God’s Plot and Thomas Shepard’s Schizophrenia

Thomas Shepard’s autobiography in God’s Plot reveals his personal struggle with cognition in a world in which positive/negative, good/evil can not peaceably coexist.  As an authority figure for Puritan doctrine Shepard  purposefully constructs his autobiography to reflect the enlightened path of the ecclesiastically elite; it speaks to divine transformation and serves as a testament of conversion from heathen to visible saint.  Similar to most stories of religious conversion, there are many examples of blind faith and testimonies of covert presence and miraculous intervention.  However, while Shepard’s texts undeniably reveal his piety, his zealous religious fanaticism suggests an unstable state of mind that I couldn’t easily dismiss.  I found tracing the markers of  schizophrenic behavior throughout Shepard’s works fascinating.

Before analyzing Shepard’s mentality the general psychosis that accompanies any religious belief must be considered. One foundation of patriarchal religion is an emphasis on the extrinsic by removing all association with power from the earth and visible life and transferring the power to something outside of the body.  Conversely, matriarchal religions often seem more earth-centered, based upon the power of intrinsic creation; power nests within usable and visible nature.  The distinction between the two is crucial in understanding the religious state of mind; the critical factor is tangibility.  When looking at religious fervor as mental illness, symptoms are perhaps most apparent in the patriarchal prototype — praying to invisible beings, looking for help from an unseen idol, believing that voices are speaking in your head.  These characteristics (and more) would perhaps indicate mental illness through psychoanalysis if they weren’t self-identified as faith.

Shepard, as shown by his own proclamations, extends beyond the usual boundaries of religious conversion.  He believes he has been saved and hand-selected by “God” to do “God’s” will.  But, in a world where there is no common ground for polarities, he remains tormented by his faith.  Throughout his narrative Shepard identifies an intense inner battle between two personalities: one is a firm atheist, the other a modern-day prophet.  His “wound of secret atheism” becomes a facet of the preacher’s personality that he admittedly hides from his peers.  Like a schizophrenic, Shepard harbors an alter-ego which he beats down and fears and, most importantly, covets for times of especial hardship.  The suppressed personality is left to ripen and ferment within him, becoming more beastly and even less acknowledged.

Like some suppressed feelings can, Shepard’s alter-ego shows itself in a negative way.  He is overcome by hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.  For a person who “questioned whether there were a God,” Shepard submits himself wholeheartedly to “God’s” path where thoughts of death and sin pervade his sensibilities until he wishes that his own child would die rather “than let it live a blind and a miserable life.”  There are even suggestions that Shepard and his wife have, within his own delusional state of mind, sacrificed their children: one sick child does not die until “its mother has given it up to the Lord,” and another when Shepard provokes “the Lord to strike at my innocent children for my sake.”  Although he may direct his death wishes to his children at times, Shepard feels inclined to kill himself; “I had some strong temptations to run my head against walls and brain and kill myself.”  He follows this suicide dream with the birth of yet another persona as he imagines that he is Christ.  For a schizophrenic, traumatic experience will create a persona to take over in times of fear.  Shepard’s comment that “it came to my mind that I should do as Christ” is a signifier that he is attempting to exchange one persona for another.

His hallucinations consist of many incidents of seeing “Christ” before him.  “Christ” appears to him in times of trial, teaching him lessons, trying to persuade him to do particular deeds.  Like a true schizophrenic persona, “Christ” has the power to dictate action, inspire words, give peace and fear, provide and deplete.  “Christ” has so much power as Shepard’s persona he believes the voice of “Christ,” which he hears in his head in the fashion of a usual schizophrenic delusion, has power over other people.  “Christ” even directs “one man to cut some cable of rope in the ship.”  This persona “provided for me of all things of the best,” but also “began to rage” when Shepard does not do as the voice says.  “Christ” can be very threatening when Shepard strays from his intended path.

Shepard’s paranoia is most indicative of schizophrenia.  His comments throughout the autobiography show that at every turn he believes someone is out to get him.  He is always pursued, always watched; the pursuant is always hot on his track.  Shepard’s mind is consumed with severe anxiety and intense feelings that he is the focal point of everything.  “Christ” is present most strongly during the times when Shepard believes he is being pursued, threatened, or chased.  For example, when the “malicious” Bishop Laud threatens him if he preaches anywhere, “Christ” appears physically before Shepard to follow into “a remote and strange place.”  When Shepard is “so smitten with fear” and “dizzied” by a friend nearly drowning, “Christ” immediately “upheld me and my horse also…[‘Christ’] was strong in my weakness.”   This, and many other examples, serve to show the ways Shepard surrenders himself to a different persona in times of trial and fear, as protection.

 In addition to the alter-ego and “Christ” personification, Shepard suffers other symptoms of schizophrenia which I will graze over briefly.  His anhedonia (inability of experience joy or pleasure) permeates every experience; he fears happiness, striving to appear without desire.  Sudden resentment accompanies each act which he soon comes to view as sin.  Shepard places himself in a constant state of regret.  His documentation of other people’s religious experiences in The Confessions speaks to the schizophrenic tendency to replay conversation continuously and reveals his own intense and excessive preoccupation with religion.  Confessions like that of John Still who admits that sometimes “they heard a voice” seems to reflect Shepard’s own experience of religion.   And lastly, of course, there is family history.  Shepard admits his mother “was a woman much afflicted in conscience, sometimes even unto to distraction of mind,” suggesting there is a history of mental illness in the family.

Perhaps Elizabeth Olbon states the case most clearly in her confession where she professes that the “hiding place was Christ.”  For Thomas Shepard, at least, it seems that “Christ” has certainly become a hiding place, deep within his subconscious.  Shepard’s many layers of persona indicate a deeper mental affliction than typically associated with religion.  When in his journal he admits, “I saw Christ’s frowns would damp all joys,” he struggles to keep the smile always on “Christ’s” face.  This is the battle that Shepard fights as he attempts to sate the Christic persona and find inner peace in a world where opposites cannot coexist.

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