“Bracketing” – with spoilers for my least favorite episode of Perry Mason

This morning, as I sat down to eat my breakfast with Perry Mason, as one does, I made a disappointing discovery. My DVR had only one new Perry recording on it, and it was the episode I enjoy least of all – the one with a tragic, horrible twist at the end. (Someone online described it as “probably the darkest episode in the series.”)

gary_collins_1972_wikipediaAs the episode begins, Alex Tanner is late for a party. He’s the guest of honor at a bash thrown by his employer, Global News, as he’s just moved to town to become the new CEO. His pretty young wife (the daughter of the recently deceased man who owned the company) calls him back into the house – he hadn’t said good night to their son Robbie, who’s asking for him. She hands him Robbie’s favorite stuffed animal and enjoins him to be sure the side of the crib is up, as Robbie is learning his prayers. Alex takes the toy upstairs then returns and heads out.

Meanwhile, at the party, Danny Shine is drunk and insulting everyone. He’s the columnist for the newspaper and he has nasty things to say to each of the party guests, including Perry. His secretary takes him outside for some air (and did newspaper columnists really have secretaries _and_ assistants back in the 1960s?). Alex arrives, and the columnist mentions he dropped by his house today and met the wife and child, and he’s going to write a column about Alex’s ideal wife, ideal child, and ideal situation. Alex heads inside; the columnist then starts mauling his secretary, which the columnist’s stalker wife (played by Cloris Leachman, remember Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?) observes from her car parked across the street. Back inside at the party, everyone is greeting their new future boss, while the secretary comes in to get cleaned up. Meanwhile, someone shoots and kills the columnist.

The wrong guy is arrested, naturally (and for no good reason). He’s the columnist’s assistant, played by one of my favorite Perry Mason actors, Douglas Henderson. And he has no motive, but the only one who can testify to that is Alex Tanner, and Alex refuses to help, as he has other worries. Baby Robbie has been kidnapped! The kidnappers won’t release him until the trial is over! Eventually, of course, Perry learns and reveals the truth – the killer was Alex himself. His career was on the line, and he was desperate. He didn’t want the world to know that his wife was psychotic… Robbie had actually died before the story ever started.

I paused the recording once breakfast was done, and before it was time to watch a few more minutes with lunch, it struck me that there could be a value to watching the episode more closely to better understand why – beyond the cheap horror written into the script – it struck me as so awful.

So I did, and I thought about it all afternoon. There’s a lot to dislike about the episode. I almost never want to subject myself to stories about dead children, and having a man who seems so kind to his wife turn out to be instead unspeakably cruel to her – that’s not great either. And there’s misleading the viewer: If Perry wanted to experiment with the “unreliable narrator” thing, I’d rather they’d introduced it long before the 270th out of 271 episodes.

But I also realized something else interesting about the episode, and that has to do with poor Mrs. Tanner’s coping strategy.

There’s a fascinating branch of philosophy called “phenomenology,” which is concerned with our subjective experiences of the world, what it feels like to be alive and aware. A term regularly used in phenomenology is “bracketing,” which means setting aside some aspect of reality so we can focus on other aspects that interest us. I’m going to borrow that idea from philosophy and talk about how we can use it (or ideas closely related to it) in psychology.

Mrs. Tanner has “bracketed out” the death of her child. She functions quite well, as long as her psychotic belief in the ongoing reality of her baby’s continued existence isn’t questioned. It’s easy to say, hey, she’s insane; she needs to accept reality.

The thing is, in other circumstances, mentally bracketing out aspects of reality is an essential part of life. We couldn’t function if we constantly had to deal with X, Y, Z, so in order to get A, B, and C done, we temporarily set X, Y, and Z aside. If you want to fully participate in your family’s weekend activities, you should probably “bracket” the work stress waiting for you on Monday, especially if there’s nothing you can do about it. In this context, we call it compartmentalizing, and it can be a healthy thing to do. You could describe PTSD (post-traumatic distress disorder) as an inability to mentally “bracket” that past trauma so it doesn’t keep intruding in your “now.” Compartmentalizing can also be a harmful thing to do, as in the ethical implications of insisting that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Another time we should mentally “bracket” things is when we’re honoring others’ boundaries – when something is none of our business. But that’s also not black-and-white. If we suspect abuse, then what’s going on behind closed doors maybe ought to be our business after all.

If we want to go even further with the idea of “bracketing,” there’s always the case of the North American colonists in 1776. The British wanted our ancestors to continue treating the government of the colonies as none of their/our business – they wanted them/us to bracket it away. Leaders among the colonists, though, claimed it as very much our business. The entire Declaration of Independence is an insistence that in this context, bracketing is bad.

It’s the same for feminism. Watching TV shows like Perry Mason, set in the 1960s, reminds me that back then, women weren’t supposed to worry their “pretty little heads” over manly matters like government and finance. Fortunately, our right to vote and have our say is accepted in most of the world, if not all of it.

And that brings me to civil rights. Even though we all know rationally that there are Americans of many ethnic backgrounds and skin colors, our stereotype of “American” generally remains white. The very phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a plea for us not to “bracket” out the experience of Black Americans.

Just as Mrs. Tanner didn’t want to think about what had really happened to her baby, we may not want to think about what has happened to too many of our fellow citizens. And of course there are times when it’s not necessarily relevant to white Americans – I needn’t dwell on it while folding my family’s laundry tonight. But even though it’s going to be immensely hard for Mrs. Tanner to accept reality, she has to – and so do we.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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