Living With Truman Show Delusion

By Aris Apostolopoulos

Illustrations by Nicole Daddona
In 2010, Maggie saw a TV trailer about young women undergoing cosmetic surgeries. She believed she was secretly part of that program.

O n October 15, 2010, the first episode of Mag, a famous “hidden camera” reality show, aired. The opening credits featured a young woman, Maggie, on a gossip magazine cover, and the show secretly followed her everyday life.

None of the above is actually true — but for a long time, in Maggie’s mind, it was.

This is her story.

Growing up, Maggie never had to try too hard to feel like the center of attention. As a toddler, she was the prettiest girl in kindergarten, as a child she was the smartest girl in her school, and during her adolescence, she was turning into the typical all-American high school girl. All she ever wanted was to be a publicist representing companies — or even celebrities, as she told me later — and she was ready to fight for her dreams.

In 2010, when Maggie turned 18, she had her first cosmetic surgery, on her breasts, and for some reason she can’t explain, she immediately believed that her doctor was one of those TV plastic surgeons who would treat her while a production company taped the whole procedure using hidden cameras. When she saw the trailer for a new TV show about young women undergoing cosmetic surgeries, she believed that she was secretly part of that program.

While holding a cup of coffee emblazoned with the word “BOSS,” Maggie explains to me via Skype:

“I don’t know what came over me. The way the doctor’s secretary talked, the full-of-mirrors lobby that looked exactly like a studio, my mom’s reaction after I announced that I wanted to be a D cup . . . everything felt so surreal, and I guess that was when my mind lost its calibration. I cannot describe the feeling, but I loved it. I decided to play along and pretend that I didn’t know anything about the cameras. Have you seen The Truman Show movie? It was exactly like the moment when Jim Carrey figured everything out and realized his whole life was a TV show.”

The Truman Show, of course, is the prescient 1998 blockbuster about Truman Burbank, a man who lives his life in front of billions of people for a reality TV show that’s on 24 hours a day — until, that is, he discovers the truth about his living lie and departs for the real world.

Maggie’s surgery was successful and she was free to go home with a new pair of breasts . . . and a new psychosis.

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Four days after her check-out, Maggie heard a noise through her bedroom wall — something like a knock. Two days later, she heard the voice of a man who explained everything to her. His name was John, a production staff member whose dream was to become a director.

John told Maggie that her surgery was not for an episode of an upcoming show about plastic surgeries — but for a program about her. Her “new friend” informed her she was the secret star of a reality TV show called Mag, which had been filming since she was released from the hospital six days prior, and that her parents had signed a five-year contract to pretend like they knew nothing about the hidden cameras or the show.

John assured her that if she made it to the end of 2015, her family would win the extraordinary prize of $5 million, but the contract suggested that if Maggie ever figured the show out, they would lose their chance to become millionaires. Having no other choice, Maggie was ready to make her parents proud — and rich — by starring in the show while pretending she knew nothing about it.

With her newfound knowledge that she was being watched, Maggie began presenting herself as a star, wearing sexy clothes while hanging out in her house, putting on her makeup as soon as she woke up, and working out while wearing hot shorts and fitted tank tops.

She also began to gather more details about the show:

“Every night I would go and stick my ear onto the wall and wait for a sign of John. He was my guide. My fairy godfather. He would even let me know about the ratings, what the producers talked about during their meetings, what the world wanted from me, and what my next move should be if I wanted to keep the show going, and, ultimately, win the grand prize. He told me that the TV network had hacked my phone, my PCs, and my TV monitors, and that they served me, literally, yesterday’s news . . . so I was living the 12th of the month when the real date was the 13th. John revealed that they confused me using drugs after my surgery. Every day feels the same when you live it in a hospital.”

She became paranoid, too; she recounts one time hearing a voice calling her name outside her window, and believing it was a fan, who one of the protection guards eventually arrested. She also began keeping an eye on the competition, watching reality television — except for the channel hers was on, because she thought producers had blocked the show’s network on her television.

One show in particular grabbed her attention: “Gradually, while keeping an eye on the competition, I started keeping up with the Kardashians. I became an obsessed fan,” she explains. She even began to believe that Kim Kardashian watched the show and loved her, a fact the directors had to hide from her so she wouldn’t discover she was famous. “Even though I was reaching the moon, I had to hold it,” she says. “In my parallel universe, I was famous, but I had to play it cool.”

“Are you feeling embarrassed right now?” I ask her. “I am feeling sad,” Maggie replies. “Oh, and did I mention that I fell in love with John?”

The obvious question about Maggie’s condition is how indicative it is of our times. Does our current pop culture create more “Trumans”? Did the movie cultivate the condition? And, perhaps most importantly, is reality television itself so vacuous and narcissistic that it’s slowly creating faux “stars,” hungry for fame to the point of delusion?

Dr. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist in New York city who recently talked to The New Yorker about the Truman Show Delusion, disagrees with the idea that the condition is a manifestation of our times:

“The Truman Show is really a delusion of control. If your entire life is a TV show, then you are being controlled by the directors and the controller. It’s really hard to say ‘he saw the movie and therefore he became psychotic’ or ‘he was online too much and then he became psychotic.’ It’s never as simple as that. There are more questions to be asked than answered at this point. It’s genetics, it’s environment, it’s personality . . . Initially, we were more interested in the impact of YouTube and reality TV and the way they contribute in any way to people becoming psychotic. But we’ve discovered a lot of other factors in terms of non-biological components of schizophrenia, like living in a large city. And then, more recently, the technological advances, you know things that were fantastical just a couple of years ago, now are kind of commonplace.”

Dr. Gold named the syndrome because three of the five patients he studied referred to the film when trying to explain the way they felt — not because the movie directly led to their delusion. Nor is reality television a driving force; scientists agree that reality TV is just a variable, and that the broad categories of delusion are stable across both time and culture. The feeling of being watched is, after all, nothing new: in the 1940s, people believed they were being monitored with the help of radio waves; in the 1980s and the 1990s, by CCTV cameras; in the 2000s, by reality television; and in the 2010s, by microchips.

Despite its history and the studies conducted, the Truman Show Delusion is not officially recognized by the psychiatric community and is not a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. However, doctors all over the world are able to spot some basic symptoms of the delusion, like the existence of a “John”-type character or a voice in general.

Dr. Peter Byrne, director of public education at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who has treated people who have talked about Truman Show-like experiences, told The Guardian in 2012:

“Psychosis is a mixture of delusions — beliefs that are false, which arrive without any evidence or logic — but often also hallucinations, usually voices. It is true that some young people, because their experience includes reality TV, which is everywhere, and [CCTV] cameras, which are also everywhere, then hear a commentary about themselves and assume it’s some kind of reality TV show. I’ve also heard the film Inception and The Matrix referenced [by people with psychosis].”

Maggie carried on her communication with John for more than a year and a half. He was the only person who spoke the truth and only the truth. John — a 25-year-old aspiring director whose mother had passed away when he was too young to remember it, and whose abusive father, the only person left to raise him, overdosed when he was 19 — was the person Maggie wasn’t. The tortured guy who was ready to prove that, in reality, life is worse than she could ever imagine. The one and only individual who took her pain away while supporting her through the hard path of fame:

“No, he was not just the person who supported me. John was the person who really saw through me. The one that got to know me as much as I did. Well, that makes sense since John was, basically, my own mind talking to me. During the two years of my condition, nothing made sense but him. I trusted him and I believe that this was a way to say that I had trust in myself. I told him about my fears, my hopes, my insecurities, my grandfather.”

Maggie lost her beloved grandfather when she was 16 years old, after which she had an emotional nervous breakdown that rendered her unable to attend his funeral. Feeling guilty for her condition and her absence, she fell into a depression, and her parents saw her breast implants as her rebirth; the only thing capable of making her happy again.

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One day, John revealed that the show would end the moment she met her deceased grandfather again:

“I had never heard John’s voice so loud in the past. His exact words were: ‘Look, they want to cancel the show but the deal is still on. You are going to meet your grandfather and everything will stop.’ When I told him that my grandfather was dead, he told me: ‘Have you seen him dead?’ The truth is, I hadn’t. That was it. My grandfather was the grand prize. For the first time, I stopped dreaming what I would do with the $5 million and I imagined how hugging my grandpa again would feel. I would know when, John told me, so I kept waiting.”

Five days later, Maggie’s mother told her that she should meet a distant aunt of hers who was sick. When Maggie was told, “Tomorrow, we have to visit your aunt Sophia,” she heard, “Tomorrow, we HAVE TO visit your aunt Sophia” — a sign that her aunt’s illness was being used as a cover-up for her reunion with her grandfather. “It all made sense: there was no sick Sophia, no visit we had to pay,” Maggie recalls. “The next day was my show’s last episode.”

The day of the finale was a Wednesday, though Maggie says it felt like a Tuesday since she hadn’t slept the night before. She got out of bed and began preparing for her big goodbye. She put on a dress she had bought for a huge moment like this, and went down to her mother, who was waiting for her. “Oh, nice. You’ve put the dress I like on,” her mother said. Maggie felt like her mother was implicitly approving her final-day outfit, like an undercover TV stylist.

On the way to what she believed would be her reunion with her grandpa, Maggie’s heart was beating like a drum. But when she arrived, she realized it was her aunt she was going to see — and that her aunt’s heart had stopped. Sophia was dead.

“When we arrived, her housekeeper was waiting for the ambulance. We got inside and I saw her lying in her bed and, of course, I believed it was part of the show but something felt quite real. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see my grandfather and get this over with. I stood by her side and pinched her so hard that my fingers hurt. She didn’t move. She wasn’t sleeping. She was dead. I have no memory of what happened next but my mother told me that I freaked out and I was ‘talking nonsense’ about a reality show. After a panic attack, my aunt was not alone in the ambulance. When I woke up in the hospital, I cried. For the first time in two years, I felt alone. Like no one was watching. Was it staged? Was it real? Had I gone crazy? I didn’t really know.”

Maggie started her treatment right away, but her confusion continued for a little less than a year. The day she gave therapy a chance, she immediately showed improvement. The moment she was faced with the possible reason for the delusion — the shock of her grandfather’s death — she felt free, like she could become “a part of the normal world.”

We still don’t have a reasonable explanation to answer what makes people experience something like the Truman Show Delusion. However, Dr. Gold supports a suggestion by Dr. Max Coltheard, who claims that people who have been part of strange or stressful experiences and have no way to find a logical explanation for them may reach illogical conclusions about what’s happened with their lives.

Gold, meanwhile, posits that the human brain is armed with a “suspicion system” that warns us when people near us harbor malevolent intentions toward us. Under the right circumstances, this system might go off when it shouldn’t, so people begin to see deceitfulness where there is none in people’s expressions, movements, or words.

Even though there is no official therapy for this psychosis, many patients have made it through to the other side. Maggie is one of them.

But what about John? “The last time I heard from him was the day Sophia died. I can now officially say we broke up. He was an ass,” she says, laughing. When I ask her about her current condition, she tells me that she’s started working as a personal shopper and still hopes that one day, she’ll become a publicist.

“Do you want to be famous?” I ask. “Famous? Everybody is famous today,” she responds. “People keep [following me] on Instagram, just like they do with millions of users. Popularity is so easy right now with all those screens taking over, turning us into public figures. I, just like everybody else living in this age, actually live in The Truman Show. After all, I am on your screen right now, aren’t I?”

And the thing is, I was on hers too. My phone beeped. I had a new follower on Twitter.

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