The Power of Denial

Consider the following fact. You — and everyone you’ve ever known and loved — will die one day. You can read what I just wrote, and even understand and believe it, but it still doesn’t seem real to you. That’s the magic of denial. Denial is better than booze or drugs or even sex.

I sometimes feel like denial gets a bad rap. Without denial, most things would not be possible.

In bad times, I often find it helpful to write my autobiography in my head. It’s a book about me, written by me, but one that’s written in the third person. This has a distancing effect that I find to be helpful.  For example, I currently have under $200 in the bank, no real job, and I’m sleeping on an air mattress at my friend’s house. …But if I thought about this all the time, I would simply be paralyzed by the badness of my situation. Instead, I simply deny that it is happening, and keep on going. “Something will turn up,” I tell myself. And meanwhile, I write my life’s story in my head, while cleverly changing the ending–

This was a difficult time for young Mr. Miller. His funding was low, and no job prospects were in sight — meanwhile, he sighed himself to sleep every night on a leaky air mattress; the gasp of the air escaping from the mattress was like the last gasp of vanishing dreams. …But fortunately for Mr. Miller, a new life was right around the corner!


Denial might simply be a necessary facet of human evolution, the way that other species have prehensile tails, or long necks so that they can eat the leaves off of treetops.

If you’re ever dated someone, then you know denial.  If you’ve ever fucked someone right after they’ve gone to the bathroom, then you know denial. When we’re going to the bathroom, we’re sitting on a set of interconnected tubes that connect our excrement with the human excrement of everyone else in the city who is taking a dump at the same time. …We all know this. I know this. As humans, we excrete liquid and solid waste. And yet, I’ve fucked girls immediately after they’ve gone to the bathroom, and I’ve been fucked by girls immediately after I’ve gone to the bathroom. It’s gross, but we don’t ever have to think about it. And that’s the power of denial.


Listen. My father is currently dying of cancer. He’s been dying of it for years. His cancer is incurable. I know this. But I don’t actually acknowledge it. I’m not repressing it or trying to avoid it. My brain simply won’t… do the work… of actually accepting what this means. This is why I’m tempted to say that denial is almost genetic — an important necessary defense mechanism. How can you acknowledge death? Perhaps we’re simply not hard-wired for it. Death is the absence of presence, nothing more — but how can you acknowledge that until you’re there? Being. Not-being. Yoo-hoo. Existence and nothingness.

But hey, then again — I smoke cigarettes, which means I’m in denial approximately twenty times a day. I love smoking cigarettes, and I hate non-smokers, but still — it says right on the pack that they kill you. (I especially like the European cigarette packs, where it says “SMOKING CAN KILL YOU” in a gigantic 60-point font, as if anyone had missed realizing this before.)

Being in denial is like living in a magical castle above a non-magical land. You can see the ordinary peasants and the townspeople below you, moving, carting wagons, shuffling around. It’s sort of intensely sad — but maybe it isn’t? You sort of feel like you’re missing something — but maybe you’re not?


Like Rodney Dangerfield, denial rarely gets respect. In fact, I’ve only seen one other writer give denial any respect at all.  …In his novel The Information, Martin Amis talks about the healing powers of denial; his book is about a middle-aged dude trying to deal with the mess that he’s made of his life. Amis’s hero is grappling with “the information”: the knowledge of impending doom that visits him in the night. In response to this, he starts to visualize denial itself as an actual location — denial as a vacation resort, with a poorly written but nonetheless alluring brochure. “Come to Denial,” he thinks–

Come to Denial.

Denial.  For that “holiday of a lifetime.”  Or just to “get away from it all” and take a well earned “break.”

Your room, ideally designed for comfort, offers a panoramic view of the ocean setting.  In the restaurant you may sample typical local cuisine or delicacies from our international menu.  Before your meal, why not enjoy a “cocktail” in the “Crow’s Nest” bar?

…So book now for the sun and fun of Denial.  Denial:  the true “never never” land of all your dreams…


But the information comes at night.  The communications technology it picks is not the phone or the fax or the E-mail.  It is the telex — so its teeth can chatter in your head.  The information makes sleep interdisciplinary, syllabus disciplines, and then disciplines unknown or not yet devised:  eschatoscopy, synchrodesics, thermodonture.

The information is advertising a symposium of pain.  Pain of all faiths and all denominations.  These are your little ones, these are your pretty ones.  Become accustomed to their voices.  They will grow louder, and more persistent, and more persuasive, until they’re all there is.

It is ordinary and everyday.  On the beach the waves do it ceaselessly, gathering mass and body, climbing until they break and are then resummoned into the generality with a sound like breath sucked in between the teeth.


…But the information comes at night. Slowly but surely, it seeps into our dreams. The information is the knowledge of death. But we don’t have to listen to it — unless we really want to.

Listen. You will grow old. Your hair will turn gray. Your lover will leave you. Your friends will forget you. The bus will pull away forever, leaving you in tears. And eventually, you will disappear. …All of these things are true, and we know them for real. But thanks to denial, we don’t have to believe in any of this shit… unless we really want to. Thanks to denial, we can live forever in our own minds. Maybe we can even save ourselves — if we really want to.  TC mark

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  • Meghan Blalock

    Love this.  “Being in denial is like living in a magical castle above a non-magical
    land. You can see the ordinary peasants and the townspeople below you,
    moving, carting wagons, shuffling around. It’s sort of intensely sad —
    but maybe it isn’t? You sort of feel like you’re missing something — but
    maybe you’re not?”

    I'd rather be in the magical castle, personally. What are you losing by not? The way you get into the magical castle is by first being an ordinary person. It's the price of admittance. It's not like you're missing anything from the ordinary life – you've lived it all before. I'd rather be happy and surrounded by magical thinking, than think like the normal person, achieve nothing and drudge through life.

    Life's too short not to live in magical castles.

    • J. Ky Marsh

      “What are you losing by not?” Uhh, the experience of living an honest, open-eyed life? 

      And at what point was it stated that those of us who opt not to willfully ignore real life “achieve nothing?” I'd venture to say those of you living in this proverbial magical castle are the ones achieving nothing. After all, you can't even be bothered to accept life for what it is and live free of denial.

      • Katherine Sack

        Well, uh, not to sound too cynical here, but I think when daily life brings not much more than suffering (to various extents), denial offers us reprieve from the hard, unchanging futility that is life. I'm sure many people living in “magical castles” are perhaps motivated by a certain form of denial: that their lives are worth something, and that they, too can affect some sort of change. I'd rather live in a magical castle with a ladder down to the ground, so whenever I need a “dose” of reality, all I have to do is climb down for a little while to know I need to go back up.

    • Daniel Schealler

      By the exact same argument, life's too short not to be a heroin addict.

  • You Know

    Hi I think you're a good writer, and I read a lot of your stuff surfing through my work day. And I've noticed you mention you don't have a job… now I don't know your life story…

  • Kia Etienne

    “And eventually, you will disappear. All of these things are true, and we know them for real. But thanks to denial, we don’t have to believe in any of this shit… unless we really want to.”you're fucking fantastic, Oliver Miller.

  • Sk

    can my cat's middle names be “oliver miller”?

    • Oliver Miller

      I'm hoping that this is a serious request.  Yes — please go for it.

  • brandypass

    I know it brings you zero comfort but knowing you're more misanthropic than I thought, are broke and smoke and have a dying parent and embrace denial made you more like me in ways that are mostly not awesome (and therefore more human). So…yeah…nice job on the suffering and the denial of it!

  • Tim

    Denial is a gift and a curse. It allows us to enjoy the best of life if used correctly, but it causes us to underestimate the limits (chiefly time) that mortality places upon us. Nice article.

  • Kyle LaMar

    This reminds me of a movie I recently watched, “Melvin Goes to Dinner”, where the main character explains to this girl he is sleeping with about schizophrenics. He explains that being schizophrenic basically means the inability to turn off noise in the world around you. So everything is surprising, or over-interesting, or worry-some, which makes you unnecessarily paranoid, etc. Obviously that's not all to schizophrenia, but…

    So, our ability to deny all the noise that bombards us constantly helps us keep calm and collected. His lover thinks that this ability doesn't make us any better off than a schizophrenic because she thinks that we are blocking too much out, we aren't open to the world and we aren't actually seeing all that's going on… we are basically lying to ourselves, not “seeing enough.”

    It's all sort of funny because she's cheating on her husband with this dude and in complete denial of what is actually going on around her.

    Recently though I've been thinking that it is infact the balance of denial and acceptance. Too much of either is simply… too much. In J.D. Salinger's short story, “Teddy”, Teddy talks about advancing spiritually by explaining, “…he's quite spiritual, and he's teaching a lot of stuff right now that isn't very good for him if he wants to make any real spiritual advancement. It stimulates him too much. It's time for him to take everything out of his head, instead of putting more stuff in.”

  • Lim Yan Yun

    wow oliver, if being homeless makes you write articles like this, BE HOMELESS.

    • Oliver Miller

      Oh, great…

      • Lim Yan Yun

        Its a compliment. *nods

  • Brandon

    oliver is my favorite.

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