Interview with Joe Blow

What has been the relationship between your experience of mental illness and your writing?
Throughout my life, my experience of mental illness has been both a motivation for seeking self-understanding and an aid to achieving it.

I've suffered from endogenous depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. I needed to find my way out of this maze of suffering. It is a part of the way the world works that what is inside mirrors what is outside. Our neurotic society is a maze of suffering for those of us who live within it. If I could find the path to healing within myself perhaps it would prove to also be a path to healing for the society of which I was an expression.

It is the thirsty man who most appreciates the importance of water. As someone whose neurotic insecurities left him lonely, shy and sexually frustrated, I came to see how important open communication and tender physical intimacy are to the health of society. Even now I'm rather poor sometimes at "practising what I preach". But I don't view my writing as a message from someone who knows better, but rather as an articulation by someone whose speciality is words of principles many have always been better at putting into practise than he. Words have the advantage that they can preserve ideas and spread a message over long distances with great rapidity. Life needs the wordsmith, but a good wordsmith is not always the best lifesmith. I hope that my writing helps to break the ice for discussions about the issues it raises, but look to others to teach me how to live the vision of a humanity united by love.

It is hard to find a beneficial side to most mental illnesses, but this is not the case with bipolar disorder. Historically, the norm for humans has been to be neurotic, that is to have an insecure ego which defends itself by blocking out disturbing ideas. A person with bipolar disorder has a breach in this system of defence. The ego at times breaks down and is flooded with disturbing ideas. At the time this produces the rush of a high, but when the ego tries to absorb the import of these ideas depression results. This explains why so many of the brightest and most creative of individuals historically have suffered from this condition. Bipolar breakdowns have been very disturbing and dangerous for me, but during such times my mind has been set free to breach the intellectual taboos which needed to be breached for me to achieve a better understanding of myself and society. And the delusions I experienced at such times were symbolic visions of the way ahead. Taking them literally was dangerous, but understanding them as symbols helped to guide my path.
Why did you pick the pseudonym Joe Blow?
Ideas are like viruses. They may be helpful or harmful and they spread from one person to another. What is most important is whether the idea is helpful or not. Sometimes paying too much attention to the person giving expression to the idea can be misleading. We may trust an idea because we have been led to believe that the person who expressed it is an authority of some kind. There are times when it is appropriate to place more trust in information based on the experience of the author. If you want information about the lives of bonobos you are better off going to the writings of a zoologist who works with them than to be satisfied with the information I pass on about them in my book "How to Be Free" based on a cursory reading of Wikipedia. But when it comes to general ideas about the experience of life, the best test is whether or not they bring clarity to our own experience. I'm not an authority in anything, except perhaps my own life experience. I want readers to assess the ideas expressed in my books on their own merits, and so I use the dismissive pseudonym Joe Blow to deemphasise myself.

There is also a deeper philosophy to this. Wisdom and creativity do not come from us but through us. They are an expression of something much larger than ourselves. Let's call it The Source. Our ego provides shape to the expression but the essence comes through the ego and not from it. There is a strong danger that our ego may try to take the credit. Keeping access to all the riches The Source provides means having an ego which defers to it. So it is important for me to remind myself that I'm just a Joe Blow.
How did you come to write "How to Be Free"?
A friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in helping him by editing some self-help manuscripts for publication as ebooks. I said that I would but that I also might have the makings of a self-help ebook of my own. I'd made a couple of half-hearted attempts at creating blogs expressing my ideas about psychology, but I hadn't previously considered the idea of a book. Once I saw how easy it was for my friend to create ebooks I realised that it was the way to go. I never ended up doing the editing but the idea of writing an ebook had been planted. When I finally wrote it I published it myself.

The motivation behind the book went further back. Since my teens I'd been concerned about the fractured nature of human society and how it appeared to be leading us towards inevitable self-destruction. At times I had brief flashes about the nature of the problem or its solution. There would be a burst of frantic excitement and then I would sink into despair. I read a biography of the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich which showed that he had been concerned about the same problem and had achieved significant insights into its roots and what to do about it. Also I became interested in the improvisational theatre games known as Theatre Sports and, as a result, read Keith Johnstone's "Impro : Improvisation and the Theatre". The theory of improvisation became a keystone to my way of looking at life. One night I began writing an essay in which I expressed the view that improvisation and love were synonymous and that Jesus would have been a brilliant Theatre Sports player. My mind was on fire, but it was also swirling out of control. I collapsed into the pit of depression. This was the way things progressed. Even though I was seeing a psychiatrist for my depression I would not be diagnosed as bipolar until years later when I had my first major breakdown. It was two steps forward and one step back, but I was stumbling towards the ideas I would express in "How to Be Free".

In about 1988 I read a book called "Free : The End of the Human Condition" by Australian biologist Jeremy Griffth. He claimed that it contained a first principle biological explanation for the human condition which would liberate humanity. I was very impressed with the depth and all-encompassing nature of his theory, but also disturbed by some aspects of it, especially what I saw as an unnecessarily negative view of sexuality. I was very keen to believe someone had the answers to the big questions though, so I persisted with studying and giving support to this theory. Eventually, after many years, I came to change my mind on it. I went from seeing it as a sound theory with flaws in its details or expression to being a theory that was founded on false assumptions. Griffith postulates that the conscience is a genetically-encoded orientation to ideal behaviour. I've come to the conclusion that the conscience is learned. It's a part of the ego in which we store the expectations about ourselves which we have absorbed from our culture. So I came to see Griffith's approach as both unfounded and untherapeutic. But this theory incorporates so much of human behaviour and I had absorbed it so deeply that it became important to me to find answers acceptable to myself to the questions raised by what I see as its failure. Among other things, "How to Be Free" was the fruit of that endeavour. My approach is an experiential one. I'm not a biologist, so the main questions I was looking at where - what are we like and how can we heal. When it comes to my chapter on the history of what I call "the human neurosis", I made use of ideas expressed by Griffith but, in general, turned them on their heads in order to make them fit together in a way I found more accountable. I make no claim to be able to support that part of my book with evidence. For me it serves the same purpose as an origin myth. It is a fictional exploration of how things might have been. I wanted to dedicate "How to Be Free" to Griffith in appreciation of the inspiration and stimulation that his work provided to me, but I was asked not to mention him.
Why do you give your ebooks away for free?
Depression and all the other forms of mental suffering are Hell. I asked for the key that could release me from that Hell and it was given to me. Who in such a situation would charge others for access to that key? If the ideas I express in my books can make the world a better place then it is in my own interest that they reach the largest audience.
How did you come to write "Two Shaky Towers"?
I wrote "Two Shaky Towers" long before I became Joe Blow. It is the oldest piece of writing I've published using that name.

When Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" came out it led to heated debates between Christians and atheists on the Internet Movie Database. I took part in some of those debates, but I'm neither a Christian nor an atheist, so I tended to find myself between the two warring factions. Most of the Christians were of the conservative kind who take the Bible fairly literally and the atheists tended to be of the kind who ascribe to a scientific paradigm characterised by strict materialism. I became increasingly frustrated by trying to point out the limitations of each of these worldviews. "Two Shaky Towers", a humorous fable, was my way of expressing this frustration. It is the story of a tribe of beach dwellers who, when faced with the threat of a giant spider, split into two groups - those who like to eat fish and those who like to eat fruit. Each group builds a tower to live in. The fish eaters build their tower near the lake and the fruit eaters near the forest. The fish eaters can't see the forest and the fruit eaters can't see the lake and, over time, each forgets that that which they cannot see exists. This was the first time in my writing that water symbolised spirit, an analogy I've found extremely useful.

The stylistic inspiration for "Two Shaky Towers" was George Bernard Shaw's "The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God".
Do you believe in God?
In "How to Be Free" I talk about the meaning of the word "God". I say that there is no God in the same way that there is no Mother Nature or Father Time. The ecosystem exists and time exists, but the personifications are mythological. In the same way there is a creative principle which operates in the universe onto which we put a human face and assign it the name God.

Since writing "How to Be Free" I've come to label myself a pantheist. A pantheist is someone who believes that everything is God. Thus God is another name for the universe or for nature. Some people have asked me why I would use the term "God" when "universe" or "nature" would do just as well, especially when the use of the term "God" can be confused with the concept of a personal supernatural deity. There are a number of reasons for this :

1. To use the term "God" for nature says something about my view of nature, i.e. that it is a purposeful integrated creative process characterised as much by cooperation as by competition. I believe that the creative force of nature is express in humans as love, and thus "God" is also another word for love.

2. Many of the thinkers who have most influenced me have used the term "God" to refer to nature, a life force or love - e.g. Jesus, William Blake, R. D. Laing, Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich.

3. I believe that this creative principle is the origin of all concepts of God. The variations in representations of God - including the polytheistic tendency to personify aspects of nature separately - are a product of differing levels and forms of alienation. Our species has been characterised by neurosis throughout its history. Neurosis can easily produce psychosis and one of the symptoms of psychosis is "magical thinking". If nature is God then we are God. But our neurosis produced a kind of schizophrenic split in which we developed a fear of our God self and turned it into a paranoid projection to which we assigned magical powers. Thus, to use the term God for the creative principle of nature is to lay the groundwork for a return to sanity in which all of the religious traditions can find their ultimate realisation in the growth, through love, of paradise on earth.
How did you come to chose the title "Materialism Is Masturbation" for your follow up to "How to Be Free"?
After publishing "How to Be Free" I set up a blog to help publicise it and give me a place to post follow up essays. One of these was called "Materialism Is Masturbation". The point of the essay was that we accumulate material goods to comfort ourselves in our state of existential loneliness, just the same way we may comfort ourselves with masturbation when we are on our own. I continued the analogy by saying that, if materialism is masturbation, sharing is an orgy. I bought a beautiful picture from a royalty free image site to illustrated the essay. It shows the frog prince with a shiny gold crown and a tear rolling down from his eye. The frog's materialistic crown is poor compensation for exile from humanity.

When I came to compile a collection of my essays I used this as the title piece for three reasons. It was one of the most visited essays on the blog at that point. It allowed me to use the beautiful frog picture on the cover. And it is a title which stands as a statement on its own. Even if someone doesn't read the book, the title may give them something to think about.

A case could be made that this was not, in fact, the best title for the book. It has been far less popular than "How to Be Free". The title ended up being censored on I-Tunes to read "Materialism is M**********n". (Clearly we still live in a sexually repressive society when the medical term for a healthy activity which most of us engage in is censored on I-Tunes.) Some have misunderstood my intent and asked "What's wrong with masturbation?" And others have just been embarrassed by the title.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I have a project in mind, but it is an ambitious one I've been putting off. I'd like to write a fairly detailed account of my interpretation of the philosophy of Jesus. The words attributed to Jesus have been a big influence on me, but I don't believe that a literal supernatural interpretation is the most valuable. I see them as a poetic and, often, symbolic guide along the path to self-knowledge and loving community with others. The gospels were written long after Jesus was dead. We can only see him darkly through the glass of the human neurosis with its belief in the supernatural, its fear of the erotic and its need to project hope for happiness to beyond the grave. If we leave aside the mythologising about raising the dead and walking on water (except as possible metaphors) there is in the direct advice, parables and symbols a cohesive and practical psychological philosophy.

This is a project I have made a small start on with a series of three essays collectively entitled "Deciphering the Jesus Fairytale" on my blog. There is also another short essay, which I've released on its own in ebook form, called "The Anti-Christ Psychosis", which looks at a small aspect of this subject.
Can you talk about some more of your influences?
A number of psychoanalysts have been inspirational to me. Sigmund Freud acknowledged the role of repressed aggression and taboo sexual desires to the human psyche. From Carl Jung I learned about projection, individuation, the collective unconscious and synchronicity. Wilhelm Reich's concept of character armour was incredibly important to me in writing "How to Be Free". R. D. Laing has also been a major inspiration with his concepts of psychotic breakdown as a healing process and acknowledgement that what we take to be sanity is just a more prevalent form of madness.

I credit William Blake as a major influence even though this is based on only having read a tiny amount of his writing. But the line "mind-forg'd manacles" which I used on the blurb for "How to Be Free" comes from his poem "London". His uncompleted poem "The Everlasting Gospel" encouraged me to separate my vision of Jesus from that of the churches. And "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" helped me with my conception of consciousness.

Oscar Wilde is someone else who I view as a big influence even though my reading of his works has been limited. "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" provides a vision of the flowering of human creativity in a society free of selfishness and conflict. Some of his epigrams have been inspirational. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is one of the saddest poems I've ever read. "The vilest deeds, like poison weeds, Bloom well in prison air; It is only what is good in Man/ That wastes and withers there..." Although written about his own experience of prison, I think these lines express something more general. Wherever freedom is curtailed, whether by personal addiction or political or religious oppression, what is good in us is poisoned and wastes away. To love and create and solve problems, this is our most profound orientation, but that orientation is always what is most deeply buried under the unmeetable needs of addiction. And whenever we repress anything - from our anger to our sexuality - our capacity for love and creativity will be buried deeper still.

The one book I recommend more than any other is Keith Johnstone's "Impro : Improvisation and the Theatre". Although it is intended as a book for theatre students, it is far more than that. The principles of improvisation can be used as a way of life characterised by openness, spontaneity and the realisation of opportunities. Johnstone also has much to say about education. And if you are troubled by writer's block, Johnstone's advice on how to unleash the imagination is just what you need.

John Waters has always been a hero of mine. I remember being intrigued by the posters for his underground gross-out movies like "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble" at a time when I was too young to see them. It was a long time before I had the courage to watch them on video, but by that time I'd read about them and watched a couple of his milder later films. I love the films, but also his writing and his live appearances. Johnstone talks about the role of the guru, the guy who gives people permission to set free their imagination by showing that there is as much weird shit in his mind as in theirs. John Waters is like that for me. For so long I lived in fear of the disturbing thoughts in my head, but Waters just lets it all hang out. He reassures by example. And I've found that this is something very important. When I talk about some sick idea I had, I often find someone else says, "Thank God! I thought it was just me!"
Do you write anything other than this heavy stuff?
I also write humorous erotica under the pseudonym Aussiescribbler. If there is something my silly smutty stories share with my Joe Blow writing it is a sense that things become much more fun when our inhibiting character armour breaks down. They are also a way to counter sex-negativity by depicting a world in which sex is just another way for people to be friendly with each other.
Published 2013-10-02.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

A Public Service Announcement to the Dark Side and Other Essays
Price: Free! Words: 22,700. Language: English. Published: June 30, 2017 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Psychology » General, Nonfiction » Psychology » Mental health
Sometimes it seems as if our strategies for taming our dark side, from religion to “political correctness” , just end up making things worse. Maybe an examination of the roots of the problem will suggest a remedy. In this collection of essays, Joe Blow, author of How to Be Free, shines some light into the darkness.
Como ser Livre
Price: Free! Words: 22,330. Language: Portuguese. Published: March 19, 2017 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Psychology » Theory, Nonfiction » Self-improvement » Personal Growth / General
Como podemos ser livres do sofrimento psicológico? Como podemos destrancar as algemas forjadas na nossa mente - feitas de padrões de pensamento inúteis, infundados e inflexíveis que nos impedem de atingir o nosso verdadeiro potencial criativo?
Hurt-Proofing Ourselves
Price: Free! Words: 4,380. Language: English. Published: March 14, 2014 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Self-improvement » Confidence & self-esteem, Nonfiction » Psychology » Cognitive psychology
(5.00 from 2 reviews)
This short essay presents a technique for protecting ourselves against verbal bullying. It also looks at how we can regain a childlike sense of joy and give ourselves a secure psychological base for our relationships and our view of the world.
The Anti-Christ Psychosis
Series: How to Be Free, Book 3. Price: Free! Words: 2,750. Language: English. Published: May 7, 2013 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Psychology » Theory, Nonfiction » Religion & Spirituality » Christianity
(5.00 from 2 reviews)
13 % of U.S. voters think that Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ predicted in the Book of Revelations. The idea that a charismatic individual will rise to power and precipitate a final battle between good and evil is expressed in many movies and books. Can we learn something useful by subjecting this powerful myth to psychological analysis?
Materialism Is Masturbation : Essays In Freedom
Series: How to Be Free, Book 2. Price: Free! Words: 22,750. Language: English. Published: September 28, 2012 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Psychology » General, Nonfiction » Psychology » Mental health
(5.00 from 2 reviews)
Has materialism become a joyless addiction? Is idealism making things worse for us? Have we underestimated the healing power of the erotic? Can the symbolic language of religion tell us something about the nature of the mind? Is the "Kingdom of Heaven" within? These are some of the questions explored in these essays by the author of "How to Be Free".
Two Shaky Towers : A Fable
Price: Free! Words: 4,090. Language: English. Published: November 18, 2011 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Fiction » Humor & comedy » General
(5.00 from 1 review)
A tribe who live on the beach between a forest and a lake are so terrified by the discovery of a spider two feet across living beneath the sand that they seek refuge in a pair of towers. Those who like to eat fish build a tower overlooking the lake. Those who like eating fruit build one near the forest. The strategy will lead to conflict and madness in this drily witty fable.
How to Be Free
Series: How to Be Free, Book 1. Price: Free! Words: 24,210. Language: English. Published: September 13, 2011 by Aussiescribbler. Categories: Nonfiction » Psychology » Theory, Nonfiction » Self-improvement » Personal Growth / General
(5.00 from 6 reviews)
How can we free ourselves from mental suffering? How can we unlock what the poet William Blake referred to as “the mind-forged manacles” - those unhelpful, unfounded and inflexible habits of thought which keep us from reaching our true creative potential?