Psychotic Thoughts

"My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way we learn to behave. We keep this pretence up because we don't want to be rejected by other people--and being classified insane is to be shut out of the group in a very complete way.

"Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they're a little crazier than the average person. People understand the energy necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a performance, but when confronted by other people they confuse the person with the role.

"Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. It's a matter of presenting yourself as safe. Little old men wander around London hallucinating visibly, but no one gets upset. The same behavior in a younger, more vigorous person would get him shut away. A Canadian study on attitudes to mental illness concluded that it was when someone's behavior was perceived as 'unpredictable' that the community rejected them. A fat lady was admiring a painting at a private view at the Tate when the artist strode over and bit her. They threw him out, but no one questioned his sanity--it was how he always behaved.

"I once read about a man who believed himself to have a fish in his jaw.... This fish moved about, and caused him a lot of discomfort. When he tried to tell people about the fish, they thought him 'crazy', which led to violent arguments. After he'd been hospitalised several times--with no effect on the fish--it was suggested that perhaps he shouldn't tell anyone. After all it was the quarrels that were getting him put away, rather than the delusion. Once he'd agreed to keep his problem secret, he was able to lead a normal life. His sanity is like our sanity. We may not have a fish in our jaw, but we all have its equivalent.

"When I explain that sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than of one's mental processes, students are often hysterical with laughter. They agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of thinking because they classified it as insane.

"Students need a 'guru' who 'gives permission' to allow forbidden thoughts into their consciousness. A 'guru' doesn't necessarily teach at all. Some remain speechless for years, others communicate very cryptically. All reassure by example. They are people who have been into the forbidden areas and who have survived unscathed. I react playfully with my students, while showing them that there are just as many dead nuns or chocolate scorpions inside my head as there are in anybody's, yet I interact very smoothly and sanely. It's no good telling the student that he isn't to be held responsible for the content of his imagination, he needs a teacher who is living proof that the monsters are not real, and that the imagination will not destroy you. Otherwise the student will have to go on pretending to be dull.

"At one time I went from a class of mental patients in the morning to a class of drama students in the afternoon. The work of the drama students was far more bizarre, because they weren't so scared of what their minds might do. The mental patients mistook even the normal working of the imagination as proof of their insanity.

"I remember the psychologist David Stafford-Clark criticising Ken Campbell at a public meeting. Ken had said that he encouraged his actors to act like lunatics, because then people would find them amusing. Stafford-Clark was upset at the idea that mad people should be thought 'funny', but that's hardly Ken's fault. Laughter is a whip that keeps us in line. It's horrible to be laughed at against your will. Either you suppress unwelcome laughter or you start controlling it. We suppress our spontaneous impulses, we censor our imaginations, we learn to present ourselves as 'ordinary', and we destroy our talent--then no one laughs at us. If Shakespeare had been worried about establishing his sanity, he could never have written Hamlet, let alone Titus Andronicus; Harpo couldn't have inflated a rubber glove and milked it into the coffee cups; Groucho would never have threatened to horsewhip someone--if he had a horse; W.C. Fields would never have leapt out of the aeroplane after his whisky bottle; Stan Laurel would never have snapped his fingers and ignited his thumb.

"We all know instinctively what 'mad' thought is: mad thoughts are those which other people find unacceptable, and train us not to talk about, but which we go to the theatre to see expressed."

--Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (London: Methuen Drama, 1981), pp. 83-85.


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