A Telltale Heart?

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the unnamed narrator is placed in the unenviable and untenable position of trying to convince the reader of his own sanity while describing a murder that he committed. The story opens with the following ominous lines: “True!—nervous—very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Among the most profound difficulties that come from having the task of discussing mental illness or difficulties resulting from immensely traumatic experience is that those who are aware of their own fragile sanity tend to confess their insanity rather unconsciously while attempting to prove the reverse, while those who seek to prove their insanity tend to find themselves in a catch-22, where the desire to prove insanity is taken as prima facie evidence of insanity, for the desire to escape horrors by feigning insanity is evidence of being sane. By this paradoxical situation, my obvious desire here to discuss the sanity and rationality of my behavior patterns relating to how I deal with and process emotions will likely be taken as evidence of my lack of sanity, and my frank and open confession of my struggles with mental illness that will shortly follow are likely to be taken as the response of a sane mind to the insanity of horrific child abuse. The end result is to leave me in the situation of the paradoxical Cretan liar referred by the Greek philosopher Epimenides and cited by Paul in Titus 1:12 who called himself a liar—was he to be believed as a Cretan telling the truth about himself, in which case he was not a liar, or was he to be disbelieved on account of being a Cretan, even if he called himself a liar. Epimenides being a Cretan himself, and calling himself a liar on account of being a Cretan, therefore involves his audience in a paradox of immense complexity. Today, I would like to give a model of how I operate, and tomorrow I would like to discuss in more detail my history with mental illness.

In giving a model of the way I operate, it is worthwhile to provide the closing words of C.S. Lewis’ exploration of the medieval worldview, The Discarded Image: “It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts—unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of the total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest (222-223).” Being a complicated person who has the noted medieval tendency of being deeply layered like an onion or an artichoke [1], if one wants to know how it is that I will behave in a given situation, one has to know the principles and worldview by which I operate, and if one wants to get the right answers, one has to ask the right questions, because while the truths of my existence may be obvious to those who know what they are looking for, it is plainly obvious that most people do not know what they are looking for, and worse, they are not curious enough to ask. Therefore, I here must divide myself into both the examiner of my way of living and the subject examined, and must view myself at least partially from the outside, with a sense of distance and perhaps more than a little bit of compartmentalization and dissociation. As a witness to myself, I am aware that this witness is not sufficient, and also that for the witness to be believed I must be viewed in a charitable fashion; it cannot be otherwise.

I referred to earlier, when I began this melancholy memoir of the impact of early childhood abuse on my life [2] the melancholy fact that the reality of my background of abuse became evident to others before I had consciously realized it myself. These people were, it must be admitted, far more familiar with psychology than I was, as psychology has been, with the exception of two years during high school, a subject I have deliberately and pointedly avoided studying [3]. To such people, my high levels of ambient nervousness and anxiety, the obvious symptomology of PTSD that can easily be observed by those around me, and my extremely dampened emotional responses in person were the telltale signs of having survived immense horrors. My behavior, therefore, unbeknownst to me, was following a pattern that could be followed by those who were paying attention to the clues I was leaving behind, leading them to uncover my secrets before I was aware of them myself, as was the case fictionally for the PTSD-suffering Katniss Everdeen [4]. Those who closely observe my behavior may be able to gather knowledge of a lot of what it would likely be better to conceal simply because in some ways I am a painfully and awkwardly transparent person.

Despite this, though, during my life I have often been viewed as a puzzle and an enigma. More than one person has commented to me that if they did not read what I wrote, they would scarcely be aware that I was having a difficult time at all, given the rather phlegmatic way I tend to appear to those who do not know me well, and given the fact that I tend to patiently listen and not complain overly much verbally about my personal life, or even comment unprompted about such difficulties as I face. Those who know me through my writings and those who know me through observing me are likely, therefore, to come to very different conclusions about who I am. Even more complexly, those who see me (or hear me) only from afar or who only read what I write very selectively are likely to grossly misinterpret what I am about, and because of the fact that they have taken at least some effort to observe me are likely to fancy their abilities at comprehension greater than they are, and not to realize their need for additional or closer investigation. Those who are unaware of the state of their ignorance tend to be complacent in their self-satisfied and partial knowledge, and cannot fathom the distance between what they think they know and what truly is.

How is this complexity to be accounted for? In many ways, this aspect of the damage of my life results from the bifurcation of different aspects of personality into different realms of behavior, what in many ways strikes me as an aspect of rather extreme compartmentalization or even dissociation, or at least specialization. In person, for example, there is a certain relentless practicality about desiring to overcome difficulties, a difficulty in defending myself or my self-interest or extricate myself from difficult situations, and a certain politeness that tends to smooth over difficulties and avoid being too explicit about unpleasant subjects even if they form a frequent subtext to what I discuss with others. In my performance of music, whether in singing or in playing the viola, there is a certain strength and passion and confidence where I express my emotions wordlessly but rather clearly. In my writings, layers and layers of thought make a full understanding of what is going on difficult for all but the most astute and alert of readers, but by the same token the fact that something is evidently wrong is sufficiently obvious to attract general notice even by fairly unobservant people who lack deep personal knowledge of my life. Those who witness multiple aspects of my life may be left very confused by the resulting picture.

Among the most difficult of aspects of my manner of behavior is the lack of confluence between what I feel and how I act. An example should suffice to make the difficulty and its solution clear. A couple of days after I turned 21, my maternal grandfather took me and three other people on a somewhat touristy trip to some areas in Lake County, Florida, ending in a wine tour and then a late lunch before going home. On the first leg of the trip, an employee inside of some sort of presidential museum in that Orlando suburb confused my then thirteen year old cousin and I for a romantic couple. This was not because anything inappropriate had gone on or was going on, but rather because there was a sense of obvious affection and chemistry between us. This was not an isolated experience, as it was evident to those around the two of us that we loved each other, even though in terms of behavior there has always been a very strict line beyond which we did not pass, something that had never been spoken of directly although it had been followed by both of us for as long as I can remember. Those who were able to correctly discern our affectionate behavior towards each other were inclined to view us as having a different relationship than we did, and despite our mutual fondness, there had been no trespassing of the proprieties of our being close relatives.

This combination of openly acknowledged feeling and restrained action has been a consistent pattern within my life, and one that has seldom been sufficiently realized. Those who have only examined my exterior behavior have often considered me a person lacking in emotion or passion, a mistake that is in serious error, although easy to comprehend. On the other hand, those who recognize the intensity of my emotions from writing or musical and athletic performance often do not realize the way that action is heavily dampened, and so there has been an equally widespread and lamentable tendency for people to extrapolate from my feelings to my action and to grossly overestimate the actions that I have taken or would take in situations, leading them to respond in ways that are excessively harsh and inappropriately severe, and exacerbating my own native nervousness and anxiety in the process, which ultimately benefits no one. It is only those who are properly able to put together the picture, which entails understanding the intense level of ambient stress that life provides and the consistent response to this stressful and unpleasant existence that can understand the complicated nature of my behavior and practice.

Let us therefore be explicit in the reason for this apparent disconnect between different aspects of life. Being the sort of person who dislikes personal conflict and finds confrontation deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant, my personal mien is one that is meant to avoid personal difficulties and troubles to the greatest extent possible for my own well-being. This absence of hostility or aggression in personal behavior and my general sedentary and academic nature means that I have to find other outlets for passion and emotion, which is one reason why I am drawn to sports, at least those sports where I have at least some competence, and music, where performing with passion is viewed with credit rather than viewed as a liability. The fact that I cannot process the tangled strands of my life verbally or internally means I pour myself into writing as a way of trying to untangle and sort out my life and the truths about the world around me, whether it is looking at history, looking at the crisis of various institutions, or whether I am looking at works of art and literature as an appreciative critic.

What is it, then, that I seek in exposing my heart, such as it is, to such ridicule and abuse by laying it open before a world that is at best indifferent and at worst is directly inimical to my well-being and longings? Ultimately, I suppose I wish to be understood, to be recognized for the complicated but ultimately decent sort of person that I am, one who recognizes the gravity of my own response to the world and who has sought in a coordinated way to address the core concerns of surviving and thriving despite immense adversity. If the sort of bravery and courage I possess is not the sort that is often praised or noted, and if my own longings and concerns are somewhat frightening to others at times, nevertheless I wish to be seen for who I am, and not as a two-dimensional caricature that ignores the larger picture of who I am. There are many, no doubt, who do not have the time nor the inclination to figure out who I really am, but for those who do, I figure that the effort will be made easier if one is aware of the split and complicated nature of my personality and character. If I am to be blamed and condemned, let it be for that which is worthy of condemnation and critique, and not for a mere figment of the imaginations of those who think they know what I am about while they remain ignorant and unaware in truth.

[1] See, for example:




[2] See, for example:


[3] See, for example:








[4] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A Telltale Heart?

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