not enough to be a good listener— you have to be a good observer as well. And to do that, you have to be quiet, so that you have enough headspace to listen to and comprehend their silences. Give them time, and space, and a non-judgmental atmosphere. A good shrink knows how to employ psychological tricks that subconsciously prompt the patient to verbalise their thoughts.
Looked at from the perspective of the patient, sometimes putting your thoughts into words for the matter of communication ends up mangling or worse, destroying the actual meaning of what you were trying to convey. Even language has its limits. Sometimes what you’re feeling is too much to put into words. No amount of metaphors can serve to concretise all these vague, abstract emotions you’ve been feeling and thoughts you’ve been thinking. The familiarity of all of it sometimes becomes so exhausting that you just feel like giving up, curling into a ball and not talk or think or feel ever again. ‘Normal’ is an unattainable myth for you and you’re just utterly tired of trying to reach it.
Or maybe you’re so used to not talking that it takes you time to change that— time to shift yourself from your perpetual ignoring/bottling up mode to confronting mode. Time to shift yourself from listening mode to talking mode. Time to find your voice. Time to reorient your default compass and get used to the idea that here, you are the only one who’s allowed to speak. No interruptions. No judgments. No confrontations or overly-concerned questioning that feels like interrogation. There is only one purpose, and that is to listen to you and to help you get what you want. This is not about anybody else. Finally, for once, you’re allowed to be the hero of this story. You’re the one who gets the most dialogues and the biggest chunk of screen time. And that can be unfamiliar to you, when you’ve spent all your life alone in the wings. When you’re so filled, so saturated, so overflowing that you seem empty. When this earth-shattering scream has been building up for so long that all that comes out is a whimper.
Or maybe you just… don’t know. You genuinely don’t know why you think or feel the way you do. You just are. Try as you might, you can’t think of a single reason; maybe it’s too hazy to be seen clearly, maybe it just doesn’t exist, maybe it’s so deeply ingrained that it’s quintessential you now so you’ve stopped questioning. Maybe familiarity and exhaustion come into play here again— you know but don’t know, and you’re tired of trying to fix yourself, so you just stop. But one day you decide you’re gonna start living, and now you don’t know what’s wrong with you, you don’t know what to say to the people who’re trying to help you, and you begin thinking if it was even a good idea to decide to save yourself.
Be silent, patient. Be patient. Allow yourself to see, to hear, to think and to break free of the chains you’ve bound yourself in. Give yourself time. The problems that have plagued you for this long won’t magically disappear in a day or two. The life you’ve wanted, the you you’ve wanted, they can’t be found. They need to be built.
Now from your POV, dear reader, I’m probably overthinking the title. To me it’s just thinking. In the words of the Arctic Monkeys, how deep is too deep?
But we need to turn the page and talk about the very first compelling idea Michaelides gives us in the prologue itself, in the first pages of Alicia Berenson’s (the titular character’s) diary. Alicia’s obviously not the picture of mental health from the beginning, so her husband, Gabriel, gifts her a notebook to write her thoughts in. Alicia wonders what to call it: a diary, or a journal, or something else, and eventually decides she’ll call it nothing. She says naming something narrows your vision and makes you see just the tip of the iceberg. The name becomes the flashing neon sign, the defining trait of that thing, and as a result you only pay attention to what the name symbolises rather than looking at the entire thing.
It was written so convincingly that I completely agreed with it at first. But now I think she’s only partially correct. Labels do have a tendency to oversimplify and make you myopic, and not everything needs to be categorised into a box, sure, but it’s also hard for human beings to comprehend entirely abstract things. Sometimes we need to have a label, a concrete thing that we can hold in our hands and say look, here is this thing that did not make any sense to me earlier, but here in my hand I hold the key that can unlock the door through which I can at least start to look at it and understand it. It was all wibbly-wobbly and floating about chaotically earlier, but now I at least have a tiny piece of it through which I might just find other tiny pieces and construct a full picture.
At the end of the day, though, whether that label narrows or widens the field of view depends on the human being in question.
(Why do I keep saying human beings like that, I sound like Dr Jane Goodall observing the apes).
Theo Faber, the psychologist who treats Alicia throughout the book, is introduced a couple of chapters later and six years after she shoots her husband. He himself has a history of anxiety, depression and suicidal impulses, developed as a result of growing up with an abusive father. The chapter dedicated to introducing him is juxtapositioned with him giving a job interview at The Grove, the psychiatric unit where Alicia lives. The panel asks him the standard question of what got him into psychology, and while he gives the standard answer of ‘I wanted to help people’, he’s thinking how his motivations were purely selfish at the time— he was a mess and he wanted to help himself. That’s what, he thinks, draws most people to this field.
He does have a point. First of all, no matter how many or how in-depth academic courses you take, no textbook can teach you to be kind, which is obviously a requirement for you to be a psychotherapist. Kindness is a quality we often take for granted in a person, and kind people are usually less appreciated than, say, a clever person. But we forget fire.
Walking through the flames has two kinds of effects on people: they can either become extremely self-centred and vengeful, because if they’ve had to suffer, why should anyone else get to live in peace? Or, they can become extremely kind, because they know how much the neighbourhood they’ve had to live in sucks, and nobody, absolutely nobody, should have to endure what they have.
We don’t see any scars running across their eyes, or their battle-hardened faces, and that’s why we end up taking them for granted. But a glance at their past will terrify you more than any physical war will. The kindest of people are forged out of the darkest of fires. Never test the limits of their kindness.
Second of all, how many people have you met who know stuff about psychology, but have always been a-ok ‘normal’ people? Or don’t have any mentally unhealthy people close to them? Thing is, no matter how fucked up you think you are, there’s always a tiny bit of that dogged self-preservation instinct left in you that just refuses to go away. It’s a primal trait. You can’t get rid of it. In the end, we’re all just trying to protect ourselves and get the life that we want, even if we might not realise it. And that’s not selfish. That’s just basic self-preservation. So, someone with a fractured bone knows at least a little bit about human bones. Someone with a fractured mind knows at least a little bit about the human mind.
Theo says that all the clinical terms psychiatrists use are a way to avoid saying bluntly that someone is crazy. But there’s a reason words like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’ and so on aren’t clinical terms. It’s because they’re derogatory words invented by a world who doesn’t want to understand people who do not conform to its behavioural norms. Why are they different from the general population? In what way has their life shaped them to be this way? A madman is never mad in his own eyes. Why does he not view himself that way? Why is this normal to him but abnormal to us? Why are we abnormal to him?
All of these are questions that the world was too lazy to ask and find the answers to. Too unconcerned, too uncaring, too selfish. Calling that person crazy is an easy way to shift the blame to the victim, and to stuff all kinds of departures from general behaviour into one single box. It’s their fault they turned out this way. Look at all these normal people living normal lives. That person is crazy. Can’t do anything about them.
Truth is, nobody’s normal. Nobody is the average human being. Not to sound cliché, but all of us have at least a little ‘crazy’ inside us. Nobody’s life is all smooth sailing; the choppiness of the sea varies from person to person, but it’s not completely calm for anybody. And the proportion of the crazy increases with the choppiness. It’s just that most manage to unconsciously keep it concealed, even from themselves, so they pass as close to the average human being. And that’s where our definition of ‘normal’ comes from.
‘Normal’ is also what childhood’s supposed to be. The sea isn’t supposed to be as stormy when you’re a kid. If it is, your parents manage and navigate your ship for you, so you don’t feel the turbulence. But if even one of them doesn’t do it, or worse, punctures a hole in your ship, then you’re bound to grow up a bad navigator yourself. You’re just a kid; you’re new to all of this, so this leaves a permanent scar. That’s essentially Theo’s view of how personalities are shaped.
But sometimes, it’s not the parents’ fault at all. Sometimes, they do their best, but still your ship ends up getting caught in storms that might not be that big to adults, but they are to you, and you have to get through them yourself. Sometimes, you’re the bullied kid that eats their lunch by themselves and gets left alone on the playground, and even at home, which is new for you, so you end up talking to your toys and creating a world of your own. Sometimes, you still do that years later after you’ve stopped being a kid, because not just the sea, but your own head never stopped being stormy. Or if it ever did, because of someone or something, it was eventually subjected to tectonic crashes, and this process kept repeating again and again so that it never could be at peace for long.
Just like the central emotion that’s at the core of this story, and at the core of the Alcestis, the Greek tragedy that’s referenced quite a few times in the book and is where I believe the author got his inspiration. The pain of not being loved. Especially when the source of it is someone you yourself love, and you believe they love you just as much, but something happens that makes you realise that they do not, after all. More than the betrayal, more than the disappointment, more than the ache of being lied to, it’s the pain of not being loved that hurts the most, and, as Michaelides puts it, the psychic murder that happens when you experience it.
It happens to Theo when he finds out his wife, Kathy, is cheating on him. It happens to Alicia in her childhood when her father wishes, out loud, that she should’ve died instead in the car crash that killed her mother but left her alive. It happens to Alicia again when (SPOILER ALERT. Spoiler part in grey.) Theo tells her— in the unique way you know all too well if you’re choosing to read this part— that Gabriel’s cheating on her with Kathy, and when he as the masked intruder tells Gabriel to choose between his life and his wife’s, Gabriel chooses to save himself over Alicia. He condemns her to death, like her father did all those years ago. That’s when she realises her husband does not actually love her, not even close to the deep and complete love she feels for him. It kills her, and that’s when she shoots him five times in the head and never speaks again until Theo at The Grove. She tries to kill herself multiple times after that night because she thinks she will never be loved by anyone ever again.
Now this pain is something that’s not just confined to psychological thrillers alone. It’s a real thing that people do have the misfortune of experiencing in real life, and it truly does destroy a part of you. But it is something that can and should be avoided. Romantic as it may sound, you cannot risk loving anybody more than you love yourself. The deepest, the most real, the most complete love should be reserved for no one but yourself. Because there is nobody in the world who’ll ever be able to understand you as well as you do yourself. Because it’s you, and only you that knows you inside out. Because no one has the exact same combination of thoughts and experiences and emotions and everything else that has made you who you are today.
That is not to say one should abandon love altogether. There will be people, of course, that truly do love and understand you, and are worthy of your affection and trust as well. Maybe someone in your family, maybe some close friend, maybe your romantic partner. But the highest person on that love list has to be you. You see, selfless love isn’t a good thing, as it’s often made out to be. Because it’s mythical; no human being is ever completely selfless, and neither should they be. You can never reach that saintly stage where you just give and give and give and expect nothing in return. Human relationships are two-way streets. To love and to want to be loved are very natural things, but if you give all of the purest, rawest, most precious kind of love you have to another person, you have nothing left for yourself and you’ve essentially set out on the path to self-destruction. You’ve condemned yourself to psychic murder. Don’t go wasting your emotion, as ABBA says, but lay all your love on yourself.
Now of course this is my perspective and some of you may feel I’m being too much of a cynic, but yeah, this is what I think about the core idea of this book. Feel free to come and scream at me in the comments with the example of someone awesome in your life who you share this legendary perfect-love bond with. Who knows, you might just change my mind.
I’d like to wrap up on a high note, so let me tell you that I disagree with Michaelides’ idea of happiness being like a snowflake— that the mere act of possessing it destroys it. Well, no. Chasing after it perpetually might, but having it doesn’t. True happiness, the lasting kind, can be achieved without making it disappear. Being enough for yourself, being emotionally independent, quiet both-way love (please understand that romance is not the only kind of love there is) shared with somebody are some things that can bring the calm and floating kind of joy that stays with you.
With this, we come to the end of the episode. Long and intense, yeah? Well, if you haven’t figured it out already, PTG episodes are always going to be like that. They’re book analyses, not book reviews. Now go watch some sitcom or something.