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Re-reading “Xenocide” by Orson Scott Card, I came across this passage where Qing-jao was being tested (or tortured, depending on your point of view) to see if she truly was “spoken to by the gods” - a form of OCD, correlated with high intelligence. In the test her hands are made filthy and she is locked into a sparsely furnished room with no means of cleaning herself. The point of this test is that a truly godspoken person will develop an obsessive ritual to cope with this highly stressful situation. Qing-jao, for example, copes by repetitively tracing the woodgrain lines in the floorboards of the room:

they had never seen anyone trace woodgrain lines before. It wasn't in the Catalogue of Voices of the Gods: Door-Waiting, Counting-to-Multiples-of-Five, Object-Counting, Checking-for-Accidental-Murders, Fingernail-Tearing, Skin-Scraping, Pulling-Out-of-Hair, Gnawing-at-Stone, Bugging-Out-of-Eyes -  all these were known to be penances that the gods demanded, rituals of obedience that cleansed the soul of the godspoken so that the gods could fill their minds with wisdom. No one had ever seen Woodgrain-Tracing. Yet Father saw what she was doing, named the ritual, and added it to the Catalogue of Voices.

Most of the entries in this “Catalogue of Voices” make sense: like Counting-To-Multiples-of Five or Pulling-Out-of-Hair. I can certainly imagine how these actions can be performed repetitively in a ritual to calm yourself. But Checking-for-Accidental-Murders seems a very strange inclusion.

My question is, if you are locked by yourself in a bare room, how could you carry out this ritual? What would it actually consist of?

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  • Someone screaming "I didn't mean to kill mother, I just bumped into her in the kitchen! Please tell me she is ok?" – Binary Worrier Feb 3 at 9:31
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    It is listed on TVTropes pages under Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick. But with no follow up, so I don't think it is ever explained. – Jontia Feb 3 at 9:37
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    "Has anyone been murdered?"... "No". 5 minutes later: "What about now?"... "No." – Clara Diaz Sanchez Feb 3 at 11:56
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    Some people with OCD have intrusive thoughts about committing terrible crimes, and are genuinely frightened that they might have inadvertently done so while they weren't paying attention, or that they might do so in the future. madeofmillions.com/ocd/harm-ocd – Paul Johnson Feb 3 at 13:24
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    There are also people who live in constant fear of accidentally killing anything, not just other people. Like, carefully watching where they walk to make sure no bugs are underfoot, wearing a gauze mask to avoid accidentally inhaling microbes (though that part actually makes more sense these days), that sort of thing. Sort of veganism taken to the ultra-extreme. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 3 at 19:06
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As I recall, the Catalogue of Voices isn't described as being limited just to the behaviors people demonstrate when being tested to see if they are Godspoken or not, though following an already-known ritual during the test would make it pretty easy to identify one while it's happening. It's a catalogue of all known Godspoken behaviors.

For example, had Qing-jao simply been bent over on the floor but not moving her body (maybe tracing the lines with her eyes alone) they might not have identified her ritual behavior at all, perhaps believing her to be in a posture of despair or exhaustion. Had she been frantically racing around the room, laying on the floor or not, they might have interpreted her behavior as something other than a manifestation of her OCD even if she had been tracing lines all the while.

Her OCD could still exist, but her mode of coping with it might not have been recognizable to the observers. Indeed, that was the case for Qing-jao: until her father realized precisely what she was doing and pointed it out, the observers did not know that she was engaging in an obsessive compulsion.


The following is drawn from experiences with my own OCD, and is not based in textual evidence from Xenocide. It could be possible for obsessive-compulsive behaviors to manifest in an environment where the specific ritual might be stunted or impossible.

There are two relevant considerations for checking-for-accidental-murders while being tested:

  • Ability to fully carry out one's compulsive behavior is not a meaningful element in whether or not that compulsion exists or is followed
  • Rationality (at least, rationality which fits the objective details of a situation) is not really a factor in obsessive-compulsive behavior

The latter is important because it means that there does not need to be a "triggering event" which starts the cycle of compulsive behavior. There need not be any evidence of a murder, or of anyone having ever been in the room before at all, to drive the need to check. It is fundamentally internal to the mind of the person doing the checking.

The former matters because, whether or not one can do a meaningful job of checking for accidental murders, the (largely) irresistible drive to do anything you can will likely prompt one to do... anything they can. The specific instance of that effort could be carefully examining the room for evidence of such a murder, whether or not any exists or which the subject feels exists. It could just as easily be an unshakable conviction that a murder did take place in the room, and demanding that the observers investigate further or provide information about it.

The key elements the testers are looking for are almost certainly the hallmarks of OCD (plus any Godspoken-specific features which may exist): anxiety about the grease on the person's hands, which builds as efforts to clean the grease off fail, inability to focus on things other than the grease, and any repetitive, arbitrary behavior (particularly if it becomes more prominent as the anxiety builds). If the anxiety seems to be eased after some behavior, especially as that behavior is repeated, that's a good sign that OCD may be present.

Also, though it's underemphasized in the book, while Godspoken tend to have one ritual that they engage in while "communing" it is not the only obsessive-compulsive behavior that the Godspoken display. Consider that one of the signs that might prompt a person to be tested in the first place is excessive handwashing.

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As someone in a family line that's had issues with OCD, checking for accidental murders is a real thing, albeit one unlikely in a closed room. My grandmother would occasionally stop the car and have one of her kids get out to make sure she hadn't hit anyone just then. People often focus on the Compulsive part of the habit because it's more visible, but it's usually the Obsession that drives it. You don't tap the door frame exactly ten times every time you walk through it because it makes you feel better. You do it because it somehow calms the voice in the back of your brain screaming about deadly pathogens in the air, or blasting images of every photo of a dead person you've ever seen. The compulsions are often completely unrelated to the obsessions; it's just that you have a conditioned response that works, so you do it. And when it stops working, you vary it until it works, until you have those elaborate rituals that are terribly specific, and they calm things down until they stop working.

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    Thank you for your answer @FuzzyBoots Believe me, I'm not trying to make light of OCD - I'm just genuinely puzzled how "Checking-for-Accidental-Murders" could happen in the circumstances Card describes. As you say, it does seem unlikely in a closed room scenario. – Clara Diaz Sanchez Feb 3 at 17:25
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    Incidentally, "check for accidental murders", particularly the possibility of having run people over in a car, is an OCD behavior mentioned in "The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing", which Card cited as one of his primary sources of OCD information. – Arcanist Lupus May 3 at 17:56
  • @ArcanistLupus so maybe Card just copied the list of behaviors without checking to see if they were appropriate to a closed-room situation... – Clara Diaz Sanchez May 4 at 10:32

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