(For A.H., whose belief in my courageousness gave me the courage to write what follows, with my apologies to all for how long it took me to write it.)
THE STRANGE STORY of Patrick McLaw, the novelist and language-arts teacher who was seized by the police and at this writing is involuntarily confined in a Maryland mental institution, warrants our continued attention – and not only because of its frightening suggestion the authorities may now be using mental-health facilities as extra-constitutional prisons. While the Gestapo-reeking circumstances of McLaw's detention remain unclear, the one absolute certainty is the state's claim he is mentally ill has ruined his life beyond any rational hope of repair. The fact he is African-American in a nation that is again becoming infamous for its bigotry merely underscores the finality of his doom.
McLaw's case is significant because brings together the issues of class warfare, racism, the expansion of police authority, the theft of our constitutional rights – and adds to them a topic I know by heart but seldom have the opportunity to explore: the hatefulness and brutality that characterize U.S. attitudes toward people who are mentally ill or mentally disabled. As the authorities' treatment of McLaw demonstrates, and as innumerable studies confirm, mental illness in the United States of America is the penultimate nadir of pariahdom. Only child-molesters are more publicly hated and feared. It makes no difference at least 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population is mentally ill in any given year. Only the Ruling Class rich – those who are wealthy and powerful enough to stay out of the social-service system entirely or to bribe its bureaucrats to secrecy – escape the stigma.
Meanwhile, locked away as he is, McLaw's captors have successfully reduced him to a non-entity. His personhood is hidden from us, which means we can only guess what he might be thinking and feeling. But given how my own talents were forever nullified by the odium of mental illness – the clinical depression inflicted by the fire that destroyed my life's work – perhaps by retelling my own story I can at least portray the magnitude of troubles with which McLaw is likely to be afflicted if and when he is ever released.
McLaw's education and chosen occupation suggests he invested a great deal of time and effort in becoming who and what he was. So did I. Though my own journey differed from his – for example, poverty kept me from a bachelor of arts degree until I was 36 years old – I suspect the passions we brought to our arts were very similar. Our greatest differences – the fact I am a Caucasian male, with all of the presumptive socioeconomic advantages, and the fact I have never been institutionalized – are eliminated by our common plight. Neither race nor gender provides any defense against how an official diagnoses of mental illness or disability destroys everything you were and might have been. Nor does it matter, in the eyes of the public, whether you were institutionalized or not. In-patient or out-patient, you're now damned as a “crazy”– and so you will be for rest of your life.
Some of you already know my story. In the spring of 1983 I returned to New York City, assuming my birthplace and the home of my early childhood would again be the permanent home of my adulthood. I was traveling light. At the invitation of the late Helen Farias, a dear friend who had inherited a two-storey pioneer farmhouse near Alger, Washington, I had boxed up my files and other possessions and stored them in one of her unused second-floor bedrooms. When I found a suitable apartment in Manhattan, I would send her the money to ship these pre-packed items to my new address. But instead there was the fire, and now there was nothing left. The house and even its adjacent outbuildings were reduced to heaps of smoldering ash. My friend's work – Helen too was a writer and editor – escaped the flames only because her office was elsewhere. Her cats were not so fortunate; they died in the fire.
The loss of my work was the most wrenching shock I have ever known. My grief was overwhelming. It was profoundly intensified by the fact the fire's casualties included abook of photographs and text that had begun as an entry in my 1959 journal and was at long last seemingly on the brink of major publication. Titled “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer,” it argued that the Counterculture which had grown out of the 1950s Beat Movement and crested during the 1960s was exactly what it claimed to be, a “revolution in consciousness” – and that its rebelliousness, the true nature of which was obvious in its music and art, was amongst the first waves of a global revolution against patriarchy.
I knew my hypothesis was radical and perhaps even inflammatory, no pun intended. It had generated substantial controversy when I presented it for academic scrutiny during the final year of my bachelor of arts program at Fairhaven College. Despite the decades of research I put into its text – the quest to name what I was photographing was as important as the photography itself – I never imagined “Dancer” would be more than a volume of pictures accompanied by the photographer's reflections on his odyssey toward understanding. But the late Cicely Nichols, longtime friend and former editor-in-chief at Grove Press, convinced me “Dancer” could be shaped into one of the most important books of the 20th Century.
The fire's devastation was thus all the more intense because of my newly heightened expectations. I am not an optimist; raised as the unwanted child in a painfully dysfunctional family, I have never been given to unrealistic expectations, but after Nichols' enthusiastic response to my photographic portfolio and a few samples of my writing, for once in my life I actually dared be hopeful about my future. But now, as if in cosmic retribution for my folly, I had no future at all. The flames took not just the rough draft of “Dancer” but all its 24 years of research notes and pictures; all my other photography including hundreds of prints and thousands of negatives and color transparencies; two other books in progress that existed only as photos, notes and outlines; nearly all my other unpublished writing; clippings and tear-sheets of all my published work; all my journalistic award certificates and letters of commendation; paintings and drawings – literally all the creative efforts of my life dating back to my 12th birthday and my first camera, a used Kodak Brownie Reflex given me by my father.
Worse still was the eerie timing of the fire, which occurred on 1 September 1983. It started at the exact moment Nichols and I were meeting to finalize the agreement that would presumably bring “Dancer” to print. The time of ignition was revealed by the heat-welded hands of a clock at the fire's point of origin. First attributed to arson, then mysteriously changed to fire “of undetermined origin,” the blaze began at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, which three time-zones to the east is 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time – exactly when Nichols and I began our work-and-dinner session. Regardless of the fire's cause, its timing – which turned what might have been the best day of my life into what was indisputably the worst – was too exact to be coincidence.
Though I had been targeted as a suspected subversive by the U.S. government on three occasions that I know of – once in the Army, twice in civilian life (USian fascism is nothing new) – I never imagined my personal politics might result in the destruction of my life's work. But the fire's timing is typical of the “plausibly deniable” acts with which undercover operatives – especially those skilled in psychological warfare – torment their victims. Because of this – note again the waffling of some (perhaps easily bullied) rural fire-marshal – I cannot doubt the fire was arson, most likely government arson at that. Who but some telephone-tapping agent of the national secret-police apparatus could have known when to light the flames with such hurtful precision? And the message itself was unmistakable: I was opposed by forces so relentlessly powerful, it was futile to resist. Thus I learned what is obviously the central lesson of my life: that hope, at least for me, is not audacity but imbecility.
It took the resultant depression almost exactly three years to drive me out of my beloved Manhattan. For most of my adult life I had recognized the City as the place for those who have something to offer the world. But now after the fire I had nothing to offer anyone, not even myself – and given the malevolence of my enemies, it was obvious I would never be allowed to develop such offerings again. Thus in late 1986 I returned to Washington state, a place I disliked for the notoriously xenophobic small-mindedness of so many of its people but where I had paradoxically fallen in love with its light and its water and how its mountains plunge directly into the sea. Believing periodic contact with nature would be healing, I had been putting some of my New York City earnings into a tiny piece of rural Washington real estate – probably, in retrospect, an act that was itself symptomatic of how befuddled I had become – though for nearly a year after my return that place would be my only sanctuary.
I already knew there were few journalistic opportunities in Washington state. A decade earlier the local mainstream-media editors had shown themselves to be as xenophobic their as readers. The late Henry MacLeod, then managing editor of The Seattle Times, told meEast Coast experience “doesn't count out here,” and suggested I hasten back from whence I came. A managing editor named Fowler at The Bellingham Herald was more blunt: “we don't like your kind here,” he said. “Do yourself a favor: catch the next flight back to New York City.”
No matter. I could no longer dependably write or photograph; the associations with the lost work were too painful. Hence I would fall back on my secondary skills, work as a commercial fisherman or a laborer or maybe a commercial printer and perhaps eventually freelance a bit on the side. But unemployment remained high due to the Reagan recession. I was unable to find any job at all, and my mood worsened until some days I could hardly muster the energy to get out of bed. At last recognizing the nature of my affliction, I went into therapy, but it was too little too late; my economic circumstances were already becoming desperate. My therapist, Dr. Arthur Budke PhD, formally diagnosed my condition as post-traumatic depression. He said it was severe enough to qualify me for welfare and began insisting I apply for it. Finally, in the late spring of 1987, so impoverished the only alternative was homelessness, I did as he demanded. Like McLaw, I was now trapped in the system – and so began the process that destroyed my life.
Citing my therapist's findings, the welfare bureaucrats categorized me as “mentally disabled” and enrolled me to receive a state check for $314 per month plus about $75 in food stamps. The stipend was labeled “GA/U,” which stands for “general assistance/unemployable.” It is colloquially known as “nut money”; its recipients are officially called “clients” but are colloquially known as “welfare crazies” and “nut cases.”
GA/U was supposed to be paid on the first of each month but was often late, sometimes as much as a week and frequently with catastrophic results, invariably because welfare funds were arbitrarily withheld to maximize the interest earned by state deposits – a prime example of the official attitude toward welfare recipients in general. As for GA/U, its bureaucratic overseers were the most condescending and vindictive officials I have ever encountered. They made no secret of the fact they regarded us as subhuman. And they behaved as if their sole purpose was to punish us for our poverty, which they did at every opportunity.
I was on welfare through the winter of 1989, a reality in which the mundane disguises horrors that are incomprehensible if you have not experienced them firsthand. I was too distraught in those awful years to trifle with metaphor and simile, but now in retrospect it comes to me I was like some shell-shocked refugee captured by a flood and swept away by its irresistible current. Its water was brown and treacherous and toxic and alligator-infested and it raged through kudzu jungles and cottonmouth-moccasin swamps and it allowed me only two choices: I could yield to to its undertow and drown or I could grab onto some piece of flotsam and fight to keep my head above the torrent. Obviously I chose the latter. I had not even the faintest hope I might be washed up onto some shoal or sandbar, but eventually I discovered – perhaps a gift of my Celtic ancestry – I possessed a seemingly congenital inability to surrender. Since this is probably the sort of choice that's now confronting Patrick McLaw, I can only hope he chooses wisely.
Innumerable studies document the U.S. attitude toward mental illness as the harshest and most unforgiving in the developed world. Indeed mental illness in the United States is feared as if it were a fatal contagion, something you might catch from mere proximity to a mentally ill person on a bus or – horrors – use of a toilet-seat upon which a mentally ill individual has recently sat. Yes, the prejudice is that extreme. But why? The sociologists with whom I have discussed it say they suspect that in the de facto theocracy that underlies the cult of U.S. “exceptionalism,” mental illness is subconsciously viewed as divine retribution. I agree; the Abrahamic god, the death-dealing deity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is undoubtedly the most sadistic god in human experience, and the hostility directed at people with mental troubles is “exceptional” indeed. Mentally ill persons are shunned as if they are accursed – fingered by god as hate-objects – and in extreme cases they become the human equivalents of sacrificial scapegoats. But the influence of religion on U.S. society is woefully underestimated. Hence even in the secular realm of journalism, no career-minded editor will dare hire you if you have ever been officially labeled “mentally ill” or “mentally disabled” – never mind your diagnosis or the brevity of your affliction. Even beneath the gloss of enlightenment, the conditioned fear of the divine lightning bolt often remains tyrannically compelling.
The oppressive commonality of such prejudice is why I feared life as I had known it would end forever the moment I was labeled “mentally disabled” – an apprehension soon confirmed in every dreadful detail. Hence at the same time I applied for nut money, I applied to the state's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for help finding some new career – work that would be insulated against the climate of loathing but would utilize at least some of my visual, verbal and analytical skills. Here though I encountered a succession of mysterious obstacles: DVR psychologists declared me a top-notch candidate for vocational retraining, yet I was repeatedly denied access to all DVR programs.
Initially, the DVR bureaucrats contented themselves with “losing” my paperwork. After the third such loss, Dr. Budke, who was still my therapist, intervened to get my application processed. But the bureaucrats rejected it again, claiming my entire work history was a lie or a delusion or both. They demanded I provide them names to attest its reality. I did; the bureaucrats obtained confirmation of my achievements, but the questions they asked my former supervisors and colleagues made it obvious I was on nut money. Now there was no question my journalism career was dead. Yet once again the bureaucrats found a litany of reasons – so many I cannot remember them all – to deny me rehabilitative services.
I will never know the true source of these obstructions. One possibility is they were inflicted by the same nameless, faceless but obviously malign sorts of individuals who destroyed my life's work and so annulled all my lifetime efforts. Another possibility, perhaps underscored by the bureaucrats' efforts to confirm my resumé, is the obstructions were vengeance for the anti-DSHS investigative reports I had written during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A third possibility – the one I still think is the most likely – is that I had run afoul of the legislatively prohibited (and therefore secret) gender-quotas for which the Department of Social and Health Services was then becoming infamous.
Angered by the endless delays, bolstered by yet another evaluation that found me “exceptionally well qualified” for vocational rehabilitation, I contacted a pro-bono lawyer and threatened legal action against DSHS. I had hoped this would force DVR to admit me to a job-training program; I knew DVR endorsement was now the only way I could neutralize the mental-patient odium enough to get myself back into the workplace. And for once the bureaucrats responded quickly: they changed my diagnosis, branded me “permanently unemployable” and forced me onto Social Security/Disability, thereby destroying forever my ability to earn any sort of living at all.
Note here the disturbingly Orwellian parallel to the McLaw case: first the Maryland authorities publicly announced he was detained because of alleged threats they claim are implicit in his fiction. Then, when McLaw's extra-constitutional detention raised a national storm of protest, the authorities quickly changed their story. His novel and his use of pen names were no longer the cause of his incarceration. Now they are claiming he was involuntarily committed because of “mental health issues.” Obviously, whether on the East Coast or the West Coast, the government officials will say whatever is necessary – truth be damned – to justify their egregiousness and protect themselves from lawsuits.
As I noted before, I have never been institutionalized. Though I did not realize it until years later, during my struggle with the welfare bureaucrats I was obviously protected by Washington state's admirably strict laws against retaliatory commitment – a fact for which I remain ever thankful. Had the bureaucrats been able, they would probably have tried to bury me forever in some piss-reeking DSHS Bedlam. But being forced onto Social Security Disability Insurance was bad enough, and from the bureaucrats' perspective it was no doubt a triumph: the “M” they had metaphorically branded on my forehead ensured no employer would ever again take me or talents seriously.
Theoretically, you can return to work while receiving SSDI stipends, but the ubiquitous animosity toward mental patients makes continued employment highly unlikely once your disability is revealed as mental. And such disclosure is unavoidable because your employer is an essential participant in the review process by which the Social Security Administration evaluates your employability. Nor does the Americans with Disabilities Act offer any real protection – note again the above-linked report. From the perspective of the truly needy, ADA is like all other U.S. social-welfare legislation, intended mostly as propaganda and therefore more about deliberate deception than actual amelioration – yet another example of how the so-called American Dream was never more than a Big Lie.
Yes, the fire and its ruinous aftermath was a long time ago. I was 43 years old when it occurred, 49 in 1989 when the bureaucrats forced me onto SSDI and slew whatever might have remained of my socioeconomic prospects. I am now 74. Though my depression ended long ago, my existence has seldom risen above a desperate and often humiliating struggle against poverty, isolation and loneliness. Again we see the relentlessly unforgiving nature of capitalism, which teaches that those felled by misfortune are victims of their own folly and are therefore to be brutalized accordingly, whether by deliberately murderous cutbacks in the social safety-net, wildly increasing attacks on homeless people or egregious denial of our constitutional rights. That's why, if I believed in a just and loving god – perhaps the most absurd notion of all time – Patrick McLaw would be at the top of my prayer list.
Strangely enough – or perhaps, in terms of Jungian synchronicity, not strangely at all – on Saturday night, 6 September 2014, I was confronted by a new and painful realization of all that was taken from me. And much as it had been 31 years and five days before – though without any of the original crippling intensity – it was an occasion of happiness turned to sadness. But this time the resultant anguish had a positive effect: it solidified my sense of situational kinship with Patrick McLaw. And a moving compliment from a stranger gave me the courage and determination to write of the circumstances that once bedeviled me and now bedevil McLaw – and anyone else caught in the treacherous clutches of the U.S. mental “health” and “welfare” bureaucracies.
The source of this interplay of Yin and Yang was a reunion of people who had been associated with The Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly founded by professional journalists and therefore equal in quality to the original Village Voice and in some aspects – especially visually – no doubt its superior. The Sun, of which I was the founding photographer, was published from July 1974 through January 1982; it was driven out of business by a longstanding advertising boycott organized by the local Ruling Class, which was implacably hostile to the truth-telling reportage that was the paper's award-winning forté. Its former writers, photographers, artists, advertising and circulation staffers and its many friends and financial supporters gathered in Seattle at an attractive facility on the Lake Union waterfront to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Sun's first year of publication. (It is an aside, but part of Seattle's unique physical beauty is its combination of salt-water and fresh-water port facilities; Lake Union is part of the latter.)
For me the reunion was a pleasant opportunity to briefly reconnect with former colleagues and to view my own work as it is preserved in bound volumes of The Sun's entire production, an invaluable collection assembled by Carl Thorgerson, who was the paper's indomitable advertising manager. Here were not just the best of my Sun pictures – the covers and section fronts – but all the other images I had made for it, and suddenly I remembered just how many there were and how joyfully proud I had been to make these pictures of histories whether personal or political and large or small. And now for an instant it seemed I knew again the solid feel of an M Leica and the quiet but decisive snick of its shutter and the sharply alchemical scent of my darkroom and the wizardly submarine quality of its amber light and the oddly comforting odor of the Pekasol as I hung the film and how the tonal brilliance of prints made on DuPont Varilure emerge in the Dektol with an ever-so-subtle hiss and I thought of the countless times I said to rightfully impatient editors as I was washing and drying the day's take, “you can't rush the chemicals; you'll have the pictures as soon as they're done,” and I smiled at the recollection.
It was as if I were seeing ghosts or was perhaps myself a ghost reliving scenes from a former life, and as I paged through Thorgerson's wonderful archive, my body in real-time 2014 yet somehow for a long moment also present amidst the equally real physical and olfactory sensations of 1974 or 1975 or 1976, it came to me these fading images on fragile sheets of yellowed newsprint plus the few archivally processed exhibition prints that had escaped the fire because they were in my portfolio were all that remained of one of the most purposefully productive and aesthetically fulfilling periods in a stolen life I had never missed quite so forcefully as now. I had never seen so much of my forever lost work gathered in one place, and for that reason I had never felt quite so poignantly the actual dimensions of my loss. Suddenly I was crushed by its awful breath-stealing weight, and I could not bear to look anymore. There was nothing left for me to do but walk away, first from the pictures, finally – as quickly as I could politely arrange it – from the party itself.
In deference to my former colleagues, and later in deference to the woman with whom I attended the reunion, I maintained a pleasant countenance. Obviously I have made peace with my circumstances, have somehow even regained a bit of my former joie de vivre, and I channel my emotions into productive outlets such as this blog and the local campaign for a $15 minimum wage and the monthly newsletter I produce for my fellow residents in the senior-housing complex where I live. But there are limits to my endurance. Alone in my tiny apartment, I could no longer avoid the reanimated woe of the fire and its aftermath – the loss of the occupation that was my selfhood and the pictures that were my identity and then my credibility and finally all my societal worth as a human being and thus my ability to ever again build any other identity or hope for any reality beyond used cameras and worn-out coats and ragged blankets and the inescapable wretchedness of food-stamp poverty.
For a moment I floundered in self-pity, again overwhelmed by old and bitter truths: that I will have no more second chances, no more lovers, will undertake no more quests, will have no more expectations of yearnings fulfilled or hopes realized, and because I know the viciousness of capitalism, I know the only changes in my material circumstances will be changes for the worse. But then – if I may fall back on my earlier metaphor of a wayfarer trapped in a flood – I began once more to swim. There is a terrible freedom in hopelessness such as mine, a freedom to tell the truth without fear of the consequences, and I realized that perhaps in an odd way – never mind the arthritis in my spine and shoulders that now sorely limits my ability to photograph – I might nevertheless once more carry on the truth-telling tradition that drew me to The Sun and kept me there for as long as I could stay and brought me back to Seattle 40 years later for an evening with my fellow truth-tellers. I would write this story not just to assuage my own hurt but to provide a living, breathing illustration of the plight of Patrick McLaw, who is only 23 but is already suffering the loss of all his hopes and dreams and facing the probability of an entire lifetime of destitution. Perhaps, whether he reads these words or not, he will come to understand, as I did long ago, that in such cruel times as these, survival itself is an act
of revolutionary defiance.
LB/7-11 September 2014