Press Box

Jared Loughner’s World of Illusion … and Ours

The accused Tucson killer isn’t the only one who has a love affair with alternative realities.

See Slate’s complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

The Matrix, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Inception

As long as we’re using Jared Lee Loughner’s tastes in philosophy and literature to probe his psyche—and I’m not saying we shouldn’t—let’s scrutinize our own tastes, too. I’m not suggesting a Mailerian equivalence between Loughner and the average man, so stop composing that irate e-mail to me right now. But Loughner’s obsession with alternative realities, his idea that the universe is malleable and a function of an individual’s will, is mirrored almost everywhere we look in pop culture.

According to a Mother Jonespiece by Nick Baumann, Loughner believed in “lucid dreaming,” namely that “conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control.” That may sound like the currency of the insane, but it’s the stuff of our most popular entertainments. Lucid dreaming served as the foundation for the fifth-best grossing movie of 2010, Inception.

Today’s Washington Post calls reality-bending novelist Philip K. Dick—the author of such classics as Time Out of Jointand Ubik—Loughner’s favorite writer. While Dick produced most of his short stories and novels for the pulp press, he has recently been acknowledged as a master of literature by the Library of America, which has published three volumes of his work. In Dick’s fiction, characters are trapped and liberated as the realities around them melt, buckle, and turn inside out. He defined reality in a 1978 essay as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” but characteristically amended the thought several paragraphs later, writing, “If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”

An erudite overview of Dick’s work published in the New Republic in 1993 captures the writer’s oeuvre. “To enter a novel by Philip K. Dick is to enter a zone of disappearing worlds, nested hallucinations and impossible time-loops,” Alexander Star writes. “Dick systematically blurs the boundaries between mind and matter, between storms in the psyche and crises of the atmosphere. The coiling search to set things right is doubled and redoubled and doubled again. Dick never met a story that ended or a regression that was finite.”

If Jared Loughner was living out the Dickian philosophy to a schizophrenic extreme, so, it appears, did Dick. “Phil was not crazy by any standard I would dare apply,” writes biographer Lawrence Sutin in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, citing his interviews with a psychiatrist and a psychologist who saw Dick during two difficult periods in his life. But Dick told his third wife, Anne Dick, that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when in high school. It was a very hot topic with the writer. “Phil was hypochondriacal about his mental condition,” Anne said. When she was admitted to a psychiatric facility for assessment, Dick speculated about himself, telling a doctor that he was mentally ill, perhaps schizophrenic, and that he should be hospitalized, Sutin writes.

In one letter quoted by Sutin, Dick grumbles about how his wild behaviors had earned him the reputation “of an advanced schizophrenic who believed everyone was plotting against him.” Dick self-medicated on drugs for most of his adult life, even trying a vitamin regimen, to beat his self-diagnosis of schizophrenia. He embraced the teaching of Swiss psychoanalyst Ludwig Binswanger, who, Star writes, “believed that schizophrenia involved a disturbance in the patient’s orientation toward time.” He had religious visions, claimed that his mind had been invaded by a “transcendentally rational mind” and believed he had been possessed by the prophet Elijah.

Again, I’m not equating Loughner and Dick but trying to establish how Dick harnessed the schizophrenic’s worldview of mirror-worlds, parallel universes, and scrims behind scrims behind scrims to power his fiction. In Dick’s world, the schizophrenic response to the world is not just normal; it is heroic—and doubly heroic when the protagonist breaks through the reality barriers that have marginalized him.

Thanks to Dick, pop culture caught up with schizophrenia and, thanks to Dick’s followers, surpassed it. In Dick’s world, the paranoid view is almost always the wisest one to embrace. Elements of Philip K. Dick can be found in such recent movies as The Matrix, in which a dreamer who is being fed upon by machines is awakened to fight and destroy them in a cyber realm. In Dark City, another dreaming protagonist discovers and combats the superintelligent observers who experiment on hundreds of thousands of people by periodically erasing their memories and reconfiguring the simulacrum of a 1950s Chicagoish city as they sleep. Hollywood has turned other Dick works into reality-bending movies, including Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. According to IMDB, a remake of Total Recall is in preproduction.

What is the TV show Lost but a six-season treatise on what is real and what is illusion, who is mad and who is sane, and what the limits of logic and faith are? In the Harry Potterseries, the young wizard discovers a parallel world hidden to normal humans in which an evil power seeks to destroy and enslave the inhabitants of both worlds. Other movies in which reality is faked, augmented, and otherwise altered include The Truman Show, The Game, and Avatar, in which even the crippled can walk again. And I’m not even including the hundreds of movies in which ghosts take us into their realms or any of the physicists who speculate that our world is just a projection of some higher, multi-dimensional universe.

According to the Post, Loughner especially loved the movie Waking Life, which chronicles one man’s adventures in the dream pool, as he walks “in and out of dreams, exploring ideas about the fleeting nature of identity.”

Dreaming your way to a magical space was already a hackneyed notion by the time Dick started writing in the 1950s. Alice dreams her way to Wonderland, Dorothy’s unconscious mind transports her to Oz, and Peter Pan takes Wendy and her brothers to Never Land as they prepare to settle down for a night’s sleep. In all three stories, the young heroes struggle against the sometimes tempting, sometimes frightening alternative reality until they break free and return home. So satisfying were these tales that their audiences demanded—and were given—sequels in which Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy all return to their other, truer dimensions and were tested again.

Everybody shares Loughner’s appetite for life in another dimension where they can be in control. One difference between Loughner and the man in the street is that the man in the street can easily distinguish between the imagined and the real—something Loughner appears to have struggled with. When our minds occupy alternative realities, we know it’s only a movie, only a book, only a philosophical tract, or only a flask of physicists’ moonshine. When we visit alternative realities, our grips on this reality grow firmer. When Loughner goes there, I suspect he strips a few mental threads and loses his hold on our world.

What’s it like to live on the leading edge of paranoia? From his perspective, what does his 6-by-6 cell look like? Is it a collapsing cube or does it stretch beyond the infinite?


What alt-reality stories, movies, and authors did I neglect to mention? Surely something by Borges. Send tips to For an unsavory reality, dip into my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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