The Vandal in the Cathedral, Part II
Now the family is parted. Will it be complete one day?
I became introduced to conspiracy theories in 1980 while visiting Detroit to join protests against the Republican National Convention. The People's Counter-Convention was mainly a flop, with only a couple hundred people participating. The highlight of the Counter-Convention was a Punk Rock Against Racism concert that shut down early because the city pushed it into a city park that was the center of a turf war between a couple of the local gangs. The only time I saw punk rockers afraid of anything was when a violent melee broke out in front of the stage.
All of us, band and rabble, ran away looking for shelter, and I somehow ended up in an apartment with what was left of the Yippies. By then, as far as I could tell, the Yippies had devolved into a crusty group of homeless squatters and dumpster divers. The apartment was a distribution center for publications and tracts, and I left with a handful of articles about the Trilateral Commission, the Committee on Foreign Relations, and Bohemian.
I was poorly educated and suspicious by nature (conditioning), so I fell hard for the stories about a cabal of powerful politicians and millionaires that secretly ruled America and the World. It wasn't quite Illuminati-level madness, and the anti-semitism was downplayed, so I spent a few years with one foot in the culture of paranoia.
Paranoia is a psychotic condition. It's also a cultural state of mind. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other, but there are similarities in how they manifest. I was never formally diagnosed as having a paranoid disorder, but people have seen me crouched on the floor in the backseat of a car hiding from the people who were out to get me (in the other cars). My paranoia began with drugs. First, it was weed. Then LSD. Or did it? I'll come back to that question.
My first incident is hard to pin down because my paranoia came on gradually. I was a heavy pot smoker in high school. I won't get into the specifics because it's a long, weird, unbelievable story about attending a high school with some very unusual policies that is absolutely true. (Smoking allowed in a carpeted Cafeteria B, LSD regularly sold out of a van to dozens of students standing in line, more free time than time spent in classes, getting a passing grade in a class that I only attended one time, I could go on but you wouldn't believe me.)
Anyway, my friend and I had a system for staying high through the week. On Monday, we'd buy an ounce for twenty bucks, roll thirty to forty skinny joints, sell twenty in order to buy next week's ounce, and smoke the rest. I was high every day through ninth grade.
I loved being high until I didn't. I gradually found that, instead of feeling 'high,' I became self-conscious and insecure. I called it getting 'paranoid,' but it wasn't like any psychosis. It was more of a heightened sensitivity to the fact that the people around me were hiding something. Which, of course, they were because that's the nature of existing in social situations. We all constantly choose which parts of ourselves to reveal according to the current social setting. More than that, besides hiding aspects of our personality or emotions deemed inappropriate (fear, sensitivity, or crying, in boys, for example), we also exaggerate or feign traits that we consider desirable (confidence, intelligence, physical capability, etc.). Masking and fronting. Everybody does it.
Since pot made navigating these normal social mechanisms difficult, I stopped smoking. It was hard. I received a lot of peer pressure and some condemnation for it. So I spent my next year as a sophomore in isolation. Because of the extreme openness of our school's programming, I could hide from my school peers in the teachers' lounge or the remedial reading lab.
My final two years of high school were at an alternative program called Omnibus. I experienced a small amount of pressure (and even bullying) about not smoking pot there, but it was minimal, and my overwhelming experience was positive. I became socially active again.
Falmouth was a party town, meaning drugs were abundant and cheap. Every evening dozens of teenagers, and some adults, would gather on Main St. at "the benches." We'd spend a couple of hours smoking cigarettes and pooling dollar bills until we had enough for a keg (or three) and then head off into the woods. If you want to know what these parties were like, see Dazed and Confused.
The darkness, and the drunkenness, at these parties, made it easy enough to avoid smoking pot. Besides that, my peers were less put off by my resistance to smoking weed than they were assuaged by my eagerness to indulge in the other drugs available, namely THC (we knew it was PCP), crystal meth, various pills of the upper and downer persuasion, and acid.)
Finally, we get to it. The thing that ties it all together. LSD.
Q: How many of your acid trips were bad?
A: Almost all of them.
Q: Will you do it again?
A: Jesus, I hope not.
Reading about someone else's acid trips is arguably worse than reading about their dreams. Damn the torpedoes. It is necessary for my story. I have to write about both.
Paranoia on acid can be as psychotic as the most extreme disorder cases. I am lucky to have survived similar delusions to those you've heard who threw themselves out of windows while tripping. My bad acid trips were like my worst nightmares while awake. No, they were worse. Nightmares ended conveniently at the penultimate moment. I could never scream myself awake from an acid trip, try as I did for some of them.
My first trip was wonderful. I enjoyed hours of hallucinations, visual and tactile. I saw motion trails galore, of arms and car taillights; I inserted my fingers deep beneath the skin of a dachshund; I watched my friend turn into Popeye; I marveled at the living, genuflecting trees as they danced and swayed over me; I saw the red aura of energy emanating from the power lines. But, as remarkable as they may have seemed in the moment, these were illusions, not delusions. I knew the drug caused them. And as the drug in my system wore off, they faded away.
After getting home and in bed, the bad shit began. Everyone in my house was asleep, but I heard others whispering unintelligibly. I heard scratching sounds under the floor, outside the walls. They were trying to get in. They were coming for me. I didn't know who or why, but I knew they were coming to hurt me. To kill me.
I snuck out of the house again and made my way to the home of an adult who had once told me that I could come to her if I were ever in trouble. I woke her up, and the angel she was talked me through the rest of the trip. I saw rats scurrying about her kitchen shelves. I saw her face transform from an angel's to a devil's. But she got me through it. She pulled out her guitar and sang me through it with Cat Stevens songs. I survived my first initiation.
I'm enjoying myself at a Grateful Dead concert. My friends are down on the floor, in the crowd. I'm alone in an upper tier, watching the stage and swaying with the music. I'm euphoric.
A young hippie couple approaches me. They're smiling and seem to be floating happily by. They stop, and she turns to me, "What song is this?" she asks. I look at the stage. I look back at her, then at him. They're still smiling. I have no idea what song I've been swaying to. I stand there, struck dumb. I don't speak, but something in me has shifted. I can sense that something is wrong. Before they drift off, the guy softly touches my chest. I see that he's placed a sticker on my shirt. It bears the words "Cosmic Wimpout." I had never heard the phrase nor seen the sticker. But I knew instantly what it meant. I've been marked for death.
I head for the stairs and descend. I need to get out. I need to find an exit. Near the bottom of the stairs, I see a large, leather-clad, bearded Harley's Angel biker. He's waiting for me. I turn around and go back up. Find another stairwell and descend. There's another one at the bottom. Different guy same deadly aura. It repeats. Back up, find another stairwell. It, too, is guarded. There's no way out.
I don't remember the next block of time, but finally, the concert ended. Everyone is moving, heading for the exits. Skulking in the crowd, I manage to get outside. But I'm not out of danger yet. I need to find my friends. I need to get in their car. I need to go home, the only place it will be safe.
It happens. We find each other and get in their Volkswagen Beatle, the original kind. (This was in the late '70s.) For the entire twenty-five miles home, I hide on the floor behind the passenger seat. I curled up tight, babbling, crying all the way. This time I managed to stay in bed long enough to fall asleep.
One of the reasons I decided to leave Falmouth for California is something I've never told anyone. It was the first time I had a paranoid delusion without being under the influence of drugs. We spent much time in parked cars when we weren't at keg parties in the woods. I don't have to elaborate because I'm sure you've either done the same or at least seen American Graffiti.
I was in the back seat of I don't know whose car. I don't remember who I was with. But the incident is vividly remembered. I had had a couple of beers but no pot, acid, or drugs. We were in the parking lot at the Falmouth Plaza, engine idling, windows down, surrounded by other cars and other people doing the same thing. Hanging out. Shooting the shit.
My drifting eyes caught sight of a shopping cart. Of an advertisement twist-tied to the front of the basket. It was a classic red stop sign octagonal shape with a white border. Instead of saying "Stop," the sign said, "BAN." It was an ad for the deodorant. Except it wasn't an ad. It was a message. It was a message for me, specifically. It was a message from... the universe? It was telling me that I had to go to leave Falmouth. The implication was sinister.
I did it. I left Falmouth a few days later and hitchhiked to Oakland.
Two more acid trips must be mentioned. Another early one, while still living in Falmouth, was particularly frightening, but I didn't note its significance until many years later. I don't remember how I came to be tripping alone this time or how it ended. But the middle part was pretty freaky. I was at a place called Space Press Express, which was a printing press and youth hangout. A local tough came in, a Lockwood, which was unusual. The Lockwoods were a family of boys and young men with a reputation for violence. I was casual friends with one my age, Kevin, but I stayed clear of his older brothers. When Craig showed up at S.P.E., the place went silent. He had no reason to be there. He barely acknowledged those of us in the lobby and went into an adjacent room where, it turned out, a young woman he was involved with was. Through the wall, I could hear a muffled argument. The voices grew louder and angrier. Then, suddenly, there was a loud gunshot. Time stopped. A very long, tension-filled pause. Craig re-enters the lobby and stands there, looking at us in silence. He's hiding a shotgun under his coat. I was petrified with fear. Craig turns and walks out. The other people in the lobby resumed talking as if nothing had happened.
I don't recall ever speaking about this with anybody. I have to assume I was hallucinating. Craig was there, the argument probably happened, but there was no murder or shotgun. That's not the kind of event that wouldn't have left a lot of trauma or evidence. But it was one that I ran away from. Craig exited and turned right, so I exited and went left. I walked ran East, not sure where to go. I was on Main St., and there was a lot of traffic. In every car, I could see silent, angry faces. Behind every car window were people yelling at me and gesticulating wildly. I was in danger. I thought of my friend Randy, who lived nearby.
I made it to Randy's apartment. We were the kind of friends where knocking wasn't required, so when I reached the top of the stairs, I went in. The place looked empty, but I heard water running. I crossed the room and entered the bathroom to see Laurie in the tub, bathing. She looked up with a curious expression. Panicked, I asked her, "Is it safe?" That's all. No greeting or explanation. "Is it safe?" Laurie gave a sly, wry smile and said, "Yes." With great relief, I went and sat on the living room couch. I started to relax.
The wall behind the couch was made of some wood panels. I was still tripping, so I started grooving on the wood grain patterns. There was a particular pattern that repeated itself. The lines were swirling and moving, and my first impression was of a grid of living paisley shapes. Then the shapes began to extrude from the wall. They became penises, flaccid at first but quickly morphing into erections. Dozens of them growing towards me getting larger. After that, I only remember getting up and walking out of the apartment. I only recognized this particular hallucination's significance about a quarter-century later.
Seems obvious, in retrospect, right? Now that you know my story. Unless you've lived it, it may seem unfathomable to live decades without conscious awareness of having survived a violent sexual assault. But that was me.
I always knew something "was wrong with me." I had recurring nightmares; I woke up screaming. I suffered from depression and angst, and self-loathing. I had drastic mood swings. I occasionally succumbed to snot-nosed jags of crying hysterically over seemingly trivial things. I have also always had a secret anger that would frighten you if you saw it unleashed. But no one ever has. Not directly. I have only ever allowed myself to direct it at things only when there is no potential for witness. I have destroyed many tools and unfortunate objects that have frustrated my attempts at repairing them. Some of you will be surprised because I have always been hiding parts of myself. From you. And from myself. It's my superpower. So, yeah, I didn't know some things.
The last time I dropped acid was the worst. It took the shape of my classic recurring nightmare. The Prince of Darkness appeared. For the umpteenth time, I was tricked into the belly of the wicker man. I can tell you this didn't happen. But I believe it did. It exists in my consciousness not as a delusion but as a memory. It was as real as anything I've ever experienced.
It sounds silly, almost like a cartoon melodrama. It won't take more than a few paragraphs to describe. But it's an event I have re-lived over and over again. I never did acid again, but I continued to have paranoid episodes. Call them flashbacks if you like.
We were in the woods at an annual weekend gathering of camping and partying. There was a stage with several bands and a lot of dancing. I don't know why I decided to risk tripping again. I tried to warn my friend Sharon that tripping with me had a particular risk. I told her I might need to tap her shoulder for grounding assistance. She thought she understood. She had no idea.
Everything was wonderful. We danced for a couple of hours. I was having fun and feeling safe. Then the band on stage shifted into some Grateful Dead covers. Whoa, look at that! I never noticed how much Bill, our host for the weekend, who was leading the band, looked like Jerry Garcia. It was uncanny.
I started to lose myself in the music and the movement of dancing. I was grooving, at one with the band, the music, and the night. Everything seemed perfect. And familiar. As if it's always been just this. My whole life was happening right there, right then. Past, future, present, memories, hopes, dreams, it was all the same. The people dancing around me started giving way, and I found myself in the center.
I had experienced this loss of self twice before, once even while stone-cold sober. It was transcendence. I felt as if I could never die because I was never born. I understood that all is an illusion. All my fears and insecurities fell away. I wasn't afraid of anything. I wasn't afraid of death.
Someone appeared in the central circle of sand in which I was dancing. My friend, the trickster Danny. He was smiling, and he had a smudge stick. He was smudging me and the area around me. My sense of familiarity was growing. I've been here before. We've all been here before. My movement slowed, and I started looking at the people around me. They were all looking at me, smiling. Everyone seemed happy to see me having so much fun. Then, someone new approached the front of the stage. He stood out in the crowd of hippies in bare feet and tie-dyed t-shirts. A big guy, taller than me. Dressed in leather pants and vest. Long greasy hair and a beard. A burly biker dude. And, I shit you not, he’s got a huge knife sheath strapped to his leg. Where the fuck did he come from? I recognize him!
In another of my freaky bad acid trips, a joke triggered the shift in my brain from pleasure to panic. The punchline of this joke is the only way I know how to describe what happens when my paranoia is triggered. The joke is about a hippie hitchhiker and his dog, Zevon. The car stops to offer a ride. The driver says he'll give the hippie a ride but won't let the dog in his car. Hippie says, "no problem, Zevon runs fast." They zoom on down the road and slam into a tree after going too fast around a corner. Keith is telling the joke, saying, "the hippie and the driver are ok. They get out of the car, and the driver says, 'what's that?'"
Some background. Once, Keith and I were walking down Main St., near Space Press Express. Keith was ranting about something or someone that pissed him off and, in the doing, said the word "asshole" rather loudly. A passing car with three guys in it had their window down and, presumably taking offense, shouted some kind of 'fuck you' to us and drove off. Later that night, Keith and I are at a lonely intersection, hoping to hitch a ride home. It's very late, and we haven't seen a car in a long time when, of course, who drives by but the car with the three guys in it. They slow down as they pass, so it seems they have recognized us. One of them sticks his head and arm out the window, saying, "who did you call an asshole?" Better still, he's holding a knife. But they don't stop. I'm scared but relieved they didn't stop. Keith is of a different mind. He picks up an empty beer bottle from the curb, a Miller. He smashes the butt of the bottle against the curb, brandishes the jagged neck toward the car, and starts shouting taunts at them. Brake lights. I am triggered.
Remember, all my nightmares feature the scary dark figure brandishing a knife. In all of them, I am to be ritually sacrificed, at which point I wake in a panic. But here I am, unable to wake up because this is happening. I say to Keith, "fuck you, I'm not doing this!" Keith is defiant, so I split. I ran away. I still don't know exactly what happened on that corner after I left. But when I was a few blocks away, I heard a scream, and I believed Keith had been killed. I remembered a friend who lived in the area, so I went to her house and woke her up. I told her I was sure Keith had just been killed. We got in her car and went back to find an empty scene. We drove around empty streets for a while. After a time, I called his house, and Keith answered the phone. I never understood precisely what happened, but instead of killing Keith, they gave him a ride home. The shame I felt that night about running haunted me for a long time.
"What's what?" I interrupted Keith, stopping his joke at the penultimate moment.
Keith is confused and sounds pissed. "What do you mean, 'What's what?'"
"You said, 'what's that?' What's what?"
"Shut the fuck up! I'm telling a joke. So, the hippie says, 'That's Zevon.'"
The driver says, "Yeah, but what's that around his neck?"
Hippie says, "Oh, that's his asshole. He's not used to such short stops."
The instant I heard the word 'asshole' I was triggered. I knew exactly what was what. It was about me. I was the asshole. The thing around the dog's neck was the universe around my own. It was always about me. My nightmares weren't dreams, they were prophecies. I was the center of the universe, and I was an asshole. I was "the" asshole and I had to die.
The music of the Grateful Dead, the smudging, the clearing of space around me, the appearance of the biker with the knife… it was all happening again. My iminent demise. The ritual sacrifice I’ve been avoiding for my entire life. The sudden moment of realization that all of this has to end. Time to die.
Since I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t able to wake myself up. But I tried. I shouted out, “No! I’m not ready!” I found Sharon and grabbed onto her her. Frantically I explained I wasn’t ready to go through with it. I thought I could do it but iI was wrong. I wasn’t ready to die. I dragged her away from the stage and into the cover of the dark woods. I pleaded with her to help me. To keep me safe. Of course, she couldn’t. She was tripping herself and not able to understand what I was babbling about. The best she could do was manipulate me towards a group of people sitting around a fire and ask them to keep an eye on me.
It was a long night of chemically induced insanity. I understood so much. I realized that my tattoos were a map, reminding me where I come from, which was out beyond the stars. That my dog, a one-hundred-eighty pound Mastiff, was with me that weekend as a spirit guide and protector. I was an alien visitor to earth — we all were. We were here as tourists. It was all supposed to be just fun and games. Life on earth was the dream. It was temporary and it had to end. We would eventually have to wake up but I didn’t want to. I had fallen in love with the world. But it wasn’t love. It was just attachment to desire. I tried sleeping in the tent with Pam but I just tormented her with my non-stop rambling nonsense.
By late morning, I had become lucid enough to know that I needed to come back to earth. I had worn out Pam and Sharon but I still needed some help getting my feet on the ground. I sought out Danny. He who had smudged me in deliverance the night before. I found my way to his campsite where he was by himself, playing his guitar. I wanted to explain what I had been going through but I was hoarse and out of words. So we just sat there together, him playing and singing, me just sitting still and listening. When he sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” I had another revelation.
It was all true. Everything I had experienced through the night was exactly right. But it was also incomprehensible. The nature of reality is such that words and language are incapable of capturing any of it. Who we are is not who we think we are. Who I was, was not who I thought I was. There was something more. Something hidden. I had caught a glimpse of a truth I couldn’t comprehend. In my dreams and paranoid delusions, I cry out, “I’m not ready,” in order to ward off my inevitable death and wake myself up. Is it all just that simple? That I’m afraid of death? That’s no big revelation, is it?
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a christian funeral hymn but it could also apply to the Buddhist circle of life and rebirth through reincarnation. In that case, breaking the cycle of life and death is achieved through enlightenment. Listening to Danny’s voice that morning I realized that I was caught up in my own personal cycle of death and rebirth with every nightmare and every ritual sacrifice delusion. Something was going on in my brain that I didn’t understand. I also heard, in the lyrics, that I wasn’t unique in my struggles, that countless others have found comfort and solace in the words, “Is a better home awaiting / In the sky, Oh, in the sky?”
One of the symptoms of paranoid delusion is of being the center of everyone’s attention. Everyone everywhere is in on it, always watching you, waiting to pounce. I can’t describe the unbearable weight that crashes down around my neck when, in the middle of a movie, the realization strikes that every single person involved in making that movie is a participant in a conspiracy centered on delivering a message to me. The message was always the same, a reminder that no matter how many times I wake up, the nightmare is always awaiting my return. I was so distraught after seeing the horror movie Jacob’s Ladder that I sat on the sidewalk afterward and broke down sobbing as people walked in a wide berth around me.
My paranoia has waned in frequency and intensity, but it persists. It’s frequently triggered by movies, but it can happen at any time. Coincidences are a common trigger. Because is anything ever really a coincidence? Well, yes. And no…
I thought this was going to be a tale in two parts. The impulse was to share a single insight I had while reading The Mind in the Cave. But that insight requires some context so here we are. I'll wrap this up in Part III.