The Arkbound Foundation and the Bridging Literary Divides team are delighted to share an extract of the work of the aspiring writer Liam Kirk.
The project of Liam, who was mentored by Kayla Kemhadjian and Michèle Smith, was to write a fictionalised memoir with the working title of Crashing By Design. It is a story of a man who becomes a whistle-blower at work and ends up trapped in the psychiatric system. Here, the protagonist Liam and his American girlfriend go to see their favourite band The Who in concert over four nights. The story is set in London, England:
Maximum R & B – The Who- Live at the Wembley Arena
We are strait-jacketed by our passions as Whomania hits Charing Cross Road. As an exciting development the restaurant is closed due to a sudden affliction of CID: Cook Identification Disorder. We are all a confirmed case of folie à plusieurs: the boss has arranged a stocktake and the auditors are in. The American staff, the boss included, en masse are going to Wembley. To enrich the evening of deliria there will be a meal afterwards arranged by the boss. I am still wearing my suit with a blue patterned tie and the Rock Chick is in a sketchy yellow jacket that she borrowed. There are a couple of Scots waitresses not going to the show, for they cannae see what the fuss is about.
After the show we travel by tube back into town ending up in an Italian restaurant in Soho. It is a private party – an all-nighter – and unlike a British gathering of Who fans there are no Mods; the crowd is composed of a lot of American post-graduates. There is no heavy drinking, just a couple of small bottled beers that act as a muscle relaxant. I sit next to Roger, a tall and rather lean athletic type of a young man. I do not know if he really is called Roger – he just told me to call him that. He is writing a PhD thesis on emotional problems. I am very curious and ask what condition did The Who’s Tommy suffer from. Roger is only too keen to answer as this is his area.
“Tommy with his health crisis of going into a statue like stance is a classic example of a psychogenic seizure. The story of Tommy is fiction. In real life, he would be placed in an institution and experimented upon by those doctors who found him an interesting patient, or be ignored by those who thought he was incurable. Locked in a private world of being deaf, dumb, and blind. The pathology of his madness would never be explored. You can be sure that the medics won’t ask the right questions when searching for clinical features. They cavalierly dismiss the dynamics of the family unit as superficial or trivial. Minor in substance to the medic but all-encompassing to the child. This is the great fault line that runs through modern western practice in treating emotional problems. If I was a regular medic, I could spend a life treating clinically insane schizophrenics who never get better. But don’t judge me by that standard. The child can change. People can and do recover, despite harrowing experiences. As a small boy, Tommy witnesses a murder, then is told by his primary care-givers to not to tell anyone … ever! The shock, the intense stress, combined with parental expectation, and the fear of being punished, resulted in his brain shutting down. This disconnectedness was not a defensive operation to block out the trauma but rather a mechanism to deal with the intense stress. Tommy’s trauma comes later when he is abused sexually by his Uncle Ernie and sadistically by Cousin Kevin. It is quite common in children where high parental expectation induces a form of stress that the child cannot process, and as a release, the child enters into the near-paralysis of a psychogenic non-eplitic seizure. If one blocks out intense stress as an emergency in a catatonic state instead of screaming, then the reaction is tactical. For some, like Tommy, the seizure takes the form of being statue-like. For others, they thrash around on the ground until coming back to normality. The strange thing is the child has no memory of the seizure – while also being unaware of their surroundings. They may say, ‘That’s strange. The radio only played part of a song before jumping halfway into the next song.’ If you have a video recorder the seizure can be caught on tape. This could cause more harm than good. If the child saw themself, this might induce more stress and result in a worsening of the condition. The effect of the stimulation is a lifetime changed and determined by the experience.”
I ask, “What is the cure?”
Roger replies, “Remove the stimulus that is creating the fear. But whether this will effect a complete cure is unclear, for there will still remain an unconscious conflict. The psychiatric professional will assume the mental patient is angry and frightened inside. It’s an honest cliche: If thine eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is a cliche but it has a purpose and is not there to brainwash. If one feels so bad that you want to put out your own eyes, you are in psychogenic terrority. If I was treating Tommy I don’t know what point I would pursue, for it’s in the family. He is an extreme case of a psychogenic seizure, and we have no idea how many real life Tommies there are languishing in the backwaters of mental hospitals around the world. Would their parents give up on them? Would they confess to family secrets in order to help their child? Could the mother take that
level of anecdotes? That suggests an extremist trait, but that word is not serviceable these days, so I withdraw it. If the stress is within the biological family then the child may be better off in a surrogate family. But then, would the blood ties be so strong that the child insisted on being returned to their biological family? I may be an expert but this is beyond my expertise.”
The Rock Chick asks, “What was wrong with Jimmy from Quadrophenia?”
Roger replies, “The quick answer is – he wasn’t quadrophenic.”
“And the long answer is?”
“The problem of living in a culture of rampant drug taking, traumatic violence, and an unsupportive family environment. Jimmy had some sort of psychotic episode triggered by his illicit drug use and environment.”
“So he wasn’t schizophrenic?” I ask.
Roger replies, “If you can accept that there is no such thing as ‘schizophrenia’ then, by the same token, there is no such thing as ‘quadrophenia’. The definition of which is twice the accepted condition of schizophrenia. Or even a nuclear group of schizophrenias. For Jimmy to have four distinct personalities he would be suffering from multiple-personality disorder, which Jimmy did not have. This disorder, if this is not a use of a pejorative term, is associated with severe physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood. As a teenager he does not have a supportive familial environment. In his background there may have been a history of severe beatings from his father. He does not appear to be bullied and had a normal schooling for the time, which today may appear grim. Jimmy appears not to have abnormal psychology. After consuming a mixture of uppers and downers he experiences a psychotic break.”
“What does ‘psychotic break’ mean?” asks the Rock Chick
“Psychotic is just a brain state that anyone can get into,” replies Roger.
“Does it mean the same as ‘psychological break’?” asks the Rock Chick.
“‘Psychological break’, for many, is a more accurate description, especially for those who fail in trying to address emotional issues. ‘Psychotic’ implies a biological impairment and is the term favoured by the professionals.”
“Are you talking about ‘psychotic’ as a perennial problem?” asks the Rock Chick.
“Everyone has this horror of madness or psychosis. For their brain to function they need to release chains around them and go through stuff. I won’t say I recommend it. I take a Laingian view, borrowed, if you like, from ‘The Politics of Experience’. That we live in quite a repressed society, where if people start seriously questioning what is going on in the world, the meaning of life et cetera, they are going to generate rejection, invalidation, isolation. That’s my own experience, anyway. And it’s very difficult to survive emotionally when faced with continual invalidation and rejection. There is a vicious circle of positive feedback – people respond to hostility and invalidation by becoming more paranoid. The ‘baddies’ respond in a more vindictive way, and eventually the whole thing spirals into madness where people’s thoughts can actually break down into a word salad. I’ve seen it. I think that madness can arise from a different understanding of reality that is too threatening to be discussed openly.”
“My mother and father were at war, so they were too busy with each other to bring me up with any resemblance of normality,” comments the Rock Chick in her first statement about the state of her parent’s marriage other than they divorced. “Was Jimmy’s problem, he lacked the words to articulate his internal suffering?”
“Jimmy was a drug abuser, and he paid the price. I see human expression in terms of a conflict between a person’s internal language, their internal thoughts, and what they were socially allowed to express, their external language. There was a continual struggle going on to validate internal language externally. As a friend of mine told me after her own breakdown, ‘don’t bottle stuff up – scream, shout, get it out!’”
“Have I told you,” the Rock Chick responds frugally, “of my friend who was hospitalized for emotional regulation issues? It was just a blip after she broke up with her boyfriend, but the doctors said it was schizophrenia.”
“If you look at the origin of the word ‘schizophrenia’, it came into the English language from continental Europe and was a collective term for different types of psychoses. If you believe Thomas Szasz it is a panchreston and medicine has fallen into a false logic of thinking ‘schizophrenia’ is a concrete fact. When in reality those susceptible to becoming detached from normality have either emotional problems or neurological conditions, as yet, not recognised by western medicine. Yes, people go psychotic, but there are different reasons why they go psychotic, and it is a disservice to society to apply the label ‘schizophrenia’ when there are so many different causations.
“It was Townshend’s creative genius to bring us such characters in an acoustical sphere. Taking Jimmy’s life apart, it’s unclear if he was beaten by his father. And if young Jimmy was beaten, how severe was his father’s chastisement. We don’t know, when small, if he wets the bed. In the film we see his father’s drunken eructations, Jimmy taking pills, while going through a fresh set of self-reproaches brought on by him being a Mod, with its
expectation of following social-group norms. Jimmy develops a romantic interest in a woman, and driven by hopes of sex, pairs up with her during a riot, and has his first intercourse up an alleyway. Afterwards she is indifferent towards him. This rejection leads to an intensification of his self-reproachment. The situation is not resolved as he can’t tie it entirely together in his mind, and therefore, he’s not doing the right thing. As a finale he takes more pills before returning to the scene of the riot and to the spot of his memorable coitus. In a perilous mental state he performs a suicide attempt. The death scene is omitted – did he die? This is so powerful, it could drive me up the wall. I must be returning the energy The Who gave out. I have to stop here.”
Neither the Rock Chick nor I had heard such an analysis before. It was quite an exploration. We both thank Roger for deepening our understanding and genuinely want to know when his paper will be published.
“He man drag” the Tape Librarian is notorious for this. I accept his not caring a jot if he ruins the night for everyone else as a normal part of life as I attempt to drag him out of a watering hole; he wants to keep on drinking freely. “Is it the alcohol?” for he begins to talk in an angry way; or have I unwittingly aroused his hostility to the Union Jack by wearing the t-shirt I purchased the previous evening, showing The Who asleep under the British flag. Either way, it is regrettable for normally the Tape Librarian is a very pleasant person. Occasionally, he does things out of his own volition. On seeing Marianne, a tactile eroticism is ignited as he forms an opinion that female restaurateurs are for the taking. And as a foursome we set off to Charing Cross station to get the Jubilee Line.
We’re late. As we walk out of Wembley Park station, “I Can See For Miles” is clearly audible. Historically this is a song the band rarely play live; noted for its heavy guitar sound and originally recorded before hard rock existed. The Tape Librarian, on seeing the expensive cars in the car park, complains that Londoners have too much money and do not know what to spend it on. Once inside the arena, we find our seats are taken. Fiery words are exchanged. Is it going to be like the nineteen-sixties when fights broke out at Who concerts? The stewards should really be dealing with this, but the show started some while back. We take our rightful positions; the packed space makes it feel like being on the terraces at a football match. More angry words come our way, “stop harassing our immigrants who don’t have immigration passes!” I keep a level head and take the heat out of the situation by saying nothing. Like baked beans that haven’t reached their desired temperature, we all settle, as
British governments like to say, “standing shoulder to shoulder.” I stop worrying if the comic book villains might have knives (you never know without a complete body search). With extra backing musicians, this incarnation of The Who in concert resembles the James Last Orchestra.
We get off at West Hampstead station and walk to the Tape Librarian’s flat. His flatmate, Sean, also from Waterford, is home, and is a little worse for wear from drink. Our host is the type of person who plays his stereo at neighbour-destroying volume just to revisit the experience of seeing them live. He shares his reflections of the concert. The sound was exciting, but the lighting was too bright. The sound quality was run-of-the-mill. When the horn section came in, they made puffing noises like a horse makes. But overall, it was a sequence of highly wrought musical structures. His favourite song is “Teenage Wasteland”.
By the way of a little joke, I say, “I want you to know that at our school we had a religion, and it was The Who!” Unless I misread the signals there was an immediate reaction of heightened emotion from the two Irishman. Although temporary, the reflex response reinforces the maxim that you should never make jokes about religion. I should be more careful because I am aware that they were burning people at the stake five hundred years ago for this and that Christian faction. The Enlightenment was something that happened in this country, which is partly why today Britain has the creative freedoms that allow a music industry to flourish. Undeterred, I continue, “‘Baba O’Riley’ is the only Who song that has an Irish name in the title and the Irish refer to it as ‘Teenage Wasteland’. The songwriting came about pretty spontaneously and Pete Townshend knows his craft. The story behind the song’s intro was: in 1970 or 71, as input, they fed the personality characteristics of Townshend’s spiritual leader, Maher Baba, into a computer the size of a whole building; and the output they translated in sound form. I think it is an oscillating organ playing one continuous note, which is in keeping with the philosophical outlook of Maher Baba.” To the ears of the Tape Librarian the intro sounds like a glorified ocarina.
“It took me years to realise,” said the Tape Librarian,“that it is essentially improvised if the rock guitarist plays di-diddle-di then next time plays diddle-di-di. All made complicated by electronic recording where it’s noted down and fixed that way, then pressed into vinyl, and by this stage, one has to leave it as one first found it.”
“In his songwriting,” I say, “Townshend follows the convention of a very lively overture to the opera with all the themes being introduced.”
Trying to make more of the evening romantically, Sean is making overtures to Marianne, who is turning down all his offers of red wine. He seems to think this is an amusing thing to do, not realising she has men hitting on her every working day.
I change cassettes and say to room, “Tommy is a highly musicalised drama that was turned into a film and recorded by an orchestra to add credibility to the improbable story. This is Rod Steward from 1972. The big questions of Tommy are: Do we have a coherent sociological identity, or are we a species of self-centred anarchists?”
There is a knock at the door. The Tape Librarian answers. It is a straw haired, fairly straight standing woman with a pudgy face, and she wants to come in. I can see the way his face is working. Not wanting an argument the Tape Librarian acquiesces. Sean offers her a glass of wine which she accepts. Being “inclusive” does not mean you have an extremely unlikely person in your home, sleeping in your bed, sharing it with you. The fizzle of sexual
tension evaporates in an air of banality as she asks, “what do you do?”
“We work for a bank,” replies the Tape Librarian. “But our jobs have nothing to do with the realities of finance.”
“I’m an artist from the Andy Warhol school,” says the Rock Chick. “I tell myself to use my imaginary factors by imagining I am insane, and putting myself in the shoes of someone thinking irrationally.”
“The insanest person I ever met in my life was Keith Moon,” says the straw haired woman. Instantly the Rock Chick and I are hanging on her every word. “He was a comedian but he combined fooling around with an extraordinary drumming ability and played at enormous events. I met him in the old Marquee Club, Wardour Street. As a teenager I worked in the West End in the fashion industry. You only dressed smartly when dealing with customers. Most of the time I was in the back storeroom where it was dusty and dirty. My brother had an old sweatshirt of ‘The Who by Numbers’ and was going to throw it out. Before he did, I grabbed it and wore to work. It was old and the lettering was very faded. One afternoon, I was in the Marquee Club wearing my brother’s old sweatshirt and a voice said, ‘I haven’t seen that in years. Take it off.’ I said, ‘No. I haven’t got anything on underneath.’ ‘Better still,’ the man replied. It was Keith Moon in the company of Phil Lynott. After that, on visits to the Marquee, whenever Keith Moon saw me he would shout, ‘Get ‘em off you!’. He was a very funny man.”
Suffering from a bout of olfactory hypersensitivity arising from the smell of stale alcohol on the breath of Sean, hitting her like a punch on the nose, Marianne wants away. I order two cabs charging both rides to the bank and the room takes this perk as living proof that my job has nothing to do with the realities of finance.