Review of "Clues"

By Marvin Cohen
Writers Club Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 6th 2003

Clues is a brief memoir of Marvin Cohen, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He chronicles the strange events that lead him to believe that the government or some other sinister organization is persecuting him and is surreptitiously drugging him. What makes the book particularly striking is its ability to convey the logic behind the fears of paranoia and to help the reader understand the experience. Cohen starts out living in Boston's North End working at a computer software company. He describes in short chapters a series of seven "clues" that suggest to him that he is the victim of some kind of intrigue, such as odd comments people make to him as he passes them in the street or strong sexual feelings that suddenly strike him.

As Cohen is well aware, there is plenty in the world that might lead one to be afraid, and he ends his book with brief appendices that set out some of his current theories to justify his fears. These include ideas about antipsychiatry, the political ambitions of China and Russia, and secret services. As Cohen himself says, readers may dismiss these fears as mere symptoms of his illness, but he takes them seriously. This show about how even when people acknowledges their own paranoia, they can find it hard to let go of their fears.

Epistemologically, it can be hard to provide clear criteria for when fears are well-grounded and justified. Sometimes fears about conspiracy are indeed justified because there are conspiracies and evidence about conspiracies. The best-executed conspiracies cover their tracks and so the fact that there is no proof of a conspiracy does not prove that there is none. Where one draws the lines between delusion, eccentric theories and reasonable widely shared but uncorroborated theories is a matter of continuing debate among psychiatrists and philosophers. It might be tempting to postulate that the most important factor is not the evidence for a theory, but rather their pragmatic consequences. So long as people's bizarre theories do not lead them to harm themselves or others, they should be free to believe whatever theories they like, we might say. But there are plenty of cases where what is commonly agreed to be reasonable beliefs about the malicious intentions of others leads people to take action to defend themselves and even put their own lives at risk. (The official beliefs of the US and British governments about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 currently seems a good example, and brings the issue of when beliefs are paranoid into sharp relief.)

So while Clues is a very personal book, it may provide material for researchers and may also be informative to more general readers.


2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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