Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Human bodies are a process, not an entity, though bounded by a skin -- taking in air and food, throwing off waste through the skin and so on.  Malfunction on one end of a spectrum of emotion complex that runs through everything is mild malaise, a shadow.  Like a moving cloud under the surface of the waterline of existence (the one between conscious and unconscious) as though a manta ray were swimming past, harmlessly.  People attribute a shadowed mood to a disappointment, a change in the weather, or maybe catching a cold.  Just a flicker in the glow of personality.  Not a big deal.

But a dear friend, a psychiatric nurse in Europe, emailed me in the night about a disturbing story at the other end of extremely threatened identity.  Don’t look at vids of this before you go to sleep.   The story at this link will not show any photos.  It's a couple of years old.  There are "disturbing" photos below, so you might want to stop reading.

Briefly, a man in “party mode” driving with his girl friend to an event location began to act strangely.  He put her out of the car, left, messaged to say his car had broken down, left the car, discarded all clothing, walked to a Miami Causeway overpass where a homeless man was sleeping and attacked him, popping out his eyes and chewing pieces off his face.  During the fifteen minute assault cars and bicyclists passed by, calling the police, and a squad car arrived.  The officer immediately shot the attacker dead.  The incident was attributed to drugs, unspecified, possibly even undefined or named -- something “creative.”  The media called it a “zombie drug.”  Dehumanizing.  Un-alive.

This doesn’t approach the evil of Bar Jonah (I DO believe in evil, but I also think it is always human) who killed neighborhood boys, chopped them up, cooked them and served them to their families.  The element of plotting and executing such a plan has always seemed far more evil than an eruption like the man in Miami, who seems clearly to have taken his brain “off line” through his own deliberate ingestion of drugs.  Bar Jonah had a corrupted operating system.  He probably didn't know it had happened -- wasn't aware of how abnormal he was though he complained of symptoms.  “Cool” computer language is one way of stepping away from our animal nature.  It does not capture emotion, which is better served by images than words.  Once detected, Bar Jonah's actions were hard to believe.  One victim’s mother still swears her son is somewhere alive.  

The zombie man was seen and dispatched at once.  No question, no trial, direct action, reflex.  The homeless man now has a home -- he just can’t see it.  But among us are other brain dysfunctions that aren't noticed by anyone until the person guided by that brain begins to shut down.  I’m thinking about my own father who basically began to sit life out after he retired.  If you said anything to him, his response was a mocking “duuuuuh.”  He finally had a major stroke and took a month to die. In the Sixties we weren’t conscious of gradual dementias.  His sister also drifted into dreamland for the last decades.  She was younger and was in a nursing home.

It’s possible that we will look back on the 2010’s as a time when we didn’t realize that our powerful old men leaders were going crazy, as individuals and as a group.  An artist friend said he went to a meeting with some promoters and was horrified that they looked like cartoon stereotypes of hog capitalists: red faces, big bellies, snorting laughs.  Too much fat beef, too many martinis, too little exercise, a little cocaine and the worst drug of all, POWER.  Predator drones are killer zombies.  Except that they are rationally sent, with preplanning and mixed motives, making the neighbors of our enemies “eat” their children.

Makeup for a zombie festival in Venice

My psychiatric nurse friend did a bit of research on the phenomena of faces being torn off, how it is meant to remove identity.  I had previously been interested in the case of the woman whose face (and hands) were torn off by a chimpanzee belonging to her friend, partly because of my past with animal control and partly because of theatrical theories about masks.  In fact, I think most of us are fascinated or why would the Guy Fawkes mask have become such a powerful and pervasive symbol?  The victim of the chimp attack was given one of the early face transplants.  Now she must learn how to make it expressive as the nerves and muscles grow back.

A real face being transplanted.

I’ve been interested in what I call the Star Trek phenomenon:  that we can become so used to the latex distortions and creations meant to indicate creatures on other planets that they become normal, even attractive, sympathetic.  Our media-driven world pushes in the other direction: they present an ideal (which requires buying their products) and stigmatize everyone who doesn’t conform:  too fat, too hairy, too lumpy, too dark, etc.  I’d like to know what happens in the brain for us to begin seeing a Wookie or Whorf as a sympathetic person.  

Early research on baby ability to recognize faces used paper plates with a smiley face drawn on -- no more than an emoticon  :-)  and the youngest infants would stare.  As their ability to discriminate grew more detailed, they began to relate to their caregivers with obvious enthusiastic recognition.  It’s very useful.  Even the little gray feral cat I call “Smudge” runs eagerly to see me because I feed her.  Her enthusiasm makes me WANT to feed her.  These phenomena have been studied for a long time as “psychological,” both the need to “have” a face, and the need to cause others to respond warmly to that face.  We want God to have a face.
This woman's face was torn off by a pet dog.

To tear off someone’s face, gouging out their eyes, is to try to destroy all interaction, to reduce the person to the level of food, of meat.  (I’m uncomfortable eating a fried fish that’s looking at me.)  One of the things taught to animal control officers is not to stare into a dog’s eyes if he’s aroused and bristling -- a stare is interpreted as a challenge and might trigger an attack.  It’s as though actual beams come out from our eyeballs -- one can feel them when stared at.  (And I’m really bad about staring -- I think because I feel invisible and impalpable, an unseen see-er.  Of course, in theatre or the pulpit one WANTS everyone looking.)  They used to tell teachers of Indian kids not to look them in the eye because it is invasive and their culture considers it rude.  No more.  These days your eye is likely to meet a critical returning glare!  Which is easier to deal with than someone who won’t open their eyes.

Voluntary defacialization by wearing masks that are all the same is the opposite of the control-by-image-identification strategies of video-taping protests, using facial identification software to defeat even plastic surgery by analyzing bone structures and the whorls of ears. Pushing back in the other direction are selfies and video-Skype.  I have to say that sometimes relatives send me group selfies that are flat-out scary.  I think about small animals or surgical patients surrounded by pressing-close faces, showing their teeth or masked like bandits.

Voluntary surgery -- she wants to look like a cat.

Except for statues, we haven't been able to see faces thirty feet tall until this century.  Every tiny flinch or pulse conveys the interaction of the neurons in the skull.  We see those faces change over the years, change under the knife.  We fall in love with them, shrink in terror from them, laugh and cry with them.  And yet when we see them in real life they are often smaller, grayer than we thought.  I think what I’m saying is that though we like to judge phenomena by appearance and label, that’s NOT enough.  Whether “inappropriate” becomes Evil depends upon things like intensity, intention, context, meaning -- the ability of one’s brain software to empathize.  My nurse friend says that a shared symptom of his ward's population is the inability to "read" people's faces.

The woman whose face was torn off had to be moved to a different nursing home -- not because she was unhappy or upset, but because the other patients couldn't bear to look at her.  The moral judgment, the stigma, is not in the objective fact of flesh that isn't what we expect, but in the subjective reaction of people with limited imaginations.  Didn't they realize that the nursing home was a different planet in an inner space?
California Wookie

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