THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
21. Broken Taboos
Of all the secrets John had packed in the dry ice of his shame, the one that bone-chilled me most was the act of beating his mother black and blue on his sixteenth birthday. That mutual rape between mother and son broke all taboos, corroding the boundaries between morality, healthy sexuality, and emotional incest. He was also haunted by a story that his mother and grandmother repeatedly threw in his face.
"They said Dad shoved Mother down a staircase when she was three months pregnant with me. He'd decided one baby was enough."
"Mother was the only one who had the intelligence to see through a lot of Dad's posturing," Thom told me. "He couldn't stand that. He needed everyone to take the seat behind him. Mother had too much fire and spunk to do anything but stand up to him. That's why it appeared that his marriage to Elaine was the final success. She knew how to keep him happy by making him feel like the great man. Don't forget, Dad didn't want Mother to continue her singing career after they married. He wanted to cage the bird, and then protested when she turned on him in frustration." The brothers insisted Gwyn was Steinbeck's greatest love. When they met, she was an immensely talented singer and lyricist. Stifled by the marriage, all her unused creativity imploded into depression, alcoholism, and child abuse.
Recently, while combing through Gwyn's archives, I came across an excerpt from an interview that was done shortly before her death, when she had reached a point of equanimity in her sobriety:
"Christmas came, and, like other years, it was party after party. As usual, we followed the same partying pattern through to New Year's eve and everyone around us seemed to be lovers with liquor and feeling no pain.
"John had completely recovered from his trip to Russia where he'd written articles for the New York Herald Tribune. He had begun to become his old restless self again. He became unsettled to the extent that suddenly he decided he did not like New York anymore. 'I want a farm in upstate New York,' he said. So we began a search for a farm. Finally we found one through Burgess Meredith, a great big dairy farm. When we went to look at it, I knew for once in my life I was going to say a firm 'no' to John. I could imagine myself stuck there for the rest of my life. John was always trying to push me away to some corner where there would not be any other soul around. He never realized it, but he was a very jealous man.
"I love the country, but was not prepared to be put away in it. When I climbed back in the real-estate agent's car, I simply said 'I will not move there.' I did not speak to him until we arrived home. It all boiled down to the fact that I'd had it, I was tired of being torn up and dismantled, mentally and physically.
"As we entered 1948, I began to turn away from John. It seemed as if a climax had been building up for years and suddenly I realized it. He was taking aphrodisiacs; he would get drunk and take these pills and then wanted to plunge into his conjugal rights. It is common knowledge that a man who had a little too much to drink will not be exactly at his best when it comes to making love.
"Our relationship as husband and wife continued, but I knew that unless there were some drastic changes in John's attitude toward me, it could not last. He was hardly ever home and when he was he worked in his nest or would say little to me and the children. Always, always there was no reason for his behavior. Only John knew why.
"But I still loved him.
"I got up in the middle of the night at Easter and blew out several eggs and painted them for the children, and for John. He was thrilled to death when I gave them to him the next morning. But moments like that were rare. His attitude, generally, toward me was cold. Like any father he spent moments playing with his children, but rarely Johnny; it was always Thom.
"That summer, his restlessness grew. He was working on the film script for Viva Zapata! and had several things running in his mind. He hardly had time for his sons. He was always preoccupied with something or going somewhere and I never knew where. I did know that he was drinking more than was good for him. I became so unhappy as a woman as I lived what had become a deadly routine with my children. At least I had two sons whom I loved so much. Johnny had chicken pox which John did not care about and as usual, he left it up to me to take care of the matter.
"Sometimes during that summer, we would be out socially and he would erupt into screams and yells against me and I would break down and cry and go home alone. When he returned home, he would say as if nothing had happened, 'Why did you leave the party?'
"Then he decided he could not stand the children's nurse, Miss Diehl, or "Platterfoot," as he called her. Nor could he stand the children or anybody else. He left our house at 175 East Seventy-eighth Street and took a suite at the old Bedford Hotel. He had another 'nest.' He took all his notes on Zapata with him and said to me 'I think I'm going to write a history of my family.' That of course became the forerunner for his East of Eden.
"John's hate for Miss Diehl could only have one ending. She had to go. It was actually a mutual parting of the ways. And when she left, she came to me and placed the key to the house across her hand and said, in soft tones, 'I hope no one ever treats me again in my life as John has.' John refused to write her letters of recommendation, but I did.
"We found a new nurse, Kathy Gunther. She was a very nice, efficient girl. She came at a time when life for me had moved into an unbearable state. As much as I loved John -- and I did, very much -- I knew 1 could not live with him anymore. It was just impossible.
"And then, one night as we danced together, I quietly told him, 'I want a divorce.' He thought I was joking, but found out that I was not. He tried hard to stop me, but it was no use.
"I went to Reno in September 1948 with Kathy Gunther and my two sons, and divorced John on the grounds of incompatibility. John went off to Mexico."
After the divorce, the brothers would wake up to various states of horror, bloody shards of revelry gone wrong. They often found their mother passed out in her nightgown exposing body parts that crossed the boundaries of decency. One fight with a boyfriend was so violent that John interceded with a loaded gun. This was the weather system in that posh Manhattan brownstone. It scarred the souls of both boys with a wound that could only calcify, never heal. An oil portrait of a disturbed, four-year-old Master John Steinbeck, looking like a dog that's been shot over too many times, hangs in our living room. By the time the brothers returned home from school, the walls were cleaned, spilled drinks removed, and the slashed Picassos replaced by lesser artists, because the money was running out, but Mother's denial could not mask the stench of depravity. I recoiled in horror as Johnny told me he received frequent midnight visits from his mother's drunken girlfriends, stumbling into his bedroom to fondle him.
"Like all sexually abused males, I thought I had a good thing going. You don't feel you're being manipulated. You think, 'God, this is great: They're doing what you want them to do."
Rinpoche urged Johnny to make peace with his mother before her death. He and Thom invited her to Boulder where she lived with them until she suffered a fatal asthma attack at the age of fifty-six.
"She didn't die drunk," John told me. "Toward the end she only got very drunk once a month. We had a rapprochement. I didn't get in her face about the past, but she was sober enough to know how bad things had been. By that time, I was drinking heavily and I was worried about myself. I'd talk to her about it, alcoholic to alcoholic. We could be frank with each other about alcoholic breakdown.
"When she was into her drunken Marine mouth, she'd call us names and we became a hallucination of him. She'd scream that Thom was just like Dad. But then again, when Dad was drunk, we became a hallucination of her and he'd say we were just like her. It was like being caught in a crossfire. The character assassination was directed at us, rather than the other parent. 'You live with the bitch. Don't you know better than to be just like her? But you are, you're just like her.'"
John's therapist, Mark Bornstein, encouraged him to talk freely about the buried feelings. After John's death, Mark and I listened to the tapes of those sessions.
"Why didn't you go to your father for protection after you beat your mother?"
''I'd already given up thinking he would protect me from her insanity. He was into his Great Writer Bubble, so it wasn't like having a dad around, but instead having the Great Writer present. By the age of thirteen, I realized my father was an asshole and this created a conflict. When you read things like The Red Pony, you think this guy really understands kids, their dream world, their fantasies, and what it's like to be a child. If he knows that much, how can he be such a jerk to Thom and me? So, in a noble, Spartan, stoic way, I formulated this sentence: You can't expect a great writer to be a great father. As the apologist for my family, it worked for me. It made me feel adult, it made me feel reasonable. If someone else challenged or asked a question about his behavior, I could come out with that sentence and I totally bought into it. But now, Michael and Megan expect me to be a certain way, and I have to think about that. From their point of view, I can't just be a great writer and a lousy father. They won't accept that, because Nancy and I have encouraged them to talk about their feelings.
"I had always thought my father was a manic depressive, cranky person. After he died, Thom and I found his stash of speed. Two huge hospital supply bottles with thousands of pills in them. One was three-quarters empty and one was full. He'd been soaring and crashing on amphetamines all along, but this was a missing piece of information when we were growing up. He thought it was artistic to be temperamental, so he indulged his moods. You see this all the time in people who use their moods to verify the fact that they're real, or really important. It taught me to beware of the creative process. Dad would tell Thom and me that we were getting on his nerves. Well, something was -- a huge amphetamine crash. His mouth was always dry, he was peeling his lip, his tongue was raw from rolling it around his teeth all day.
"My father was full of this constant push to make it on our own. He'd put us in situations where he was too chicken to go, like the army. He got Thom reassigned to a fucking helicopter door gunning unit on a whim. He used his influence with his great friend, Lyndon Johnson. He himself drank his way through the Second World War in London during the Italian campaign. Thom was terrified and I'm sure it contributed greatly to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was supposed to be working for Armed Forces Radio and TV and suddenly Dad gets him switched to a door gunner's gig, one of the most dangerous posts in the war. Where was his head at? I think in his darkest subconscious world, he would have loved to have pictures of his dead sons who were killed in the war sitting on a grand piano, to fill out his image. Meanwhile, we were lucky to be alive.
"He wanted sons who could be stevedores and at the same time read Latin and Greek. Who understood all great things but could work on the railroad like hobos out of Tortilla Flat. It was a projection of what he himself wanted to be. Very funky, tough, rough-hewn, masculine men who were great lovers, sensitive, multilingual. and courageous. We tried to be what Dad expected us to be, regardless of our basic natures. I'd say we actually turned out to be those people. But we couldn't understand it. We were constantly threatened by his expectations.
"I speak four languages. I'm a very funky motherfucker, a two-fisted drinker. I spent six years in a shooting war. I've been wounded, scarred. Everything that I've put myself through growing up, and what makes up part of being me, was something he pushed for, so that he could claim it for his own. There weren't proper boundaries between his life and ours. He wanted to live heroically through ours.
"Dad had a real dilemma, which I think is interesting not just for him, but for fathers and sons and parents in general. This 'famous father' thing is a smoke screen. The real underlying myth is not whether your father was a speed-freak-abusive-alcoholic-famous- son-of-a-bitch. When all that is resolved, what is most significant is how the generations forgive each other. You get your microscope down onto that and it would be like discovering the structure of DNA.
"I found out my father was famous when I was really young. The doorman said, 'Do you know how famous your father is?' and I asked him what famous meant.
'''Well, everybody knows him.'
"I thought that was quite natural because I knew him and everybody I knew did, too. Those kinds of things, for people who don't have famous fathers on the level of press, radio, and film, are very organic to the people who do. It's like growing your fingernails. When people ask, 'What's it like to be the son of a famous person?' you actually have to do this kind of thing where you answer the question in a way that you think it will be helpful for them to understand. You don't have a contrast. If you're born to a famous father, you don't notice.
"I remember the day I realized my father was an asshole. It was out at the house in Sag Harbor. He'd hired a local sixteen-year-old to mow the lawn; a good old wiseass Long Island punk who didn't give a fuck if this guy wrote books or what. My father barked a couple of orders at him which were very similar in tone and quality to what he'd say to my brother and me. The kid just looked at him and said, 'Fuck you.' He threw the gardening tools in the garage where I was standing, mouth agape, and said, 'You know, your father is a real asshole.'
"I sat there in shock and suddenly everything hooked up and I said, 'Jesus, you're right.' It wasn't me, it was him! I saw his feet of clay. He was no longer Jehovah. I remember the summer afternoon so vividly. I was half in and half out of the garage. Dad was striding out of the house toward his workroom, perhaps to work on the carburetor of his outboard motor. When he heard the kid swear at him, he said, 'Get out of here.' Looking back on it, if you know anything about my father and how he was raised, or as any kid with a summer job yourself, these kinds of dramas happen all the time. My father probably remembered what it was like being a kid with a summer job, saying 'Fuck you', too. This kid had seen a lot of assholes and my father had been around a lot of kids that did yard work. For them, it was everyday stuff, but I was young. It was a new world to me.
"I swear my father picked up on my rite of passage, because our relationship was seriously strained from then on. I became special fodder because I was a threat to his caricature of what he wanted people to see. Just my existence was a threat. I never really listened to my father straight again. I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew something wasn't right. I noticed that he'd surround himself with people who adored him or thought of him as being the word of wisdom on all things. He was involved in a literary circle, but he never quite made the Algonquin. He wouldn't hang out around someone like Dorothy Parker and have her check him out. He was not available for penetrating insight. He was very self-conscious. He knew he was a phoney. He was a total bullshit artist on some levels, and often that makes a great writer. But if you don't walk like you talk, it's not a great character trait.
"After serving in Vietnam, I got busted for marijuana in D.C. and hired my own lawyer, who got me acquitted. I had beaten the military by having the trial postponed till after I was out, so I didn't end up in Leavenworth. I got an honorable discharge and Dad's last words to me were, They should have jailed you: Juxtaposed to the closeness that I felt with him in Vietnam, that experience was a mirror of my whole life with him as a little kid.
"Dad was soundly criticized by his peers for his ridiculous saber-rattling routine. He was touring around and got photographed pulling lanyards and 175 mm artillery toward the enemy, or in helicopters with guns. The Writers Guild said, "Come on, even [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko doesn't do that for the Soviets." But being alcoholic and surrounded by totally admiring army men, he did his usual insecure number which started with The Grapes of Wrath. He had a knack for imbuing people with strengths and nobilities and powers that they didn't know they had. In fact, maybe they didn't have them, but they would be so flattered they wouldn't argue. On Long Island, for instance, there'd be some Mafiosi who bought some land up on South Hampton. Dad would drink coffee with them in the morning and say 'Boy, you can really catch fish. I wish I could catch fish like that.' They'd start talking to him, not sensing the bullshit. It was his own way of calming the waters. He was good at keeping people at a distance by flattering them, and it worked well for him.
"Thom and I are convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn't have handled that amount of interaction. So, the book is actually a great novel.
"When he, as 'the Conscience of America,' and his generation realized that the Vietnam War was wrong, his reputation was at stake. He couldn't let go of his belief in the war, and when he finally did, he didn't do it publicly. The M16 he'd been given that had hung over the fireplace ended up in a closet along with the green beret. All those John Wayne symbols melted away and I think being wrong killed him. One thing I've noticed about a certain variety of addicts is that bottom line, they don't like being wrong. It's a threat to their very existence. Dad believed his own press. He was treated like an omniscient philosophical person and he forgot that came from his ability to be humble at one time. It's somewhere in the 'power corrupts' mode. I think that's why he chose the overdose of morphine when he did. He was broken from the Vietnam thing. He didn't want to be alive in a world where he wasn't right.
"He never realized that he'd been an asshole to his family or that he'd messed up as a father. But then, we hadn't messed up enough for him to think he'd messed up. We would in time, but not when he was alive. It was more about him, his reputation, his ego. He was conflicted about us. He didn't delight in our iconoclasm, although he loved the Arthur legend. He knew that the king must die and that he'd be the first motherfucker to get it. We'd topple him first, and that pissed him off."
By 1971 I was living with my own one-year-old child on Morton Street in the West Village in New York. Blake and her mother, Crystal, and I had moved into an apartment leased to journalist Michael Herr's wife, Valerie. My little nuclear family had returned to the United States from what seemed like a lifetime in Vietnam where Blake had been born.
As a witting soldier, then journalist, most of my stay there had been more or less voluntary. However, with others of my kind, I had tried to elude the spectral fear that floated around in that crucible of agony called "Nam," in the soft, warm glow of the opium lamp. It seemed to help to numb the feelings of remorse and pity for myself and missing friends.
Back home in the States, I had begun to drink heavily, and mostly alone at night. The only people I could relate to were people a bit like myself; people with the odd malaise de corps of the literate walking wounded. Many were journalists like Michael Herr, and a lot of us were "living" in New York. Most of my friends were ex-volunteers from agencies like CARE and the Peace Corps.
One night a group of us met at this little one-room apartment in the Village with the arguably perverse intention to celebrate the Vietnamese lunar New Year at Tet, and call another comrade who had just made it out alive to California. He was back from the land of the dreaming dead after ending his opium habit and perking up in Hong Kong. With one of those little suction-cup things I decided to tape the call for everyone's entertainment.
All things considered, it should have been a loving night of grace and gratitude that we were all reasonably whole and well. The problem was that I wasn't. Not long after everyone's arrival I began to celebrate our special togetherness with a half-gallon of cheap scotch. Soon things began to turn to the inappropriate, and then downright ugly. I remember referring to my dear friend Scott's Chinese girlfriend with some skewered and out of character racist/sexist twist, as if she would be amused and amazed at the cavalier power of my raw expressionism. That was just the beginning.
The technology had changed since my mother's day. The phone call was a disaster of filthy, rambling interjection by me. Afterwards, for some strange reason I put a fresh cassette in the slot. The ensuing two hours of madness went on tape and were waiting for me like a mugger the next morning when I woke up abruptly at dawn from a blackout. I gazed at the infernal machine with what had become an increasingly familiar sense of dis- ease.
Timidly, putting in the earplug, I began to listen to myself and my world go insane. I heard my friends excuse themselves to Crystal and leave under the hostile fire and unprovoked ground assault of my surging abuse. I heard my child begin to cry and go mute when I yelled at her to shut up. I heard myself storm out of the apartment toward a neighborhood bar, only to come right back screaming at the top of my lungs from the street for the keys that I had forgotten. I heard the scuffle on the stairs with the landlord who was protesting about the hour and constant yelling in my apartment. I heard me curse and threaten his life as I nearly pushed him over the banister. I heard my family shift around in their silent fear of my increasing violence. But most of all, I heard my mother, and then, turning off the tape, I heard my own tears.
That cold morning I was dreadfully and irrefutably awakened to the family disease of alcoholism. The experience did nothing to reform me. Indeed, it made further drinking seem the only straightforward escape from the depression of this terrible inheritance. Though I knew that I had not invented the disorder and neither had my parents, and though it took me almost another eighteen years of struggle to come to grips with my "unique" personal expression of this most ancient lifestyle sickness, it was on that morning that I realized I was enmeshed in something far more powerful than just myself.
After leaving Crystal, I traveled back to Asia again, this time motorcyling from southern India to Nepal. I spent two months in a Thai jail, having taken the rap for a woman who transported a small amount of heroine over the Thai-Malaysian border. When I returned to the States, I decided to spend some time with Rinpoche in Boulder.
In 1981, I was drinking with my friend Ken Kesey at the Boulderado. I don't remember what we were talking about. Indeed I don't remember a great deal of that period of my life. But one thing did register. As I slipped deeper and deeper into stupor, Ken brought me up short and said, "What the hell's wrong with you, man? Your dad must have been a real jerk. My children are the sons of a famous father, and they're nothing like you. John, you better start looking squarely at some stuff and get your shit together or you're going to end up dead meat like Burrough's kid."
In truth, I inherited two life-threatening diseases from my parents. Hemochromatosis filled me to overflowing with iron. But it was the other one which was cunning, baffling, and the most powerful, the one that could speak in tongues of reason or comfort, that held my spirit for ransom. It took me multiple relapses as an extremely "low-bottom" addict and a lot of enlightened care from veterans of dependency to get me into a condition where I had the clarity of mind to be able to receive the help of other alcoholics and addicts.
Despite my lifelong dedication to spiritual pursuits, intellect blocked the road to surrender. But fortunately, just like they say, when I truly accepted my powerlessness over my disease, the drama was over, and I could begin to understand the source of some of the behaviors that had taken over my life apart from the fact that I am just a plain old alcoholic-drug addict.
I was once asked
to write some words on the occasion of the reissuance
of William Burroughs Jr.'s book Speed. It's a bit awkward. I was not an
friend of his, in the sense that I've never been to Palm Beach, Florida.
my arms mostly in Asia and first met Billy in Boulder, Colorado, in
1976. By this time we were both beginning the completion of our advanced course
in alcoholism, and first-stage cirrhosis. Thom had met him the year
in the same town on a painful car ride one night he had told me about
Like some others of the generation, Billy was driven to look at things as clearly as we could judge clarity at all. Probably things were constantly something. This group of people was not particularly select: to wit, hippies. Some of us suited up for the joust by reading a lot of John Rechy, Last Exits of all kinds, not to mention Bill Senior. As heroic kids by nature with some sense of birthright, we also washed down hours of green-whiskey westerns and sagas about existential gangsters and time travelers. For Billy and others, the flavor of that straight drink was not exactly love and light, respectable as that might be. There are always mountain men and pinnacle men. Junkies are always the latter. Beyond a mere haze, many of us knew that the universe was not so pat a phenomenon. Straight shots had to be created or you'd go bonkers. Truly there was no such thing as a free brunch or even a naked one for that matter.
At this point I have a problem in trying to distinguish for the reader the difference between Billy and any other drugged-out kid. His work and his nonegocentric approach to sharing his often hapless derring-do, is one hint. As I reread his books, and as I remember him, everything was an odd-ball dance of coincidence. I don't mean those flaming quizzical connections perceived by speed freaks and acid heads. There things wear off and become silly morsels, as Billy delights in showing us over and over again. For Billy, warm charnel coincidences kept leaping up, and it was to those little deities that he dedicated his nervous system, body, and his life.
Bill Burroughs Jr. would go through trash cans in strange cities looking for and finding the map of his life. Doubtless he was on to something. Not so coincidently, he and I shared a number of similarities born of a common habit, not the least of which was cirrhosis. Billy died after his body rejected a donated second liver; the seat of some young girl's soul, we thought. His coincidences obviously coincided with hers. As a pursuit, the onslaught of so many beads on a thread exhausted him pretty early. He was like a fagged-out tobacco hand, but he had a nervous sort of languor as he translated things into long and short southern humor that always left you with the feeling that you'd missed something important. In the best of times his fears made him chuckle for its wonderful humanity. He seemed to feel that there were a lot of creative possibilities in panic.
I do not know to what extent Billy was cranked by his own measurement to his father. We never really spoke about it and he probably didn't know. In any case, it was tacitly understood that William Senior had his own death-defying dedication to vision. Thus Billy never experienced the curious liberation of seeing his own father as a fraud. And he was never shunned by Dad for finding writing necessary, if not handy. But things haunted him. Possibly it was the morgue picture Allen Ginsberg allowed him to see: a picture of his mother's bullet-hole third eye oozing its black pineal blood. Perhaps this flooded Billy's emotional pain receptor but I don't think so, lurid though it might be. However, speaking of Mom, Billy had a few strikes against him to be sure. He had tried to grow his fetal brain cells in a swirl of Benzedrine-eucalyptus amniotic fluid from her habit during pregnancy of shooting the soakings of nose inhalers. The first liver cell he ever owned was put to indentured servitude even as it tried to mesoderm its way into mere helpfulness. Speed and booze were constant birthday presents when you look at it that way. Still, willing and forgiving as that old liver was, it remembered the world of existence that dares not to exist, and shrank into itself in Bill's twenty-ninth year. Remember, he was in hot pursuit, so he borrowed a sixteen-year-old girl's bile-maker for a few rounds of beer and life. Things got worse.
By now, Billy had a very good nose for when the magic of the world was afoot. At the first whiff, he would search out its cloud-chamber tracks like a bum or a magpie looking for shiny stuff in the street. With his speedy birthright, significance could be found in bent pins when he was on the hunt. With his new liver, most drugs were replaced with powerful anti- rejection steroids and a modicum of postoperative painkillers. He developed a fistula that wouldn't close and with great embarrassment learned the dubious yogic art of shitting out of the middle of his chest. It eventually closed, though only with heroic doses of wacky prednisone. As mortality winked at him, Billy saw and talked to his creator a lot. It could be freaky to be around during one of these tete-a-tetes, but down-to-earth guy that he was, he didn't forget how to whine and make you feel guilty. He certainly made no bones about his love for sympathy.
One last thought for you. The energy that I got from Billy was not an arrangement of tedium or even brilliance particularly. But I say again that there was always this nagging feeling that what he experienced was important for us to be always aware of. For many of us he was too silly, or we were too busy to pay proper attention to the husk that surrounds us all, or to the game that his innocence didn't have enough constitution to describe fully. His compassion was due wholly to what he had seen in his adventure as well as giving a "thanks and tip of the hat" to simple meanness.
I saw him last at a Halloween party. His being looked swollen and sore but his eyes twinkled a "Shucks, who me?"
The mountains and gorges around Boulder, Colorado, are exceedingly beautiful. They surge like a frozen tidal wave and then stop abruptly to project their sharp witness over the broad high plains. There the apparition of millions of migrating buffalo would often wander across my mind. Long ago, it is said that it would take weeks for a single herd to drift through the yellow grassland. In winter, the cobalt blue sky almost shatters the eye and the naked aspens on the mountains stand out like oxidized steel on the rare grey days. But even in winter, when the dry chinook winds blow down from the north, even the deepest snowfall is soon puffed away from the streets of the town like baby powder. To some Vietnam vets the word "chinook," which means "snow eater" in Arapaho, had an unwelcome ring to it as the name of an ungainly and sometimes dangerous troop-carrying helicopter.
Boulder and its environs were actually a magnet for Vietnam vets. Though during the war I heard a great number of GIs swear that they would never go camping or even fishing in the woods again, now others felt forced out to the hinterland. Choked with depression and an overwhelming feeling of strangeness, along with their dogs, maybe a rifle, and some booze, they left the townships in search of higher and less wrenching ground. Sometimes in small groups or all alone, they secluded themselves in the mountains near Boulder, or other less fashionable hamlets all across the Rockies, the Tennessee Mountains, the Appalachians, the Ozarks, or any other range that was as inhospitable as the people they felt they had come home to.
In 1979, after attending a Buddhist seminary, I moved back to Boulder from California to be with Nancy and her two children. Midway through that first summer with my new family, I found myself crossing the street with one of my closest surviving friends from Vietnam. He had come out from Pennsylvania to do some trout fishing and to take a look at the Naropa Institute Poetry Department. The Third Annual Red Zinger International Bicycle Classic of Boulder was in top gear. In the middle of the course, which lay in the middle of our course to the Hotel Boulderado bar, my friend stopped and asked me to answer him yes or no -- did I think Vietnam had fucked us up? Since John Balaban was an English teacher, there were a number of other ways that he could have framed this question. For that matter, we were both men of many words and sophisticated shields. If for no other reason than that, I said yes and hurried on before we were run over by the Austrian racing team cornering Spruce Street onto Thirteenth in front of the hotel.
Balaban was so determined to pursue this point that my customary glibness was useless and there wasn't any other available cover in the bar beyond the ordering of stiff drinks. When we went to sit down, John asked his question again. Again, I said yes and surprised, I felt a kind of lightness.
It had been eight years or so since John and I had returned from Vietnam. Portions of our lives had moved forward, but when we met we talked always of the war, about our distant and sometimes dead friends, and about sad and funny memories. John, who is a poet with a bias for life's darkness, had written of these things, describing the leaves of our long calendar in Vietnam as "barbarities, each heaped on the other like stones on a man already stoned to death." Yet the question -- What had this done to us? -- remained unasked. Though we knew better, hoping that a muse might spare our lives, our time in Vietnam had made us squirm into the role of immortal observers.
To new acquaintances we were probably terribly boring: when we got together we must have sounded like two kids coming directly out of an adventure movie saying "remember the part when .... " Now eight years later, somewhat numb even amidst the summer glow of thousands of young and enthusiastic celebrants of herbal tea, bicycle endurance, and beer, the permafrost began to melt and we started at last to acknowledged each other as incomplete and part of the brigades of walking wounded.
With this breath of honesty, we won some comfort from the immediate fact that we had at least stopped redescribing and remembering a bygone Vietnam to ourselves and had begun recounting our lives after to each other. Instead of further layering emotional cysts by encapsulating our experiences in vain and rugged images of the past, we tried to share the chaotic feelings which had begun to surface through our peculiar conduct. John said he found himself crying a lot about nothing in particular. I, on the other hand, had not drawn a clean or sober breath since 1967.
Sometimes when people asked me to tell them about Vietnam, I used one of my fifty stock responses and let them fill in the blanks. Often my audience was not really listening, or just enough to confirm their personal theories about war and life. When I see movies about our war, I find myself mostly avoiding the theme and instead I concentrate on criticizing the special effects; wondering how, after thirty-million-dollar .50 caliber bullets still look like cheap Chinese fireworks, Vietnamese speak like nisei, and Montagnards seem to come from Fiji. Vets spend a lot of time guffawing over such incongruities as the only berth to hide from memory. For Vietnam veterans, a large part of the impact of Platoon was because a skilled technical department robbed us of even that cover.
On the television network I helped build in Vietnam, the favorite programs were Star Trek and Combat; the super fiction of the one and the thick melodrama of the other were actually both so hilariously otherworldly that they were unusually comforting. But even today, a car backfiring or the sound of helicopter rotors in the Los Angeles night are a bitch. And then there are the innumerable rock 'n' roll tunes that snare my limbic brain stem and send me hurtling back in time. My so-called Vietnam brothers mostly agree that the truly horrible things we saw and felt in Vietnam we now remember when we are awake; our nightmares (like running around the living room furniture being chased by VC or something) are just spooky extensions of the fear we learned to look for over our shoulders.
By the time that Balaban and I began to get honest about all of this, people had already begun to speak in terms of the effects in a clinical pigeonhole called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or simply PTSD.
When I was a kid, fatigue and stress were things that happened to metal, especially that of British airliners; now we understand that they also happened to the people in them. These days, what used to be a tough life or even just life is now seen in terms of stress. The odd measure of this is such that either good news or bad could actually kill you.
Despite my initial sneer at the new antiseptic filing for wretchedness, the fact that the Vietnam veteran had now come under the calipers of stress "technology" actually amounted to the first gesture of compassion these forgotten or unwanted men had received up to this point.
When I first heard the psychological term Delayed Stress, I wondered if the "delayed" part referred to our delay in seeing it, or to our unwillingness to throw off the seventies' television stereotype of Vietnam vets as homicidal maniacs. Eventually I discovered that the condition was real and if not dealt with, it was indeed life-threatening as hell. Its effects could range from bleeding gums to cancer to suicide.
Originally, this "stress" business was not really a bandwagon that I wanted to jump on. To be blunt, I found it unmanly. But on encountering my own resistance to acknowledging its existence, my cynicism and hesitation began to fit more and more into the Delayed Stress model. Not all afflicted vets fit under this specific umbrella, while at the same time the list of symptoms is far-ranging enough to splash any number of people who never went to Vietnam; like for instance people who were born in or around New York City, or East L.A., America's answer to Beirut.
Pretending at first to be merely intrigued, I began to look into this affair as a journalist. Just an observer again, you understand. The symptoms that I found on the following list were culled from literature put out by the Disabled American Veterans, though they could apply to victims of natural disasters, prevalent abuse, rape, or any kind of physical or psychological violence. Afflicted vets sometimes like to think that they own this territory as the only ground they ever won, and indeed they won some of it dearly. Certainly I have my favorites:
And my all-time favorite:
Of course, some of these reactions make for basic good sense and others could be attributable to the pervasive midlife crisis in a world seemingly gone mad. There are, however, some startling statistics that exist exclusively within the world of the Vietnam veteran. Figures indicate that the suicide rate among Vietnam vets is 33 percent higher than among the general population. The figure has now climbed. When I say suicide, I don't mean death by "misadventure" like drunk driving. I mean real gun-to-the-head, blow-yourself-away type stuff. In fact, far more vets have killed themselves than were actually killed in the war. That number also grows daily upward of eighty thousand men. For life insurance or other reasons, many returned vets preferred to "kiss" a moving train or bus, or for that matter, let the cops blow them away reaching for a nonexistent gun during a domestic quarrel.
Of those soldiers who were married before going to Vietnam, 38 percent were divorced within six months after returning home. More than 60 percent of the veterans had persistent problems with emotional adjustment, and the number of Vietnam vets hospitalized for alcoholism or drug addiction has gone off the charts. And then there are the veterans who became inmates of penitentiaries; men who under ordinary circumstances would have never found themselves in such big-time trouble. And one cannot forget the homeless vet population, which, if you'll forgive the pun, is legion.
Though these figures have been ineluctably trickling in over the years since Vietnam-era soldiers first began returning to the States, the statistics were first lumped together under the rubric "delayed stress reaction" in June 1977, when they were brought to national attention in testimony given before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs by the psychologist John P. Wilson. (His report, Identity, Ideology, and Crisis: The Vietnam Veteran in Transition, is but a small part of a two-pound book of his findings gathered during the Forgotten Warrior Project on Vietnam Veterans, a study sponsored by the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans organization.) Assuming that Dr. Wilson, a member of the Department of Psychology at Cleveland State University, used a chronologically and demographically sound cross section of veterans way back then, what comes across as most interesting is not only the identification of a serious problem and its symptoms but a description of the events and circumstances of our times that resulted in a delayed something, for approximately half a million GIs.
From the purely psychological point of view, Dr. Wilson's explanations draw heavily on the work of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The basic idea runs as follows: Most cultures permit their soon-to-be adults a psychosocial moratorium at about age sixteen. This unofficial grace period, a sort of DMZ between youth and adulthood, ideally allows for the young a space to prepare for and grow into acceptable adult roles. During the years after Korea, in our society this process used to involve motorcycling across the country or hitchhiking through Europe; or it could be a more intense, inner experience involving religion; or it might be getting into food fights and throwing down a lot of beer in college. At any rate, the young adult presumably begins to receive intimations of what he will do with his life. Only when a coherent identity begins to solidify does society apply the screws. Plastics? The Vietnam era, of course, created a different paradigm -- it drafted and sent us to Vietnam.
It is not that the particular passage of becoming a soldier is so unusual. For some this role might even have been an appropriate career choice. Eighteen-year-olds and younger fought in World War II and in all previous wars in American history. In fact, in 1965 most young people were reflexively, unthinkingly "hawks" like myself. But in Vietnam, for a lot of reasons, whole flocks of hawks turned to doves, and after another group ended up singed, they were birds with no feathers left at all.
Thanks to the likes of writer Philip Caputo, director Oliver Stone, and many others, the story is now well known. In Vietnam, we didn't really know who we were fighting most of the time. In Vietnam, death and the horror of war in the jungle amidst friendly incompetence was hardly what you could call grounding unless you were to end up under it. Most significantly, when the GIs came home, they didn't come home in a group, but one at a time. Our friends back home had all been against the war; our parents and wives dearly wanted to avoid the subject. My brother got a very condensed version of this when he came home to find his wife in bed with the "friend." When it came to alienation, this was really one-stop shopping.
Many vets couldn't explain Vietnam to themselves much less to others and eventually we wouldn't even try. When forced into a corner, vets could easily fight amongst each other about the smallest details. So at this point, getting help or gathering any political strength and unity was a parody of anger, mistrust, and more alienation that spilled over onto itself. By 1979 many of us were walking around in "thirty-nothing" bodies, lost in hesitation, furiously trying to remember who we were going to be.
In the days when a delayed stress reaction was a hard fact of life rather than a medical syndrome, help was where you could find it. During most of the seventies, it was nonprofit organizations like the Disabled American Veterans that helped vets carry the weight of post-Vietnam despair and emptiness. They started funding the seminal research projects, doing the street-level work, and making themselves available to those vets who managed to come in out of the cold. On the other hand, the Veterans Administration, the organization traditionally charged with ministering to the American victims of our wars, was one of the last places Vietnam veterans would go. It was weird. Everything was so tangled up that we forgot whether it was General Hershey who ran the VA or Walter Reed who invented the draft. Wasn't it the VA where you went to die in your own piss?
The VA is a tough outfit, and the then director Max Cleland was in his way the toughest of them all. A triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, he was perceived by many vets as a sort of hair-on-your-chest, you-can-make-it-see-I-did poster child. He was unquestionably an inspiration to some, but also the cause of despair to those with less grievous wounds whose lives now seemed to be in shreds. In fairness to the VA, once money came from Congress to start an "outreach" program, the VA proceeded, finding a number of psychologists who were also Vietnam veterans to man the clinics.
When I first started thinking about all of this after the incident with John Balaban, the sound of these programs made me hugely suspicious. The very word "outreach," the generic term used for most programs dealing with PTSD, reminded me of chieu hoi, which means "open arms" in Vietnamese. This term referred to a surrender program for Viet Cong in which cash would be paid for weapons (the bigger the weapon, the greater the money), and then the enemy soldier would supposedly be rehabilitated away from struggling with his oppressor and be taught a trade. This usually worked out in one of three ways: sometimes the soldiers threw down their arms, shouted "chieu hoi!" and were shot dead in their tracks. Sometimes, the returnees survived and got something to fill their bellies for the first time in years; and at least once, in a master stroke of sublime infiltration, an entire battalion which used to live underground in a vast delta tunnel system, "chieu hoi'ed" and finally took complete political control of the province without firing another shot.
The relevance of these programs, and to American society at large, remains an open question after the Persian Gulf, where Israeli experts predict that there will be at least two psychiatric casualties for every one soldier killed in a high-speed desert land war. And then there is also the personality shredding specter of invisible gas to contend with as well. That kind of war will make Vietnam look like a South Sea cruise on the Love Boat. Nonetheless, Vietnam did bring us to a human understanding that was a good deal more refined than the old notions of "shell shock" that had hung around since Verdun.
The main aspect of the "syndrome" approach that I, as a vet, do like is its definitive separation from mental illness. This is an enlightened attitude that in any case seems to work out well for the two main parties: the VA gets off the hook of having to pay Service Incurred Disability Benefits for emotional wounds, and the veteran doesn't have to worry so much that he is losing his mind.
Best of all, with a perception of Delayed Stress, the vet doesn't come under the tyranny of the mental-health game, a self-perpetuating system of isolation in which the doctor is always right and, to certify you are cured, he must be convinced you are willing to exchange your reality for his. Few psychiatrists will take the time and pains to try to understand the Vietnam veteran's reality, or, indeed, ever could understand it. As I said, vets themselves still rehash it constantly, and they were there.
Speaking personally, a great deal of what did happen as a soldier in Vietnam feels like this. I went to war as a hawk. I hated the idea of people who would plant a bomb in a movie theater and force frightened villagers around like slaves. I was very naive; I had grown up watching Victory at Sea. I believed our bullets always hit their rightful target. When I discovered in dreadful instances that this was hardly ever true, my political identity was severely shaken. I turned against the war. I never claimed to be a pacifist, but this thing was loathsome. The jumble of any common moral relationship with nature was downright unhinging. It was a crazy world inhabited by little children running down the street on fire, and great golden carp idling happily in pools which were burnished over with a beautiful thin rainbow-colored film of napalm. Your buddies would be talking one minute and become steaming lumps of flesh and bone fragment the next. The world of existence, suddenly, violently daring not to exist, is really shocking to a nineteen-year-old. The light slips out of your friend's eye and there is no longer any ground on which to put your feet. This corporeal impermanence is perplexing enough for a Buddhist monk, a professional. The best we could come up with at such times to keep from falling of the edge of the world was the expression "Don't mean a thing; don't mean a goddamned thing." The truth was that late adolescence in the jungle allotted only a few trails through existentialism: floating terror laced with bewilderment and an aching boredom that had ridden on the back of foot soldiers since Carthage.
When we came back to "the world," the response of many of us was to first celebrate and then stupefy our memories. We were like people building an expensive beach house on a cliff. To no avail, we tried to reinvest our experience and fill the hole in our heart with the girl back home, or the family left behind in the theater of normalcy. When we felt shaky about how tenuous and flimsy the whole thing was, to appease insecurity we built yet another porch jutting into thin air. Numb-a-holics, when the whole thing collapsed, many Vietnam vets unconsciously built for themselves a counterculture of obscured fury. Not understanding, even twenty years later an awful lot were still wondering why we spent so much time in bed watching reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Love American Style, spilling cigarette ashes and beer all over what was left of our lives.
There was a time when I thought that victory for the Vietnamese people would be a great leap forward for mankind. Sadly, this has not been the case for anyone in Southeast Asia. By the time of the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, I could almost taste the grief and smell the killing ground, while the Earth Mothers of the antiwar movement obscenely argued with each other over who the Boat People really were. Another conviction melted in my mouth and desperate cynicism tried to keep pace. I realized that I wanted to cry and not have to feel it. Then I wanted to feel it but I didn't know how. Was this my Post Traumatic Delayed Stress reaction? Boy, I hoped so. So great to have a name that I could joke about at least; great to be able to twitch and grimace at children on Halloween while they squeal, "Oh, no -- the Viet vet monster!" Great that it had come out in the open so that people would finally know that it has taken a lot of us a long time to come home. Great that the new psychic amputees of the future will have some basis for being understood.
I spent long years before even really starting the trip, and because I spent so much time with them, my feelings and thoughts have a lot to do with my life with the Vietnamese. They have had about two thousand years of stress and the symptoms have crystallized into folk poetry:
Not since the First World War has there been so much written by soldiers, but it would be nice if still more GIs wrote poetry. Perhaps someday we will be able to retranslate life that has been turned into "stress" back into life. But for a while to come, many men who began to recognize some of the symptoms of delayed stress in themselves soon became catharsis junkies of a sort.
In 1976, my dealing with Vietnam had really just started. Of course I preferred the total anesthetic approach as did many others. If I thought Vietnam had fucked me up, I had an even greater fear of what facing it with lucidity might hold. Upon just a little exposure to the "syndrome," I found out how hard it could kick once one started to let it in. And then, unbeknownst to me, any foraging through my pain without anesthetics was bound to turn up not just one battle, one war, but my whole fucking life.
For the most part, I surrounded myself with intellectual friends and was deeply involved with searching and sifting through my consciousness in the more polite realms of meditation and the fine points of Buddhist theory concerning things like the nature of sense perception and the objects of perception. The meditation practices were best suited for shrine halls, and retreats, but the theory part traveled well in bars. I was becoming more and more facile with this spiritual approach for dealing with feelings, and this kind of transcendental denial was terrifically absorbing and thus perfect for bull-shit drinking. But as I mentioned, the bars of Boulder, though often crammed with Buddhists, were also sometimes home to the descended angels from the Vietnam war. They would periodically come down from the mountains and junkyards of their loneliness to get drunk and angry at strangers. They could get wonderfully malevolent and resentful in a clean, rich college town like Boulder.
Every once in a while I would literally run into one of these guys. At this point my own increasingly aggressive persona always seemed to attract the dangerous and belligerent type, never the shy, scared sort. I had begun to fight a lot in bars, and it always seemed to end up being another vet tumbling through the tables with me. Magnetized, it was like we were cats. There was the combative frozen staring and subtle yowling at each other until there came a sudden burst of attack, neither side knowing what was the cue that set the contact off. Perhaps it was the mirror on the other's face reflecting some mutual dismemberment of the spirit, the ignoble sight of which was unbearable and only worthy of additional destruction. Sometimes, in a "Don't mean a thing" trance, it felt like a shade of a spent friend passing by and whispering through the booze to join it, passing further, beyond the stink of survival.
Because of these fights and their resulting "night wounds," it wasn't very long after being faced down one too many times by an unhappy vet with a loaded revolver, that I looked at my erstwhile research into the old syndrome business and started going to vet groups. At the very least, I would know more about my adversaries. I also talked to my brother about it. We agreed to try to get some help despite our feelings of uniqueness. He was living in Austin, Texas, at the time, and had to drive all the way to Waco to get onto a group. Though not getting into fights, he was having real problems with dark anger and a private humiliation which had turned more torturously inward. But in Waco there wasn't much for him to identify with. Most of the vets around that neck of nowhere were what he termed Texican cannon fodder; sometimes double and triple amputees with little or no education other than some grade school and what they had managed to pick up in the army. He began to feel like he was the "toy" thinker, encouraged by his regular army counselor so that they could have someone to talk to. Thom started to feel that he was making the long Texas drive for this sad group instead of for himself. It was a point that became moot when the VA counselor himself blew his own brains out. Thom felt that these were possibly not the right people to go to for help.
In Boulder, I was more fortunate. For one thing or another, the police with whom I now enjoyed a first-name relationship had often thrown me into a county-funded overnight detox, and there I met up with an ex-Marine named Don Roth. He was among other things, a board-certified alcohol counselor, but more importantly he was a Marine Vietnam vet, recovering alcoholic, and an all-around regular guy from Pennsylvania who had once gone into the woods himself with a rifle, a lot of hooch, and the grim intent to call it a life and hop on the next train to another world. Don Roth was the genuine article, and best of all, he was alive, sober, and laughing in my face.