Some People are Black Holes

Posted on December 11, 2015 by

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black-hole

Black hole, Petr Kratochvil

I.

A black hole is a term I’ve begun to use for a person with gravity–not the Anglocised gravitas [solemnity], closer to a Latin ‘gravity’, also gravitas [presence]–I’m twisting terms, and here I mean something closer to charisma; this gravity belongs to people who make other people reflexively orbit them. No human black hole is perfect and there will be spectators: “I don’t get why he always talks about her when he doesn’t even seem to like her that much”.

You don’t have to like a black hole; people orbit because they find themselves inexorably approaching one without conscious effort. Most people have some charm, and other people will be drawn to them and react to them, and some of these will be charismatic, which is not the same as gravity. Charisma is positive–gravity simply pulls.

Some black holes will be overwhelmingly charismatic, but most of these exist in fairy tales: manic pixie dream girl, tall dark and handsome, the girl next door, prince on a white horse. The three black holes I have met had different effects on me: one is an old friend whose friendship I have found by turns toxic, delightful, distressing, one is an ex-boyfriend whose orbit I escaped. I’ve had nightmares about the third–while awake I find them annoying: the end of our friendship was perfectly normal teenage cattiness and my brain treats her like a trauma archetype with shadows and swirling oil and creeping grief.

I have at times loathed myself with a religious ferocity: I was a Bad Person a priori and therefore a posteriori things I associated with myself were Bad. This has been discussed ad nauseam in therapy. When I think in these patterns I think I am unremarkable. Here’s another word: in these moods I think of wallpaper [background]. Black holes are remarkable people–remarquable, 16th c. French [observable, conspicuous]. I am fascinated by black holes because I desire to be one.


II.

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is structured oddly, split into five short anecdotes about its protagonist, the Byronic antihero Pechorin; this is because the novel was published serially and then compiled a few years later into a single volume. As Lewis Bagby says in his Critical Companion, the short pieces tell the story cycle in a “peculiar chronological sequence” to “gradually provide familiarization with the life and personality” of Pechorin. Thus we are not reading a single story about a man from which we can glean his character; we are put into the character’s environment and invited to look around. Pechorin’s persona doesn’t lend itself easily to understanding unless you immerse yourself in both his head and his wake, because he is not wholly aware of the pull he exerts.

I studied A Hero of Our Time in college. As with everything I studied in college, the insane amount of effort and cash my parents spent bought a few deeply understood concepts that stay with me, and a shit ton of notes that I’ve hoarded like gold because that’s what they’re actually worth by weight–otherwise, you’re looking at just the concepts and honestly I can’t justify (approximately) five or six grand per aha moment, no matter how profound.

My professor for this class was Russian, a blackly cynical six and a half foot tower who spoke in a deep, thickly accented bass, who later introduced me to joyfully cynical 70s Soviet TV. I adored him. His opinion was that the Byronic hero cannot know he is a Byronic hero–it must all be unconscious. Not simply that any efforts to become a Byronic hero are doomed to failure; the definition of a Byronic hero requires that you don’t know it. No one can be a Byronic hero and appreciate it.

First, a mimic is not a perfect mirror. You view the world in some way that leads you to change your behaviour before your behaviour changes. No person who wants to change is a tabula rasa, for pragmatic reasons, i.e. no adult is one, and philosophical reasons–you have to think to think about changing.

And, most importantly: Byronic heroes do not want to be Byronic heroes. Whig politician and historian Lord Macaulay wrote that the type is “a scorner of his kind”. Pechorin even destroys an effigy of himself by duelling and killing the unfortunate Grushnitsky. Pechorin cannot understand himself perfectly: he thinks he is like Grushnitsky, who he hates in an offhand way–but Grushnitsky is not like Pechorin, not a Byronic hero: he is our mimic, and an imperfect reflection. He wants to be a Byronic hero, and so cannot be one.

Is Pechorin a black hole, though? Is the idea of black holes just a redefinition of the Byronic hero? Am I defeated because I want to be one?


III.

A few weeks ago I bought a book that was casually resting in the back of my mind at Stansted airport, because Stansted is built like a cubicle farm and is the armpit of British travel and so help me god I was not going to sit there listening to a thousand people chew and talk and fidget until my flight opened.

The book is The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson. I have a weakness for the pop journalism that gonzo deflated into. A lot of it is about Ronson’s anxiety and how it contrasts with his interpretation of psychopathy; the question of whether “psychopathy” is an actual thing and not just a colloquial term for various interacting disorders listed in the DSM-whatever is not one I’ll discuss. I’m just going to use the word like Ronson does: it refers to a personality type that we all recognise in some form, mostly fictional.

The book theorises that psychopaths’ amygdalas don’t fire in the same patterns that amygdalas do in most of the population, so they are incapable of experiencing emotion–but they mimic it because they notice that it functions in the world and thus want to use that function for themselves. Ronson cites a study done in the mid 60s by Bob Hare, the criminal psychologist who created the psychopath test, which found that participant psychopaths would not brace for a painful electric shock–not when they were told it would happen, and not even when the experiment was repeated. Hare’s findings were rejected for publication by Science magazine because the editor found his data too weird to be believable.

Ronson’s psychopaths are insectile. Cold and glittering. Moving through space impulsively to alien stimuli. He stares at them wide-eyed across the spectrum of emotion, afraid he has too much, fascinated that they have too little. They draw people to them.

I dated a man who was a psychopath. It doesn’t matter what the DSM would say about him. He was fascinating, but not a black hole–unlike his friend, who became my old friend, who I’ve already mentioned.

Black holes are personal; they have targeted gravity. They don’t exert pull on everybody–but the pull they exert is not normal. It’s remarquable. This ex was not a black hole because he did not have people whirling about him like little moons. His psychopathy was too outré. They found him unnerving. Not all psychopaths are black holes.

It’s been tossed around, idly, whether or not my old friend is also a psychopath. I have seen him manic, but he’s become less impulsive with age, but he does tend to dress in suits which Ronson seems to think is a prerequisite, but I worry that he might be hurt at the suggestion that he might be a psychopath, but I have never seen him sad. I literally just thought of that: I have never seen him sad. I have never seen him cry, or look like he’s about to cry. So is my friend a psychopath? They generally do not flock. I wonder how their friendship happened, my ex and my friend.

My friend has some traits in common with psychopaths: he’s a little alien, a bit like a black box. You put things in and you wait, and sometimes you get things back, but you often don’t know what those things will be. It seems he often lacks deep emotion.

Are all black holes psychopaths? If no, do they all share some traits in common with them?


IV.

Those Byronic heroes, though–is it even possible for a Romantic to be emotionless? I balked at this idea but immediately as I began to think about it I saw psychopathic traits everywhere. I might even write a paper postulating that Viktor Frankenstein’s grief was a learned set of mannerisms he assumed when his goals were frustrated. (Psychopaths are wont to express one emotion perfectly fine: anger.)

Romanticism, if anything, would have made it easier for psychopaths, wouldn’t it? Contemporary emotions are so hard. Subtle. Romanticism was not subtle.

Psychopaths don’t experience the commonality of emotion. I wonder if they have the same memescape that Jung identified–why would they? Aren’t Jung’s archetypes emotionally generated? Jon Ronson reports that psychopaths dream in black and white, if at all. The dreams of psychopaths are bleak pockets outside the fomenting morass of our collective human dream.

Someone like Byron…Wordsworth…Keats, for fuck’s sake. William Blake. It would be impossible to do the things they did without the colours cultural memes provided, without emotion. So I’m thinking now in terms of Romantic creations instead of Romantic creators, subsequently Russian nihilist creations, because whilst Lermontov isn’t a psychopath, Pechorin could be. Sure, he claims to feel this or that…I don’t really believe him.


V.

Black hole #3 was not a psychopath, was she? She seemed to feel things deeply, and self-harmed. This behaviour fits fairly well with the classic, emotional interpretation of the Byronic hero–but she is a woman, and we don’t meet a major criterion, i.e. we’re women.

She was often manipulative in a way that black holes seem to be, and in a way that psychopaths are always. She watched our reactions to her carefully.


VI.

Being anybody at all is a performance, conscious or not. I had to watch my step a lot as a child, even more when I grew up a little bit, and now that I’m an adult I’ve taken over the role of the enforcer and I punish myself when watching isn’t enough to stay in line. Different spaces have different rules: my personality isn’t a single unbroken thing but a series of masks I put on to hide from criticism.

I gather it’s the same with psychopaths, but their motivation is dominance, not submission.

But most of us have basic expressions hard-wired into our brains; if we feel something, our face projects it automatically. We evolved to give ourselves away, because it protects other members of our social groups from us. It makes sense that this critical system doesn’t work properly in psychopaths: if you don’t feel the emotion in the first place, the automatic display isn’t triggered. So our masks are far less perfect than a psychopath’s, because we find it impossible to disguise certain emotions. In my particular case those are probably submissive emotions: insecurity, dismay, hurt, unhappiness. A psychopath will only display those emotions when it will help her dominate a situation in the long run.

Psychopaths have at least this in common with black holes: their personality type is reliant on dominance. Every black hole I’ve met has come out completely unscathed from social situations that would trip me up and humiliate me, because at crucial moments they simply don’t care what other people think of them.

I made a post a few years ago about using Stanislavsky’s performing arts theories when portraying characters in fiction (here). I think we use something like his “systems” when learning how to be social animals. Basic emotional displays are well and good, but you have to learn what appropriate behaviour is in very subtle and complex situations. It’s a constant process of refinement.

To refine your social fluency you need to be able to observe the language accurately (this is where people with Aspberger’s Syndrome and autism have the most trouble) and you need to be able to project it competently. Social muscles are like any other, I think; for perfect performances you need perfect control. It’s no good jeté-ing across the stage with your calves in the grip of a charley horse.

What happens when a person trained by insecurity tries to be dominant socially? I can tell you, because it’s happened to me many times: I get tripped up by a spasm of submissive emotion and the mask I put on fails. I appear blustering not capable, snappy not witty, bitter instead of snarky. Confidence is attractive, because dominance is attractive. If you fake confidence, it’s likely to fail, and subsequently reinforce your insecurity. If you’re not actually confident, in sum, you’re probably fucked.

I don’t think psychopaths are confident. I don’t think the scale of “confident” to “insecure” applies to psychopaths. I don’t think it can. To be confident or insecure about something means that you have made a value judgment about yourself, not just an assessment of success or failure. Psychopaths lack the second voice: our second thoughts, the one that dreams, the one that checks up on us, that replies to us from inside our heads, that has in schizophrenics overgrown and overstepped and seems independent. The homunculus. Psychopaths simply are, without commentary.

If Byronic heroes are psychopaths it would make sense, then, that wanting to become one will always end in failure–wanting to be something requires a homunculus. Byronic heroes simply are.


VII.

Black hole #2, the ex (not the same person as psychopath-ex, for clarity) was not a psychopath. He was, simply, the most charismatic person I have ever met. He’s handsome, charming, stylish, witty, and sweet. I think we broke up because we had horrible fights and we were too young to be in such an intense relationship–but it’s been a long time, and I don’t remember for certain.

Now that I think about it carefully, he’s not a black hole at all. He draws people in for perfectly mundane reasons. I don’t remember anyone obsessively disliking him; I never questioned the nature of his popularity. I remember our relationship fondly, in the same way I remember bands I used to like. That’s not like a black hole. Black holes are the encounters you remember forever; your memories come entangled with deep emotion of some kind. Black holes are people who have an effect on you that you don’t really get: “Why do I think about him so much if I hate him?” “Why do I always end up talking about her if I’m not in love with her?” I knew exactly why I loved my ex.

Now that I’ve clarified things about him, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think you escape orbit. This is not to say that black holes are something you necessarily obsess over, but that when you remember you’re dragged back, as if you’d never forgotten in the first place.


VIII.

I’m faced now with a strange memory that might help me unpack the questions I’ve asked–because I was thinking about my ex, and inevitably about the situation of my life when we dated and when we broke up.

I briefly went out with a guy I met through that ex. The guy was not for me, and after I made sure I felt that way I broke it off with him as gently as I could.

He called me at my mother’s house, years later. He was teaching English abroad; he was drunk. I don’t remember the call, except that I clearly affected this man enough that the only way he could deal with what he was feeling was to talk to me. He dialled the number from memory, he said. He didn’t understand it; he wanted me to explain it to him. Why did our short relationship stick to him the way it did?

I’m not a black hole. People don’t orbit me.

Here’s another, much more recent memory, quoted from one of my journals:

[W]hen I first met [Name], he said something a little insulting and I didn’t speak to him for the rest of the match and even moved over one seat so I could put my bag and coat on the seat between us. He noticed; I could see the flash of his white face out of the corner of my eye as he glanced at me. I never looked at him. The other people around us clapped and cheered by cues from the crowd, but he took his cues from me alone.

I find that mirroring is something people do when they focus on a person. When you’re concerned about what someone thinks you pay close attention to what they’re doing–you try to work out their thoughts from their body language. If that concern is palpable because you’re a socially anxious person or because you’re aware you’ve upset them–or both in the case of [Name]–you will unconsciously copy what they’re doing.

It’s a way to ingratiate yourself with another person–some professionals do it consciously to win trust–and it works because our interpersonal attitudes are governed by body language. We’re still animals.

So anyway, when it came time for me to talk to [Name] by necessity he bent over backward to be pleasant–I expected him to, after the hours of focused mimicking he did. If I’d wanted to I could have given him some relief by starting up conversation or smiling at him, but I wanted to be certain and besides, I was still angry. Who does that, anyway? When you meet someone you’ve heard so much about, who decides to be rude? I never get the outcome I want in these circumstances so I guess I’ve grown up. I guess the years and years of trying to toughen my social skin are beginning to pay off.

I’m not a psychopath. You can tell from the way I write how surprising it was to me that I could manipulate the situation.

When I think of these memories, I’m struck with the same feelings from both: power, a sense that I’m not struggling to get acceptance, the knowledge that social fluency came easily to me, relief that I stopped caring too fucking much.

I also come away wondering what it would mean to feel like this all the time. I don’t think I can imagine it from where I am.

So I’m back at: can I even become a black hole or does the act of wanting preclude it?  Should I want to be a black hole in the first place, even if I can’t achieve it?


IX.

I’m constantly in quicksand. Today I tried to resurrect a dying friendship. Things that I did because I didn’t want to be wounded and things I did to assuage a feeling of exclusion and rejection (to hide)–in sum, things that are a result of feeling too much–were interpreted as feeling too little.

If I had a thicker skin I would appear to care more, because I would be present, available, functioning–but a thicker skin would be a result of caring less.

Every major problem in my life is a result of this.

If you’re a delicate fucking flower like I am you’ve got options: a) get annoyed, try to bully yourself into the normal range of sangfroid, b) hide, c) drown in substances, d) try to think your way out. I tried c) a while ago and it was great except I stopped sleeping and eating, my muscles tied into knots, I developed a taste for recklessness and an aggravated heart flutter. I do a) and b) automatically and they get me in trouble. I’m left with d). This essay is an attempt to d).

Operating Premises
1. Aim high and expect to fall short
2. Black holes are psychopath-lite
3. It would be nice to stop caring so fucking much about fucking everything all the fucking time
4. The only option I have left is d)

If we assume all the premises, then it doesn’t really matter whether I’ll be successful or not, because I don’t really have a choice. In order to solve the biggest problem of my life, I have to assume that I can do something other than just stab myself in the amygdala.

So yes, I want to be a black hole, and I have to assume it’s possible to achieve some measure of success–otherwise I’m fucked.


X.

Stanislavsky suggested that it was a matter of practice to perfect a character from the outside in. My CBT therapist seems to agree.

CBT, as I understand it, is based around the idea that the brain is a pattern-forming machine. As we experience, different habits and memories are learned and subsequently reinforced. If you neglect a habit, it eventually disappears. If you neglect trauma, it will fade–and so on. The idea that directly confronting a phobia will dismantle it is based on this premise: your brain will eventually stop scoring a deep trench of anxiety into itself if you sit with the phobia and there are no bad consequences.

What if Grushnitsky was just going about it wrong? If he practiced performing Pechorin, rather than trying to become Pechorin, would he have been successful? Psychopaths are just performing and mimicking emotion anyway; maybe the only way to become a black hole is to mimic them without knowing what drives their behaviour and drag your brain along for the ride.

Behaviour Checklist

  • Act like you don’t give a shit.
  • If you start acting like you give a shit, stop.
  • Not giving a shit looks like psychopathy.
  • Psychopathy looks like charm.
  • Of two actions, the one that takes less time or energy is the one that shows you don’t give a shit.

Examples

1. A person you don’t know posts something that hurts you or is meant to hurt you on social media. You:

a) take forever to post a reasoned response, point by point, why the person was wrong,
b) do nothing,
c) return the insult.

2. A person you don’t know or barely know insults you directly. You:

a) return the insult,
b) respond in earnest explaining why the insult was hurtful,
c) act disinterested and distant until socially unacceptable to continue.

3. A relative who is older than you says something patronising when you’re in the car driving somewhere together. You:

a) burst into tears,
b) feel like bursting into tears but say, “Reminder: I am thirty,” then turn the music up/change the station to metal/put annoying dubstep on obnoxiously loud from your phone,
c) wait until the next morning to write the relative an email about your growing sense that you have no say in this family.

 

 

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