Collision with the Infinite, by Segal Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars

This was one the books mentioned by Ligotti in his survey of anti-self literature. It is the personal account of Suzanne Segal, noted void monk, as she talks about both her early life and her life after losing her sense of personhood. In brief: as a youngster Segal practiced transcendental meditation under different guru's and had plentiful ventures into otherspace. She abandoned this meditation in her late 20's. Several years later, after settling down and getting married and getting pregnant, she was stepping onto a city bus when her sense of "self" disappeared from one moment to the next. She went through a months long phase of being an "observer", watching "herself" from over her shoulder as she carried out her actions. Later on even that sense of observerhood would disappear and for many years she was in a paradoxical state of having no self, of observing herself without an observer, a sort of experiential view from nowhere as she viewed and recorded the actions and emotions of someone that she was not. To give you an idea of the weirdness of this state, where a person might normally write "I opened my eyes after waking up" she would instead write "the eyes opened". Finally, at age 42, she became badly ill and on testing an aggressive brain tumor was discovered. Within months she was dead.

So, a couple of notes. Note #1 is that Segal was ill-served by many of the people in her life. The spiritual gurus she interacted with were all scumbags. The Western psychologists she went to for help also failed her, and were unable to identify what seems to be a fairly clear and literal case of depersonalization, i.e. the patient came up and told them "I can no longer recognize myself as a person". This was 40 years ago and psychiatry was not as advanced, but still, they should not have all been so completely useless to her. If at some point one of them would have told her "hey, your brain is having hiccups, lets pop you in a X-ray or MRI machine and maybe we will find a tumor that is tripping you up", then it is entirely possible that Segal would still be alive today. Instead the brain tumor was just allowed to progress for ~12 years. Oh, and then her husband, being French, completely failed to try and understand her or help her when the depersonalization came on. She was no longer filling the wife role she was scripted for, and so she was fired.

Note #2 is that I feel cheated, as the narrative failed to really dig into the particular aspect of her experience that I was interested in, the experience of moment to moment decision making within this condition. E.g. how does an action come about, say eating ice cream? Is it just something that she observes happening? Does she feel/observe hunger or anticipation or something pleasant to look forward too? I really would have loved just an in depth, 30 page long examination of how basic actions and decision occur. At several points in the book, both before and after depersonalization, she describes making life decisions because it seemed "obvious". Is life like that for her, a continual series of obvious choices? Unclear. So the one bit of info I was reading the book for, I did not find.

Note #3 is a moderately positive one. Ligotti and to a certain extent Segal say (this is very much paraphrasing), that the self is an illusion. Yet her experience seems to indicate that the self is at least a load-bearing illusion, and that its lack results in very noticeable effects. For Segal this experience of lack-of-self caused continual terror, trembling, anxiety, and exhaustion. True, later on she becomes calmer as she understands her situation better, but even then there were definite effects. You could easily posit a different situation, where her sense of self disappeared in the same way, but she just continued on in precisely the same life-track as before. She could have become a p-zombie with no one being the wiser, with no terrors, no divorces, no books being written. The fact that the disappearance of self was a life changing event argues that it fills at least some role in the ecosystem of the mind.

Oh right! and Note #4, she refers in the end to her altered and unmediated? remediated? perception of reality/the universe as "the Vastness". What a great phrase!