Wednesday, January 10, 2018


The boy was in high school.  It was the mid-Sixties and the world had gone crazy.  Assasinations.  Sexual revolution.  Riots.  A good friend hung himself.  The boy had moved down to the basement to escape all the lecturing women and so his Chippewa boyfriend could slip in to spend the night.  Something pushed him over the edge.

With his dead grandfather’s shotgun he blew his guts out, literally.  The noise was louder than he had expected.  He remembers his body reacting, compelling survival, trying to push his intestines back in, trying to crawl up the stairs.  Someone was coming — he hadn’t thought there was anyone home.  His mother went in the ambulance with him.

But she wasn’t the one who spent the night in a chair in the corner of the hospital room, always there when he roused a little bit.

The day before, he had gone to a nearby university campus counselling center for help, but after a long talk the young female chaplain had been unable to grasp the problem.  He told her it was that his father was repeatedly acting out by taking a bottle of whisky and a loose woman to a motel and he wanted to know how to make him stop.  Decades later, when she was a famous counselor and wrote a book, she described his visit.  She said he had his motorcycle helmet under his arm and was thin for a football player.  

The suicide attempt shook her to the core.  She was inexperienced, and was shocked by the reaction of his parents, who were not prayerful but instead intensely angry.    In the book he was disguised and only people who knew him pretty well would recognize him.  It was she who sat in the corner all night.

While the boy had been in surgery, balancing on the lip of the swallowing maw of death, she had sat with the parents to wait, expecting to pray but horrified by their reaction.  The father simply sat and stared.  The mother spilled out a long list of the boy’s wrongdoings, how much trouble he had always been.  The counsellor said, “I was unaware then of the normality of such feelings of fury.”  

Afterwards she returned to visit with him constantly, trying to make up for not preventing the damage.  The young surgeon who had taken him on as a challenge had succeeded in saving him.  But the boy did not stay in touch with the surgeon.  In fact, in the subsequent years the boy stayed so close to the counsellor, that he even lived with her for some periods,  She was married to an older professor and had no children.  After a later divorce she adopted daughters.

In the past, coming to this hospital as a child with his many injuries, the boy had sometimes bolted from the wards, going across the street to a park where there were kids’ swings where he could sit alone until someone came for him or he needed to get warm again.  The image of empty childs' swings persisted through his life work in photography.  This time he was too badly hurt to go to the park.  Hospitals were both his salvation and his prison, and it would be like that all his life.

But things were very much reframed.  He had had a colostomy (later repaired); fistulas had formed that sometimes broke open, releasing embarrassing muck.  Many of the shot pellets remained, wandering, making trouble the rest of his life, preventing MRI examinations because the machines are magnetic and would tear the metal through flesh.  

Once home, his father changed his dressings and taught him to use a baby’s disposable diaper to wind around his belly so it would catch leaks.  He did go back to school, but on his own terms and no one interfered.  They gave him his diploma early, he thought in order to get rid of him, but he had been in classes for advanced high schoolers at the nearby university.  There wasn't much more they could do for him.

Now the Methodist connection that had been miserable in early childhood became the campus Wesleyan Society, which put on dances.  His new chaplain friend was active with the group.  He had been dancing onstage with extra-curricular campus groups, semi-secretly but always scanning the audience to see whether his father might be in the audience.  He never was.  Nor had he attended the plays the boy was in.

Once, a moment of acting had become something more, something mystical.  He was playing Huck to another boy’s Tom Sawyer (or was it the other way around?) and they were standing facing each other, bare-chested and intense.  The other boy said softly, “Don’t hurt me.  Don't hurt me.”  The boy wasn’t sure what was meant, not quite aware how deeply pain was part of his understanding of love or how it made him crave relief from loneliness.

“The Grateful Dead” were hot and the boy became a “Dead head” plotting punk revenge against the narrow, the square, the proud-of-themselves, the hypocritical.  They staged a demonstration at a small fundamentalist church and when the minister railed at them from the pulpit, the boy simply unplugged the mic, feeling that he had castrated a dragon.  This rock band became a powerful movement and he followed the concerts on his motorcycle.  They were surprisingly well organized and marketed, invested in psychedelics and social change.  For the boy, already on heavy meds, it was easy to accept the relief of being out of his mind.  He agreed with the politics.

Blair Jackson, a biographer, cited the drummer Mickey Hart saying, "for many Deadheads, the band was a medium that facilitated experiencing other planes of consciousness and tapping into deep, spiritual wells that were usually the province of organized religion ... [they] got people high whether those people were on drugs or not." 

But the opiods necessary after such extensive surgery became an addiction.  Opiods were not his friend in the long run.  As time went on, maybe while among San Francisco hardcore users, he realized this and faced it.  By this time his father had left the job he had hated so much, enabled by the estate of the car dealer grandfather who died in 1978.  Though his wife refused to move to California, which he would have preferred, they moved to a small Lake Michigan village where he bought a boat to become a salmon fisherman.  

The father agreed to let the boy come there to kick opiods, which he did mostly by running daily.  But also he used weed and LSD which for him proved to be healing, clarifying.

At some point, maybe when his head cleared, he rode his motorcycle to the workshops of Fritz Perls, the famously outrageous but effective psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who worked with groups at Esalen and used a technique in which one person “talked to” whomever or whatever had been problematic in the past.  It meant pretending they were sitting opposite in a chair, then taking on that persona of the Other, explaining. This was an effective way of getting to the root of problems.  If the boy — now a young man — began to go out of control, anxiety building into fear and rage, Perls would send him to run on the beach for a while.

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