Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Let's none of us think about a white bear

This book played mind games with me when I was a kid.

Whatever you do, don't think about a white bear.

If that last sentence immediately made you think about white bears, then congratulations on falling victim to something called the "ironic process theory," which states that any deliberate attempt to suppress or discourage an idea is highly likely to make that same idea surface in a person's mind. If you have ever tried to make yourself forget about something uncomfortable, sad, or embarrassing, only to have that very thing dominate your thoughts, you know all about this psychological phenomenon. It's only one of the ways in which the human mind fails us. Fortunately, time and apathy are good antidotes for irony. The phrase "don't think about a white bear" doesn't make me think of white bears, because I have no interest in white bears and can't really even force myself to think about them. I know, for instance, that polar bears are in dire straits these days becomes their homes are melting. And I want to care about that, but I don't. I'm sorry, polar bears and people who care about polar bears.
Eve Merriam
I'm bringing all this up because, for whatever reason, I flashed back to a crucial book from my early childhood: Don't Think About a White Bear by Eve Merriam. Eve was quite something, really. Born Eve Moskowitz in Philadelphia in 1916, she was a feminist poet and writer who was best known for her children's books. Apparently, one of her creations, The Inner City Mother Goose, was quite controversial in its day. (Never read it, but now I'm dying to.) I'm guessing Eve was a big time commie, too. Her first husband was a labor organizer. Her second husband was Waldo Salt, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Serpico, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) who was blacklisted during the communist witch hunt of the 1950s. Eve herself was profiled in a book called Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation (2001). My parents were 1960s-type liberals, pretty far to the left on the political spectrum, but I don't know if they knew that Eve Merriam was a full-fledged red when they got this book for me. Either way, Eve's been dead over 20 years now. Liver cancer finally claimed her in 1992. Don't Think About a White Bear was one of Eve's less-remembered titles. Her Wikipedia entry doesn't even mention it. But it sure made an impression on me. The book, as I remember it, is about a kid who is specifically instructed not to think about a white bear and, thus, thinks only of white bears until he is nearly at the point of madness. The book ends happily -- the prohibition of white bear thoughts was merely clever subterfuge on the part of his parents -- but the premise haunted me. 

A happier version of the ironic process theory, by the way, appears in this scene from Ghostbusters in which Ray (Dan Aykroyd) inadvertently conjures up the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from his subconscious while trying and failing to keep his mind totally blank. "Nice thinking, Ray."

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