Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Uncensored: The Frightening Fixation

This week, Danny M. Lavery and Slate staff writer Christina Cauterucci discuss a Prudie letter: the frightening fixation.

Christina: I just realized that I wrote a whole thing and this was maybe supposed to be a chat? feel free to interject wherever:

What this person describes as a fixation can also be described as simple curiosity. Unless their deep-dives into disturbing topics are interfering with their ability to live a healthy and fulfilling life, there’s no reason to be worried by it. I think most others would agree.

Being captivated by terrible things is actually quite common. There’s a reason why dystopian novels, disaster movies, and TV shows like Law and Order: SVU are so popular: Immersing yourself in fictional worst-case scenarios can help you process real-life anxieties. Narratives like these are also a form of escapism, in their own way. I imagine this person’s drive to dig deeper when they feel distressed by a non-fictional topic serves a similar purpose.

That’s all to say that they shouldn’t feel ashamed of their independent studies, and they should approach any explanation of their research from a place of matter-of-fact interest, not embarrassment. “I kind of read a lot about Nazis—I know it’s weird, I promise I’m not a fascist,” sounds a lot more suspect than “The Nazis? Oh yeah, here’s a fact about them. I read a really good book about their rise to power. Learned a ton.” If people ask why they’re interested, they can tell the truth: that Nazism was a powerful and terrifying movement that has a lot to teach us about how fascism takes hold. People like talking to people who know what they’re talking about!

Still, it’s probably best not to overload one’s small talk with obscure factoids or insist on sticking to the topic when the conversation leads elsewhere. That holds true for any topic of personal interest, whether it be Nazis, parasites, or antique typewriters.‪

I guess one question I have for you is: Do you think this person is being overly cautious? Are there people out there who’d assume some nefarious motive for reading up on the Nazis?

Danny: I do think this person is being overly cautious!

Christina: If you’d asked me that six or seven years ago, I would have said no—no one would assume a person with an interest in Nazism was an actual Nazi. But as actual Nazis have become more visible… it seems more likely that someone might think, “hmm, why all the Nazi talk.” See: Rep. Madison Cawthorn visiting Hitler’s summer home!

Danny: I think if someone was talking a lot about the Nazis, or displayed a lot of Nazi memorabilia, I would certainly have questions

Christina: Yes, the memorabilia thing would be an extreme red flag.

Danny: but this person is talking about a lifelong habit of fixating on subjects they find distressing and trying to learn a lot (it sounds like in a standard layman’s approach of reading what’s readily available, not by trying to get multiple degrees), presumably to increase their sense of capability/control

and the Nazis have come up an awful lot in the last few years – it makes sense to me that this topic would join the list, and they certainly don’t seem to be talking about the Nazis hardly at all

if anything, they’re consumed by the fear that they might simply say something relevant during a conversation where the Nazis had already been introduced, and that the other people they were talking to would suddenly become suspicious and hostile

my thought here honestly was that, depending on how involuntary they find this reflex, and/or how distressing these reading sprees feel, it might be worth talking to a therapist about the possibility of intrusive thoughts, anxiety disorders, etc – hyperfixation can be an indicator of a few other types of neurodivergence

and I don’t mean in the sense of “go grab yourself a diagnosis”

just that this kind of “I’m scared of X, I want to learn everything I can about X, what if people knew how much I learned about X and hated me” strikes me as a compulsive pattern, and it might benefit the OP to consider it as a lifelong trait they want some help thinking about

the OP seems incredibly clear about their values, they want to learn more about Nazi history because they’re concerned about a resurgence of neo-Nazism in this country – that makes sense to me and doesn’t seem like they’re in danger of being intrigued by fascism

I am also aware that simply saying “I’m not saying get a diagnosis! But have you considered neurodivergence?” can seem a little bit like trying to have it both ways

Christina: Do you mean that you think that could help them figure out how to talk to people about their interests? Or just that it might make them less frightened of being ostracized for a totally non-worrisome interest?

Danny: I think it might be useful context for thinking about this lifelong habit!

and if nothing else, CBT can be a really effective tool for dealing with repetitive anxious thoughts

to me the issue here really seems to be “if I hear about something scary, I try to learn as much as I can, sometimes to a point where it makes me worried other people will dislike me”

and that’s a pattern I want the LW to be able to feel more freedom and independence around

Christina: That’s fair. I also think it’s possible that they find themselves in rabbit holes just by force of interest—they certainly wouldn’t be the first person to be drawn to the things they’re most disturbed by. But yeah, a diagnosis (or just talking to a therapist) could help them understand more about why they’re compelled to repeat this pattern.

Danny: I agree! But in the meantime, since it doesn’t sound like anyone has ever said to the letter writer, “You bring up Nazis [or plane crashes, or rare diseases, etc] too often,” the issue here is about resolving internal discomfort and uncertainty

if they’ve merely read a lot of books on the subject and now have a more robust sense of how the Nazis first came to power and stronger opinions about how to combat Nazism, and they’re still able to have lots of conversations about other topics, I don’t think their conduct is the problem

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate