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Selective denial
General · 24th September 2009
Ray Grigg
Reality is scary enough. More scary, however, are our collective delusions, the deceptions and denials that obscure the clarity of awareness we need to negotiate our way through the complexities of our modern age.

Every age, of course, is likely complex for the people who are living it. But our 21st century seems unusually tense and anxious, as if the speed that is bringing us our affluence and comfort comes with added worry and risk. If we are so rich and accomplished, why do we sense a precariousness that keeps rattling our smugness?

Some insights into our collective psychology might be provided in a book by Jed Mercurio, a medical doctor and author who recently published American Adulterer, a unsettling biographical study of former US President John F. Kennedy.

The term of Kennedy's presidency in the United States has been called the Camelot Years, a time when America lived under the magical spell of a seemingly dynamic, competent and decisive leader. The rest of the world, too, was charmed by the fairytale romance of "Jack" and "Jackie", his beautiful wife, Jacqueline. The Kennedy reality, according to Mercurio, was quite different.

Mercurio's clinical examination of Kennedy – with all the magic and pretence put aside – reveals a philanderer with a psychosexual pathology who was on the verge of personal, physical and political wreckage. Under scrutiny, the image of Camelot collapses. The vigour and health so crucial to Kennedy's persona of dynamic control was an illusion. In reality, he could barely walk and was incapable of putting on socks and shoes without help (Guardian Weekly, Apr. 24/09). Mercurio describes his blood as "simmering with chemicals" from medication that was attempting to address a litany of disorders: thyroid deficiency, venereal disease, asthma, allergies, high cholesterol and both gastric and urinary ailments. Osteoarthritis stiffened his joints and osteoporosis caused lumbar vertebral collapse and incessant pain – he took pain killers and wore a body brace to alleviate some of the symptoms of this condition.

And Kennedy also suffered from Addison's disease, a malfunction of the adrenal glands that requires the injection of large amounts of cortical hormones to maintain basic bodily functions. Among these drugs was testosterone, the overdose of which might explain his satyriasis, a pathology in men described as an excessive and uncontrollable sexual desire.

Kennedy, Mercurio argues, may have been saved by his assassination. His serial womanizing, including Marilyn Monroe and an exhaustive string of other impromptu dalliances, was close to becoming public knowledge. And his protracted affair with Mary Meyer – "she was murdered under bizarre circumstance" – would have been exposed had her diaries not been found and confiscated. Kennedy's wife compensated for his incessant infidelity by excessive spending, and the two of them, according to Mercurio's book, maintained some semblance of normality in public events by "being shot up with speedball cocktails".

So this was beneath the surface of Camelot's enchanted image. And this was the condition of the US president who commanded America's arsenal of super weapons when the world went to the brink of a nuclear war with the USSR during the Cuban missile crisis.

Some of the Camelot fantasy, of course, was manufactured as a cultivated image fastidiously maintained and protected by political interests. But the largest portion of the illusion was simply the result of a public's collective denial, the subconscious urge of people to nourish and maintain a belief that satisfies their own needs – we believe what we want rather than what we know. Psychological study after study has shown that people habitually underestimate the seriousness of the situation they are in and regularly overestimate their ability to solve its problems. Optimism is preferable to realism. We are disposed to myth over fact, belief over evidence.

In this regard, Jed Mercurio's book is a revelation because it reminds us of the power of denial, the pervasive blindness that causes us to miss the obvious when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. The inertia of wanting and hoping clouds our perception and impairs our judgment.

Such are the circumstances of our present time. Our world is full of maturing inevitabilities that we would rather not recognize and confront. The illusions are more inviting than the realities; the habits are more comfortable than the challenges. But the harbingers of these looming inevitabilities keep appearing as hints, omens, strange irregularities in the ordinary functioning of things. They are the cause of the pervasive apprehension that marks our modern age.

Camelot does not exist. It did not exist and it will never exist. "Happy-ever-after ing", however appealing, may be useful as a momentary escape but it can only serve as a passing reprieve from the pressing demands of reality. So, let the pretending end.