Monday, February 24, 2014

The Delusionist's Wife

Pauline Hansen, Patchwork Reality: Happily Married to a Schizophrenic

I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, Pauline Hansen paints a harrowing story of her husband’s descent into adult-onset schizophrenia, a decline so gradual that nobody noticed until her family nearly imploded. Curtis Hansen’s madness unfolds with Christopher Nolan-ish creeping dread, like watching somebody else’s nightmare. On the other hand, Pauline could have stopped that nightmare by speaking up, and I start to wonder: why not?

Fourteen years and five kids into their marriage, the Hansens had reasonable blue-collar bliss. Two jobs, good community connections, and thriving family and religious life made them enviable when viewed from outside. But Curtis begins having dreams, which he believes prophetic. Pauline mistakes this for quirky behavior, and goes along. But quirks start accumulating, and Pauline uncovers small lies. None by themselves merit action. Nothing, individually, ever seems catastrophic.

Hansen’s account of her husband’s incremental madness has a horror movie’s imperceptible pace. I don’t make that analogy lightly. Weighing barely 140 pages altogether, Hansen’s memoir runs about as long as a Hollywood movie treatment, and like films, eschews introspection, preferring to emphasize action and interaction. Its narrative structure and tempo reflect films like Inception and A Beautiful Mind without directly copying them. Stephen King fans would feel comfy here.

Over nine years, Curtis gradually deciphers rules of The Game, an intricate reality show where wealthy investors subject the Hansens to experiments, testing their bonds. Pauline indulges Curtis’s rules while they seem merely annoying. But Curtis starts pursuing strange numerology. He makes life-altering decisions based on the colors of passing cars. He ultimately develops Capgras Delusion, believing his own children have been replaced by “proxy personalities.”

Curtis’s fantasy persists, partly, because momentary events verify it. Sudden gifts reflect his prophecy that somebody will bequeath them vast fortunes. Curtis believes somebody wants to tempt Pauline into infidelity, then a housecleaning client attempts a move on her. Since reality doesn’t actively contradict Curtis’s delusions, he becomes increasingly invested in The Game. The tests he uncovers, the ordeals he seemingly survives, make Jason Bourne seem small and unambitious.

Because Curtis reveals his secrets so slowly, Pauline feels no pressure to change. Each small concession fuels the next. But after dribbling details of The Game out for years, Curtis suddenly explodes, abandoning his job, smashing furniture with axes, and forsaking his children. Pauline extracts what’s going on by coaxing slow, painful confessions from Curtis. And he repeatedly swears her to secrecy before revealing even small details of The Game.

Here’s where my problem arises. Curtis’s supervisors call Pauline at home because Curtis vanishes for hours daily, and goes mute in public. Pauline’s children weep because Curtis stops talking to them. Pauline must make excuses to her parents and children when furniture vanishes with no explanation. Yet as Curtis turns Pauline into an unwilling liar, she continues concealing his destructive delusions… because she made a promise? Huh?

The horror movie analogy runs both ways. We understand Curtis’s decline, though we expect explanations (mid-thirties is awfully old to first manifest schizophrenia). But we don’t understand Pauline’s enabling. Like the bikini-clad coed who stupidly opens the haunted closet, this decision elicits not horror, but catcalls from the audience, who wonder why the character doesn’t realize she’s trapped in a slasher flick. Pauline’s own motivations simply need more explanation.

Pauline repeatedly references her religious faith. Indeed, the widening gap between Curtis’s faith and his actions is one major barometer that his cognition is impeded. I’d reconcile this problem by quoting Proverbs 20:25—“It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows.” Curtis extracts promises falsely; Pauline shouldn’t throw good money after bad by continuing to defend his indefensible actions.

Thus Hansen presents two narratives. In one, Curtis descends into his private reality, seeing himself starring in The Truman Show. In the other, Pauline doesn’t ask necessary questions, upholds false promises, and inadvertently indulges Curtis’s weird divination practices. Surely marital fidelity must require her, eventually, to call her husband’s bull. After all, by any reasonable definition, Curtis’s behavior toward her and their kids had already turned abusive.

Hansen’s portrait of her husband’s illness is both harrowing and humane. She demonstrates that schizophrenia doesn’t turn good people into psycho nut-jobs; people remain worth loving, even amidst their own madness. But she doesn’t shine the same all-seeing light on herself. Her enabling behavior isn’t incomprehensible, but needs some explanation beyond “he’d sworn me to secrecy.” Otherwise, I can do no better than to quote myself: “Huh?”

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