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Part 04, Chapters 71-80

Part 4, Chapter 71

“As a contributor to the work undertaken by the Palo Alto School, Laing (1961) paid particular attention to repetitive ‘schizogenic’ parents-child communication patterns which were believed to promote schizoid disorders in the offspring. More specifically, the three main schizogenic forms are: disconfirmation (failing to validate an actor’s self, actions, intentions and communication), mystification (denying that what an actor thinks, feels, perceives, believes is valid, and attempting to convince him/her that what seems untrue and unreal in fact is), and double-binds (self-contradictory messages). See especially Laing (1961) and Watzlawick (1971).”
–Simon Gottschalk
in Studies in Symbolic Interaction, University of Illinois at Urbana, Vol. 21

The journey to the United States was over quickly, and within hours he was in Michigan with his mother and stepfather again. Of course it was pleasant to be back, at least at first. It was early winter in Michigan, but in a way it felt to him like summer. He saw familiar places and people. He heard his own language spoken all around him, and with his own accent.

By the time a week had passed, though, everything had changed. The same thing happened to David that had happened so many times before: the house his mother and stepfather lived in, with its indoor swimming pool, its spacious rooms and expensive furnishings gradually came to feel more and more like a prison to him, a place he’d somehow gotten trapped in, almost by accident, a place he had to escape from.

And these feelings were, as before, reinforced by the attitude of his mother and stepfather toward him.

They made sure he understood that they were ignoring his existence.

They made sure he knew that all his experiences and travels in Canada, Africa, and the Middle East were of absolutely no significance for them. It was as if they thought he’d visited all those places and undergone all that suffering just to annoy them somehow, and they weren’t going to give him the satisfaction of showing that they even noticed what he’d done during those years.

They never asked a single question about the time he’d been away, never made a single attempt to discuss those years with him, or to find out what all that time had meant for him.

It was also as if they wanted to obliterate that time, erase it from his life, so that it would seem as if he’d never been gone at all, never experienced anything at all, never grown at all. From what he could see, they were utterly without any ability to be touched by the tremendous sense of loss and suffering he was experiencing, the loss of the intellectual life, the loss of the life of the mind, the loss of the chance to use his mind, the loss of Harvard.

His life was utterly incomprehensible to them, and they were content to let it remain so, or else, in their minds, to construct a life for him that seemed to them somehow plausible.

They not only ignored everything he’d done during the previous three years, they also showed no desire even to want to try to understand his love of the life of the mind, or the happiness and then the terrors he’d experienced at Harvard, or the pain he’d gone through when he left Harvard — none of these things meant anything to them. They were, he supposed, in the end incapable of understanding such things.

If he entered a room they happened to be in, they either ignored him or spoke to him as if he were simple-minded, or a child, or they spoke about him as if he weren’t there, in the third person.

He began once again to have the feeling that he was invisible to them.

Even when they looked at him, they seemed to be looking straight through him.

Years later, he would see them as a poor benighted pair.

One of the other things they did not talk about was Harvard. They never discussed anything with him that had to do with Harvard. They never even asked if he ever planned to go back, or planned to finish his university studies at all. Neither his past nor his future seemed to be of any concern at all to them. He seemed to be just another object in their possession, one that was of even less interest to them than their enormous house, their cars, their swimming pool, their furniture, and everything else they owned.

Of course he could never really have known what was going through their minds. He could never have known it without inhabiting a dimension where truth is the norm and where everything can be known. He looked forward to this dimension, naturally, in a way that will seem hopelessly misguided and unrealistic to most people. Even he recognized, though, that this dimension was probably a long way off.

Much later he would be able to speculate, though, about what was perhaps happening in their minds and what they were thinking, though he would admit he could easily be wrong. He even hoped he was wrong.

What he thought, first of all, was that it was his poor mother who, as always, was exerting the most influence on the situation.

He couldn’t really blame his stepfather for that. The man was completely controlled by David’s mother and did whatever she wished, especially when it involved David. The man’s life would have been turned into a hell, if he hadn’t done exactly what David’s mother wanted.

And what did she want? So many contradictory things, poor tortured and demented woman, things that were so contradictory that if she had seen some of her desires fulfilled, they would have canceled out others. That was something, though, that she could never have understood.

In the situation as it was in then, in that time after returning from Israel, what she seemed to want was to show David that everything he’d ever done or thought or even tried to do or think was of no value, no importance at all. It was as if all the efforts he’d ever made to achieve anything were not only of no importance, they’d never really even happened. The poor woman seemed to want to show him that she was the controlling factor in life and that the only things that counted in his existence were the things that she found significant, the things that related directly and immediately to her.

Harvard was of no significance for her. Intellectual achievement was of no significance. Africa and all of the other places David had been were of no significance: his suffering, his joys, his turmoil, his achievements, his questionings and longings — none of this apparently was of any significance as far as she was concerned. Only she was of significance, or should have been, and she, poor sick woman, seemed bent on making sure he saw that.

Although it may seem unbelievable to others, he still could not quite believe that he was seeing and interpreting her behavior as it really was. He still thought she and his stepfather surely must have his best interests at heart, and that they would never act cruelly. He could not understand that women who think and behave as his mother did — selfishly and destructively, out of their own pain and emotional illness — really do exist. Years later he would discover that in German there’s even a word for such a mother: Rabenmutter.

At the time, though, he simply could not bring himself to believe that women like that existed, women who are ill, who are so consumed by selfishness and the desire to control other people’s lives, so consumed by the need to totally possess their sons – if they have any sons – that they would rather see those sons destroyed than living independently, uncontrolled and unpossessed.

Or if he could believe such women exist, he couldn’t bring himself to believe his own mother was one of them, one of those women who apparently feel that if they can at least destroy their sons — after having failed at trying to possess them — the successful assertion of their maternal destructive power does in the end represent a kind of possession, even if not a completely satisfactory one.

Part 4, Chapter 72

„Er kam sich so gebrochen und elend vor, als müsse er nun eine Ewigkeit ruhen, schlafen, sich schämen.“
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind

“He felt so broken and miserable, as though he ought to rest, to sleep, and to feel shame, for all eternity.”
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind

As always, money was his poor mother’s potential weapon of choice in her struggle either to compel David to do what she wanted or to destroy him.

She had been begging him to return to the United States, but when he arrived, not only did she ignore him as usual, but neither she nor his stepfather ever asked him whether he had used all his money or whether he needed any.

He either had to find a job as soon as possible or start begging them for money. That, of course, was not an alternative. It was completely out of the question, because he’d learned from past experience that if he accepted any money at all from them, they would very soon begin quietly threatening to withhold that money if he didn’t think as they wanted, act as they wanted, or conform to their world of ideas and expectations. Such a situation would have been intolerable for him.

He saw himself as nothing more than an incompetent college dropout, untrained and incapable of anything except the most menial manual labor, and of course there was no one who would contradict that notion – certainly his mother and father wouldn’t. After all, it was to their advantage for him to have as little self-esteem as possible, for they could manage him more easily that way.

The kind of job he would look for, then, was one that required no intelligence and no skills. The only way he knew of looking for such work was to read the employment ads in the newspaper and go to the state employment office. There, after days of painful searching, days of what seemed to him to be bottomless humiliation — which was only what he deserved, he told himself, for he was clearly a worthless individual — he finally found a job in a plastics factory.

And what a job it was. For eight hours a day what he had to do was shove long plastic rods, over and over again, into a ferociously hot oven that would bake them and fix their strength.

He worked without thinking, like an automaton, without wondering anymore what he was doing or why. The thought that he’d given up Harvard, given up all the bright hopes he’d had for the future, all in an attempt to be good, to lead a moral life, and to do the right thing, and then to be rewarded only with confusion and misery and seemingly unending, pointless physical labor, thinking all about that was unendurable. He knew that if he wasn’t already crazy — and he still didn’t know at that point that that was exactly what the Harvard psychiatrist had said he was — then thinking along those lines would soon make him crazy. He was certain of that. The only alternative was to think of nothing, to erase everything from his mind.

Years later he understood that if anyone ever thought about him at all, that person might wonder why he didn’t do something to correct his situation. The answer might be that he didn’t know what he could do. After what he’d been through at Harvard, and after leaving Harvard, he couldn’t even understand any more what his situation really was.

In a way, he thought that this was the way life was supposed to be. He thought that parents always ignored their children, never gave them any help; he thought that was the way everybody grew up. He thought too that everything was his fault, that he’d made some dreadful mistake — though he didn’t quite know what it was — and now he was being punished for it. He felt utterly helpless and alone, completely worthless and of no use at all, without any right to expect any help, or to think there might somehow be a way of leading a better life. He felt thoroughly confused, without any purpose or hope for the future.

All he really wanted, perhaps, was to die, but he couldn’t even bring himself to end his life.

So each day he went to the plastics factory and each day in that place seemed to him like one more day spent in hell. Very soon he began to feel not only despondent, but physically ill. He seemed to have less and less energy, and as the days went by he started to feel increasingly weak, until he was at the point of collapse. He was running a fever as well, so his stepfather decided there might really be something physically wrong with him and did some tests.

Part 4, Chapter 73

„Wer es erzählt, dem muss daran liegen, dass man sich’s recht vorstelle und mit Schaudern sich ausmale, was es bedeutete….“
–Thomas Mann
Joseph und seine Brüder

“Whoever tells the story has to do it so that one really imagines for himself what it meant, and shudders at it….”
–Thomas Mann
Joseph and His Brothers

He had hepatitis.

Not long before the onset of symptoms he had eaten oysters at the country club his parents belonged to. However, for his mother and stepfather, the infection was proof that he must have been living a life of depravity overseas. They began treating him as more of an outcast than ever, ignoring him to the point where anyone would have thought he really had become invisible, or had vanished from the face of the earth, at least as far as they were concerned.

One afternoon they left the house together and didn’t return for several hours. While they were gone, the local public health nurse came to the house to ask David some questions, as local law required. When she’d left, his parents returned, and his mother asked with wide-eyed innocence, “Did anyone come to the house while we were gone?”

Once more he felt abandoned.

During his illness, he lay in bed at home for several weeks, trying to figure out something to do, some way of surviving.

He could feel nothing. All the pain receptors in his brain seemed overloaded and blocked — for the time being, anyway — by the hurts of the previous few years, and also, perhaps, by his unwillingness or inability to do anything except feel sorry for himself. There seemed to be something in his mind that was paralyzed, something that made all life seem stupid and pointless and kept him from even thinking of doing something more with his life. He was surrounded by the dark, and by a sense of hopelessness.

He didn’t even understand then that it was, among other things, what he’d gone through since leaving Harvard that made him feel the way he did – at least in part. He was also very far from understanding that it was really only his old beliefs – no matter how narrow and crippling these might appear – it was only his beliefs and everything that follows from them, that would ever allow him to find his way out of a situation where he was dangerously close to being overwhelmed by confusion and despair.

In such a state of mind, there was only one thing he could do, or so he thought. He believed he had no choice but to go on acting like a robot, an automaton, a machine, like a dead body animated only by some kind of mechanical energy, some slow response to outside stimuli. When the symptoms of hepatitis disappeared, this was his state of mind as he went about trying to find work again. The job at the plastics factory had long since been filled by someone else.

His mother and stepfather offered no help or advice. On the contrary, they gave him the odd impression — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say his poor mother gave him the odd impression — that she was waiting for him to do something, watching to see if he acted in some particular way that she was expecting, but what that was he could not guess. His mother’s mood, and his stepfather’s, seemed to him eerie, even sinister.

It was as though he were a pigeon in a Skinner box, and they were waiting for him to perform some particular action that they could start reinforcing, so that he would keep performing it over and over again.

He could not for the life of him, though, figure out what in the world they were waiting for him to do.

One day the elder brother of David’s stepfather’s came for a visit from the mental institution where he was usually confined.

Gordon was a hopeless schizophrenic, it was said, whose condition had been slowly deteriorating all his life. He’d spent the last several years in a state asylum.

David’s mother used to bring him to the house from time to time, where she treated him like some heavily sedated, gruesome pet.

Gordon would sit for hours at a time staring out the window or at a television screen, oblivious to what he was seeing, drooling saliva, and wearing a scowling, ugly expression.

He almost never spoke, and even then only when someone spoke directly to him and asked a question of some kind. Whenever he did say anything, the words came from his throat in short bursts, in a barely intelligible series of growling grunts.

Gordon had been institutionalized – as the term is – years earlier. Until then he’d been able — and was allowed — to live independently on a comfortable inheritance. Then, without warning, he suddenly married and left the state, and just as suddenly his modest fortune, which David’s mother and stepfather expected one day to possess, was in danger of being left to his new wife and her children.

David’s mother and stepfather were enraged. As soon as the marriage became known, David’s stepfather went to his lawyer and had Gordon declared mentally incompetent. The marriage was annulled, and Gordon was brought back to Michigan and committed. David’s stepfather had himself appointed Gordon’s legal guardian and acquired total control of Gordon’s assets.

The property and investments that had been left to Gordon could have been used to place him in a comfortable, cheerful, private institution where he might at least have been treated like a human being and given dignified care. David’s poor mother and stepfather, though, would never in their wildest dreams have thought of using Gordon’s money in that way. They made sure they could keep that money for themselves. The most they did for Gordon was to allow him to spend time in their house occasionally, and even that may have been done only for the sake of propriety. They lived, after all, in a very small town.

When Gordon came to my mother and stepfather’s house, he usually spent the night.

One day, not long after David had recovered from hepatitis, on the second day of one of Gordon’s visits, David’s mother had them both seated at the table for lunch. Gordon was eating a sandwich in his sad, clumsy fashion — he seemed to be pushing the food into his mouth rather than really eating it.

All at once David happened to make eye contact with his mother. Her gaze was moving slowly back and forth between Gordon and him, and there was a strange, inward sort of smile on her face.

David felt a sickening chill.

It was then that he understood what was expected of him.

Part 4, Chapter 74

« Ce qui me tourmente, c’est, dans chacun de ces hommes, Mozart assassiné. »
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Terre des hommes

“What torments me is — in each of these people — the sight of Mozart murdered.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Terre des hommes

David was seized with the old suffocating fear he very often felt in the presence of his poor mother. Then came the old realization that he had to run. He had to be free of her and his stepfather, but where could he go?

He had no idea, but at least he could start saving some money. He didn’t even bother finishing lunch that day with Gordon. He got up from the table, left the house, and went downtown to an employment office that hired temporary workers.

After a few weeks alone with his mother and stepfather, he of course had no self-esteem left and no self-confidence left, so he didn’t think he could get anything other than some temporary laboring job — after all, wasn’t he just a college dropout? A dropout from Harvard, all right, but still just a dropout. He was nothing, and worse than nothing, or at least that’s what his mother and stepfather seemed always to be communicating to him in their quiet, insidious way.

At the employment office he was told some men were needed to move chairs into a high school auditorium. The high school, it turned out, was the town’s Catholic high school, which David had attended for a year in a past that now seemed so far away it might as well have happened in another universe.

The job did little to salvage what was left of his self-esteem. There were too many memories materializing all around him. In his mind he saw the principal again, Sister Philomena, in the long black veil and robes that all nuns wore then, her intelligent, sympathetic face framed in white. She and David had been standing under one of the low gothic arches of the school, next to the asphalt parking lot, and she was saying, “This part of the school — this row of columns and arches — has always made me think of Oxford.” She turned to David, her face framed in starched, white linen, and said, “Oxford — there’s no better university in the world.”

That remark, perhaps, was what planted in him the desire to study at Oxford, a desire that would persist for years and even decades, until it was incontrovertibly clear even to someone like David that such a desire was simply part of one more illusion and could never be fulfilled.

On that winter’s day, however, only a few years after the conversation with Sister Philomena, as the long afternoon wore on, as they dragged the chairs from a storage area in the high school and set them up in the auditorium, all of the intellectual and spiritual ideals seemed to blaze up again in my mind, but as though at a great distance, very far from the tawdry misery of the world he was now inhabiting, a world that brought to mind again and again that phrase he’d once read at the end of a novel by de Saint-Exupéry: “Mozart assassiné.”

Mozart assassiné. He saw, as though it were on the other side of an abyss, that country he’d so passionately wanted to inhabit, that place where the world of the mind was real and tangible for him, where he could travel from the Latin poets to Dostoevsky or from Tolstoy to Milton, or wherever he felt like going, exploring any and every region of the intellect.

That was all gone now, and he didn’t know how it had happened. He didn’t even really know what had happened. He still didn’t know that a Harvard psychiatrist had told everyone he was hopelessly insane, perhaps because the psychiatrist couldn’t change the way David thought or the way he saw things. David didn’t yet know that his “hopeless insanity” was the way the psychiatrist had explained away his failure to “cure” David and that he had saved his reputation at David’s expense. As a result now, as far as anyone else was concerned, David was just another piece of garbage, fit only to work as a laborer, with no mind at all that anyone needed to be concerned with. There certainly was no reason for anyone to feel sorry for him, because, after all, crazy people feel no pain.

But he didn’t know any of what was said about him, not at that time anyway. He could only go on struggling in a confused way, trying to give some meaning to his life, a life that everyone else had apparently decided was not worth troubling themselves about, a life that should simply be discarded, by everyone.

Part 4, Chapter 75

Honest men esteem and value nothing so much in this world as a real friend.
Choice of Friends

One of the young men David worked with at the high school was about my own age. He seemed to David to have an unusually gentle nature, but his behavior betrayed a certain wildness as well, and a hard strength. David wanted to get to know him, perhaps because David wanted to know himself, for in many ways he’d begun to possess some of the qualities he saw in the other, rather strange, young man.

They worked together through the long, dull afternoon, and an understanding seemed to grow up between them. Afterwards they went for a beer and sat drinking and talking late into the night.

The other young man’s name was Jim; he was a little taller than David, with thoughtful brown eyes and dark hair. He said he’d been in the navy for four years, and he’d recently been discharged. His education had stopped with high school, but David – as anyone might have predicted – saw in him a powerful, raw, and untamed sort of intelligence. David could see it glowing in his features as they talked.

Jim told David he’d been wandering around for a few months and was now planning to go back to northern Michigan, to Mackinac Island, not far from where he’d grown up. He asked David if he wanted to come along; Jim was sure they could both get jobs there on a construction project he knew about.

David looked out the window of the rundown bar they were sitting in. It was almost Christmas and snowing heavily. He knew it would be even colder and wintrier in the north.

He turned to look at Jim again. All at once David saw him as one of those people who, no matter what they may have gone through in life, always give you the impression of being wide-eyed innocents. Or perhaps it was not so much a matter of innocence, but rather vulnerability. Jim smiled.

“Are you sure we can both get a job up north?” David asked.

“Sure we can. They always need people. There’s a small college on the island. They’re putting up a new science building. I know the guy in charge of construction. I can call him up right now.”

It would be a way out, David thought to himself, an escape.

He didn’t stop to consider what exactly it was that he was trying to escape from. The image of Gordon and his mother, probably never entered his mind at that point. He was too desperate and too filled with anxiety to wonder about such things then. He seems only to have felt that he was in pain and he wanted the pain to stop. He was confused and he wanted the confusion to end. He felt trapped and he wanted to be free. He didn’t know what else to do but run away, because it was the only thing that had ever seemed to help. It seemed sometimes that it was the only thing he’d ever been successful at. Even thinking about running away helped — he’d found that out quite early, when he was still a boy.

Besides, he didn’t know what to do except run. The intellectually constricted world his poor parents lived in was leading to nothing, and it probably would always be that way, far into the future, as far as he could see. Going north, though, would be an escape, a way out.

It had to be.

And what would it lead to?

He had no idea, but he told himself it would surely lead to something. It would be an adventure, anyway, and surely an adventure would be worth something. Hadn’t he learned that at Harvard, even if he hadn’t learned anything else?

Or at least he thought he’d learned it there.

Besides, going north would be a way out of his parents’ house. It would be a way of gaining his freedom from them — he was convinced of that. He was also convinced that going away would free him from all the terrifying influences his mother and stepfather were still able to exert on him, influences he felt were going to destroy him, influences that he did not even know how to articulate.

It was a few days before Christmas, and when he came home that evening he found that his mother and stepfather — or more probably his mother — had stacked a load of presents on his bed. This was something they — or she — had never done before and certainly never did afterwards. Much later he would understand that they were in their own way trying to send him some kind of message of love. It was an emotional, probably impulsive message, and in some respects a crippled message, but it was obvious his poor parents were trying to tell him something at least.

The problem was that what he needed was not presents but understanding of the kind of person he was, the kind of person he was trying to become. He needed confirmation of his abilities and his achievements. He needed recognition from his mother and stepfather that he was a valuable and significant human being, not someone to be ignored every time he walked into the room. He needed encouragement and freedom, not the constant feeling that he was being stifled and manipulated into becoming a limited and even stunted human being.

He needed to feel that his mother and stepfather took an interest in his future, in whether or not he’d go back to Harvard. He needed to feel that if and when he did go back, he’d have a normal amount of financial security, instead of having the feeling they’d managed to communicate to him before — that they could cause the bottom to drop out of everything, without warning, whenever they felt like it, at the slightest pretext.

He needed all of these things, and he needed them with sad desperation, it seemed to him. What he didn’t need was, suddenly, out of nowhere, a stack of presents on his bed.

Of course those presents were a message of love, but he felt crippled, and so that message seemed to him crippled in its expression, as it most certainly was. A crippled love, and its crippled expression.

Part 4, Chapter 76

“Lady Macbeth: …(F)ill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose….”

Of course David could hardly have expected his parents to be anything other than what they were, or to react in any other way than the way they did react. The incident with the presents meant little to him at the time — he was too preoccupied, selfishly, with his own problems and worries and fears about the future — but it was of enormous significance to his mother.

In her mind the incident acquired a significance that would persist for years. Over and over again as time passed, he would be reminded of that evening, in letters and in telephone conversations. She saw it as a rejection, one that she would never let him forget. She couldn’t understand, that it was an instinctive reaction on his part. She’d rejected the person he was and the person he’d started to become at Harvard.

In rejecting the presents, was David being vindictive? Probably. Should he have forgiven her right then, as he did later? Certainly. He reminded himself again and again that she couldn’t help being what she was. She couldn’t help acting the way she did.

When he refused to accept the presents – when he was unable to accept the presents – he thought about all the times his mother and stepfather had refused to give him what he really needed — materially or in any other way.

Whether or not he should have, he couldn’t help but think of the years at Harvard when he’d been desperate for some kind of financial help from them, as they told him of the thousands they were spending on traveling or on richly furnishing their grand new home. He thought about all the times he hardly had enough money to buy books, or those times when — despite his part-time jobs — he had so little money he couldn’t even afford to go out in the evening. He thought about the way his parents seemed to be trying to isolate him and control his social life by withholding money – for often, just when he’d saved a little money to spend socializing with friends in the evening, his mother or stepfather would send him a “bill” that he was expected to pay, or they would inform him that from now on there would be some new expense he would have to bear because they no longer would.

Of course he could have accepted all that, if they’d been poor, if they’d had no money, but when they spent thousands to buy new cars or other personal possessions, or when they gave generously to his younger brother, while David, almost in despair, carefully counted every penny he had to spend — none of that was very easy for him to deal with.

All of his parents’ actions were incomprehensible. Everything they did seemed to represent ways of trying to maintain control of him, or even to destroy him. At the time, though, he refused to accept such ideas, even though these ideas were always present in his mind. He wanted to believe Dr. Bradley when the Harvard psychiatrist seemed to indicate that David was just imagining that his parents had the attitude he described, that they were trying to control his life, or to crush it. David tried to believe Bradley, and wanted to believe him, when the man indicated David was just being paranoid.

Because he blamed his mother and stepfather for depriving him of everything that mattered to him — Harvard, the intellectual life, intelligent and lively friends, a future — leaving him with nothing, the presents stacked on the bed seemed a cheap and even disgusting substitute. Better to accept nothing than to accept such meaningless things. If his mother and stepfather had really wanted to give him something, why hadn’t they given him what he needed when he was at Harvard? Why had they tried to keep him in a state of perpetual dependence on them? Why had they left him in a position where he had to worry about every penny he spent, where he had to take what he — proud as he was — regarded as stupid and humiliating jobs simply in order to survive? All this was made even worse for him, of course, by the fact that his mother and stepfather seemed never to miss an opportunity to remind him they were living in luxury and were showering his brother with everything his brother needed.

Of course even to ask such questions shows how obtuse David really was. If he’d really wanted to realize all the ideals that he thought were so important to him, e would have accepted with joy all the financial difficulties his parents imposed on him, and he would have been kind to them in return, at least from a safe distance, from a place where they could not hurt him.

In later years, of course, he would understand that he couldn’t blame his mother and stepfather for anything. His poor mother in particular was merely a victim of her own neuroses and destructive tendencies. She couldn’t help herself. She simply could not curb her rage and her impulse to destroy David as revenge for his attempts to be independent of her.

Of course he should have tried harder to make people like Dr. Bradley understand what was really happening in that sad dysfunctional family he was a part of. He did the best he could, though. And if that wasn’t good enough, well, he was sorry; it was just too bad. He’d done what he could.

The funny thing – or perhaps the strange thing – was that David trusted Bradley so much that he thought that if Bradley believed he was imagining everything, well, then he must be imagining everything.

Much later, when he could no longer deny that he wasn’t imagining everything, he would have liked to think that his sad, tortured mother may have at least unconsciously felt sorry for what she’d done to him. After all, she’d had no choice but to submit to her dark drives and compulsions. She was helpless before her the impulses that led her toward cruelty and revenge. In the end she could only go on killing and destroying what was left of David, whether she wanted to or not. And she couldn’t feel sorry about it.

So he left the presents scattered across the bed in the room he’d been sleeping in and took the bus north. And to repeat: in the years to come, his mother would never stop reminding him of the way he’d abandoned the Christmas gifts she’d bought and left for him that day. The event seemed to have significance for her that he could never quite comprehend. She’d always given him so little, even when he’d been desperate for her love, her understanding, and her material and emotional help. As a result, he’d had to learn to survive without anything she might have given him, and now he refused to accept from her things that he did not need and did not want and could not use. She seemed to be outraged by that.

He didn’t know that in the mind of woman like his poor, confused mother, such outrage can generate a tremendous desire for revenge. Because he didn’t know that, he was at a total loss. He understood nothing. “Better to run away from such an incomprehensible situation,” he told himself, “than to be dragged down and suffocated by it.”

Part 4, Chapter 77

“At length, after wandering to and fro, they were attracted by the transcendent charms of a vast island, which lay like a gorgeous stomacher dividing the beauteous bosom of the bay….”
–Washington Irving
A History of New York

This new adventure didn’t have a very promising beginning, though.

The trip to northern Michigan began on a cold, gray day at the end of December. Jim and David sat together on the bus, not speaking very much, each of them lost in the world of his own thoughts.

While David seemed to be dealing with his fears and apprehension about what he would find in the north, Jim was perhaps trying to figure out how he would react to life so close to the places he’d lived in when he was growing up.

It was not an easy time for either of them, but at least they were young and could still believe that no matter how difficult things were, everything would surely be better in the future.

When they arrived at Mackinac Island that day, it was already dark. David found himself in a village that was locked into the freezing cold and gloom of the winter weather that stretched all across the northern Great Lakes. A blizzard wind whirled heavy, blinding snowflakes through the air, and beyond the snow, everything around them seemed dark, bleak, and forbidding.

David, at least for the moment, was sustained by the perhaps illusory but certainly indestructible general feeling of hope that he always had at the start of a journey, by the expectation of adventure, and by the sense of friendship he’d established with Jim.

This last element was important to David because of the way he’d been raised. In the context of their dysfunctional family and what might be called its internal politics, David’s poor mother had always obsessively prevented him from being close to anyone but her. She had, for example, made sure he learned to have an attitude of scorn toward his father; she’d even taught David to despise his father, at least for the early part of David’s life. She constantly interfered whenever his father and he did try to communicate. That was the way she’d made certain that any real and lasting communication between him and David was impossible.

The poor woman had done even more, though. Because she’d discouraged and sometimes even prevented David from making friends with anyone his own age, the various houses they lived in as they moved from one place to another were like prisons for him. She never let him leave the house unless he was going to school or going out somewhere with her. After a while, of course, this was a situation he became used to. After a while, he didn’t particularly want to leave the house.

David’s longing for freedom wasn’t completely destroyed, though; it was merely suppressed. It would express itself again years later in the form of all his travels, aimless and otherwise, to Africa, to the Arctic, to Europe and the Middle East, to islands in the Pacific, and to Asia.

At first, life and work on Mackinac Island seemed to be the adventure he’d hoped for, despite — or maybe because of — the dreariness. Sometimes, though, he had to make himself think it was an adventure. Otherwise, he might have seen it for what it really was — a dreary and perhaps even dangerous dead-end, dangerous in the sense that he could have destroyed himself spiritually, intellectually, physically.

Much later, of course, he would wonder again and again about something that seemed quite normal to him at that time. He would wonder about the fact that no one seemed to care at all what happened to him as a boy or young man, either at that point in his life or at other times.

Without a doubt that kind of thinking can be ascribed to a certain self-pity, but later, as the years went by, he would often think to himself that if he’d ever had a son like the young man he was then, one who’d made such an effort to get into Harvard — in spite of everything, in spite of his parents’ ridicule and their attempts to discourage him — a son who was intelligent and, unlike David, possibly even gifted in a way, one who was also ambitious and motivated and disciplined in his habits and thinking, though sometimes emotional to a fault, he would never in a million years have permitted such a son of his to lead the kind of lost life he was leading then. He would have pursued him to the ends of the earth in order to find out what was troubling him. He would at least have talked with him; he would have tried to understand him better.

Maybe it should be emphasized, again, that David thought his situation was normal. He quietly accepted the fact that no one in the world cared about him or cared what happened to him. Why should they? He was of no value to anyone.

Much later, though, he would see that his situation at that time wasn’t normal at all. It would even come to seem inhuman to him. He would, though, continue to remind himself of the reason his mother and stepfather didn’t at least try to help him. To them he was simply damaged goods; he was sick, schizophrenic and therefore wasn’t worth helping. He was a bad investment, a bankrupt account, and the only reasonable thing for them to do was to cut their losses and invest no more time or energy — or above all no more money — in him.

Many years afterwards, as he looked back on that time, he believed there was a providence that allowed such things. He believed that same providence could draw the greatest good from the greatest evil, and that pain was not irredeemable. David knew, certainly, there had been young people who suffered much more than he had from the selfishness and the murderous rages of their elders – he knew too there would probably always be such young people, sad as that might be.

If his mother and stepfather had ceased to care about him, though, except as an object to be manipulated, he was at least convinced that in another dimension – call it a parallel universe or call it heaven or the Catholic doctrine of the saints and the economy of grace – there were others who’d never stopped wanting the best for him.

Of course many will smile or even laugh at such an idea, but it did enable David to survive, at a time when simply surviving was all he could hope for.

Perhaps it should be added that in the case of his mother, it may not be quite true that she completely ceased to care about him. In her own sad, monstrously possessive way, she may have gone on with an ambivalent, twisted sort of caring – now you see it, now you don’t. In her mind there may have always been the thought that if she ignored David long enough and completely enough, he would come back to her and subject himself to her unpredictable whims, her manipulative and subtly domineering behavior, and her depressing general craziness.

That was the one thing he swore to myself he would never do.

No matter where his life might lead, he told himself, he would at least be free of her incomprehensibility, her weirdness, her apparent expectation that he would do whatever she wanted, always, no matter how illogical or senseless it might be.

In his more pessimistic moments of course, he thought his life would lead nowhere, that it would be a complete and utter disaster, but deep within, in the very core of his being, he always knew that ultimately, one way or another, his life would be a success, in the broadest possible meaning of that word.

He always knew he’d accomplish something significant. He also knew, though, that whatever he did or whatever he was would remain unrecognized in the particular dimension of time and space in which he found himself.

And he had to admit that this knowledge too, paradoxically perhaps, always gave him much happiness. Toward the latter part of his life, he understood that this was what he’d always wanted.

Part 4, Chapter 78

“Sologdin had survived the forests of Cherdynsk north of the Urals, and the mines of Vorkuta beyond the Arctic Circle, and two interrogations, the first lasting half a year and the second a year. There had been sleeplessness, exhaustion…. Long ago his name and his future had been trampled into the mud….Yet there was inviolable peace in his soul.”
–Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
The First Circle

The day after he and Jim arrived on Mackinac Island, the only idea that really continued to sustain him was the idea that what he was doing had to be an adventure. There was no other way he could think about it, as he looked around at the cold, snow-bound little island surrounded by the sheets of solid ice that covered the Upper Great Lakes.

His mind went back to Africa, as it always did in those days, and to the time he’d spent in Israel, just a few months before coming to Mackinac Island. He compared the warmth of those sunlit lands with what lay around him. He compared the delight of the work he’d done in those places with the labor on the island, labor that soon was no adventure, but nearly intolerable drudgery, outside, where he was almost always wet and freezing.

They worked all day, shoveling dirt, digging trenches for the foundations of college buildings, working with picks and shovels and pneumatic drills.

The work was torture for him at times, and even though he knew that there was really no similarity and that the comparison was absurd and ridiculous, he couldn’t help thinking once in a while about winters in which men had worked under infinitely worse conditions, in Germany during the Third Reich, in Polish concentration camps, in Siberian gulags.

Of course he was doing what he always did – over-exaggerating and over-dramatizing his situation to a degree that was laughable. He even thought he understood in some remote way what the inmates in those places in Germany and Poland and Russia had suffered. He wondered how they’d survived. He wondered how he would survive.

The childishness and sense of self-pity in that kind of thinking is, of course, self-evident and inexcusable.

That kind of thinking, though, in addition to his dreams and illusions of adventure, helped David to survive, as did the friendship with Jim. No matter how fantastic he thought Africa and Israel had been, in those places he’d been essentially alone, or at least it seemed that way to him now. There on Mackinac he was with a friend.

He’d always needed to feel he could devote himself to something or someone. If for the time being he no longer had God or his religion, if he no longer had any kind of intellectually demanding work to become involved in, then at least, he thought, he could devote himself to at least one other human being.

At first, of course, Jim seemed to enjoy the kind of boundless adolescent admiration David directed toward him, especially when they worked together, and they worked together as much as possible, since construction labor was something entirely new for David.

When they weren’t digging trenches for cement foundations, they were tying steel rods for reinforced concrete, or helping to pour the concrete when the steel was ready. Sometimes they would take turns riding the enormous bucket of wet cement that was suspended from a crane. David would travel back and forth through the air, thirty or forty feet over the ground, from the cement mixer to the place where the concrete was to be poured. When the bucket was in position, he pressed his foot down on an iron lever, opening the bottom of the huge container, and the wet cement flowed out.

Whatever he did during those long cold days, he could never let his mind wander back to Harvard. He could never let himself think about what he’d lost. The whole intellectual world that had been the center of his existence to one degree or another, ever since he’d been old enough to think, was gone forever. The sense of loss would have been so tremendous that he really would have gone insane if he’d let himself think about it.

He’d been so convinced when he left Harvard that he was doing the right thing, making the right sacrifice, abandoning everything because he wanted to avoid being drawn into a world where wrong was considered right and where life had no meaning. Now he continued to find that that world was everywhere, and that not only had he not escaped it, but that in the process of trying to run away, he’d lost everything. And for the moment he didn’t even have the consolation of his old beliefs, no idea anymore of eternity or of the God he’d once – long ago, in boyish enthusiasm – aspired to love.

So if he’d allowed himself to think much about the past, he might at that point in his life have gone as insane as Bradley at Harvard had claimed he was, or he might have destroyed himself in despair.

In the evenings and on weekends, Jim and David would go down to the village together. The streets were piled high with snow, and there was almost always more of it coming down. The little wooden buildings, all painted white, were silent and dark, sleeping under thick blankets of frozen white. Almost all of the shops and businesses were closed for the winter, except for Horne’s Bar.

He and Jim used to hang out in Horne’s, drinking beer, talking, and playing pool. The bar was the one bright, warm place they could go to, or at least it was the one place they wanted to go to. It was the only place they could think of where they could find any social life at all, even if it was only with people who might be considered drunks and losers.

And it was a place where David could blot out for a time even the temptation to think.

And what a place it was, and what social life was available there. When he thought about it in later life, he would realize it was in a way what Saint-Exupéry describes at the end of Terre des Hommes, when he foresees what will happen to the child on the train. If David had thought about that image when he was actually on the island, it would probably have represented only another example of his sometimes relentless self-pity. It would also perhaps have represented a wallowing in that weird, romantic sense of adventure he seemed unable to get rid of and that made him see even the tawdriness of Horne’s bar as exotic and exciting.

In his stupidity, though, what else did he really have?

He used to think that it was in such a place that he would find “real life,” or the “real world,” as opposed to what had always seemed to him to be the “artificial” life of Harvard academics. In the bar, the middle-aged drunks standing around the poor table in their red plaid lumberjack shirts, yelling at each other over the sound bawling from the juke box — all that, yes, was real life, he thought.

It had to be.

Part 4, Chapter 79

“Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae….“
De Rerum Natura

“Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.
But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise,
Where we may look down on others as they stumble along,
Vainly searching for the true path of life.”
De Rerum Natura

As time went on, as Jim tired of David’s hero worship, they spent less and less time together. Once in a while they went drinking with some of the odd characters in the town, but Jim began seeing more of a girl he’d met, and David wound up involved with a girl who was part of a circle with more intellectual interests than Jim’s friends had. The girl was an instructor in German at the college on the island.

Much of the social life that Ann and David had was part of a larger group that revolved around a family in which all the members seemed at heart to be philosophers and intellectuals. They all used to spend their evenings drinking and talking, sometimes reading plays.

Once they read “A Man for All Seasons,” and the drama of the story diverted David for a time from his existential grieving, though he was too sunk in despair and self-pity, too confused and disillusioned, to find any consolation in the religious elements of the play, at least not at that time.

David also spent time with one of the island’s policemen and wife, who were about David’s own age. The policeman, Bill, had once been a scuba diver in the Navy, and he still liked diving with friends, whenever and wherever possible. In the winter, this usually meant diving under the ice, since at that time the northern lakes were always frozen over.

They sometimes used to drive across the border into Canada and meet people Bill knew there. David would rent some scuba gear — the others would use scuba gear that they owned themselves — and they would all dive under the freezing surface of a river or a lake. In some small way it seemed to be the sort of adventure David was looking for — swimming around a sunken ship, enveloped by the snug wetsuit and the simple thrill of what he was doing.

So, it was also the intellectual pursuits of his college friends, combined with the adventures with his diving friends, that made the pain of the physical labor and the confusion and all the rest somewhat more bearable.

David also got to know some of the students at the college on the island, and one evening when he was talking to one of them, he said to David, quite suddenly and apropos of nothing, “You know you have to go back to Harvard. What else can you do?”

David never knew why he said that. Perhaps someone at the college who knew we were friends had suggested it to him. Or maybe he spoke out of that clear, incisive insight that intelligent young people always have. Anyway, whatever the reason, the question he asked was one of those questions that can change the course of a life, or trigger a change that has for a long time been in preparation in the unconscious.

He thought to himself, “Yes, of course, what else can I do?”

What other choice did he in fact have? There was no point in staying on Mackinac Island. That would lead nowhere.

And what would Harvard lead to?

He had no idea, of course. But there seemed to be at least a possibility that it might lead somewhere, anywhere, a possibility that was much greater than any that might be realized if he stayed where he was.

Part 4, Chapter 80

„Der innerste Kern jedes Wesens…ist Gottes Kind und ruht ohne Angst im Schoß der Ewigkeit.“
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind

“In essence, every living soul…is a child of God and remains protected by eternity itself, with no reason to fear anything at all.”
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind

Going back to Harvard would not be quite as easy as David had thought it would be, but the long process had begun. Although he didn’t know how he would do it, he knew there was nothing else he could do, and he began to make plans. Staying on Mackinac Island was not leading to anything; returning to his mother and stepfather’s house was a dead end. There was no place left except Harvard.

David telephoned the Dean of Harvard College, without asking himself if someone like that would even bother taking his call, but Dean Johnson had written to him, three years earlier, when David was in Montreal, before he went to the Arctic. Johnson’s letter then had calmly focused on the idea that David should come back to Cambridge. More than that, on the other occasions when David had had any contact with him, Johnson had always seemed friendly, appearing to take a genuine interest in David, without making him feel threatened by that interest, as other people did. Johnson had never seemed to David to be one of those people, like his mother or stepfather or even Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, whose actions, he thought, seemed motivated by a kind of monstrous selfishness that had in the end had the most disastrous impact on his life. Or so he saw it.

When the Dean’s secretary answered the phone, David explained to her who he was and asked if it would be possible to make an appointment to see the Dean the following week. She asked him to hold, and in a moment the Dean himself came on the line. He remembered who David was and responded to him as if he were an old friend. He said he’d be happy to speak with David whenever he came to Cambridge. David said he’d be there in a few days. He wanted to talk to him about returning to Harvard.

The next person he telephoned was Don Rider, his old roommate. David had heard somewhere that Don was still at Harvard, at the medical school now, and that he was living in Cambridge with his wife. David envied him, but he was happy things had turned out so well for Don, and a little surprised too. Don had always seemed to him to be no more or less intelligent than other Harvard students, and he’d always thought you had to be incandescently brilliant to get into one of the graduate or professional schools at Harvard, especially if you’d been there as an undergraduate. Apparently David had a very exaggerated idea of what it took to do advanced studies at Harvard. He supposed it was just another example of the wrong-headed ideas he had about everything. Or who knows, he thought to himself, maybe Don had always been incandescently brilliant, and David was just too stupid to recognize it. He remembered talking to some people once who seemed to think that must have been the case.

Anyway, when David talked to Don on the phone, Don was surprised and excited and said he was glad to hear David was coming back. David could even stay with him and his wife when David came to Cambridge to talk to Dean Johnson.

The next day he got permission to leave his job on the island for a few days, and then he made a reservation on a flight to Boston. The night before he left, Jim and he walked the silent, snow-covered road from the college down to the village, in the darkness of early evening. They didn’t say much to each other at first — they’d been spending so much time in Horne’s Bar since they’d come to the island that they’d reached the point where it was almost impossible to really talk unless they’d had a few beers.

So they went to Horne’s Bar again.

The place was almost empty — it was evening, but still early — and there was no loud laughter yet, no raucous music from the jukebox — just the sound of a couple of droning conversations in the background. Outside, snow was falling through the light of the street lamps that seemed to be fighting against the dark.

They sat in silence for a while, neither of them knowing what to say, neither of them knowing what the future would bring, or whether there would ever be any more evenings like this one in the bar. Neither of them knew if they’d ever even see each other again. The conversation started slowly, in something like spasms, and gradually gained momentum – as they drank more beer.

As always happened when he talked with Jim, David had the odd impression that here was a man of remarkable innate intelligence. He continually asked himself, of course, whether this impression was real or not, and the more it seemed impossible to know for certain, the more preoccupied with the question he became. David sat next to him at the bar, listening to him speak, dazzled by the — at least apparent — brilliance of what he had to say. Every word, every sentence seemed to shine with a kind of wisdom. Jim appeared to David to be someone transformed. He was a young prince freed from an evil spell, at least for a time.

Of course reasonable people will agree that the way David saw Jim was laughable. Surely it was just the beer that made him see his friend the way he did. On the other hand, David thought that if he was creating an image of Jim in his own mind, it may not have been a complete fantasy. It may not have been an illusion at all, at least not as far as David was concerned. He could almost believe that without either of them realizing it, an intelligence, an awareness, was being drawn out of Jim that was latent and hidden and would have forever gone undiscovered – perhaps never existed at all – if Jim had never met anyone capable of perceiving it.

Of all the things about David that will seem stupid to many people, David’s thinking about Jim’s supposed intelligence will perhaps seem the most stupid. And yet he believed it was true. He believed that the intelligence he saw that evening in Jim was all the more strange and elegant for being expressed in simple and even earthy language, in a kind of code.

He knew about codes. How often — many years after he’d left Harvard and forgotten how to express his own ideas with any fluency — how often David had felt that he too couldn’t help speaking in the same kind of code people like Jim used — with people who were never able to understand. He even wrote in that code: how often he’d sat in his silent room and worked on his maimed books and hoped that somewhere sometime there would be someone who could understand.

He knew that person did exist. That was reason enough to go on writing, even in his crippled way.

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