When Hannah went insane it happened like this:
First she said she had a crush. She didn’t know him well, but she knew him enough. She got his number through a friend of a friend and texted him. Hey what’s up | It’s Hannah | What are you doing tonight | Hannah Caldwell. She was drunk, and what she typed came out enjambed. I got your number from Andrew | My roommate went out | So I’m at my apartment alone | If you want to chill | I have weed
Hannah left her phone in her bathroom and passed out. In the morning her roommate found the phone and took a screenshot. Hannah had texted the man she had a crush on all night. He hadn’t responded. For effect, I want to quote what Hannah said, her spectacular pivot from friendly to filthy, and the way she taunted him for not fulfilling the fantasy she described. But I’m already somewhere sullied by telling you about Hannah at all. I’m trying to move through it as quickly as I can.
Hannah kept texting the man she had a crush on, and I kept hearing about it. Until she started sending the texts, Hannah had said her sexuality pointed inward, that the physicality of others made her uncomfortable. The texts she sent the man she had a crush on described fucking him in the past, present, and future tenses.
The man asked her to stop. Hannah sent him a love package. In it were perfumed notes written in careful script, candies, small flowers, a children’s book chosen to represent her innocent intentions, sketches of her sewing projects, and various other tokens of her affection. The man started talking about a restraining order.
On the day of the love package, Hannah showed up at my house. It was a warm night, spring, purple-y, my dad was dying. I was fraying and resistant to taking on anyone else’s problems. We sat on my porch and drank gin. I pretended I didn’t know what had happened and then I asked her what she was doing. She said she was having a relationship.
We wound our way backwards: Hannah opened Twitter and showed me the account of the man she had a crush on. She explained how each of his tweets was actually a message to her. Where the man was talking about the movie he’d seen, he was talking about Hannah, and where he was talking about his favorite book, he was talking about Hannah, and where his dog had done something funny, he also was talking about Hannah.
Hannah showed me how her tweets were coded responses to his, and how, in the more private space of her texts, she was responding explicitly, not in code.
In September 2013, The New Yorker ran a story about Nick Lotz, a man experiencing “Truman Show” delusions. As a freshman at Ohio University, Lotz was self-conscious, withdrawn. He’d stay up all night in his dorm room snorting Adderall and becoming convinced that websites contained messages for him. That summer, he attended a music festival where he realized while rolling that his life was a hidden camera reality show. For the next two years, his head was occupied by a producer’s voice reminding him to be interesting for the audience at home. The producer fed him lines and issued challenges, like a three-day fast. Lotz learned from the producer that the audience could hear his thoughts. He was instructed to keep them interesting.
I ripped the Lotz story out and left it on my desk because it reminded me of something. When I read it again in the future, I realized it reminded me of the present, of Hannah.
Initially, the premise of Lotz’s show was that he would win $100 million for his continued participation. In 2009, it shifted. His new goal was to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. He practiced stand-up at open mic nights and at home, for his audience. The show made him feel embarrassed and afraid, but he didn’t see a way out of it. Then the producer told Lotz if he went to New York, he would get his spot on SNL, and the show would end. Lotz booked a flight the next morning. He arrived at Rockefeller Center and asked for Lorne Michaels. A security guard refused him entry. Lotz waited around in the lobby, assuming Michaels would summon him. Eventually, Lotz left. He went back to Ohio, and the show went on.
I stopped following Hannah on Twitter. People would ask, out of concern or voyeurism, if I’d seen what she’d said. I wanted to be able to say no. All proximity felt like building a case against her. She was seeing herself in every tweet, from everyone, not just the man she had a crush on. She talked about engaging in complicated relationships with the people behind various popular accounts. One night, from the coded information being tweeted at her, she understood that she was supposed to host a party for them. She cleaned her house, bought drinks, got dressed. No one showed up.
The New Yorker story about Nick Lotz focuses heavily on the cultural context of delusion. As writer Andrew Marantz explains, the “forms” of delusion are universal (persecution, grandiosity, and erotomania are the recurring themes), but the contents are not: “Grandiose schizophrenics from largely Christian countries often claim to be prophets or gods, but sufferers in Pakistan, a Muslim country, rarely do. In Shanghai, paranoid people report being pricked by poisoned needles; in Taipei, they are possessed by spirits.”
Marantz also looks at “technology” as a material condition for delusion. In the forties, he writes, paranoid Americans believed their minds were being controlled by radio waves. In the fifties, it was satellites, and in the seventies, it was computer chips. Lotz’s belief that his life was being televised in that way followed suit: a cultural anxiety and contemporary technology individualized and manifested. But psychiatrists are also doubling back because of cases like Lotz’s. In the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, published in 1952, delusions were categorized as either bizarre (beliefs that couldn’t possibly be true) or nonbizarre (beliefs that could be true, but aren’t). A belief like “I am dead,” Marantz writes, is bizarre, while “The Pope is in love with me,” is not. The most recent edition of the DSM, however, discourages psychiatrists from differentiating between “bizarre” and “nonbizarre” delusions: “Rapid expansion of technology raises questions about the reliability between clinicians in determining which delusions are possible and which ones are bizarre.”
Hannah’s parents got worried about her. One weekend when her roommate was out of town, I got a text from an unsaved number: Hi this is Hannah’s mom. I just talked to Hannah and she’s inconsolable. She was coming to pick Hannah up, but could I just go and sit with Hannah until she got there? Hannah’s eyes were puffy, but the two hour wait was unremarkable. We made curries and did our nails on her living room floor.
Later, when Hannah had fallen asleep, I sat outside with her mother. She had once been diagnosed as bipolar; some of Hannah’s behavior seemed legible to her. What she wanted to know about was the internet stuff Hannah’s roommate had told her about. Who was the man Hannah had a crush on? What was Hannah saying to him? What was so unusual about their relationship? Didn’t everyone Hannah’s age socialize online? Didn’t people sometimes talk to and about other people online without mentioning them by name? It was hard to explain to Hannah’s mother what was strange about her internet behavior because it was hard to explain how it differed from my own.
There’s a scene in the autobiographical novel 10:04 in which Ben Lerner’s professor-narrator meets with one of his graduate students, Calvin, just after Hurricane Sandy, and surmises, from the speed at which Calvin talks and the way he shakes his leg, that Calvin is probably taking a lot of Adderall. He also senses that he and Calvin might not be inhabiting the same space, psychically. Calvin starts to tell him about how his cell phone has been tampered with – he can’t get a call out – ever since he looked into the mechanisms behind the hurricane. Lerner’s professor-narrator expresses concern, and Calvin says:
“Can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made ‘this’ indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me that these storms aren’t manmade, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words – you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?”
Calvin leaves and Lerner’s professor-narrator responds:
I did the things one does, the institution speaking through me. I emailed my closest colleagues and the chair about my concerns and asked for advice…. I emailed Calvin to say I was sorry if I’d upset him, but I was concerned about him and wanted to be of whatever help I could. I did not say that our society could not, in its present form, go on, or that I believed the storms were in part manmade, or that poison was coming at us from a million points, or that the FBI fucks with citizens’ phones, although all of that was to my mind plainly true. And that my mood was regulated by drugs. And that sometimes the language was a jumble of marks.
At the time when Hannah was tweeting and I was being given a wide-berth for self-destruction because of my dad, everyone around us was graduating college. We were supposed to be graduating but neither of us did. We both left school and stopped talking.
This summer, after I did figure out how to graduate, I obsessed over the Lerner passage. It seemed applicable to everything, but to Hannah most of all. I ruminated over how descriptions of certain online experiences could mirror descriptions of paranoid or delusional experiences. Online, there were subtweets, trolls, followers. Interacting with the social internet – posting photos, writing tweets – we are for the most part talking to ourselves and assuming an audience will show up later. Or, if we assume a position of paranoia rather than megalomania: we may not have a captive audience, but someone is always watching.
I wanted to talk to Hannah, who I heard was still living at an in-patient facility down south. People I talked to who were in touch with her said she was doing better, but wasn’t really well. They said her online profiles were still off. She tweeted a lot, and she wasn’t ironic. She didn’t distance herself from her sadness or her rage or her selfishness. She just said, in different ways, how fucked up everything was. She tweeted a link to a short story she wrote about wanting to get fucked, and about dildo-shopping. I knew what people meant: Hannah was sharing more than she should have been comfortable sharing without announcing her intentions as comical or political. You can only be Kathy Acker if you say you’re Kathy Acker.
I knew about pathologizing to construct the normal: Two Januaries prior my mother had waged a campaign to stop mutual acquaintances from following me online. I had posted a series of pictures taken of myself wearing neon-colored wigs and stickers on my face; I tweeted in altered states of consciousness; I wrote without punctuation about how uncomfortable it was to have a body. My mom sent me an email asking me to please just chill out and I wrote a long, Judith Butler-quoting email back to her about drag and identity performance. Starting with my brothers, she encouraged relatives and family friends to unfollow me in protest.
Telling you this, I experience a split. John Berger said a woman cannot mourn the death of her father without simultaneously holding the image of herself mourning. The physical self talking about the digital self is similar – self-conscious. The only people I know who don’t stumble when they talk about their digital selves are those whose digital selves are famous/actualized. A few weeks ago I started seeing a therapist and we quickly reached a place where, to tell a story fully, I would have to explain to her how I sometimes was as an avatar. I felt a long flash of solidarity with Hannah as I tried to tell the therapist about messages I’d exchanged with someone who mattered to me but whom I had not met. My therapist, older than me and invested with more institutional power, didn’t quite understand what I was talking about. Nothing happened, diagnostically, but I could feel how something could have.
In March 2015, the New York Daily News reported that a Long Island woman was suing Harlem Hospital after she was held against her will in the hospital’s psych ward, in part because she said that the president followed her on Twitter. Police seized Kam Brock’s BMW on September 12, 2014, claiming they suspected the car was stolen and that she was high, even though no drugs were found in the car or in her system. When Brock went to retrieve her car from the police station the next day, police claim she acted “irrationally” and spoke “incoherently.” Brock was taken to Harlem Hospital, where she was held for eight days and injected with powerful sedatives. At one point she told her doctor that the president followed her on Twitter. Medical records obtained by the New York Daily News show that the hospital used this assertion as diagnostic evidence that Brock was delusional and possibly bipolar. Brock’s treatment plan reads, “Objective: Patient will verbalize the importance of education for employment and will state that Obama is not following her on Twitter.”
As Brock’s lawsuit establishes, Obama did then and does now follow her on Twitter. An insane landscape within a hierarchical system produces an infinite number of opportunities to gaslight its inhabitants.
In a keynote speech given earlier this year at Goldsmiths, the artist Jesse Darling told the story of X, a forty-something acquaintance they met once at a residency. Jesse and X followed each other on Twitter, where they occasionally exchanged pleasantries and favorites. Then, one day, X emailed Jesse apologizing for leaving Twitter, assuring them it was nothing they’d done. “I knew, of course,” Jesse said, “that this was written in code; we had shared nothing, so I knew somehow that between the lines of this formal, surreal apology he was trying — perhaps unconsciously — to alert me to something.” Jesse emailed back, maintaining the politeness and the code. Had X spoken to anyone about this? X said he was fine, and disappeared.
Later, Jesse saw a tweet from X (X was back on Twitter) and knew: “I knew there was something wrong because he didn’t punctuate, he didn’t capitalize. This is a guy in his forties; his grammar is hardwired, this slippage is like slurred speech, bad handwriting.
last meal he wrote, all lower case, no full stop.
X are you ok? In a direct message.
Its too late he says. He’s using typos, not the cute alt lit typos of phonetic abbreviation that show this healthy disdain for imperial language.”
Jesse winds up on the phone with X, this “near-stranger,” talking him out of swallowing a bottle of pills with his whiskey. X lives and later tells them: “It had to be you, I knew you would know.” And Jesse defers. And then doesn’t: “I did know.” Like Hannah knew, except not. The whole internet is a language, it’s a code, but the encryption is unstable.
Hannah and I email now, when we’re up for it. She sends me pitch black humor writing about self-harming teenage pageant queens. It looks like the outside world has a linearity, and she – because of chemistry or circumstance? – is orbital. And me too: I reminisce about shrinks who couldn’t decide whether to call me bipolar II or just a reckless depressive. The arrested development is one thing between us. For the publication of this essay she gave her consent if not her enthusiastic blessing.
“You can read psychosis in syntax,” Jesse Darling told the crowd at Goldsmiths, and I did, one day on Facebook, when a girl I went to high school with started posting. I could see in Ellen’s statuses the exact moment she began to splinter off from this psychic plane, it was something in the way she broke lines.
Rachel Allen is the assistant managing editor of Guernica. Her work has appeared in Mask, The Fanzine, Nerve, and Guernica. On Twitter she is @goddibar.