We are all by now familiar with the three act structure: man is healthy, man becomes mentally ill, man recovers and lives stably ever after. While such narratives rally hope for recovery amidst the myth that diagnoses such as schizophrenia are inherently violent, degenerative and bleak, there is an opening for a different kind of story, whereby healing takes place outside of linear and institutionally sanctioned narratives. The Octopus Man shares the story of Tom, a former law student who hears the voice of Octopus God Malamok, and grapples with a society that demands him to conceptualise his reality as severe chronic illness. From the outside, Tom is diagnosed with schizophrenia and is dependent on his sister to help him manage day-to-day practicalities. Yet Tom has a vibrant inner life and sense of purpose that is threatened when he’s pressured into taking an experimental drug that offers to permanently suppress the very voice that imbues his life with meaning.
The book evokes the spirit of the psychiatric survivor and Hearing Voices Movements which are gaining traction in the UK and globally, the latter of which considers voice hearing to be a nonpathological phenomenon or response to trauma that people can learn to cope with; a spectrum of human experience that can even enhance the lives of voice hearers (Escher and Romme, 2011). While The Octopus Man is layered with nuance and never attempts to push a political agenda, the protagonist himself is politicised after spending 20 years being bullied by the mental health system, sectioned, and forced to take a myriad of medications with often devastating side effects. We’re introduced to Rashid, a psychiatric nurse who swings between a false kindness to outright abuse, including sleeping with a patient and administrating harsh antipsychotic injections out of vindictiveness. Yet we are drawn into the perspectives of all characters, including psychiatrists, fellow patients, parents of girlfriends and family members. Particularly poignant is Tom’s relationship with his sister Tess who has stood by him in madness, lucidity, and the complex and beautiful in-between, a bond that reminds us that affliction is not only contained within individual minds but interacts within a social network, often taking its toll on those we love and rely on the most.
After succumbing to the drug trial, Tom falls into the lauded arms of biomedical recovery, a return “to ordinary life, to normality—the consensus perversion (p 313).” The world here is sapped of colour, a stable yet meaningless road of navigating benefits, bad dates and medication regimes, and determining how to afford and prepare a bowl of pasta on PIP with a heavily sedated brain. Compared to the vibrancy of his life as a voice-hearer, when a walk in the forest satiates all senses with beauty, Tom explains his so-called improved life: “I cannot enter these woods as before. I am a ghost now, and cannot share its life (p 200).”
Gibson began researching the book by compiling the notes and journals of his cousin who lived with the diagnosis of schizophrenia and mysteriously died at age forty. The character of Tom is informed by Gibson’s cousin but not a depiction, allowing for greater creative liberty and for Tom’s story to unfold on its own terms. Gibson also consulted renowned voice-hearer Jacqui Dillon, Chair of the National Hearing Voices Network in England, who shares a snapshot of her journey in the book Living with Voices. Dillon asserts that the plethora of voices she hears are her mind’s creative coping strategy to surviving horrific childhood abuse, “a perfectly natural, human response to devastating experiences” (p. 190). Psychiatry’s attempt to pathologise an understandable response to abuse was deeply damaging to Dillon, who eventually learned to engage and collaborate with her voices rather than suppress them, finding deeper meaning and self-understanding in the process. On May 19th, Dillon and Gibson joined forces to present at a ISPS UK and Hearing the Voice, Durham University webinar, hosted by Angela Woods, to discuss the ethics and impact of telling stories that reframe and humanise the experience of psychosis and voice-hearing. A recording of their discussion can be accessed here.
Gibson asks us to consider what is lost when the “symptoms” of those engaged in alternate realities are fully suppressed, and how the experience of voice hearing can lead to a deeply connected and more compassionate life. Tom’s struggle is by no means romanticised—the presence of Malamok can be disturbingly cruel and punishing. Yet the constant battle between Tom and those who try to persuade him that the voice he perceives isn’t real is a losing one, as for Tom the voice is as tangible and life-affirming as the ground beneath his feet. With the help of flight-risk Missy, a fellow survivor of psychiatry who chooses to accept and even interact with the voice of Malamok, Tom eventually learns a way of coping with the voice until he is no longer controlled and overtaken. Tom decides he can neither deny nor be consumed by the voice, for “though neither protest or defiance is the answer still I must find progress (p 308),” navigating his relationship with the Octopus God so they can both develop and move forward into a rich and purposeful life.
Escher, S. & Romme, M. 2011. The Hearing Voices Movement. New York, NY: Springer New York.
Gibson, J., 2021. The Octopus Man. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Corsens, D., Dillon, J., Escher, S., Morris, M., Romme, M. 2009. Living With Voices. Monmouth: PCCS Books, Ross-on-Wye.
Robyn Thomas is completing her MSc in Global Mental Health and Society at the University of Edinburgh, researching the potential of transformative growth after psychosis. Robyn is an award-winning filmmaker who combines storytelling with mental health advocacy. Twitter @MzRobynThomas.