As the title card of ‘The Alienist’ informs, ‘In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.’ Yes, they were called so instead of ‘psychiatrists’ then. It was a rather ‘alienating’ name though, treated with doubt by many, while alienists were supposed to ‘unalienate’ the alienated. That said, ‘unalienists’ might alienate more? Though the definition above implies that those without mental illness are not alienated from their true natures, all of us, as non-Buddhas who are defiled, are still alienated from our truest nature, which is our Buddha-nature – thus with suffering, spiritually ill. Yet, our Buddha-nature is always there, for us to awaken to.
In the last episode of season 1 of this Netflix series, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, as the titular alienist, visits his old and uncommunicative father in a sanitarium. The doctor too was alienated from his true nature, as discovered through the series, while seeking an even more severely alienated serial killer. A monologue ensues… ‘I don’t really know why I came. Maybe because now I’m free to speak my mind. (Seems like he has come full circle, now ready to be open – for closure.) I’ve always blamed my failings as an adult on what you did to me as a child. Those failings were my own.‘ (He was abused by his father, but has learnt to stop ‘blaming the parents’, which many in this 21st century still do! While it was the father’s failing as an adult to nurture him well as a child, it was the son’s failing to not rise above as an adult.)
‘I remember something you once said to me. “Nature never allows a man to be more than he is. Only less.” For years, I believed those words reflected your own bitterness and failure. But now I understand they were for my benefit. You were simply preparing me for what you knew would be a lifetime of disappointment and pain. But you were wrong. I know that now. I still believe we can be better than nature intended, even if you can’t. You did the best you could.’ (Our truest [Buddha-]nature is our potential for the sweet success of perfection. THAT is the nature we can never outdo, that we are less than now. It is hope for lasting fulfilment and True Happiness, that the Buddha taught by word and example. Even if doing our ‘best’ now, we can do ever better, till we truly become the best!)