Essay Five: Animal, Vegetable
Armchair Diagnosis is a complex and ever-changing discipline. It is ruggedly ambitious in its scope. Its targets are never fixed. It carries all before it in its quest to gather up the unsuspecting and tell them what their problem is. It is light on its feet. It moves with the times. A brief review of these qualities reveals that the discipline’s greatest strengths are also its most crippling weaknesses.
The main thing about Armchair Diagnosis is that it does not carry the burden of proof: you can say whatever you want. You can decide that any kind of a person is a narcissist, and the structure and internal reasoning of Armchair Diagnosis means that you will never be called upon to support such a claim with evidence. You will never be required to supply professional credentials that extend beyond your having read an article about it. However, even this pro-forma constraint is rarely demanded. You can call someone a psychopath, and then when someone asks what you mean you say, “I can just see. It’s very obvious. Sorry, are you their friend? Sorry.”
When I was in high school, the cutting edge of Armchair Diagnostic research was focused on people believed to be Pathological Liars. One day, no one knew that there was supposed to even be such a thing as a Pathological Liar. We thought of it as just “lying”, the thing that people did when they were bored or strange. The next day, a quarter of our associates were found to be displaying the clinical characteristics of the hardened case. The idea that someone was lying not because they wanted to but because they needed to is, for some reason, extremely easy for a teenage girl to understand. That’s how we explained it to one another: “It means that you like have to lie. It means that somewhere deep inside, you just need to lie.” Our eyes widened. Wow. No one knew exactly what the word “pathological” meant, but this did not prove to be a barrier. I would say more that it acted like a whip on an already motivated racehorse.
Saying it made it true. There was this girl we knew who told us she had to wear prescription glasses when clearly her eyes were 100% perfect and probably she could see in the dark. Her name for this essay is Julia Guy. She had briefly gone out with this nerd we knew, and then broke up with him at a party. The story was that she tore his heart into tiny strips. We admired the savagery with which she sent the nerd on his way, and thought about making her our friend. But there was doubt from the beginning. There was something unreliable, we thought, about Julia Guy. We narrowed our eyes slightly when she came up in discussion. We tilted our heads to the side. Julia Guy was mostly unsettling to be around. She had a rabbity sort of kinetic energy. She moved like a character in a Japanese horror film, able to travel from one side of the room to another without seeming to use her legs. Julia Guy was always zooting up close to us.
We had our doubts about her for a variety of other non-reasons, but there was nothing we could really pin on her. The main issue was this: we could not decide if she was our enemy or not. If she was our enemy, why was she so nice? If she was not our enemy, why did she persist in having crushes on the boys that we had crushes on? Why, also, did she act on those crushes with such devastating efficiency?
She was very pretty and clever. She went to a different school from the usual ones we knew, and her skill set and cultural capital was slightly different than ours. It was possibly better. She had watched all these musicals we had never seen. Her mom was the first one to get Botox. The movie of her childhood was Troop Beverly Hills, and ours was My Girl. She had never heard of Empire Records. We could not get a read on her at all. Just tell us who you are, Julia Guy. Help us.
It came to us eventually. Really, it was staring us in the face the whole time. The thing with her, we saw at last, was that she was a Pathological/Compulsive Liar. Our eyes widened once more. It was easy to crack the enigma of Julia once you realised that underneath everything she did and said was her terrible, devouring need to lie and lie and lie. Wow.
Julia Guy, to be clear, never really told a noticeable amount of lies, except for that weird thing with the glasses. Not important. The diagnosis had been made, and that was the end of it. It stuck with astonishing persistence, and made everything she did more sinister and interesting. Even now, I have to actually shake my head to remember that Julia Guy was not diagnosed with a personality disorder by a professional. It was me who decided that, in my capacity as a seventeen-year-old wolverine.
It was a giddy time. We talked about it non-stop for at least three weeks. But Armchair Diagnosis is a fluid and shifting thing. Quite soon, we stopped seeing the point of Julia Guy being a Pathological Liar. It turned out to be not quite the catch-all diagnosis we had initially hoped. We moved on. Julia Guy moved on too. She revenged herself upon me by continuing to be the kind of girl who the kind of boys I liked were in love with.
We found out that there was a thing called a sex addict, and that kept us occupied for a bit. Later, there was a movement towards realising that many of the people who walked among us were towering narcissists. There was the sense that we were, in fact, living in a whole era of narcissism. This was also a good one. Everyone was a narcissist; everyone was obsessed with themselves. We explained it to each other: “He actually can’t think of anyone else except himself. His brain won’t let him. He’s like medically fixated on himself.”
It was compelling, in its way, but for me it did not even come close to the exultant finger-pointing that went on during the era of the Pathological Liar. It had felt, for a little while, like we were in The Crucible. Nothing could really live up to that. I started to lose my enthusiasm. I became jaded. Deciding that someone was a psychopath was not, in the end, very useful. Armchair Diagnosis does not extend to treatment. Neither does it extend to offering helpful tips on handling the person you have recently determined to be a classic Avoidant Personality.
Despite my withdrawal of support, Armchair Diagnosis continues to thrive. It has become more sophisticated in its use of analytical tools. For example, my friend Bella heard a podcast that told you how to find a sociopath. What you do is you get the suspected sociopath to draw a Q in the air. If they draw a Q how they see it (with the little stick going to the right), then they are not a sociopath. If they draw a Q how their audience will see it (with the stick going to the left), then they are a sociopath. The podcast said it was something about only telling your audience wants to hear. I am so grateful that I did not know this trick when I was in high school. This is exactly the kind of dumb thing I would have loved.
You definitely can’t tell that someone is a sociopath by making them draw a Q in the air. You can’t decide that someone has Borderline Personality Disorder because you think they are mean. Lying about prescription glasses did not mean that Julia Guy had problems.
I submit here that there is only one real way to get the measure of a person. It is very easy. All you do is have them play Twenty Questions. I submit that the way someone plays Twenty Questions is the way they do everything. It is a window into their true selves.
My brother and I both prefer the all-or-nothing approach. We get very specific straight away.
“Is it a man?”
“Is it Bill Clinton?”
“Is it dad?”
Like that. This is rarely successful, but sometimes you get spectacular results.
“Is it a book?”
“Is it a movie?”
“Is it Fargo?”
“What is wrong with you? Yes.”
We take a lot of wild swings. We do not like to be diverted from our chosen field of inquiry.
“Is it alive?”
“Is it a snake?”
“What kind of snake?”
“It’s not a snake.”
To watch me or my brother guess at Twenty Questions is to understand us more comprehensively. We are impatient in all things. We have a deep contempt for consequence. It is heartbreakingly easy to bore us. We are bad at following any kind of sequence. You could hang around us for ages and figure that out, or you could watch us play Twenty Questions. You’d arrive at the same conclusion. That’s the way it goes with M. as well. She is systematic. She narrows it down slowly, patiently. Her questions follow a logical progression. She remembers more than three questions back. She nearly always wins. As she is in Twenty Questions, she is in life.
It is my cherished ambition that I will get to watch everyone I know play Twenty Questions before I die. By ten questions in, I will understand the important things about them. By twenty, I will know everything there is. I’m joking, but not really. In my heart I know I’m right.