Hi Tom, thanks for taking a moment to speak with us about your story! Can you tell us about where “A Well-Adjusted Man” came from?
I’ve long been interested in the topic of human biochemistry and personal responsibility, not least because of the many dumb things that I’ve done under the influence of adrenaline. We like to believe we’re rational decision makers, but rationality depends on a delicate biochemical balance that fails when we need it most. The fight-or-flight response enables some amazing physical feats, but it also largely shuts down the brain, so you act on instinct.
This doesn’t work very well in modern society. If a friend insults you, punching him in the face isn’t the best idea. But perfectly rational, well-adjusted people do such things quite often. Most people can be pushed over the edge, if you hit the right triggers.
How do you assign blame in such a scenario? On the one hand, fully adrenalized, the puncher didn’t have much choice or free will. That’s why we distinguish crimes of passion (e.g. the “temporary insanity” defense) from premeditated ones. On the other hand, dismissing guilt altogether is dangerous. We all know the “that’s not who I really am” excuse, which can lead to cycles of misbehavior and abuse. Culpability forces people to confront their issues (and, in more serious cases, enables the victim to be protected).
In “A Well-Adjusted Man,” I imagine a future where society has decided that a person can’t be held accountable for their actions while adrenalized.
Your protagonist, Jim Turner, comes up against an unthinkable mistake, and is “fixed” with a memory overwrite.
Jim is a police officer. In his world, the emphasis is on officer wellbeing. In order to avoid psychological trauma, violent incidents are “re-written” in officers’ memories with successful outcomes. On the plus side, this is an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Guilt and remorse are removed along with the old memories. But if, no matter what you do, you’re never wrong, that changes you . . .
I wrote “A Well-Adjusted Man” after attending RMCAT, an adrenalized self-defense program run by Peyton Quinn and Bill Kipp. Over the course of five days at a facility up in the Rockies, we went through realistic—and, therefore, highly stressful—hand-to-hand and firearms combat scenarios.
What happens to you under stress makes a very deep impression. PTSD is the extreme example, but we’ve all made mistakes that make us sweat ice to remember. This can work to your advantage too.
The core idea of RMCAT is to subject you to adrenalized situations and guide you to deal with them successfully. Because of the stress, you’re likely to recall this experience instinctively when needed, and react appropriately. Moreover, this type of stress inoculation teaches you to access your thinking brain in short bursts of rational thought, even in the middle of a fight.
While the self-defense aspect was fantastic, what I found truly fascinating was the emphasis on adrenaline management. Mixed in at random with combat scenarios were numerous highly charged situations where the whole point was to evaluate the threat accurately—and not attack, not display your gun, not shoot the aggressor.
I left the course with a conviction that every gun owner should do such training, as should anyone who performs badly under stress. In particular, police forces everywhere should be trained like this extensively.
What research I’ve been able to find indicates that similar training is in fact used, but far from universally or consistently. I have heard anecdotally that the ability of police trainers to actually adrenalize trainees is often lacking. Moreover, time and cost considerations lead to an emphasis on target shooting over realistic scenario training that prepares officers for situations they will encounter on the street.
In “A Well-Adjusted Man,” society has chosen memory over-write as a cheaper alternative to actual training.
The dangers associated with PTSD are becoming a more recognized problem within the military and civilian worlds. Do you think that a technological fix is something warranted or worth exploring in the real world?
PTSD is a debilitating condition for many people. Medical and technological solutions are definitely needed. Scientists have, in fact, tested drugs designed to do something very similar to the technology of the story—weaken memory formation during and after traumatic events. Whether this or another approach might prove most fruitful, I don’t know.
The way I see it, the nightmarish aspect of my story does not lie with memory-erasure as an “evil technology,” but rather with societal attitudes. Attitudes which are not that different from ours today. Too often we see instances of unjustified police violence where the officers never face any consequences. This is even more pronounced in the military world, where mistakes routinely result in atrocities. A drone fires a missile, children die, and society shrugs.
High-stress, high-stakes jobs will inevitably result in impossible situations and deadly mistakes. An officer or soldier who does his best and makes an honest mistake doesn’t deserve to have his life destroyed, neither legally nor psychologically via PTSD. Unreasonable over-scrutiny after the fact can be paralyzing, making officers reluctant to act in complex situations.
But a shrug isn’t the right answer either. Mistakes should be acknowledged and learned from. Training and institutional culture should prepare officers for the actual realities of the street, and should evolve in response to incidents. If all you say is, “Everyone screws up sometimes,” where’s the motivation to get better? As a society, we have a duty to hold our institutions accountable—not only for their mistakes, but also for their culture.
Lastly, is there anything coming up that we should keep our eyes out for?
There isn’t much short fiction in the pipe because I’ve been working almost exclusively on novels for the past few years. I’m finally done with To Catch A Firefly, a YA novel where AIs have devastated the world, and humans are no longer the top predator. It’s basically kids with superpowers versus giant robots. Now comes the part where I try to sell it!