By Neil Randall
The Psychogenesis of a Modern Job Complex in Relation to the Development of a Pseudo-Personality Disorder
The analytic investigation of a contemporary persecution complex offers the therapist a unique insight into the psyche of what I myself have called the “pseudo-personality”. Not to be confused with Dr Ronson’s (or Dr Kazmi’s, for that matter) Martyr Conundrum, the pseudo-personality in this context is very much a unitary construct: the creation of an alternative identity, almost what one might call a “fall guy” to absorb psychic pain, to – and this is perhaps the crucial factor in such cases – take responsibility for any perceived or actual failures in life. The creation of this second illusory entity – the luckless, downtrodden, forsaken individual – becomes intricately woven into the subject’s own personality, until almost indistinguishable from their former self. In a way, therefore, the subject creates this alternative persona, this schizoid rupture, to usurp the former sense of self, thus destroying every last vestige of their previous personality, and becoming somehow blameless for any such failures, immune from criticism or censure, whether from within or -out the construct itself.
In the case of our now celebrated Crocodile Man, we have an individual, not a young man by any means, who endured a string of misfortunes, disappointments, humiliations (all of which we will analyse in the case study below). But none of which, when considered singularly, on its own individual merits, that could be considered potentially debilitating. In fact, it was a completely unexpected, and incredibly rapid upturn in the subject’s fortunes which brought about his first real crisis.
Before we continue, therefore, it is necessary to provide the reader with essential information regarding the subject’s background history.
(a) Case History
A talented, if unfulfilled individual belonging to a close-knit, working-class family, the subject was forty-three years of age when he first came under my care. As always, in any preliminary examination, I will ask the subject the reasons why he or she sought treatment. In some cases – an artist suffering a creative block, an addictive personality (alcohol, illicit substances, deviant sexual practises), the recently bereaved or broken-hearted, or those who may have been in an abusive relationship – the reasons are easy to pinpoint. However, in other cases, this, what I like to call “trigger point” (i.e. the reasons why they sought professional help in the first place) will be far more difficult to identify. In this respect, our Crocodile Man was possessed of a uniquely intuitive and self-analytical mind. With little or no prompting whatsoever, he told me about an incident that took place when he was around eight or nine years of age.
At the family home one Saturday evening, the subject as young boy was watching television with his mother, a film adaption of a book by Danielle Steele. In the opening scenes, a glamourous couple are aboard a speedboat, cruising along a river on a bright summer’s day. The picture of besotted lovers, they hug, kiss, frolic, sip from glasses of champagne. They could not appear happier. Then, without any prior warning, the husband suddenly and very violently pushes his wife overboard, into what the viewer soon discovers are crocodile-infested waters. Terrified, the wife splashes around, pleading for help, as the boat speeds off into the distance. The scene then cuts to a large crocodile (of the family Crocodylidae) entering the water. Mastering her panic, the woman swims desperately towards the opposite bank of the river. Just as she reaches her destination, panting, tearful, and clambers up to what she hopes is safety, the crocodile comes crashing out of the water and grabs her in its powerful jaws.
Whilst not initially traumatised in the classic sense (the subject displayed no standard upset or suffered any nightmares regarding the violent scene) the nature of the actress’ demise/fate affected him on a far deeper, more profound level. In later life, in his late-teens, early twenties, the subject experienced (and here I must distinguish “experienced” from “suffered” in the general sense of the definition) a recurring dream. In this dream, he sees himself rowing steadily down a vast river, dipping his oars in and out of the water, when all of a sudden his canoe gets overturned by a crocodile (of the family Crocodylidae). In panic, he too swims for the banks of the river, just the like the actress from the TV movie, and as he hauls himself out of the water (again: just like the actress), the crocodile grabs him. And just as its jaws clamp down on his chest, the subject, quite bizarrely, feels a real sense of warmth and well-being, and he hugs the creature’s cold, scaly snout with all the tenderness of a lover.
When questioned in depth, the subject was unable to recall any lingering reptilian/Crocodylidae trauma, any associated incident that may have acted as a precursor to the formation of the subconscious episode which replayed itself with increasing regularity. However, we were able to establish that the subject had always had a strained, somewhat fractious relationship with water. Being brought up in a small seaside town, many a childhood memory relates to the ocean. In fact, one of the subject’s earliest memories is of paddling at the shoreline, of getting drawn deeper and deeper into the water, until he tripped and fell into the sea, becoming completely submerged. Panicking, he floundered, swallowing a great deal of seawater in the process, before an unknown stranger dragged him to safety. From that moment on (or, as we later established, the moment of birth), the subject associated life, being born itself, with being thrown into a stretch of water, an ocean or river, even a sizeable public swimming pool, left abandoned, cast adrift, helpless to his fate. And all the adverse things that he encountered/endured thereon only underpinned this conviction. The Crocodile motif, therefore, is representative of an individual’s essential travails, their struggle to survive. Only in this case, when our Crocodile Man became subject to the recurring dream, he saw himself (or, more correctly, every disappointment he ever suffered) as a symbol of not only drowning but being eaten alive, swallowed whole, feasted upon by a fearsome, unrepentant riverside predator. His reaction: that of tenderly hugging the creature like a lover, is indicative of being reacquainted with familiar sensations, albeit hugely negative ones.
(b) Further Background (Overview)
Of the subject’s early adult life, I will offer the reader only a general outline, as to all intents and purposes we will only be dealing with ephemera, the detail rather than the subconscious crux, cause and effect (of which we have just discussed above). The subject, like so many young people, experienced a dull, directionless period in his late-teens, early twenties. After obtaining excellent examination results, he made poor choices regarding further education, his future in general. In short, he didn’t really know what to do with his life, and drifted into causal substance misuse.
In the intervening years, he obtained full-time if hugely unsuitable, unfulfilling employment, a poor-paying job in local government. Here, in a suffocating office environment, surrounded by “faceless drones”, engaged in mind-numbingly boring repetitive tasks, with many a wasted time clock hour, we can perhaps begin to chart a deepening of the personal malaise.
Of his relationships none were of any real substance or duration. By his own admission, he became increasingly withdrawn and isolated, enjoying his own company and pursuits, he displayed increasing indifference towards not just the opposite sex but to other people in general. In this regard, I felt he was being knowingly disingenuous. When questioned further, he acknowledged that his poor financial situation had contributed to his reticence, making it impossible for him to conduct a long-term relationship, to make any kind of commitment. Put simply, he could barely support himself let alone a wife and family (Interestingly, he actually articulated this as: “I could barely support the ideaof myself let alone a wife and family”).
All of which culminated in him developing a mild if persuasive persecution complex, not unlike those espoused by my colleagues Ronson and Kazmi. This complex (pre-cursor to the full-blown pseudo-personality disorder outlined above) was only exacerbated when the subject finally identified his true calling in life. In the evenings after work he started to read voraciously, devouring the finest works in world literature – the Great Russian and American novels, Balzac, Zola, the Beat Generation et cetera. All of which inspired him to write something of his own.
After a period of many years, many aborted efforts, he had his first short story accepted for publication in a minor literary journal. Then a poem, then another short story and so on, until a full-length novel was taken up by a boutique publisher in the United States. But he received very little by way of financial renumeration for his efforts (the publisher offered no advance payment). On release, the novel was well-received but sold poorly. The subject took this particularly badly. He felt that, after fulfilling a life’s dream, that of becoming a published author, he was back at square one again, unable to support himself through his artistic work. To put into context, his deep-seated self-esteem issues were only agitated by his complete lack of success in the artistic field in which he had diligently toiled for the last fifteen years.
Around the time of his crisis (and I make direct reference to it at this point as it has a huge bearing on the outcome of the case), the subject had written a series of nine interconnected short stories featuring the same protagonist, an alter ego, a composite of his own inner contradictions. This collection, he entered into an international literary competition, without any genuine hope of winning, so crushingly and consistently had his work been rejected over the years. But perhaps more importantly, the subject was still haunted by the crocodile dream.
The “Trigger Point”
On the morning in question, the subject (who, it must be said had never displayed any serious suicidal or depressive tendencies) had hit an “all-time low”. He had just turned forty-two. His long-distance relationship had just failed quite spectacularly if not wholly unexpectedly. His attempts to earn a living from his writing appeared to be thankless. He had just lost his job in local government following a period of “unacceptable absenteeism” (a period in which the subject openly admits was defined by “apocalyptic drinking binges”). Desperately hungover, he decided to go for a walk, to get some fresh air: euphemistic for a trip to the local village shop to procure more alcohol. The first “anomaly” occurred when he discovered a twenty-pound note in the pocket of his favourite jacket. Unable to believe his good fortune, his mind began to conjure visions of even more refined and intoxicating morning drinks – champagne (or perhaps cava was more realistic), a bottle of Russian vodka et cetera.
As he approached his destination, however, he bumped into a young woman he had often seen walking in the village, a woman he had always been incredibly attracted to, but a woman he had never had the courage or a real opportunity of approaching in any significant way. This impromptu meeting took place on a narrow stretch of footpath only wide enough to accommodate a single pedestrian. And at that moment, cars were passing on either side of the road, prohibiting any further progress. In the course of this brief yet significant delay, the young woman (of whom we shall refer to as A from this point on) smiled at the subject and asked him if he was the local writer named . When he affirmed, somewhat shyly, that that was indeed the case, A became very excited, telling him that she had read all his books, that she thought he was the most talented and criminally under-read writer around. Moreover, that she had often thought of approaching him like this, but had never found the courage or real opportunity to do so. And, if he wasn’t doing anything this morning, would he like to come to her apartment for a coffee and a chat about literary matters (she did insert a caveat of sorts, an ulterior motive of wanting him to sign all the novels of his that currently resided on her bookshelves at home).
At this point, it would be helpful to break off from the essential narrative to consider the subject’s mind-set. During that period of time he had very little expendable income; he had (as mentioned above) recently lost his position of employment. To have found a twenty-pound note in his pocket, therefore, he regarded as more suspicious than providential. In the recent past, he had encountered A on countless occasions. Not once had they exchanged more than a friendly nod, nothing to indicate that she did indeed suspect him of being a writer she particularly admired. This is the crux of the pseudo-personality’s rational irrationality. Why, after so much misfortune, are these favourable occurrences taking place now? For so long had the subject been used to blanket rejection from every single sector of society, he couldn’t accept the idea of things working out any differently.
That’s not to say that he didn’t return to A’s living quarters for the proposed cup of coffee. Reluctantly, it must be stated. For he could see nothing but rejection and humiliation resulting from this chance liaison. That, however, didn’t prove to be the case. Far from it. No sooner had they walked into her modest yet tastefully decorated apartment, than A produced every single book the subject had ever written, including two obscure anthologies featuring two of his early short stories. In the earnest, gushing tones of the true admirer, she requested that the subject make a simple dedication:To my good friend [ ] Best Wishes [ ].And no sooner had he scribbled the last signature than A lunged forward and kissed him with such passion and desire he almost toppled over the settee.
For many hours (the subject lost track of time; all he knew was that it was now dark outside), the recently acquainted couple indulged in what the subject himself described as “frantic, unceasing pleasures of the flesh”, whereby the wanton, perhaps starstruck A performed a wild and enthusiastic array of sexual acts upon the subject (“Things,” he confided, “that nobody had ever done to me before”). Throughout this impromptu and lengthy tryst, an almost tender intimacy built up between the naked strangers. Whether this was merely congruent with multiple climaxes for both parties, or whether (as A later claimed) she was so familiar with his literary work she felt like she already knew him as a real person, was difficult, almost impossible for the subject to judge. Because even then, post-coitus, holding an attractive young woman in his arms, he was subject to the usual self-doubts and anxieties.
On more than occasion, during our early sessions, the subject confessed to having been increasingly terrified of rejection the older he got. In fact, on the rare occasions he arranged to meet a woman for a date, it was as if he deliberately set out to sabotage the evening (usually by imbibing far too much alcohol far too quickly) thus having an excuse for not securing a second date, an excuse for being rejected on the basis of his looks or lack of charm and personality. All classic symptoms of the pseudo-personality crisis.
To assuage this painful foreboding (to, perhaps, and we discussed this at length in many subsequent sessions, test A’s newfound devotion towards him), the subject suggested that they go to his living space so he could print off a hardcopy of his latest work-in-progress for her to read: the nine interconnected short stories that he had recently submitted to the prestigious literary prize. Seeing this as the most wonderful of gestures, A eagerly assented. She couldn’t believe that she would be the first reader of one of her favourite writer’s most recent books. In great haste, they dressed and left the apartment.
Only when the subject switched on his personal computer at home, he found an email notification in his inbox, informing him that he had won the aforementioned literary award and a cheque payable for fourteen-thousand pounds. In addition, there was a separate email from a member of the judging committee, a leading agent at one of the country’s most esteemed literary agencies  who had been so impressed by his winning entry that she wanted to sign him for the agency. The whole email, so the subject almost tearfully relayed, contained the most flattering superlatives: “New voice of a generation…supremely gifted storyteller, vibrant, essential, challenging…an important representative for those so sorely underrepresented on the current literary scene”.
It was at that moment that the subject started to struggle, physically, that he started to hyperventilate, that his chest tightened to the extent that he felt as if he might go into full cardiac arrest. Again: symptoms synonymous with the pseudo-personality in crisis, where even the physical body refuses to assimilate (or accept) that something good and worthy has just taken place in their lives (NB: made all the more perplexing when one considers the usual euphoria that accompanies satisfying coitus). In this particular case, the one thing the subject had always hoped and dreamed of most: recognition.
In gasping, angry tones, he told A to leave him alone (even though she insisted on calling an ambulance). But he refused to listen and, in the end, physically removed her from his living space. For the next two days, he lie stricken on the floor. He replied to neither email. Every so often (and at this point, such were the physical manifestations of the crisis, like an electronic device malfunctioning, his memory is sketchy), he remembers hauling himself up to his knees and staring at his computer screen, reading through both emails time and again. And it was only when A finally contacted the authorities to voice her concerns about his welfare that he ultimately sought professional help.
Attempts at Interpretation/Treatment
As discussed above, from the outset the subject was almost pathologically aware of his condition, that the construct of a pseudo-personality was, in many ways, holding him back in life. But, as is so often the case with such manias, he was unable to do anything to rectify, or even manage the situation on a practical day to day level, until things escalated to such an extent he no longer enjoyed any activity of any kind, until he was completely eviscerated emotionally, hollowed-out like a drum. When something positive happened, as in the case of the twenty-pound note, A, the object of his desire reciprocating that desire, the winning of the literary award and the offer of literary representation, the subject was unable to handle it. He fell into a deep, introspective, paralysing depression, where he felt that whatever he did, whatever decision he made, would be the wrong decision, would send him spiralling back into helplessness.
At our first session (as outlined above), he relayed the crocodile story, the recurring dream and all that it represented for him. But no matter how I reinterpreted the dream, explaining exactly why his association with the reptile may well have been the significant factor in him developing such a debilitating and unhealthy condition in the first place, he refused to accept my hypothesis, and any complimentary treatments I suggested: hypnotherapy, primal scream role play, almond milk enemas. He felt that the demon he had to confront was the crocodile itself. And by that I mean no figurative representation of the creature, but an actual, physical crocodile. Only if he could face his fears, head-on, the fears engendered in him as a young boy watching television with his mother, he contended, would he be able to move on in life.
Naturally, I argued vociferously, not just from a holistic point of view, but from one of practicality and execution. Only for the subject to counter in the most logical of terms (which, as stated from the outset, was a unique feature of his character). For he said that he now possessed more than enough money via the literary award, a sum of no less than fourteen-thousand pounds, to fund a trip to Australia to confront a crocodile (of the family Crocodylidae) in its own natural habitat. When questioned in more detail, the subject revealed a welter of associated knowledge, not just about the reptile itself but logistical information – flights, accommodation, guides et cetera. Put simply, he already had everything planned out, to the last detail (it was only later that I learned that he had in fact booked the entire trip before our first session, making everything that followed re: his treatment with me completely superfluous). And despite my best efforts to dissuade him from such a curious, foolhardy undertaking (at one point, I even threatened him with sectioning under the Mental Health Act), he would not be swayed.
At this point in our case study, it would perhaps be instructive to include excerpts from the transcript of one session in particular, where I tried to reason with the subject on this matter:
PROFESSOR BOND: But don’t you see? – this is an erroneous association that has little or nothing to do with a crocodile itself. Because you have suffered so many personal and professional disappointments over the years, you have created an alternative persona. In many ways, you’ve split yourself in two, creating a new derisory being to suffer the aforementioned disappointments, while you have erected a fence around your true self, for protection from the world and everything in it. Let me give you an illustrative example from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Many years ago, he treated a patient troubled by a recurring dream about falling from a building. This dream, this unsettling freefalling sensation generated from the subconscious mind, had nothing to do with the building itself but with the patient feeling as if their life was out of control. As it happened, there were debts, an impending court case, the hint of a partner’s infidelity. Don’t you –
SUBJECT: But hasn’t most of Freud been discredited now?
PROFESSOR BOND: Yes, to a certain extent, but that’s not the point. And I think you understand that perfectly well. What you must appreciate – for your own personal safety as much as anything else – is that your physical actions do not necessarily promote positive mental health. If I have earache, for example, it’s unlikely that sticking a finger in my own ear will provide a cure. No. I will need to consult a physician and undergo a course of treatment.
SUBJECT: Agreed. But I still think that I need to confront my fears direct. In the same way a child who’s been bitten by a dog needs to confront theirs, if not they’ll be scared of dogs for the rest of their lives.
PROFESSOR BOND: Even if that was the case – which it isn’t – a crocodile is a very different proposition to a canine. Surely you must see that you’ve already conquered your fears, that by winning such a prestigious literary award and all the recognition that goes with it, you no longer have need of a pseudo-personality complex to absorb all your psychic pain. You can finally be you, the real you, the person you always envisaged yourself as being.
SUBJECT: But that would just put a full-stop on things.
PROFESSOR BOND: Full-stop? I don’t understand.
SUBJECT: That if I don’t have this problem, or any problem for that matter, I’ll, by definition, stop searching for answers.
It was then I realised that we had reached a dangerous impasse. If I pushed too hard I could do irreparable damage to our working relationship. In all forms of therapy, none more so than when dealing with the psychogenesis of a pseudo-personality, it is of imperative importance for the therapist to maintain their focus, thus gaining a sense of perspective, and, most crucially, maintaining the trust of the subject. For therapy, in all its guises, is a far from an exact science. We can only ever help people manage their conditions. For that reason, I had to let our Crocodile Man take leave of my care.
But that was not quite where our story ended.
Against my express advice (and at this point, the subject himself cancelled any further sessions), he did indeed travel to Darwin, Australia, home of some of the finest beaches in the world, but beaches hostile to human beings as they are populated by saltwater crocodiles, the most aggressive and dangerous of the species (family Crocodylidae). In a handwritten letter, the subject wrote to tell me of his encounter with the aforementioned reptiles. After a long arduous trip to the Northern Territories, the subject and a team of guides (by all accounts, highly skilled professionals used to handling such fearsome creatures) disembarked from an amphibious, land-water vehicle onto a long stretch of coastline teeming with hundreds of saltwater crocodiles. Ignoring the guides’ warnings, the subject foolishly broke away from the party (NB: I feel it necessary to state that I had no idea that he meant to do anything other than observe these creatures in their natural habitat, not initiate any kind of physical interaction), and approached one hissing, aggressive seawater crocodile in particular, a creature clearly intent on attacking him. In somewhat bizarre terms (and I had to read this particular passage of the letter three times), the subject attempted to engage the creature in conversation, he attempted to explain the situation in full, how he had seen a TV movie featuring a crocodile attack when he was a little boy, how, in later years, he suffered a recurring dream, where he was subject to a similar attack…it went on and on (in the letter, the subject giving the reptile a complete overview of the case, in a not dissimilar fashion to the way I have outlined events in this case study). Unsurprisingly, the creature lunged forward and grabbed the subject in its powerful jaws. Even more bizarrely (as he was now being tossed this way and that and losing a lot of blood, “almost being ripped in half”), he really did embrace the crocodile with all the tenderness of a lover.
At the time of writing, the subject is recuperating in an Australian hospital having suffered significant but not fatal or life-altering injuries during the attack. In a subsequent exchange of emails, he now recognises the anthropomorphic disaster that was his attempt to conduct a frank and open dialogue with a fierce, unrepentant predator such as the saltwater crocodile.
All of which we will no doubt discuss at length when he returns from Australia and continues his treatment.
Neil Randall is a novelist and short story writer. His debut novel A Quiet Place to Die (Wild Wolf Publishing) was voted e-thriller Book of the Month for February 2014. His historical novels, The Holy Drinker and The Butterfly and the Wheel (both Knox Robinson Publishing) have been widely praised. His latest thriller, The Girl in the Empty Room (Crooked Cat Publishing) was released in September of last year. His debut short story collection Tales of Ordinary Sadness (Knox Robinson Publishing) has received much critical acclaim: Darkness Reigns at the Foot of the Lighthouse was short-listed for the prestigious Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2009, and Hands long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015.
Neil’s forthcoming novel will be published by us, here at Cephalopress. Stay tuned for updates and more of Neil’s awesome words.