Insider: Barbara O’Brien

There are two themes from Perceval’s Narrative which I wish to explore: Bateson’s idea of the double bind (to be discussed in my next post) and the unusual circumstance of an apparent “spontaneous recovery” from schizophrenia, which I will discuss here. Barbara O’Brien’s “Operators and Things”(1976) is the most vivid account of a schizophrenic journey during her six months riding on Greyhound buses across the U.S. while being controlled by “Operators” – her hallucinated voices. O’Brien explains what she knows about schizophrenia (in 1958 when the book was first published) in the opening section of her book. She then explains how she developed schizophrenia and how the operators first came to her:

“I developed schizophrenia abruptly, in the way which is now considered most fortunate for an optimistic prognosis. I awoke one morning, during a time of great personal tension and self conflict, to find three grey and somewhat wispy figures standing at my bedside. I was, as might be imagined, completely taken up by them. Within a few minutes they had banished my own sordid problem from my mind and replaced it with another and more intriguing one. They were not Men From Mars, but the Operators, a group in some ways stranger than Martians could be. I listed to what the Operators had to say, weighed the facts which they presented to me , and decided that there was wisdom in following their directions. I packed some clothes and mounted a Greyhound bus, as they directed, and followed them. Riding off in the bus, I left safely behind me a mess of reality with which I was totally incapable of coping.” (p.9-10)

O’Brien narrates the specific personalities and characters of each of her Operators along her six -month long Greyhound schizophrenic journey. At one point she queries Hinton, one of her chief Operators, about the relationship between Operators and Things:

” Hinton sighed. ‘Things. Yes, of course. think of the word with a capital initial, if you like. It may help your ego a bit. All people like you are Things to us – Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions canoe motivated. Does that surprise you? It goes on all the time. There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine. A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind. Actually, you have more free will at this moment than most of your kind ever have.'” (p.39)

Another Operator, Bert, explains, “the one great difference between an Operator and a thing is the construction and ability of the mind. Operators are born with special brain cells known as the battlement. With these cells, and Operator can extend and probe into the mind of a Thing. He can tap the thing’s mind and discover what is going on there, and even feed thoughts to the Thing’s mind in order to motivate it. The mental difference is one of ability, not one of quality. Operators, like things, may be stupid or intelligent. But that one difference permits the Operators to rule the Things.” (p.42).

O’Brien was “directed” or “guided” by Operators to buy Greyhound bus tickets to various cities and towns, to seek treatment for some ailments, and to continue to maintain her daily life for six months on the road. She wrote “Operators andThings” three years after she stopped having the hallucinations and delusions, which she has discussed as products of her her unconscious mind – Operators are the unconscious and Things are the conscious. She reflects on her “spontaneous recovery”:

“If I were having a slow time tracking down the cause of my schizophrenia, it was clear that once I had unconsciously understood the cause very well. I could cite a spontaneous recovery after six months of continuous hallucinations and delusions, a certificate of sorts, proof that my mind had found the road out of insanity, a feat that is never accidental. If the guideposts that remained in my memory appeared very often to be too much mumbo-jumbo, it seemed at least possible that the appearance of mumbo-jumbo existed because I could not read the strange language. According the the psychoanalyst who treated me, spontaneous recoveries are rare and weird events in advanced schizophrenia and when they occur they present mysterious spectacle- that of a mind walking out of a fourth dimension into which it had been propelled. No matter how many times I went over the story the Operators and told myself that it represented only well-organized fantasy without guidance or planning, the clear indications of guidance and planning persisted in standing out.” (p.145)

Both O’Brien and Perceval claimed to have recovered “spontaneously” from their schizophrenia, though both had spent time in mental hospitals. They both are critical of mental hospital treatments and the psychotherapists or psychoanalysts who worked with them. Approaches to treating psychotic conditions were obviously quite different for Perceval in the 19th century and O’Brien in the 1950s, and they would be considerably different now from what they were for O’Brien. Still, there is no known “cure” for schizophrenia and from current accounts by insiders, such as Elyn Saks and Esme Weijun Wang, there are not likely any single approaches , medications, or other treatments which seem to be effective for all cases.


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