Genèvievism Gone Global

I once had a neighbor who went stark raving mad. I remember Genèvieve as an altogether delightful woman, lively, companionable, generous, and highly competent in all the small necessary tasks of daily life. For many years she was the ideal next-door person — until one summer when very strange things began to happen.

A stocky, taciturn, middle-aged man rented the house adjacent to hers, accompanied by three yapping Pomeranians. His first notable act was to drape a large Israeli flag across one of the upper windows. His next was to emerge brandishing a weedwhacker with which he proceeded to trim the bushes and hedges at the back of the property. It was at this point that the situation started to get out of hand.

When Genèvieve, who harbors an intense passion for gardening, protested what she regarded as the slaughter of innocent vegetation, the “Israeli” (let’s call him) turned to approach her. Genèvieve instantly presumed that he intended to attack her with the buzzing weedwhacker and fled into her house, barring the door and pulling down the curtains, where she remained for the rest of the day.

Thereupon began a year-long saga of anxiety, recrimination, and gradual descent into clinical paranoia. As time went by, she had an iron fence constructed along the perimeter of her lawn. She had an alarm system, video cameras, and floodlights installed. She fastened three sets of padlocks to the front door. She bought a German Shepherd. She never left the house without hiring a sitter to patrol the premises and stand guard. She summoned the constabulary on a regular basis to lodge her grievances and demand action.

She was convinced that the “Israeli” had severed the brake cables of her car, causing a near accident. She charged him with unleashing his dogs to bark interminably against her peace of mind. She claimed that her aggressor would arise in the middle of the night to fire industrial staple guns against the walls of her house, or beat an oil drum to keep her awake, or cavort on her roof as part of his campaign of terror. She spoke guardedly whenever she called since she was certain her phone had been bugged. Her computer, too, had apparently been breached — no doubt a pre-Stuxnet dry run.

But what was most interesting was that her persistent fantasy was utterly impervious to logical refutation. The paint on her car was peeling owing to some mysterious substance the “Israeli” had sprayed along the doors and fenders. When I pointed out that the car had endured nine Canadian winters of ice-melting and paint-devouring road salt, and that most older vehicles exhibited the same marks of boreal leprosy, she waved me off as one of little understanding. Her plants had been poisoned, she complained, though when I observed that they appeared to be flourishing, it then transpired that the malefactor had doused her roses and geraniums with a growth agent to render them unsightly and uncontrollable.

The alarm failed to go off because it had obviously been tampered with. The floodlights were defective for the same reason. The video cameras showed nothing because the footage had been cleverly erased. And when I remarked that all the other inhabitants of our little cul-de-sac seemed to get along well enough with the newcomer but were now avoiding Genèvieve, she had a convenient explanation for that too. They had all been taken in. They had not realized how she had been abused and misunderstood. They could not see that the “Israeli” was an intruder and a sower of discord.

As her peculiar cathexis progressed, she came to the conclusion that the conspiracy had expanded to include an elderly man who kept watch on her movements, a wealthy dowager who waited patiently in the mall parking lot to deface her vehicle whenever she might go shopping, and who knows what other invisible recruits to this band of domestic guerrillas. It was no use pointing out that people had their lives to live and their livings to earn and could not be expected to devote their time 24/7 to terrorizing a single innocuous individual. An explanation could always be found: division of labor, or a secret cabal with infinite resources, or some shadowy consortium that sought to drive her away and purchase the property, perhaps to build a synagogue there, as she intimated.

Reflecting on the curious nature of our residential drama, I realized it was intimately familiar to me. I had watched as several friends over the years, including some of “the best minds of my generation,” went mad, one jumping off a highway overpass, another lost to psychedelics, another choking on wristwatches, and yet another barricading herself in her house for almost two years and unleashing classical symphonies on her CD player at ear-splitting volume. Individual differences notwithstanding, they had all felt that the world with its demands, complications, and intractable problems was more than they could come to terms with and devised various absurd and counter-productive measures to obviate their weakness. But my familiarity with Genèvieve’s syndrome was more immediate and somehow more transparent, an expression of a kind of ideological proximity that I had to deal with daily in my writing and conversation.