A Personality is a Matter of Opinions

After I finished college in 1975, I returned to my home in Columbus, Georgia, and started working for my father at his livestock-feedmill. The first six months or so was pure hell for a guy who had studied literature in college and knew next to nothing about running a business. I was spindly and out of shape from doing schoolwork continuously for four years. I walked a fairly steep learning-curve for six months, and it was torture, I really don't remember when I finally settled into a routine.

In some ways, the 1970s were lackluster years for the U.S. But I also remember that PBS (Public TV) broadcast some innovative programs during those years. To supplement its American programs, it imported high-end TV shows from Great Britain, among them Masterpiece Theatre, The Prisoner, The Benny Hill Show, and Monty Python.

There was one other series. I no longer remember what night it came on. I looked forward to each episode of it, but when I moved to Charleston in 2002, I couldn't remember the name of it, the titles of the episodes, nor even the names of the actors. All I remembered were the story-lines. So I went on-line and researched the unknown series on the Internet and learned that it traded under the title-name Thriller. It had run for a few years on British TV, before the British exported it to the US.

In the episode, "An Echo of Theresa," an American man Brad and his wife Suzie visit London, England, to enjoy some vacation-time  while Brad does a product-line lease-deal with a British company. He sits over coffee in his hotel room and opens the daily edition of the London Times.  For no visible reason, Brad folds the newspaper and tears out one of the corners, leaving a heart-shaped hole in the middle. Something about the newspaper leaves Brad in a kind of trance.

His British counterpart arrives to discuss business with Brad, who casually introduces his wife as "Theresa." Hurt and confused by the suggestion that Brad has multiple wives, Suzy leaves the two men alone. "Women!" Brad scoffs dismissively. Later, Brad tries to explain to Suzy that he does not know what came over him. The viewer, however, can see that Brad has changed in that short time. His good-cheer is now mostly a product of artifice.  

Paul Burke as Brad, Polly Bergin as Suzie

Later in the hotel bar, Brad asks a waiter to bring him some cigars—the best he can find. Suzy looks surprised and tells Brad he doesn't smoke. He never has. Brad is sort of beside himself and scolds a waiter for wanting to put ice in his glass of Scotch. He's about to jump out of his skin, and neither of them knows why. 

Then Brad has another episode with The London Times, once again tearing out the corner to make a heart-shaped hole in the middle. Unaccountably, Brad runs from the hotel and hops into a taxi. Suzy follows him and hears him tell the dazed driver to take him to Manchester Square off Oxford Street. Once again, Brad appears to be in a sort of trance. The driver politely asks if this is the couple's first visit to London. Tthey tell him it is; but when they arrive in Manchester Square, Brad shows evident familiarity with the area.

"Where is the brick building that was here?" he asks the driver. A modern building occupies the site. The taxi-driver looks at him in surprise, "I thought this was your first visit." They tell him it is their first time in London. The driver explains, "Funny, there was a brick building—stood just there."

It rekindles Suzy's worry that Brad has been seeing another woman—possibly Theresa—and that he must have met her long ago on an earlier trip to London, while their first child was just a baby, and Brad took other trips for his company. Brad insists he has never visited London before.

With Suzy pestering Brad to tell her about Theresa, Brad threatens Suzy. It scares the daylights out of her. He has never done anything like that before; and he just gets worse. He calls for another taxi, without Suzy, and visits another building. He goes inside, stops in front of an apartment and rings the door-bell. When an unknown man opens the door, Brad asks for Theresa. The man answers that there is no Theresa there. Brad has brought a copy of the London Times with him, with the signature hole in it, and leaves it.

When he arrives back at the hotel, he finds Suzy with a private detective. Brad's threatening her was the final straw. With the private detective questioning Brad about everything that has happened, he finally admits that—not only is Theresa his wife, but his own name is really Charles Merrow. He is a British citizen who attended Ferngate College in Hampshire, England. The headmaster was Leslie Cromer.

The private detective calls on Suzy a few days later and tells her that there was a Ferngate College in Hampshire. He pauses and tells them to hold onto their hats. The former headmaster of Ferngate College was Leslie Cromer.  Brad and Suzy look at each other in complete confusion. Then the private detective takes Brad for a ride in another taxi. They wait in a side street and watch a well-to-do man and woman climb into a car, and drive away. "That," the private detective tells him, "is Charles and Theresa Merrow." Brad is completely confused, but he does recognize Charles Merrow.

But neither the private detective nor Brad realize that the Merrows are also keeping track of Brad. Their crew descends on Brad and Suzy at their hotel room and carries them off. One member of the crew injects Brad with truth-serum, and Charles Merrow starts interrogating him. Suzy sits next to him, bound with rope, Brad says things that he did not consciously know himself. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea, was captured by the Chinese, and became a POW. He had to submit to brainwashing administered by Soviet secret agents, who tried to implant an alternate personality. They failed and turned to another POW 

It becomes clear to the viewer that all of Merrow's mannerisms—regarding quality cigars, Scotch without ice, his assertiveness, brashness, and implied sexism—are part of the Soviet brainwashing effort. Brad had resisted it on one level—completely absorbed it on a deeper level; so that when he opened an issue of the London Times, it triggered his old alternate identity. He tore the hole in the London Times to alert his superiors, just as he should have done.  Brad began to act out a persona that he had never lived. By the time all this happened, Merrow and his crew had been inactive for ten years or longer. Encountering Brad takes them by surprise.

The crew complains that they can no longer handle an issue of this type; but Merrow insists on the interrogation and introduces Brad to Theresa. To cement the bond, Theresa holds the London Times in Brad's face to maintain the control. The sinister-looking Basil Henson plays Charles, and Meriel Brooke plays Theresa Merrow.

 

I won't give away how the story ends. I was mostly interested how Brad's experience illustrates the  concept of "cognitive dissonance," which means essentially the holding of contradictory opinions, beliefs, and presumptions. Cognitive dissonence causes psychological stress, inasmuch as a person naturally wants consistency and single-mindedness. 

In his own life, Brad acts like a corporate executive, a man used to networked corporate personnel. The Charles Merrow persona, on the other hand, acts like the boss in any and every situation. The Soviet profilers and psychologists who brainwashed Brad and Charles concluded that other people would most likely follow a man with ego-strength and a command-mentality.

Wikipedia writes that "In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal consistency to function mentally in the real world. A person who experiences internal inconsistency (like Brad) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance."

One important scene in "Echo of Theresa" bears out this point. The private detective asks Brad if he ever visited Vienna. He said no, but the detective told him, "You said you met Theresa in Vienna."

"Yes, we met in Vienna," Brad admitted, again as if in a trance, "in Vienna."
"So you have been to Vienna?"
"No," Brad repeated with nervous insistence, "I have never been to Vienna."

The permutations of this scene are interesting. A person can maintain contradictory views, even if it costs him peace of mind. A person can also hold two different identities with the same stress. It only goes to show that personhood depends a lot on the sum of his views—his point-of-view.

American disunity involves a lot of cognitive dissonance. All you need is a few outlier egotists who have nothing better to do than to browbeat the dissenters around them, until all the dissenters agree with them. If the browbeaters ask the dissenters if they have ever been to Vienna, the dissenters will likely say no, even if they have been. We give different answers to different people, depending on how much pressure they exert on us. We hate them for bullying us, even when we go along with it.  If we want to talk truthfully about American psychological discomfort, we must take this into account.


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