On Reading Barbara O’Brien’s Operators and Things


Last year read Adam Kotsko’s “Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television” where he describes real-life sociopaths as pitiable creatures, often “victims of severe abuse, they are bereft of all human connection, unable to tell truth from lies, charming and manipulative for a few minutes at most but with no real ability to formulate meaningful goals”. He’ll mirror this against what he termed the fantasy socipath as portrayed on TV, Film and in our urban imaginations, saying, “The contemporary fantasy of sociopathy picks and chooses from those characteristics, emphasizing the lack of moral intuition, human empathy, and emotional connection. Far from being the obstacles they would be in real life, these characteristics are what enable the fantasy sociopath to be so amazingly successful.”1

Reading Barbara O’Brien’s work about her schizophrenic break Operators and Things she describes what led up to it, telling us about the corporate environment within which she worked for seven years of her early life. What she’ll describe as Hook Operators is the veritable image of the sociopathic mind of what Kotsko describes as the Climber. Barbara will describe it this way,

“A Hook Operator has a nose for power, and as soon as he enters an organization, he follows his nose until he comes upon the individual who is giving off the strongest odor. Having spotted him, the Hook Operator feels out the Powerman for his soft spot until he knows the exact location of the spot and its degree of softness.”2

As Kotsko remarks of these types of sociopaths: “The climbers believe they’re perfectly self-seeking, yet they let the social order completely define what “self-seeking” means, i.e., what it means to succeed.”(77) Speaking of most of our modern corporate cultures he’ll add that its “upper echelons need to be filled in by sociopathic climbers because the system is inherently sociopathic” (78).

In his sociological study of the United States Charles Derber will tell us the United States, with a long history of sociopathic institutions and practices, is now evolving toward a full-blown sociopathic society. We still have a chance to change course. But our society is increasingly structured to turn people and institutions toward sociopathic behavior that harms other individuals and entire societies, including our own. The United States is beginning to socially unravel, haunted now by the specter of war with weapons of mass destruction, economic meltdowns, and uncontrolled climate change. What this shows is that sociopathic individuals in the United States are often successful and well-adjusted, most of them sane and socially integrated. They are more likely to be conforming to the values and rules of conduct in our society than violating them. It is the rules and values that are at least metaphorically “sick.”3

For O’Brien watching such creatures over a period of seven years gain places of prominence in the corporate organization she works for becomes more and more problematic as she becomes a target of their manipulation. She decides enough is enough and leaves. What comes next is something she was ill prepared for, the next morning after having left her job of seven years she is presented with three strange entities wandering around her bedroom. So begins here voyage into schiziphrenia.

Right off the bat we discover these entities, known as Operators in their own right, have inhabited our world long before humans. They’ve come to Barbara and exposed themselves as part of an experiment. She describes it this way:

When I awoke they were standing at the foot of my bed looking like soft, fuzzy ghosts. I tried feeling the bedclothes. The sensation of feeling was sharp. I was awake and this was real. … Burt continued. A great Operator whose name was Hadley had wanted to make an experiment of this type for some time. The experiment consisted of selecting a person like myself, revealing the facts of the Operators’ world to the individual, and observing the results. A guinea pig in a cage, I thought. So much for that. Second things second. Could they or couldn’t they? Yes, there wasn’t much doubt about it. They were reading my mind. I could see it in the way their eyes focused on my face, the expressions on their faces, as they watched me think. Burt explained: Every thought in the mind of a person like myself was always clear to any Operator who might be tuned in. I considered this situation. Would I, perhaps, be able to think on some sub-cellar level and so reduce this tremendous advantage they had? Nicky grinned broadly and Burt smiled gently. Burt again: No thought of my mind on any level could escape them. Operators could penetrate the minds of Things at any level. Things! Hinton sighed. “Things. Yes, of course. Think of the word with a capital initial, if you like. It may help your ego a bit. All people like you are Things to us — Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions can be motivated. Does that surprise you? It goes on all the time. There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine. A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind. Actually, you have more free will at this moment than most of your kind ever have. For you at least know that what we are saying is coming from us, not from you.”

The notion that humans are mere organic robots, operated like computers by Operators, doing their bidding, performing at the beck and call of their alien programs seems par for the course in Barbara’s new world. She accepts it as she’s accepted so many strange and twisted aspects of her life. Eerily that last couple of sentences leaves an almost horror novel feeling rather than the truth of a young woman’s schizophrenic reality: “A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind. Actually, you have more free will at this moment than most of your kind ever have. For you at least know that what we are saying is coming from us, not from you.”

  1.  Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (p. 2). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
  2. O’Brien, Barbara (2011-07-07). Operators and Things, Illustrated with new Foreword, Afterword, and Interview (Kindle Locations 462-464). Silver Birch Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Derber, Charles (2015-11-17). Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States (Kindle Locations 276-280). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


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