Friday, December 18, 2009

The Lure of Madness

I've always been fascinated by insanity. My father was a clinical psychologist, so I probably knew more about Freud, Jung and the varieties of psychiatric deviance than the average kid. In my naivete, I romanticized the notion of mental illness.

My favorite characters were people driven mad by love or grief. Hamlet's Ophelia. Emily Bronte's Heathcliff. Margaret in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore". In my mid-teens, I read J.R. Salamanca's amazing novel Lilith (which is still in print though it was originally published in 1960). Lilith is a deeply schizophrenic patient in a private psychiatric clinic. She lives in a lovely but terrifying alternative world of her own creation, with its own laws, rituals, art and culture. The novel is narrated by Lilith's doctor, who gradually becomes obsessed by her beauty, intelligence and apparent lucidity. Her delusions are so compelling and have such coherence that he finds himself wondering whether the woman is truly mad or is in fact some sort of exile as she claims. And is the doctor himself going crazy, as he gets pulled ever deeper into Lilith's universe? I have never, before or since, seen the lure of madness so vividly conveyed.

When I was in my late teens, I became anorexic. I spent several months in the acute ward of a state psychiatric hospital. I was suffering from a sort of limited insanity when it came to food, but was still sufficiently alert to observe and interact with my fellow inmates. I came to realize that the dividing line between sanity and madness is perhaps an illusion. After all, I acted sane, rational, highly intelligent. People thought that I was a member of the staff. That is, they did until someone tried to get me to eat, and I became a weeping, screaming, totally irrational and clearly disturbed patient.

It wasn't just me. I met other brilliant and intriguing people on that ward. There was Spyder, the guy with the lanky hair and tattoos, who created such amazing drawings in art therapy even though he never said a word. There was Lucy with her guitar, mother of two and veteran of four suicide attempts, who taught me songs of love and longing that I still sing today. Who was I to label them crazy?

The germ of Necessary Madness comes from those experiences of mine, those months locked away in an institution. Kyle, one of the heroes of the book, is about the same age as I was back then. He has the power to see the future, but he can't control it. Horrible visions of disasters yet to occur haunt him day and night.

Everyone assumes that Kyle is schizophrenic. He has done his time in the psych ward, his visions blunted but not obliterated by medication. If he's not yet mad, his power is slowly driving him in that direction. He is so desperate that killing himself seems like the only way out.

Rob, the cop who picks Kyle up off the street, knows that Kyle is not psychotic. Rob's own experience has taught him that psychic powers are real, and potentially devastating. Since his telepathic sister's brutal murder, Rob wants nothing to do with "gifted" individuals like Kyle.

Despite Rob's fears, he's irresistibly attracted to the beautiful, tortured young man -- an attraction that is mutual. When a brilliant, sadistic practitioner of the black arts lures Kyle into his clutches, Rob faces the possibility that once again he may lose the person he loves most to the forces of darkness.

Here's an excerpt from the book. Fearful of the consequences of loving Kyle, Rob pretends he doesn't want the younger man. Destroyed by Rob's rejection, Kyle flees into literal madness. He's discovered wandering naked down the middle of an interstate highway, wild and incoherent. Rob rushes to the state hospital (the same one, in fact, where I spent my crazy months) when he gets the news.

Rob took the elevator to the sixth floor of the main building where the acute ward was located. The locked door was solid steel, painted a dull green, with a small window of reinforced glass set in upper half. Through the narrow aperture he would see a long, empty corridor, pierced by open doorways. He rang the buzzer and waited. After a few minutes, a dark-complexioned face peered at him through the window. There was a click and the door swung open.

“Sergeant Murphy?” The woman was sturdy, middle-aged, wearing a beige smock and jeans.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rob flipped open his wallet to display his badge.

“Thanks for coming. I’m Louella Howard, the senior attendant on this shift. I’m the one who called you.”

“I’m really glad that you did. How is Kyle?”

“He’s quiet now, but it took three big guys to get him settled.” Louella Howard walked him down the endless hall. Everything was covered with ceramic tile; green on the walls, grey on the floor. As they passed the doorways, Rob heard voices.

“It wasn’t me!” called a woman from one room. “Tell the judge it wasn’t me. No, no, it wasn’t me. Tell the judge…”

“Aye, aye, aye,” whimpered another female voice. “Ayee! Please. Oh please.”

“Fuck you, shit head,” came from a third voice, this one male. Rob glanced into the room. A balding guy in a stretched T-shirt stared out the barred window. “Fuck you, I said. Did you hear me, shit head?”

Other rooms were ominously silent. A smell of disinfectant hung in the air, mingled with a hint of stale potato chips. Rob shuddered. He hated to think of Kyle, locked in here with these…people.

“I’ve got to sign you in first,” said Louella as they rounded a corner and came to the nurse’s station, a brightly-lit glass box that looked out over a larger room filled with chairs, tables and an enormous television. Two older women sat in front of the screen, one rocking back and forth, muttering to herself, the other occupied picking lint from her skirt. The attendant handed him a clipboard. Rob signed his name and wrote the date.

“That’s Jem,” said Louella, pointing to a hefty black man sitting and reading at a desk on the other side of the glass. “He brought Mr. McLaughlin upstairs. And got a bloody nose to show for it!”

“I’m sorry,” Rob murmured, feeling that somehow this was his fault.

“Ah, don’t worry, happens all the time. But that kid is a lot stronger than he looks.”

“Yes,” Rob replied, remembering his legs tangling with Kyle’s the night before. “He is.”

“Ellen’s on break, but she’ll be back in a few minutes. She’s the shift nurse. Dispenses the meds and so on. Decides when to call the doctor.”

Louella led him farther down the hall to the end. Unlike the other rooms, Kyle’s had a door, which was closed. It swung open when Louella pushed it.

Kyle lay in the centre of the windowless tiled, room, on a hospital bed with the sides raised. He wore loose cotton pants and a johnny, both originally white but washed until they had turned grey. His wrists and his ankles were tied to the rails with woven cloth straps. His bare feet hung off the end of the mattress. Rust-red gashes covered his soles.

Rob rushed to the bedside, the knife of remorse twisting in his gut. Kyle’s face was even paler than usual, his eyelashes sooty black against his cheeks. His brow was furrowed and his full lips twisted into a frown. He did not look peaceful.

“Poor boy’s been in and out of here at least a dozen times in the last two or three years,” commented Louella. “But I’ve never seen him this bad.”

“Can you untie him, at least? I know he’d hate being restrained.”

“I suppose so. He hasn’t moved in a couple of hours.”

The aching in Rob’s chest made it hard for him to breathe. He blinked away the tears pricking at the corners of his eyes and put his hand on Kyle’s bound one. “Kyle,” he murmured. “Kyle, it’s me. Rob. I’m here. I’m sorry for what I said, Kyle. I really didn’t mean it. I was just afraid.”

Kyle’s lips twitched, but he did not wake.

Rob stroked Kyle’s arm, marvelling at the smoothness of his skin. When he looked at the boy, he was overwhelmed—with pity, sorrow, regret, affection, and yes, desire. Under his own confused emotions, he sensed a current of feeling that seemed to flow from Kyle—the darkest loneliness, the deepest fear, such utter hopelessness that he could hardly bear it. “Kyle, baby,” he whispered. “Don’t worry. I’m here.”

“He can’t hear you, sergeant. He’s gone. He’ll be out for five, six hours at least.”

Rob seated himself in the chair beside the bed, never letting go of Kyle’s hand. “That’s okay,” he told the attendant. “I’ll wait.”

As for me, I can hardly wait for December 28th, when the book will finally be available. In writing it, I finally had the chance to exorcise some of my personal demons and explore the true meaning of madness.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Judy from Louisiana, you are my winner for the 17th of December. Please email me your postal address (my email address is available in my post from the 14th of December).


Sweet Vernal Zephyr said...

This novel calls to me. To truly see the world from a different perspective and not simply a manufactured illusion is enticing and threatening. I look forward to reading this title.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe I have ever read a book about insanity. It should be very interesting.

Tamsyn said...

That's a lovely post and excerpt. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks.

Katie Hines said...

This story sounds fascinating. I was in a psych hospital when I was in my early 20s (I'm 52 now), and can relate to much of the excerpt posted here. I'd love to read your book.

Word Actress said...

Lisabet - you continue to beguile me with the amazing lens through which you tell us your stories. I, too, had a bit of a 'break' in my late teens. I started having panic attacks and spent some time with a crazy psychiatrist who would yell at me: 'Marry, Billy (the boy I was dating at the time) and see what your life looks like. Hah!' He always ended sentences with 'Hah!'
God, we both survived it, though, didn't we, and now look how sane we are!!! Love your blog. You've set the bar high. I can't wait to contribute in January...Mary Kennedy Eastham

Jennifer Mathis said...

wow insanity thats a tricky subject but from what I've read so far you'll pull it off .

Estella said...

I have never read a book about insanity. Am looking forward to Necessary Madness.

Judy said...

Necessary Madness sounds like a very interesting book. I don't think I have read anything about insanity myself.

booklover0226 said...

This book is quite different from what I normally read; I look forward in exploring it.

Tracey D

Sherry said...

I have never read a book about insanity before from what I read in the excerpt this sounds really interesting.

s7anna said...

What a strong and intriguing plot. I really really want to read this story. It's going on my immediate buy list.

Happy Holidays
Anna Shah Hoque

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