Twelve years ago I visited my eldest daughter who was studying in Florence. We attended the premier of the film “Hannibal” (Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal psychiatrist), which takes place in that city. In the movie Hannibal is obliged to cut off his hand to escape from the indomitable FBI Detective Starling.
That experience inspired me to write the following piece which appeared in the February 23, 2001 Toronto Star.
Psychiatrists have fantasy lives, too. In mine, I’m assigned to interview Hannibal Lecter, a fellow psychiatrist, over dinner at a first-rate restaurant in Florence.
Lecter has guaranteed my safety on the basis of professional courtesy. Because he has never been known to kill or consume a colleague, I accept the assignment and board a plane to Italy. I hope to learn the true story of who Hannibal Lecter is and why he behaves the way he does. We all want to know what drives some people to unspeakable acts of violence, even of those people are fictional.
As a guy who likes a nice dinner and a good bottle of wine, I want to ask Hannibal how he developed a taste for human flesh. By second-year med school, he would have known that human tissue is rife with micro-organisms you wouldn’t want in your house let alone in your mouth. Besides, as I once heard from a reliable source, it has an offensive gamey quality. Hannibal seems too discerning to eat anybody I know.
The plane lands in Florence and the cab takes me past the Palazzo Vecchio and the scene of one of Hannibal’s gory murders. My pulse quickens well past 85 per minute (Hannibal’s post-homicidal maximum) as we pull up to the restaurant.
I recognize him immediately, sitting at a back table. He seems to recognize me. I suddenly remember that we were introduced years ago at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. He smiles and beckons with his fedora. On the table is a plate of Tuscan crostini—chopped liver on toasts—and a nice Chianti, a ’90, a charming if chilling irreverence.
We shake hands. He speaks first. “I’ve followed your exploits, Doctor. You’ve maintained your clinical practice, you write columns for the lay press, you host a television programme. It seems you’re having a little trouble with focus. It concerns me, Irvin, if I may call you that.” Goosebumps form on the back of my neck.
“Beyond taking healthy initiatives, could all these unrelated activities reflect some underlying problem? I know about the distressing incidence of dementing illness on your mother’s side of the family.”
Suppressing my anxiety and stepping deftly out of the way of his line of questioning, I thank Lecter for his interest in my activities and cognitive status and ask how life is treating him. (He’s on the lam again, this time with a potentially disabling injury. You’ll understand if you see the movie.)
“One gets by” he replies wearily. “It’s a big world. I have limitless resources and a limitless appetite for new challenges—and new friends.”
An immediate overwhelming terror informs me. Hannibal is manipulating my countertransference, my feelings toward him.
I use a quick cognitive behavioural move to restore my integrity, vigour and functional harmony and respond with, “I felt distinctly threatened by that remark.”
“As intended,” purrs Hannibal.
“Yes, but why did you need me to feel threatened just then?” I asked, stroking my chin (I don’t have a beard), then answering my own question. “I think it’s because I demonstrated accurate empathy, as one sophisticated shrink to another, when I asked how you’re doing in difficult times. You tried to scare me with your reference to your “limitless appetite,” but you scared yourself worse when you implied that we were “new friends” in the joke.
“Have you considered that all your nasty habits serve to keep others at a distance because you don’t believe you’re good enough to have genuine friends? That would also explain your nasty habit of killing and eating people. It looks impressive on a 50-foot screen, but it’s flat out nuts, and unhygienic to boot.
“I’d say you’re a sitting duck for a major depression if you don’t change your ways. And you can forget about getting anywhere with Detective Starling until you can tolerate intimacy without controlling your partner.”
Hannibal flinches at that, slams the fedora on to his head and vanishes from the room like a spectre.
I sit back and sip the Chianti. Guys like Lecter behave the way they do because nobody loved them when they were forming their identities.
Okay, let Hannibal have his psychopathology. It’s earned his movie more than $100 million so far. The reason? The serial killer is fictional. We have nothing to fear from him and we can enjoy the vengeance he takes on his cartoon-quality bad guy victims without any guilt.
The key to the fun is remembering not to try these stunts at home.