the tell tale heart and ocd
Okay, it's time to subject you all to my personal interpretation of "The Tell Tale Heart," one of Edgar Allen Poe's short stories. I highly recommend you read it because it's really not long (a ten minute read at most) and you can find it here.
CW for this post: discussions of OCD, intrusive thoughts, tics, and general murder and death
That out of the way, on we go!
We had to discuss this story in class today, and it was while looking over it for the second time that I realized the narrator was...oddly relatable. Not to say that I've killed a man and buried his dismembered corpse beneath my floorboards, but this is the internet and you can never be too sure. My teacher was of the opinion that the narrator is relatable because of that final scene, as everyone has done something they were not supposed to and tried to cover it up--only to get caught.
I had a slightly different reason.
My personal experience with OCD has looked a lot like a lot of physical tics, a lot of flipping light switches, a lot of reopening doors, a lot of looking-at-a-room-from-a-certain-angle-multiple-times-until-I-get-it-right, and a lot of intrusive thoughts that I won't describe in graphic detail. My reasons for doing so are obsessive, irrational, and anxiety-inducing. Actually, writing this essay has made the ticcing worse, which was definitely an unforseen side effect. Oops.
But what I want to focus on is the irrational aspect of OCD. The reason I will open a door and close it and open it again is not because it's not closing properly. It's because if I don't open and close it exactly right, something terrible will happen. I try not to think too hard about what. And if I don't look at my bedroom floor from beneath my upraised arm before going to sleep, a demon might kill me in my sleep. It becomes a ritual and a thought spiral unless I do whatever strange thing my brain demands I do.
The narrator of "The Tell Tale Heart" is mad. There's no doubt about that. The story is a confessional, but it's not meant to prove their innocence. It reads instead as a desperate plea for the listener to understand why they killed a man, because the narrator continues to assert that they are not crazy.
Ostensibly, they kill the old man because something was terribly wrong with the man's eye.
"There was no reason for what I did," the narrator confides. "I think it was his eye. His eye was like the eye of a vulture, the eye of one of those terrible birds that watch and wait while an animal dies, and then fall upon the dead body and pull it to pieces to eat it. When the old man looked at me with his vulture eye a cold feeling went up and down my back; even my blood became cold."
Something is unexplainably uncomfortable about the old man's eye. Taken literally, the reader might believe he has a magic eyeball, something akin to the evil eye. It's certainly what the narrator believes. But this, to me, is familiar. It's seeing something ostensibly quite harmless, and yet the brain kicks you into fight or flight to make it go away that made me think of OCD.
And the narrator's behavior is obsessive, because they think about it so much that they conclude they must get rid of him. And their behavior is compulsive--they go to watch the old man sleep for seven nights in a row.
Every night about twelve o’clock I slowly opened his door. And when the door was opened wide enough I put my hand in, and then my head. In my hand I held a light covered over with a cloth so that no light showed. And I stood there quietly. Then, carefully, I lifted the cloth, just a little, so that a single, thin, small light fell across that eye. For seven nights I did this, seven long nights, every night at midnight.
This is a routine, and it's a deeply irrational one driven by some unexplainable anxiety. Does it map perfectly? No, of course not. I'm not suggesting that the narrator only had OCD, or that OCD leads to murder or anything like that. But I do want to point out why reading this story felt so familiar.
It's because I've lived experiences that were similar.
After the murder, the narrator buries pieces of the body under their house. But they start to hear old man's heartbeat. And the way they describe the noise that they hallucinate is also chillingly familiar.
It starts as a vague noise on the edge of their awareness. But as they try to ignore it, it gets louder. And eventually, it's all they can hear, even as they desperately push the noise away. In the end, they have to confess to killing the old man because the noise won't stop.
It was a quick, low, soft sound, like the sound of a clock heard through a wall, a sound I knew well. Louder it became, and louder. Why did the men not go? Louder, louder.
That's what ignoring a compulsion or a tic feels like. It starts off as uncomfortable, but as it gets more demanding, more insistent, it threatens to overwhelm you until you give into the urge to open that door again, to flick the light switch one more time, to check if the stove is properly off for the fifth time.
"The Tell Tale Heart" is a surprisingly contemporary story for its description of mental illness, the subconscious, and repression. And that made it a really interesting read, especially for someone who has intrusive thoughts.
psssst @electrick-indigo I wrote it :)
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