Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Another example of why Richard Powers kicks ass

From Plowing the Dark, pages 228-229:

The Therapy Room is a work in progress.

Its idea is as old as ideas themselves: to break the terror of existence by depicting it. Heights brought down to ground level, dried floods, cardboard invaders: a story of hurful things that cannot hurt you any more than any story can.

Outside the Therapy Room, a white thirty-four-year-old neurasthenic female, Miss Muffet (not her real name), presents with acute, debilitating arachnophobia. After administering a history and physical, her doctors place Miss Muffet inside the palpable re-creation of a kitchen much like her own: a clean, well-lit Kenmore ensemble with lots of counter space. Just as M.M. grows comfortable in the surroundings, technicians bury her up to her midriff in spiders.

The patient's vitals spike off the charts. She screams and runs out of the representation, as if from the real evil. For the next two hours M.M. is a panting wreck, unable to go anwhere near the imaginary kitchen. This is a good sign. In order for the Therapy Room to work, the patient must credit it enough to dread it. Miss Muffet's gullibility makes her the ideal subject. She knows the nightmare of spiders is a fabrication. And still she believes.

As soon as the patient can calm down, they send her back in. This time, primed for the assualt, telling herself that it's only an invention, she lasts a full thirty seconds. Miss Muffet laughs in cold terror after she reaches the exit. Her pulse returns to normal in half the time of her first exposure. She now knows she can escape the spiders anytime she wants. She can enter the kitchen, however horrible, and survive.

Real exposure can't teach her this, for real fear overwhelms all second tries. but the Therapy Room works at the limits of seeming. Belief gives way to evidence, spiders to spiderlike objects. Twelve exposures later, Miss Muffet takes to batting at her nemeses, frying them with the click of a joystick, racking up the kills like so many toy targets.

Out in the larger world, M.M. makes a miraculous parallel leap. For if the things she so lately took for threats turned out to be mere representations, how much more of a threat can the originals represent? Models reveal to her the model she ahs lived in. Symbols cure her of the fears those symbols stood for. Terror flattens into its empty sign.

The same cure promises help for all those disabled by the real. Burn victims will forget their pain, wrapped in a more vibrant light. Those paralyzed by fear of flying will maketheir connections. Post-traumatic stress sufferers, for whom no other therapy has worked, will skim the virtual canopies above firefights powerless to reach them.

When M.M. sees a living spider, she rubs it out happily with her bare hands. The case history writes her final happy chapter: Miss Muffet successfully desensitized.

No comments: