Spoilers follow for Steins;Gate, the series that goes hand in hand with spoilers.
The human mind is a wonderfully resilient thing. Like the rest of the body, it can heal even serious wounds. But in the brain, it can be hard to recognize shrapnel. As with a physical wound, the brain will grow anew, but sometimes it traps those fragments of the wounding weapon inside. For some wounds, that shrapnel could stay there forever and never cause an issue. For others, its eventual rise to the surface will cause more damage than the initial injury. But for better or worse, burying and growing over is often how the brain deals with trauma. It’s only partially recognized as a scientific, psychological phenomenon, but it’s well accepted among laymen, many of whom (myself included) have seen anecdotal evidence of the repression process.
Abused and molested children, victims of serious crimes, or witnesses to terrible events may repress a memory. If the theory holds water, it’s not a willing process but an unconscious defense mechanism. You most often hear about it in childhood, presumably because kids lack the mental capacity to deal with some things so it’s safer just to shove those things aside and detach them from the child’s understanding. But you have to imagine that a trauma of sufficient size could easily get buried in an adolescent or adult as well.
So what does this have to do with Reading Steiner?
I already talked about the dubiousness of Reading Steiner as a power; it probably doesn’t seem that much like one to its wielder. More like torture. But the ability to retain memories through transitioning of timelines is Rintarou Okabe’s only power, and he uses it to try to save the future and his friends.
In a lot of ways, the story of Steins;Gate is the story of continual time leaps’ effect on Okarin. I mean that in the sense that he develops a strong picture of what’s truly important to him and all that other taisetsu/mamoru/whatever anime BS, but the process also takes its toll on him. Despite on some occasions leaping back to before the Time Leap process was conceived, he has very little trouble convincing Kurisu of what’s happened. That’s because every time he leaps, it shows on his face. By episode 20, he’s spontaneously sitting on the couch crying on the day of Comiket and unable to hide it from Kurisu and Daru. The difficulty of leaping in itself has to be a tough pill to swallow, but watching Mayuri die dozens of times — how could a normal human even begin to deal with something like that? Kurisu sees it only once, and even knew it was coming, but you can hear it in her voice, it wrecks her.
I started to think of Reading Steiner as the lack of mental defense when Okarin first started leaping with the intent of undoing the original D-Mails. First there was Faris, then Rukako. Each had to undo their D-Mails, and in the process of convincing them to do so, Okarin managed to unearth their memories about alternate timelines. In the end, this knowledge was key to his plan for bending chronology to his desire to save everyone, but what struck me at the time was the intense suffering it seemed to cause. Imagine being Faris, living your life in peace, and suddenly you’re flooded with the memory that your father is “supposed” to be dead. Or Rukako, walking around for seventeen years in a body that wasn’t what the universe intended. Worst of all, imagine being Kurisu, realizing that you did in fact die in the spot where you stand.
But the true pain isn’t just the breakdown of reality, or the memory of a great tragedy resurfacing — it’s the combined weight of multiple lives lived, suddenly crashing into one another and trying to fit into the space of just one life.
That pain is something you could reasonably expect to go through, and when I saw its effect on the other characters, I started to think that Okarin must be one tough bastard. But the truth is, it was destroying him. That’s the curse of Reading Steiner, to go with the blessing of being able to “fix” timelines: All the pain of every timeline, every death of Mayuri, every betrayal by Moeka, every sad realization that his “assistant” won’t remember him calling her Kurisu, every time he sends Suzuha back forever, they’re all stacked together in the space of just one young man’s life.
And of course, the final realization that it was all for naught because the alpha worldline renders Kurisu dead… well, that’s about the end of it. So when the video mail from the future arrives, I have to wonder: did Okarin go back to pretending to be Kyouma Hououin, mad scientist, or did he finally go insane and actually become him?