Friday, December 18, 2015



          In the American wilderness it rains a lot, four days straight in our case. We crossed the Mackinac Bridge, five miles long, in a strong wind. Apparently there's always a strong wind in the Straits there, and trucks follow a guide vehicle at 25 or 30 miles an hour in order not to be blown off the bridge. We were driving to Marquette, on the shores of Lake Superior, to attend Lorraine's granddaughter's graduation from Northern Michigan University. Smart girl. She graduated magna cum laude.

          At the end of the bridge, we turned west on US 2, and drove fifty or sixty miles--distance doesn't seem to matter in the American wilderness--into the heart of the heart of the country, steady drizzle all around us, and fog, and the cedars and bogs that make this place wild. We saw not a single animal coming or going. There were no deer carcasses along the side of the road. We caught occasional glimpses of the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Then we turned north, drove another twenty miles, and turned west again toward Marquette. Here it was truly bleak, a road without a single bend or curve in it for 25 miles, then, after a right turn, more of the same. A few tiny, pathetic communities along its route, then more bogs, more cedars, the bogs brown with winter, the shrubs leafless, the millions upon millions of cedars identical, indistinguishable. In the distance you could see an occasional car approaching in the opposite lane, see it from miles away, and then in the blink of an eye it was past you. If you ran out of gas in the American wilderness you faced probably a thirty-mile walk to a gas station, or would have to depend on the ambiguous kindness of strangers. During our four days, or was it three, we saw not a single police car. But ceaseless drizzle.

          Marquette is a long strip mall, with a small town at the end, on the shore of Lake Superior. I had a drink with someone I know at a sports bar on a side street. We struggled to find words. We attended the graduation ceremonies, where the commencement speaker was a retired colonel. He told us that the American Dream was not dead after all.

          In the Middle West, people are fat. Short women, thick bodies, like Eskimos, for whom fat is a survival technique. Here I think it represents a kind of solace. Food is a pleasure that never fails, when there are no other reliable pleasures. You cannot get a decent newspaper in the American wilderness. The Sunday New York Times could be had at Starbuck's, but it wasn't there when we stopped to buy one. But it didn't matter, because the lighting in American motels is always so dim that you don't have enough light to read by anyway. It was daytime TV, or nothing.

          We made it all the way back to Saginaw in one day, in pouring rain, at 80 miles an hour. There we stayed not in a motel, but in a large old inn, once a mansion, where we were the only guests. Our room was the size of a rather grand New York apartment, perfectly preserved with its original furnishings, its original silks, paintings on the walls, books filling the bookcases, most of them Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and windows you couldn't open. It was difficult to find a restaurant in Saginaw. Saginaw is bleak in an entirely different way from northern Michigan--a downtown abandoned, no people on the streets, old mansions in ruins, America after a nuclear exchange. Another kind of wilderness. Saginaw was bleak and ugly.

          The Upper Peninsula was bleak and oddly beautiful, even in winter. Nick Adams went there to be alone after returning from the devastation of the World War I trenches. Bleakness so relentless has a kind of grandeur to it. It diminishes you with its extent. It seems to come from God. It is not about  you.

Thursday, October 8, 2015



          This is hardly news. But it doesn't make the news very often. Instead we hear mostly about the mass shootings, the power of the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment, regulation and the lack of it, mental illness and guns, the little children who shoot each other, accidentally or not, etc. etc. All that familiar stuff. But the fact of the matter is, we love guns. Love 'em to death. Any culture that has , what is it? 350 million firearms floating around? loves guns. They don't all belong to nutcases. And it has nothing to do with a "well-regulated militia." There's nothing regulated about all these gun owners, who obviously number in the millions. It's ordinary people who love guns, who fantasize about defending their homes, their persons, about cowing the burglars who break in at night, who think guns are a kind of insurance policy against violence. Who think it's about Deadwood, and the guys in the white hats who have an amazing proficiency with pistols fighting it out with their fast draws on that mythical street where these battles happen. The hidden dream life of the American citizen.

          And the culture panders to it relentlessly. Starting with Westerns, then gangster movies, all the way up to space epics, it's always about gunfights, or large explosions filling the screen with fire, the excitement of seeing people killed. And the indifference to it. I don't go to these kinds of movies any more. I find them too disturbing; they don't let me sleep. I know something about guns from firing howitzers during my artillery training, and believe me, they're fun to fire. You can stand directly behind a howitzer, toss off a shell, and watch it ascend to its apogee before losing sight of it. It's beautiful. As a rifleman firing M-1s in training, I reached just below "expert" status, where the challenge is to reach an unnatural level of stillness inside and out to lay down accurate fire. Like anything challenging, it's satisfying to be good at it. It's definitely fun to shoot skeet, where the target is moving clay pigeons, and I've shot animals, too. In my first marriage we had skunks living in a crawl space under our house and I killed them with a .22, six of them, one by one, as they emerged into the yard, then dumped the bodies in the woods. The stink penetrated the house, my business suits, my wife's clothes. I had no regrets, no pangs of conscience about it. My two nephews own guns and one hunts, they're both highly responsible men, and I have no objections to hunting. The one eats what he kills; the other owns a gun for safety, or used to. Hunting and gathering is an ancient human way of staying alive.

          More than that, I write military history for a magazine of the same name, and there's a whole lot of gunfire in military history. So are we going to do away with war because people die, a considerable number of them unarmed civilians? To borrow a line from Hemingway, isn't it pretty to think so.

          It's a savage world. But America is peculiarly savage, more than most other civilized countries, and it's not going to stop until we stop loving guns so much. To do that you have to start with young men. You have to educate the testosterone, admittedly not an easy task. Testosterone is built in. Just as the violence is built into our history. Cortes won Mexico with Toledo steel and horses; we won North America with superior weaponry, too. The West was won with guns, beginning with Massachusetts and Virginia and up and down the East Coast and steadily moving west. The result was a genocide we rarely acknowledge, millions of native peoples wiped from the face of the Earth. That would be another beginning, to acknowledge that primal crime, along with the slavery that politicians wooing the South still try to downplay, to wipe from the history books. This is who we are, this is what we stand for. Good guys against bad guys, as we'd like to believe. That's bullshit. It was murder.

          Another starting place would be training. If you own guns, you should have to go through a regulating process at least as stringent as driving and owning a car, which involves training young people how to use them. Cars are recognized as potentially deadly weapons; so should guns be. In the same way fathers train their sons how to drive, they should be required to teach their sons at least the same level of responsibility in the use of guns. I don't own a gun, but the Army trained me how to handle one, how to take one apart and put it back together again, and how to shoot it. I was good at it and I enjoyed the training. Military people respect guns, respect the dangers involved with them, and are very careful with them.

          We're not going to get guns out of our system. We're not going to be Sweden or Great Britain or France, where gun violence is so small. Recognizing that, maybe we would have a chance of becoming sensible and realistic about the fact and do the obvious necessary things to train people to use them properly, to regulate their use and who uses them, and reduce the level of violence. We need to demystify them. And bring a sense of real human responsibility into our political life, and into American culture.

Monday, September 21, 2015


September 21, 2015: AMERICAN "NATION"

          I'm currently working on a piece for Military History magazine on the Greek war of independence, which took place over the ten years between 1821-1831, and it has inevitably led me to wonder about America now. Not that we face a war for our own independence, but some of the same issues that we cannot resolve, and have never fully resolved, faced the Greeks. As in:

          After 400 years of occupation and control by the Ottoman Empire, Christian Greeks under Muslim Turks, Greek society was hardly a unified thing. Parts of the country were under the effective control of mountain warlords, Greeks, yes, but far more loyal to their own regions than to any idea of a Greek "nation." They no longer had any experience of being a nation. The cities, or better to describe them as large towns, had mixed groups of Greek and Turkish merchants running things, under sometimes nominal, sometimes firm Turkish control. Many of the more learned Greeks served in the Ottoman government; others served the Tsar of Russia. The majority of the country consisted of a peasantry that chafed under Ottoman taxes and arbitrary Ottoman rule; the peasantry nurtured the hatreds necessary for revolution but not the means. The revolution began not in Greece but in Ottoman provinces on the Danube. Eventually they achieved independence, but they never put together a modern countrywide army in the process and received a great deal of outside help, from France, Britain, and Russia in particular, without which they would have failed. As it was two civil wars followed this victory. In the end they needed a king, who was chosen by the great powers that had led them to independence. Was Greece a "nation," then?

          Is America?

          In Imagined Communities, his brilliant book on the subject, Benedict Anderson argues that it takes  common experience, and common beliefs, to make up a nation, and that it also takes shared historical experience over time. We can point to a lot of that: a Revolution, a Civil War; our Constitution, two World Wars, both of which drew on citizens from all over the country and threw them together under extreme pressure in deadly circumstances, which, precisely because of the threats, does create bonds. And there are other things that tend to form a national bond, ceremonies like the Super Bowl, Fourth of July parades, the Oscars, national holidays; shared anxieties, like Red Scares; and so on. But there have always been fault lines in American society, and they persist. Racism is one, and the election of President Obama has turned it into a zombie, back from the dead, not reducing it but intensifying it. There are long-standing ideological differences that go back to the beginning. An intense regionalism persists. And the ideological differences have only become more passionate, less reasoned. We have always debated what America was about, what it meant, what its purpose was. Now the debate has grown hysterical, and the voice of reason has died away. We have had two major political parties from the 1790s on; until the Civil War, they managed to govern, even when they were at odds.

          Now? One has opted out. One has become dangerously unreasonable and backward looking, intent on undoing what cannot be undone--the history of the twentieth century. This has only intensified the deep regional differences in the country. Texas seems to think it wants to secede. The Bible Belt and its acolytes in Washington conducts open warfare on the rights of women and minorities. I don't have to cite chapter and verse; newspapers report this news every day.

          Where does this leave us? On a downward slope toward incoherence and chaos. To be a nation, a people must adhere to its own principles, its historic identity, its common values. But we are a people which increasingly does not know its history, which cannot agree on its values, and thinks of themselves more as Texans, or New Yorkers or Floridians than as Americans, and whose standing armed forces are not composed of a citizenry required to serve their nation but of expendables hired out of the labor pool. Increasingly we look like a banana republic; increasingly we ignore our radical decline in the standings of civilized industrialized countries in relation to educational levels, health care, upward mobility and a host of other measures. Our foreign policy is an embarrassment, our ignorance a tragedy. Are we a "nation"?

          Not yet.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


August 15, 2015: A PALTRY THING

                                                         An aged man is but a paltry thing,
                                                         A ragged coat upon a stick, unless
                                                         Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
                                                         For every tatter in its mortal dress.
Famous lines from Yeats. I'm aged, and I feel that way sometimes. Then why am I so mortally busy? It's been that way this whole summer. I have just last week, or was it this week, finished a book I've been writing off and on since 1997. A book about Rome. A short  book about Rome. (There's a long story about that.)  I have volunteered once more to be the Chairman of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review here in Sag Harbor. An onerous job, requires lots of time. But now I'm planning the next book. I've taken to just writing the damned things. Getting a contract before you write them, the traditional method, is getting harder and harder to do. So what's left of my life is all mapped out for me. Writers don't retire. In cases like mine, they can't. You're driven, and you're broke, too. But I know wealthy writers who keep on working when they don't need to. It gets in the blood. It's what you do, how you live.

          But the village thing is something else. I was the Chairman of this Board when it was founded, helped found it, spent four years as Chairman. This is citizenship. This is the idea that if you live someplace, and care for it, you have a responsibility to get involved, to serve. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." I was talking about this the other evening to a woman, aged like myself, who grew up in a prominent political family, and she felt the same way--it's about serving. You belong, you serve. It's that simple. I've written about this before on this blog, that a national service program of some sort, not necessarily military, should be mandatory for people in their early twenties. It is in other countries. Military service is mandatory in Israel. I did my own military service via ROTC after I graduated from college. Learned a great deal about this country. Service is an obligation. Political involvement is an obligation. That's what citizenship is all about. You don't get the privileges without the obligation. Not if you take it seriously.

          Well, my soapbox. This fall I'll be preparing a second edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals I did for the National Geographic Society some years ago. HBO is doing a series on L & C. It's all in the timing. I feel rushed, even as I write this blog. And I'm old. I'm tired. I need a nap every day. But the challenge of writing if you're born to it never leaves you. It's what Eliot wrote about, the struggle with language, the wanting to know what you actually think about things, and follow through to see what that might mean. So the next book calls, and the next, plus the magazine articles. I can't believe it--torn cartilage in my knee, a slowing brain, iffy hearing: the shadow of the inevitable. A ragged coat indeed. But it's not over 'til it's over, said the immortal Yogi. And it ain't over yet.

Sunday, May 31, 2015


May 31, 2015: The Adoption Tragedy

          Lorraine, my wife, is within a day or two of signing off on the last corrections to her new book, HOLE IN MY HEART, and very soon thereafter Amazon will be publishing it, making it available via Kindle or as a bound book, selling for a price yet to be determined, but probably around $12.00. What a long road it has been--five years, as many versions, always refining it and making it better. I'm proud to have traveled this road with her and done the little I could do to encourage and help her. The book is, as most of my readers will know, about giving up her daughter for adoption, reuniting with her years later, Lorraine's campaign to open adoption records, and her sometimes troubled, sometimes happy relationship with her daughter.

          From very long ago I have known that adoption was an iffy business at best. When I was eleven my cousin Joan came to live with us. She was sixteen and pregnant, and we were her safe haven, my mother hiding her in our small house, taking her out to the doctor only in big loose coats to prevent the neighbors knowing her condition, and Joan with the red eyes, the crying fits, and all the rest involved in such a profound loss as giving a child away entails. She never had a choice. Worse, the father of the child, a boy she loved, was told by his parents to spread the word that Joan had slept with a bunch of other kids as well as him, so how could they be sure--and help pay the costs--that their son was responsible? Joan, and Joan's life, was never the same. Her own mother was an alcoholic, and she used to tell me that my mother was the only real mother she had ever had. But my mother presided over the private adoption, arranged through the family doctor, that took her child from her.

          So I was not shocked or surprised when I met Lorraine and she told me her story--young woman, married man, the mess that is an affair and the sometimes terrible consequences. Shit happens. Happens all the time. People make mistakes, especially when they're young, and sometimes they suffer the consequences the rest of their lives. I already knew from Joan's experience something about the void the loss of a child creates in a woman's life, and while I also knew that adoption was sometimes the only solution for people, I knew it was a desperate solution, a tragic solution.

          That's largely because of the secrecy involved. And here, I realized when I started to think about it, was the crux of it. And the crime of it. According to the laws that dominate adoption in the United States, the mother who gives birth and whom circumstances force to give up her child is never to know what happened to him or her. While the adopted child is never to know who his actual parents are. You don't think this haunts them both? It certainly haunted Lorraine, as her book amply demonstrates. It also haunted her daughter, as her daughter's testimony in the book also amply demonstrates. For the adoptee, it means that she has no natural identity, and no right to it. She or he can never know whether she's of Irish heritage, or English, or Spanish, whether her or his grandmother also had red hair and big ears, who their flair for dancing or mathematics came from. On my mother's side I am descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged at Salem for witchcraft in 1692. On my father's I am entirely Swedish, which accounts for my height, my square head, my quietness, and something of my natural calm. Quite apart from all the writing I've done in my life, my accomplishments, such as they are, and my relationships with other people, these things are a major part of my identity.

          And one's identity is a natural right. Fundamental to being human. What gives a government the right to mess with it? Nothing. The laws on adoption are an aberration, a disgrace, designed only to protect the adoptive parents from the loss of their illusion that they are the real and only parents, and the knowledge that their gain--some other woman's child--is that woman's tragedy. The United States was founded on natural law, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the right to one's own identity is without question part of that heritage. I cannot imagine myself without my own identity. As Lorraine's daughter testifies eloquently in Lorraine's book, adoptees walk around fantasizing about being the children of princesses, or somebody famous, or prostitutes; they make up scenarios; or they improvise identities. But they never really know. The right to know who you are has been taken away before they have any say whatever in the matter. They walk the earth always with this feeling of incompleteness, of missing something essential--who they really are--and always with this question--why was I given up? What's wrong with me?

          Lorraine has spent much of her adult life trying to get the laws changed. She reunited with her daughter, with my encouragement and that of friends, by paying a searcher many years ago. The story she tells in her book is poignant, sad, compelling. I cannot read parts of it without crying; I was there. Other parts make me laugh. It has the feel, the substance, of lived lives, in all their complexity; and it is all true. She and I, like all married couples, have our differences, but they vanish here, in our joint belief that adoption in America needs to be rethought and reconfigured, that a quiet but fundamental injustice has to be corrected. To that end, she has written one hell of a fine book. The kind you'll remember. It should be available in a week or so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


April 15, 2015

          I have a piece out right now in Military History about the American intervention in the Russian Revolution in 1918 and '19, at the end of the First World War. I was thinking about it this morning reading the NYTimes after seeing a letter by someone talking about the weakness of Obama's foreign policy, which seems to be a mantra these days. Actually I rather like Obama's foreign policy. He's cautious. Woodrow Wilson was cautious, too. He's famous for wanting to make the world "safe for democracy," but what he's less famous for is not wanting to interfere with other nations' right to self-determination.

        Obama will be known historically for being realistic about the ability of the United States to affect the course of events internationally, and not wanting to start yet another stupid war in the Middle East. Maybe he's read history, knows that Afghanistan has always been at war with itself, has always resisted or ridden out foreign invasions, from Alexander the Great on, that's its citizens are all armed, that Afghan culture is divided into tribes, and two languages, and that warfare is part of their tradition. Maybe he has read enough to know that Iraq is a made-up country, a creature of the arbitrary "nation making" of the French and British at the end of the First World War, that it has no national history, little national feeling, and is radically and deeply divided on religious and tribal grounds, with the Sunni and Shia sects carrying on, incessantly, their mutual hatreds, which will extend far into the future. Democracy? The Middle East is theocratic, even Israel. The so-called nations there do best--i.e., do not stir up trouble with their neighbors--when under the control of dictators. I know, we don't want to think about that, but the wiser of the American politicians of the '40s and '50s, men like George Kennan or Dean Acheson, understood it well.

          Kennan has to be the guide to the American intervention in Russia in 1918, too. He wrote a two-volume study of it, the second volume of which I've read. It began when in 1917 Russia ended their participation in the war, made a separate peace with Germany, ceding the Germans an enormous amount of territory in the process, and freed up 40 German divisions to go fight in the West. The Allies were desperate to persuade, or force, the new Communist government to reopen the eastern front. The Allies were exhausted by the war, were running out of manpower, and knew the renewed strength on the German side might bring about their defeat. The Americans at the time were in the war but not ready to fight. So Churchill mounted a relentless effort to persuade Wilson to send American troops to both Murmansk and Archangel, in the west, and Vladivostok in the east. Wilson was extremely reluctant to do this. He felt it was up to the Russians to decide their own fate. He delayed for months. But ultimately Churchill got to him, he felt he no longer had a choice, and in the summer of 1918, even as American troops were beginning to make the difference on the Western Front, he sent troops, under British commanders (most of them incompetent), to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.

          Machinations. Churchill wanted to revive the Eastern Front, yes, but he also wanted to do whatever he could to stop Communism while he thought it was possible. Churchill was arrogant, ambitious, aggressive. This was one of his many mistakes, nearly as big as Gallipoli. Wilson had no such intentions, he was only trying to please an ally. We can forgive him for this one, but we cannot forget. George Kennan makes the point that the Russians have certainly never forgotten, that their enmity to the United States begins in Murmansk, and that we lost, by this bungle, any opportunity we might have had to find some reasonable way to develop a mutually tolerant relationship with each other. The intervention itself was a disaster. Russia is huge. No one seemed to remember what happened to Napoleon when he invaded Russia. American soldiers died in the snow and swamps for nothing. When we left in 1919, all we had done is make a permanent enemy.

          Since the piece appeared I've heard from a couple of readers that, hey, if we'd only sent enough troops, we could have killed Communism in the cradle. Hawkish and unwise. Look at the history, check out the circumstances, and anyone can see it wasn't possible. Now we have yet more of the unwise, noisier than ever, trying to kill Obama's effort to reverse 50 years of hatred and distrust between the U. S. and Iran, which stem from equally hawkish and unwise actions on the part of the CIA when they managed to depose Mossadegh.

          We are not as strong as we think we are, and we are definitely not smart. Our nation is in decline by any number of standards. Yet all the hawks can think of is shock and awe. While our President, who seems to know the history, see the limitations, and understand the law of unintended consequences, pulls back from foolish threats and aggressive policies. There's a time for everything, but this is certainly not the time to pull us deeper into the rabbit hole that is the Middle East, and I have no confidence whatsoever that any of the Republican candidates has the wisdom to be cautious.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


March 11, 2015:

          I read a back issue of the New Yorker at Starbuck's yesterday morning and came upon a piece by Michael Pollan called "The Trip Treatment," about using psychedelic drugs to help cancer patients cope with their condition. It is a powerful piece about a powerful drug, psilocybin, the difficulties involved in doing research with it, especially in designing scientific experiments, since the results are all self-reported, and public attitudes about psychedelics. But what affected me the most was remembering my own experiment with a psychedelic, LSD, which I conducted on November 4, 1972, in a little cabin in the western Catskills near a village named Downsville.

          It was indeed an experiment. I had recently received a contract for what would be my first published book, the one I discussed last time in this space, Reality Police, about the mental health system. I knew that LSD was said to mimic a psychotic episode and I wanted to know what that was like before I actually checked myself into a mental hospital. So, with a couple of friends, one of whom had some LSD, we drove to Downsville, borrowed the cabin, and I and the friend who had the LSD took tabs, while the other friend kept tabs on us. It was a misty, cloudy day. The flies in the cabin, just warming up with our arrival, buzzed at the windows. Somebody put some music on. And it began.

          It was intense at first. Perceptions changed quickly. The flies, for example--the buzzing of the flies slowed down, organized itself, and became a kind of music, and the music was, in a way I cannot describe, beautiful. When I breathed, the room breathed with me. While my perceptions slowed down, my train of thought sped up. Long meditations on subjects like the order of things, the question of whether our lives are fated or chosen, and other subjects that seemed to go on for an hour, each of them, had taken, when I looked at my watch, a few minutes at most. In the midst of this I could sense, even caught a glimpse of, other presences in the room, three of them, and realized that each of us had a guardian with us, they floated about two feet off the floor, and they were talking about us among themselves. They made me feel safe, and I was never afraid during this entire experience. And it continued to build. I thought about who I was and how I had gotten there, and came to marvel at the immensely long train of events that creates each one of us, the apparent infinity of accidents that point one forebear down this road rather than that to meet the woman or man he or she will marry, only to create this other forebear, rather than someone else entirely. And how precise this process is, and yet at the same time how fluid, and how fixed fate and loose freedom intermingle and work together and fill the universe with this splendid dance of life.

          We had been listening to baroque music, Bach, Haydn and the like, but I found it too slow and not very interesting, so somebody put on Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitarist, and I realized at once that this was the true music of the gods, and a kind of ecstasy flowed into my mind. It was like wisdom pouring into me. Presuppositions, limits in the mind were melting away. By this time I was lying on the cabin's one bed and beginning to tremble and the friend who had not taken acid came over to see if I was OK, and she said out loud exactly what I was thinking--whatever I'm experiencing, this is how things are; this is the way the world really works. And that sense of being let into the actual, into reality, at its deepest level, has stayed with me ever since, for more than fifty years. She gave me thorazine to bring me down, but it only brought me down partway. I remember walking out of the cabin into the dull November light and looking at the surrounding hills and thinking that there was nothing beyond them, that we had to go out and create the world at every minute, that the universe is empty except we fill it up. That it's all far, far stranger than we think.

          I've never taken acid again, but I would like to have it available if I know I'm dying. The cancer patients they're experimenting with at a few selected hospitals do know they're dying, and they pretty much all say the same thing after they've taken psilocybin. They achieve a level of calm, of acceptance, even of happiness that no one could have predicted. When I read this, I started to cry, very quietly, because this was Starbuck's, but real tears nevertheless. For what, I'm not sure. Myself and my own mortality? Out of compassion for those patients? Because we die without knowing essential things about life and death, and usually in fear? Because I will never get over my mother's Alzheimer's and the seven years she spent in a nursing home, not dying but wasting to nothing? We all seek the peace that passes understanding. So few of us attain it. But I had it for that day, and it has never entirely left me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


February 18, 2015:

          An op-ed piece in today's NYTimes brings to mind once more the eleven days I spent in Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital so many years ago, checking myself in--or being checked in by a friend--in order to find out what it was like to be a mental patient. I was doing research for a book, eventually called Reality Police, on the mental health system and no one at the hospital knew about my deception. They thought I was a real patient. I wasn't. I was taking notes. My friend told the admitting doctor that he had picked me up on the road, let me stay in one of his cabins, and I had smashed a radio with an ax. I had been hearing my separated wife's voice on the radio when it wasn't turned on accusing me of things, and he had brought me in. I just sat there while he told this story and stared at the floor. They gave me a shot of thorazine and put me on a ward where I slept on a bed with sheets, and under them rubber sheets. Everybody else on that ward was a real patient.

          Eleven days. Orderlies checking your mouth after they administered the drugs to make sure you had swallowed them. Once in a while, group therapy, if you were lucky. Bad food--that goes without saying. Other patients who were in some cases weird, like the guy who walked around, never said a word, and picked things up off the floor to put in his mouth (his own turds on one occasion), another guy who, at every meal, obsessively took nine or ten slices of bread, a third who had a cassette recorder, plugged a different tape into it every thirty seconds or so, never listened to a song all the way through. Frantic energy on his part. Add that to the noise from the ward TV set, which went 24 hours a day.

          And there were patients who weren't weird at all, just quiet. You talked to them, listened to their problems, and you saw that they weren't so much crazy, as far as you could make out, but just couldn't manage daily life, literally didn't know how to live. There was a pathetic air about them that was sort of touching. You felt for them. These are the ones who wound up in programs designed to teach them how to manage in the world. The one I remember is the box-making program. Cardboard boxes. Several of them were in this program, and they all knew how demeaning it was. How limited their lives were always going to be. How impossible it would be ever to be proud of themselves. It made them permanently anxious.

          The piece in the Times is by Christine Montross, a psychiatrist, and she writes about the necessity of re-opening the old giant mental hospitals, which is what Hudson River Psychiatric was, because the closing of them in the last quarter of the twentieth century merely substituted one institution for another--hospitals for jails and prisons. At the time I was writing, drugs like Thorazine were suppressing schizophrenic symptoms and making it possible for patients, once they were stabilized, to re-enter the community. The drugs had inspired the movement for community mental health centers to serve as transition facilities. But the money never really became available. The mental hospitals had always been a huge budgetary load on the states, intensified by the powerful unions that represented the people who worked in them. Once relieved of that burden, they breathed a sigh of relief and forgot the mental patients. As for the drugs, they had awful side effects, and lots of patients stopped taking them once they were free of supervision.

          And that's how things stand today. Historically, nobody has ever known what to do with, or about, the severely mentally ill, and that's still true. They are not, as the public supposes, violent, although a few are. Mostly they're just badly damaged, for reasons that remain hidden in brain chemistry, or in deep childhood, or whenever the bad luck intent on doing you in takes root in your soul. Back to the state hospitals? The Supreme Court ruled years ago that you can't confine, against their will, people who have committed no crime  unless they're a danger to themselves and others. The bulk of mental patients aren't a danger to anyone. We can't go back. And because psychiatry doesn't actually have answers, to put people in its charge is not necessarily a good thing. On that subject, you can read my book, if you can find it.

          Ah yes, my book. It never sold out its first printing. I was sued for libel. Defending myself cost me nearly $50,000. The case was ultimately thrown out, but that took nearly eight years. When it was remaindered for forty-nine cents apiece I literally could not afford to buy more than one copy. So much for muckraking. I did wind up on some television shows, but that changed nothing. According to a FB friend who has read my book and had some experience with the mental health system, nothing has changed. With much that is wrong with the world, nothing changes. For so many people, it's a bitter place.

          For my readers, by the way, I have decided to allow comments. For the first time. I can't promise that I'll post them all. Through my wife's blog I've seen how often comments are nasty and/or uninformed. Be interesting to see what, if anything, happens.


Friday, January 2, 2015


January 2, 2015:

          I was at a New Year's Day brunch yesterday and the talk in my corner of the room moved to some recent atrocity, I think the beheadings underway in Syria, which seem particularly gruesome, but I couldn't let it rest there. Since I've been writing so much military history in the last three years, for Military History magazine, as it happens, I've become fairly familiar with atrocities, and a few beheadings no longer strike me as unusual, or even significant, in the larger scheme of things. A story of mine about to go into print in  MHQ, which is Military History Quarterly for short, about the rebellion in the Vendee, an area of France, in 1793, ends with atrocities on a massive scale. The rebellion was an armed protest against the French Revolution, which had disenfranchised this very Catholic, very traditional area's priests, among other things, and when it was crushed it wasn't just crushed. The French army suppressing the rebellion proceeded to do everything it could, under orders from Paris, to wipe out the entire area, killing everyone in it.

          The most conservative estimate is that they killed 250,000 people; other estimates are higher. They trampled children under the hooves of horses; they put priests and other people on rafts in the Loire, stripped them of their clothes, tied them to the rafts, and then sank them. In one town 2,000 people were guillotined. Crops were burned, livestock killed, farms destroyed. They turned the place into a wasteland. In France it is known as the first modern genocide. In the world at large it is not known at all.

          I did a story on Yugoslavia in World War II, where astonishing atrocities were enacted, not just by the Nazis but by Croats against Serbs, Serbs against Muslims, Albanians against just about everybody. People were half buried in pits, from the waist down, and then skinned alive and left to scream; the area would be booby trapped so that anybody coming to their rescue would be blown up. During Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812 the Cossacks would seize stray French soldiers, strip them of their clothes, and then leave them to freeze to death in the empty, shelterless steppes in the middle of December. Holes in the walls of a military hospital on the retreat route were stopped up with frozen body parts. There was no shortage of them. Puritan colonists in King Philip's War in the 1680s committed unspeakable acts against the Indians, burning entire villages with the villagers in them; the Indians did the same back. Range the world, it is everywhere the same. Cruelty, savagery, horror are common, and no one is innocent.

          So we should not expect Americans to be any better. They weren't. They aren't. Much has been made about the exposure of torture by the CIA in its interrogation of suspected terrorists, or of people who might have information about terrorist activity. The editorial pages profess to be shocked. Which only shows what short memories we have. I read a piece recently about lynching in the South during the '20s and '30s. These events were not always, or even often, spontaneous acts of rage and intolerance. Many of them were planned weeks in advance. Black men would be taken from prisons, tortured, and then hanged in front of large crowds, with people serving food on the fringes. A carnival atmosphere. We currently have one of the largest prison populations in the world. Rape and all manner of other horrors are common in this population. Does anyone think American soldiers did not commit atrocities during World War II? Think again. American soldiers waterboarded people in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Myths about American "innocence" or "moral superiority" dissipate in this context.

          I've told people that I always wanted to live in the real world, which turns out to be very difficult to do. Not only is it hard to tell what's "real" in any given situation, it is also the case that most people would rather not know. It's so much more comfortable to cling to the myths. This is what lets the Dick Cheneys of this world thrive, and commit war crimes with impunity. As newspapers fade away, as investigative journalism dies, people like Cheney in positions of power develop a contempt for the public and its unwillingness not only to accept the way things really are, in their view at any rate, but the kind of behavior the way things really are requires in response. In their view, terrorism requires torture. In their view, to quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, "you"--that would be us--"can't handle the truth."

          And we can't, apparently. Americans are not morally superior to the citizens of other countries, and America is not some sort of great good place where everything is the best and for the best and the people are kind and thoughtful. And the fairy godmother leaves quarters for children's baby teeth. To quote Hemingway this time--"isn't it pretty to think so."