On Smuggling a Book Into the Psych Ward
Jonathan Rosen Enters a Friend’s Delusions Under the Pull of Shared History
“I became terrified of him, for him, of the nightmare which was becoming reality for him. What would happen to Michael, and would something similar happen to me, too?”
–Oliver Sacks, writing about his brother’s schizophrenia in On the Move: A Life
I still knew nothing about Michael’s illness, which nobody had yet named and which was discussed more as an event than a disorder: something had happened and the police had been called. Michael himself spoke of being in prison, not a hospital.
He had referred to himself as paranoid, but wasn’t everyone? “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” was a line from Catch-22 I’d first heard from Michael but everyone said it, the way everyone said, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” even if they didn’t say why. In high school, we’d read “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by a historian who adapted a term from psychiatry to explain how “more or less normal people” deployed the language of conspiratorial fantasy.
Michael described his own paranoia as a punishment, but his explanations still had a way of sounding rational, or at least internally coherent, just as formerly his references to paranoia had been part of a generally knowing air.
At the same time, I knew something terrible had happened to him. Your mother doesn’t call the cops because you have a paranoid style or have fallen below “mental par.”
For years I’d been unclear about what if anything remained of my friendship with Michael. The binding sympathy I’d felt on the phone had little to do with the current state of our friendship. It was the product of an essential attachment that overwhelmed me with emotion, though afterward doubt and competitiveness crept back in, mingling with affection and pity.
Michael had been the hare to my tortoise for so long that part of me still attributed to him all his old powers and motivations. Even now I half assumed he’d only stretched out for a nap and would be up and running again soon. He’d shake off whatever was bothering him, like Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest when he staggers onto the ward after his first bout with electroconvulsive therapy, pretending he’s been zombifried to fool his fellow patients before breaking into a broad grin.
On a separate page of my journal, I made a list of a few of the parallels of our lives, as if writing down the junior high newspaper (which he edited) and the high school paper (which I edited), the names of our cats, and our twinned acceptances (Telluride, Yale), would answer some essential question. For some reason, I used “him” and “me” instead of our names.
Was I laying out the overlapping aspects of our lives to remind myself of the connection, despite our drifting friendship, and strengthen my resolve to see him? Or was I trying to prove the opposite: that I wasn’t like him, owed him nothing, and could walk away without guilt? Though the less I was like him, the more easily I could visit him without worrying I would contract his contagious fate.
The list wasn’t chronological but ended back at the first week of high school: tenth grade beaten up—flight. The beating was mine; the flight was his. Now, however, Michael was down, and I promised myself I wouldn’t fly. Under the place where I’d written down the visiting hours, I pledged to stand by him, to visit him and help him if I could.
His amorphous world of literary aspiration, rejection letters, and filler jobs had been a disaster. He’d already burned his first novel. Feeling the heat from his parents, he’d applied to law school but it was too late. Posters on our classroom walls had told us that castles in the air were fine places to live—all you had to do was put foundations under them—but neither Thoreau nor our teachers had told us how much harder it was to build down than up.
I still had a place in graduate school, but my academic identity was wearing as thin as Michael’s power suits. The clock on my fellowship was winding down, and I’d already needed an outside job just to make up below‑market rent. I shared his literary aspirations, and had come east partly to catch up. But catch up to what?
My mother warned me about getting drawn back into Michael’s life merely out of guilt or pity. My sister, quoting her thesis adviser, said that anyone can have a psychotic break. But the later you had your break, the better the odds that your brain might regain some of its normal functioning and keep what it had learned.
It had not occurred to me that anything would be lost. I’d thought “break” was a euphemism. Now it sounded as accurate as a hammer-blow. But Michael was also lucky; he was almost twenty‑five.
I called Michael to confirm my visit. An unfamiliar voice answered and vanished abruptly before I could give my name. I heard the voice shouting for Michael down the hallway with mirthless energy like a kid in a family of strangers. I waited and was about to hang up, when Michael came on the line sounding like a familiar record played at slow speed.
Michael formed his words carefully as he gave me the hospital address, which I was surprised he knew. Each word had a little space around it, but he seemed completely lucid. He made no mention of tefillin when I asked if there was anything I could bring, but he spoke with somber urgency about needing a camera, a tape recorder, and The Literary Guide to the Bible by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Along with his familiar confidence, there was an unfamiliar undertow of agitation pulling everything he said in the opposite direction. He was assertive in the old way but diffident, too, full of solicitous regard to the point of apology for burdening me with his needs or even having them.
I wrote things down and said I’d try. After we hung up, I hunted for my portable cassette player and old instamatic camera, then went to Shakespeare & Co. on Broadway and bought The Literary Guide to the Bible, which was out in paperback.
It was only when I was describing to Mychal that evening how I would have to wrap the book in a brown paper bag inside my backpack to get it past the guards, and saw her expression change from sympathy to confusion to suppressed amusement, that I realized with mortification I’d been inside another person’s delusion.
I couldn’t even remember the reasons for the camera or the tape recorder, only vague intimations of danger and his need to document—what? In the moment it had all made a kind of sense. Michael’s urgent, confiding tone was persuasive, and so were the specificity of his instructions, the brown paper bag, and above all the need for secrecy. Gullibility and Good Samaritan vanity (I’m being so helpful!) had done the rest, along with a lifetime of deferring to Michael’s authority.
In the end I brought only the book. Mychal assured me that Chuck would not consider The Literary Guide to the Bible an inflammatory work, and neither would the security guard in the lobby. I knew that very well, and still I’d been prepared to mule a tranquilizing work of academic scholarship across the border like heroin. What did it say about me that I’d been so quick to believe “they” didn’t want Bible scholarship on the premises?
Mychal dismissed my fears; I’d wanted to help a friend in crisis and had gotten caught up. She did wonder if I’d ever told Michael I’d taken a tutorial in the Hebrew Bible with Robert Alter, who taught at Berkeley and had asked me to index the very book Michael wanted. I must have.
Michael often grilled me about my classes, and the Bible study had been a bright spot. I’d sat with the professor in his office taking turns reading Genesis aloud, translating one sentence at a time, something even I could do because I knew the stories and the English was on the opposite page. It had even filled my ancient language requirement. But the index would have been a nightmare. Confronted with hundreds of manuscript pages to read, annotate, reread, and distill onto three‑by‑five cards organized by single‑word categories, I realized it would take me a lifetime or longer.Michael had always been dazzlingly logical and he still almost was.
It was the sort of thing Michael would have done in a long night of NoDoz, but I’d turned it down, reinforcing my fear that I was unsuited for scholarship of any kind. Which is no doubt why I had told him I’d been asked, leaving out the rest. I felt like the butt of a practical joke I’d played on myself.
What was significant for Mychal was that Michael wanted something associated with me. I was thinking something else. I’d assumed madness was an overt abandonment of reason and logic, and though it was terrifying to contemplate, there was a satisfying clarity to this black‑and‑white simplicity. Either two plus two equaled four and you were sane, or it equaled five and you were nuts. But what about someone who was sane some of the time? What if it equaled four on some days and five on others? Or four and a half?
Was participating in someone else’s madness also madness? Closing your eyes and taking ten steps on the sidewalk was not the same as being blind. But while I’d been thinking about how to smuggle The Literary Guide to the Bible into a psychiatric hospital, my eyes had been closed without my knowing it.
Mike Curtis had discovered the intermediate zone when Michael called to tell him he was in the hospital. Mike was in medical school in Cleveland and accustomed to getting depressed phone calls from New Rochelle late at night. Nobody had caller ID in those days, but if the phone rang after 11:00 p.m., he knew it would be Michael’s exaggerated, mock‑stoner drawl: “Heyyy, Mike, how’s it going?”
The voice was never too gloomy for irony, or so ironic that you could dismiss the gloom, though it was tempting. Mike always responded with his own “Heyyy, Mike, I’m fine.” Designated the cheerful one, he listened patiently as Michael unfurled his long Eeyore lament, which could take hours.
The night Michael phoned from the hospital, it was only after the “Heyyy, Mike” call‑and‑response that Michael said, “I’m on the tenth floor of Columbia Presbyterian. I’m on a locked ward.” And still the conversation felt remarkably similar to all their other conversations, except that from time to time Michael would add, “But I know they’re trying to kill me. I’ve got to get out of here.”
Mike flew to New York the next day and found Michael in the neuropsychiatric unit where, despite the abnormal setting, he again sounded like his old self, until Michael informed his friend that the doctors were planning to operate on him without anesthesia to remove a portion of his brain.
No appeal Mike made to reason or logic had any influence on this delusion. Michael had always been dazzlingly logical and he still almost was, except that his formidable intellect was in the employ of an irrational idea. Mike flew back to medical school, his former roommate still convinced that he was going to be gruesomely lobotomized.
From THE BEST MINDS: The Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions by Jonathan Rosen. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Jonathan Rosen, 2023.