An amusing anecdote about a girl whose strange belief sparked my interest in the psychology of belief in the unbelievable

I’ve been interested in the psychology of belief for a few years now, and only recently remembered the person who got me started on this strange fascination.

It was a time when I was not at my best… Around July 2009 I was a meth addict in a dark place at the end of a very long road that had spiraled downhill to get there. I’d lost my car, my house and nearly everything except my job, and was staying illegally in a single room with my one-year-old son and my girlfriend, and the dealer that she ended up sleeping with in front of me.

I’d lost all my friends and had nobody to turn to, so I went to a local internet cafe in Muizenberg to research rehabs as well as try to come up with a plan to get first my son, then myself, out of there. The plan didn’t come straight away because it’s difficult to do anything when you are high all the time, paranoid, sometimes delusional, always edgy, and have voices in your head day and night. But that’s not what I’m writing about this evening. The point of this introduction is simply to set the tone. That’s who I was; unstable, delusional and desperate as well as unsociable and intentionally unapproachable, trying against all odds to get my shit together.

So there I was, trying but mostly failing to wade through the quagmire of voices in my muddy mind, when inexplicably a twenty-something girl who worked at the internet cafe approached me and startled me out of my stupor with an acutely arbitrary question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”.

I get that a lot. Actually it’s a family thing. Maybe because of the schnoz? Muizenberg is a traditionally Jewish area; up here where I stay in a suburb of Johannesburg it’s even more so. (Here I get approached by Jewish addicts who think I look Jewish and so they figure they’ll get sympathy and money from me.)

Normally when I tell people that I am not Jewish, they politely go away. But not this girl. She was different. She insisted that I must be Jewish… That somehow I’d lost track of my true heritage. It didn’t matter what I said to discourage her.

At that point, though I’d rejected my Roman Catholic upbringing, I didn’t yet call myself an atheist. I explained to her that I used to be Catholic, that my whole family was Catholic,  going back as far back as I knew. She took that as a sign, a sign that I was truly meant to be Jewish! To her it meant that somebody in my distant past had been Jewish, and that my rejection of Catholicism was a sign that I knew it on some lower (instinctual?) level, so I was supposed to be Jewish. That is, contradicting her somehow confirmed her belief. She told me all about a website, some sort of forum I could join where I’d be able to find out about my Jewish roots. (I forget the details. This was years ago and I was very high. It’s a wonder I remember this at all.)

Thus I bemusingly came to understand her obsession. It was about “returning to Israel”. (Somewhere that she had never been.) That was the end goal… to go back to the promised land, not only her but all Jews. And into this group, for whatever reason, she had included me, a complete stranger of whom she knew nothing. She projected her fantasy onto me, and had constructed a narrative explaining who I was and where I came from, and she believed it sincerely. What fascinated me was not so much the details or even the subject of her obsession, but that she could project it onto me, a complete stranger. And she made it fit. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Jewish – the narrative with fabricated details of my past such that I somehow “didn’t know I was really Jewish” fixed it up. Her dedication to her bizarre belief was not unlike that of people who believe in conspiracy theories, and people who think that vaccines cause autism, and other science deniers as well as crackpots. (Her obsession didn’t involve God, oddly enough. It was about being Jewish, about a sense of belonging, and it seemed that her sense of self was either absent or somehow damaged, replaced with a need to be part of something else, something bigger and more important.)

What also amazed me was that as high as I was, as mentally fucked up as I was, my mind was still less screwed up than that of this strange girl. I tried everything to make her leave me alone. (Without being impolite, because she was otherwise a nice girl. I didn’t want to be mean to her.) I even told her all about my situation at the time, my addiction, and details I haven’t written here that would be enough to scare off almost anybody. Almost anybody, but not her. All I got from her was respect and admiration. (And loads of clingy conversation. Sometimes I think that I’m a magnet for weirdos.) She seemed to think that because I was trying to get help, I was OK, and going back to the land of my ancestors with her and all the other Jews would fix all my problems. Even admitting to her that I’d had several hits before walking there, and that I was high at that moment in time, did not deter her.

At the very least, they (the internet cafe staff) could have watched me a little more closely. After all, they knew I was an addict because I told her, and addicts do crazy things… I was struggling financially, which happens when you spend all your money on crystal meth, and had found a way of cheating their system to get internet access for free. (Suspend the process of their kiosk software that monitors the time, then resume it just before leaving. So pay for a couple of minutes access when you have been there for a couple of hours.) Actually I found how to game the system by accident one day (and couldn’t resist taking advantage after that) when there was a problem with their software. It was a Windows XP system, where the kiosk internet cafe software ran full-screen and prevented visual access to the desktop, while the underlying system remained permanently connected to the internet, with an admin user logged in. (The software didn’t capture the Ctrl+Shift+Escape key combination which allowed opening a task manager and killing the kiosk process, which I did the first time. Thereafter I used Process Explorer to suspend the time logging process and would resume the process just 5 minutes before finishing.) But I digress… In the end I had to avoid going there when she was working – luckily they worked in shifts so it was a simple matter of only going there when she wasn’t on shift.

I don’t know what was wrong with that girl. I know that she wasn’t using drugs. (Trust me, one addict can spot another from a long way away.) Maybe it was some kind of mental illness – I’ll never know; but she seemed quite normal apart from her strange and obsessive belief. And I don’t know why she included me in her delusional fantasy, but ever since then, I have been fascinated with people who believe in the unbelievable. This was the spark that kindled the fire of interest for me, interest in why people who are otherwise rational choose to believe in nonsense, and that fire has spread as fires do. So thank you, strange and curious girl whose name I have long since forgotten, for inspiring this fascinating interest. I hope that one day you find what you are looking for in your promised land…

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