'A Man of Double Deed': Reflections on how we need diversity of thought.
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
During life in Lockdown, I found myself watching a considerable amount of television. One story I enjoyed watching was the compelling UK television series ‘The Fall’. It tells the story of a detective superintendent's battle (both personal and professional) as she tries to investigate a serial killer who is living a family-man existence.
At the heart of ‘The Fall’ story is a violent and abusive man who was sexually abused as a child. Yet he is also someone who is compellingly likeable and despite all his awfulness we can find ourselves wanting him to be ok. His abuse occurred within a children's home and institution, under the hands of an adult: a sadistic priest. In the story we see the complicated choices the boys in the home had to make to take care of each other and collectively survive the ordeal.
We meet this protagonist in his adulthood and the story unravels bit by bit, peeling back layers of history and systemic failings, along with their horrifying consequences. We see how individuals, groups and society will not linger on the dark deeds of ourselves, our friends, colleagues and loved ones and so cannot allow a bigger picture. In doing so, we turn a blind eye and leave abuse to continue unchecked. Even with all the evidence in front of us, the viewer is also drawn into wanting to turn a blind eye; to imagine he is not that bad.
The series shows how difficult it is to make the psychological connection that people who commit objectively evil acts are not globally monstrous, but may also at times be handsome, kind, warm, banal and likeable. It reminds me of how as a result, people in the presence of shocking abuse often see the parts of the encounter they want to see, or importantly, what they are directed to see.
At the beginning of the first episode of the Fall there is a nursery rhyme read out. I hadn’t heard this nursery rhyme for a long time, and it being read out in a crime detective story, left me with an experience of the uncanny. The uncanny is the psychological experience of something, as not exactly mysterious, but rather unsettling in a strangely familiar way. It may describe incidents where a familiar object or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context: Like a nursery rhyme being read out by a serial killer; taking a selfie at a crime scene; or clinicians publicly centralising their own upset when discussing their medical negligence. You might begin to feel confused about whether the darkness is imagined or not. Also, the personal and benign becomes tainted with something sinister. Our safe world is under attack, and we must respond to the threat. But how? It becomes difficult to think and we often just want to walk away and ignore, rather than stay close and examine.
The nursery rhyme is attributed to an anonymous author. The earliest recorded version of it is found in a 1784 collection entitled “Gamer Gurton’s Garland. I have returned to it again following on from my thinking in a previous blog about the story of narcissus and echo and the task of whistleblowers and scapegoats. Who often expose systems of double deeds.
The Man of Double Deed BY ANON
There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
'Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
'Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
'Twas like a bird without a tail;
'Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
'Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
'Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
'Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
'Twas death, and death, and death indeed.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Group analysis understands people as fundamentally social and that therapy is for the group, by the group and of the group. Unlike systemic psychology, where systems are thought to seek homeostasis and on some level be knowable, group analysis works with the experience of a system having no definitive boundary and so we can never really know the full extent of the coming and going. We can only ever know and be a part of the whole. Our part is to contribute to the whole rather than to have a complete formulation.
For anyone who has ever sat in a large group analytic experience, the poem might feel like a very familiar type of conversation. An experience of associative thought, where multiple minds are working together. On one level it can seem to. just be gibberish, but when we slow our attention, we can feel that something important is being held and explored within its content. We just might not know what it means. This reflects our tendency to think and communicate both fast and slowly at the same time (Kaheneman, 2012). We are people of double deed with both our conscious and unconscious processes.
Blind to Our Own Blindness
One of the things you experience as a participant in group analysis is how all of us are blind to our own blindness. Does the man of double deed know what he is sowing? Does our ‘Fall’ evil protagonist know the awfulness of his actions? To survive his ordeal it would seem certain parts of him were killed off, or so wounded they are too painful to get close to now. He certainly seems to want to pretend he has left the past behind him. As do others in his life. Although as the audience of the story we see this is laughably inaccurate.
The ability to lack insight is shockingly exposed in the book 'The invisible Gorilla' by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Chabris and Simons constructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white shirt team, ignoring the black shirt players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing.
Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The costume gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task— and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams— that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla. Seeing and orienting are automatic functions of fast thinking, but they depend on the allocation of some attention to the relevant stimulus. The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there— they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
To see our environments more accurately then we need other group members. We need to work as a group. And we need to pay attention to group members who are noticing events differently than us. But who to believe? The task requires both trust and discernment - it requires relatedness.
This reminds me of our current culture of striving to 'be kind' and the complex task of trying to establish our intersectional position within any communication, whilst also policing language within intimate relationships. According to this research, if as a group when we are thoroughly consumed in a task, then at least half of us will be missing anything else that is happening in plain sight. Fresh eyes, naïve to the task become necessary. But are they wanted and can they be trusted?
Fresh eyes and Shoshin
This need for fresh eyes when engaged in complex tasks is well known in the NHS. The fresh eyes process has identified factors that lead to misinterpretation on cardiotocography tracings: fatigue, familiarity and limited knowledge. Fresh eyes is also why public health authorities try to commission methodologists, rather than in-house specialist specific clinicians, to perform evidence evaluation & even lead guidelines for service development. Not having a vested interest in the field minimizes the problems of a narrow, tired or overly rehearsed gaze.
The necessity of multiple narratives is well known in group psychology: we know as individual's whilst we are all experts of our own lives, we also inevitably have tunnel visioned bias in our evidence evaluation. This holds for single issue groups and professional faculties too and is why there is an insistence on valuing different understandings for a healthy group experience - so that we do not just sit around swapping tips on how to double down on our double deeds.
Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism meaning beginner's mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying, even at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. The practice of shoshin acts as a counter to the hubris and closed-mindedness often associated with thinking of oneself as an expert. This includes the Einstellung effect, where a person becomes so accustomed to a certain way of doing things that they do not consider or acknowledge alternative ideas or approaches.
But what if this isn’t just about upholding a narrative of being an expert? Why else might blindness to our double deeds happen? Well in some senses psychology is very simple - painful things hurt. Or at least they should. We minimise, deny, normalise, dissociate, coverup, pretend it hasn’t happened, or we displace and focus on something a little more predictable. We think if we call our painful story something else or don't talk about it at all it will go away. For short term survival, all of these actions can be great and necessary strategies. But a bit like a physical wound - what we use to stop pain in the short term is not necessarily a wise strategy long term.
Life gets complicated when we deny the simple reality that painful things hurt. Part of our mind must be kept frozen to ignore the evil doings of ourselves and each other. We stay cold and silent, when faced with uncomfortable situations. Just like the physical thawing of a cold body, the thawing out of this frozen part can be excruciating and disorientating as new understandings and associations start connecting and joining the dots to old memories.
The stories of the ‘Man of Double Deed’ and the 'The Fall' provide a dramatic and imaginative narrative for us to examine the ideas of consciousness, awareness and the reality testing mentioned above – as they pertain to survivors of systemic abuse. Indeed, the idea of consciousness is a major theme running through this television series. Ordinarily we think of consciousness as our ability to perceive accurately and operate effectively on both the internal and external aspects of our world. The world is, as we perceive it.
Ideally, in a safe, benign, and trusting world, individuals are unencumbered by worrying about the motivations of others. People do not have to fear, or attempt to discern, what others are thinking, feeling, or intending to do. Moreover, one is free to develop one’s identity and sense of self, free of negative impingement. But that is certainly not the case for many people who exist in and/or have survived abusive systems. To not be continuously concerned about and accurately read the subjectivity of others is often a matter of life and death.
Double consciousness requires a certain killing off of spirit - as the person weaves in and out of possibilities. In the fall story there is a distrust that results in hidden cameras, multiple phones, searching through diaries and note taking. In ‘The Man of Double Deed’ in his attempt to control his environment things very rapidly career out of control. Both men who once were prey to someone's abusive desire have become a type of predator: Their need to control their environment means they have sown seeds of deceit that allow for a snow job.
Why is evil happening in plain sight so difficult to pin down?
One person who also explored these concepts is M. Scott Peck, in his book: People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. “People of the Lie” is Peck’s attempt to understand human evil from a clinical perspective.
Whilst there is much that is problematic with the book, I think the most valuable information in People of the Lie is the way Peck describes how evil manifests. For those who have not yet had direct experience with evil behaviour and recognize it for it is, this can be useful. And even for those of us who have, it’s reassuring to know that the behaviour you’ve been subject to is something that is not okay.
Peck explains that evil is the inability to tolerate oneself as imperfect. Not being able to tolerate the idea that you are not perfect means that you cannot recognize your need to grow. It means that you need to maintain the pretense of your goodness and perfection above all else. People who demonstrate evil see the world as they want to see it rather than how it actually is. To maintain their version of reality, they must scapegoat others and project their own faults onto them. They must attack any and all who jeopardies their self-image. All of this means that those who demonstrate evil are entirely incapable of true empathy and can be utterly destructive in their relationship with others in the name of self-preservation.
“When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life -- particularly human life -- such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may "break" a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.
Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a "biophilic" person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a "necrophilic character type," whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.
Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
Addiction to Perfection
If we follow Jungian ideas, we all have an inner killer, a part of us that does not value our body, our soul, our everyday human life, or our existence beyond being a useful object. The part that never feels good enough and is addicted to bettering ourselves. Having a better night out, a better body, a better therapeutic relationship, a better family, a better society. Culturally we are consumed with self-improvement and tend to call out almost any unrehearsed or misstep as aggression, unhealthy or even toxic.
Anyone who has lived with addiction or disordered eating knows the serious murderous agenda of this perfect part of the psyche and how it dresses itself up publically as benign. That society will celebrate it and cheer it on. This is the part that medicates rather than rests, that call our bodies ‘fat, ugly, stupid worthless’ rather them let them fumble, or treat them with gentleness and care. The part that acts first and thinks later; that wants relatedness but refuses to relate. This part says they believe in a better life but doesn’t know the difference between recovery and rest. We know this internal predator exists and will cling to the belief in its necessariness and helpfulness.
The man of double deed reminds me of our complexity. It reminds me of how dangerous each of us can be and how quickly things can spiral out of control. All in plain sight. It reminds me of our interdependence. Whether we like it or not we need each: our different noticing, understandings and perspectives. We need chaos, missteps and disturbances. We need each other’s gaze on the parts we are not attending to because we are so busy concentrating on other things.
We need to develop skills in receiving others who are politically or socially different from us. Weall need help in connecting to the multiple stories we live and are exposed to or we will be stuck with one narrative, one way of being. We will be stuck as people of double deeds believing we are creating gardens full of life, but instead are invested in justifying evil: causing pain, havoc and destruction in the pursuit of perfection.
Our desire to be perfect and falling in love with an image of who we want to be seen as, rather than the reality of accepting who we are is another way of understanding narcissism and the story of narcissus. In Christian tradition the story of the Fall, the concept of evil and the idea of narcissism are linked in the story of Lucifer. Lucifer (the devil) was an angel of light who became so impressed with his own beauty, intelligence, power, and position that he began to desire for himself the honour and glory that belonged to God alone. In his wish to be beloved he decided to impose righteous living on humanity - to take away choice. This is the god complex. The trap clinicians can fall into when they will not allow for personal and professional growth and believe their political will is what is necessary to avoid the messiness of a patient’s exploration of despair and hate.
These complexities encourage us to ask the questions: What is good enough? What is a good enough life? What is a good enough clinician? What is a good enough work environment? What is a good enough society?