April, May reads in review

The diversity challenge for the month of April was “mental health,” and though it took me a little into May to finish it, I’m counting it for April. I chose a book that had been recommended by many friends in my Facebook group for OCPD, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. The easiest oversimplication for OCPD I could come up with that gives people a good general starting point is, “It’s like OCD, except I think I’m right about everything.” Of course it’s (much) more complicated than that, and if you’re interested in learning more about it, you should check out my friend Darryl’s youtube channel on the subject.

The book I chose was Autonomy and Rigid Character by David Shapiro. The first thing I would say about this book is that it is very “science-y.” If you’re looking for an easy read, this slim volume is not it. Shapiro writes as a scientist, presumably to other scientists. There’s no dumbing it down for the masses. I’m pretty smart, and I encountered several instances where I needed to go over a single sentence more than once to catch its meaning. I also read parts of the book aloud, which seemed to increase my reading comprehension for difficult sections. Another way this book differs from some of the softer science feel-good books popular today (and I enjoy those too, don’t get me wrong) is that it doesn’t really buffer or bracket the ideas presented. By that I mean, they are sectioned, but there isn’t really an introduction chapter, and there’s definitely no closing to review. The section ends a particular subject and without warning, the book is over, just like that.

I chose this book because I suspected some of its content might resonate for me, but there’s plenty in it that would be useful to anyone interested in trying to understand different kinds of people and different ways of thinking.

So here’s the basic premise. “The rigid person, it appears, continues to emulate and to identify himself with images of superior authority derived from the child’s image of the superior authority of the adult… The aims and purposes that rigid individuals impose on themselves, and live under (‘I should accomplish more.’ ‘I should move.’) have precisely the character of established authoritative rules or imperatives” (74, 75-76).

People with OCPD have experienced a very strong authority figure in childhood, and as adults police themselves with a strong sense of “should.” What they should or shouldn’t want, what they should or shouldn’t do. This concept also extends to how others should or shouldn’t act, though what is “just common courtesy” to one person might be an arbitrary determination for another. In the Facebook group, for example, we had a discussion about how late is too late to call another person’s phone, and while we all agreed that there was a certain lateness after which it was definitely rude, the specific time could not be agreed upon. People with OCPD take the way they were raised, and the ways they’ve determined as the best ways, and treat these somewhat arbitrary methods as the only right way to do things. You can see how this might lead to conflict with others.

“Duties and responsibilities, values that the compulsive individual imposes on himself, values whose authority he regards as superior to his own… They have, therefore, the status of rules and regulations… His awareness of such duties and responsibilities is to one degree or another oppressive, and this oppresive tension gives rise to a special kind of motivation, the motivation to seek relief… The urgent tone typical of these declarations, their language of will and resolve…They are reminders of duty—directives, admonitions, or reproaches in the manner of a superior addressing a subordinate… The experience of ‘I should’ is oppresive” (80-81).

Shapiro goes on to explain that ritual action, “is not aimed at altering the relationship of the individual to his environment” but is instead is aimed “at achieving peace of mind, merely by the performance of the act itself” (97). So ritual actions are actions that we feel compelled to complete. Adjusting objects slightly askew, checking that the door is locked several times, and so on. “These concerns and procedures are driven by a conscientiousness that will not be lastingly satisfied” so rituals end up being condensed “for the sake of economy,” which is why, “rituals frequently involve doing something a perscribed number of times, obviating the threat of an indefinite progression” (99).

I found all that insight extremely interesting! There’s a lot more in this book that others may find interesting: discussions of sadism and masochism both inside and outside the bedroom; a case study from around 1900 where a man feared he was being “turned into” a woman; and an explanation of paranoid thinking. So if you’re looking for a highly scientific exploration of thought processes, this might be the book for you. I’m definitely curious to pick up another of Shapiro’s volumes.



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