April 9, 2013

Personality Disorders Reflected in the Short Story “Letter to America” by Claire Capel-Stanely

*without abstract*


Human personality has been the focus of psychology for decades. Psychologists examine human personality through their object’s attitude, behavior, and product (Hawasi, 2009; Nencini, 2009; Paris, 1997; Purnama, 2012; Takwin, 2007; Wishart, 2011). Using those media, they conceptualize human personality as well as its disorder and find the problematic childhood as the main cause of human personality disorder (Freud, 2006; Moroz, 2005; Shpancer, 2011).

As the product of human being, examiners have used literary works in their observation of human personality development since Sigmund Freud introduce the concept of psychoanalysis and unconscious aspect of human psyche (Baker, 2007; Wishart, 2011). From the point of view of psychology, literature and literary studies have often “represented and still represents both a source of psychological data and a theoretical source of insight for psychologists” (Nencini, 2009).

Findings of literature as cultural product depicting reality through its story and character, make it being used as a tool for understanding human as the general aim of psychology (Baker, 2007; Hawasi, 2009; Nencini, 2009; Paris, 1997; Takwin, 2007; Wishart, 2011).

More specifically, psychological approach has been used in analyzing the character of literary works. According to Paris (1997), imagined character in the literary work reflects the real character of human in the real world. Psychologists meet their limit when they unable to explain some extraordinary personality disorders. Authors, on the other hand, had been successfully portraying those conditions into their stories and used in psychological research (Paris, 1997; Takwin, 2007; Wishart, 2011). These conditions create new mainstream in psychology called narrative psychology, which previously is a branch of literature study (Takwin, 2007).

Almost all of the studies above focus only on the linear pattern research; author’s psychological condition reflected through the product (writing), or character’s psychological condition shown by the attitude in the story. I hardly find the study of story’s main character using the character’s product (writing) as the cross pattern of analysis. Many recent studies of psychological symptom in literary works mainly spotlight the act of the character which physically can be observed.

In this research, I examine short story entitled Letter to America written by Claire Stapel-Stanely. This story published by Australian National University (ANU) in 2009 as one of finalists of ANU’s annual short story competition. I choose this story since the writer provides it in form of main character’s full-version letter to his old friend. This unusual form of literary work, especially short story, contributes significantly in the character analysis. For the reason that short story in form of letter is infrequently produced, this sufficient analysis on how the writing (letter) of the character reflects his personality disorder and psychological problem becomes part of important new views in literature study.

The objective of this paper is to observe the personality disorder of Letter to America’s main character. I examine the psychological symptoms indicated only in the main character’s writing (letter) as the object to conceptualize the character’s characteristic. The personality analysis focuses on the story told in the letter as the text of psychological symptoms of the main character.

In the following part, the study of psychological approach of literature is appraised. I observe the personality disorder of the main character by defining the basic cause of disorder and explicating the psychological symptoms I find in the short story. In this analysis, I categorize the symptoms of personality disorder into three main parts; neurosis, narcissism, and childhood phobia.

The last section of this paper shows how the understanding of the character’s personality disorder through his letter and relationship in a literary work (imaginative world) create better understanding upon the psychological condition and personality disorder of people in the real world.


Psychological approach in literature analysis

Psychological approach in literature analysis reflects the modern psychology’s effect upon literature criticism. Sigmund Freud firstly introduced it with his psychoanalytic theories. Psychoanalysis deals with human beings in conflict with themselves and each other, and literature portrays it and is read by such people (Paris, 1997).

This concept changes the common way human behavior being explored through contentious ideas including “wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression” as well as expanding the understanding of how “language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires” (Baker, 2007; Kennedy & Gioia, 1995; Takwin, 2007).

Literature is considered as a significant part of society and “the most ancient form of mass communication” which is still being explored by other disciplines “as an impressive example of an explanation (or rather, a description) of our world, our feelings, relationships” (Hawasi, 2009). Psychological approach is used to the human behavior, attitude and also the mind of the character since psychological factor is the main cause of the character’s personality.

Two approaches commonly used in psychological analysis are; 1) Looking closely at the characters and the psychological symptoms shown in their story, and 2) Looking closely at the life of the author to determine what in his/her life caused him/her to write characters in a specific way and give the characters specific attributes. (Wishart, 2011). In this paper, I use the first approach in the character analysis.

Two of psychology methods I use in this research are biography and data collecting. These methods require me to examine the object using biography and self-product of the object. Biography contains the data of past events written by the doers themselves. Purnama (2012) believes writing such as autobiography, journal or diary, prose, poem, as the product of the object can be used in biography and data collecting method. Therefore, as a writing telling past events written by the object, the letter of the short story I explore is eligible as a psychology tool.

Behind realistic literature there is a well-built “psychological pulse” that tends headed for appearance of “highly individualized figures that resist abstraction and generalization”. When we encounter a fully drawn mimetic character, "we are justified in asking questions about his motivations based on our knowledge of the ways in which real people are motivated" (Paris, 1997).

In analyzing this short story, I focus more on the psychology activity of the main character, who is the writer of the letter. The character desperately tries his sick effort on how he writes the letter to be a common letter to the girl from his past. However, I instead feel a deep feeling of missing an old friend and a wish to meet in this letter although there is no word or phrase clearly states them so.

Psychological Symptoms in Letter to America

The story which is the letter itself tells about the childhood of the main character with the recipient of the letter. The unfinished past event which is going to be confirmed by “I” is exercised as the main point to reveal the character and psychology symptoms of “I” in this story. I sum up the mental concept of the main character as someone who has not enough self-confidence, living with problems of self-actualization, denial, narcissism, and desperately stuck in his childhood trauma.

After opening the letter with some trivial greetings which the writer himself claimed it as unnecessary words, “I” start to retell his past event with the recipient. The different sex of main character (“I”) as a boy shown in the 13th paragraph (You never made fun of me for being such a child, such a stupid boy) and the recipient as a girl shown in the 5th paragraph (I still think you are a little girl) gives enough contribution in revealing the likelihood of their relationship.

According to Abraham Maslow theory of humanistic psychology (Goble, 1995; Moroz, 2005; Shpancer, 2011), some unconscious conflicts in childhood are the starting point of some emotional disorders in the future. I consider the unfinished event in the silo – that the main character has not know what his friend want to show him – (paragraph 21) as the main object causing “I” trapped in his past.

I still don’t know what you wanted to show me. Was that it? (paragraph 21). In the closing part of the letter, he is still questioning what actually the objective of the girl to take him in the silo is.

Psychological Interpretation

Psychology syndromes in this short story can be seen using ‘interpretation’ theory in psycho-analysis by Freud. This will be highly related with a big restlessness of “I” for not knowing something or being failed to relate a thought with another one. This feeling of “I” is shown by his failure to tell something which he really wants to tell at the very first beginning. Instead, he is telling a bunch of trivial stuffs in the first and second paragraph of his letter. He then starts his true story (or question) to the girl in the 9th paragraph. I view this as too much ‘intermezzo’, since Freud concepts denial by identifying the ‘long space’ of giving prologue to the real speech. However, it may be his tools on defending his self ego. It is on how he always tries not to say something directly but with so many denials.

Neurosis symptom

The main character in this short story has a psychological problem called neurosis. Neurosis, also known as psychoneurosis, is a personality disorder as the result of frequently avoiding unfulfilled childhood willingness. The process starts when children are afraid to tell what they actually want and oppositely repress it. The willingness, however, continues living in the unconscious mind and starts disturbing the mental development while the person is in trauma or stress (Baker, 2007).

First clues indicate the character has neurosis symptom is his lack of time focus (The time zones are different, I can’t think how it works now, backward or forward... 1st paragraph). It is not because he is not aware or not knowing the exact time of America and Australia, but he is trying not to put detail attention to his prologue. Freud (2006) on his theory of neurosis explains someone with this symptom will not think about his recent and future but merely spending his life thinking his past.

Someone with neurosis is trapped in his past. He will busy to get his mind back to the past, seek for all happiness happen in the time he obtains it. Moreover, this character has no care upon the recent news about death of Heath Ledger, although he used it as his opening and closing mark of the letter, and focuses more on his question of unfinished story in the silo (20th paragraph).

Another indication of people with neurosis symptom is the repetition of particular action (Baker, 2007; Freud, 2006). This is reflected in the way the main character habitually gives several rhetoric questions for the girl. He does not really want the girl to answer his questions but he keeps asking. I discover those issues in 5th paragraph (... Do you go to uni? Or ‘college’? Don’t answer that...), 8th paragraph (You know what it sounds like when there is such a loud, constant noise like that?), 9th paragraph (Do you remember the day we drank...?). Those rhetoric questions can be the way of the main character to communicate with the girl. He aims to get in to his main point by stating some rhetoric as its prologue.

As a man with neurosis symptom, he also has a problem of relationship with the girl for the lack of acceptance. He seems to try his best to look good in his letter, but he hopes the girl has no concept in her mind what he looks like. This condition leads him to another psychological problem in term of self denial. Denial is an act of refusing to accept one’s unacceptable desires or fears, or refusing to accept a traumatic event (Wishart, 2011).

He is afraid the girl knowing what he looks like (I want you to be able to read this and hear the story and not have any idea about me now, what I am like, how I have changed or grown up, or whatever – 3rd paragraph) but keeps telling his self image and life by describing it indirectly from his feeling of his work (I don’t like my work, but I like not liking it. I like to complain about my co-workers, and the pay and the music we have to play –paragraph 4), his point of view of music (If Dizze Rascal implores me one more time, through pounding base and shuddering electro, at more decibels that is conversationally appropriate, to ‘fix up, look sharp’ swear I will scream –paragraph 4), and reaction of social issue (death of Heath Ledger), which shows his real desire to be recognized by the girl.

This denial also shows me that he has a deep affection with the girl. This condition is hand in hand with Freud’s theory on how sexuality passions everything in human’s life (Baker, 2007; Freud, 2006). He attempts to say his feeling to the girl that he is not so important for her as well as the girl is only seen as ‘people from past’ in his eyes. This is contradict with the whole substance of the letter on how he remembers all little things he spent with the girl. However, the story's contradictions become intelligible if it is seen as part of inner conflicts of the character (Paris, 1997).

The biggest consequence following the character’s neurosis symptom in this short story is this denial. He confesses not to be able to say something (I know you think I’m being ridiculous, but see, now I’ve already given you ideas about me, just by saying nothing. I’m not making sense, I’m sorry -2nd paragraph). He acknowledges that he is ashamed to do something, that something is more about someone else, not him (I’m not sure why. It is probably more your memory than mine, I guess- 20th paragraph). After elucidating many issues, he then says that what is actually in his mind is not essential (...Besides, I don’t have any plans to visit you anytime soon (I can’t afford it) and I don’t think you have plans to visit me. So it would be pointless. So I will just tell the story- 3rd paragraph).

Lack of self-confidence is another psychological problem owned by the main character as the cause of neurosis. Due to his sentiment of less accepted and acknowledged by the girl in his childhood, he puts his self-image in a low degree. It is proven in the 2nd paragraph (I’m not making sense. I’m sorry), 3rd paragraph (I don’t think you have plans to visit me), 13th paragraph (...I felt pretty stupid anyway), 16th paragraph (I had this feeling that you were running away from me), and 20th paragraph (It is probably more your memory than mine...). Those feelings cause the main character builds his self image as someone minor in the girl’s eyes.

As the effect of his lack of self confidence, he reinforces the denial in his idea that he is excessively unintelligent (You never made of me for being such a child, stupid boy, but you didn’t have to because I felt pretty stupid anyway- 13th paragraph), yet very peculiar and bizarre (I know you think I’m being ridiculous, but see, now I’ve already given you ideas about me, just by saying nothing. I’m not making sense. I’m sorry- 2nd paragraph).

Narcissism Symptom

I consider the main character as someone with narcissism by identifying his style of writing. Someone with this syndrome always uses himself as the main point of the story (Castor, 2010; Walters, 2012). Moreover, this is related with his denial once he tries not to ask too much detail about the girl therefore it automatically puts him as the center of the story. Generally, when someone writes a letter to his friend, he will be normally ask or tell things which are more about ‘them’, not only ‘himself’. The whole letter tells about “I” from “I” point of view. He has no effort in putting the memories as ‘theirs’ since it will be only about him or her, not them, in his point of view (20th paragraph).

Some paragraphs indicate “I” as narcissist by the way he persuade the girl to agree with his views (Castor, 2010; Walters, 2012). It is actually when “I” explain his thinking or feeling about something and it sounds as a tendency to make the girl have the same opinion with him. The letter exposed this in his thought of old friend (Friends that you have when you are a kid always seem unreal later on .... I know it must be the same for you- 5th paragraph), his view of other’s judgment (It is just that it is always strange to watch people when they don’t know you’re there- 7th paragraph), along with feeling and interpreting of rain (... It sounds like the buzz in our head before you go to sleep and the sound of it sounds like your own brain thinking, until you realise that you are, actually, thinking- 8th paragraph).

On the surface narcissistic people are "rather optimistic" and "turn outward toward life," but "there are undercurrents of despondency and pessimism" (Paris, 1997, p.9). This unique idea of narcissism is appropriate with the previous notion of the main character as someone with lack of self confidence.

Childhood phobia

Phobia can be another psychological problem of “I” which builds the personality disorder of the main character. Phobia is typically in form of physical fear such as headache, sweaty body, increasing heart’s pulse, or shocked (Baker, 2007).

The main character’s dark phobia is not only shown by the increasing production of sweat and heart’s pulse in the silo (paragraph 12 and paragraph 19), but also on how darkness plays big role in driving his mind. He starts thinking his past when he is sitting alone in the darkness waiting for the rain (6th paragraph). In this darkness, he stops over his mind on past when he and his friend (the girl whom he write the letter for) are playing in the summer. The past moment ended with a big question in the silo –and in the darkness, too.

For children, darkness and loneliness can be their first phobia and this will last forever (Freud, 2006; Moroz, 2005; Shpancer, 2011; Zanden, Crandell, & Crandell, 2007). I cannot specifically put any term to describe their activity in the dark silo (18th and 19th paragraph). However, they explore their intimate both physical and psychological which cause the main character has his increasing production of sweat and heart’s pulse.

...Then, do you remember, you stretched out your arm and felt around for my ankle, to pull me into your little hole, and once I realised what you were trying to do I moved forward and let you. I sank my knees into the grain and curled up facing you, and the little granules fell away around us and made the hole bigger for us, but also closed us in like a blanket... (paragraph 18)

The main character, by his unanswered question in the silo, has a tendency to get traumatic effect. This is because the unfinished story of past during his childhood. It is believed that tendency of unfinished stage of development is the reason of raising traumatic effect (Freud, 2006; Moroz, 2005; Shpancer, 2011; Zanden et al., 2007).

Besides, the main character experienced some problematic emotional affection with the girl in his unfinished story. Moreover, he himself failed to understand the cause of all anger or sadness or ignorance of the girl in front of him. This is shown in his assumption of being rejected by the girl (16th paragraph), confused with the girl’s anger (17th paragraph), and not knowing the reason of crying girl (20th paragraph).

Whereas, children’s knowledge of emotional experiences normally changes markedly from ages 7 through 12 by: 1) learning to read facial expressions, and 2) being able to identify inner states and attach labels (Zanden et al., 2007).

I find another unique point about Heath Ledger. The main character states this name in the first and last part of the letter. Both of them merely appear to inform the death of this actor of Brokeback Mountain. It may raise an assumption on what the relation about Ledger, “I”, and the girl is. However, I argue that Ledger’s name appearance in this short story is barely in reason of channeling one part to another. As an element of intermezzo made by “I”, it should be only the two of them (“I” and the girl) who know the exact relation between Ledger and their story.

In study of psychology, this similar condition appears when there is a song in our head with no specific reason. Freud (2006) believes we can find some fantasies behind that song by exploring our mind. However, only the owner of the head where the song is played can interpret the song correctly. That is why different reader may have different interpretation of probability relation between Heath Ledger, “I”, and the girl.


A letter as the cultural text (human’s product) can be used to reveal and conceptualize the writer’s personality and psychological condition. In the short story Letter to America, the personality disorders of the character I found as he writes the letter are basically related to neurosis and narcissism symptom, and childhood phobia. As the field of psychology, using letter as the object of personality research has been commonly examined. Literature analysis, however, rarely portrays this character’s product of writing as the instrument of analyzing and conceptualizing the character’s personality.

Nevertheless, as a non-fiction literature, a letter of character is qualified to be used as a psychology device. Furthermore, this paper shows the fact that writing’s of imaginative character reflects the character’s personality disorder in imaginative writing’s world (short story) as well as it occurs in the real world.


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