Miss Liz Powell has a problem. She has a recurring dream, but she finds it “difficult to decide which is reality, and which is nightmare.” Does she dream that she wakes up from her hospital bed, knock a water glass to the floor, leave her room and takes the elevator to the basement of the hospital, and proceeds to Room 22, which is the morgue, where the door opens a a nurse beckons her in, with the welcome, “Room for one more, honey” or does she actually wake up and experience this sequence of events? The problem is exacerbated by her location: Her “dreams” occur in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, where she is being treated for a “nervous breakdown.” Her insistence that the nightly events are real is dismissed by her psychiatrist and her agent as a symptom of her illness.
A good way to distinguish dreams from reality is to check how the purported dreams cohere or fail to cohere with the purported reality. If the consensus has it that some proposition p is true, then check whether the purported dream claim coheres or fails to cohere with p. For example, if you dream that you jumped out a window and flew like a bird, the claim that you actually did so will not cohere with what your epistemic community, the community of other belief holders of which you are a member, claim to know. Therefore what you claim to have experienced was a dream.
Using this test, it turns out that Miss Powell’s claims do cohere with many of the facts as they are understood by others. It takes the psychiatrist a while to appreciate this, but he knows that there is a morgue in the basement of the hospital, that it is numbered room 22. Both claims cohere with Miss Powell’s description of the sequence of events she claims to experience each night. Further, the claim that Miss Powell actually visited the entrance to Room 22 adds additional coherence to the set of beliefs held by the psychiatrist and others, since the truth of that claim helps explain how Miss Powell can hold the beliefs she holds.
The dramatic peak of the episode occurs only after Miss Powell has recovered and is on her way to Florida for further relaxation and decompression. And this dramatic climax trades on the question of the relation of what Miss Powell thinks she is experiencing, and the public truths about what is transpiring in the world. Finding coherence among the experiences, claims, and overt facts is challenging and confusing. Since any belief we hold can, in principle, be challenged, we’re left wondering what to hold onto and what is in need of revision.
Another dimension of this episode has to do with the fact that the individual reporting the supposedly aberrant events is a woman, a woman we meet in the psych ward of a hospital, towered over by the authoritarian psychiatrist, and then by the patient’s handler in the outside world. He is her agent and she is a dancer. He characterizes her as a “strip-tease dancer” and she corrects him. The person with the contested view of what is real is a female, and the possessors of the truth are males. The males are powerful, dominating figures – the psychiatrist and the dancer’s agent.Both the psychiatrist and the agent belittle her every claim, but she fights back, and rebuts every belittlement. Look closely at Miss Powell’s interactions and it is clear: She doesn’t suffer the fools who are in control, that that’s not because she’s crazy. She isn’t.
Recent work in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, has introduced the idea of epistemic injustice, of the systematic discounting of the testimony of members of marginalized groups. When we discount the testimony of a group, we may wind up failing to gain knowledge related to their concerns and interests, and we may treat them inappropriately, based on our false beliefs.
As we’ve already noted, Liz Powell is a member of two groups that historically have been marginalized, women, and patients under psychiatric care in hospitals and other institutions. The episode accurately depicts the injustice of the treatment of Liz by the dominating groups, males and physicians. Their interactions with Liz exhibit the two kinds of epistemic injustice Miranda Fricker introduced in her pioneering work, Epistemic Injustice (2009). According to Fricker, testimonial injustice can occur when one discounts the testimony of another based on socially inculcated stereotypes, for example, when one fails to believe the testimony of another because the testifier is a woman. Hermeneutical injustice occurs when we fail to understand and make sense of members of a marginalized group, because we lack the resources to form a coherent picture of their behavior and their practices. This form of injustice is prevalent when the group in power, theorizing about the other group, fails to take the practices and conditions of the other group as important and worthy of study, or simply does not have enough experience to form an adequate understanding of that group. Clearly the males in the room are guilty of hermeneutical as well as testimonial injustice.
A word on the score: The score is remarkably similar to another episode about dreaming: Shadow Play.
Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice, 2009, Oxford University Press
Sanati, Abdi and Michalis Kyratsous, 2015, “Epistemic Injustice in Assessment of Delusions”, Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 21(3): 479–485