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Show Me Minds

December 21, 2022

Last night, my brother booked a family outing for us to see Derren Brown‘s Showman and the first few thoughts wrestling their way into my mind was that my show of choice would have been The Magic Flute or Hakawatis, not a magic show! Then the oily hypnotist character from Little Britain, who hypnotises his dates into ordering the less expensive options on the menu, popped into my head. This, before I snapped myself into excitement at a precious family outing and more generosity of spirit than I was allowing myself. Amidst a packed auditorium at The Apollo, I wondered if all these people are fans of magic and mentalists, like my brother, who is a talented storyteller, slight-of-hander and performer himself. What were all these people hoping to see?

What was on show was the power of the mind; both the conscious mind, which feeds us the narrative that best suits us, and the unconscious mind, like the dragon quietly laying under the waters. Hypnosis and Brown’s showmanship aside, the parallel that came to my mind was a webinar I had watched earlier that day, on working with children who have suffered sexual abuse. It seems a big jump from a West End show, but bear with me.

The speaker of the webinar, child therapist Valerie Sinasson, asks why the antelope feeds in front of the lion, and suggests this is in fact the safest place to be because the prey can keep their predator in sight, to know when they are hungry and about to attack. A similar pattern often plays out with children who suffer abuse at home, not just practically, in wanting to stay with their carer/ abuser, but inwardly, in their mind.

Our mind (and body) is amazing at keeping us safe, and to help us survive even the most unimaginable circumstances.

Sinasson references Fairbairn theory of Moral Defence, which theorises that a child, abused by their carer or someone close to them, is most likely to self-blame, and rationalise, for example, ‘this is only happening to me because I’m bad’ or ‘I behaved madly and made him hurt me’ rather than consider the possibility that the very person who is meant to protect and nurture is causing the most harm, which rationally is too much for that child to fathom. The notion that ‘Dad is doing something bad’ or ‘Dad is bad’ is both dangerous, as it makes home an unsafe place, and impractical, because a child is defenceless against a parent who is abusing them.

I keep my loved ones good and I take all the badness, goes the intelligent, survivalist thinking of the child suffering abuse. Not dissimilar perhaps to the many victims of abuse who grow-up to inadvertently (and unconsciously) perpetuate abuse as adults- whether as perpetrators, victims or/ and enablers- do so because on some level, they are keeping close to home, to what has always felt safe, normal and familiar.

Back to Brown, without giving away the content of the show, as specifically requested by the showman himself, I witnessed adults forget everyday facts with Brown’s hypnotic tricks, so that they, in a moment, alter their perception of reality to adjust to this missing information. I thought of how our mind does this in unique ways every day, when an emotion/ a thought/ a feeling/ a knowing is too much to accept rationally– perhaps it’s too painful, uncomfortable, frustrating or even, dangerous– so it is held onto by our unconscious, just in case. Reminders are sent out, when our unconscious believes we are safe enough to tackle this bit of info that has been filed away; a trigger (the term applied ad-nauseam) is the unconscious mind sending out an alarm, a reminder to tackle a feeling, a memory, an experience once hidden, buried away. This is why those suffering with PTSD often get triggers when they are in safer circumstances, not when they are in the battle field, so to speak. When I interviewed Iraqi civilians who were directly effected by the second Gulf War, it was often when they left Iraq, when they were physically safe in the UK, that they began to experience their first triggers, and later, some diagnosed with PTSD. Their mind and body– because our mind is our whole being not a separate entity– knew when an experience was too much to take head on, stored some of it away, and only brought it forward when the individual was deemed safe enough. Safety may not seem obvious to the individual, as it is after all, the unconscious mind acting, and the conscious mind is therefore left clueless as to the rational behind their responses.

I am in the business of providing a safe enough space for a person to feel able to bring to the fore their thoughts, feelings, experiences in the here-and-now, which may have been stored from an earlier time, and last night, I found myself welling up in the dark auditorium, both in awe of the power of the mind, and the unfairness of the world. The children who work so hard, on an unconscious level, to survive, and how much space is eaten up in that process of survival, and why so many fall behind in school, may seem ‘off with the fairies’, may shut down/ or act out aggressively, and how, if that is the only reality they have experienced, may find themselves falling into the dreadful patterns they were locked into as children. There is always hope, and to me, it is also immensely sad.

And then, ‘the perpetrators’ of abuse. Sinasson talks of how children defend their abusive carers, and watching Brown’s hypnotised individuals construct a new reality for themselves, I thought of the abusers. Not just those who abuse children, but to my mind, the toxic men who intimidate and coarse their partner, and to someone else, appear soft spoken, intelligent and possibly successful professionally. How does that work? Can both realities co-exist? To the outside, it may appear that the partner is not being sensible/ inciting frustration/ and in other words, being bad in some way– which is how we as a society, as family members/ neighbours/ friends can inadvertently gaslight victims of abuse– or these perpetrators are unknowing showmen, living a different reality their mind has cleverly constructed for them. Perhaps the idea that they are abusing their partner is too painful and the possibility that they, as someone likely to have experienced coercion, manipulation and bullying themselves, are now the coercive, manipulative bully, is too much to take head on; and so they delete this bit of fact from their mind to live with a cleaner, easier, safer life for themselves.

This pattern should not atone for their abusive actions, though it may help their victim/ survivors to understand that their experience of abuse is theirs and may never be accounted for by their perpetrators, because their abusers may never feel safe enough in themselves to face their actions. Irmgard Furchner, the former Nazi secretary found guilty of crimes against humanity, will likely hold onto her version of reality, which her unconscious has cleverly constructed for her, than take accountability, though in this case (relatively rare), her silent victims receive a form of justice that says: we don’t need you to accept your part in this, but we see you, and in front of the world, you will be charged. Regardless of the length of sentence Furchner received, I believe the outing of someone who has remained hidden, in more ways than one, is of immense importance. I sincerely wish all those surviving abuse, irrespective of their age and circumstances, receive their form of justice.

I now realise that these hoards of people squeezed into The Apollo had come to witness their own power, which Brown skilfully reveals through emotive storytelling, hypnosis, magic tricks and special effects. Brown, to me, was the medium in which I was able to be with both the awe and discomfort of the power of my reality. I felt small in my conscious mind, and intimidated by how much I don’t know I know, and wondered at the reality we each construct for ourselves, every single moment of each day.

Perhaps this is the power of the arts too, particularly performance, whether opera or a magic show, in highlighting something we can easily miss so that it is on show for us to examine, protest, adore, wonder at, write about…

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