No Amnesty

Man is a heartless motherlover: First-time novelist Hugo Wilcken
Jody Johnson

The Execution

I may not be a professional psychiatrist, but that's never stopped me from being 200 percent frank when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders among family, friends, co-workers, people who assist me in retail transactions, and anyone else whose great good fortune it is to discover my vast clearinghouse of human insight during daily intercourse. Ten minutes of conversation with Dr. T (as my imaginary patients affectionately call me) and I'll discover your problem. Or I'll give you a problem. I'm partial to Cyclothymic Disorders--the long, kiddie-coaster version of a bipolar disease. Who is free from what we (who are not) in the business call "life's little ups and downs"? Then again, sometimes I like to go out on a limb and attribute a waiter's ingratiating table service to untreated Histrionic Personality Disorder--unseemly attention-seeking behavior. Yes, you take a risk with the rarer diagnoses. But then, medicine is both an art and a science. It's my duty as someone who likes to pretend to be a psychiatrist to make the hard calls.

Given my fabricated credentials and my reputation for drawer-dropping perspicacity, it is with reluctance that I confess to having been stumped by the affliction that troubles Matthew Bourne. Bourne is a character in the book The Execution (HarperCollins) by first-time novelist Hugo Wilcken. But then I'm a make-believe psychiatrist with a specialty in Fictitious Disorders, so I think the doctor-patient match here is ideal.

Let's start with a clinical overview of the subject as he appears at the beginning of the novel. Bourne is 29 years old, a human-rights worker, a Londoner. He looks at his job--saving a West African cultural minister from a scheduled execution--as an opportunity for professional advancement. He's physically robust with an athletic build and a regular exercise regimen. He uses marijuana, but not addictively. He engages in sex outside a committed relationship, but not enthusiastically. Having examined the patient for 213 pages, it is my medical opinion that the symptoms point convincingly to Bourne being one heartless motherlover. (The word is used here for emphasis: I may be a fake but I'm no Freudian.)

As is common among the British, Bourne conceals his arctic sense of empathy behind a seawall of decorum. In the book's opening pages, Bourne finds himself driving a co-worker, Christian, to the hospital where his wife's corpse lies in wait--her trachea having been crushed in a car crash. "I thought he might cry...and I certainly wanted to avoid that," Bourne says of his colleague as they halt outside the car. "I didn't want a scene, but on the other hand I could hardly force him into the hospital."

Let's seize on the defining word in that passage, the key to unlocking Bourne's psychopathology. Do you know what the word is? Let me give you a hint: It speaks to the void at Bourne's core. Still haven't guessed? Let's say it together: avoid. In some sense, Bourne is honest with himself about his relationship to the co-worker. He believes Christian to be politically naive, whiny, and socially paranoid. He doesn't like his round, John Lennon glasses, and he doesn't like his "lank, greasy hair." There's nothing wrong with these feelings. Yet for Bourne these minor irritations are a barrier to confronting his co-worker's grief. (Does anyone want to stake a bet on an 1886 Stuttgart first edition of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis whether Bourne will be emotionally equipped to confront his own grief when the moment comes?)

After ditching his peer at the hospital one day, our subject proceeds to skip the funeral a week later; he's lost the memorial memo on his desk at work. (There's that A-word behavior again.) In their next meeting, the widower spills a beery confession that his late wife had been unfaithful. Bourne responds by recommending his co-worker seek therapy (transference alert: hello!), then dumps him off at a hotel near the train station. "Let me get this straight," Bourne's mistress asks him a few hours later in her love den--apparently all that talk about infidelity has gotten him aroused. "A friend rings you up. He wants to talk to you about his wife's death, presumably he wants a bit of emotional support. So you end up dumping him in a hotel 'round the corner?"

Bourne's reply: "He's not a friend. He's just a colleague."

Which is another way of saying: I'm not a feeling human being. I'm a collection of functional body parts who's dead to the world.


You needn't have directed the electroconvulsive therapy wing at the prestigious Çukurova Üniversitesi teaching hospital in Adana, Turkey--I certainly never did--to reach the conclusion that Matthew Bourne will get his comeuppance before the story is finished. His curiosity piqued by Christian's cuckolding, Bourne begins to snoop on his live-in girlfriend (and babymama) Marianne. He rifles through her files and her purse; he reads her diary; he trails her to Paddington Station where she meets an older gentleman coming in on the train from Oxford. These two make their way to a bedsit in an anonymous neighborhood. In the weeks to come, Bourne begins to follow her in earnest.

At first, he avoids confronting his discovery: "It was as if today's events were quite a separate affair that had no relevance to my domestic existence," he says upon returning home. "It was the way I sometimes felt about people being killed in Africa." Then the tidal wave of betrayal and envy smashes over the seawall and into shore. And though Bourne keeps trim in a lap pool--add narcissism to the list of his personality disorders--he's not ready to swim in these waters. So he goes under, his brain flooded with feelings and resentments and passions he's never recognized before. (My prescription: A tumbler of fluoxetine with a chaser of amitriptyline.) He yearns to make personal contact with the condemned African prisoner, even as he neglects the campaign to save him. He roughs up his mistress. He screams at his daughter over a missing teddy bear. He loses control.


Every therapist knows the pleasures of a good bout of schadenfreude. But there's something particularly joyless about Wilcken's case study, however finely observed and utterly persuasive it may be. Bourne's transgressions--egotism, ambition, callousness--are too much like our own. By comparison, the confessions of a monstrous villain would be a relief.

Still, there is some comfort to be taken at the rousing of this emotional sleepwalker--though by this point, the nightmare has taken over his waking life. "It surprised me to realize that I'd never felt guilty about anything in my life before," Bourne reflects near the end of the book. "Of course, I'd felt it in theory. I'd felt sorry, and there were plenty of times in the past when I could see that I had been in the wrong and that I had to make amends. And yet this was entirely different. This was like being possessed by something. It was as acute as sexual desire."

Finally, Bourne has made his own diagnosis. Patient, heal thyself.

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