Mittwoch, 7. August 2013

The Eden Express

Having grown up in the '60s, I instinctively decided to like this book when coming across these sentences in the foreword to the 2002 edition: "We truly didn't know that drugs were bad for you. How could we have known for sure that drugs weren't good? For many of us experiencing with drugs was more a matter of covering all the bases in a search for what might be helpful and positive. Getting high or escaping was not the point." That rings so true that I'm astonished that I haven't read, seen or realised that before. Like Vonnegut, I subscribed to R.D. Laing's view that insanity was essentially a sane reaction to an insane society. And, I still think that there is quite something to it. At the same time, however, I find Vonnegut's assertion that "there is nothing good about being mentally ill except that it gave me a strong and undiluted desire to not be mentally ill" thoroughly convincing.

Mark Vonnegut went to Swarthmore, graduated with a B.A. in religion, moved with friends to a remote farm in British Columbia: "It was really Eden, there was no other way to describe it." And then, from out of nowhere, something changed: "I began to wonder if I was hurting the trees and found myself apologizing. Each tree began to take on personality. I began to wonder if any of them liked me. I became completely absorbed in looking at each tree and began to notice that they were ever so slightly luminescent, shining with a soft inner light that played around the branches."

More and more, Mark is acting strangely. There are times when he is scared and shaking, he is going nuts. "Most people assume it must be very painful for me to remember being crazy. It's not true. The fact is, my memories of being crazy give me an almost sensual glee. The crazier I was, the more fun remembering is." No, this is not a plea for craziness for the sentences that follow read: "I don't want to go nuts again, I'd do anything to avoid it. Part of the pleasure I derive from my memories comes from how much I appreciate being sane now ... It's regrets that make painful memories. When I was crazy I did everything just right." It's not least for insights like these that I'm fond of this book.

So how did the people around Mark cope with his craziness? "After a while a reasonable routine for dealing with me was worked out. A twenty-four-hour watch was set, sharp and dangerous objects were put away, and things calmed down a little. There was some talks about hospitals ... a lot of telephoning ... And then along came Warren. Actually we went to see him. Warren was a holy man of sorts who was supposed to drive the evil demons out of me or maybe just talk me down or at least come up with some explanation for what was wrong with me." Warren's "therapy" is a disaster, Mark is worse off than he was before. "Warren himself was hauled off to the nut house a few weeks after I was."

In a nutshell: Mark had lost control of his life. "The simplest way to describe it is that my stress tolerance had been whittled down to nothing in a process that went back far beyond the time when everyone got so interested in the appropriateness of my actions."

The second time at the hospital, Mark learns that he has schizophrenia and that it is probably genetic, biochemical, and curable. At first he's doubtful "that there was any medical problem. It was all politics and philosophy. The hospital bit was just grasping at straws when else failed." He however gradually starts to realise that the problem was indeed biochemical and that proved to be  tremendously helpful (Thorazine was the solution for him), not least because no one was to blame anymore.

In sum: a compelling insider's account of insanity, and valuable help for understanding the sixties.

From the afterword:
The clinical definition of schizophrenia has been changed since the book came out. Today, Mark Vonnegut would be very likely be classified as manic depressive.

Mark Vonnegut
The Eden Express
A Memoir of Insanity
Seven Stories Press, New York 2002

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