Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Normal and the Carceral: Boundaries in Thomas Harris's the Silence of the Lambs

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Normal and the Carceral: Boundaries in Thomas Harris's the Silence of the Lambs

Article excerpt

Tony Ullyatt

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason.

The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.1

We are bom into a world where alienation awaits us.2

Society is the threshold area where conflicts between the normal and the abnormal, the acceptable and the punishable, occur. As I have noted elsewhere, it is where that society pursues a possibly delusional fantasy of itself as a good, healthy, safe, stable, or sacred place where its members can share their customary ?normal' realities.

To transform this fantasy into reality, society defines and enforces norms of permissible and non-permissible behaviours. Against both sets of norms - permissible and non-permissible alike - individual and group behaviours are defined, measured, labelled, judged - and punished when infractions occur.3

Some infractions are easily defined because they are matters of fact; exceeding the speed limit, for example. However, issues become more complex when society attempts to define norms regarding states of mind, especially non-normal ones. The very definition of permissible and impermissible forms of behaviour is caught at overlapping, contradictory, inchoate definitional boundaries. The words used to define such forms of social behaviour themselves represent a threshold area between non-verbal realities and the inadequate attempts to transmute the unspeakable into definitionally accurate diagnoses of pathology. Such identification relies on accurate definitions of transgressions, and therein lies a major problem, essentially because "the abnormal is defined through the normal.At times, our revulsion at behavioural abominations either leaves us speechless because we lack an adequate vocabulary or obliges us to resort to clichés and hyperbole such as ?monstrous' - and other words conveying non- or sub-human behaviour. (Dr Frankenstein's creation casts a long shadow here.)

Thomas Harris's novel The Silence of the Lambs5 deals with two major transgressors of social norms, Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb (known initially only as "Buffalo Bill"), whose mental aberrations have led them, deeply and irrevocably, far beyond any understanding of normality, into the liminal interspace of those mental realms that normal society defines, not always accurately, as madness or insanity. Victor Turner explains:

Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.6

Consequently, by virtue of their very intermediacy, such places may possess "strong transformative powers."7 In pursuit of their own unique forms of transformation, Lecter and Gumb refuse to be "the well-conditioned, endlessly obedient citizen"8 pandering to societal norms; they perpetrate their deviant behaviours instead.

Commonly perceived assumptions about what might be termed the ?normal view' that society has of itself (i.e. the fantasy) are shown in Figure 6.

Madness (the impermissible) - however it may be defined or construed - constitutes the almost diametrical opposite of normality and sanity (the permissible) - however they may be defined or construed. The underlying presumption of this model is that normality and sanity are preferable to any form of madness. The model also implies that it is possible to grow beyond normality towards sanity.

In every kind of group and societal institution, their particular norms are underpinned by systems of authority that urge or compel expected behaviours upon its members. For those who deviate from the accepted norms, rules and laws provide for numerous forms and methods of punishment: censure, castigation, expulsion, excommunication, compulsory institutional confinement, physical damage, and/or disfigurement, torture, and even death in sometimes bizarre ways. Ironically, some of these punitive social sanctions also characterize the modus operandi of serial killers. …

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