Friday, December 3, 2010

Anatomy of Obsession

Recently, I went to an exhibition at the LA County Fair. On display were polymerised bodies in various states of undress, that is, stripped of skin or muscle or bone or arteries, etc., or a combination thereof.  As fascinating and educational as it was, when I happened upon a woman in a glass case precisely sliced up into steaks, I felt uneasy.  It wasn't Snow White. 

In Jewish ritual if you come in contact with death, whether a corpse or a grave, you are required to purify yourself by washing your hands with water (aka, 'water of life').  It also reminds you of the ongoing gravity of that encounter.  The sliced and diced corpse was a real human being, not a piece of butcher meat.  And it felt wrong, like some line had been crossed. No matter how antiseptic and shiny and plastic the cadavers looked, they had still been animated by a soul.

The crossing of lines seems to animate certain sections of the RA community as well.  RAFrenzy started the ball rolling on the ongoing self-reflection of being an Armitage admirer by pondering, not for the first time, whether she should call herself a "Reluctant Fan"- she keeps fighting her feelings. One of her commenters suggests she call herself "Fan with a Conscience".  Mulubinba, in a neat response to the thorny question of whether fans should wait outside a stage door, proffers some sound etiquette guidelines.  Meanwhile, Servetus, in one of her latest posts on being a "fan" represents quite accurately, I think,  what goes through the minds of quite a few admirers of the Armitage, the ones who self-reflect.  It's almost as if they're in so deep they are not sure where the boundary is.

In the Armitage community, it seems that there are the makings of a little cottage industry for self-examination! I think that this is the first time, in my experience of fandoms, that I find people so conflicted about being part of the Armitage juggernaut, swept off their feet and swept away. Servetus even goes so far as to wonder if a sort of I-thou relationship might be possible with the Armitage, even at a distance.  That's pretty deep. (Well, perhaps, I suppose it's possible, as long as the "thou" is accepted as being eminently less knowable than G-d or at best a reflection of G-d.)

And people worry about Himself.  People wonder if we're too pushy, too crazy, too demanding, too vocal, just too much for the delicate likes of him, oy vey! Our passion will overwhelm him, suffocate him.  Which brings up the topic of protectiveness.  For example, if people paid big bucks to see the 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic, with drinks afterwards, well, then it's a professional meet and greet. Nothing wrong with fans approaching him.  My heavens, he even got on the bus with the rabble! Nothing wrong with taking photos either, whether inside, or at the stage door. And he'd better get used to lights flashing in his eyes and a mob because he ain't seen nothing yet.  Yet, people fret about such behaviour.

It's interesting that the loonies (case in point, see comments by anonymous 6.44 am) are overly possessive, rigid and dictatorial and downright creepy, but at the other end of the spectrum there are others who feel tremendously protective of him and basically seem as if they're walking on eggshells in their response to him.  Like them, I want to disassociate myself from the foaming crazies, and not be counted as one of them in the public mix.  Alas, we are all publicly counted as one of them because they are the most vocal and most intrusive. As always, the former ruin it for the rest of us.  But why do we need to walk on eggshells in response?

I suppose I'm lucky because I hold no conflicted feelings and thoughts about the Armitage.  The more I read blogs and comments, the more I realise that it's his work that I feel protective of, or more precisely, his talent. I am greedy in that I want him to give me more characters that transport me. The fact that his gifts are all wrapped up in a seemingly sensitive, mensch-like and handsome package just complicates things.  But, I accept the whole of him and that includes the handsome, if not yet the mensch.

I don't read much about him, and rarely listen to his interviews, but even in reading other blogs, I realise that the more I know about him the more I don't know him.  I can make guesses, but that is all.  Regarding his character, he seems too good to be true.  If I have conflict, that's probably it. I think that's compounded by never getting a real grasp on his personality, because he is elusive. I am not cynical by nature, just cautious by experience, and "too good to be true" raises massive red flags to me.

On a personal note, just the fact that he's crazy about skiing, is a workaholic and, in effect, seems to be an adrenalin junkie suggests to me that superficially he and I would not get along!  I also find him tremendously attractive but not sexy. He really comes across as a regular bloke.  I think his brain is sexy, but showing himself to be a fairly modest man in real life, he doesn't ooze sex out of his pores; for that, we have Guy of Gisborne and I am satisfied (sort of).

I do remember feeling a bit embarrassed in my teens while standing in the store riffling through Mills and Boon romances.  Well, this was just not me!  It was not an acceptable part of myself.  This did not fit with an image of myself and to what I aspired.  It was déclassé. Ironically those books triggered my interest in other countries, in travel and in opera of all things.  I've had obsessive crushes since I've been 12 years old, and inevitably they inspired poetry, stories, research on various topics, drawings, an unpeeling of the layers of myself and greater knowledge and acceptance of feelings and thoughts. Everyone and everything and all experience is a potential muse.

Those experiences also allow me to state without shame that my first feeling at seeing the Armitage's old female friend by his side at the Old Vic party again was unalloyed jealousy.  It came and it went.  Oh, here it comes again, this time it's envy.  I know why it happens.  So, nevermind the Armitage. But it does happen.  I'm not going to say, either, that I'm happy for him or happy to see him with someone, or happy to see him with no one.  I don't know what makes him happy.  I just know how I respond.

Perhaps we dissect ourselves or others for fun, but sometimes it does take the fun out of things. I admire and envy those who have the gift of light-heartedness.  Generally speaking, that the Armitage has been objectified, I have no doubt.  The extent to which it happens, and the detail in which it is indulged make me cringe. I think that people's fantasies should stay in their journals, be shared with their friends or psychiatrists, and not spill out on public pages.  Way too much information.  The objectification is a natural byproduct of fandom, but I really object to his complete taking apart.  Reminds me of the awful display above. This is where I draw the line.  There is something unseemly about it.

I don't have any answers for why people have such difficulty coming to terms with their admiration or its intensity.  All I can offer is a "perhaps": perhaps it doesn't fit with one's image; perhaps one does not want to be seen as part of the great unwashed, or more closely, part of the rabid fringe; perhaps there's a part of ourselves that we find unacceptable, or feelings we find unacceptable; perhaps we have one shred of hope that someday we might meet him and that colours our possessiveness/protectiveness; perhaps we don't know how to have fun.  Feeling that we obsess and spend our days and nights thinking and discussing an actor does seem rather nuts. As nuts, I suppose, as an obsession with baseball, football, opera, ballet, and all their respective talent as well.

Yet there is obsession, and obsession.  Ninety-nine per cent of the fandom is not going to stalk anyone.  An obsession is harmful if it engenders ongoing unpleasant thoughts and feelings, and interferes with your functioning or relationships.  It's a simple standard for what is not normal. 

Then there is the other obsession, the one I celebrate, which engenders  beautiful words, beautiful pictures, beautiful acts,  beautiful relationships, and beautiful play.   Which elevates all that is wonderfully human in us. When we are angsting, it's a good thing to remember.

excerpt from "In Praise of Positive Obsessions" by Eric Maisel 
The common wisdom of therapy has it that obsessions are always bad things. As a feature of its namesake disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or as a feature of some other disorder, an obsession is a sign of trouble and a problem to be eliminated.
But the main reason therapists find themselves obliged to consider obsessions invariably negative has to do with language: an obsession is invariably negative because clinicians have defined it as negative.
Clinicians define "obsession" in the following way: an obsession is an intrusive thought, it is recurrent, it is unwanted, and it is inappropriate. Defined this way, it is obviously always unwelcome.
But suppose a person is caught up thinking day and night about her current painting or about the direction she wants to take her art? Thoughts about painting "intrude" as she balances her checkbook or prepares her shopping list. She can hardly wait to get to her studio and her rhythms are more like Picasso's on painting jags than like the rhythms of a "normal" person.
This artist is obsessed in an everyday sense of the word - and more than happy to be so! ...
For a contemporary intelligent, sensitive person, it may well make more sense to opt for a life of positive obsessions that flow from personal choices about the meanings of life than to attempt to live a more modest and less satisfying normal-looking life that produces dissatisfaction and boredom.
After all, no one can say how normal ought to be defined. In what sense is it normal to work at a job that constricts you and bores you rather than risking everything on a life that challenges you, even as it frustrates you?
Much of what we call normal behavior is simply based on fear. Indeed, the average person might even prefer a negative obsession, despite its horrors, to a positive obsession rooted in excitement, passion, and active meaning-making, so wild and unafraid would he feel if he were obsessed that way.

My wild guess is that the Armitage often gets swept away by magnificent obsessions. Heh, what's good for the gander is good for this goose. Foolish passion, indeed!

Happy Hanukkah to my fellow Jews!


  1. Thanks again, for making points I sometimes still feel like making but mostly not bother with anymore because. (never mind the grammar, not too obsessed with it either :)
    I just realised that it's been roughly a year since I discovered Spooks, and Lucas, and got sucked into this whole RAdventure. As is my nature, I did 'obssess' for a while. I always jump in head first without testing the waters.. Didn't take me long though to paddle back to safe shore. I've always admired his talent and been fascinated by the characters he creates (from dodgy scripts at times) and I'd be lying if I said I didn't admire his regal features too. But the same can be said about many other talented artists and life's too short to get hung up about just one. Not to speak about 'RL' obsessions with football and other things.
    As for his private life, and the question what he has for breakfast and how to best approach him if given a chance - not losing any sleep over it.
    Definitely looking forward to every new role that comes his way, happy that he finds recognition (ambiguous about the 'fame' that it entails) and quietly enjoying some of the old ones.. but no slave to obsession (anymore?).
    And the RAbid part of the Army? Ignoring works for me.

  2. I am totally obsessed with RA ,and I want to continue.

  3. Meh, if you don't like someone's blog or their views, you just don't read and/or follow it. *shrugs*

    I thought my hubby was too good to be true as well at first, but he isn't. Reckon it's the same with RA! ;)

    Good point about obsessions and how they don't necessarily need to be bad. In fact, being obsessed by RA has brought a lot of creativity to a lot of us. And as long as we don't go crazy about it, I see no real harm done.

  4. good points Pi, you're right, there is this weird sense of "when have I crossed the line" thing in the RA fandom world. Perhaps the same is true of other fandoms, I wouldn't know as I'm not part of any.

    @traxy, Love your points!

  5. Well, pi, I started a comment, but it got so long, I think I'll turn it into a post. LOL!

  6. On second thought, I think I'll post it here.

    uh, pi, methinks the lady doth protest too much. You were jealous of Annabel Capper but you're only protective of his work? :D

    Seriously, you answered the question as to why people like me have a problem with obsessing. It is firmly about identity. I have an identity of myself and obsessing like this doesn’t fit, but hey, I'm changing, and definitely learning to embrace positive obsession, so I really appreciate these words and hope to heed them more and more as I go on:

    there is the other obsession, the one I celebrate, which engenders  beautiful words, beautiful pictures, beautiful acts,  beautiful relationships, and beautiful play.   Which elevates all that is wonderfully human in us. When we are angsting, it's a good thing to remember.

  7. @Frenz

    I did not say I was jealous of her. I felt jealousy. I also know that the jealousy has more to do with the reminder of something I never had and never will have (and it isn't RA), and the loss of something. And that's as personal as I wish to get on a public site.

    I'm so pleased you can see the positive side. And I do think your titanic struggle shows you are well on your way! :)

    @everyone: Thanks for the great and varied comments and POVs! They are very much appreciated!

  8. My apologies for misunderstanding. :)

  9. No biggie :). I just wanted to clarify my thinking for you. I guess what I'm saying is that uncomfortable feelings have their place, too.

  10. I hear you about that. My whole life has been pushing the envelope while balancing it against my image as someone people can lean on -- especially thinking of my kids (and my parents some). So thinking outside the box and being a little stressed while doing it is actually somewhat normal. I've just never written much. I've never really written my thoughts down until a few years ago and never been a fan of anyone like this. But it's been good for me even if I do get a pang of conscience occasionally. Maybe something truly productive will come out of it. I tend to agree with Henry's Miller's take on writing -- to get to something good, you've got to get the sh*t out first (or something to that effect). Maybe that's what I'm doing. I don't know. But I sure as heck don't want to think my blog is the best I've got.

  11. Our ancient natives used to strip the body too and many of us still purify when we come in contact with the dead. Neat, how similar different cultures can be.

    I think it is the not-knowing that keeps RA intriguing.

    I do not like the word obsessed, I prefer infatuation (well in my case it is infatuation, cant speak for anyone else).

  12. The creativity in writing, analysing, art and music perhaps jusitifies an 'obsession' with a compelling actor. I have no problem with being fascinated. He has been a catalyst for a number of bloggers, artists.

    Of course, there is objectification, which probably goes with the territory of being a public person. And I'm as guilty of that as anyone. But I don't move in his world; it's beyond the realm of possibility that we will ever meet (and besides, he's too young for me :) I am NOT a cougar!

    It's probably a reason for the blogger to question herself, given the time devoted to the blog.But you and some other "RA" bloggers raise points of interest and stimulate interesting discussion.


  13. One of the strangest aspects of my fan life has been what I'd call an interest in cautionary tales or cautionary instances of fans gone wrong. A fan who stalked RA, for instance; I think about that incident occasionally and remember how angry and outraged I was when I first learned about it.

    More recently, though, I developed a brief mini-obsession with a blog written by someone who has become completely obsessed with RA and writes endlessly about him almost every day, often in ways that, to my mind, DO cross the line: obsessing about a picture in which RA is balancing on a stool in a way that she seems to see as provocative, on a photograph of RA and a woman friend, on making a trip to see RA in a stage performance and attending regularly, taking notes on her experiences . . . and on and on. All of this is weirdly dressed up as though it was an intellectual exercise when in fact the blogger is suffering from a schoolgirl crush that doesn't fit her self-image. She has a responsible job, is no doubt a decent person, is a fully qualified grownup--and yet she's stumbled into an obsessive interest in an actor that causes her to spend huge, huge amounts of time listening to him and watching him and then endlessly blogging about it. How to reconcile this with her adult persona? Well, turn it into an intellectual exercise that "helps" her, and it's all okay.

    I find the blog terrifying, in part because it seems to be the work of someone who is increasingly obsessed in an unhealthy way; there is no way in which she can engage in her profession and have anything approaching a normal life, granted the time she records as being devoted to watching RA and the time it must take to write, edit, and proofread her blog, much less respond to her admirers.

    I wish there was a way to say to them that their admiration is likely to be a delight to the blogger . . . but also unhealthy for her. For one of her avid readers, reading one of her posts and the attendant comments may take five or ten minutes; writing such a post clearly takes hours. Encouraging another person to invest so much of herself in a blog may tempt her to invest far more than she should; her "fans" are clearly supportive--but not of her wellbeing.

    She's obsessed. It isn't "helping" her. It isn't encouraging her to make life decisions she seems to be avoiding. It isn't encouraging her to invest her time and heart into her work and her real-life friendships. It's encouraging her to get deeper and deeper into a secretive world that, I suspect, she'd be ashamed of real-world acquaintances knowing anything about.

    It's not academic or insightful; looking at and pondering Richard Armitage is not an intellectual exercise, no matter how you dress it up. It's only the evidence of an intense, perhaps disabling crush. Reading the blog became a horrifying version of watching someone pick and pick at a scab she should just leave alone to heal.

    There's no way to urge such a blogger to limit her time thinking about and writing about RA; one wonders what happens in the long run to people who get in so deep that they're spending 20-30 hours a week watching an actor on TV and posting about him? (Adding up the hours she devotes just to watching him in a week is alarming, but not to her; she seems proud of it, as though there was a contest to see who could watch RA for the most hours in a week. She'd win such a contest, but the prize is . . . that she watches way too much TV.) It's scary to witness her blog--like looking at a slow-motion car crash. I had to look away.

  14. @Anon 7:05,

    Interesting comment. Part of me wants to analyze the dog out of it and ultimately you, but I'll refrain as I have only enough time to really analyze myself in this bizarre experience. LOL!

  15. pi, I found this post invaluable and wrote about it briefly in something I will post shortly. I didn't want to say more here for fear it would turn into a threadnap, and also because it seems that Anon @ 7:05's post is about my blog and/or me, and I wasn't sure about how to respond initially. Hence also the delay in responding. pi, if this is inappropriate, please delete.

    Anon @7:05: I think as long as we realize who our perceptions of others are really about, that's the main thing. What we write about others is usually a way of writing about ourselves. I'm sorry you felt you couldn't continue the dialogue at my blog. I valued you as a commentator even as I disagreed with you about your diagnosis of me. In the end, I'm going to maintain my right to understand myself as who I suspect I am as opposed to what you name me to be.

  16. Apologies @servetus! Your comment ended up in spam and I never thought to look! Thanks for your contribution.

  17. The video of Armitage Leaving the Old Vic was a wee bit creepy; I felt like a stalker watching it. But I did watch it...

    I don't worry about having a "crush" on an actor. It's a fantasy, removed from real life, but it is fun to join other "fans" in discussion. And I do agree with those who comment on the creativity for which Mr. Armitage has been a catalyst. The screen caps, the vids, the art are amazing.

    Best wishes for 2011, everyone.


  18. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post--especially because of how honest and contemplative it is.

    I really love the excerpt you've included probably because I agree with it most wholeheartedly. I always have, I suppose, "phases" (in a non-creepy way!) where I learn and find out all I possibly can about a certain subject and eventually, I take something from it that becomes part of me as a person. It's a cycle, really.

    It sounds quite strange but "it may well make more sense to opt for a life of positive obsessions... than to attempt to live a more modest and less satisfying normal-looking life that produces dissatisfaction and boredom".

    Parttaking in countless forums is something I really enjoy but there is also certainly a darker side to the world of fandom. I've encountered quite a few who are so shameless at their being fans that I really hope performers know that such a group is only a minority. (In Kristin Chenoweth's autobio, she talks about someone who feigned being a cancer patient to get near her!)

  19. Pi,
    Would you like to participate in the 2nd annual fanstRAvaganza with a bunch of us RA bloggers? Let me know either way- We're planning to do it in March again and starting to claim topics and sharing ideas via email. I don't know if this is something you'd be up for, but we wanted to invite you.

  20. Hi. I know I'm very late to the party here but just wanted to comment. Firstly, while I may not agree with a lot of things you've said, I commend you for the brutal yet thoughtful frankness. You don't pull any punches and I don't have to wonder what you're really saying.

    Secondly, I also don't understand the reluctance of some to simply enjoy their crush. I agree that some are freaked because the intensity of their feelings run contrary to self-image, and so they constantly examine themselves for signs of looniness. Yet I've not encountered any in this group who is remotely a stalker, and their personalities suggests that would never be the case. So frankly, I think the primary issue is what they perceive as loss of control. But the concept of total control is just an illusion.