I've gone back to the Frick since then to look at her and at the two other Vermeers. Vermeers, after all, are hard to come by, and the one in Boston has been stolen. The other two are self-contained paintings. The people in them are looking at each other -- the lady and her maid, the soldier and his sweetheart. Seeing them is peeking at them through a hole in a wall. And the wall is made of light -- that entirely credible yet unreal Vermeer light. Light like this does not exist, but we wish it did. We wish the sun could make us young and beauitful, we wish our clothes could glisten and ripple against our skins, most of all, we wish that everyone we knew could be brightened simply by our looking at them, as are the maid with the letter and the soldier with the hat. The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.
Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can't go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside.
Is this the type of friend or lover I want to have? I ask myself every time I meet someone new. Charming but shallow; good-hearted but a bit conventional; too handsome for his own good; fascinating but probably unreliable; and so forth. I guess I've had my share of unreliables. More than my share? How many would constitute more than my share?
In a strange way we were free. We'd reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: all of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves.
Naked, we needed protection, and the hospital protected us. Of course, the hospital had stripped us naked in the first place—but that just underscored its obligation to shelter us. And the hospital fulfilled its obligation. Somebody in our families had to pay a good deal of money for that: sixty dollars (1967 dollars) a day just for the room; therapy, drugs, and consultations were extra. Ninety days was the usual length of mental-hospital insurance coverage, but ninety days was barely enough to get started on a visit to McLean. My workup alone took ninety days. The price of several of those college educations I didn’t want was spent on my hospitalization.
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy. Most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening?
I got better and Daisy didn't and I can't explain why. Maybe I was just flirting with madness the way I flirted with my teachers and classmates. I wasn't convinced I was crazy, though I feared I was. Some people say that having any conscious opinion on the matter is a mark of sanity, but I'm not sure that's true. I still think about it. I'll always have to think about it.
Suicide is a form of murder—premeditated murder. It isn’t something you do the first time you think of doing it. It takes getting used to. And you need the means, the opportunity, the motive. A successful suicide demands good organization and a cool head, both of which are usually incompatible with the suicidal state of mind.
It’s important to cultivate detachment. One way to do this is to practice imagining yourself dead, or in the process of dying. If there’s a window, you must imagine your body falling out the window. If there’s a knife, you must imagine the knife piercing your skin. If there’s a train coming, you must imagine your torso flattened under its wheels. These exercises are necessary to achieving the proper distance. The motive is paramount. Without a strong motive, you’re sunk. My motives were weak: an American-history paper I didn’t want to write and the question I’d asked months earlier, Why not kill myself? Dead, I wouldn’t have to write the paper. Nor would I have to keep debating the question.
It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.
When she’d been with us a month or so, Lisa Cody got a diagnosis. She was a sociopath too. She was happy, because she wanted to be like Lisa in all things. Lisa was not so happy, because she had been the only sociopath among us. “We are very rare,” she told me once, “and mostly we are men.”
Jerry was willowy and worried. He had one good trick. Now and then, someone with a lot of privileges was allowed to leave the hospital in a taxi. That person would say, “Jerry, call me a cab.” Jerry would say, “You’re a cab.” We loved this.
A representative conversation with Dr. Wick: “Good morning. It has been decided that you were compulsively promiscuous. Would you like to tell me about that?” “No.” This is the best of several bad responses, I’ve decided. “For instance, the attachment to your high school English teacher.” Dr. Wick always uses words like attachment. “Uh?” “Would you like to tell me about that?” “Um. Well. He drove me to New York.” That was when I realized he was interested. He brought along a wonderful vegetarian lunch for me. “But that wasn’t when it was.” “What? When what was?” “When we fucked.” (Flush.) “Go on.” “We went to the Frick. I’d never been there. There was this Vermeer, see, this amazing painting of a girl having a music lesson—I just couldn’t believe how amazing it was—” “So when did you—ah—when was it?” Doesn’t she want to hear about the Vermeer? That’s what I remember. “What?” “The—ah—attachment. How did it start?” “Oh, later, back home.” Suddenly I know what she wants. “I was at his house. We had poetry meetings at his house. And everybody had left, so we were just sitting there on the sofa alone. And he said, ‘Do you want to fuck?’ ” (Flush.) “He used that word?” “Yup.” He didn’t. He kissed me. And he’d kissed me in New York too. But why should I disappoint her? This was called therapy.
Most of us saw our therapists every day. Cynthia didn’t; she had therapy twice a week and shock therapy once a week. And Lisa didn’t go to therapy. She had a therapist, but he used her hour to take a nap. If she was extremely bored, she’d demand to be taken to his office, where she’d find him snoozing in his chair. “Gotcha!” she’d say. Then she’d come back to the ward. The rest of us traipsed off day after day to exhume the past.
The world didn’t stop because we weren’t in it anymore; far from it. Night after night tiny bodies fell to the ground on our TV screen: black people, young people, Vietnamese people, poor people—some dead, some only bashed up for the moment. There were always more of them to replace the fallen and join them the next night. Then came the period when people we knew—not knew personally, but knew of—started falling to the ground: Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. Was that more alarming? Lisa said it was natural. “They gotta kill them,” she explained. “Otherwise it’ll never settle down.”
Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside. Then, depending on how the rest of the family is feeling, that person is kept inside or snatched out, to prove something about the family’s mental health.
Every few months Torrey’s parents flew from Mexico to Boston to harangue her. She was crazy, she had driven them crazy, she was malingering, they couldn’t afford it, and so forth. After they left Torrey would give a report in her tired drawl. “Then Mom said, ‘You made me into an alcoholic,’ and then Dad said, ‘I’m going to see you never get out of this place,’ and then they sort of switched and Mom said, ‘You’re nothing but a junkie,’ and Dad said, ‘I’m not going to pay for you to take it easy in here while we suffer.’ ” “Why do you see them?” Georgina asked. “Oh,” said Torrey. “It’s how they show their love,” said Lisa. Her parents never made contact with her. The nurses agreed with Lisa. They told Torrey she was mature for agreeing to see her parents when she knew they were going to confuse her. Confuse was the nurses’ word for abuse.
Later that day, when Alice was off having a Rorschach, I asked, “How can a person who’s never eaten honey have a family that can afford to send her here?” “Probably really incredibly crazy and interesting, so they let her in for less,” said Georgina.
“A writer,” I said, when my social worker asked me what I planned to do when I got out of the hospital. “I’m going to be a writer.” “That’s a nice hobby, but how are you going to earn a living?” My social worker and I did not like each other. I didn’t like her because she didn’t understand that this was me, and I was going to be a writer; I was not going to type term bills or sell au gratin bowls or do any other stupid things.
Borderline Personality Disorder* An essential feature of this disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. A marked and persistent identity disturbance is almost invariably present. This is often pervasive, and is manifested by uncertainty about several life issues, such as self-image, sexual orientation, long-term goals or career choice, types of friends or lovers to have, and which values to adopt.
Quite often social contrariness and a generally pessimistic outlook are observed. Alternation between dependency and self-assertion is common.
“The person often experiences this instability of self-image as chronic feelings of emptiness or boredom.” My chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom came from the fact that I was living a life based on my incapacities, which were numerous. A partial list follows. I could not and did not want to: ski, play tennis, or go to gym class; attend to any subject in school other than English and biology; write papers on any assigned topics (I wrote poems instead of papers for English; I got F’s); plan to go or apply to college; give any reasonable explanation for these refusals.
My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems.
They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine. I read everything, I wrote constantly, and I had boyfriends by the barrelful. “Why don’t you do the assigned reading?” they’d ask. “Why don’t you write your papers instead of whatever you’re writing—what is that, a short story?” “Why don’t you expend as much energy on your schoolwork as you do on your boyfriends?” By my senior year I didn’t even bother with excuses, let alone explanations. “Where is your term paper?” asked my history teacher. “I didn’t write it. I have nothing to say on that topic.” “You could have picked another topic.” “I have nothing to say on any historical topic.”
One of my teachers told me I was a nihilist. He meant it as an insult but I took it as a compliment.
As far as I could see, life demanded skills I didn’t have.
My classmates were spinning their fantasies for the future: lawyer, ethnobotanist, Buddhist monk (it was a very progressive high school). Even the dumb, uninteresting ones who were there to provide “balance” looked forward to their marriages and their children. I knew I wasn’t going to have any of this because I knew I didn’t want it. But did that mean I would have nothing? I was the first person in the history of the school not to go to college.
I was that one who wore black and—really, I’ve heard it from several people—slept with the English teacher.
And the college business: My parents wanted me to go, I didn’t want to go, and I didn’t go. I got what I wanted. Those who don’t go to college have to get jobs. I agreed with all this. I told myself all this over and over. I even got a job—my job breaking au gratin dishes. But the fact that I couldn’t hold my job was worrisome. I was probably crazy. I’d been skirting the idea of craziness for a year or two; now I was closing in on it.
My family had a lot of characteristics—achievements, ambitions, talents, expectations—that all seemed to be recessive in me.
Light like this does not exist, but we wish it did. We wish the sun could make us young and beautiful, we wish our clothes could glisten and ripple against our skins, most of all, we wish that everyone we knew could be brightened simply by our looking at them.