In the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character thinks he’s living this delightfully normal life in a perfect, prosperous little town. What the character does not realize is that it’s not normal or real, but all staged.
He’s the star of a huge hit reality TV show—and this was 1998, before reality shows were really a thing. Every encounter, he eventually learns, is scripted, and everyone he encounters is in on it.
But life is just the opposite of the movie for Kevin Hall, who is a real person. He has a psychological disorder known as The Truman Show Delusion. (While the disorder has gained currency in recent years, it is not officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.) Hall is a world class sailor who has been in multiple America’s Cups and on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. But he sometimes believes his life is being filmed for a TV show of which he is the star. Hall hears a voice he calls “The Director.” In his delusions he receives messages from The Director about how he is supposed to behave or communicate—all for the benefit of The Show.
Journalist Mary Pilon has a new book about Hall called The Kevin Show. Pilon and Hall joined Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, which, along with being a public radio show is now a Slate podcast. (A link to the audio of their interview follows this excerpt.)
Kurt Andersen: Kevin, the book describes several remarkable episodes of your delusion, which you call “being on The Show.” Like the time in 1991 when you stole the truck—you were in Tokyo as a member of the U.S. Goodwill team at a big sailing competition. And you just suddenly broke off from your team, convinced you had certain obligations for The Show.
Kevin Hall: I was back on The Show and there were things I was supposed to do. Let’s see, I walked by the National Theater. I stole a truck somehow. There was a truck parked; there were keys there. I drove around. Fortunately I was aware enough not to hurt anybody or myself at the time. I walked across the street with my eyes closed to confirm to myself that the show was really happening, because if it weren’t happening I would just get run over and my pain could end. And that’s where it’s hard for people to imagine that your brain can keep confirming something that’s clearly not true.
Hall: Once you’re all in you’re all in, and you need something from the outside to tell you that it’s not true. And I was able to wander back and find the team at the hotel just before they were getting on the bus to go back to the airport. Things were looking really good, and then something just snapped and I got really agitated and I ran out the baggage carousel and onto the tarmac and under the first plane I found. So I was under a 747 and that’s where I got arrested.
Fortunately before 9/11.
Hall: Yeah. Or I could easily have been shot.
As this is happening, are you under the impression that other people, strangers on the street, are also in on The Show?
Hall: Yes, everybody’s in on it and everything I’m doing is because I’m supposed to do it, and I’m supposed to do it to make a good scene for The Show. I’m making a good scene for The Show so that people become more aware of how fine the line is between comfortable and uncomfortable life.
Do you remember when you first saw The Truman Show?
Hall: Oh yeah. And to say I sort of got sucked into this story would just be a ridiculous understatement. I just—all of a sudden so much of what had happened to me was something that somebody else could depict.
Mary Pilon: And it came out before reality TV had really exploded.
Exactly. And the following year a movie that I could imagine also might have struck you in this special way came out which was The Matrix. Did you see The Matrix?
Hall: Did I see The Matrix?
Hall: Are my kids sick of me making them watch The Matrix with me? Yeah. What I like about The Matrix is everything. But certainly the ontology not being obvious and things not being—
Meaning the nature of reality for those who don’t aren’t familiar with the word “ontology.”
Hall: So part of me can’t let go of that. Part of me is so into this, “What if nobody really knows what’s going on?” And, “What is some of what I believe is actually as right as any other belief system? How do I behave normally when I have these beliefs with nobody to talk to about them?”
Pilon: A lot of these episodes in the book, it would have been impossible to corroborate every single thing because in some cases he was the only one in the moment. But we pulled medical records, I interviewed other people who had been there, so maybe that was his then-girlfriend, now wife Amanda. Maybe that was his teammates. Memory’s very fickle and it’s very complicated in the best of circumstances. And I give Kevin a lot of credit, because he would say sometimes like, “I know this sounds crazy but I think I saw the color pink,” or like, “I know that the sign probably didn’t actually say this but this is what I saw.” So the endnotes for this book are quite lengthy, because I felt like readers should know where things came from, but the nature of truth is that you’re choosing a truth in some ways. And so as all this was going on, I have to say as a reporting endeavor it was by far the most existential thing I’d ever done. And then the election happened right through—you know, halfway through or a little later than that—and I thought, “Oh my gosh I’ve just been thinking about reality TV and alternate realities and technology—”
And lies and delusions.
Pilon: For a real long time. And also, you know, when you walk around, you see people with their smartphones, and obsessed with instagram.
And talking to no one apparently.
Pilon: And I just have so many moments where I thought, “Well, do we all have Truman Show disorder? Like do we all have this? How crazy is Kevin?” I mean, what is Instagram if not you creating your own PR firm, right? You know, Dr. Joel Gold and his brother Ian Gold wrote this fabulous book called Suspicious Minds—
Who coined the term Truman Show Delusion.
Pilon: Who coined this term. And one of the things I think is so fascinating about their work is, really broadly they’re looking at, how is culture shaping the narrative spine of these delusions that not just someone like Kevin has, but all of us have to some degree? And how is that formulated, and how is this stuff that we’re ingesting staying in there and coming out in different ways?
Do you watch Black Mirror?
Pilon: Yes. Love it.
It seems to relate to our conversation. The fungibility of reality in a digital world which sets up all kinds of other issues that we just haven’t faced in the past.
Pilon: Absolutely. And you know, Kevin repeatedly would joke with me about kind of calling himself the village idiot. When I left this reporting process, and I would argue it’s still going on, I left with more questions about the village than the idiot actually. I felt like for the last few years I’ve just walked around and thought we all have this. We all are in some version of The Show. Technology is impacting us in different ways and our brains are these really complicated things that we should fully explore.
Listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the interview with Mary Pilon at 19:00, and subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.