Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate, Chapters 01-


by Robert John Bennett

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;…
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well….”

–T. S. Eliot,
Four Quartets


Forgive me. I have to tell you something stupid: as if tremendous forces were crying out – more than that, bellowing and roaring – inside me, “No, you will not write this. You will not. You will not write, you stupid idiot, because everything you write is stupid. You are wasting your time!”

Why should you waste your time reading this?

You shouldn’t, because everything I write will be just stupid and boring. Stupid and boring and crazy. Yes, crazy especially. You can, I’m sure, already see that, after reading only a few lines. People have always said that, and I’ve led such a crazy life. I suppose it must be true.

At the same time, God forgive me, other forces, equally powerful, perhaps even slightly more powerful, tell me, whisper, “You must write. It is the only way you can save yourself. Write. Write what you can, in whatever way you can. It doesn’t matter anymore how you write. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever reads what you write. Write. You must write. Simply write. Tell it. Tell it all.”

Tell it all? Is that possible? No. But in a way that’s the beauty of this task: it cannot be accomplished. It cannot be finished. And for people like me, who set themselves up for failure all the time – what more could I want? A task that I cannot complete and am bound to be defeated by, something that I am bound to fail at, even before I start.

You will laugh at this, if you’ve read this far, but there was a time in my life, when I was a student at Harvard, when I thought I was genius. One of the things that is so funny now is that I didn’t know then that practically every other student at Havard was thinking exactly the same thing. We were all geniuses. Each of us secretly thought that, yes. But I really believed it. I knew it was crazy, but I really believed it. And what is even crazier is that I thought I was not only a genius, but one that people had destroyed or were trying to destroy, out of various motives – some out of stupidity, some out envy, some out of a desire for possession, and some out of sheer rage that someone like me could exist. I was someone on whom they could unwittingly project all of the things they hated about the world and about themselves. I was the scapegoat they could destroy.

People who knew me, people who understood what I was thinking, tried to tell me it was all an illusion. I was no genius. Well, I thought to myself humbly and obediently, who am I to argue with them? I suppose they’re right. They’re all older, more experienced, they know more than I do. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. If I really am a genius, my genius will express itself no matter what people say about me or what I do. If I’m not a genius, then the world will lose nothing if my supposed genius finds no way of expressing itself. Whatever happens, the truth will ultimately be known. And the truth is what is important, I thought to myself.

But now I wonder. I wonder if the truth will ever be known. I am an old man, and the past is being slowly erased from my mind. I can feel it, so I really doubt anyone will ever know the truth.

Still, I cannot help at least trying to remember the past, I have to care whether the truth is known. That’s the way I am and I cannot change.

So I have to try to tell you everything.


The most important part of my life was the time I spent at Harvard, but the pain and what I would call the tragedy – if that word didn’t sound so grandiose – of those years makes little sense unless I start at the very beginning.

I am an old man now, and my memory is very bad, and seems to be getting worse, but I still dimly remember a few events from my earliest childhood, events that took place four or five years after I was born in Chicago, in the year that America entered the world war against Germany and Japan.

My very first memory is so dim that it may in fact not be a real memory at all, but rather a fictional one I have imposed on the past. But perhaps even that kind of memory can be significant.

I seem to remember being taken to the zoo and seeing animals locked in cages and feeling tremendously sad that they were there, not understanding why they should be locked up and wishing with all my heart that they could be free.

An odder memory has to do with automobiles. Though they have been of absolutely no interest to me in later life, at the age of four or five they appear to have assumed great importance. I remember driving with my parents and being able to correctly name every make of automobile I saw. I must have had a great interest in the world around me at that age. I must have been a lively, outgoing child, extroverted, full of energy.

Besides the odd interest in automobiles, I used to like toddling around in and exploring the world that lay just beyond the small apartment building we lived in. How far into that world I actually went is something I do not know now. But however far it may have been, one day it provoked my mother into giving me a scolding. She told me that if I went away again, the police would come after me, and she indicated that this was something I should fear and dread. Of course, by implication, she was also suggesting that going away from her and from the immediate confines of the apartment we lived in was another thing that I should fear and dread.

And eventually I did. I came to fear and dread the outside world and felt safe only in the family apartment. These feelings arose in me, of course, because I was only a child, and I could not regard my mother’s words with the same sort of distance I would today. I was a little boy and all I knew was that when she spoke to me on that day, the world was all at once transformed from a place on the south side of Chicago, lit by the summer sun, into something darker and full of danger. The vacant lots near our apartment building were no longer full of strange and interesting objects: an old tire, a tree, the long, dry stems of the weeds that swayed and rustled and seemed to speak to one another in the occasional, light breeze of August. They were places to be shunned and avoided.

And so began, I think, at that early age, my isolation from the world around me. I somehow lost the ability to make contact with the world, in a way. I rarely saw any playmates, and anyway I seem to remember having only one or two playmates, whom I saw less and less often as time went by.

I remember one additional incident that must have sent up a warning flag for my poor, neurotic mother, impelling her to try to exert that last bit of control over me, perhaps somehow thinking I could be possessed by her forever.

I was with a little girl in a part of the cellar that was open to a kind of walkway to the yard in the back of the building. We were only very young children, perhaps only about six years old, but we were doing something that used to be described as “impure.” All at once, I was aware that my mother had passed along the walkway, quite near us. I knew she had seen us, even though she didn’t react or give any indication that she had. And ever since that day I have had the impression she was thinking, “Oh, I’ll deal with you later. Not now, but later and, oh, I’ll make very sure you never dare do anything like that again.” And there seemed to be a kind of subtext: “I’ll make sure you never betray me in this way again.”

I don’t know anymore what exactly happened that day, or what my mother really thought, but the subtext was repeated again and again, if not beginning at that moment, then in various ways for the rest of my life.

Those years of childhood seemed to pass so slowly when I was experiencing them, and every day was filled with a variety of events, and yet we remember so little about them. We act and are acted upon and are carried along by the unstoppable river of time, and yet almost nothing remains in our memory. And what does remain seems really quite odd. Of all the things that happen to us as children, the thousands and thousands of daily events, why do we remember those particular things that do come to mind?

When I was around five years, I was fascinated not only by cars, but also by airplanes. I used to look up at the sky and see these strange objects moving through the sky far, far above my head, so far that they seemed to be extremely small. At that age, though, I couldn’t understand that it was the distance that made them appear small. I thought they really were small, so small that I couldn’t understand how it was possible for human beings to get inside them. All right, I admitted, perhaps one person lying down full-length inside the plane, his head in the front and his feet in the tail. But four or five people? Twenty of thirty or more? How was such a thing possible?

While I wrestled with that question, there was another element in my life that seems to have been important at essentially the same time: the Church, religion.

We used to go to Mass every Sunday then. My parents must have been fairly devout at that time, although it is difficult for me now to imagine how that was possible. Later in life religion seemed to be of little importance to either of them.

For me, though, that has never been the case. They began taking me with them to to Sunday Mass at what must have been an early age. My earliest memories of religion, however, are not of being in church, but of playing priest, the way many small boys used to do. Perhaps some still do.

The surroundings in which I set up a little altar and dressed in “vestments” and “said Mass,” were in our apartment in Chicago, and we moved from there when I was about five, so this memory must date from that time, or even earlier. I can remember a small room with little light coming through the windows, high above the ground, though what height means to a five-year-old is somewhat different from what it means to an adult. The building was only three storeys high.

Yet I remember a sense of being in a tower, a sense of being able to look down on the world far below, if I wanted to. There I set up the “altar” and consecrated small white Nabisco crackers. Going to Mass was the most important and memorable event of the week, and even though I did not really grasp its significance, I wanted to imitate the person who was central to the event, the priest. I could not understand that beyone the priest, there stood a figure even more central to the event, and imitating the priest really meant imitating him.

Being good was something that was also important for me then, although I doubt I understood much about that either. My idea of goodness, such as it was, I must have acquired from my mother, who gave me whatever idea of goodness she was capable of giving.

Once when we were in another place, another apartment, probably in the apartment of one of her sisters and brothers-in-law, I can remember asking her if I had started to grow wings yet. Apparently she had told me that if I were good, I would become an angel.

This apartment had a low ceiling, and pieces of the heavy, dark furniture that was typical of the time, at least among Lithuanian immigrants.

I can still remember my mother’s laughter when I asked the question. It is the only time I can remember hearing her laugh in that way: it was light, free, guiltless, unencumbered by sadness or confusion.


My mother’s family, I have always assumed, was Jewish. I was certainly not aware of that at the time, but this element in my identity became more and more important for me as life went by. Beyond that, I know little of her family’s origins. She always told me they had come from eastern Europe, from Lithuania, as my father’s parents had. Yet her parents did not have a Lithuanian name, but rather an English one. She explained that by saying that they had lived in England for a time, where she was born. The name had been anglicized, and what the original may have been, I never learned.

My mother had a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths, so how much of her family history is true and how much is not, is a difficult thing to judge. If her family did not come from Lithuania, then what reason could she have for making up such a story?

She and my father used to exchanged short phrases in Lithuanian, when they didn’t want my brother and me to understand what they were talking about, so she appears to have had some knowledge of the language. And yet the question of the name remains. The name appears on her naturalization paper, so if the name was changed, it must have been changed in England.

How long they lived in England, I never learned. Why they lived in England for a time instead of coming directly to the United States, is also something I have never understood. Were they perhaps Jewish socialists who wanted to leave their Jewishness behind in Europe and become assimilated into American secular society? One of the oddest things about them was that my mother always claimed that her family’s religion had been Seventh Day Adventist. Seventh Day Adventist? A religion that celebrates the sabbath on Saturday like the Jews? Did the family think this was some sort of compromise religion between Jews and Gentiles? But if they had left their religion behind in Europe, why should they want to have any religion at all? Perhaps here we confront simply the deeper issue of religion and the role it plays in the human psyche.

It is practically a commonplace that when Jews assimilate, the last thing to be let go of is food. When I was a child we were always eating bagels and cream cheese. My maternal grandmother was always cooking things like blintzes. Chicken soup was routinely served in our house.

Of course such things are somewhat ridiculous and they hardly provide a basis for believing anything about my background, but all of these things taken together may point to a conclusion.

Besides, all my life I have had an affinity for Jews. I have always felt more comfortable with them than with any other group of people. Of course the reason may have been that almost all of the Jews I have ever known were extremely intelligent people, and I usually felt that those were the people who understood me best. Perhaps, though, there was something more. I always understood at some very deep level the Jews that I knew. I understood their humor, the way they thought and felt, their reaction to the world and to life. I understood all these things instinctively, without even thinking about them.

In the end, this whole question of the Jewish identity of my mother’s family is perhaps something that can never be resolved. There may never be an answer to a question that has for many years now been extremely important for me. Was my mother’s family really Jewish or not? Do I consider myself a Jew or not? In the end, I think the only answer to that question is what people like Freud have provided: as far they are concerned a Jew is one who shares in the destiny of the Jewish people. Can a man who is a Christian be a Jew? The first Christians were Jews and considered themselves Jews. Cardinal Lustiger of Paris was born a Jew and still considers himself a Jew.

So in the sense in which Freud answered the question, in which the early Christians answered the question, in which Cardinal Lustiger answered the question, I also answer the question and say, yes, I was raised a Catholic and am a Catholic, but I consider myself a Jew as well.


We continued to live in Chicago until I was about five or six, and then we moved to Cleveland. The reason for the move may have been that my father found a better job. I remember only that we lived in a larger and more beautiful house than we had lived in in Chicago, in a nicer urban area called Shaker Heights.

I remember only three events in that house, which was actually divided into two apartments, one on the first floor and another on the second. My mother once had a violent argument with the woman who lived upstairs. She stood in the doorway of our apartment and shouted at the woman, who perhaps shouted back. I was only six or seven, and I found the event extremely distressing. I had never seen my mother behave that way before.

Most of my early memories of that time, however, are quite happy ones. The house we lived in was large and spacious, even though it was divided into two apartments. My parents had furnished it expensively and tastefully, perhaps with money they had earned from the sale of the building we lived in in Chicago, which, I was later told, my father had inherited from his father.

One other odd childhood memory stems from that time. I remember waking up one morning and being confronted with my parents and a man they introduced as the owner of the house we lived in. In that way that children have of focusing on details that are unimportant to adults, I was both fascinated and repelled by a sort of small round scar the man had on his face. It must have been a sort of acne scar, but it looked to me then as if someone a inserted a pin into his cheek and then withdrawn it and left a tiny round hole.

What I remember most about that morning, though, was the fact that my parents and their visitor were in a happy, expansive mood because, they told me, Harry Truman had just been elected President in his own right. It was the earliest memory I have of politics, a subject that continued to fascinate me for the rest of my life – but politics as an observer, never as a participant.

The third event that took place around this time had to do with the death of my maternal grandmother. We went back to Chicago, to the house that my grandparents lived in, and where everyone was of course sad and distressed when my grandmother died. Left on my own most of the time in that somewhat gloomy atmosphere, I was puzzled by death. I could not understand it. It seemed to me so strange that people had to die, it seemed to me – apparently from what I had been told about it – that if people simply made up their minds not to die, then they wouldn’t.

Once I had resolved that question, though, I spent my time and energy playing with a typewriter that stood on a desk in my grandparents’ livingroom. I could not yet read, and yet I was fascinated by this machine that could print those symbols that I could not understand. I used to spend what seemed to me to be long periods of time typing very industriously, creating long strings of nonsense words and syllables, trying to break through what I half felt was a wall of ignorance separating me from the power to really write.

One of the other things that fascinated me at that time was movies. When I was a little older, I used to love to go to a movie and then go back home and relate the entire story to whoever would listen, in as much detail as possible. One of the things my parents used to do that seemed quite normal at the time was to enter a movie theater whenever they felt like seeing a film. They never bothered to check to see what time the movie began. We would simply go a movie theater, sit down in the middle of the film, watch it through to the end, wait until the film started again, and then watch it from the beginning, up to the point where we had come in. Then we would leave. It gave every movie we saw a sort of surreal quality, and I was much older before I learned that it was possible to find out from a newspaper when a movie began and then go to the theater at that time and watch the film from the beginning to the end.

At the age of six or so, the movies became associated with the fear that my mother had instilled in me in Chicago and that had now come to be a dominant part of my life. I remember once being in a movie theater in Cleveland with my father and brother, watching a Disney film. I was told to go alone to the snack counter and buy some candy or popcorn. The thought of going alone through that crowd was terrifying. I forced myself to leave my seat and I started moving slowly, surrounded by waves of terror that only a six-year-old can feel, toward the back of the theater.

It was crowded there, and it seemed to me that people were pushing a shoving their way forward. When I finally reached the counter I was too terrified to ask for anything. No one paid any attention to a little a boy, and I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted. In a panic, I managed to get back to my seat, where I was safe. Or so I thought. I might have been safe from the crowds of people, but I was not safe from my father. He did not even try to hide his disgust, poor man, when I returned empty-handed.

I sometimes wonder if there wasn’t a kind of war going on between him and my mother, even then, and I happened to be the battleground. My mother was perhaps trying hard to keep me away from other people, and under her control, by instilling in me a fear of others. At the same time, my father, perhaps seeing that fear in me and not knowing the cause, was doing everything he could to remove it. The result was that I was torn between the two of them, but of course as a child I could not see that.

My mother won the battle for control over me, though in the end, many years later, she lost the war. As a little boy, I became the fearful dependent child she wanted me to be. I was afraid of almost everything outside our home, and not just the snack counter in a movie theater. I was afraid, for example, of starting school. This fear was compounded by an incident that happened just after I started kindergarten.

I supposed to go home on the school bus every day. On that first day I was paralyzed fear, a little six-year-old boy, hardly big enough to look out the windows, afraid to talk with the other children, or not knowing how. I just sat there on the school bus, and sat there. And sat there. Since I had never ridden that bus before, since I had hardly ever been out of the confines of the house we lived in, I didn’t recognize the bus stop where I was supposed to get off.

I sat there and watched the other children get off, terrified, not knowing what I was supposed to do. An immense amount of time seemed to pass. It felt as if I had been on that bus forever. The other children got off, one by one. The driver completed his route, until I was the only child left on the bus. When the driver asked me where I was supposed to get off, I couldn’t answer. When he spoke to me again, I burst into tears. I felt as if I were lost in space, lost in the universe, an immense distance from home, and that it would be impossible for me ever to find my way back.

The driver, of course, simply took me and the bus back to the nuns at the kindergarten, who then called my mother, who then came and picked me up.

I suppose I can’t help but reflect on the difference in the behavior of that small boy I was, from the time when I adventurously explored the unknown area around our apartment house in Chicago to the time when I was in an agony of fear and apprehension and even terror over one aspect of what should have been a great and exciting adventure for me: being in school.

For whatever reason she’d done it, as a young psychiatrist at Harvard would put it many years later, my poor mother had done her work well. Not consciously, of course, but very effectively nonetheless. She had taken the first steps in a lifelong attempt to bind me to her. And since she was unable to bind me to her with love, the way a normal mother would maintain a connection with her son, she could only do it through manipulation, through psychological pressure, and through deceit.

The sad result was unfortunately the opposite of what she intended. She created in me a lifelong desire to be free of her and her influence, to be as far away from her as possible. It was a desire that was only partly realized. I was never free of her or her influence, but I did manage to stay away from her for the last twenty-five years of her life, and during the fifteen years before that, I saw relatively little of her.

People have thought I was cruel and heartless and selfish, but I saw myself as struggling to survive. “She killed with a touch” is a phrase that has been used to describe a certain type of woman. I know that there will be others who recognize the truth of what I say. Sadly my mother was such a woman, and I suppose such women will always exist. They should know, however, what mayhem they wreak, directly and indirectly, in the lives of other people.

“She killed with a touch.” And I spent much of my life dreading that touch and fleeing from it, though hardly anyone has ever been able to understand that.

I remember very little about that kindergarten, nothing about the other children, nothing about what we did during the day. The only thing I really remember were the nuns. The nuns were exceptionally kind to me, one of them especially. Her name a little un-nunlike, I have always thought: Sister Mary Alice Rose, but she lavished affection on me as few people ever have. Unfortunately, when the ravages that a mother inflicts go deep enough, no other woman, ,no matter how kind and loving she may be, even a nun caring for a child, can ever erase them or compensate for them.

Something happened while we were living in Cleveland that caused my father to lose his job. What it was, I’ve never known. I do know that my father, when I was older, never received any emotional support from my mother, and probably at this time too received none, and this may have played a role in the loss of his job. My mother always treated him with a certain contempt, and taught my little brother and me to regard him the same way.

At that time, in Cleveland, when I was only five or six, I doubt that my attitude toward him played much of a role in his own attitude toward himself. But the attitude that my poor mother had toward him was probably decisive, and devastating.


Whatever the reason may have been for my father’s termination, it produced quite change in our lifestyle. As I child, of course, I found the change to be of little importance, at least first, but for my mother it was a catastrophe. It meant moving out of the beautiful home in one of the better areas of Cleveland, to a poor, run-down wasteland of a suburb called Mentor-on-the Lake, on the shore of Lake Erie. My father had found work as a salesman at a local Sears Roebuck store.

Compared to the house we had left behind in Cleveland, the house on Lake Erie was hardly more than a four-room shack, a place that had originally been built for summer vacations and which was cold and drafty in the winter. For me, though, living in the little house eventually became an adventure in a number of ways, despite whatever hardships I may have noticed, or perhaps because of them. Perhaps this is where I learned what seems to be such a primitive and backward idea in today’s world: that hardship itself can be an adventure, if at the same time we have some goal beyond hardship in mind.

For me then, the adventure was the adventure of discovery. I think my mother probably did not allow me to stray very far from the house, because I do not remember ever once visiting the shore of Lake Erie. I do remember, though, making a kind of cave out of a large pile of clay that had somehow been deposited in the back yard of our house. It was a very small cave, to be sure, just large enough for a boy of six to drag himself through it on his elbows in a prone position, and it was not much longer than little boy either.

To me though, it represented adventure. I had become fascinated with caves, with the idea of going deeper and deeper in order to discover whatever might be there. I don’t think at that age I had ever seen a real cave, but I knew what they were. And even though I didn’t know what they represented in the human psyche, the little cave that I made, may have been the first concrete expression of a desire I have always had, the desire to go deep into the heart of things and to learn the truth.

It is not, of course, a desire I have fulfilled very well in my life, but it is a desire that has shaped my life nonetheless. I am as prone to deception and self-deception as the next man, but I have always tried to struggle against those qualities, or – when I didn’t struggle against them – at least wished that I could.

The other adventure that began then, was the adventure of books and reading. I was just learning how to read, and reading was a great mystery to me, despite the fact that my interest in it was almost killed by the “Dick and Jane” readers favored by American educators. The stupidity of the “See Spot run!” type of narrative must have been evident to every child who was ever subjected to it.

I had other ambitions, and I was willing to be patient. In our house there was a collection of Mark Twain’s works that my parents – probably my mother – had for some reason acquired somewhere. “For some reason.” As I look back now on my life, I see in my mother that same awareness of the importance of learning that so many Jewish mothers have. The problem for my mother, though, was that it was fine for me to read and to learn, but only as long as I was under her control. Once that control began to slip away and I appeared to be learning to much – at Harvard for example – she seemed, to me at least, suddenly to want to stop the learning process so that she could reassert her power and control.

When I was six or seven, though, she saw no need to do that. Books posed no threat. She in fact saw them as an ally, a way of pacifying me and keeping me inside our house. So there were the Mark Twain books, and later children’s books and other series of bound volumes, including the Encyclopedia Britannica.

At the age of six or seven, when I was just starting to learn to read, the Mark Twain books we had were a source of childish wonder and fascination. I longed to be able to decipher the words I saw on the page, to understand what the strange pictures that decorated the books meant – the frightening picture of Huck Finn’s father, the puzzling illustration of a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court.

I used to look at those pictures often, alone in that house, for it seems now that I was frquently left alone there. My father was at work, and my mother used to go out sometimes during the day and leave me by myself for what seemed to me then to be long periods of time. By this time, the fear of leaving the house had become so great that I could not even think of going outside. My mother really had done her work well. She had turned a happy, outgoing, adventurous little boy, a child hungry for life, into an unhappy, shy, timorous child.

It was about this time, perhaps, that another of those apparently minor incidents occurred that can stay in our memories forever, and that seem in some way to represent our entire childhood, if not our entire life.

My parents had given me a recording a Walt Disney story. In those days, records were made of a thick, brittle plastic substance, were very large, and played only for a short time, at 78 revolutions per minute. As a child of five or six, I loved that record. I was endlessly fascinated by it, and listened to it over and over again, the sound of it probably echoing through the house.

One day, the record was lying on a chair in the living room, and my mother came in and simply sat down on it, apparently not seeing it. And yet I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it. And yet I couldn’t believe she would deliberately destroy something I loved so much. I was crushed by what she had done. I was even more crushed by the fact that she didn’t seem to understand what she had done. She dismissed the broken plaything by saying, “Oh, we’ll have it repaired.” We never did, of course, and I knew the moment she said it that the record could never be repaired.

What is significant to me now is that the incident symbolizes something incomprehensibe in my poor mother’s behavior. She wanted me with her, bound to her, in the house, but she also wanted me immobilized, quiet, not disturbing her in any way.

It seems now that what she really wanted was total control, total power over me. It seems she wanted that, strove for that all through her unhappy life.

When she went out and left me alone in that house on Lake Erie, I used to cry sometimes, until she came back. No matter what she did to me, though, I trusted her. How could I believe – how could I even think – that she was doing me any harm? Such an idea never occurred to me. She was good, in my childish eyes, and loving. Perhaps it was then that I started to think that there was something wrong with me, something in myself that was at fault.

I sometimes wonder now, how I ever managed to get through each day at that age. Perhaps it was by understanding what many people have to learn later in life: that all I could do was “Just. Go On.” In the final analysis, I suppose, that is the idea that has sustained me all my life.

It seems now that we spent years living in the little house on the shores of Lake Erie, because the only perception I still have of that time is the perception I had as a child. In fact, though, we could have been there for only one winter. Then we moved to Michigan.

The place was called Kalamazoo.


We moved to Kalamazoo when I was about eight years old, shortly before school started in the fall. My earliest memories have to do with school and learning, with excitement and disappointment. I can remember visiting a school with my mother and seeing somewhere a list of subjects that could be studied, a list that I was by this time able to read. One of the subjects was French – a surprising subject for a school of that time, but then the town was in many ways a surprisingly progressive place – and I can remember how excited I was at the idea that there was a class where I would be able to learn to speak a foreign language.

I immediately began to imagine that the process of learning a foreign language must be wonderful and mysterious, something like what I must have gone through when I was starting to learn my own language. Surely such an experience must be an unheard-of adventure, and I longed to be able to begin it.

Somehow, not long after that, I learned how foreign languages were almost always taught, at least in those days, and the sense of disappointment went deep, even for the child I was, eager for knowledge, eager to learn. I know others will laugh.

If the first grade of school in Mentor-on-the-Lake had not met my the expectations of the child I was, and if the reading lessons had been boring, the second grade in Kalamazoo was hardly any better. That sense of boredom in school and the isolation into which my mother’s behavior had thrust me were a deadly combination.

I longed to have friends. I used to look out of the window of the house of the first house we lived in in Kalamazoo and watch children playing outside and feeling terrified of going out and joining them. Whatever my mother had done and said to me in the years following that time I wandered away from her in Chicago, she really had done her work well, poor woman. Leaving the house, playing with other children – those were things that it was impossible for me to do.

At school it was even worse, though in the classroom itself I felt safe. I felt secure. Learning to write, learning to form letters on a page, learning to put words on paper – all that was an adventure for me, an adventure without any danger. Outside the classroom, however, on the playground, everything was quite different. The school recess periods were an agony for me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to play with the other children. I didn’t even want to play with them. If I could, I used to escape the playground and sit under a tree and read a book. The story I can vividly remember reading, though I didn’t understand all of it, was a simplified version of Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

If the recess periods were an agony, the physical education periods were worse. We were supposed to play baseball, with the gym teacher acting as the pitcher. I have managed to repress the details of what happened, but I do remember certain images: the teacher turning toward me with an angry expression and a mocking tone in his voice, yelling some kind of insult.

It was of course all probably quite harmless, but to me as I was then, an abnormally shy, withdrawn, and lonely little boy, it was a catastrophe. At the end, I seem to remember, the teacher shouting at me to take my book and go hide under my tree.

And that’s what I did. And ever after that I had a fear of playing baseball. I never even tried to play it again, my whole life long. More than thirty years would pass by before I could even enjoy watching it on television. And even then it would be in a foreign country, far from my own, where almost none of the players were American or white.

That little boy was, I think, lucky to survive at all, lucky to be able to lead sort of reasonably coherent life. The gym teacher didn’t do or say anything to me that my poor father hadn’t already done and would continue to do in the years ahead. Ridiculed by that father, under my miserable mother’s iron control, it seems a miracle to me now that my life didn’t end in suicide long ago, or in some other unmitigated disaster.

There seemed to be some odd sort of division of power in our family, which I suppose added to the horror. It seemed to me that my parents had made some sort of strange agreement between them. It was as though they had agreed that I belonged to my mother and that my brother belonged to my father. This strange idea became more insistent a little later, and I kept trying to suppress it, but I never really managed to.

I think I envied my brother the attention and affection he received from my father. Even though my brother was three years younger than I was, I sensed that he was somehow able to fulfill my father’s wishes for a model son much more completely than I had any hope of doing. My brother was much better at games, and later at sports, than I was. There existed somehow a better understanding between my father and him, than there did between my father and me.

I suppose I envied my brother too because he was free from my mother’s control. I think I began to sense at a very early age that that control was pernicious and that it would destroy me in the end. I saw no way of escaping it though.

I know. I know. Anyone reading this will not understand what I’m talking about unless I can explain it more clearly or give some examples. The problem is of course that the events that have the most influence on our lives when we are children are very often small and seemingly unimportant. Their effects can sometimes be devastating. Because they are such small events, though, it is almost impossible to remember them precisely when we are adults. We are left only with a feeling, a vague but strong and insistent impression. Very often even as children we have only impressions and intuitions and we cannot always explain what events have caused them.

There simply are no distinct memories of any events that I could base this division of affection on. I had the impression that my mother cared for me more than for my brother, that I was more important to her. The same was true for my brother and my father. I do remember thinking at one point that the situation must be natural and normal. In every family, surely, one parent must possess one child, and the other parent the other child. I never wondered what was supposed to happen in families where the number of children was other than two.

I suppose the situation in our family also seemed natural because I saw each of my parents as a separate unit, rather than seeing both of them as a couple who worked together and cooperated. It never occurred to me that a couple could be a unit. If each of them was a unit, and my brother and I were separate units, then surely I must belong to one parent unit and my brother to the other.

That must be the way the world worked, I thought. Still, I wanted to be free of my mother’s control, which I felt in some vague way was harmful, though I would hardly have been able to explain how. I loved my mother, of course, and saw her as someone without flaws. I felt she loved me and I sensed that she wanted to do things for me, and yet I felt in some indefinable way that her behavior toward me was crippling, though perhaps I would not have used that word.

My father, on the other hand, was a distant figure, and I believe now that he was kept at a distance, poor man, by my mother. To prevent me – and my brother as well – from wanting his attention too much, my mother made my brother and me feel that our father was essentially a worthless person, an object of scorn and even at times of ridicule.

My poor father had a boring, tedious office job at a paper company, and one of the few ways he had to relax was by watching cowboy films on television. My mother would make fun of him for this. She would laugh at westerns as being stupid and without any intellectual or cultural value, which may have been true, at least for most of the films my father watched. And yet. And yet I feel sorry for him now, and I feel sorry I shared my mother’s feelings and attitudes toward him.

But what is a child to do? A child adopts the thinking, feeling, and attitudes of the dominant parent, if the parents are the kind of divided entities that my parents were. A child six or seven has no built-in mechanism of critical thinking that would allow him to objectively evaluate the intellectual and other constructs that are passed on to him by either or both of his parents.

Since I was my mother’s child, and my poor father had few defenses against my mother’s low assessment of his worth as a man and a human being, the only real defense he had was to attack my mother by attacking me. He made fun of me, ridiculed, gave me the feeling – and very often clearly told me – that nothing I did was ever good enough. Poor man, this behavior went on up until the time he died, although we became reconciled in the end and I could understand why he behaved the way he did.


I started school in Kalamazoo in the second grade, and what made it bearable for me, even exciting at times, was continuing to learn to write, simply to shape those mysterious letters with my hand. The classes where the teacher taught us how to form letters on the page – I remember those classes as difficult but absorbing, requiring all my childish concentration and energy and discipline in order to try to write the letters as well as I could. The fact that I could use this new skill to send messages – my thoughts and ideas – into the minds of other people was something that dawned on me slowly, a tremendous and secret kind of revelation.

That made everything else bearable, at school and at home. The classes were classes in an ordinary public school. Or they were ordinary at least for that time, for the teachers were motivated, caring, and even impassioned in their approach, and the pupils were disciplined and orderly and almost without exception seemed to want to learn.

Recess and the physical education classes were the only agony. I didn’t know how to play with the other children. After being isolated for so long, I felt like a misfit. I didn’t know what to say to other children or what to do or how to act.

I think that at the same time I may have been taught to feel a certain contempt for them. I seemed to have had the idea, somewhere in my mind, and even at a very young age, that I was somehow better than the others – an attitude that I have been punished for, mercilessly, every day of my life. And even though I long ago stopped thinking that way, the punishment goes on.

And where could I have acquired such an attitude? Again, I remember almost nothing about it – a vague impression, a distant shadow of a memory. I’m afraid, though, that the idea of my superiority was something that my mother inculcated in me, something only mothers can do – with a look, a glance, a tone of voice, devastating in impact but leaving no clear trace on the memory.

From the small achievements and small griefs – but quite large for a child – of the second grade, I passed into the third, where the first more serious strains on my personality and behavior began to show themselves. I remember how sad my teacher seemed when I asked her if I could stay in the classroom during recess, instead of going out to play with the other children. She knew what that meant – that something was wrong and that it was potentially serious. I knew nothing – only that I wanted to be alone in the empty classroom, instead of facing the gauntlet outside.

Then there was the day when we had to fill out a kind of play questionnaire from a children’s magazine, a questionnaire where we had to complete sentences that began with words like “I wish.” I took my little pencil and wrote, “I wish I had the nerve to run away from home.”

It was the first time that anything I wrote had an impact on another person. My teacher – I realized much later – called my mother.

I wonder what depths of childlike misery made me cry out that way, made me write what I did? The exact reasons are lost now. Perhaps they were lost even then. Perhaps I could not have articulated them even if someone had asked.

My mother did ask, though, and in a sympathetic way. But I could not answer. All I felt was shame. I felt that her question had something to do with what I had written at school, so all I felt was shame. I denied that that there was any problem. I denied it because I was ashamed of having written such a thing, or ashamed that she had found out that I had written such a thing, ashamed that my teacher had betrayed me. But I also denied that there was a problem, because somehow I understood that my mother was the problem. And how could I tell her that.

And so the little childish tragedy continued, childish and yet devastating for my future as a human being.

I managed to cope, though, and even then, in the third grade, there were times when I was happy. I think of the fascination I felt for a set of plastic “foreign coins” that we collected then as children. They were objects that – even though I knew they were fake – were nevertheless connected to an exotic world far away. The “coins” were mostly in the denominations of various European countries, and I felt a childish wonder at even this distant connection with a world that surely existed but which was impossibly distant, unimaginable, a world that was at so great a remove I could not even imagine ever being able to visit it.

Then there were the pleasant hours in the funny little public library on the school grounds. My mother used to have me wait there until she came to pick me up from school, after she finished her work – she was working then as a secretary. It might have been better if I had found friends to play with somewhere, but I could not know that then. I could not know what terrible effect that continued isolation would have on my life, not then could I know.

The library was warm and secure, though, and books were important to me then, so I was content. Again, the stories that interested me had to do with strange and distant times and places: the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, or a children’s version of The Arabian Nights.

It is hard for me to be honest, though I know that no story of my own life can be written without honesty. Yet everything in me strains against it. I suppose the main reason is that I always wanted to be a good man and to lead a meaningful life, so if I write about the things I have done wrong, then I might have a bad influence on someone else. And yet if I write something superficial, then what meaning does my life have?

And then too there is my pride of course. It may take more humility than I have in order to write the kind of honest account of my life that I would like to write.

Perhaps there is some way to be honest and humble but without writing things that could be in any way harmful to others.

Assuming, of course that anyone even reads what I write here.

All I want to say at this point – and it is such a trivial thing – is that the overpowering domination of my personality by my poor mother was not only beginning to have an effect, but the effect was starting to be visible.

What I am trying to say in this disjointed way is this: as a child, I think I liked books about the Arab world partly – perhaps even mainly – because of the clothes they wore. I knew nothing of T.E. Lawrence, but if I had, even at the age of nine or so, I might have felt some affinity for him: the way he seemed to luxuriate in the long flowing garments of the Arab world, in the drama they carried with them, and in their ambiguity.

But all of these are memories that a part of my mind wishes to repress, and so they are difficult to recover. Another part of my mind has grown so old and begun, I feel, to dissolve. This makes the memories in part impossible to recover.

But I will do what I can, old man that I now am.

The only other thing I recall about the third grade was the teacher we had then. She was a very young woman, perhaps no more than twenty-three or twenty-four, though of course she in no way seemed young to me then. What I remember most about her, though, was the care and concern she showed me. She must have seen how troubled I was and I think now – although I didn’t realize it then – that I was the object of her particular attention, poor child that I was, who wanted to run away from home, and who asked her once if he could stay in the classroom – which was so very safe – instead of going out to play with the other children at recess time.

I remember her too, because in her own small way she tried to encourage a kind of intellectual excellence in us. Once she spoke to us about using a dictionary when we were reading. She told us how important it was to look up words we didn’t know. “Those words will sort of bother you, until you look them up,” she said. And so they did. And so they still do. Probably not only because of her remark, but also because I have always had a somewhat obsessive-compulsive nature anyway.

Of course her remark was a great gift. Because words I did not know really did bother me and I always did “look them up,” I gained great knowledge of them. This too had decisive consequences later in life.

Perhaps this is the point where I should explain that one of those consequences was the fact that many years later I was admitted to Harvard, where I used to listen to lectures on English literature and swear that I would never write a book like this. Even the Harvard professors that I most admired – Walter Jackson Bate was one, but there were others as well – used to mock the things that some writers revealed about themselves. Of course the mockery was quite often gentle and friendly, but to me – an all too sensitive Harvard undergraduate, I suppose – the mockery was like an endless series of lacerations.

I used to sit in an English literature class, over and over again, and listen to what then seemed to me to be sarcastic, cutting remarks about the most personal aspects of the lives of great writers. I swore I would never write such things about myself. I would never give anyone the opportunity to laugh at me that way.

This idea of course raises a number of questions, but I think what is important here is the fact that at that time in my life an internal conflict began. It was a conflict between the desire to write something about myself – the need, in fact, to write something about myself – and the fear that I would be criticized or laughed at.

This conflict is still with me. I think it partly explains the awkward, disjointed nature of what I am writing here. I want to write something, but I do not want it to be read, and so I will write it in the worst possible way.

There is also another conflict that perhaps makes it impossible to write anything that will ever be read. I am not ashamed of what I am or what I have done in life. I have come to terms with all that. Of I have come to terms with it as much as I ever will. I do not want to write anything, though, that will have a harmful effect on anyone. If I describe the many things I have done wrong in my life, I must do it in such a way that those who read about them will somehow share my regret that I did these things and will somehow be encouraged to try to make impossible the conditions that might lead others to lead such a life in the future.

And as I write, I think of one other conflict. I have a desire and a need to mention the question of God, because I believe in the existence of God, and yet to write about God in the present age means that I have to run the risk of sounding ridiculous in another way. The idea of God is ridiculous to so many people. Or the way I write about God will be ridiculous, because I cannot write well at all.

And yet in spite of all of these conflicts I have to go on.


I survived the ordeals of the third grade – which I probably could not have done without the help and support and care of my teacher, whose name, I think, was Mrs. Shirley – and I went on to the ordeals of the fourth grade, which do not seem to have been great.

There was one element of life in the third or fourth grade that was not ordeal but which contributed to my ordeals by further cutting me off from my classmates. Our teachers then wanted to encourage us to read as much as possible, and so they started a kind of competition among us. We had to read a book and then write a short report about the contents. The books we read would then be posted with our names on a classroom bulletin board.

I read books with a vengeance, I posted little reports about them with an even greater vengeance. I was determined to win – even though there was no real prize for winning. I never read all of the books I wrote the reports about, just enough to write something about them, and in this way accumulated a huge number of books that I had supposedly read completely. Of course my teacher knew what I was doing, but she said nothing. I suppose she felt sorry for me, trying to enhance my self-esteem any way I could.

The problem was, of course, that the more I was able to “enhance my self-esteem” that way, the greater was the chasm between me and the other children in the class. I was left isolated and lonely, except for my mother, which is I think what she wanted, because it seemed to be what she, poor woman, always wanted.

How much had she encouraged me to “win” the competition and so separate myself from my classmates? Indirectly she encouraged me a great deal. Openly and directly perhaps less so. These things too have been partly erased with the pain of a less than happy childhood, which my parents – especially my tortured mother – cannot be blamed for creating or adding to. In their misery – in her misery particularly – they did not know what they were doing.

The other demons, though – my other demons, my other larger demons – may have simply been dormant during those years, until around the sixth or seventh grade.

Or is it that I have forgotten any traumas that may have occurred during those years? Perhaps, because the memories of school from the fourth grade until the eighth or ninth grade are vague, disconnected, and fragmentary. And those events that I can remember are difficult to place in their proper chronological sequence.

I remember things about this time that seem odd to me, and were perhaps odd then, although they did not seem so. There was a time, for example, when I was fascinated by puppets. Were they a replacement for the family I did not have? Were they brothers and sisters and parents to me? Were they really a substitute for the dolls that I may have unconsciously wanted to play with?

I don’t know. I only know that I had several of them, and a stage, which I made scenery for. And the plays? Did I write the puppet plays myself? I think I must have.

I remember once giving a performance of my puppet theater in the gymnasium of the school where I was a pupil. The gym was so large and the puppet theater so small that most of the pupils must have found it impossible to hear or to know what was going on. That didn’t matter much to me. I carried on somehow, even though the only reaction I got from the other pupils seemed to be one of puzzlement.

My mother encouraged such performances, though, as she encouraged a similar one at a small hospital benefit one summer. At that time she seemed to be always trying to push me forward into the spotlight, something quite different from what happened later, when I was given the impression that it was better not to be seen or noticed, better to hide. However, that was only one of the many conflicting reactions in the mind of my poor mother, most of which were passed on to me, as they had probably been passed on to her.

Somehow connected with the puppets was another incident one summer about this time when a newspaper photographer came to our house to take a picture of me – possibly because of the puppets, possibly because of something else. I had asked a schoolmate, a boy named Herschel Hill, to come to my house to have his picture taken too, because I liked him and I thought he should be given some credit for the project. It seems to have been something we had at least partly undertaken together.

He never showed up, and out of loyalty I refused to have my picture taken alone. It was a sacrifice I thought he was worthy of. I wondered why, though, he didn’t come. Then and later ideas began to occur to me: had he forgotten? Had his mother forbidden him to come because she thought I was strange, an unsuitable friend for her son? Or had my mother somehow prevented him from coming, in an effort to keep me enclosed in the walls of the secret garden she seemed to be trying to build around me?

I don’t know. Yet the incident seemed significant to me, and I have thought of it often over the years, without quite knowing why – one more of the many things about my own life tht I am at a loss to explain.

I’ll do what I can, though, to remember and explain as much as possible. It’s important to me, but not simply because I want to record the events of my own life, but also because I would like to give some of permanence – however limited it may be – to the teachers and other people I knew then. I have more affection for them now than I did even at that time, and I think they deserve to be remembered somehow, even if I can only remember them by producing this shabby little book – the only kind of book I seem to be able to write.

So many things to say, and I don’t know how to put them in the right order or the right sequence. Not yet anyway. Perhaps sometime I will, but I can’t do it now.

One of the other things about this period of my life: I became fascinated by children’s books about about Arabia. My mother, perhaps by chance or perhaps in some weird attempt to compensate for her totally assimilated Jewishness, from time to time used to buy various in books in a then popular series of books about a boy who takes possession of an Arabian stallion. As the story unfolded, it became necessary for the boy to travel to Arabia, and the book contained colorful pictures of Arabs in their traditional long, flowing clothing.

I think the clothing fascinated me as much as the story did, but I found the Arab world exotic and absorbing at that age. Among my prize possessions at that time were not only the books about the boy and his stallion, but also a an expensive young person’s version of “A Thousand and One Nights” that contained detailed illustrations, in glowing color, painted in the style of Persian miniatures. The entire cover of the book consisted of one of these glorious images. I loved the book so much and was so fascinated by it I used to carry it with me to school constantly, not only to read, but also to show to the other children, as if it were a kind of secret treasure I possessed.

Books like these were among the first manifestations of a lifelong interest in everything foreign and exotic. Perhaps I sensed at an early age how much of a stranger I was in my own land and my own culture and was in a way even then preparing myself to be at home in a world elsewhere.

At this point, I think I should explain that one reason why all of this is so disjointed, disconnected, and fragmentary is because of the way I’m writing it. I’m writing it in “quotas” of one hundred words a day – except on those days when I have no chance to write – and in that case I write extra “quotas” either before or after the missed days.

Strange? Well, yes, but then you should have realized by now that everything about me is pretty strange, at least compared to the standard of normalcy that I internalized when I was very young.

At any rate, I’m writing this in these tiny “quotas” because it’s the only way I’m able to write. Trying to write this story of my life is so painful and at times even distasteful to me that the only way I can make it bearable is to write these tiny segments.

But I have to try to write this story, no matter how nearly unbearable it may be. I think of Francis Parkman – and certainly what he wrote is far beyond anything I can write – but I think of him because it was painful for him to write “The History of France and England in North America.” It was so painful, for physical or psychological or psychosomatic reasons that he had to have some kind of wire framework built, and the framework served as a guide for his hand as he shaped the individual letters. But he too was driven by that ambition to achieve, that ambition that seems inculcated in us at Harvard. And so he wrote his book, in spite of everything.

And so I write mine, even though I know – I have to say it again – as I just indicated, it will never be good enough to be compared to his.

But perhaps it will be something.

And now about what I remember of the fourth grade. The teacher’s name, I think, was Mrs. Nichols. She was a tall, angular woman, very tall, in fact. She may even have been as much as six feet tall. Why write about her? Because she was an extraordinarily kind woman, first of all, and because I have to write, and because she deserves whatever scrap of immortality I can give her here – until we reach that immortality that I believe is waiting for us all, one way or another. She was somewhat unimaginative, though, but she seems to have been very kind and conscientious. Her classes were of course disciplined and well-organized, like almost all schools in the American Middle West in those days. She knew what we had to learn and what she was supposed to teach, and if she was somewhat unimaginative, she was filled with a kind of conviction and sense of motivation that I think made everything she taught seem important, to her and to us.

Of course I could not have said those things about her then, I could not have even really thought them. As I think about that time now, though, I have the feeling that my impression of her is a true one.

Which subjects she did teach us, though, I no longer remember. Perhaps her humanity, her conviction, and her deep motivation were the most important things she left us with – or left me with anyway. She was a very modest woman too, and she would smilingly acknowledge the merits of another teacher who was the most colorful and probably the best-liked teacher in the school – and his name I have utterly forgotten, for some reason. It was a Dutch name, like the names of many people in that part of Michigan, something like Riemsma or Heersma or something, a name that ended in “-ma,” anyway.

He taught geography in his own wild and inevitable way. He too was very tall, a little fat and practically beardless. He had a loud, deep, booming voice, which he used to great effect. One day – I don’t remember why – he came to school dressed as Simon Legree, drooping moustache, whip and all.

At this point in my life, the memories become vague – or whatever memories remain become confused, a mixture of events and teachers and other pupils that is difficult to organize, almost impossible to place in chronological order.

I do remember one incident at school that I think in some small way is significant, because it shows the degree of disturbance that family life had created in me. We had a teacher in school who taught civics. He was very fat, and he always seemed to have a five o’clock shadow, even early in the morning. His classes were very boring, and his personality was bland. I took an immense dislike to the poor man, and I believe my dislike for him was connected to my dislike for my father that my mother had inculcated in my brother and me. I remember at least one time being openly rebellious in his class, and openly ridiculing him. I think my behavior was so shocking that the poor man knew there was no point in reacting. The school administration did contact my mother, though, and she spoke with me, but of course she couldn’t understand the real cause of my behavior.

I suppose many young adolescent boys rebel against their fathers, even in a normal family situation. My outburst or outbursts – there may have been more than one – were different, though, because they were so public, so emotional, and directed at a person who in many ways seemed as weak as I had been taught my father was. My behavior was not that of a healthy child.

About this same time, my father took an interest in sailing. In the summer he and my mother were always guests of my father’s supervisor, a man named Stern, at the Gull Lake Country Club. Mr. Stern had a sailboat and my father used to crew for him. Before the season started, the boat had to be taken out of storage and prepared for another summer in the water.

One weekend my father and I went with some other men to work on the boat. The day was a memorable one for me, because I felt so lost. I had no idea what in the world I was supposed to do. I felt I couldn’t connect with my father or the other men around me. They were all much older than I was, of course, and yet I felt I should be able to work with them, and yet I couldn’t. I understood nothing about what they were doing, but what was more important, I understood nothing about the way they communicated with one another. They seemed to be speaking a language I could not understand. I almost felt they were living in a kind of parallel universe that I could see, but to which I had no access.

My poor mother had bound me to herself, cut me off from other people so completely that I had no idea how to speak, how to act, how to relate to them.

This was the time, when I was about ten or eleven, when the crises of adolescence were beginning for me in earnest, crises that began early and lasted well beyond the adolescent period that most people go through, crises that lasted for decades in fact.

This is the beginning of the period that is most difficult for me to write about – and this period has lasted really until the present. It is difficult not because there is necessarily anything that I am ashamed of, though I suppose that is a part of it. I am too old now, and the world has changed too much, for me to feel any shame about anything.

Writing from now on will be an ordeal because I have not resolved the question of how to write about my life without seeming to make evil attractive. I suppose that to put it that way may not make much sense. What I mean is this: I have done many things that are wrong in my life, and yet there is an ineradicable part of me that clings to the old ideals and the old ideas about religion and life that I was raised with. I still cannot completely betray those ideals. In fact, I cannot betray them at all.

One element of that religion is the thought that if I do something wrong, I should not tell everyone about it, a priest in confession, yes, but everyone else, no, especially if what I do wrong involves what were once referred to as sins of the flesh.

However, if I do not try in some way to write about that, then the rest of my life makes no sense to anyone who reads about it. And yet writing about it could itself be an evil if what I write is an occasion of sin for others.

Is the only alternative simply to walk into the grave in silence, without leaving any record at all behind that will explain who I am and why I have lived the life I have lived? I suppose I should, and yet I am driven to write about myself. I am driven to cry out to heaven, and from the depths of my heart, on these bloodless pages.

It was in those years, when I was in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades – at the ages of about eleven, twelve, or thirteen – that this problem of what traditionally has been called impurity began for me, this problem that has tortured me most of my life, this problem that I still consider more than a problem because it has been so closely connected with something that has now almost disappeared from our thinking – the idea of sin.

I call it a problem, because at the time that’s what it was, and at the time in which I’m now living that’s what it still is. In the future – if anyone ever reads this in the future – perhaps it will no longer be a problem. One way or another perhaps it will no longer be a problem.

I will never be able to solve this problem in my lifetime, but perhaps I can give some idea of the dimensions of it, so that some solution can be found for others in the future, or, at the very least so that others will understand what one more human being has experienced in his life.

At first, of course, I did not know what was happening to me. I didn’t know that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t know that what I was thinking and feeling was considered wrong by many people.

And at this point resistance sets in again. I think of other writers – much better and much greater writers than I am – who have written quite openly about this aspect of their lives. I think of the mild contempt I felt for them – in my ridiculous pride – because they wrote about such things. I will never do that, I told myself. Better to be quiet. Better not to say anything. Better not to say anything at all than to talk about that.

But I have to talk about it. I am an old man now. I cannot go quietly into the grave without at least trying to leave some record of what I have lived through, what I have experienced, and, yes, what I have suffered. I think to myself: doesn’t justice demand that I write my side of the story? Not that many people will ever hear or read any side at all of my story, but the other side is there: in files at Harvard, in the files that were accumulated when I requested background investigations in connection with applications I made for work with the government – an idea that now seems totally ridiculous.

But the other side exists – the other side of my story, told by others, reported by others. Doesn’t simple justice demand that I try to tell my side? To explain what I was really doing, to explain why I did the things that I did in my life?

Shouldn’t I do that?

Shouldn’t I do that even if it means writing about aspects of my life that once almost disgusted me when I read about them in the lives of others?

Perhaps I can make those aspects somehow less disgusting, or perhaps people in the future will have more understanding for me than I did for writers in the past.

And so it was, when I was in about the fifth grade, at the age of around eleven, that I began to experience what I didn’t understand, what no one had told me about. No one had explained to me what physical relations between boys and girls meant – the things another boy my own age had told me seemed simply incredible – no one had explained any of these things to me at all. These were all things – and I say this with some sadness – that I had to learn about on my own. Why sadness? Because I think it would have been much better if I had had a relationship with my parents that was close enough to allow them to talk about these things with me. But if I had had that kind of relationship with my parents, if I had been raised in a close, loving family, then impurity – as it is traditionally called – would never have become a problem at all.

Children who grow up in healthy families become healthy adults. They are not tortured by or obsessed with the physical elements of their being – if I can put it that way.

The first faint intimation of a problem, so faint that I had no idea of its meaning, no idea that there would even be a problem, came one afternoon at home when I was looking through a magazine and saw an ordinary advertisement. I glanced at the picture and to my surprise I felt a strange new feeling, one that I had no reason then to think was bad or strange or connected to a world of difficulties.

I only knew that when I looked at the picture, I experienced a feeling of happiness and well-being that did not then seem to be particularly physical. The beauty of the face took me by surprise, took me to another level of sensation that was so pleasant I returned to the picture again and again in order to contemplate it as one might contemplate God or a work of art. What I felt wasn’t really pleasure, because at the time there seemed to be no carnal element at all associated with it. What I felt was delight, it was joy. It seemed to belong to another world, a higher and even more spiritual world. I was astonished that such a thing could be.

The picture became something like a secret treasure, a secret room I could enter whenever I wished, a small door behind which lay a breathtaking mystery. Dear God, I was stupid, but how could I have known any better?

Of course everyone will say that religion was the element that was really creating difficulties for me. Without religion, they think, I would have developed into a healthy happy adult. What I believe, though, is that my religious beliefs prevented the descent into a chaos that would have destroyed me – perhaps all that will become a little clearer later on.

It was about this time, around the age of eleven or so, that I had an experience that was strange, but which could be easily explained in quite rational terms. I was at home early one afternoon and I turned on the television and tuned into our local channel in Kalamazoo, WKZO-TV. Suddenly I found myself watching one of the strangest programs I had ever seen, or have ever seen. I felt as those I was looking at a projection of my own future life or two possible projections of my future life.

It was like an experience described in a novel of Hermann Hesse, one of those experiences that seem to occur independently of time and space as we know it. It was one of those experiences that might have been something I dreamed. Certainly it had a dreamlike quality about it.

It was, incredibly, a program about what can happen to a boy when he is too dominated by his mother. Because it fit my situation so perfectly, I am almost convinced that it was a dream, except I know it was not.

It was, however, like watching the various ways my life could develop in the future. The narrator said – or seems to me to have said – as I sat there transfixed, unmoving and silent, that when a boy is dominated by his mother there are two possible ways he can develop – of course I know now that there are an infinite number of ways he can develop, but what I saw in the film then made sense and did contain a great deal of truth.

When a boy is dominated by his mother, he will react in one of two ways, for the rest of his life, I was told. Either he will be spineless and shy – and this possibility was dramatized in scenes from the life of a boy and the man he grew into. Or the boy can grow up to be violent and aggressive, as a way of reacting to the influence of his mother, as a way of trying to prove over and over again to himself that he is really strong, really brave, really a man.

Somehow, what I saw in the film seemed to contain so much truth that I felt paralyzed by grief and fear. Here was a film, I thought, that described my situation exactly, a situation I had to do something about. I was eleven or so, but I was desperate. I seem to remember that my mother and father were in the kitchen as I was watching the film in the livingroom. I wante to run in and tell them – but tell them what? Would they believe me? Would what I said make any sense to them?

Somehow I knew it would not. Somehow I felt I could never describe to them what I had seen and what it meant. I think I was filled with a kind of hopelessness and despair. I think for the first time in my life I had the feeling that I had so often when I was: that the rest of my life stretched before me like a road entering a wasteland of unhappiness. I suppose I’m only feeling sorry for myself now, but I have to say that I think it was a terrible burden for a child, a young boy to have to bear.

Even at that age, though, I thought to myself, as I have so often thought in later years: “This is the way it is. This is the way it has to be. There’s nothing that can be done. I have to accept it. I. Have. To. Just. Go. On. Somehow.”

I forgot about that movie for long periods of time. I never thought about it. What good would it have done? Whatever life I had to lead, I had to lead. Thinking about the movie wouldn’t have changed anything.

And so I began a weird adolescence, weirder than anything I could tell here. It was full of unhappiness, full of the knowledge that there was something fundamentally wrong with the family I was part of. Other children seemed to have happier families, normal families, ours seemed strange in comparison, bizarre.

And yet I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I had to accept what life I had. I could change nothing. I was driven on by forces I had no control over. I had to yield to them or be destroyed.

When I read that last paragraph again, it sounds so pompous, so overblown, so exaggerated. Is it true? Was I really “driven on by forces”? Was it really a question of either “yield or be destroyed”?

How dramatic. And when I put things so dramatically, they don’t sound at all real. Maybe that’s what I really want. It occurs to me that I want it to sound unreal. I want to sabotage my own writing so that no one will read it. I have to write. It gives some purpose to my life. But I want to write in code. I don’t want anyone to read this and laugh at me the way professors in English courses at Harvard laughed at the authors we were studying.

So I write in code, but it is a kind of invisible code. Nothing appears to be encoded, when it fact it is. What I really want to say is encoded in a language, in a style of writing so repulsive that no one will ever read it, will ever want to read it.

The burden presses down, the awful weight trying to smother me, trying to prevent me from speaking. The weight of those at Harvard who said I was crazy, and who must be right, because they occupy or occupied positions of great importance in the world, and I do not.

Why fight against them? Only to be destroyed in the end. What reason is there for doing such a thing? No reason, except that I must try to speak, must try to articulate the strangle cry in my mind as best I can.

“Nothing you can ever say or do,” the world seems to say, “will ever make any difference to anyone.”

And yet I must try. I must go on.


My fifth grade homeroom teacher’s name was Mrs. Hopkins. She was also our history teacher, and history in the fifth grade meant the history of Michigan. That in turn meant the history of the French exploration of that part of North America.

I didn’t understand it then, of course, but one reason for the sense of boredom and frustration that so many school students suffered from was the way subjects like history were taught. The French exploration of that part of the continent now known as Michigan was surely one of the most exciting periods its history. We could have learned what sort of men these explorers were, what drove them on, what ordinary daily obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. We could have learned about the whole range of living experience – the sights and sounds and smells of that world and its peoples – that these men had. We could have tried to understand what it felt like to visit lands that few if any Europeans had ever seen before.

Boys at the age of eleven or twelve are usually hungry for adventure, and this hunger could have been at least partly satiated by showing what a great adventure those early explorers set out on. Instead, as was quite common everywhere then, in schools and universities, history was drained of all sense of emotion, all feeling of life, and presented as something that was pale and bloodless and had no relation at all to the daily lives of us children who were studying it.

And it could have all been so different – and it could have had such an impact on our lives. Students like myself would probably have been less inclined to look for adventure within the narrow confines of our physical nature.

That is what happened, though, and it was even worse for a boy such as I was: always frightened, dependent on his mother, isolated, unable to relate easily to other children. When I think of these things, again and again those words of a young Harvard psychiatrist that I have already mentioned come to mind: “Your mother did her work well.”

The state of mind I was in was dramatically expressed one summer – it may have been that summer before the fifth grade or may have been even earlier. My parents decided that I should spend two weeks at a YMCA summer camp, two weeks that I was never able to finish. The chief feeling during the whole time I was in the camp was one of sheer terror. Not only was I isolated, I was far away from my mother, who was the only person who protected me from total isolation.

I was so unhappy in the camp that the days I was there were spent in an emotional crisis so severe I can hardly remember it. I have a vague memory of continuous crying, and some years later the head of the camp told me that at one point I climbed into one of those upright metal clothes lockers and pulled the door shut – and continued to cry.

I suppose I was afraid of everything at the camp – the new people I had never met before, the other children, the strange surroundings, sleeping with a group of strangers in a tiny wooden cabin, the food, the activities, everything. It was a torture and a hell for me.

I spent my time in the camp in tears and hysterics, until finally my mother and father came to pick me up and take me away. It was the last time I can remember being so afraid of being away from home. I had wanted to run away, and now when I had the chance to be away, at least for a time, I want to be at home. Again, I can hear the young Harvard psychiatrist saying my mother had done her work well.

I have to believe it was all done unconsciously, however, or even if it was done consciously, how much control did the poor woman, so ill in her mind, really have over her actions?

Perhaps this was the first of many contradictions that would appear in later years in my thinking. I wanted adventure but when I could not tolerate even the mild adventure of summer camp.

I wanted to tell you more about my fifth year in school, but right now so many other memories keep flooding back to me. Besides my time in camp, I remember for some reason a poor girl in our class around that time – her last name was Anderson, her first name may have been Barbara. She wore shabby clothes to school and often looked as though she needed to wash her face. She lived with her family in a shabby little building that was practically in the middle of an intersection, quite near the school, where three streets came together.

The other children used to make fun of her and look down on her – and I think I did as well, God forgive me. She was poor. Her whole family was poor. So I suppose the reason I looked down on her – perhaps the reason many of us looked down on her – was that none of us were terribly well off, but the Anderson family was worse off than the rest of us. We simply were able to feel superior.

I feel sorry now, for that poor girl, with her tired, worn dresses, and her tired, worn, childlike expression and dirty blond hair. The sadness in her looks actually reflected the sadness in my own life, a sadness that had barely begun to overtake me.

Whatever cruelties I may have visited on her have been visited on me many times over.

And is the thought of the cruelties inflicted on that poor girl really a substitute in my own mind for cruelties I visited on my own mother? Perhaps. Victims may in a way always be responsible for the injuries they suffer. Perhaps if I had been a different kind of person I would have been able to react to my mother differently. Perhaps I could have been less selfish, less closed off from her, more understanding of neuroses and her craziness.

The problem of course was that I was so caught up in that craziness, that couldn’t stand back from it enough to understand it. It was part of me and I was part of it.

Perhaps some part of me felt pity or felt sorry for my mother, and I directed that sorrow and that pity onto other people, onto people like that poor girl, Barbara Anderson, if that’s what her name was.

I had intended to continue writing about my time in the fifth grade, but I have made so many digressions. And now I have to make another one, a digression on a subject that I will probably make again and again as this story goes on. The subject is Harvard. I am an old man now, but hardly a day passes that I do not feel tortured by the question of what really happened to me at Harvard, a question that this book will hardly resolve, a question that nobody at all will probably ever be able to resolve. After all, how could they? If I can’t say what happened, if I can’t say what the truth is or was, how will anyone else ever be able to? Will they have access to records at Harvard that I don’t have? Possibly. But how accurate or how complete will those records be? And people who might have been able to provide some insight into what happened to me at Harvard have long since passed away.

This digression, this need to give some expression to the pain is perhaps understandable. The problems that destroyed me at Harvard are with me to this day, and they were rooted in my childhood. They were grounded in the fact that I was never able to learn how to get along with anyone my own age. I was never really able to learn, in fact, how to get along with anyone at all. Perhaps “get along” is the wrong expression, though. “Live with,” “work with,” “interact with,” “speak to” would perhaps be more appropriate terms.

Other children were, as I have already said, beings who were kept at a distance as I was growing up. I never learned the normal rules of simple human interaction, unwritten rules that most other people take for granted as they lead their lives in common with others in society.

I was always a loner. I was always lonely. I could do nothing to change myself, though. And for a long time I never saw any reason to change, until it was too late, and then I could not change.

All of that started in childhood, and by the time I reached it Harvard, my existence was programmed for disaster. I was so isolated at Harvard, although to me that seemed normal. I never thought of myself then as isolated, or even particularly lonely. It was just the way things were, it was just the way I was.

As time went on, though, and a Harvard administrator sent me to see one of the psychiatrists at the University Health Center, the disaster that could have been prevented if I had simply been able to relate to other people better than I did, that disaster had taken shape around me and became perhaps inevitable.

And the thought of it tortures me to this day.

But again, I have to say that at the age of eleven or twelve, I saw the disaster coming, like a poor dumb animal caught at night in the headlights of an onrushing vehicle, helpless to turn and run. I had not only seen the television program that foretold all the effects a domineering mother and passive father can have on a child’s life. I also felt within me those effects, and felt them weighing down on me and extending themselves far into the future.

“When I see you walking to school sometimes, you’re always walking with your head down,” said one of the girls in my class one day. “You’re always looking straight at the ground as you walk.”

And she was right. The weight bearing down on me was too great. The depression forming in me and wrapping around me like a cocoon was more than I could deal with.

But I continued on during the fifth grade with the history lessons that were no history lessons, but simply a catalogue of past events. I continued on into the sixth grade. I don’t remember who my homeroom teacher was then – so much of the past is disappearing from my mind as I write, and I don’t remember much of what happened that year. But it was around that time – perhaps that year or a year later – that we began the study of Latin in school.

Latin was the first great intellectual adventure. It was the first chance I had to do what I had always wanted to: learn a foreign language. It was not a living language and it was not taught in the way I had once thought foreign languages must surely be taught – through some strange, mysterious process – but it was a foreign language. And our teacher, Mrs. Michelson, was very, very good.

She taught the language in the disciplined, organized way that was then the norm and that I found agreeable and challenging. I loved the vocabulary, words I had never seen before, and I couldn’t get enough of the exploration of this strange new landscape of grammar. Nouns with gender. Cases. All those delicious verb endings. It was all like a kind of food that I discovered my mind had been hungry for.

In the midst of all that intellectual adventure, one very odd thing occurred. For some reason, the passive form of the verb “to have” in Latin, seemed to me to be extremely funny. I had no idea what the phrase “I have been had” meant in English, but I kept repeating it over and over again in Latin and laughing, as though it were the most amusing joke in the world. Mrs. Michelson looked at me a little strangely one day, as I left the classroom saying “I have been had, I have been had” in Latin and then laughing at what I apparently thought was a great witticism.

Was it a coincidence? Or had I heard the phrase in English somewhere and vaguely understood what it meant? Had I then applied it not only to my own situation in life at the age of eleven or twelve but to all the years that stretched out endlessly before me?

Probably that was the case. I knew, I could sense, that there was something radically wrong with our family, though I could never have put it into words. I could not even define it clearly for myself. I only knew that my classmates family’s seemed different. They were all somehow normal in those innocent days in the decade of the fifties. They were all happier, it seemed than we were. The mothers did not give the impression that madness or hysteria lay just beneath the surface of their personality. The fathers were likeable men, who seemed to care for their sons, whose wives did not try to separate them from their sons, as my mother did with my father and me and even with my father and my brother.

Of course those families were probably not as normal or as happy as they seemed to me, but I think they were a good deal more normal and happier than my family was.

School was in many ways an escape from all that. School was above all an orderly place, physically and intellectually, and more than anything else order was what I longed for then, since there was so little of it at home.


If school was a way out of the psychological disorder of home, so was the church, at a time when the disorder was threatening to become overwhelming.

The following happened around the time I have been writing about, in the summer.

Our family lived only a mile or so from the church, but it seemed much farther away that day. I was terrified of speaking to the priest, but I was more terrified that if I did not speak to him, everything would be lost. I wanted so much to lead a good life, but in all the overwhelming disorientation of early adolescence, leading a good life and being good seemed almost impossible to me — I just didn’t know how I could possibly be good.I felt I had done things that were very wrong, and I wanted to go to confession and have all that wrong corrected. I needed to have things set right.

I arrived at the rectory, a solid brick building, a refuge with its heavy gothic door and diamond-paned windows. The lawn around it smelled clean and sweet in the early summer breeze.

My limbs felt dull and heavy as I walked up to the door and rang the bell. There was a part of my mind that did not want to go on, did not want to enter that building, but I had already come this far, I thought. I couldn’t turn back now.

I also knew that in a little while it would be over; there would be an end to it. That terrible weight of heaviness and grief and pain would soon be cut away, and I would be able to walk out into the bright, fresh summer morning with a sense of lightness and freedom and peace. I would be able to look at a world that shone with newness. I would be free of guilt and fear, free of the dead weight that seemed to be dragging me down, the dead weight of all the things I was convinced I had done wrong in my young life.

That has always been the effect on me. It has always meant a new beginning: all sins forgiven, the marks of sin erased, a kind of — and here I know most people would probably really laugh — a kind of miraculous restoration of innocence. That is what I had been taught, and that is what I knew with every fiber of my being. That is what I have always believed in my heart of hearts, no matter what else I may have thought.

What I did not know that day, what I was too young to understand, was that this was also the beginning of what is only a long — and here most people would laugh again — twilight struggle. It was the first action in what is the ancient struggle of our life in this world, the endless effort to do the right thing, or at least to wish to do the right thing. It was the first movement in the interior battle that I would read about one summer, many years later, in a Carthusian monastery, in a cell flooded with the sunlight of Vermont. It was a fight I have often recoiled from, but which I now know I can never escape.

However, I knew nothing about all of that then, on that afternoon at the age of twelve or so, when the housekeeper came to the door of the rectory, the kind of housekeeper who seems to inhabit almost every Catholic rectory I have ever visited: not very tall, impassive, and with a certain toughness, as if something in her had been battered about for a long time, and she had learned to survive in spite of it all.

I wanted to see the priest, I told her. She glanced at me sharply and then opened the door wide to let me in. She took me into an immaculate, austerely furnished waiting room, and I sat down. I could hear the birds in the trees just outside the window and see the curtains moving slowly back and forth in the summer breeze; they were familiar things, but all I could do was shiver from fear and apprehension, as though I were waiting to be executed.

I knew, though, that the only way to resolve the impossible dilemma that confronted me was to make a clean breast of things, to let it all pour out without keeping any of it back. I was certain everything would be easier after that.

What I knew had no effect on what I felt. I sat there cold with fear in the summer warmth. I had been to confession before, of course, but this time it was different. There seemed to be so much more at stake that day. My life had reached a turning point, and that day would in a sense put a mark on me that could never be erased, because, young boy that I was, I had imprinted on my mind the decision once and for all to live the kind of life I had been taught I should live. From then on, in spite of years of what seemed to be failure I would go on trying to live that kind of life, through all the years that sometimes appeared to be filled with little else except what I can only call — even though I know the words will sound ridiculous to many others — a sense of sin. However I also had — and this I know will sound even more ridiculous — an occasional sense of the hidden stirrings of grace.

I suppose that if on that day I was like a boy waiting for his death sentence to be carried out, it was because there was a part of me that was in fact half-expecting to die, the selfish and greedy, materialistic part of me, the part where all of the passions and disorder of the average adult were beginning to flourish. But there was another element in me that wanted to survive and to dominate all that was self-centered and grasping in my spirit. This other element longed for something more, something higher than the everyday world I saw around me. This other part of me would eventually find at least an adolescent happiness in sitting in silence and thinking about some of the ancient phrases I had read, such as, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole soul and your whole mind and your whole strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

I knew even as a boy that the selfish, greedy part of me would have to die, if the other part were going to live. Of course, that smaller, meaner self did not die that day, or the next, or for many days and years after that. It has not died completely even yet, although the longer I live the more moribund it becomes. This is natural, I suppose, because all the desires that are formed by that less attractive part of ourselves inevitably tend toward death and end only in one kind of death or another. It may, therefore, require long years of struggle and suffering and failure before their end finally approaches.

As I was sitting there in that rectory parlor, lost little man that I was, and turning some of these ideas around in my mind as well as I could, the door opened and a priest walked into the room.

He was the assistant pastor in the parish, and even though I had often seen him at Mass, I had never talked with him face to face before. From my perspective as a twelve-year-old, he seemed well into middle age, although I suppose he must have been hardly more than thirty, perhaps even younger. He had always impressed me as rather stern, and I thought he was not at all the kind of priest who was likely to have much of an intuitive understanding of my problems or my personality. I had never, in fact, even seen him smile; he seemed always to have a very severe expression on his dark, pock-marked face. I knew he had been a military officer before becoming a priest, and it seemed to me that that experience had shaped him much more than the priesthood had. However, I had been taught to see him as Christ, especially in a situation where I wanted him to administer the sacrament of penance, and I am glad I was able to see him that way. I know, though, such an idea would amuse or, in some cases, scandalize many of the other people I have met in the course of my life.

When he sat down, I abruptly blurted out what had been troubling me. He looked startled and said, “Excuse me for a moment,” and then suddenly left the room. I was so completely absorbed in my own fears and problems that nothing he did would have seemed unusual to me. I only sat there, in a kind of daze, feeling a sense of relief that the worst was over, feeling sure that I was well on the way to becoming what I wanted to become. That process, however, would take very much longer than I expected it to that morning.

When he returned, he asked me — quite calmly and self-assuredly — why I thought that being good was such a difficult thing, and we went on talking for what seemed like a long time. Finally, when I went to confession and told him about all of the elements in my thinking and in my soul that I considered so dark, he was much more understanding than I had expected, and he responded with an honesty and a sincerity that intensified the meaning of his words and impressed them deeply on my mind. He spoke, of course, about the importance of prayer and the sacraments; priests always do. Ever since that day, though, whenever I have heard that advice it has always had the same freshness and validity it had then.

He told me that being good was not like receiving an academic degree or being accepted into a profession. It meant a long twilight struggle that would last all my life, and although this thought was hard and bitter for me, I should have understood even then that being good is a struggle for everyone, and perhaps the better the person, the more terrible the struggle can be. I should have understood that all this is true for every human being, for every saint, for everyone who believes God and his goodness is the most important thing. I had been taught, though, that life should mean happiness and contentment. It was certainly not supposed to be a hard and bitter struggle, and I didn’t know that the idea that such a struggle might itself bring happiness would seem nonsensical to most people.

I didn’t understand either that no matter how much we may struggle, no matter how difficult the struggle may be, and no matter if we see a reason for happiness in that struggle, the final outcome may depend not on our own efforts and prayers, but on someone else’s. After all, Monica prayed for Augustine’s conversion for twenty long years.

Fortunately, that day when I was twelve I never asked myself how long I would have to pray. If I had asked myself that question, what would I have answered? A year, ten years, twenty? How would I have felt if someone had told me then what I was told a long time afterward: we should continue to pray until our prayer — one way or another — is heard and answered. That’s the kind of prayer God expects. He doesn’t want us to let him off the hook, so to speak.

That day in the rectory, though, what would that desperate little boy have done if he had know how many years of prayer would be demanded of him — and perhaps of others who were praying for him? He might, it is true, prepared himself, but on the other hand he might have nearly despaired.

He was probably better off not knowing. In any case, Many people would probably say that little boy put himself through really needless pain by going to see the priest that day. To me, of course, it seems that by suffering that pain, I became happier and more contented than I would have otherwise. I am convinced that if I had not spoken to the priest that day, my life would have continued on a downward spiral toward the worst kind of self-destruction. Perhaps not literally, but one way or another the existence of the person I was then would have ended. I would never have survived the long years of wandering. I would never have managed to find any sense of purpose.

However, by talking to the priest about what seemed to me to be all of the darkness in my soul, by telling him about all of the things I had done that I knew to be wrong, all of the confusion and disorder in my mind disappeared long enough for me to redirect my life along an entirely new and different path. I began to see that everything could make sense, that I could discover meaning in the world I saw around me. The meaning of life was simply to try to be a good man, no matter how often I might fail, no matter how great the odds against me might seem. Even more than that, life meant wanting to love goodness, knowing and loving God to whatever degree might be possible.

As a boy of twelve or thirteen, I could not have articulated these ideas in quite the way I do now. Still, this was the world I began to discover then, and this was the way I began to see myself, my life, and everything around me. Real understanding — or at least deeper understanding would come much later. On that summer day, though, when the boy I was climbed back onto his bicycle and rode toward home under the bright, warm sun, everything began to be different in ways I had no conception of. Nothing would ever be quite the same for me again. The adventure had begun.


I was able to forget for a time that adventures can be frightening, terrible, dangerous and sometimes tragic, that they can also often be sad and depressing.

But it would be some time before any real adventures started for me. In those days of lingering childhood, the closest I came to adventure was “exploring” in the open countryside not far from our house. In the summer I used to walk and walk through what I imagined to be undiscovered or at least half-forgotten territory: along abandoned railroad tracks, around large empty houses I imagined were really castles and along partly overgrown paths through woods, across the open fields and rolling woods of southern Michigan.

When summer was over, there was the security of school again – except for the dreaded “physical education” or “gym class.” I suppose it wouldn’t have been so bad if all we’d had to do was perform physical exercises. That I could. That was no problem. It was games, it was sports that terrified me, because I had never been allowed to get involved with things like that with other children.

If I had been more outgoing and ready to take chances and risks, I suppose things wouldn’t have been so bad. But I was a painfully shy boy. Years alone in a house with only your brother and parents as company can do strange things to a boy, can turn him into a shy, fearful individual. He finds it impossible suddenly to begin acting like other boys, playing games like other boys, participating in sports like other boys.

And that is especially true if he was raised with the idea that sports and athletics were a stupid, pointless activity. And who was the one person in our poor family who could have given me such an idea, the one sad person who had all the power, the one who dominated everything? Certainly not my father, poor man.

There was one person on my side, though, and that made all the “phys ed” activities a little easier. Our teacher was a man name Mr. Meyers, a big, strong man, grey hair, in his forties, tough and at the same time gentle with pupils like me. I only partly realized it at the time, but he knew the kind of pain I was suffering. He knew how shy I was and how difficult it was for me to get involved in sports. He also knew how important it would have been for me if I had been able to get involved.

There was little he could do, though, to protect me or help me, except that I understood he was on my side, and that alone was of some help. That limited help and sympathy was better than the active ridicule I had been subjected to by other gym teachers earlier in my school years.

I remember once when I had decided to go out for basketball, of all things – I wasn’t a very tall boy, but I thought I could learn to play basketball. Of course I had never played basketball with other boys, the way they had played with each other, in their back yards, in their driveways, using basketball hoops their fathers had built.

But I thought I could learn. I wanted to learn, even though I took no real interest in the game. It wasn’t something that was fun for me to do. It was more like an obligation I thought I had to fulfill, something I thought I should do, for my own good. And in that I suppose I was right.

On the first day of basketball practice I went to the locker room, changed my clothes, and then went into the gym – it seemed so cold and barren to me – with the other boys. One of them, David Cook, had come to dislike me for some reason, and when we started the practice he began to make fun of me unmercifully, perhaps not in ways that were terribly obvious, but at least in ways that seemed to cut deep into me.

I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t go on with the practice. I simply left, the way I would leave so many places and situations in the future when things became difficult for me. Mr. Meyers, I knew, wanted to help, wanted to do something, but there was nothing he could do. I had to stand up for myself, and I couldn’t, and there was nothing he could do for.

What he did do, though, and this I saw clearly in the days and weeks and months that followed, was in many little ways to treat David Cook the way David Cook had treated me. I discovered then that there are times when there is some justice in the world, though things don’t often work out that way.

Of course, I can’t really say I took any satisfaction in David Cook’s “punishment,” if that’s what it was. I liked him and admired him and wanted to be his friend, and I wanted him to be my friend as well. If he didn’t like me and wanted to exclude from any circle he was part of and then was punished by a teacher for behaving badly toward me, that could bring me no happiness or satisfaction. The only thing that could have made me happy would have been to be friends with him, and to be more like him – athletic, outgoing, competent, to whatever degree those words have any meaning when for people who are thirteen or fourteen.

Of course, there was another reason why I could not feel happy when he was punished. I believed – some would say I had internalized – so deeply, everything that I had learned about the Catholic faith that I thought I had to accept, humbly and submissively, everything that happened to me. Humility was everything, I thought, and still do think.

People will laugh and say I was – and am – stupid or weak because I believe such a thing, but that too is something I was taught I should accept, and not simply accept but receive with joy.

How did I acquire such ideas? The talk with the priest during the summer made an impression, was part of the process of acquiring these beliefs, but the process began much earlier, in the catechism classes I was sent to every Saturday morning. It seems strange now that my mother would have sent me to such classes – and later my brother, although they seemed not to have the same impact on him.

My mother did send me to those classes, though, and the impression they made on me as a child has lasted my entire life, and will last until I die. It seems surprising to me now that my mother – or perhaps both my parents – would have wanted me to attend these Sunday school classes. Looking back on what I know of their lives, it doesn’t seem that religion was ever very important to them, certainly not so important that they would go to the trouble of sending me, and later my brother, to catechism class.

I suppose, though, that my ideas about my parents must be wrong. Religion or the Catholic Church must have had some meaning and importance for them, because every Saturday morning my mother or father drove me to the old Catholic school – St. Joseph’s – about a five or ten minute drive from our house, and there I used to sit in an old-fashioned classroom with old-fashioned desks and listen to one of the sisters tell us about God.

Of course perhaps there was another reason why I was sent to catechism classes. Perhaps part of the reason was that my parents simply wanted me out of the house so that they could be alone for a few hours. If that were the case, though, then my brother and I would have had to attend catechism classes together, or different classes at the same time on Saturday mornings. I don’t remember that that happened. It seems to me that I went there alone. I don’t remember my brother going with me. So perhaps the main reason for the classes was that my parents, or at least my mother, really did want me to learn something about the Church.

And learn I did. I took the classes very seriously. The nuns, the teachings of the church, everything made a deep impression on me. I was eager to learn about everything I was confronted with in life, and since I was at that crucial, formative time presented with the Catholic faith, it was toward the Catholic faith that this eagerness was directed.

The nuns in the old, austere habits. The ancient, spotlessly clean classroom in the otherwise – on Saturdays – vacant school building, where everything – wall panelling, floors, desks – seemed to be made of darkened wood that shone from years of waxing and polishing. The smell of fresh, clean floorwax always seemed to be lingering in the air.

When I think of that world now, I think to myself what an utterly vanished world it is. It might as well have existed five hundred or a thousand years ago. In contrast to others, I remember it as a calm, sane, reasonable world, perhaps because it was located in the American Middle West, where at that time practically everything about middle-class life seemed calm, sane, and reasonable, not only on the surface but very often in the depths as well.

The nuns were gentle and kind. They had a deep conviction that what they were doing was important, that it was worth the sacrifices they had had to make in order to become nuns and teachers. The lessons were quiet and orderly and, for me at least, utterly absorbing. We sat at the old-fashioned wooden desks that looked as though they had been designed in the nineteenth century, if not manufactured then. No one spoke except the nun who was teaching the class, which I certainly did not feel was an uncomfortable restrait, and as far as I could tell, neither did any of the other students. There was no fooling around.

There were three things in that class that impressed me the most. The first one was that old question in the Baltimore Catechism: Why did God make me? At that time, of course, I simply memorized the answer without thinking much about it – it was really much later in life that I understood that the question had impressed itself on my half-conscious mind because it was of crucial importance. It was a question that most people asked in life, although they often expressed it in different terms: Why am I here? What is the point? Why am I living? What is the meaning of existence?

At times when I too would ask these questions, the answer always came back to me from my childhood, from that ancient classroom, and it always seemed to be the only answer that made sense: The meaning of life is to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next.

The other two catechism lessons I cannot forget were the teachings about the ten commandments and the crucifixion of Christ. I felt a sense of satisfaction in being able to memorize the ten commandments, perhaps even a sense of pride. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been able to feel a sense of satisfaction in keeping them. I mean, unfortunately I haven’t kept them at all.

Of all the commandments, the one I seemed to understand best as a child, or at least the one that impressed me the most, was the first one: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” This one seemed to me somehow to be the most beautiful, the most interesting. All of the others were quite boring or incomprehensible. I had no interest in stealing or killing or bearing false witness against my neighbor or coveting my neighbor’s ox. As for adultery, the nuns said that would be explained to us later, so whatever it was, it was irrelevant to me then.

But “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me,” that was something that seemed quite interesting. Who was this “God”? And what “strange gods” could there possibly be that I would have “before” him? And what did that mean, exactly – to have “strange gods before” God? It was all very puzzling, but somehow interesting as well.

The most interesting event, though, that we discussed in these Saturday classes, and also the most terrible, was the crucifixion. That was something very different, and even to call it “interesting” is wrong. It was something I used to ponder with a real sense of awe and dread, or with as much awe and dread as I was capable of then.

I had an image of myself stretched out on a cross lying on the ground, looking at each of my hands just before nails were pounded through them. I could not imagine how I could endure something like that, and frankly, I was glad to think that I would never have to. I was sorry that Christ had to endure it. I was sorry anyone had to endure it, and the fact that Christ did have to endure made an impression on me that is a living memory for me to this day.

I will mention all this again later, because it was so important for me. I suppose it must have been the most important thing I learned in those catechism classes, or at least it’s the thing I remember most. Do I remember it, though, because I think my life eventually became one long crucifixion, or did my life became a crucifixion because of that lesson? Or possibly a little of both?

Whatever the truth may be, I believe we will learn it one day. That is the only hope I have. The truth. Yes. Why is it so important? Why do our minds long to fasten on the truth? Why are we obsessed with finding out the truth? Why do I feel this inexpressible yearning to know the truth about my childhood and youth and about the time I was a student at Harvard?

I am convinced it is because the truth is an essential component of the universe. The truth is what the whole frame of the universe is based on. If we do not bring our minds into conformity with the truth, if we do not establish that what we know agrees with the truth, then our existence becomes intolerable.

That is one reason why I’m writing this, although I admit I do not know if it will ever be possible to know the truth and to apply it to my life.

I have no choice, though. I have to try.

On the other hand, perhaps I will discover that the truth is much different that I think. Perhaps I will discover that it is much larger than I think. Perhaps I will discover that the truth goes beyond the simple question of what happened to me at Harvard, because in the final analysis, there is no truth but God. God is the truth we are looking for – I am looking for – and God is the truth we will one day find. God is the only truth that really counts.

In the meantime, though, on this slow journey to Him, I will write as much as I can about my life, in whatever way I can. Perhaps it is the writing that is really my journey to Him, my journey to the truth.

At Harvard, I saw “Veritas” everywhere.


At the end of the first part of the catechism classes, I made my first Communion; at the end of the second part, I was confirmed. These events were important to me, but because of the reaction of some of the people around me, I realized that they must have a greater significance than I realized.

This was especially true for my confirmation. We had a neighbor who was my sponsor, and he and his wife appeared to gave me the impression, from the things they said and from the way that they said them, that something was happening that was terribly important for me.

Of course, to discover just how important, I would have to be able to live my life over again without being confirmed and see what the difference would be. I think it would be very great. Whether it would be better or worse, however, would depend on who was judging my life and what values and criteria he was using.

One of the things that happened not long after I was confirmed was the onset of suffering in my life. Growth and maturity always mean suffering, and confirmation means growth and maturity. Of course at the time time, I didn’t see the connection.

I see it now, though. I hadn’t learned at that time that whenever we set out on the way to God – in however a clumsy and inchoate fashion that may happen – we have to reach Him through the royal road of suffering, certainly part of the time, and certainly at the beginning.

For me the suffering lay not only in the family I was part of, and which was beginning to break up then, it lay also in the fact that everything I had learned in Catechism class was opposed to the world that was starting awaken within me, the world of the passions, of selfishness, of self-deception, of covetousness and all the rest.

Fortunately, though, the suffering, the internal conflict, and the confusion were at the age of thirteen or fourteen somewhat mitigated by two factors – and I can’t emphasize this often enough – school and the church. When I was in school, when I was learning and studying in the orderly way it was possible to learn and to study in school then, I was free of the psychic disorder and confusion that seemed to afflict the house I lived in with my mother and father and brother. Since I could not run away from it, I could escape the mental turmoil only in the safety of the classroom.

As for my own inner turmoil, it was possible to escape that through the restraints I imposed on myself by trying to follow the teachings of the church, blindly, without thinking, or at least only thinking of God, or trying to think of God, as best I could in my childish way. There was nothing else that could prevent my life, my inner life and my external life, from sliding into complete disorder.

At school, the only exception to the security I felt there was in the area of sports. There I felt completely vulnerable, completely exposed. I could play none of the sports that the other boys could. I had never learned. I had never been encouraged. In fact, I had always been actively discouraged by my parents. As I’ve said, my mother constantly made me feel sports were a waste of time and somehow “unworthy” of me, while my poor father seemed always to make fun of me for being clumsy at sports.

So often in the past I wondered what my life would have been like if my parents had treated me differently, if they had encouraged me to participate and sports, if they had made me feel good about my athletic abilities, instead of apparently doing everything to discourage and even to crush them.

Of course my life would have been very different. I would have had the chance to make friends and to learn how to live and work with my peers. I wouldn’t have been a loner. I would have been more outgoing and perhaps even happier.

On the other hand, as I’ve already said, my life could have been much worse. My parents could have done even greater damage than they unwittingly did. I might not have survived at all, physically or mentally. I might be dead.

I am alive, though, still, whatever harm I suffered, and whatever life I have left can be used to try to make the world a little better before I leave it. I can use my life to try to leave behind some small record – imperfect, but still a record – of what my life was, in the hope that this record might prevent the destruction of the lives of other young men and boys, that this record might prevent the kind of destruction that occurred in my life.

And my own life? I believe my life will continue. I believe I have eternity to look forward to. This is not the only life I will ever lead. There is another existence beyond this life. There is at least one universe beyond this one: the universe of heaven. And perhaps those physicists are right, the ones who think there may be still other universes waiting to be explored.

I believe the destruction and suffering that has taken place in my life is nothing compared to the splendor of what will someday follow. I believe the destruction and suffering that has taken place in my life is nothing compared to the destruction and suffering that might have been.

And so I feel glad and happy and grateful and full of what people can hardly bring themselves to mention anymore – joy – because I am alive. I suppose I am strange, I am eccentric, perhaps even as crazy the psychiatrist at Harvard said I was. I know that everything I write here sounds eccentric or crazy, but I can’t do anything about that. This is the way I am.

Anyway, to try to return to my story: at the same time that the catechism classes were going on, I was of course still attending school and suffering the painful embarassments that that sometimes involved. The months passed, the years passed. I tried to be good. I tried to follow all of the rules I had learned in catechism, because, as I have said so often, they were the only thing that gave any order to my life, in the increasingly crazy atmosphere of the house our family lived in.

I suppose I should emphasize once more that at that time, in the nineteen-fifties, television was already an important influence on my life and on the lives of millions of other children. It provided an escape, a way out of the boredom, pain, and confusion of my everyday life.

I remember watching all kinds of television programs then, most of them of no intellectual value. There was one program, though, that I looked forward to every Sunday, because – although I wouldn’t have expressed it in quite these terms then – it offered an insight into a much larger and more interesting world, what amounted almost to a new universe for me. It was a program called Omnibus.

Omnibus was hosted by a man names Alistair Cooke, an American born and raised in England, who later became something of a legend in public television in the United States. Until the time of Omnibus, however, Cooke was largely unknown, but Omnibus made him rather famous, at least among people like me, among children and adults who found the intellectual content of Omnibus fascinating and startling, an opening into a world where art and the life of the mind appeared to be the only things that counted. It was a universe that I as a child had never even suspected could exist.

My memories of the program are symbolized by a melody that was played on two or three of its broadcasts. It was short, played on a small number of instruments, and had a haunting quality than remains with me to this day, nearly fifty years later. That melody symbolizes for me now the appeal, the allure, the subtle attraction of the life of the mind, in all its depth and simplicity, a life that I was exposed to for the first time in those very early teenage years, and which has, in one way or another, been one of the driving forces of my own life ever since.

Most of the time, though, in those early teenage years, almost all of what I watched on television was sheer nonsense. Omnibus was the exception. Much of the nonsense I couldn’t understand very well, but I watched it just the same. The comedy programs with entertainers like Jack Gleason, Sid Caesar, and Imogene Coca made fun of the absurdities of the life that human beings have created for themselves, and that was something I was beginning to be able to grasp.

I also watched comedians like Garry Moore, when I was home in the afternoon, during school vacations for example. I used to think there was a certain physical resemblance between Moore and my own father. I wished, though, that the resemblance didn’t end there. I wished that my father were as warm, friendly and jovial as the comedian seemed to be. I wished that the relationship between me and my father hadn’t been destroyed, though at that age I may not have thought in those terms, and almost certainly I did not blame my mother for her role in the destruction of the relationship.

At other times, instead of comedy or variety shows, I watched the movies that were shown on television then. Where television movies are concerned, the ones I remember now were the horror movies of the thirties and forties, which I was able to understand and which, like television comedy, perhaps also reflected one side of life that I was beginning to know. Life was a horror, but all you could do was laugh. That is what I suppose I thought, at some level. At another level, ideas about the workings of God in the universe were also beginning to dawn on me, but only in a vague and tenuous way.

Almost everything about those years when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen or fifteen seems vague to me now, a confusion of disparate memories. The love of Latin and the fear of athletics – these things are still with me. As I have already said, Latin was a delight and athletics torture. In Latin class I was fascinated by the possibility of expressing thoughts – at least simple thoughts – in this strange new way. It didn’t matter to me that no one spoke Latin any more, it was the idea of be able to give ideas this new form, a form that was a language and at the same time a kind of code that could be understood by other minds that inhabited a world of the intellect that even then I was groping toward.

I think it would have been easier for me to reach that world if I had not had it drilled into me that athletics was somehow unworthy of me, if I had not learned that sports and athletics was something I should both scorn and fear.

If I had not acquired those ideas from my poor, destructive mother, then I would have been a healthier human being, one who would have been able to use his own intellect to expand that greater world of the intellect that I so longed to reach.

So am I feeling sorry for myself and claiming to be a victim? Possibly, but I don’t think so. I thing I’m simply trying to relate the course of my life as it happened. In many ways, far from being a victim, I believe I have been extraordinarily lucky. I’m lucky to be alive, lucky to exist at all, lucky I wasn’t or didn’t die before I was born. I’m lucky to have survived all those potentially disastrous and fatal periods of my life. I’m lucky I was able to use my mind at all. I’m lucky I can still use it.

And perhaps most of all, I’m lucky that I don’t really believe it was luck at all, but the care of that one Person who is responsible for the existence of everything, who is responsible for the ultimate good end of every course of events in the universe.

I can’t write about such things very convincingly, though. Is it because I don’t really believe them? Possibly, but it could also be because I am not strong enough to resist the influence of a culture that has forgotten the “grammar” of God, as it were, a culture that has forgotten how to even speak of God.

All of these questions, though, were present in my mind only in a nascent, inchoate, inexpressible form when I was in my early teens. I was too concerned with the simple necessities of survival at school in a small midwestern American town in the nineteen-fifties. That school, if it still exists, would seem very small to me now, if I were to go back and visit it again. In those days, though, it seemed very large.

It consisted of two buildings set in one corner of an enormous field that must have covered some thousands of square meters. The field was bounded on three sides by streets and on the fourth side by a long row of houses set in back of a row of trees. Most of the area was used for various playing fields for baseball and football.

One of the school buildings dated from the nineteen-forties. It was a three-story, brick structure that was maintained in excellent condition. It contained classrooms for the lower grades. In the early nineteen-fifties a quite different school building was added to the complex. It was a low, sleek, single-storey, concrete and glass structure, quite modern for the period, and it contained classrooms for the higher grades, up through grade nine. At that point students left for either Central High School, the public school downtown, or the more elitist and selective University High School on the campus of the local state university.

Near the end of the story of my years in school, I realize there are many things I haven’t told, things I wish I could tell and not tell at the same time, things I wish I could find a way of telling, but it’s hopeless. How could I tell about the classmates I felt a kind of hero-worship for? They were all good in athletics, something that I was not, but of course none of them had the least interest in the intellectual life.

Not James Schaefer who I thought looked like Tom Corbett, a “space cadet” in a popular television science fiction series. Certainly not David Taylor, the blond, clean-cut football hero. Not David Cook, the darker – in every sense – and more conflicted athlete. And most definitely not David Reynolds, the budding hoodlum who used to describe all of his fantasies to me.

All those stories will never be told I’m afraid. They belong to my own darker and more conflicted world, one that I have always tried to bury and always will. There is one story, though, that I perhaps can tell. It is not very revealing, but it does say something about me and my state of mind at that time.

I remember once trying to play basketball at the YMCA, when I was about eleven or twelve years old. My friend James Schaefer was there. I don’t even remember if we were on the same team or on opposite teams. I do remember, though, that I suddenly became nearly obsessed with the idea that there was something wrong with my legs. Compared with James Schaefer’s legs, I thought, mine seemed to bend slightly inward at the knees. That was the reason it seemed to me, that I couldn’t play sports, the reason that I was “not well co-ordinated,” as my mother used to tell me.

Of course there was nothing at all wrong with my legs. It was entirely my imagination. But there was something with whatever it is in our psyche that “legs” represent: good psychological health, inner strength, mental balance, self-confidence. Here there was something wrong, here something had been destroyed in me during those years since the time that I wanted to run away from home because something in me sensed that if I stayed in that environment I would be destroyed.

God knows my poor mother tried to do what she could to improve the environment. Somehow we managed to have a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the house, which must have cost her or my father many weeks pay. The volumes we had must have been printed in that short period between the time Eisenhower became president and King George VI died, because I can remember looking at them and being fascinated by the dedication, which, unless my memory is faultier than I thought, ran something like: “To the heads of the two English-speaking peoples, Dwight David Eisenhower and King George VI.”

Even though I couldn’t really read many of the articles with much understanding, I loved to look at some of the photographs of the historic documents that the encyclopedia contained. For some reason, the Magna Carta stirred some strange excitement in me then.

The photographs of objects taken from ancient Egyptian tombs made me want to be an archeologist.

Besides the encyclopedia, though, my mother – or perhaps both my parents – decided it would be good for my brother and me to take some piano lessons. Again, God only knows why. At any rate, we started, and must have continued for two or three years. I never had much of a feeling for music, so the effort was largely wasted, I suppose. Perhaps, though, in some small way, the distant, crippled contact with Bach and some of the other great composers enabled me to take one more step toward a larger world, one that most of the other children my age would never even suspect existed.

I am tempted at this point to say that all the efforts of those years were in the end largely wasted – the books, the encyclopedia, the piano lessons, all in the end perhaps really led to nothing. For even though, many years later, I was able to reach Harvard, my poor mother’s will to destruction negated any benefits she may have wanted to provide me with when I was a child, and Harvard itself may have been largely wasted on me.

When I am tempted to write such things, however, I remind myself that we can never know what ultimate effect our lives may have on the world. A man can be president and in the end achieve almost nothing, or one can be a doorkeeper and change the world.

Aside from those aspects of my life – and the darker ones that I can’t bring myself to write about – there were other aspects of my life in school that I haven’t told about and can. There was, for example, the beginning of all those illusions that I developed later in life and that caused so many problems, illusions that I suppose I still believe in, even though they do not cause so many problems now that I am older.

There was first of all the “hero” illusion, which I suppose many children have, but the problem was that I never really have recognized it as an illusion. I still cast myself in the role of hero, in my imagination, though there has been nothing in my life that would justify such an idea.

It may have begun with a book about Robin Hood that I can remember reading in those early teenage years. I remember being at the YMCA reading that book, waiting for my mother to come and pick me up after the weekly regular workout in the swimming pool. I sat in one corner of the dingy, plain waiting room near the front door, and worked my way slowly and patiently through the book, trying to relive the adventures of a hero who had lived in a colorful, exciting world, where nothing was confusing or depressing and where everything made sense.

Having Robin Hood as a hero of course seems a little ridiculous now, but I had an even more ridiculous hero then.

I saw “The Student Prince” at this point in my life. The film was produced in the early nineteen-fifties, and naturally I saw myself in the title role. I focused on the idea of the Student Prince as the happy, cheerful leader and the center of attention, leaping up onto a table in a beer garden lifting a tankard and bursting into song, surrounded by happy, respectful fellow students. The ending of the story of course also made an impact on me, but not as much as the rest of it.

So these were the sorts of heroes I had then. Is it wrong to have such heroes? I don’t really know. I’m inclined to think it was, because the discrepancy between those heroes and my own life was obviously so great that there was no possibility that I could ever achieve them. On the other hand, is it wrong for children to have such heroes and such ideals? Don’t most or many children have them?

They do, of course, but perhaps I acquired the habit of holding on to the illusion that I could emulate those heroes and achieve those ideals. Anyway, that’s what a psychiatrist at Harvard once indicated many years later when I was a student.

By that time, though, my ideals were quite different. Among the ones that influenced my life the most, not only when I was a boy, but also later even at Harvard was the “saint” ideal. I read stories about men like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, and Blessed Damien of Molokai, and I wanted to be like them.

Such thinking was an illusion, though, because I did not know what suffering is required in order to become like such men, and if I had known, then perhaps I would not have been so enthusiastic about the idea of becoming like them.

I was stupid and weak, as I’ve been most of my life. There’s nothing wrong with having ideals like that, but they should somehow be made to conform to realizable possibility.

That was impossible for me then, because I didn’t have anyone to talk to. There was no one who could explain to me what anguish and pain would be required if I wanted to reach goals like that. There was no one who could explain to me that perhaps I simply did not have the strength or the disposition to undergo the suffering that would be required if I wanted to reach such an ideal. There was no one who guide me into a better relationship with the world around me, with the other students in school, with my teachers, and perhaps even with my parents.

I had no one like that, I had no father, really, because my poor father had been so humiliated and destroyed by my mother that he was almost a non-person in our house. There was no man in my immediate surroundings that I could look at and think, “Yes, I want to be like him. I want to be that sort of man. I will do everything he does and has done in order to reach a position in the world like the one he’s reached.

I knew no one that I could look to like that. And so I had to turn to books and movies to try to figure out what sort of person I wanted to be and could be. The problem was, though, that there was no way I could understand the difference between illusion and reality, between the possible and impossible, between what I could achieve and what was beyond by capabilities.

So Robin Hood, the Student Prince, and my poor Saints were all part of an illusory future in my mind, one that I had no hope of ever realizing, but one that I thought was surely the future that was waiting for me.

Such ideas were an escape, of course, from those darker moments, when I thought that long years of darkness and unhappiness were all I had to look forward to.

Of all the dreams – or illusions, if you want to call them that – the ones dealing with the saints were the most important for me. Those dreams led me into a world of ideals that many will say were also illusions, but which I cannot give up entirely even to this day.

I have not led a very good life, I think, but without those ideals, my life would have been so much worse. I wanted – or at least thought I wanted – to give up everything and live only for the happiness that God could bring. However, that was the problem. Even my attitude toward God was shot through with selfishness. I wanted the happiness living only for God could bring – so in the end I was still living only for my own happiness, just as surely as if I had dreamed of becoming the richest man in the world.

At the same time that I write that, though, I see that poor lost boy that I was, and I find it difficult to be too hard on him. He was, after all, doing the best he could with what he had found in himself and around himself there, at the beginning of his life.


So around the age of fourteen or so, I was still trying to find my way through all of the strange and incomprehensible things in my life.

And why was everything so bewildering? I suppose the Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Blaine, would say it was simply because of my “incurable schizophrenia.” He would say it was even then beginning to manifest itself.

I know that I have no right to contradict him. He was, after all, a psychiatrist. Everyone else at Harvard believed what he said about me, so isn’t it foolish of me not to agree with his diagnosis?

And if I resist believing what what he said about me, isn’t that simply what many mentally ill people do? Don’t many of them refuse to believe what a psychiatrist says about them and about their condition?

All that may be true, of course, and I know that in the face of professional medical explanations, I really have no right to assert what I think may have been true of my life, certainly when it contradicts an expert like Dr. Blaine.

If could explain the confusion – or if I could offer an alternate explanation for the confusion in my life at the age of thirteen or fourteen, and for many years after, I would suggest another possibility.

I have seen men and boys lied to in so many subtle ways by women, even by their mothers, and I have seen them believe the lies, that I wonder sometimes if something similar wasn’t going on in my life then, at a critical and impressionable age?

Of course I have suppressed nearly all of the detailed memories of that time, and so I cannot offer any examples of the lies that were told to me then. But I remember other lies my poor mother told me later in life, and I believe they were simply an extension of what she had been doing all along.

I felt, always, a vague confusion, the kind of confusion a man feels when he has been told reality is one thing, but at the same time he perceives it as something else. This kind of cognitive dissonance is especially painful in the case of young boys and men who try to continue to believe what they have been told, while they use much of their energy denying what their senses and their perception of the world around them tell them is true.

In my case, the confusion was caused by the sense I had that the world as seen by my mother was quite different from the real world around me. How could I contradict her, though? She was my mother and could really do nothing wrong. I loved her and looked up to her. She was a wonderful person. What she said to me must be completely true.

And yet I felt it wasn’t.

This discrepancy, this struggle between what I knew at one level of my mind and what I was being told by my mother was perhaps the cause of a mild sort of compulsiveness that began then, and in a way continued throughout my life.

I was constantly making lists of things in my mind, lists of things I had to do, and then going over and over the list to make sure I did not forget anything. At the age, I suppose I was around twelve or thirteen, it never occurred to me, for some reason, to write down the list. I kept it in my mind, and kept going over it again and again to make sure nothing had been forgotten, until I was able to remove one or more of the items from the list, and then add something else. I worried about this list constantly, worried that I would forget to do something on the list, something important. I thought about my list all the time, when I was riding on a bus, walking along the street, even watching television. The list was always there, in my mind, a kind of framework of reality that I was always struggling to maintain.

This compulsive framework of reality was perhaps connected to the religious framework in my life, or at least these two frameworks perhaps supported one another to a great degree. The religious framework was constantly being reinforced as time went by, gradually becoming the strongest element in my life.

It was, as I have already indicated, the element that enabled me to survive at that age, and a every period of my life. It provided answers to the questions I was asking, even at that age: What was the point of it all? Why was I suffering? When would it end? What would I do in life?

The answers to some of these questions I thought I found in the books I read – books I was given to read and books I found for myself. One of those that I was given, by a priest, was a novel written in the form of a biography of a modern man whose life resembled the life of St. Augustine. The novel in fact was based on the life of Augustine, transposed into the modern era. The religious idealism – or perhaps simply the idealism – I found in the book seemed to provide me with something I had never had before.

The book was also the cause of one of the other illusions I started to develop about this time. The books main character becomes a priest at the end of the story, as Augustine did, and of course I began to want to do the same thing. I had no idea, poor benighted boy that I was, that such a thing was impossible. For one thing, in those days, seminaries could afford to be extremely selective. They never accepted candidates with as much instability in the family as there was in mine. And they certainly never accepted candidates with as much instability in their personality as there was in mine.

This desire, though, stayed with me for a long time, for most of my life, in fact. Now, though, as happens we’re older, I’ve not only become reconciled that I was never able to be a priest, but I realize that it’s better that I didn’t. I wouldn’t have been happy and probably wouldn’t have been a very good priest.

When we’re older, we can begin to see things a little more clearly, “sub specie aeternitatis,” so to speak, and then nothing in life seems terribly disappointing. It becomes clearer all the time that everything will somehow be resolved in eternity.

But all of that was so far away when I was thirteen or so. I thought about eternity, of course, but it was really only an abstraction, like most of the things we learn about without experiencing them. Not that I have experienced eternity, but at this point in my life, eternity seems more real than it ever did before. Some days it is almost tangible.

Anyway, I didn’t realize then that the idea of being a priest was nearly impossible, because of the unstable family life I had grown up in. I didn’t realize either just how unstable that family life really was.

I had known for some time, of course, that my mother was a very unhappy woman. My impression of her unhappiness is crystallized around a memory of the time she hid herself in the basement, crying and sobbing over something that had happened, and even though my father and brother and I begged her to come out of there and come back upstairs, she refused to do it.

She was always worried about the way she looked. Her clothes never seemed to look right or to fit her right. I have memories of her looking at herself in front of the mirror, practically in despair because what she was wearing looked all wrong to her, and she had to go out for an important appointment somewhere. She would be weeping and nearly hysterical and I would be sitting or kneeling on the floor next to her, looking at her image in the mirror and crying myself, as I tried to tell her that everything she had on looked just fine, it looked all right!

So I knew she was unhappy, but with the naivete that a child or a boy has, I never connected her unhappiness with any possible unhappiness in her marriage with my father. I knew they argued with one another at times, but that had been going on for so long that it seemed to me to be in the nature of things. If I had thought about it at all, I would have said that fighting and arguing and evident dislike for one another was a normal part of marriage. Why should one or both of the parties be unhappy about that any more than people are unhappy about the weather? It’s something that’s simply accepted without giving it any thought.

I only knew that I never wanted to get into such a situation. Perhaps you couldn’t avoid the weather, but you could avoid getting married. It wasn’t even a possibility I was determined to exclude; the possibility simply didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.

Sometimes when I stop and think about the influences that were brought to bear on me when I was a child and a young man, it seems almost incredible that I was able to survive at all. I think to myself, only half-jokingly, that if my survival in such a situation isn’t a proof of the existence of God, then I don’t know what is. I mean, at times it seems breathtakingly clear to me that nothing except God himself could have prevented my life from becoming a total catastrophe.

Of course the logical question of why God doesn’t do that for everyone whose life becomes a disaster isn’t one I can answer. I believe there’s a reason, though, and the only reason I can believe in is the old scholastic reason: God permits evil so that a greater good can come from it, a good greater than what might have been if the evil had never existed.

I repeat that idea often, because without it life would be incomprehensible to me.

And so this is the way the years before high school developed. We lived in a little house in a little town in Michigan where the confusion that was being created in my mind would very soon break over me like a violent internal storm, a storm that almost all of those on the outside would hardly ever be aware of.

The house we lived in then was small, in a pleasant neighborhood, but certainly not the nicest house in that neighborhood. The nicest houses were owned by the people who lived in them. We rented our house, and the interior and exterior was somewhat dilapidated. It was a house made of wood, white clapboard, like most houses in America. On the ground floor was the living room, with furniture in it that my parents had had since we lived in Cleveland, a worn couch that had to be covered with large bedspread so that it would look reasonably presentable. Upstairs there was a large bedroom on the front side of the house that my brother and I shared, and a smaller bedroom at the back that my parents used.

It was not a very happy house, and I spent some of the unhappiest years of my childhood in it. It was the second house we lived in in Kalamazoo, and the other one was not much different.

We were not really poor, but rather somewhat shabby middle-class. When I compare those circumstances with the surroundings that some of my Harvard classmates grew up in, it seems incredible to me that I was ever even able to attain a level of intellectual competence that allowed me to enter Harvard at all. “We should not be downcast,” goes an old Arabic proverb, “because the rosebush has thorns; rather, we should rejoice that the thornbush has roses.”

So if I have not been able to achieve very much after graduating from Harvard, if Harvard in many ways almost destroyed me, I should not – as I have said so often already – feel sad about that, or depressed or despondent, I should rejoice that I was every allowed to attend Harvard at all. Given my background, that was itself something totally unexpected.

It was a quiet, ordinary life, growing up in a small town in Michigan in the nineteen-fifties, or at least it seems quiet from this perspective, from any perspective, really, except that of the small boy that I was then. That boy’s mind was often filled with inexpressible fears and anxieties that nearly crowded out the hopes he had.

As the years passed, and junior high school ended and gave way to the time in high school, the dreams I had were part of the reason I was able to survive at all. I was sure my life would be a great adventure – too sure, in fact, because it was the sureness and certainty that comes from an emotional and illusion-filled mindset, one that I can only think I acquired somehow from my poor mother.

Her mindset too was emotional and illusion-filled. I once found a love-letter she had written, but never sent, to a famous television personality in New York. I was about twelve years old and felt confused, bewildered, and a little depressed by the scrawled handwritten pages I found stuck between the pages of a book on the crowded shelbes of our livingroom. Why had she written it, I wondered.

That of course was a question I was incapable of answering at that age, but it did give me one more insight into her dark – as it seemed to me then – and incomprehensible mind and mentality.

I understood very little about life’s passions then, and certainly could never have talked about them, certainly not with my mother or my father. I still cannot even write about them or try to explain very clearly the tremendous force the exerted on my life and my development.

And if I can’t write about that, then can I write about anything? I can. “I can; Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.”


Either the final two years of junior high school were so uneventful that I have hardly any memory of them, or they were so traumatic that I have suppressed all recollection. Perhaps they were a little of both. On the surface, my life was not at all out of the ordinary. One day blended into the next with a regularity that I didn’t find monotonous in a way, because knew nothing different. Life had always been like that. Even pain can be monotonous.

Beneath the surface there was the turmoil of adolescence, the sudden strangeness, the fears and anxieties over myself and my future, over my own body. Beneath the surface there was also, I think, the suppressed knowledge that my parents’ marriage was dissolving before my eyes.

Once the local parish priest used to visit us. I think he’d been counseling my parents and trying to save my their marriage. I suppose my poor mother must have been clinging to the hope that her religion could somehow redeem her life. Perhaps it couldn’t, or perhaps she couldn’t hope hard enough.

The priest was transferred to another parish in another city. I wrote to him once to thank him for trying to help our family. I said the relationship between my parents was much better and that their marriage seemed to be all right now.

That was not long be for my parents separated and eventually divorced. I suppose the priest knew the truth. He never answered. Or at least, I never received the answer he might have written.

Letters seemed sometimes to disappear in our house, or were somehow never delivered. Once when I was around nine or ten I wrote a letter to King George VI and of course never received an answer. There was a time, however, when I wondered if he actually did answer and if my mother, in her weird attempt to limit my contact with any larger world she could not control, simply never gave me the letter. For the families of women such as my mother, who are almost obsessed with the idea of controlling everything around her, life is inevitably a catastrophe. In the case of my poor family, the disaster was widespread. My poor mother wanted to control her husband and her children. In doing so, she contributed substantially to my father’s failure in life as long as he was married to her. She wanted to control her children and she made one of them – myself – run to the ends of the earth and risk self-destruction in order to escape her.

My poor mother was driven by an obsession to control, dominate, and be superior to everyone around her. The idea that one of her purposes in life might be to help her husband and children be more successful was almost completely foreign to her, certainly when she grew older. She was driven by a need to be better than, smarter than, happier than, richer than, stronger than her husband and her children. She looked on her husband and children not only as competitors, but also as a kind of enemy that she had to beat, or even destroy, using every and any means at her disposal.

And the means she used were among the cruellest and most subtle – the weapon of deceit, of doing everything she could to disturb and undermine the sense of self-confidence that her husband and children had. She was determined to keep them off-balance in any way she could.

The woman had to win at any cost. Any idea of self-sacrifice or any wish to fost success in the lives of her husband and children was utterly meaningless to her, would have been regarded as ridiculous, absurd.

The poor woman was very, very sick. I had no longer much awareness of that then. I’d already forgotten about wanting to run away from home at the age of ten or so, and the memory of the television program that outline the possible future life of people like me had been suppressed. I had accepted the conditions of our family, the world of our family, as the norm, not to be complained about and certainly not to be changed.

I had begun to think that the world must be wrong, and not me or our family. What else could I have thought? How could I have gone on living with my mother and father and brother if I had thought that there was something wrong in our house. For my own peace of mind as a child, I had to regard the family I was part of as normal, or at least the norm by which I would judge all other families, from time to time.

That was a problem, though, for whenever I did compare our family with other families, there always seemed to be something wrong in our house. And there always seemed to be something wrong with me. Most of the time, though, I dealt with that problem by simply suppressing it, by not comparing our family with others, or at least trying not to.

My poor mother wanted to try to raise me as a man, but she didn’t really know how, of course, since she was a woman. She had managed to isolate my poor father and shut him out of the family, so he could not raise me or have much influence on my life. She had continued to inculcate my brother and me with the idea that our father was a useless, ridiculous person who should be avoided as much as possible, so the poor man didn’t ever even have a chance to play much of a part in our lives as children or young men, except by his absence.

He himself unknowlingly made the situation even worse. The more my mother encouraged my brother and me to ignore him, the more he tried to exert power over us, since he could not have our love. And the more he tried to compel us to do things and the more often he became angry with us, then the more we shrank from him and tried to avoid him.

Around this time, my sad, benighted mother, in her womanly attempts to make me a young man, apparently decided it was time to let out the leash and allow me to do things that real boys do. From the extreme of keeping me close to her for years, and practically cutting me off from contact with other boys my own age, she went almost overnight to the other extreme of throwing me out into a real boys’ job, for which I was emotionally and psychologically completely unsuited, after years of being kept in the sorrowful hothouse of her smothering protection.

She decided I should work as a caddy. After years of being made to feel that sports were stupid and useless, I was now expected to work in precisely that area. I felt hopelessly inept, utterly clumsy. The country club atmosphere where I worked terrified me. Every day I had to go there was a day full of apprehension and dread.

I felt I was in a foreign world, peopled by strange beings whose customs and language I couldn’t understand. The game of golf and all the rituals surrounding it seemed pointless to me.

As a caddy I hardly understood what in the world I was supposed to do, except carry golf clubs. Anything beyond that was an enigma for me. How to interact with the players, the country club members or their wives, what to say to them, how to help them were tasks in which all of my faculties seemed paralyzed.

The relaxed, affluent, cheerful world of the club, the bright golf greens and the fairways stretching out before the players on a sunny summer morning – for me all these things existed in a kind of hell of terror and apprehension. Everything was part of that frightening universe of athletics and camaraderie and free human interaction and competition that had become objects of dread for me in the short lifetime I’d already lived. I’d been cut off from those things for too long and I felt like a creature on an alien planet that summer, exposed everywhere to the threat of unknown and unimaginable dangers.

The long, boring mornings and afternoons would have been unbearable to me if I hadn’t been able to think of that time as the decree of ineluctable fate, or at least the will of an inscrutable God. The deadly, lifeless hours – as they seemed to me – impressed upon me over and over again, day in and day out, that nothing was more important than following God’s will, no matter how painful that might be.

Bending to God’s will, submitting to God’s will, that was the only way I could make sense of that terrible time, which was the forerunner of even more terrible times to come many years later. I suppose I can be accused of weakness and stupidity, because to most people the idea of submitting to the will of God is absurd and stupid, and the only people who would try to live out such an ideal must be very weak individuals.

I was only a child, though, and I saw my self beset and surrounded by tremendously powerful forces that I had no hope of controlling or diverting. There was only one way to survive, and that was to submit to those forces – to the insanity of my poor parents’ relationship and the kind of home they had created. I also had to submit to the excruciatingly frightening and painfully boring and confusing mornings and afternoons spent on the golf course as a caddy.

At the end of each agonizing day, though, I have to admit I did feel one satisfaction, the satisfaction of knowing that I had, one more time, been able to survive what I saw as the horror of it all.

That poor, benighted boy really had no idea what horror was, though, had no conception of what was waiting for him in a few years’ time, and for the rest of his life.

I did have one other summer job during those years. One summer I worked in the kitchen of a restaurant not far from where we lived. It was the kind of ordinary restaurant you could find quite easily then in small, midwestern American towns. It was called the “Superburger,” but it sold all kinds of simple meals. There was a large plate-glass window at the front and a counter at the back, with round stools covered with red plastic for customers to sit on. Between the counter and the windows were several tables, and along the side walls were booths for four to six persons each.

I hardly ever waited on customers or worked at the cash register near the front door. I was too young for one thing; and for another, I felt safer working in the kitchen, where I was hidden, where I didn’t have to have any contact with strangers.

It was the summer of 1956. I remember that quite clearly, because it was the summer that John Kennedy tried to get the vice-presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The convention was on the radio practically all the time, it seemed, in the kitchen.

The other thing I remember quite clearly was the excruciating boredom of the job, and the way I disliked the whole atmosphere of the place. It may have been the boredom or it may have been the atmosphere, or it may have been both, but that job was the first time that I followed the pattern that I would follow for practically every other job I would ever have in my life.

“Some jobs are so boing,” said a friend of mine once, “a monkey could do them.” The job in the restaurant, I felt, was like that. I longed for a job where I could use my mind, where I could use the intelligence I already thought I had.

At the same time, though, I knew I had to be humble, I knew I had to accept whatever job I could get. Humility, following the will of God, all these things forced me to suppress whatever desire I had to run away from the job, to suppress it day after day and hour after hour as I earnestly did my best to do what I had to do.

Until there came a day when I could just could not stand it any longer, and I walked out.

And I’ve done that again and again in my life. I’ve forced myself to try to accept and even like jobs that I hate, jobs that I thought were stupid, jobs that I longed to be free of, jobs where I had no chance to use the intelligence I was convinced I had, jobs that I did, though, because they were the only jobs I could get.

I told myself that if I were really as intelligent as I thought, then I would be able to get a better job. If I couldn’t get a better job, though, then obviously I wasn’t as intelligent as I thought.

Whatever the truth about myself may be – and I admit I simply do not know the truth – this pattern of work would be repeated again and again and again over the next fifty years.

Even graduating from Harvard made no difference. The pattern would not and could not be broken, except occasionally, seemingly by accident, and for relatively short periods. Without those periods, though, I could never have survived. They were the happiest times of my life, and I’m grateful for them; as I’ve grown older, I’ve been grateful for the memory of them.

About this time, as I was trying to suppress and deny the knowledge that my parents’ marriage was collapsing and they would eventually have to divorce, the Catholic Church increasingly became the focus of all my thoughts, ideas, and plans. It was the only element in my environment that seemed to present any safety and security at all.

I was almost constantly trying to suppress an awareness of the chaos within, and the Church seemed to provide the only way out. Because of that, the idea of becoming a priest became stronger than ever before, though it was an idea that was of course based on illusion about the Church and on a feeling of helplessness in the face of a perplexity about myself and the world that seemed to be about to engulf me.

One person who understood all that was the priest who had been trying to help my parents save their marriage. God only knows what he must have thought – how he must have pitied me – when I made it clear to him one day that I wanted to be a priest. The trace of something akin to horror that seemed for an instant to pass across his face was something I could not understand then, and of course didn’t even want to try to understand.

What other reaction could he have had, though? He knew exactly what kind of situation I was growing up in, and he understood how nearly impossible it would be for me to lead anything like a healthy, normal life, much less be a priest.

Without such illusions, though, how else would I have survived? Somehow I did manage to survive and reach the ninth grade of school. At the age of fifteen I was about to finish junior high school, a place of seemingly boundless mediocrity, but which in fact must have ignited some small flame that could later at Harvard grow into a consuming intellectual fire, which my poor mother and stepfather would ultimately succeed in stamping out.

Those final years before high school were also filled with the small crises that would grow into the much larger ones that my mother and stepfather could later exploit in their sad and ignorant belief that they were losing control of me to Harvard and that I had to be brought back under control, reined in, so to speak, curbed.

The school crises were the usual crises of adolescence, though at the time I didn’t know they were so usual, and I thought I was the only person in the world suffering. Certainly none of my schoolmates seemed to be going through quite the same anguish that I was suffering from then – again, an anguish that was nothing compared to what I would experience at Harvard.

I’m tempted to laugh at the boy I was then, that poor stupid child. In fact, sometimes it’s difficult not to ridicule him. At the same time, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him in his stupidity. We live in an age where people rarely show much real understanding for other people’s problems, especially when those problems exhibit themselves quietly, in a person’s mood, for example, and not in overt objectionable behavior. I suppose I’m not very different from anyone else in that respect. And so when I consider the unhappiness of the boy I was, it’s difficult not to simply laugh at him and ridicule him. Even I forget sometimes what he suffered and why he suffered.

If I don’t take him and his pain seriously, why should anyone else? Why should we ever think about the pain that nameless millions have suffered since the beginn of our kind?

There is no reason to, none at all, except that in some cases it might be possible to diminish or even eliminate the pain that future individuals have to suffer if we consider the grief that isolated inidividuals have contended with. As for all the others, thinking about their pain reinforces my belief in the existence of God. Without God their pain makes no sense to me, the entire universe makes no sense. With God, however, the universe no longer appears a place of blind, absurd forces acting upon us.

It becomes a place where suffering has meaning, because our suffering is part of the labor necessary in order to realize the purpose the universe was created for. Suffering has meaning too, because God participated in that suffering himself, in a most real and terrible way.

To occasionally think of that suffering and the suffering of all human beings since the very beginning makes the universe somewhat more comprehensible to me.

And so the story of that poor, benighted boy I was must continue.


The story must continue somehow. I must try to tell it, even though I know deep in my heart that these are only the scribblings of an old man who has nothing more to live for, except some small hope that there exists another world and another life beyond this one.

No, that is not quite true, there do exist other hopes, there exists the hope that these miserable pages may have some impact on someone, somewhere, someday, the hope that these pages may somehow contribute to a better world, that these pages may prevent at least one other person from growing up as I did, from living as I did, from undergoing what I underwent.

And so the story continue, must continue, in whatever shabby way I can write it. Somewhere, sometime, there may exist at least one other person who can read not only what I have written here, but who can understand what I wanted to write, tried to write.

Then the voice of despair speaks to me and says, “If no one understands you now, when you are alive, when they can speak to you and listen to your living voice, what makes you think anyone will ever understand what you leave behind on a few pitiful scraps of paper?

In spite of everything, though, the story continues.

In the ninth grade, when I was fifteen or so, the class made a trip to Washington, D.C. This was something of a tradition in the school. Every year members of the ninth grade class worked at various jobs – washing cars, selling candy door to door – in order to save enough money to make the trip.

We all travelled together in a bus from Michigan to the nation’s capital, and we visited all of the important monuments and buildings. We took a boat trip on the Potomac, where we listened to that newly famous and somewhat shocking – for our teachers, anyway – singer, Elvis Presley. Some students were even daring enough to dance rock ‘n roll, right there on the boat’s dance floor, much to the chagrin of our chaperones.

That would have probably been the most novel element in the trip, which otherwise would have been no different from any other that every class before us had made, except for one thing.

I wanted to get into the Soviet Embassy in Washington. I suppose for a young teenager to want to see the inside of an embassy today, even the Russian embassy, is not particularly remarkable. It would not even be particularly remarkable if he actually did manage to enter. Embassies and consulates in national capitals have business hours. All anyone has to do is go up to the door and ring the bell.

When I was a teenager, though, it was the height of the cold war. In the middle of the fifties, when our class went to Washington, the Soviet Union really was the “evil empire,” at least to every real American. To visit any part of it, even one of its embassies, was almost like visiting the dark side of the moon, long before human beings had reached the moon at all.

If ever the Soviet Union was what Churchill had called it, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it was then. In the minds of most Americans it was a land of dark, brooding power, in all its manifestations the very opposite of good, scheming and plotting to control the world, filled with people who would stop at nothing to gain power over us all.

It was a place to stay away from.

Or at least it was a place to stay away from, as far as most people were concerned. If you were an American teenager from Michigan, though, who had grown up reading stories of mystery and adventure that took place in exotic locations all around the world, and if you had watched too many movies and television programs about spies and the cold war and the communist menace, then naturally you wanted to see what the inside of the Soviet embassy looked like.

I talked one of the other pupils – I was not totally isolated in school, I did know some of my classmates – into going with me. His name was David Cook, and he was one of the star athletes of our junior high school – good at baseball, football, and track. Was I trying to impress him or to show him that even if I wasn’t very good at sports, at least I could do other things that required courage and a kind of inner strength?

I suppose all of these factors came into play – the desire to explore a different world, the wish to impress a friend, and eventually all my friends. So one rather overcast afternoon – it seemed to rain a lot that spring week in Washington – we walked up to what was then the Soviet embassy: a great, gothic hulk of a building, as I remember it now, like something out of a Charles Adams cartoon.

With a feeling of sheer terror that may have been at the same time somewhat enjoyable, I pressed the doorbell. What had I expected to happen? Had I planned to ring the bell and then run away? Hardly. My aim was to enter the building, to get inside, just to see what it was like. I was driven partly by a sense of challenge, by a kind of dare directed toward myself, but I was also motivated by a sense of curiosity. What, in fact, did the inside of that dreaded place, that outpost of everything that was diametrically opposed to the American Way of Life, the Soviet embassy in Washington, really look like?

I soon found out.

A moment after I rang, the door was opened not by a monster with claws and fangs, but by a quite civilized-looking Soviet official, who actually smiled at us and looked somewhat bemused.

With a sense of being out of breath, with my heart thudding in my chest, I told him we were junior high school students – as if we could have been anything else – who were visiting Washington to see all of the important sights of the capital. “Could we also see” – I probably said this softly, too fast, looking down, looking away – “the inside of the embassy?”

The terror was still with me, but the official’s attitude did put me at ease a little. Still, I wasn’t really relaxed enough to take in many of the things he showed us. I had a vague awareness of a number of luxurious rooms on the first floor, more suited to the splendor of the Czars than to a supposedly communist state, but my fear and my lack of political awareness prevented me from commenting on the furnishings.

One thing did strike me, however. I knew enough about what was going on the world to have heard the news, not long before, that had caused a sensation around the world: Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin’s cult of personality together with Stalin’s removal from the pantheon of Soviet deities. And there, at the top of a grand, ornate, gold-encrusted staircase leading up to the building’s second floor, in an elaborate frame, was a huge painting of Josef Stalin himself, in all his dictatorial glory.

I may not have remembered some of the details of the interior of the embassy correctly – after all, this all happened nearly fifty years ago, and I’m an old man now, and my memory is not always very precise. The painting of Stalin, though, was there, and caused some surprise when we later told other people about it. A journalist even telephoned the embassy a few days after our return home, to inquire if Stalin’s portrait were still there. He was told, somewhat defiantly, according to him, that it was.

We were probably inside the Soviet Embassy no more than ten or fifteen minutes, but when we left the building that day, I felt a sense of great triumph and real achievement. I had done what I set out to do, something extremely difficult, something that none of my classmates would in their wildest dreams have thought of doing. It was something that I could feel proud of, something that would enhance my self-respect.

I had proved to myself – or so I thought – that I was just as brave and strong as the school athletes I wanted to be like, but couldn’t, since the ant-sports indoctrination that I had received from my poor mother over the years had made me a psychological cripple where sports were concerned.

I also thought I had done something to prove to my classmates that I was just as valuable a person as they were, even though I wasn’t an athlete and had no idea how to handle myself in playing any sport at all.

If I proved any of those things to myself and my schoolmates, I unfortunately proved nothing of the sort to my poor mother. I also didn’t prove it to the congressman of our district. When word got around in our group of what we had done, I was summoned to the congressman’s office – I think his name was Johanssen.

He gave me a kind of friendly scolding, as if I had been a naughty boy who had done something that he should have known he ought not to do. “The FBI took your picture,” he said to me.

“When?” I asked him.

“When you entered the building. They have a camera in a building across the street that takes pictures of everyone who goes into that embassy.”

That was the nineteen-fifties, a different world, a different era: it was the time of a Red Scare, the time of Dwight Eisenhower as president, the time of Joe McCarthy and Herb Philbrick and “I Led Three Lives.”

I was reminded of all that even more forcefully when I got home. My mother returned from work one afternoon extremely angry. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’ve gotten me into with your little visit to the Russian Embassy?” she asked. “I’ve had my security clearance suspended” – she worked as a secretary for a small company in our town that had a few defense contracts with the Pentagon – “and it won’t reinstated until they do another complete background check.” She looked at me for a moment. I said nothing. “Whatever could have possessed you to do something like that? You’ve gotten me into a great deal of trouble.”

At some other level of her mind, though – there were many levels in my poor mother’s mind – I could tell she wasn’t really angry at all, that she was kind of pleased, in fact, and a little proud of me.

Was that wishful thinking? Did she really feel that way? I think so, but maybe not. One of the things that ultimately drew me away from my mother was simply that fact that I never understood exactly how she felt about anything. She seemed sometimes to be nothing more than a bundle of ambiguities and contradictions. I could cope with only so much of that over the years. What is the response of any human being in that situation? I think any normal person faced with impenetrable meanings in any context simply turns and walks away. Much, much later, that was exactly what I did with regard to my poor mother.

I suppose the beginning of that move away from her, though, must have been well underway that afternoon when she returned home from work and scolded me for visiting the Russian.

There was, however, one other odd thing that happened, in connection with that famous visit. One day my mother told me that the producers from a television show had called from New York. They were responsible for one of those nineteen-fifties programs where a panel of celebrities had to guess the secret of various guests invited from the general population. The secret always involved something unusual that the guests had done, or some unusual element in their life, their background, or their personality.

The producers of this television show wanted to know if I would be willing and able to appear, presumably along with David Cook, the boy who had gone with me into the Soviet Embassy.

My mother said no, and I was disappointed. I was very disappointed, in fact, and sad and angry. I was also, perhaps for the first time, consciously aware of one of those endlessly repeated contradictions in her personality that had destroyed her life and would eventually destroy mine as as well.

It was the contradiction between her desire that I should grow up to be a famous and successful person – a senator perhaps, or an ambassador – and her need to keep me forever under her control.

How could I ever be famous, the child I was wondered at some level of consciousness, if I couldn’t do something like go to New York and be on a television program? The sense of contradiction – the desire to do something my poor mother had always indicated I should do, while at the same time being prevented from doing it – was painful.

This growing sense of contradiction was also, I think, one more weakened link in the chain of trust and affection that had bound me to my mother. It seemed to be one more indication that what she really wanted from me was not trust and affection, but subservience to her incomprehensible desires.


At the same time that these things were happening, the collapse of my parents marriage was continuing, although I was hardly aware of it. After the ninth grade in junior high school, I started to attend University High School, and so my life was taken up with all of the things that were involved in meeting new friends, going to a different place of study, and adjusting to everything I found there.

That fall, as she always did, my mother bought new clothes for me. It was very important to her how I looked. What kind of person I was seemed of quite secondary significance. How I appeared to the rest of the world was what counted more than anything.

She had excellent taste in clothes. She never bought anything odd or outlandish. I was always dressed like the perfect young American male teen-ager.

And so I went off to high school that fall, looking like everyone else, but feeling completely different, and knowing myself to be completely different. I had learned from my poor mother, though, that appearances were what counted, appearances were everything, and so I tried not only to look like everyone else, but also to act like everyone else, as much as I could, anyway.

University High School was not the main public high school in our town. In fact, it was really not a part of the public high school system at all. And yet it was not a private institution. It was part of Western Michigan University, which had originally been mainly a teacher training college when it was founded, early the state’s history.

University High School had originally been simply a high school where future teachers could practice with real high school students and be guided by instructors who were more familiar with the teacher training process than would perhaps have been the case in an ordinary high school.

University High School had for a long time attracted the best students in the area. Among students who attended the regular public high school in our town, University High had the reputation of being the place where the rich sent their children to study and where the students considered themselves better than anyone else.

If the rich sent their children to school there, it was not because they paid astronomically high fees. If there were any fees to be paid at all, they were minimal. Many wealthy individuals sent their children to University High because it was very selective. It accepted only the best students, and anyone wanting to enter had to take an exam. Because the rich are often intelligent, at least in some ways, and often have reasonably intelligent children, the children of the rich tend to gravitate to places like University High School.

Did we think of ourselves as being better than students at any other high school? I think most of us never thought about that at all. We knew that the students at the city’s main public high school considered us snobs, and so we would never have wanted to do, say, or think anything that would have confirmed their opinion of us.

It wasn’t that we were snobbish really, but rather somewhat limited. We were a world unto ourselves, and other high schools simply didn’t exist. We never thought about the other high school in town. Of if we did think about it, we thought of it as a dark and dangerous place, full of young men who were potential hoodlums, or “hoods” as we called them. They wore tight jeans; they wore their hair long and combed it straight back or in a kind of Elvis Presley style. All this was an exaggeration, of course, but it was an exaggeration that dominated out thinking.

We thought we were so cosmopolitan and wise, but in many ways our worldview was limited, our vision was limited. In those days, though, without the sophisticated communications network that developed some decades later, everyone was in some sense less aware of the worlds that existed outside of their own community and their own circle. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all other worlds seemed somehow less real; we had no sense of direct contact with other places, on the other side of town or on the other side of the globe, that people can have today.

And of course we were simply immature and rather self-centered in the way that young people almost always are.

Yet the circle of friends I eventually became a part of would have thought of themselves as being on the cutting edge, so to speak, of the intellectual life, if they – or we – had thought about it at all, which we did not. We took our intellectual interests – which now seem rather limited – for granted; few others understood those interests, but we couldn’t do anything about that.

However limited my view of it may have been then, however, the intellectual life was opening for me. A vast new world, a kind of secret garden lay all around me, all ahead of me, and it seemed to be the most exciting of all possible worlds then.

This was also the point in my life when I took the first fatal step away from the world of my mother and stepfather, a step that would incur their incomprehension, their hostility, and even their wrath for as long as they lived. I was leaving their world and entering one that was utterly alien to them, although they couldn’t fully realize it until a few years later when I entered Harvard.

But the beginnings of the conflict started then, in high school, in a way that was hidden from my parents and so was all the more shocking when it finally broke into the open some years later.

We certainly were not mighty intellectuals, Becky and Susan and I and Susan’s older brother Art – who was really much older than we were but in a distant way was part of our group. You could also say that Becky’s parents, especially her brilliant, creative, successful, and rebellious father, were one of us as well.

How did it all start? I wish I could tell you. Like the beginning of so many significant things, the beginning of our friendship and our knowledge of things of the mind is forgotten now. I suspect, though, that it was Becky and Susan who introduced me to much of what became important to me in life. And perhaps I was attracted as much to their families as I was to them, and for different reasons.

Susan’s family was at once similar to and very different from mine. Her parents were very conservative, and their household in most respects resembled every other upper-middle-class household in America at that time. They lived in a tidy, quiet colonial house, filled with warm, comfortable contemporary furniture. The kitchen was always bright and clean – in fact the whole house was spotless.

Susan’s father worked for a large drug manufacturer, one of the largest in the world, a company which happened to have its headquarters in this small midwestern city. He was extremely intelligent and always impressed me as having a great deal of wisdom as well. Susan’s mother also had the same quiet intelligence her husband had.

The house seemed so wholesome and so normal, that I felt a little ashamed of what I saw as the abyss of abnormality just beneath the surface of my own personality and the family I was a part of. Appearances were everything then, of course, and so I did the best I could to maintain them. I looked like every other American teenager, somewhat more thoughtful perhaps, at least most of the time, but for the most part indistinguishable from my contemporaries.

Her parents were what would now be considered conservative. They were also devout Catholics. Despite all that, though, there was a kind of intelligence alive in their home that was then seen as quite progressive and liberal. Their son Arthur – or Art as well all called him – was brilliant. He completed his studies for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago at around the age of eighteen and channeled his powerful intelligence into a job at the same company where his father worked, a job that allowed him an immense amount of creative freedom and the opportunity to use his brilliance. He had eventually married and in some respects was very similar to his parents, except that he no longer practiced his religion, something which at that time could be very distressing for parents.

They did not reject him, of course. They were intelligent and liberal enough not to do that. They respected his decision, just as they were beginning to reconcile themselves to the fact that Susan, in her own quiet, billiant way, would probably soon make the same choices her brother had made.

The combination of a conventional lifestyle with an atmosphere of brilliance was what fascinated me about the household and about the whole family. They were so different from the family I was part of. There was a sense of life, of humor, of incandescent awareness in Susan’s family that spoke to me and that I longed to be a part of.

Always in the back of my mind, though, was the sense of being somehow cut off from all that, a sense that I felt had somehow been implanted there by my mother. Whether that was true or not, I certainly could sense that the atmosphere in Susan’s family was quite foreign to my mother and stepfather. For them the world of ideas or the life of the mind were simply meaningless expressions. Possessions were what counted, money, investments. They were extremely well-to-do. Solid, material things were everything they lived for and they had accumulated a great of them. Everything else was in the realm of fantasy, fantasy created by intellectuals that they at times simply could not understand, and at other times were deeply suspicious of.

If I referred to any ideas or events or people or writers, if I referred to anything at all that my parents did not understand, there was an immediate chill in the air, something cold and paralyzing seemed to fill the room.

I quickly learned that there was a whole intellectual and artistic world that I could not speak about with my mother and stepfather. Perhaps, though, it’s not quite correct to say that I “quickly” learned. For a long time I had illusions about our family, together with all of the other illusions I had then. It seems absurd now, but I actually thought it might be possible for me to “educate” my mother and stepfather so that they would understand and appreciate the same things I did.

All I accomplished, of course, was to increase their hostility and suspicion toward me, especially the hostility and suspicion on the part of my stepfather, which my mother of course was happy to see increase as much as possible.

I suppose it will sound incredible to most people, but my mother was still obsessed with the idea that she had to dominate the family and everything that went on in it. She dominated my real father, and she did everything she could in order to dominate my stepfather as well, and to a large extent she succeeded, although he presented more of a challenge to her than my real father did.

In order to dominate this new family constellation, she employed the same tactic she had always used: doing everything possible to make sure that the men in the family did not understand each other, felt rivalry and hatred toward one another. She encouraged conflict and hostility between my stepfather and me, between me and my brother, and to some extent between my brother and stepfather, though that was more difficult, since they had a natural affinity for one another.

Coming from such a family, is it any wonder that I had the feeling from the very beginning that I was nothing more than a piece of garbage? Of course at first that feeling was buried deep in my unconscious, but it had no less of an effect on me because of that. In fact, the effect was of course probably all the greater, because it was unconscious.

Again and again I return to the idea that since I grew up with the idea that I was worth no more than a piece of refuse, it’s really no wonder that I failed to achieve much of anything at Harvard, or that I failed to achieve anything at all in life.

Again, the wonder is that I was able to enter Harvard at all. The wonder is that I was able to survive at all. The wonder is that I didn’t destroy myself long ago.

That I didn’t destroy myself long ago is the result only of the grace of God, though of couse such a statement sounds ridiculous today.

But Susan’s family – Susan’s family, where I wasn’t considered a piece of garbage, where no one was considered a piece of garbage – is it any wonder that I was attracted to such a family?

Or attracted to the family of another friend, Becky. Her father was an extremely successful commercial artist. They lived in a house that was like the doorway to another universe. It was imaginative and modern, and yet had a warm and human quality about. It gave you a sense of security and safety. In spite of its modernity, it was – to use an old-fashioned word – somehow cozy.

It was a reflection of Becky’s family as it was then. Where Susan’s household was liberal and intellectual beneath a veneer of conservatism, with Becky’s household there was no veneer. Her father, a brilliant, self-educated man, reveled in the intellectual and artistic life. Everything in the world of ideas that was new and intelligent and imaginative was the object of his attention.

The household was lively and full of a sense fun. Becky’s mother was more serious than the rest of the family, and she was probably the one that gave the family a sense of solidity and balance then.

I envied them their way of life – their sense of freedom, their zest, their willingness to explore new ideas, their openness to everything.

Their way of life was diametrically opposed to the way my mother and stepfather lived, and returning to their home was like returning to a prison, one where there was always a painful dissonance between what I knew and what I was expected to know, between what I thought and what I was expected to think.

My new friends at University High, though, and their families, offered me some way out of all that. They did not, however, and could not, offer me a way out of the fortress of religion that I had already begun to build for myself.

Not that I really wanted a way out. Even with friends like Becky and Susan, who might have been expected to have a sort of liberalizing influence on me, I still clung to my religion, to my belief in God, to all the teachings of the Catholic Church, as firmly and literally as I could.

Those beliefs were for me what a family and a secure home were for my friends. I remember a song I used to listen to, from a musical that was popular in the nineteen-fifties, “The Most Happy Fella.” I never saw the musical, but I had a record with the songs. My favorite contained the lines:

“I rode by a house with the windows lighted up,

lookin’ pretty as a Christmas tree,

and I thought to myself,

as I rode by myself,

Won’t there ever be a home for me?”

I imagined myself as that lonely traveller – I actually was, in a way, a lonely traveller – and I felt a sort of taste of future homesickness, except that my homesickness was in the present as well. I had no home, but I longed for one.

Many years later I would read Hermann Hesse’s lines, „Ach Harry, wir muessen durch so viel Dreck und Unsinn tappen, um nach Hause zu kommen! Und wir haben niemand, der uns fuehrt, unser einziger Fuehrer ist das Heimweh.“ – “Ah Harry, we have to grope through so much nonsense and stupidity before we reach home. And we have no one to show us the way. We have only our longing for home to guide us.”

Even in those years, when I was at school, God, religion, the Church were the only home I had, the only home I knew, and I would not and could not be torn away from them. It had all started, of course, with that conversation with the priest on that sunny summer morning in the quiet rectory room so long ago. Someone once wrote that an hour can open out onto eternity, and I think something like that happened to me as I sat there in that room, with the soft breeze gently billowing the curtains inward and the smell of freshly mown grass filling the air.

If the intersection of that time and that place opened into eternity, my search for further glimpses of eternity continued the rest of my life. Of course I didn’t think in those terms then, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how bizarre they would have sounded to most people. I wouldn’t have understood that most people would have seen a poor lost boy searching for something that would take him out of the misery he felt his life was sinking into. I misery that was so great and so complete that I cannot begin to give an adequate idea of it here. I know most people will not understand what I mean.

Others might say simply that God uses the strangest means sometimes to bring souls to him. And if that is the case, then he certainly used my boyish, adolescent misery to bring me towards him, along paths that were utterly obscure to me.

One of the immediate results of my conversation with the priest that morning was that I felt drawn to make visits to church whenever I could. If I couldn’t go to St. Joseph’s church near our house, I visited the larger St. Augustine’s church, a midwestern gothic structure downtown, where I often looked at the books and pamphlets arranged in a stand near the entrance.

One day as I looked at the publications there, I noticed a thick paperback with an illustration of a monk on the cover. The monk had his back turned, so that it was impossible to see his face. He seemed to be walking away from the viewer – as I remember it now – toward the darkness beyond the arched doorway of a church or a monastery. Above this illustration was the book’s title, which seemed to me to be very odd: “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

I picked up the book and read the jacket blurb. A young man leaves everything and enters a Trappist monastery. I paid for the book, took it home and began reading what was for me one of the greatest adventures I had ever heard of. Thomas Merton’s life was not simply exotic beyond anything I could ever have imagined – all of the places he had lived were impossibly foreign and mysterious, even New York was for me on another planet then.

What was it about that idea that really attracted me? Leaving everything – including all my problems and the unhappiness of my family life? Finding God? Making sense of the pain and the seemingly incomprehensible events of my daily life? Probably all of those elements were involved in the desire to be a monk.

The idea of God was, perhaps not surprisingly, what was uppermost in my mind. It was the main motive that I was conscious of. I suppose this idea started with a book that had been given to me by another priest I had once gone to talk to, the pastor of St. Monica’s church. He was somewhat more shocked by the conditions of my life than the other priest had been, but he tried to be as helpful and understanding as he could.

One of the things he did was give me a novel based on the life of a character very much like St. Augustine of Hippo. I think the title was even a line taken from the Confessions: “Late Have I Loved Thee.” It was a story like the story of Augustine: a man leads a dissolute life and then undergoes a conversion and becomes a priest.

When I read the book, I knew in my childish way that that was something I could life for. To love God and even become a priest, that was everything, that would be my goal.

In the meantime, I think I wanted to follow the Augustine pattern perhaps even to the point of leading a somewhat dissolute life – whatever that meant. Surely it couldn’t be so terrible. After all, I thought to myself, Augustine had survived. To say, “I thought to myself,” however, is misleading. Of course I did not consciously think in those terms. Somewhere in my mind, though, whether I was fully aware of it or not, the idea was present that I wanted to be like Augustine, in every respect. Again I have to say that I really had little idea what that in fact would mean.

The idea of becoming a monk, though, became something like an obsession with me. I concentrated on it, concentrated all my energies on it.

At some point I told Becky and Susan about what I wanted to do, and they in turn told their parents. Becky regarded the whole idea with a kind of amused detachment, probably a reflection of her father’s attitude. Susan was more serious about it and tried in many subtle ways to dissuade me from the idea. Her brother Arthur, a lapsed Catholic and confirmed skeptic, of course thought the idea of being a monk absurd, but he was polite enough not to try to impose his ideas on me. Any attempts along that line were limited to comments such as, “Graham Greene? Have you read his latest? “A Burnt-Out Case”? I did read it of course, but could not see any connection with Greene’s ideas about the Catholic Church.

Eventually, for Becky and Susan and their families, my idea of becoming a monk gradually became a somewhat eccentric feature of my personality.

For me, however, it gradually became more of what it had been at the beginning: the solution to a whole host of problems, though I did not consciously think about that. Unconsciously, however, being a monk meant being free of the crazy family constellation I was part of and joining another kind of family where everything was orderly, predictable, and in comparison with my own family, normal. Being monk meant being protected and feeling secure from the sort of sudden physical and psychological harassment I experienced with my mother and father. Being a monk meant living in a world of certitude, where life and meaning, where life had a goal I could work toward.

Above all, though, being a monk meant – and this was the thing I really was conscious of – finding God, or at least trying to, at least wanting to. Of course such things sound ridiculous now. No one tries to find God anymore, but when I was young, it was still possible to think in such terms, even though I had no idea what finding God really meant.

I thought that in a monastery the monks had a carefully worked out system for arriving at a knowledge of God. Just follow the steps laid out by St. John of the Cross, for example, or St. Teresa of Avila. Study the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. And there you were. God. It was liking working out the answer to a riddle or working through a puzzle. The monks could show you how to do it. They’d all done it themselves.

And why spend all that time looking for God? Because God, I was convinced, was all that would ever make me happy. My motive was purely selfish. I wanted to be happy. Of course I also thought in terms of loving God, I wanted to love God. “With my whole heart and my whole mind and my whole soul.” But I think I wanted to do that mainly because it would make me happy.

And perhaps having this motive for living, the highest motive I could think of, made me feel just a little superior to everyone around me – though I would never have admitted such a thing to myself. I didn’t even recognize such a thing in myself.

Perhaps I needed to feel superior, though, because I felt so inferior almost all the time. Nothing I did was good enough. I was a failure for my parents, a failure as far as my parents were concerned. My father had contempt for me because I was so poor in sports. My mother seemed to ignore me. She was more concerned with her own problems, and at this point in my life, I didn’t exist for her. I was, I think, simply a part of the poor woman’s property that she never gave any thought to, not at that time anyway.

Because I felt worthless, lost, confused, without anyone to turn to in the growing, bewildering storms of adolescence, the teachings of the Catholic Church were all I had to cling to for support. They were the only support I had. They became everything to me.

Or at least almost everything. The love of the intellectual life that first vaguely stirred in me in the Latin classes in high school was aroused even further at University High School. Not only were friends like Becky and Susan budding intellectuals, but the school had that air of intellectual excitement that is almost indefinable and nearly impossible to plan for. “The Spirit moves where it wills,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, quoting scripture in an unusual aside, and that was certainly true of my high school.

In every class there was a movement, a breath, of the life of the mind that touched nearly everyone, I believe, though perhaps in different ways. Whether we were studying English, French, Latin or algebra, the old sense of adventure was there, the unspoken and largely unconscious feeling that our young minds were entering new and astonishing worlds and were perhaps preparing to conquer others someday.

But all this ran parallel to my religious thinking and to my desire to become a monk. It was not yet a conflict, however. The monastic, contemplative life seemed to me to be adventures too, and in the writings of Thomas Merton it seemed that it would one day be possible for me to combine the two worlds, the intellectual and monastic. After all, hadn’t Merton done exactly that?

The day I discovered that the monastery Merton lived in was only hours away by train, it almost seemed to me I’d discovered a great gift. I was instantly drawn there, as if by some irresistable force. I wanted to visit this mysterious place, described by Merton in words that for me nearly glowed on the printed page.

Since that wasn’t so easy then, what I did do was continue to read about Merton’s life, to read everything he wrote.

But all that was like a secret world I lived in. Even though Becky and Susan knew about it, they didn’t really understand the full dimensions of it, didn’t understand how deeply I was affected by it.

For I was very good at spending time in their world, experiencing a kind of entchantment at the voice of Ella Fitzgerald and listening to recordings of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and the hysterically funny Tom Lehr.

It’s possible that Tom Lehr was the first person I ever heard mention the name “Harvard.” He certainly was the first person who ever gave me any idea at all of what Harvard meant. Because of him and Becky and Susan, I began to associate Harvard with that whole exciting, adventurous world that was just there, within my grasp, if I wanted to reach out and take. Harvard became part of the intelligence, the wit, the rich beauty of America we seemed to see in Ella Fitzgerald, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

And all the time, without realizing it, I was growing farther away from my mother and father. My mother didn’t realize it either, until it was too late, until the only thing the poor woman could think of was keeping me in her grasp, manipulating and humiliating me so that I would never feel independent or strong enough to be free of her. Perhaps it is too soon to mention it here, but I suppose I should point out that ultimately, of course, she succeeded. I never became independent, never strong, and never free of her. However, during the last twenty-five years of her life I could not bring myself to visit her even once.

Does that make me a terrible person? In the eyes of many people I suppose it does. They have no idea, though, what it can be like to be in such a situation. Most people, fortunately, have no idea what it can mean to be a child or a young man or woman and to see your whole life being destroyed by a parent and not to be able to do anything about it.

I love my poor mother, and I forgive her. I believe, though, that I have to try to do what I can to prevent other young people from suffering what I suffered, when I was young.

I know that now, in the time in which I am writing, the message that a mother can ruin the life of one of her children is not a welcome message. In most contemporary stories, in literature and film, it is the father who is the great destroyer in the family, the great monster. The mother must stand meekly by and is helpless to stop him wreaking havoc.

It would be dishonest, though, not to try to point out that in many cases, the situation in the family is just the opposite. It is the mother who is immensely destructive, and the ruinous effect she can have on the lives of her children and on others may be incalculable.


At that time, junior high school pupils in Michigan started high school in the tenth grade and finished six semesters later, at the end of the twelfth. So it was at the beginning of the tenth grade, when I was fifteen, that I had my first classes at University High School and met Becky and Susan and the others there who eventually became part of our circle of friends.

Early in that school year, it was announced that a local group would be sponsoring a high school pupil to go to Europe the following summer and live with a family for several weeks as part of an exchange program. Some knowledge of a foreign language was preferred if the pupil was sent to the continent. The pupil also needed a variety of other qualities that would make that person a good representative of the community.

I wanted to be that person, partly because I wanted to live in Europe during the summer, and partly because the old desire simply to be away from my family was still so strong in me. It was the same desire that had driven me to write on that questionnaire in grade school that I wished I had nerve enough to run away from home.

If that kind of motive wasn’t obvious to the committee that interviewed all the applicants, something else was. One of the members of the committee had been responsible for the summer camp I had been sent to as a child, where I had become nearly hysterical and wanted to leave. Then of course, I had wanted to go back to my parents, but not because I missed them, but because it was intolerable for me, so long isolated in our home, suddenly to have to relate to a group of children my own age who were complete strangers to me. I couldn’t relate to any group of other children, much less strangers.

Now I wanted the opposite. I wanted to be as far away from my parents as possible, though at a conscious level, that wasn’t the main reason why I wanted to participate in the program. What I was conscious of was that I wanted to do something exciting, I wanted to be somewhere exciting, I wanted to be in Europe.

It’s perhaps difficult to imagine today what Europe meant then to a young American such as myself. Europe for us was the source of all our culture. It was a superior culture. European civilization was ancient, extending back to the Greeks. Every country was different from every other. The French were sophisticated and exotic, the British cool and a little eccentric – Britain was the cozy country. The Italians were wild and racy. Europe was an other world to explore.

Somehow I really thought I might have a chance to be selected for the program at our school. With the naivete that I had always had, and which continued really for the rest of my life, I somehow assumed that the summer camp director on the selection committee would simply forget about my nightmarish behavior several years before. I looked forward to being selected, I planned on it, hoped for it, was certain of it. And I was crushed when another boy was chosen, a well-balanced, regular American teen-ager, with no particular interest in Europe, but athletic, blonde, good-looking, a non-crazy representative of America.

The feelings of worthless that had been growing for a long time in me, now began to blossom out of control, at least for a while. The bottom had dropped out of my illusory world, the illusion that I could be like everyone else was shattered, but then, it’s always good, I suppose, to have illusions shattered.

One illusion I had for a long time concerned the way my mother and father – and later my mother and stepfather – seemed always to do and say things that made me feel that I was incapable of doing anything, that I was dependent on them because I could do nothing for myself, that I was not very intelligent, that I was in many ways in fact a fool, that I would never be successful at anything, and that everything I did or thought was worthy of scorn and contempt.

Some may argue that the reality of family life may have been bad, but not quite as bad as that. However, that was the way I perceived life in our family, certainly in my blackest moments and the only way I could survive it was to think to myself that it must be normal. If I reacted negatively then the fault was mine, I must actually be a weak and incompetent person, as they said, but the scorn and contempt with which they treated me was a way of making me better.

I thought that everyone who eventually became successful must have been treated that way as a child, and that that was the way they developed the strength they needed to become successful. My parents were really doing their best for me by treating me as they did.

The fault for my failure lay with me and not with anyone else, because I was not responding to my parents anger and ridicule the way I should have.

This was the situation as I started high school, and I would never have survived if I had not been able to escape into the kind of world that Becky and Susan’s families lived in, and if I had not been able to escape into the dream of someday becoming a monk.

Of course this kind of an escape was, as I have indicated, not really very satisfactory, because the skeptical intellectual world of my friends and their families directly contradicted the world of the Church and the monastic life.

And so it was with this mass of conflicts and contradictions that I began high school, in the tenth grade. University high school was new and strange for me, but at the same time exciting. Though I brought all my conflicts and problems to school with me, I was at the same time able to escape them there as well. On the surface, I appeared to be no different from any of my classmates. I was a young, clean-cut American teen-ager, tastefully dressed by his mother. Appearances were everything.

The stormclouds and difficulties were gathering, however. My parents marriage had for a long time been breaking down with increasing speed, and this was the year it was to end.

For a long time, my mother had been telling my brother and me that someday we too would have a large house, that we too would be well off, that we too would belong to a country club like all of the wealthy people she so obviously envied.

I used to wonder how she could be so sure. I used to ask myself how she could know that. After a while I stopped asking those questions and simply started igoring her statements. They seemed so meaningless to me.

My mother had been working for some time at the office of a local physician, as his secretary. I don’t know how she happened to take the job. She had always worked, mostly as a secretary, and often seemed to have a close working relationship with the men she worked for. The relationship with Keith Bennett seemed to follow the usual course: he and his wife and my mother and father sometimes socialized together, despite the differences in income and living standard. A few times one summer, I even visited Keith’s wife at their home – she invited me to listen to records on one of the first hi-fi sets that anyone owned in our town.

Somehow I gradually became aware that my parents were going to divorce. It was during my first year at University High School. I did everything I could to try to prevent it. For a time, I even thought my efforts were succeeding.

There was a priest whom my parents seemed to respect. He had been working in our local parish and then was transferred to another city some miles away. He came to visit us once in order to talk with my parents. I thought his visit had somehow been successful and that he had talked them out of getting a divorce. I wrote him a letter thanking him for what he had done and telling him that the relationship between my parents had improved and that I was sure they weren’t going to get a divorce.

He never answered my letter, probably because he knew the truth. What could he have said? “You’re wrong, and your parents’ marriage is finished”? Better to say nothing.

The thought that my parents were getting a divorce was a frightful one for me. Of course the family situation was as unhappy as ever, but I didn’t think a divorce would improve the situation. I found the idea that my parents would get a divorce depressing, and I tried more than ever to find consolation and a sense of stability in the Church.

The more I did that, though, the more depressing everything seemed. If my parents were divorced, then I would have to stay with my father, even though I had never felt particularly close to him, because he was the injured party. To go to live with my mother, I thought, would in some way involve me in what I saw as the sin she was committing by divorcing my father and remarrying.

In addition, the man she was planning to marry was someone I found hard, cold, unfriendly and unsympathetic. He was someone I simply did not like very much, and he was someone who did not like me much either.

Another factor was of course my fear that my parents’ divorce would be something that my schoolmates would think of as shameful. Divorce was something quite different in those days in a small town in Michigan from what it is today. It was something rare, something that nice people did not do, and the stigma that was attached to it was also attached to the children of the family or families involved.

My new stepfather had no children, which eliminated one potential problem, but the problem of the stigma of divorce remained, at least in my perception. I was ashamed that my parents were divorced and my schoolmates were aware of my shame and at least one of them even exploited it. A supposedly good friend, he made me feel it was shameful and that I should be ashamed of it, of my parents, and even of myself.

While all this was going on, in that first year of high school, I had another ordeal that I had to confront, the ordeal of football – or what I could only make into an ordeal. As I’ve already mentioned, I’d acquired from my mother the idea that sports were some kind of low, dirty activity that nice boys never involved themselves with.

However, sports were suddenly something that “your father wants you to do,” according to my mother. If there were things that my mother wanted me to do that were unpleasant or things she didn’t want to be blamed for, it was always “my father” who wanted me to do them.

I suppose my poor mother never understood that it was abundantly clear to everyone that my father never “wanted” anything that she didn’t initiate.

So I went out for football. I went to practice every day. It seemed like a kind of meaningless, insane torture to me. I had internalized all of the negative attitudes toward sports that my mother had wanted me adopt, and now I was supposed to play football.

Why did she do it? I suppose she realized all at once that sports were, after all, an integral part of a boy’s growing up. She had kept me from them because she had wanted to maintain control of me, and now that she felt secure in her control, there was no harm in telling me to play football at the school.

At football practice though, I felt myself to be in an incomprehensible situation. I felt as if I had arrived on another planet or been dropped into a foreign country where I could not understand the language or figure out the rules.

When one attitude toward sports had been drummed into my head all my life, it was impossible for me to change that attitude overnight – actually it would take over forty years for that attitude to change.

The only way I could make any sense of a situation that for me amounted to nothing more than sheer suffering and agony for two or three hours a day was to see it terms of the framework with which I had managed to organize my life until then, the framework of religion.

The Church taught that things that were difficult or painful – and unavoidable – should be accepted and born like a cross. They should be regarded as a penance.

And that is what football practice became for me: a daily penance for my sins, something to be endured, not something to be enjoyed the way other boys enjoyed it. It was two or three hours of pain and boredom that dragged out into the evening with almost unbearable slowness. First, we had the calisthenics – windsprints, running in place, push-ups, over and over again. And then their were the practice games that made absolutely no sense to me.

Every day, while all the other boys were playing football because they wanted to and because they liked it, I was doing penance, I was offering up that daily suffering to God.

I was not very tall or heavy for my age, I was really quite average in size. Since I didn’t know what I was doing on the field, since I couldn’t throw a football, or catch one very well, the coach had no choice but to put me in the line, as a guard, one of the players that’s supposed to block the players coming from the other side.

The position didn’t really require brains at all. All a guard had to do was remain in a position where he could stop an opponent from the other team. Normally guards are huge, beefy individuals, as close to the size of a refrigerator as possible.

I was all wrong for the position. I really had no idea what I was doing. I tried to block as best I could, but my best efforts were ineffectual. Of course, I hardly cared about that. My feelings were numb with pain and – as the autumn deepened – with cold as well. All I cared about was enduring, doing my penance. That’s all I really thought about.

And all the time I felt as though I were living in a cocoon of fear. I feared doing the wrong thing during practice, and since I really had almost no idea what I was doing, the possibility that I would do something wrong seemed limitless.

Perhaps it was the boredom I experienced that was the most painful element in my “penance.” The boredom was at times excruciating, so much so that I felt almost constantly sleepy during those practice sessions. Sadly, sports were for me at that time not a source of excitement and challenge, but simply of incomprehensible patterns of behavior.

My poor mother of course found a way of explaining my condition. It was not her fault. I was simply not “well-coordinated.” And I accepted that. It seemed to make perfect sense if my mother said it. Later, a psychiatrist would ask me what in the world that term was supposed to mean. I had no idea. I thought he was the one who was supposed to know.

Is it possible that I felt a certain pride in simply being able to endure what I thought was unendurable? This may have been a factor, but a think a more important idea for me was simply the vague idea that I was doing something I had somehow always wanted to do: joining in athletic activity with other boys my own age, even though my sense of that activity was so stunted that I could not comprehend it, could not enjoy it, could not even really take part in it intellectually and emotionally.

It was my religion, however, that allowed me to continue with football, and I know how strange that must sound. It was my religion that allowed me to survive everything during that first year in high school, and there was a lot to survive.

There was nothing else but religion, however, and the more the family relationship continued to fall apart, the more I clung to my religious beliefs. There was nothing else for me to hold on to. I felt as though my entire world would collapse without the support the Church gave me.

My poor mother made an attempt to find that kind of support, but she just wasn’t able to. Not long before that point in her life where she decided to leave my father, she and I attended adult catechism classes together at St. Joseph’s, the local parish church. The classes were really meant for people who intended to become Catholics, but of course they were open to others as well, people who just wanted to learn more about the Church and about their faith.

I don’t know how much of an impression the classes made on my mother. We never spoke about them. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that she never spoke about them. I did, though. In my adolescent way I was constantly expressing my enthusiasm, and I suppose that my enthusiasm was in many ways a reflection of some deeper intellectual movement in my mind and perhaps in my soul as well.

I don’t think my enthusiasm made much of an impression on my poor mother, though. She was too overwhelmed by her problems to be able to appreciate, for example, the glories of Aquinas.

The glories of Aquinas – I know how strange that sounds to most people now. I suppose it would have sounded strange to most people even then. The expression wouldn’t have been strange to me, though, if it had occurred to me. All I knew was that Aquinas and his ideas were breathtaking. They were explained by a Dominican theologian who came up from Notre Dame each week, a man who was able to convey to a young mind like mine all of the height and breadth and depth of Aquinas’ thinking.

And what an experience that was for me. I entered a world that seemed to offer limitless possibilities. I felt as though I had lived my whole life in a small, cramped room and had suddenly been given the chance to move out into a world, a universe, without frontiers or borders or restrictions of an kind. I felt as though for the first time in my life I could breathe, free of a sense of suffocation that I had until then not even been aware of because I had never known anything else.

Aquinas’ was also an orderly world. Everything in it made sense, and in the chaos and disorder of my everyday world, I longed for a feeling of order, I longed for a world where events conformed to expectations, a world free of craziness.

The grand, overarching order of Aquinas’ word, the complexity of it, the sheer beauty of it drew me, made me want to forget everything else, made me want to be a part of that world forever. It reinforced my fascination with the monastic life and increased my desire to be a monk. It also reinforced all of my illusions about the monastic life, illusions so powerful that I didn’t even know they were illusions.

How could I, at the age of fourteen or so? Of course, it was not Thomas Merton or Thomas Aquinas that created these illusions, it was the fact that my whole life had been cut off from the outside world for so long. I had had so little contact with other children as I was growing up. My mother had done her work of isolating me extremely well, she had worked very hard at that isolation since the day in Chicago when I had wandered away from the family apartment as a little child.

When I think of those days, when I was five or six, just before that incident of wandering, there seems to be an atmosphere of bright, free normalcy about my life. From then on, however, it became a struggle against the craziness of my poor mother, a craziness that made me afraid of life, afraid of the outside world, a craziness that turned my life more and more inward.

This inwardness had started very early and is perhaps exemplified by the incident at the house in Mentor-on-the-Lake where I built a kind of tiny cave out of a pile of clay. I had come to want adventure then, but adventure that was safe, adventure near my own home, adventure I could control, in the building of my own little cave, for example. The cave, though, represented not only a safe adventure, it represented a kind of burrowing inward, again within the safe precincts of a known and familiar world.

The cave was like a story I had read, or had read to me, a children’s story about a family of small animals that had burrowed underground and made a cozy home for themselves there. The pictures in the book charmed me with their atmosphere of warmth and security and love. These were the things I was looking for in my little cave, these were the things I continued to look for all my life. Without that warmth and security and love, I wasn’t able to look for much else in life.

In those years in high school, during those years when I was learning about Aquinas and the monastic life, among other things, it was that warmth and security and love that I was looking for. I had never had them. I had nothing to build my life on, as most people do, and so I spent my life searching for them everywhere.

Or is it possible that in searching for those things I was also searching for God, in my own way? Isn’t each of us searching for God in his or her own way, almost always without really knowing it? God is happiness, and we are all searching for happiness, after all, though almost always in the wrong places.

In a way, I suppose the outrages perpetrated by my poor mother set me on the way to searching for happiness in God, but those outrages also made it nearly impossible for me to reach him.

My poor mother – when I was a child I didn’t think of her that way, of course. When I was a child I worshipped her. When I was a child I thought of her as the perfect mother. I was proud of her. I thought she was beautiful. I thought the way she dressed was wonderful. I loved talking with her. I thought of her as good and kind. If she also had to work at a job, if she wasn’t always at home to take care of me or my brother, that was in the nature of things. I accepted that, even though I envied classmates whose mothers seemed to be always at home.

My mother cared for me, looked after me. I looked to her for comfort and protection, and as long as I was a child, that sort of relationship worked. The trouble started around the time I entered high school. By the time of my first year, when I was a growing, developing adolescent, I had started to cope with my problems and difficulties on my own – partly because I had to, since my mother was so often simply not there, or because I simply wanted to, in order to test my own abilities.

My mother even then was reluctant to allow that to happen, but her own problems were so overwhelming, that she didn’t have much of a chance to stop me from distancing myself from her. The divorce and remarriage consumed too much of her energy. She no longer had time to offer me comfort and protection, but that also meant she no longer could use that comfort and protection as a way of controlling me, as a way of exerting her power over me.

Later, when she realized what was happening, her impulse to manipulate and control returned with a vengeance. During the first year in high school, though, all of that was still in the future. When I started University High my mother was too preoccupied with her own problems to be able to think much about maintaining her power over me.

And so I was left to start finding my way through life on my own. And without parents I could turn to and talk to, wanting to be good, wanting know how to lead a good life, wanting to know what a good life meant, all I could do was to continue to turn to what seemed to me to be a reasonable source of such knowledge: the Church. Earlier crises in my life had impelled me to turn to my religion – which meant trying to turn to God – but the divorce crisis forced me to turn to it more deeply, more intensely.

As the family structure dissolved around me, the church was all I had in life, and I clung to it and buried myself in it, nearly to the point of a kind of mild adolescent fanaticism. In our world history class in school, for example, there was a period of study when we focussed on various world religions, and each student was asked to give a report on some religion. I of course chose the Catholic Church.

Being a Catholic in those days in a small town in southwestern Michigan was not easy. Being a Catholic was considered faintly disreputable by the majority Protestant population of the town, all descendants of generations of pious Dutch immigrants who still adhered to the strict teachings of the Reformed Church.

In the history class, though, I was gripped by a kind of missionary fervor. I wanted to dazzle my classmates by showing them what the Catholic Church was really like. I prepared a detailed report on the Church, describing its beliefs, its sacraments, and its ceremonies, describing everything about it that seemed important to my adolescent mind.

Then I did something that years later at Harvard I would condemn as manipulative and somehow underhanded, a way of influencing someone without their being aware that they were being influenced. I asked my mother to type the report, which ran to twenty or thirty pages, partly because I had to have it typed – and we had no typewriter at home then – and partly because I wanted to remind her of all those truths we had heard about together in the catechism classes. Surely, I thought, she had simply forgotten the things we had learned, and if I were able to remind her of them again, then she would decide not to divorce my father, and she would stay with us.

She would stay with us. Of course she would stay with us. If she divorced my father, I knew, I would have to stay with him, even though we had never been particularly close. I would have to stay with him though, because he was the injured party. It was my mother who had done wrong, so I could not go with her to live with her and my stepfather and my brother. I would have to do the right thing. I would have to do what I thought the Church – and God – expected of me.

I don’t know what my mother thought as she typed the pages I had written. Perhaps she thought nothing at all. Perhaps she thought about her future life with the man she planned to marry. Perhaps she thought about all of the wealth she would have access to when she married, since wealth and money had always been so important to her.

The fact that she might have been thinking about those things – that was something I ignored. That was something I could not think about. They contradicted my own ideals and contradicted the ideal image I had of her – the image of the perfect mother (and any problems or imperfections she had were really my father’s fault, she had made that clear to us), the loving mother, the good mother, the mother who lived up to all of the ideals that I had learned about in the catechism classes she had sent me to.

Asking my mother to type my high school report on the Church was perhaps the last time in my life when I had any illusions about her. After that point, I could no longer keep intact the image I had of her, an image created of ideals and fantasy that had little to do with reality. The first element that fell away was the idea that she was so good and self-sacrificing that great wealth had no meaning for her.

I had been for a long time been increasingly aware that money was important for my mother. Gradually, however, during that first year of high school, I began to understand my mother was not simply aware of the importance of money, she was obsessed with money – of course, as she said, she wanted money in order to “help” my brother and me. That idea enabled me to keep part of the illusion I had about her.

It became clearer, though, as time went by, that the desire for more money was the driving force in her life. Her children were important, naturally, but money was even more important. She would do anything to obtain money, everything else was secondary. She would abandon her children, if she had to, at least for a time, in order to realize her dreams of wealth. She would abandon her faith in order to obtain the great amounts of money she thought she needed to be happy.

This drive, this obsession, the power that money had over her – it was impossible for me to know about all that. Naïve boy that I was, it was impossible for me to know that I could never hope to change her mind about divorcing my father simply by asking her to type a paper I had written about the Catholic Church. And yet I really believed something like that was possible.

As the days and weeks went by, though, and it became clearer that my mother would go ahead with the divorce, the only way I had of dealing with the situation was to burrow deeper into my idea of faith. To become preoccupied with it, as preoccupied in my own way as my mother was preoccupied with wealth and status.

When the time came for us to present aspects of our reports verbally, I told the teacher that I wanted to show the students how Catholics went to confession. The history teacher, who was also the school football coach, may not have been much of an intellectual, but he knew a boy with problems when he saw one. He scheduled a day and a time for me to give my demonstration of confession.

As the day approached, I began to fear having to go ahead with what I had planned. It was difficult enough to really go to confession, but to give a demonstration before a group of classmates was something that was just too much even for my adolescent missionary fervor – or whatever it was. Perhaps I simply felt guilty about so many things that I just wanted to confess, anywhere, anytime, to anyone.

Or at least I thought I wanted to confess. When the actual time came, I was terrified of actually having to go through with my demonstration.

Fortunately for me – and perhaps for us all – when the day came, the teacher, who I’m sure never thought the idea was a good one anyway, seemed to forget I was suppsed to give my talk and my demonstration. I sat apprehensively through the entire class period, waiting for my moment of martyrdom, but it never came. The teacher never mentioned what I wanted to do, and neither did I. The whole thing was simply forgotten.

The incident is also significant because it shows one of the other factors that have always, I think, governed my life. Whether or not it would have been such a good idea for me to give my demonstration of confession, the reason I didn’t do it came to down to the fact that I was simply afraid. Fear and cowardice have to a great extent been one of the distinguishing features of my whole life. Many of the things I did in my life were motivated by fear and very often by the desire to run away from problems.

At that time, though, during my first year of high school, not only was fear one of the distinguishing characteristics of my life, but depression was as well. In the midst of so much fear and depression I heard one day from a teacher that Dostoievski in his novels tried to find meaning in suffering. He believed it ennobled the soul. Those words sound ridiculous to most people in the age we live in now, of course, but when I was a boy, they sounded fresh and bright and even glorious to many of us.

I suppose it was at that point in my life that literature also became a source of support and strength for me. I didn’t understand everything in “The Brothers Karamazov” then. It would be years before I understood the point of the Grand Inquisitor episode, or before I a poet pointed out to me the significance of Father Zossima’s profound bow to Dmitri Karamazov, but I somehow grasped the idea that suffering can make a man better, at least under certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, I believed suffering would always, inevitably, make a man better. I didn’t understand that suffering can also make a man selfish, narrow-minded and unkind. In my case, I’m afraid, that may have been the result. Those words, I think, describe me today. I suppose the fault lay in the fact that from the beginning my acceptance of suffering was all wrong, it was founded on the wrong idea. It was based on the idea, really, that suffering would make me somehow better than other people. I didn’t understand how I was deceiving myself. As a result, I think my suffering has made me in many ways worse than other people, at least worse than some other people.

In that first year in high school, the thought that suffering might in some way be beneficial helped, along with my religious beliefs, to keep hope alive in me. I needed hope much more at home than in school, of course, but I still needed it. High school was at once an exciting and a somewhat fearful place, potentially depressing, though I wasn’t often depressed there.

The atmosphere at school was intellectually exhilarating and therefore quite pleasant most of the time. The school was set at the top of a hill, part of the university campus and yet separate from it. A curving drive led up to the entrance, a drive with lawns and trees on either side.

The building itself was a red-brick, turn-of-the-century structure, clean and well-maintained. It had high ceilings and tall windows from which you could look out of the city. What you saw though were trees, more trees than houses or other buildings, and the colors of the trees shifted, of course, with the seasons. When classes began in the fall, they were still green, but soon changed to mostly read. In early winter they were a mass of greys and browns, but when the Michigan snows came, the trees were a sea of white below us and beyond. In the spring, the green colors quietly returned, until by the time the school year ended, everything looked the way it had when we’d started in the fall.

In many ways, that school was a place of quite subtle beauty, of natural beauty and intellectual beauty. It is still astonishing to me that such a place could even appear in what had been the vast wilderness of North America not so very long before.

The slow, inexorable spread of civilization on this planet, in the face of what I can only call savagery, has always seemed to me to resemble the astonishing and ineluctable destruction of anti-matter in the universe and the dominance of matter as we know it. It has also always seemed to me a sign – aside from any question of the existence of God – that the universe somehow favors what is good. It is a sign that the good – in the long run anyway – has a much better chance of survival than evil.

In the long run, the good will survive in the universe and evil will be inevitably be destroyed. In the long run, not always in the short run.

I think that that this inexorable survival of what is good in the world and in the entire universe is in itself a sign of the existence of God.


In the short run, if the good does not always survive, if good people have suffer – sometimes terribly – then even their suffering contributes to the survival of good in the long run and will enable good people to survive into eternity, which in the end is all that counts.

It occurs to me now that my faith is in many ways what it was so long ago when I was young, during that first year in high school and in the years following. Perhaps the reason for that is that I grew up and have lived in a world where my faith was always under attack. I feel as if all my life I’ve had to cling to my faith and to defend my ability to go on believing in spite of a world that has always been for the most part either indifferent or hostile to faith.

What began during that first year in high school has continued my whole life long. I can hear someone laughing and saying that my faith is just as childish and just as inconsistent with reality as it was then.

Perhaps so. I’ve always been willing to admit the possibility of things like that – as I think I’ve already indicated. If they’re true, it won’t do any good to deny them. If they’re not true, they’ll be forgotten.

I can only go on writing and saying what I believe, like one of Borges’ ancient Saxons, sitting in a room on a dark and desolate, storm-swept English coast in the middle of winter.

Another romantic image deserving of laughter? Perhaps, but these romantic images define me and are part of what supports me as I struggle to go on from one minute to the next.

I struggled to go on during that first year in high school too, and if the pain was more or less confined to the world outside school, there were times when it threatened to break in and destroy me. There were times during that school year when even my life at school was difficult.

As the year wore on, of course, I understood that nothing would change my mother’s decision to divorce my father. As this understanding grew, so did my desire to try to live out all of the tenets of my faith. Not only did this mean that I would remain with my father, because he was the injured party, he was the one who was wronged, it also meant I had to begin thinking about leaving University High School and transferring to the Catholic high school in our town, St. Augustine’s.

I realized that this probably meant giving up the excitement of the first discoveries of the intellectual life that I had made at University High, because St. Augustine’s did not have quite the same academic reputation. All of the things about learning that I had started to love, the literature and Latin classes, the possibility of studying French, the whole exciting atmosphere of the life of the mind as it existed in that school would be lost. I knew that, or at least I sensed it.

And yet in my fixation on my religious beliefs, I thought that this was a sacrifice I was supposed to make, a sacrifice that I should make. I thought that God would surely reward me for making such a sacrifice. I was too young and too stupid to know what T. S. Eliot meant when he said that it was possible “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” I was making that sacrifice not really for God, but rather for the god of my own conscience, which has always been a demanding and an insatiable god. If I had continued to serve that god, instead of at least trying to do what God himself wants, I would probably have done away with myself long ago. The god of my own unhealthy conscience has always demanded perfect obedience and has never tolerated the slightest form of failure.

But I didn’t understand any of these things then, and I thought I had to go to a Catholic high school, even if it meant abandoning the intellectual world and the life of the mind that I had begun to discover at University High. The pain of all that was relieved by knowing that I was leading a life of perfection, a life I though would lead me to God.

Again I have to write that I shouldn’t be too critical toward myself. I did what I thought was right, and those were the days when the Church taught us what was right and we did what we were supposed to do, what the Church said we should do. If the Church said Catholic students should go to Catholic schools, then I would go to a Catholic school, and that was it.

And so, as that first exciting year at University High went on, as my parents’ divorce became a reality, I began mentally withdrawing from the school and from all my friends in it, preparing myself for the change go St. Augustine’s. What I was doing, what I was planning to do felt like a kind of amputation, but what of it? What was the loss of the whole intellectual world at University High in comparison with eternity? And eternity was surely what I would be gaining by going to St. Augustine’s.

Somehow my friends Becky and Susan were able to understand why I was doing what I was doing. Perhaps their parents helped them to comprehend. They felt sorry for me and thought I was making a mistake, but they accepted my decision with that flexibility young people often have when confronted with a new situation.

Besides, they knew I would still be seeing a lot of them. I was still very close to Becky’s parents and to Susan’s brother and his wife. The world of art and wit and intelligence that they had opened up for me was just as significant as the intellectual world I had begun to discover at school, and in many ways my friends’ world overlapped with the world of school.

One of our passions was jazz – I’ve already mentioned Ella Fitzgerald – probably because Susan’ s brother Art had gone to the University of Chicago in the nineteen-fifties and had come of age in a city where jazz was an integral part of the intellectual atmosphere. The kind of jazz we became fond of, though, was jazz so light that it really verged on popular music, or rather the popular music of twenty years earlier, the years of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Rogers and Hart.

Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “The Rogers and Hart Songbook” made us nostalgic for a world we had never known, and the clever, witty lyrics of songs like “Miss Otis Regrets” seemed far superior to the words of the songs our contemporaries listened to.

At St. Augustine, that music would not be lost to me. I could still visit Becky and Susan and listen to it whenever I wanted. I could still look at the luminous books of photographs and paintings that seemed always to be lying everywhere around Becky’s house. I could still laugh at the Jules Pfeiffer cartoons that poked fun of everything that seemed absurd to us in society, everything we were just learning to be aware of.

All of that would not be lost to me, and yet, and yet I felt the conflict between this free, open, generous behavior, and the world of the Church that I wanted to devote myself to. The world of the Church, though, I told myself, opened out onto another kind of freedom, the freedom of God and the ultimate freedom of eternity. I had to give up – no matter how painful it might be for me – the intellectual delights of this world in order to gain the happiness of eternity.

You will laugh at this, but even now – even now – after everything that’s happened in my life, I cannot give up those ideas. I cannot give up the belief that the sacrifice of the world at University High School was for nothing. If I have not found eternity, if I have not found God, if I have not even come close to finding either God or eternity, I believe the fault lies with me. I still believe it is not God who failed, it is I who failed.


My parents divorce became final during that first year at University High.

One day, when my father and I were not home, my mother came to the hourse and removed all of her belongings and those of my younger brother, and then she was gone. All the pain was dulled to a kind of low throbbing somewhere deep within me. I was so numbed by the pain of my own life at home and by the pain of my parents divorce that I could hardly feel anything anymore.

One day my mother and my brother were simply gone, and I was alone with my father. I heard that my mother and Dr. Bennett had taken my brother with them on their honeymoon to Haiti – and even this news failed to move me, though at any other time the idea of anyone I knew taking a trip to a foreign country would have aroused in me a sense of intense wonder and excitement.

I was beyond feeling almost anything at that time though. Just living, just getting from one day to the next seemed to consume all the energy I had.

Then, like some medieval penitent, I slowly and painfully dragged my cross to St. Augustine High School, the place of expiation for my sins, for the sin of my parents’ divorce, which I somehow believed I had caused.

I was frightened all over again of course, frightened of a new school, frightened of meeting new classmates, frightened of a new routine.

Ah, but I was doing God’s will, I thought to myself, and God would give me the strength to deal with all the difficulties I faced.

The first difficulty was football practice, first in the sweaty heat of summer and then in the freezing cold of late autumn. Playing a game I did not understand and regarded as a penance. I was of average height and weight; I had the build of a quarterback or of almost any player in the backfield. Because I really knew so little about football, though, the coach could hardly put me in one of those positions, so he made me a guard, a position usually filled by players much taller and much heavier than I was, someone who could stop the forward rush of players from the opposing team.

I suppose the coach must have sometimes wondered what in the world I was doing at football practice, why I even bothered to come. It was surely obvious to him that I wasn’t there to play the sport, but I doubt he could have guessed why I really was there – doing what I thought was the Will of God, doing penance for my sins, fulfilling some kind of religious duty, weird as all that sounds now.

Poor boy, poor benighted boy that I was. Self-pity? Perhaps, but I’m no longer that person, and if I pity him, I think I regard him also with a certain amount of ridicule, almost bordering on contempt. If part of my attitude is to regard him as a poor benighted boy, I don’t think the rest of my attitude would allow my feelings to be described as self-pity, not now anyway. Perhaps there were times then, however, when I did pity myself.

I feel as though I’m plodding on through a jungle of syntax, the way I was plodding on through the jungle of my life then – the way I’ve plodded on through the jungle of my life since then. I was certainly plodding stoically on during that first year at St. Augustine. I was so out of place that there was nothing I could do but plod on. I was so out of place that I never even asked myself what in the world I was doing there in such a place.

Not that it was so bad really. It’s true that many of the students were a little wild, but on the whole it wasn’t bad. It was simply that it was so mediocre compared to University High. The intellectual verve, most indications of the real life of the mind, all seemed to be missing.

Of course I ignored that. I was so intent on going to heaven that I walked on oblivious to the intellectual desert that surrounded me, of if I was ever conscious of it, I imagined it to be the desert of the monastic life that I was already entering. Our Lady of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery were Thomas Merton lived, lay before me.

Gethsemani lay behind me as well, for I had visited it once already, the previous summer. I had talked my father into driving down to Kentucky and spending time making a retreat for a week or so. As we approached Gethsemani, I was surrounded by a cloud of adolescent daydreams – though perhaps adolescent illusions would be a better term.

I think, however, that any young man who wants to enter a monastery approaches it with the same dreams and illusions, so I suppose I was really not very different. I never really thought about that, though, I knew only that I was having an experience such as nothing else I had ever known.

I was at Gethsemani, that lyrical place I had read so many descriptions of in Thomas Merton’s books. It was a place, I was convinced, like no other in the world. Even the mediocre nineteenth-century architecture seemed to whisper of a loveliness hidden deep within its grey stones.

The weather was the bright, brilliant summer weather of Merton’s books. I thought I saw in the hills of Kentucky the adumbrations of divinity that Merton saw there. The rolling hills and gentle outlines of the trees were a shade of green that seemed to be breaking through from another dimension.

Everything about the place spoke to me of a whole new universe, of the nearness of God here on this earth, God so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch him.

Here, Gethsemani, this was where I wanted to be, this is where I wanted to stay forever.

Dear God, what would I have felt if I had known the horrors of the coming years, the terrors that rose from the depths at Harvard, the horrors I would be facing in only a few years, when I would see Gethsemani for the last time?

It is good I did not know these things. How could I have possibly gone on? How could any of us go on if we could not hope that the difficulties we are experiencing will be the last we will ever experience? How could any of us go on if we knew that the difficulties of the present are only a foreshadowing of the horrors to come?

We could not go on without keeping in mind that the life of Christ on this earth followed a similar pattern – difficulties, rejection, betrayal, and then the final devastation.

And then the final exaltation, which we are too weak most of the time even to dream of.

In Gethsemani then, however, the only exaltation I knew was the illusory, but perhaps necessary, exaltation of adolescence. Because of my reading of Thomas Merton, Gethsemani seemed to me to be a world that was alive with a sense of spiritual and intellectual adventure. Even the building stones of this exotic world held a charm for me, and the first time I walked into the tribune high above the choir stalls, at the back of the church, I felt as if I had entered the forecourt of heaven. When the monks glided in, clothed in their long white robes, each bowing to God on the altar and then ranging themselves in the choir stalls, it was as if I were seeing a part of the host of heaven.

The Gregorian chant began, and I was transported. This was where I belonged, I thought to myself, where I wanted to remain forever. I wanted to live for God in this place, I wanted to be a part of this holy community, where surely every individual was, if not an angel, at least a saint.

I couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t want to enter a monastery. For me the life seemed to be an ideal life, full of meaning and purpose. What else could anyone want to live for, if not for God? What was the purpose of life, if not to live for God – “to know him, love and serve him in this life and be happy with him in the next”?

Now that I’m older, of course, I wonder how many people have entered monasteries with such ideas and been disappointed to find that the other people in the monasteries were not really living for God. Perhaps they entered the community with such an idea, but it was forgotten after a time. Is it even possible to live in monastic community and live for God, search for God? Many saints have done just that, so perhaps it is possible, but perhaps you have to be a saint in order to do that. Or perhaps doing that, or the desire to do that, makes you a saint. I don’t know. I only know now that I couldn’t do it and I’m no saint.

But then, in high school, then, at that time, yes, I really thought I was a saint or at least that I could be a saint. It seemed such an easy thing to do, really. You just did the right thing, always, and then you were a saint.

I hardly knew, poor boy that I was, how really difficult it is to do the right thing in life. I thought everything was so easy. Being good would be easy, being a monk would be easy, being a saint would be easy. If life with my parents made me miserable, if all I wanted to do was to escape from that terrible environment, if the life I knew was full of pain and anguish, then at least there was hope. Things would be better in a monastery, I thought. Things would be easier, because everything would be more beautiful. Wasn’t that clear from Thomas Merton’s experience and from his books?

The monks would help me solve all the problems I had – many of which, I now knew, were psychological. The monks were wise and new everything – I didn’t know it then, because I hadn’t read the book, but I imagined the monks of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani to be something like the monks described in Hermann Hesse’s “Das Glasperlenspiel” – the members of the order that Joseph Knecht belonged to and the Benedictine monks Knecht visits.

The disparity between illusion and reality here will perhaps suggest the kind of mental world I was inhabiting then.

I have not survived to be the kind of man I wanted to be when I was a boy, but considering how far out of touch with reality my thinking was, it is a miracle I survived at all – but to call my thinking schizophrenic, as a Harvard psychiatrist would do, is perhaps going a little too far.

But the monastery, that perfect place, where my problems would be solved and my troubles relieved, that place existed. I knew it. I had seen it, there in the hills of Kentucky. I had read about it Merton’s books. Of course it existed. The idea that it might not never entered my mind.

Not only would the monastery be a place where the wise monks would cure all my unhappiness and mental anguish, it would also be a kind of university; it would offer an intellectual adventure, the kind I would read about years later in Hesse’s book. All I had to do was to read about Merton’s experience in the monastery to know how rich and exciting and fulfilling the intellectual life there would be.

I had no idea – no one did then – of the darker side of Merton’s experience at Gethsemani.

I used to serve Mass during the time my father and I spent in the monastery – which amounted to a week or so – and I knelt in front of a small stone altar in the chilly hours of a Kentucky summer morning, an altar on which was inscribed in stone, in Latin, “Diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo et ex tota anima tua et ex tota fortitudine tua” – “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

I think this reading of the inscription, morning after morning that week in the monastery, deepened my attachment to the religious values and the belief system that had already become so deeply imbedded in my mind.

After reading so much of Thomas Merton by the age of seventeen or so, I expected to find heaven in the monastery at Gethsemani, and of course that’s exactly what I did find – or at least I found my idea of heaven, and I found my idea of the monastery.

No one could have told me then that what I found there was only what I wanted to find and that if I had been able to stay at Gethsemani and become a postulant and a novice, I would have found what was really there, which would have been quite different from what I thought was there.

No could have told me that then, just as no one was able to tell me that years later at Harvard, when I still had the desire to become an monk and people did try to tell me that my ideas of the monastic life were mainly an illusion.

I didn’t believe anyone at Harvard, and I certainly wouldn’t have believed anyone that summer at Gethsemani for I was in love with my dream of the monastic life. I thought I loved God, but it’s possible the dream of the monastic life was only the means God used to try to bring me to him. Without that dream I might have been destroyed a long time ago.

That dream began with the books of Thomas Merton and took shape with that first visit to Gethsemani. It was a dream that would not die, a dream of union with God, a dream of long nights in choir singing the praises of God, a dream of sacrifice, a dream of work, a dream of study and learning.

Most of all, I’m afraid, it was simply a dream, but again it was a dream that God perhaps used for his own purposes. God’s own purposes – who can know what God’s purposes are? Who can know if there even is a God or if we constantly reshape our perception of things in order to support our idea that God must exist?

Each of us must be able to say, “I can know.” I can know, for myself if God exists or not. Each individual can say that. In my case, I have to say that I know God exists. A lifetime of experience and thought – such as it’s been – compels me to believe.

I believed then at Gethsemani, of course, but my belief then was in many respects an illusion. Perhaps it still is, but I think it is an illusion that is much closer to a belief in and knowledge of God’s existence – to the extent that someone like me can have such a belief and such knowledge.

The retreat master was a young monk, under thirty, though his almost babyish face made him seem much younger. What kind of person he was, I didn’t know and will never know, because as I always did with people I admired, I clothed him in all sorts of impossibly and unattainably ideal qualities. He was from the deep south and spoke with the most charming southern accent I had ever heard: educated, refined, even aristocratic in a way.

What he had to say, of course, impressed me much more than the way he said it. The details of his talks have faded now, but I know he spoke of God and the Church and theology with the same intensity, the same sense of deep understanding and commitment that the priest who taught my mother and me many months before had had – and that was a great deal.

And I responded to his ideas with the same intensity and commitment. I wanted to be a monk. I wanted to be a monk. More than anything I wanted to be a monk.

Or rather – as a Carthusian would tell me many years later – I wanted to be my idea of a monk, or I simply wanted to see myself as a monk.

And yet I suppose there have been monastic vocations built on less stable foundations. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I had no real vocation to begin with. At any rate, that first summer at Gethsemani I spoke to no one about my desire to be a monk. I thought it would be pointless, because I had read somewhere that the Trappists accepted no one without at least a high school diploma.

So that summer I basked in the romantic glow of being – I was sure of it – a future Trappist. I got up for the office at 2:15, and stayed up for the rest of the night and the following day. It was a glorious time, alone or almost completely alone in the great, dark abbey in the middle of the night with the monks singing and praising God in the choir stalls below. I thought surely all of them must be as transported by the whole experience as I was. I had no idea that the life of a monk could be as ordinary – perhaps should be as ordinary – as any other.

I didn’t really understand that God has to be sought in the desert during the night, not on the rolling waves of an emotional sea in the middle of the day.

I certainly didn’t know that then. From the moment I saw the tall, white spire that used to point up toward heaven rising over the low hills, from the moment I entered the simple, welcoming retreat house, I was captivated. I was caught by the spirit of the place – as I perceived it. The friendly, cheerful, humorful guest master, Father Hillary, the quiet retreat master – whose name I no longer remember – these men in the black and white Trappist habit were saintly men, certainly in my eyes, and very nearly heroes. I wanted to be like them.

I wanted to live in such a quiet, orderly place, to rise at night for the office, to hear Mass early in morning when there was a chill in the air, even in summer. To be away from the confusion of life outside the monastery – and to be away from the confusion within myself, although I wasn’t aware then that this too was one of my motives – to be away, to be safe in the monastery, that was what I wanted, that was all I wanted.

I didn’ t understand – I couldn’t have understood then – that everything I wanted to be “safe” from was not in the world outside of the monastery, it was part of the world I carried with me. What seemed dangerous or threatening was in my own mind, it was all the confusion and terror inside myself, confusion and terror that I cannot to this day bring myself to describe.

I spoke with one of the monks, of course, about entering Gethsemani as soon as possible, but he told me I should at least finish high school. If I wanted to be a priest, he said, I wouldn’t be able to enter until I finished university.

That seemed like an impossibly long time, but I knew I had no choice but to accept it. Perhaps even I was able to understand somewhere in my unconscious, that my whole idea of the monastic life was an illusion that would dissolve at the first touch of reality. And yet I know that there have been men who became monks with illusions much like mine. They would say God used those illusions to draw these men to himself. Perhaps that is so. I suppose they would say God did not choose to use my illusions to draw me to himself.

Or perhaps I didn’t really want to be drawn. Perhaps somewhere in my mind I felt a kind of relief that I had to wait before entering the monastery. I’m not sure anymore. I only know that in my conscious mind, when I returned to high school that fall – this time to St. Augustine’s – I felt a burning desire to be a monk, and I thought the road to the monastery led to St. Augustine’s.


I broke my nose during football practice that first year at St. Augustine’s. That ended football practice for me. Forever.

I would like to be able to say that I broke my nose doing something heroic on the football field – tackling another player, or even falling on my face while trying to block a player on the other side. Unfortunately, I have to say that I broke my nose by running straight into a tackling dummy. The helmets we were using had only chin guards that left the rest of the face exposed.

I must have hit the dummy with my head up, my eyes closed, and with the full force of my body. Blood came gushing from my nostrils and my nose started swelling. Later, after it had more or less returned to normal, I had to have an operation to repair the damage that had been done.

It’s clear I wanted the accident to happen, although I made no conscious decision to break my nose. My unconscious mind, though, must have seen that as the only way for me to escape the punishment and the penance of football practice.

And escape it I did, although it was already nearly the end of the season, and there were few games or practice sessons left.

I was now free to focus all of my fears and anxieties on school itself, without the distractions of football practice. And focus them I did. Probably no place has ever evoked such fear in me as St. Augustine High School. It wasn’t the nuns’ fault, though. I have to say that right from the start. They were always kind. Kinder to me than they were most of the other students, because Mother Philomena, the principal of the school and head of the nuns’ community, was an intelligent, educated woman who understood how important learning was for me. She also understood that I had come from a wrecked home, that my parents were divorced and that my mother was about to remarry.

Poor Mother Philomena – her life as the principal of that school and head of the nuns’ community was very difficult, and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t make it any easier. I suppose I could excuse myself by saying that I was young and troubled and that I concentrated only on my own problems, but perhaps the truth was that I was simply selfish.

Mother Philomena was an intellectual manqué. She was an extremely intelligent woman combined with the kindness and gentleness and real nobility. She genuinely cared about me – I think she genuinely cared about all the students in the school and all the nuns in her community – but she seems to have paid special attention to me. I remember once that we were standing in a corner of the parking lot near the entrance to the school, where there were a few gothic arches. “These arches always make me think of Oxford,” she said to me. And then after a pause, “You could go to Oxford one day.”

I had hardly ever heard of Oxford at that point in my life, and I had little idea what the university meant. Considering the fact that I managed to at least get to Harvard, though, a few years later, her comment showed remarkable insight and understanding of my personality and my intelligence – such as it may be.

Mother Philomena’s membership in a kind of intellectual nobility must have made life in a small religious community, in a small town, in a small high school full of tough young adolescents very difficult. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now. I was genuinely grieved to learn that she died not long after I was at St. Augustine.

She must have suffered much in her life, but perhaps that suffering earned her a place in heaven, and it may be partly due to her prayers that my life never became a complete disaster. She may very well have been one of those hidden, uncanonized saints, whose destiny it is to watch over confused boys who grow into confused men like me.

One of the things she did for me was to set up a special advanced Latin class that she taught herself, so that I could continue to study Latin the way I had at University High. There were only four or five other students in the class, and it must have been an added burden for her to teach it, but she wanted to do something for me, something that she believed would nurture my intelligence.

I suppose there must have been times when she thought her efforts were wasted on me, but perhaps not, perhaps she could somehow foresee that I would understand and appreciate them someday, as I do. At the time, though, my response to her efforts must have been a disappointment, because as the school year went on, my attitude toward everything became increasingly bitter. In her eyes I must have changed from a bright, cheerful, and promising boy, to one who was nearly always unhappy and depressed and dissatisfied.

I missed my friends at University High. I missed the intellectual atmosphere there. Going to a Catholic high school turned out to be different from what I’d expected, and my sense of sacrifice was not strong enough for me to overcome my disappointment.

In my outrageously unrealistic idealism, I’d expected that being in a Catholic high school would put me on the royal road to God. I would discover and know Truth, I would begin to know God, I would be setting off on a great exhilarating journey to eternity.

For the moment, the idea of suffering had slipped from my mind, the idea that suffering ennobled the soul. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that I had a very narrow idea of what suffering meant, and anything that did not conform to that idea was not suffering. I didn’t even think of it as suffering. I suppose I thought of anything that did not conform to my idea of suffering as a kind of extreme unpleasantness that had to be avoided.

And St. Augustine’s High School was unpleasant for me. Suffering was something great and fine and noble. Suffering was Christ on the cross. Suffering was Dmitri Karamazov going off to Siberia. Suffering was dying for a great cause. St. Augustine’s high simply didn’t qualify as suffering as far as I was concerned. It was merely unpleasant in the extreme.

And whose fault was it that the school was unpleasant? Well, of course someone had to be blamed, and I blamed dear, good Mother Philomena.

When I think about it, she and all the nuns at the school must have been suffering a kind of martyrdom. How could it have been otherwise? Not only were they living in one world and their students in another, but in those distant days before Vatican II, the nuns were trying to impose their world on their students.

It was a hopeless task, and it would have been hopeless in any context. With a student body of tough, independent-minded, mostly Irish Catholics, though, used to surviving against all odds in the sea of Protestantism that surrounded them in our small town, their task lay several degrees beyond hopeless.

And the same elements that made their task hopeless filled my existence with fear. When I think of those days at St. Augustine, the dominant theme underlying all my memories is fear. I was afraid of my tough, Irish Catholic schoolmates, not because they would actually do anything to me, but simply because they were what they were: ordinary, boisterous, middle-class American teenagers. My friends at University began more and more to seem like patrician intellectuals by comparison.

Mother Philomena, of course, understand that without my saying a word about it to her. I remember the first time I ever went to see her – I had to be interviewed by her before I could start studying at St. Augustine. She sat behind her desk in her spare, modern office in the nuns’ convent around the corner from the school. It was summer, and the brilliant light coming into the room from the outside was filtered through filmy white curtains hanging in front of the window. The room was cool and calm and – perhaps like most office rooms in the Catholic Church in those days – somehow to have an air of eternity about it.

Sitting there behind her desk, listening quietly to my answers to her questions, I think now she must have seen far beyond the surface of my words, seen deep into my mind, seen how I would react to the other students at the school, and she probably felt determined to help me as much as she could.

Unfortunately that was very little. There was simply very little she could do for me. My problems were too great, and as I said, I blamed her for my disappointments at the school. Not only were my problems too great, though, but the world of the school and church were against her. The rules and regulations of the church in those days were so complex and covered every aspect of life at school – and beyond – that people like me lived in constant fear of accidentally breaking one of those rules. Or even if we did not break them, their very existence seemed to make us afraid.

Actually, it doesn’t make much sense for me to use the plural here. The singular is much more appropriate, because I was alone and isolated in many ways. It’s true that I made a few friends, but I felt so different from everyone else that it seemed as though I were really alone.

It was a bleak winter in our little house, just my father and myself. We didn’t speak much to one another, because he was often away. I was left pretty much on my own. I came home from school in the late afternoon and did my homework as the wintry darkness increased outside. I didn’t see anything of my mother or my brother. I’d heard that they and my new “stepfather” had gone to Haiti on a sort of honeymoon after the marriage.

I was filled with the shame that divorce and remarriage brought with it when you lived in a small town in Michigan in those days. At least, though, I thought to myself, I was doing the right thing, or trying to, by staying with my father – or at least living in the same house with him – even though he and I had so little in common, even though he and I saw very little of each other.

However, if I saw little of my father, at least I was in a Catholic school, and that offered me some satisfaction. Daily Mass was required, of course, and I was sure that I was preparing my soul for eternity by meeting that requirement, day in and day out. It was actually the best part of the day for me, the only time I felt free of the fear of my classmates, free of the fear of breaking the rules, free of my often unconscious resentment of the fact that St. Augustine was not the island of Catholic piety that I had expected it to be.

Mass in the pseudo-Gothic church built of beige stone was, I was sure, an intimate encounter between myself and God, who came to me in the form of the little round white host, hidden, humble, loving, and yet powerful beyond our imaginings. In spite of what I thought I was suffering, I at least had this, I told myself, and nothing would ever take it from me. In many ways, I suppose, nothing ever did.

After Mass, there were the classes. There was of course Latin class with Mother Philomena, still struggling to save me for Oxford, even though I was sinking a little more deeply every day into depression and a general feeling of antipathy toward everything, a state of mind and an attitude engendered by my parents’ divorce – and by the whole history of my life up until that moment.

There was also the religion class, taught by a tall, thin, very angular none whose round, steel-rimmed glasses gave her a striking resemblance to Pope Pius XII. Yet in spite of her resemblance to a strict, authoritarian pope, she was exceedingly kind. A very large, very old, and very conservative nun taught us English, not with the same intellectual excitement that I had studied English at University High, but she did what she could. She too was in her own way, very kind.

The nuns were all very kind, and yet I always had the fear of breaking some rule, not because I thought the nuns would punish me, I suppose, but because I thought God might. The nuns rarely had to discipline anyone, but despite the rough, Irish Catholic spirit of the students, they all respected the nuns and got along well with them.`

Unlike many people who have written about their experiences in Catholic schools of that era, I have no horror stories to tell of the way the nuns treated the students in our school. They did the best they could, and I’m sure they succeeded, for the most part, in forming good, young, Catholics. It was just the fear that always sat hunched over in my mind, the vague fear, and also the at times excruciating boredom of the classes.

But I was sure I was doing the right thing, and that was all that mattered to me then. Every time I think of that, however, I also have to be honest and say once again that there was a real mixture of motives behind this desire to be good. On the one hand, it’s true that I was motivated by a youthful and idealistic impulse to try to love God and to do what I thought God wanted me to do. On the other hand, though, there was a certain kind of pride motivating me as well, and the pride may have even been the dominant motive, I don’t know. It was the pride of wanting – without really be conscious of it – to show other people how good I was, perhaps even to show them that I was better than they were, more perfect. It was a pride that even took satisfaction in my humility.

Looking at myself from this viewpoint, it seems to me that I was not a very good person at all – except that there was this small desire to love God for his own sake, to do the right thing out of a love for God. A small desire, a small spark of light in the mixture of motives.

Perhaps, though, I could also say that because I felt like such a basically worthless young boy, one who felt that his parents had never really loved him, one who felt that his father had often scorned him and his mother betrayed him and his ideals, because of that, I needed to have some way of preserving a shred of self-esteem, and so I turned to my religious belief as I understood it.

It would be easy for me to despise the boy I was, but I suppose should have some sense of compassion and understanding toward him. Because others despised him then, my father and stepfather and to a certain extent my mother as well, and because others would despise him now if they knew him, it’s difficult for me not to despise him too.

The nuns didn’t despise him, though, even though he gave them reason to at times. Perhaps the kindness the nuns showed him was one more thing that kept him from destroying himself then or later. He was – I was – already disillusioned enough with St. Augustine High School, so if the nuns had been unkind to me, my sense of disillusion would have been even greater.

Besides Mother Philomena, one of the other nuns in the community who was very kind to me and had a sense of what I was going through, was herself something of a rebel. Sister Marie taught English, and she had what my be called a literary outlook on life. Fiercely intelligent and almost as fiercely independent, she was the last person I would have thought wanted to be a nun. She was of average height and rather beautiful, even though she was approaching middle age. If she had been born a few decades later, I’m certain she would have been a career-oriented university professor.

Once she was in hospital and she lay in bed reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Years later, when I read the book myself, I thought of her and I understood why she’d been reading it and also perhaps the kind of consolation she must have found in it.

She lay in bed in wearing a sort of nun’s hospital cap. It was the first time I’d ever seen a nun without a veil. For weeks or perhaps even months, it had been easy for Mother Philomena and the other nuns to see that I was becoming more and more bad-tempered and seemed to resent many of the things about the school. Sister Marie gently tried to find out why, and when I couldn’t explain, she said with a great deal of emphasis and also a great deal of concern that I really ought to try to change my attitude, otherwise things would be very difficult for me in my future life.

I wanted to change, of course, but I didn’t know how. I suppose, because I’d grown up without any closeness to my father and because my mother had always had so much power over me, I was overly sensitive to the influence that any woman might try to have over me. I rebelled against it, as I rebelled against the baneful influence I already sensed my poor mother had had on my life. Give a woman power over you, I had learned from bitter experience with my poor mother, and she will ruin your life.

She will ruin it because she doesn’t understand the universe that a boy or a man lives in, and she will inadvertently say and do things that are quite appropriate to a woman’s universe, but are devastating in a man’s. She will disempower a boy or a man so that he cannot function in a man’s universe. She will do this consciously or unconsciously. At her most pernicious, a woman will actively set out to destroy a boy or a man, if she has power over him, simply because she hates all men, she hates them for their strength, for their aggressive approach to life, for their ability to get what they want from the world, directly, without always resorting to lies and subterfuge. She will hate them because they can very often build and shape their own world.

A woman can influence a man for good, but if she has power over him, she will destroy him, whether she means to or not. Of course all of that is politically incorrect today, and if anyone were to read this, I would have no hope of survival. Fortunately, though, no one ever will read this, certainly not in my lifetime, so I’m free to say that. I’m free to say anything I want.

I will say, though, that now, in the final analysis, I believe the nuns were a powerful force for good in my life. They were kind to me. They all knew what I was going through, what I was suffering, perhaps better than I knew myself. They knew I wanted to be a monk, and they knew why, better than I did. They knew it was mainly just an escape for me and that the desire to escape is not something a real vocation to the religious life can be built on. As I look back now on that time, it seems to me I can recognize that all the nuns knew that, from the oldest to the youngest. If they were like teachers everywhere else, they took a great interest in their students and discussed them with one another, in an attempt to understand and help them.

This freedom is one of the main reasons why I go on writing this. Even though I do not use this freedom — even though I cannot allow myself to use this freedom — to the extent I would like, it is the greatest freedom I have in a life that is still highly constrained.

I’m tempted, though, to say that the forces that make my life so limited are certainly less powerful now than they were when I was a student at St. Augustine’s. However, there is a part of me that thinks such an idea may not be completely true. It is the part of me that clings to the traditional idea that there is no freedom without God, and I may be farther away from God now than I was then.

There is a part of me that believes my life may be far more limited now than it was when I was at St. Augustine’s. My mind was more open, freer, more inquiring then. I read Plato and wanted to understand him and what he and the other Greek philosophers had thought about life and the world and human beings. I thought these were the most important things in life: great ideas and great literature. At the age of sixteen, I thought those were the only things that mattered.

Many will say I was stupid and naïve. I think most people today would think I was stupid and naïve. What is more important today than money, material success, and the pursuit of material happiness? Anyone who does not believe in such things is as foolish as the man named Savage in Brave New World, and in most cases will suffer the same fate, either literally or figuratively.

I admit there have been times when I’ve thought that such a person would in all cases suffer the same fate that Savage suffered. Perhaps they do, and perhaps I have in a way suffered that fate and I don’t even know it. Yet there is still this indestructible hope in me that whatever goodness there may be in me will survive until the end and will not be destroyed. Perhaps even someone like myself will not die forever.

When I was in high school I didn’t think of myself as a particularly bad person, whereas now I do. I thought I was basically quite good, with just a few rough edges and faults that would have to be worn away. Now, however, I think quite the opposite. I think of myself as not a very good person at all, as a rather bad person, in fact, with only a very few possible redeeming qualities.

In high school, I could never understand the writers who kept repeating that they had done many evil things in their life and would now have to do penance for many years. Why hadn’t they simply avoided doing those things in the first place? Or I always wondered why there seemed so often to be references to being a terrible sinner in so many prayers. I couldn’t understand how people who weren’t terribe sinners were supposed to say those prayers. I decided they must say them on behalf of others who really were terrible sinners but who were not in a position to say the prayers themselves. In any case, I couldn’t regard myself as a terrible sinner, and I really doubted I ever would.

In the event, in this respect too, my life certainly did turn out differently from what I’d imagined when I was a boy. However, all that comes later, if it comes at all.

At St. Augustine’s too my life continued to be different from what I’d imagined. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that life continued to be different from I’d imagined, so I had to work harder at making it seem to myself that my imagined life was the real one. I had to work very hard at making it seem to myself that the religious reasons I’d had for going to St. Augustine’s were still valid. I had to work harder all the time to remain convinced that I was doing the right thing. That I was still proceeding toward my goal: to become a monk and to know God.

I know that sounds ridiculous now, but I believed it then, and I believe I was at least trying to do the right thing for at least some of the right reasons, though some of my real motives were hidden even from myself, motives such as escape from the horrors of the family I was raised in, escape from myself.

In many ways, being at St. Augustine’s was a good experience for me. Much of the time I experienced fear, it’s true. And yet much of the time I was able to find in the reality of the illusion of a Catholic education some refuge from the pain and bewilderment of life as I knew it them. St. Augustine’s was an orderly place, and God knows I needed order, after the chaos and even havoc that my poor mother had wreaked in the lives of everyone in our family.

St. Augustine’s school – I remember not only the gothic arches that reminded Mother Philomena of Oxford, but also the cleanliness, the corridors with the always polished wooden floors, an old building maintained as if it had been put up yesterday, and the nuns, everywhere the nuns in the old habits, faces framed in white, long black flowing veils and skirts reaching to the floor.

I remember Mr. Foley, the young mathematics teacher who had just graduated from Notre Dame, and who shared his passion for literature and philosophy with us all – literature and philosophy, those two mysterious worlds I was sure I would one day be able to enter. Mr. Foley was tall, thin, good-looking, and always dressed as though he were a Brooks Brothers model, with his short “Princeton” haircut, white shirt and striped ties, dark slacks and tweed sportcoats in patterns so quiet and understated and yet so colorful that to the students who admired him they looked as if they must have been woven by angels.

He taught math but some of us used to discuss the philosophy of Plato and the literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with him. Those were the things that were important for us in those days, or important for me, anyway. In the world we live in now, though – or at least the world I live in now – those things seem to be of little importance. Has the world changed and have I changed along with it? Or do people always lose interest in things like philosophy and literature as they grow older? That can hardly be possible, and so I have to conclude that there must be something wrong with the age we are living in, or something wrong with me, or both.

If literature and philosophy are no longer as important to me as they were when I was at St. Augustine’s, God’s existence and all that implies are still a central concern for me, perhaps the central concern. I don’t think I’m a very good person, but in spite of everything I keep trying to be. I don’t always do the things I’d do if I really loved God as much as I wanted to when I was young, but I try to do them, I want to do them, I wish I could do them.

I went through that year at St. Augustine’s so naïve and so innocent that most people today would have ridiculed me for my stupidity if they could have seen me then. We live in a more cynical world, though not much more. There were people even then who would have laughed at me for being as naïve as I was, who would have even hated me for it.

During that school year, my father was very often not at home in the evenings, as I sat alone doing my homework or reading or watching television. I was so turned in on myself, though, and so preoccupied with the events of my own life, as adolescents almost always are, that I it never occurred to me to wonder where he was or what he was doing.

It came as a shock, then, when he announced to me one day in the spring that he had met a woman that he wanted to remarry. It never occurred to me to think that I had spent that whole year with him out of an idealistic wish to support him and that now that whole year had in a sense been wasted. I suppose I felt a sense of relief that now I could go to live with my mother and stepfather. If both my parents were doing the wrong thing, I reasoned, I might as well go to live with my mother, since I’d always felt closer to her anyway.

And I suppose I secretly wanted to enjoy the kind of life that my mother’s new husband provided. If I thought about the moral implications of that at all, I might have thought that since neither of my parents were doing the right thing, would it matter very much if I took advantage of the lifestyle that my mother’s marriage now offered?

These things did not happen right away, of course. I think it may have been early that summer that I made my next trip to Gethsemani. First, though, I began the summer doing what I had done one or two summers before that. I’d been able to free myself from the agony of caddying, and with my parents’ help, I got a job on a small farm, owned by a local millionaire, Paul Todd.

The farm was not really a farm as much as the locaton of a small facility where a sort of peppermint extract was produced that was in turn sold to companies that made candy and chewing gum. The main work for me on the farm was mowing lawns, painting, and sometimes cutting large fields of grass. It was excruciatingly boring work. Again, though, as I did with football practice, I could consider it a penance, a way to come closer to God.

The hours in the sunlight doing the monotonous work were boring but I did find a certain satisfaction in them, the satisfaction of work, of doing a job, of using my energy and exhausting myself, of being able to look at the results of my efforts, simple though those results were.

All that made the time go faster, of course, and it also allowed me to dream on about being a monk, about doing the same kind of manual labor that monks do, at least some of them time, I told myself. The rest of the time I would spend in unspecified intellectual tasks – writing and studying – and I would contemplate God and the world in the same majestic way Thomas Merton seemed to do.

The work on the farm, though, also gave me some insight into another aspect of life. The Todd family had their home on the farm, and once or twice I had to go to the house to deliver something or pick up something, and I caught a glimpse of a home and of a family life that was very different from the horrors I was familiar with.

Or perhaps it only seemed different. Any at rate, the appearance was finer and more intelligent than what I had known in the home I’d grown up in. It reminded me of the intelligently furnished and comfortable homes of Becky and Susan’s parents. There was a quiet, understated beauty about it, and somehow a feeling of mind and spirit, as though some greater intelligence resided there.

At his point I have to add a parenthetical remark. I am almost in despair sometimes, when I see the distance between what I want to write and what I do write, and I know that the chances are almost impossibe that anyone will ever really understand what I am trying to say.

I have to go on, though.

I have to go on and try to explain – and in some ways this is the point of everything I write – how the Todds’ house represented that world that part of my has always longed for, a world where intellectual values were somehow at least appreciated, if not actively fostered. This longing, of course, has always been opposed to that other longing for some knowledge of God, some contact with a spiritual world that is even higher than the intellectual world that the Todds’ house symbolized when I was a teen-ager.

There I was, as I’ve always been, toiling outside at some mind-numbing job, feeling cut off from everything that was really important to me – perhaps cutting myself off, I suppose, though I don’t really know – and feeling an indescribable psychic pain because of it.

The pain was bearable, though, because I had a higher goal, or at least I thought I had. I could become a monk and give up everything, not simply in order to love God, but also in order to get everything, in a sense, since loving God was a way of getting everything. Of course my motives were mixed. I suppose they always have been, all my life, but at least at that age I had adolescence as an excuse.

I slogged on in the job at the Todd Farm for one or two summers during my high school years. I almost always worked alone, and I worked well, very conscientiously, so conscientiously and hard, that people at the farm were always looking for something for me to do. I liked working hard, and I liked working alone. Maybe for me working alone was even the best part. I liked being alone with my thoughts, such as they were at that age, and I liked doing something that I thought would prepare me for the hard, lonely, physical labor I was sure I would one day be doing as a monk.

I think it was in the middle of the second summer at the Todd Farm that I made another trip to Gethsemani, this time alone, without my father. I wanted to spend some time there – a few days, a couple of weeks – as a sort of temporary postulant, with a group of other boys who wanted to try out life as a Trappist.

It was, of course, a glorious time for me, at least at the beginning. All of my illusions remained intact, and I felt as though I had been transported to a higher, better, finer world, the intellectual and spiritual world of my dreams. With the other boys, I was allowed a place in the choir, where we could sing the office in Latin with the monks. I understood enough Latin to feel so involved in what we sang that I truly believed what the monks believed: that we were all reshaping the world with our prayers.

It was several days, however, before I met my idol, Thomas Merton, the novice master, and made an impression on him quite different from what I wanted. I told him all about myself, and all about my parents and about the family I was part of. He didn’t react in any way that I was aware of then, but the impression I made on him was devastating to any hope I had of ever becoming a Trappist. I think it was fortunate that I didn’t realize that at the time. If I had, the blow might have been more than I could stand.

“The blow might have been more than I could stand.” Sounds dramatic doesn’t it? I suppose it is – or was. I really did think in those terms, though. I thought in terms of sacrifice, of ideals, of achieving great things intellectually and spiritually. However, I’m tempted now to think that some that – perhaps much of it – was really in the realm of fantasy. I liked to think of myself as making great sacrifices, of realizing great ideals. Whether or not I could have done such things is another matter.

I’m tempted now to think that I never could have done them – and yet, it’s true that my life was not without a certain sense of sacrifice at that time. I did study hard in school, I did work hard outside of school. I did go to Gethsemani and make the small sacrifices that were involved in going there and living there for a short time.

I wanted that more than anything. I have to say it again: I wanted more than anything to be a monk. It was the only kind of life I could imagine for myself then. All other possibilities seemed to be cut off for me, because of the way I had been raised and because of the things I had so far experienced in life – or suffered.

It seemed to me that life had brought me only suffering and pain up to that point, and so I wanted to throw my life away and enter a monastery, where I thought I could find what I had learned truly constituted life – God. Everything in me was oriented toward that. Everything in me longed for that.

To be told that that was impossible would have been crushing, would have taken away the whole purpose of my existence. And yet that is exactly what I was told.


I’d had a talk with Thomas Merton, in which I’d told him everything about my parents and myself, about the whole family environment I’d grown up in. He simply sat there and listened and said nothing. I thought I’d done the right thing, done what I was supposed to do. I wanted help, and this was the way I thought I could get it.

I wanted help, because in addition to seeing the monastery as the place where I could find God, find the source of all happiness, I also thought the monastery must surely be the place where all of the things I thought were wrong with me could be corrected. Surely the monastery was a place where I could learn to be a healthy human being.

A short time later, one of the Trappist lay brothers came to see me. He was a man in his late twenties and so he seemed much older and more experienced than I was. I had been moved to a room away from the other “summer postulants,” a large barren room at the top of one of the older monastery buildings. I sat on my bed, and he sat down opposite me, looking calm and serious in his brown Trappist habit – which is what the lay brothers wore in those days.

“So you’re from Kalamazoo,” he said to me. “I am too. I grew up there.”

I looked at him. I didn’t know what to say.

He became more serious. “You know, life here is really difficult. You can never leave. We never eat meat. The schedule of prayer is hard – getting up and praying in the middle of the night, month after month, year after year is a real penance after a while, no matter how adventurous it might seem to you now.”

I didn’t know what he was trying to say.

“In the summer, it’s really hot, hotter than it ever was in Michigan, and the winters can be freezing.”

“But none of that makes any difference to me.” I was so naïve that I expected him to be able to understand perfectly why I wanted to be a monk. I assumed that every summer postulant came to Gethsemani after having read all of Thomas Merton’s books, as I had.

The brother had, of course, been sent to discourage me and to try to convince me that I should go home, but I was too inexperienced to guess that. I failed to see any connection between what he was saying, and what I had told Thomas Merton about the disastrous family situation I had grown up in.

I continued to think everything was all right. I was happy to be at Gethsemani, even blissfully happy. I had reached my goal, at least temporarily, after all those hours of reading Thomas Merton’s biography and journals. I felt a rush of joy at the idea that I was at last able to make some meaningful sacrifice, that I was at last able to do something useful with my life.

I had no idea that my thinking and my idea of sacrifice appeared rather ridiculous to the person I most admired, Thomas Merton. I remember one day I went to work in the tobacco fields with the other postulants. I wore a white dress shirt, partly because I didn’t have any other clean shirt to wear, and partly because I like the idea that there was some faint resemblance between my shirt and the white portion of the Trappist habit. The shirt was ruined in a few minutes, of course, as I worked away cutting the tobacco plants by hand and letting the dark juices from the plants spray all over my shirt.

Merton saw me and commented that I should have worn a different shirt. His remark was accompanied by a kind of grimace, as though he had seen something distasteful. Somehow, though, his facial expression didn’t really register. I was so lost in my own world of illusions that I didn’t realize what it meant. I was convinced that he surely must recognize the little sacrifice I was making – ruining the shirt, not caring about wealth, longing for poverty – and that he would appreciate that sacrifice.

Merton, of course, saw me as someone who was wasting the money that had been paid to buy the shirt.

In the next conversation I had with him, it became suddenly and brutally clear to me what his attitude toward me really was.

I was called to see him and at first he looked at me for a moment, serious and rather poker-faced, but not in any way unkind.

“I really don’t think,” he said quietly, “that you’re suited for the life here.”

I seemed to hear a loud, thunderous roar in my ears, as though the whole frame of things had shifted. For a moment, I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. A sense of being struck, hard, in the chest with the full force of a fist, a feeling of having all the air pushed violently from my lungs.

Then my perception of things returned.

From all of my reading about the monastic life, I knew that obedience to one’s superiors was obedience to the will of God. In my shock, I fastened onto this idea. It enabled me somehow to function in through that shock.

The incomprehensibility of it – but there it was. All I had lived for now during the most important part of my life, as my intelligence and hopes and plans for the future were awakening, all of that was gone in an instant. I was there, surrounded by nothing, left with nothing. I felt as though my life had been blasted and the future was an empty stretch of nothing lying before me as far as the eye could see.

I don’t know how long I sat there, numb, wasted, unable to move. It may have been a fraction of a second, it may have been much longer. Finally, as I felt myself sinking, I grasped at one final straw. “Would it be possible,” I said, my head lowered, the sense of despair locked firmly in my mind, “would it be possible for me to at least stay here for the rest of the time that the summer postulants are here?” I felt the tears welling up inside me.

Merton looked at me. “Yes, that would be possible. You may do that,” he said quietly.

The bell rang for sext, the prayers said at noon. I made my way into the choir stalls with the other summer postulants, still feeling as if I were hold back a flood of tears.

The Office was still sung in Latin in those days, and I understood much of what we were singing during each of the hours. I had already read the Psalms once in English. On this day, one of the phrases leaped out at me from the huge psalter: “Qui seminant in lacrymis, in exsultatione metent.” “Those who are sowing in tears, will reap, one day, with joy.” The words were being sung by the side of the choir that I was on, and my throat was so choked as I stared at them that I could hardly utter them. The tears I had been holding back began to burst out and I had to close my eyes to try to hold them back.

“Qui seminant in lacrymis,” I said to myself over and over again, “in exsultatione metent.” “Those who are sowing in tears, will reap, one day, with joy.” I could not follow any more of the words during the office. All I could think of was, “Sowing in tears, reap with joy. Sowing in tears, reap with joy.” Again and again. It seemed like a message from the universe itself, from God, a great truth that burned itself forever into the grieving mind of a young man more burdened with troubles than even he understood.

I was convinced that some terrible mistake had been made. It had to be corrected. I went to see the assistant novice master, a young priest who seemed kind and sympathetic, but who knew nothing about me. I told him what Thomas Merton had said. I told him how much I wanted to be a Trappist. I poured everything out – at least everything about my desire to be a monk: how I had thought about nothing else for many, many months.

I was almost crying. “Can’t you do something,” I said with the emphasis on the “you.” Can’t you talk to Father Louis – Thomas Merton’s religious name – and ask if there isn’t some way I could come back here in the future as a postulant?”

He looked at me gravely, and I thought I saw understanding in his eyes. “All right,” he said, “I’ll see what can be done.”

I continued to follow the Trappist routine as it was then. Even though the summer postulants were absolutely required to get up at two o’clock in the morning for the Night Office, I did anyway. I meditated with the monks, I served Mass and had breadfast and went out to work in the tobacco fields. In the evening I bowed before the Abbot to receive his blessing, just as the monks did before going to bed.

A few days later, the assistant novice master sent me a message and asked me to come to see him. “I’ve spoken with Father Louis,” he said, “and he told me it would be all right for you to come back here as a real postulant – ” but before I could feel too much happiness at that, he added, “but you must finish college first.”

That was disappointing, of course, because I’d wanted to enter Gethsemani as soon as I finished high school, but at least I was to be allowed to return. That at least was one small achievement.

At least I thought it was an an achievement. In fact, like so many other things in my life, it turned out to be an illusion. It turned out to be one more in a series of illusions that I would go on living for many years, years that make me now think my whole life has been practically one long series of illusions.

When I returned home to Michigan, it became clear to me that Thomas Merton had been right. I really had no vocation to Trappist life. Everything seemed to dissolve one afternoon. I realized that even though I might still believe in the validity of Trappist life, for me it was impossible. I couldn’t live it. The adolescent forces driving me then were to strong, the misery caused by the wretched atmosphere of the sad home I had grown up in had left its mark on me, like a curse I would never be free of, a curse that would seem to blight every ambition I ever had, a curse that would turn every ambition into an unattainable illusion, until – as I foresaw it even then – I would die alone somewhere, forgotten, with only the hope of heaven.

But at least still with the hope of heaven.

The instability in my personality can’t be excused by the fact that I was sixteen years old. Many teen-agers are unstable. I think, however, that it’s clear that I was more unstable than most, deeply unstable. Given this profound instability, it is amazing even to me that I was eventually able to go to Harvard. What is perhaps not so amazing is that Harvard turned out to be such a disaster for me. My instability may not have been as extreme as Dr. Blaine, the Harvard psychiatrist who said I was a paranoid schizophrenic, may have thought, but it was enough to make me deeply troubled all the time I was at Harvard.


Toward the end of the school year at St. Augustine’s, my father came home one evening, and told me that he had become friends with a woman and her children who lived in a small town about fifty miles south of Kalamazoo. He said that he planned to marry her.

The same dull feeling came over me that came over me when Thomas Merton told me I could not be a Trappist, the same dull feeling that has come over me all my life when that kind of blow has come down on me, as it has more often than I can remember. A dull pain at first, but as it continues, as though the blow were being repeated again and again, it is a pain that seems no longer possible to feel, as if all feeling were extinguished, as if the very root of the pain were so overloaded it could no longer transmit the signals of pain.

So, I thought to myself slowly, at that moment and in the coming days, I may as well go and live with my mother and Keith, her new husband. I had always been closer to my mother, and besides, I thought to myself cynically, I could have better standard of living. Since Keith was a physician and could give my mother the sort of well-to-do life she had always wanted, I would share in that life. I would be able to go to university without any financial problems.

I felt depressed about going to live with my mother and brother and Keith. On the other hand, the thought of staying with my father was depressing too. I felt I was being presented with a choice between two equally bad alternatives. I had never really been very close to my father, so there seemed to be no real point in staying with him. I didn’t even have the impression that he particularly wanted me to stay with him.

Going to live with my mother, though, meant also living with my brother. Between him and me, thanks to my poor mother, there had always been a sense of conflict and dislike that went far beyond ordinary sibling rivalry. Living with my mother also meant being with my stepfather who had always seemed insensitive, cold, and hard. He seemed also at time frighteningly unpredictable, in the sense that he seemed to take offense easily and then suppress any anger he might feel. As a result I had the feeling that he was almost perpetually angry at things I could not perceive or understand.

I also had the feeling that there was no rapport whatsoever between us, nor ever could be. Whenever I said anything at all to him, I almost felt that everything I was saying was somehow coming out in a foreign language that was impossible for him to understand.

I understood him, though, whenever he did speak to me, which wasn’t often. I understood that his interests and the world he lived in were completely alien to me. It was a world of physician’s affairs, of reserve military matters, of stocks and bonds and investments, of lawsuits, and of many more things that he simply left unspoken, at least when I was around. This unspoken element, this partial inaccessibility, this lack of openness, all added to my impression of a man who lived in an alien world, one that I would not want to inhabit, even if I could.

My brother, though, managed to establish an excellent rapport with him. This was, I suppose, in part due to the fact that in many ways they were very similar. My brother had never been as protected by, or as closely bound to, my mother, the way I had been. He was part of the gang, part of that traditional, red-blooded American world that was my stepfather’s world as well. The rapport between Keith and my brother seemed also to be supported by the fact that there appeared once again to the sort “division of labor” that had existed with my mother and my natural father. My mother was to have charge of or possession of me, and my brother was to belong to my father. In the new family constellation it was the same. I belonged to my mother, and my brother Tom belonged to Keith.

The rivalry that my mother seemed compelled to have with my father was now transferred to her relationship with Keith, though this new rivalry was not carried on at the same fiery level as before. However, one element remained the same, the struggle between them was carried on by using my brother and me as proxies.

I also became a kind of proxy conscience for both of them, a constant irritant reminding them that the circumstances of their divorce and remarriage were in those days not approved of by most of society in the small town we lived in. The naturally rather reclusive personalities of Keith and my mother cut them off from society even more and this isolation too they could blame on me. As time went by, I was increasingly made to be the scapegoat of their guilt and fears and anger.

In the strange, upside-down world of our family, however, most of these things were beneath the surface, part of a kind of subterranean swamp of suppressed emotions and feelings and resentments.

The simultaneous existence of this underground world and the surface world of happiness in a “perfect” family added to the already great confusion and even bewilderment I was starting to feel more and more, about myself, my mother and stepfather, and the world in general.

The obligation to take part in the maintainance of the façade of happiness, though, was sometimes enough to make me think that everything really was all right in the family and that we all really were as happy as my mother and stepfather indicated we were, or had to be.

Or if we weren’t that happy, or if I wasn’t that happy, then obviously there was something wrong with me. Fortunately, though, I didn’t have much time to think about such things at first. My initial reward for leaving my father and going to live with my mother and Keith was to be allowed to go on a trip to Europe with the some of the other members of my class at University High School.

I had decided to leave St. Augustine’s and go back to University High even before the school year at St. Augustine’s was finished. I was looking forward to it. If I couldn’t be a monk, then why continue with a Catholic education? And anyway, a Catholic education just wasn’t everything I’d hoped to be – though I maintained my grip on the Catholic faith. Or perhaps I should say that the Catholic faith – or God – maintained its – or his – grip on me.

I felt as though I had lost a year at St. Augustine’s, from an intellectual point of view, and I had to make it up somehow. One of the things I missed was the opportunity of studying a living foreign language. Latin had been enjoyable, but no one spoke Latin. I wanted to study a living language, and there had been no possibility of doing that at St. Augustine’s. At University High, though, I could study French.

There was problem with that, however. All of my classmates had started studying French the previous year, while I was away. Now I had to make up that year so that I could study second-year French in the same class with them. I decided to do that by asking the French teacher at University High if she would tutor me in first-year French.

Mrs. Monroe was a born teacher. She knew not only how to present the French language to high school students, she also knew how to get them to get rid of their inhibitions and actually begin speaking the language. With me, at first of course, we concentrated mainly on grammar and basic vocabulary. This grammar and vocabulary, though, was for me a means of entering a new and unexplored world. I had always, deep in my mind, had the desire to learn a living language that I could actually speak, and now I had the chance.

The years spent learning Latin, though, now allowed me to see the similarities between Latin and French, and I was fascinated by that at the age of seventeen or so. French grammar and vocabulary were for me not some weird collection of letters and sounds, but rather a palimpsest, beneath the surface of which I could see how wonderfully and mysterious the Latin structure had been worn away and changed.

I experienced an almost childish thrill and delight at this fantastic opportunity.

My parents paid for the lessons, but could not have cared less about what I was really learning or how I felt about it. The whole intellectual world I saw opening out before me – to the end of my life and even beyond, I hoped – simply did not exist for them. What existed, sadly, was money, lawsuits, investments, new cars, a new house. My world and my interests could not have seemed more foreign to them if I had stepped off a space ship from another galaxy, another dimension.

I did have then, I think, a vague fear of being threatened by their incomprehension. Certainly I knew that my stepfather, silent, angry-looking, boorish, would never know what world I lived in, and I suppose I was afraid he would destroy that world if he could. I thought, though, that since that world was invisible for him, I could hide in it, I could live the life of the mind, and he would simply never know.

I underestimated him of course, just as I overestimated my mother’s sympathy for and understanding of what was important for me in life.

None of that, however, was really clear to me at the beginning. I was too young and still knew too little about the forms human cruelty could take. And at the beginning, my mother and stepfather did appear to be sympathetic to intellectual ambitions. They did pay, as I said, for the French lessons that would allow me to catch up with my classmates at University High and take the second-year French course when I returned there for my senior year in the autumn.

If my parents had known, though, that the whole shining world that French opened for me meant more to me than they did, they would have stopped those lessons, or at least my mother would have. Her possessivenes toward me was rising to the peak it would eventually reach when I was at Harvard. At the same time, the struggle within her between that possessiveness and the desire to have me achieve the ambitions she had for me was also beginning to grow like a cancer within her, one that would ultimately destroy her – and destroy me as well.

Those horrors were still in the future, though, as I naively finished my year at St. Augustine’s, studied French, and prepared for the European trip I was preparing to take with some University High classmates, a trips my mother and stepfather did consent to and pay for, as a kind of consolation prize, I suppose, for coming to live with them.

My mother’s possessive attitude toward me and my stepfather’s incomprehension of my world had not yet reached the point where they would feel compelled to forbid such a trip. They probably would have done just that, though, if they’d known what kind of an experience that trip would turn out to be for me.

My poor mother would have forbidden the trip if she had known how much confidence I would gain by being on my own for so long with my schoolmates. I could be wrong, certainly, but I believe she would not have let me go if she’d known how much her hold on my would be weakened by that trip. I experienced a freedom I’d never known before. A whole new world opened to me.

For a young American in the middle of the twentieth century, going to Europe was one of the ultimate adventures. Europe was a shining, distant planet for us then. We were so young that the fourteen years that had passed since the end of the war seemed like an incredibly long time to us. The war didn’t matter. It was ancient history as far as we were concerned. All we knew of Europe was its history, which really did seem ancient compared to America’s history – Roman ruins, medieval castles, quaint villages. Europe was a place where a large number of countries were compressed onto a single continent we knew was smaller than North America, – countries where people spoke exotic-sounding foreign languages, even the children – which somehow seemed outrageously funny to our adolescent minds – and where in England people really did speak with those incredible accents we heard British films.

I had always wanted to travel. Distant places with strange names had always been the stuff of daydreams for me. As a child I used to play a board game that used as its basis a map of the world. There were times I would almost daydream over this map, thrilling to the names of places like Vladivostok or Buenos Aires or Johannesburg, and wondering what they were like.

Now, even though we would not be going to any of those places, the trip to Europe represented – at least for me, and I think perhaps for some of my other classmates as well – a voyage into the unknown, to places where the magic of adolescence and childhood was still accessible.

We would be going to Europe by ship, which was still quite common in those days, and was something I would have looked forward to even more, if I had known how fine it would be to travel to Europe in this way, and if I had known that this way of crossing the Atlantic was about to all but disappear.

We were to board ship in Montreal, and we began our journey by travelling there by train. Even Montreal was an adventure for me. I’d been to Canada before, or course, but only across the border from Detroit. Not only was Montreal really Canada in my naïve, adolescent eyes, Montreal – even though we saw very little of it then – was an excitingly foreign city.

The ship we boarded was only a rather small Greek ocean liner, but it was very clean and contained all of the usual entertainment – though of course in a somewhat abbreviated and rather frugal form – liners crossing the Atlantic in those days usually contained. There was a large lounge that was converted into a movie theater in the evening. There were parties and bingo games. In the dining room, we were served delicious food by a polite and likeable Greek waiter.

Best of all, though, there were books. And not simply books. There were Penguins, the ones with those classic orange covers, full of mysterious stories that I would be reading all through Europe, but which I would only half understand, like Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” When I read that small volume, the only thing that impressed me was the scene where, around the time of her father’s death, Julia becomes hysterical and pours forth her tirade about mortal sin in a flood of very moving, but under the circumstances, some have said, improbable eloquence.

I understood very little in that book, but it did reinforce my religious convictions and help build up the wall between myself and the world around me, betweeen myself and the more troubling aspects of my own character and personality.

I retained a certain childlike quality, or perhaps “childish” would be a better word, not only on that trip but for many years afterward. Almost all of us were childish then, though. How old were we? Sixteen? Seventeen? How mature were any American adolescents at that age then? We laughed at everything, and even though we didn’t know it, our laughter was, of course, a way of keeping our fears at bay. In my case it was the fear of the world, fear of the unknown in myself, fear of the future, fear that I would not be able to survive in the world.


We boarded our ship on a day when it was raining heavily in Montreal. We had left the train at the old Windsor station, every new sight and sound making an impression: the smell of the city, the huge old blocks of dark stone that the station building had been constructed with, the French language everywhere, everything was a foretaste of the strange countries we were now about to visit, as if no one had ever visited those countries before, as if we were the first Americans ever to set foot on European shores. Everything was new for us, everything an adventure in our so young and innocent eyes, afraid of the world of the future, but eagerly drinking in the new world around us now.

From the deck of the ship, from our cabin windows, we watched the shores of Quebec glide by as we sailed down the St. Lawrence toward the sea. The neat, white farmhouses rested in the green landscape like unsophisticated natives of a world we were leaving behind. We, world-travellers, were moving slowly toward what we knew would be the elegance and the charm of Europe.

Our ship needed a surprisingly long time to reach the open sea, but one morning we woke up and saw ourselves surrounded only by ocean in every direction. The ship seemed to become a world to itself, cut off from all the distractions of society. We could make our own civilization in the books we read, the movies we saw in the evening, and in the general peace of an ocean-going voyage that was broken by our own adolescent laughter at things that only we could find amusing.

Even the first rough seas that sent many passengers to their cabins were like a game to us. We ran laughing up and down the curving staircases between decks, causing smiles and mild consternation among the other, older passengers who were still on their feet. One old Briton laughingly told us he thought we were “a bit round the bend.” Delighted by his accent – “so people really do talk that way!” – and charmed by the oddness of his expression, we went running off, exploding with laughter ourselves once again.

I suppose it was on this voyage that my adolescent love affair with England really began. Perhaps I sensed that even if England’s grip on one-quarter of the world had slipped away, England’s power would in other ways continue to rule much of the world for generations, perhaps forever, through its language, its culture, and the other cultures it had given rise to.

My first real awareness of England had begun as a child, when I opened a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica we had in our house and read the words that I somehow thrilled me then and which I have never been able to completely forget. They ran something like, “Dedicated to Heads of the two English-speaking peoples, George IV, King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America.”

My first knowledge of England that was of any intensity at all, though, came through the often black humor of the novels of Evelyn Waugh that I devoured on the trip to Europe. In addition to “Brideshead Revisited,” I read all of the early novels and understood enough of the biting satire to enjoy them immensely. I carried them around with me during the whole trip, books bound in the old orange Penguin covers, which in themselves were a delight. I had never before seen paperbacks like that. Until then, the only paperback editions I had ever seen were cheap reprints of novels I certainly would never have wanted to read.

And now, on this trip, there were these terrific books to read and to laugh about with Becky and Susan and my other friends from University High who had come along on this great, extended excursion. More than that, we were surrounded by real English people like the old man who had laughed at our youthful craziness. And even beyond that, we were about to have the incredible adventure of actually walking the streets of London and exploring some small part of what was for my naïve mind an exotic land, so small in area but, it seemed to me, so immense in spirit, influence, and even power.

The weather was glorious in London that summer. It hardly ever rained. On July 5 we visited the Parliament building and were taken on a tour. Somewhere in that vast, wonderful, gothic pile there is a picture of George III. As we stood in front of it, the guide pointed out that he was the last King of America. Then in almost an undertone, he offered the afterthought, “And yesterday was of course the anniversary of that rather unfortunate incident.”

We of course absolutely cracked up. We exploded with laughter. It was the funniest thing we’d ever heard in our young lives. Adolescents there in England, surrounded by people speaking with those lovely accents, and now this, this perfect example of British humor, directed at us and at the British, by a Briton. We thought it would almost have beenworth the entire trip if we’d come to Europe only to hear that remark.

Almost every day, though, seemed to offer some kind of adventure – we very soon forget that life is like that when we’re young. Sometimes, however, the adventures were not always pleasant, because, I suppose, we were for other people not always very pleasant, with our loud American voices and our loud, adolescent, American laughter. Once we made an excursion out of London on the train – an object which we of course found amusing in itself because of what seemed its tininess when compared to American trains. A waiter spilled a bowl of gravy in my lap, which is, I learned years later, the sort of thing that British waiters and servants always do, when for some reason they don’t like the person they happen to be serving at that moment. I suppose, without intending to, I must have been particularly loud that day, or perhaps even obnoxious.

On the other hand, it might have been just an accident. We were on a train, after all. I cleaned up my trousers as best I could and eventually washed them when we got back to the hotel, but the incident did dampen my spirit for a while that day.

But really not for very long. Becky, Susan, and I, and a few of the others, were soon screaming and roaring with laughter every time something struck us as funny, which happened only every few minutes or so.

And when things didn’t seem funny, they certainly seemed exotic. Everything in England seemed exotic: not only the tiny trains, but little things like the funny light switches and wall sockets, all the cars driving on the left, the old-fashioned teashops, the old-fashioned clothing that people wore then, the low and solidly built houses packed tightly together that made up many of the residential areas of central London. And weirdest of all at that time, of course, was the money: pounds and shillings and pence. Even this charmed us, though. We took a certain pride in trying to master this odd, this so stubbornly undecimal system.

Everything looked as if it had come straight out of the Alec Guiness movies of the late 1940’s and 1950’s that we had watched so often at home.

We had been transported into that world we had been in awe of on film, because it had seemed so culturally rich, so intelligent, so worldy and sophisticated, and so unattainable.

Britain was still the center of an Empire then, and even if India was no longer the jewel in the crown, eastern and southern Africa were still largely British, and the Queen remained head of state in Canada and Australia and in the odd little territories and colonies that were scattered from Bermuda to Gibralter to Hong Kong.

What we found most curious of all – and in our adolescent way most exciting – were the coins that were still in circulation then, bearing an image of George VI and a Latin inscription that even we could decipher, proclaiming him King “by the grace of God,” and Emperor of India.

After England, the next stop on our itinerary was Scheveningen, in the Netherlands, a town in which we spent hardly any time and one that made little impression on us, mainly because the weather had turned rather dreary, and the little Dutch community was not our idea of a fashionable European resort anyway. I suppose we did have some standards.

The next place we really visited was Brussels, where we did stay overnight in a huge dormitory a – kind of temporary youth hostel that had been set up to accommodate visitors to the world’s fair that year. It was not very comfortable, but like all teenagers, we adapted easily to our surroundings and were able to focus on the delight of simply being at the World’s Fair, an event that had received publicity all over the world, mainly because of the structure that had been built in the form of a huge molecule and then used as a marketing symbol for the fair on every continent.

The only other thing that made an impression on me was – and anyone might have guessed this, I suppose – was the Vatican pavillion at the fair. It looked sleek and modern and beautiful. I thought I had never seen the Catholic Church so tastefully presented. In this time before the Second Vatican Council, when Catholics like me believed in an eternal, unchanging Church, where there were no public scandals involving the behavior of priests of religious, when nuns were supposed to go cheerfully about their lives while wearing habits that reflected their dedication to God, when priests were intelligent and wise and could offer answers to all of life’s problems, when the Church embodied the whole universe of Truth for people like me, the Vatican pavillion at that world’s fair was the perfect expression of the Church in the world. Not the modern world, simply the world, for the Church was timeless, we thought, and would be the same for the modern world, and for the world of the future, as it had been for the world of the past.

What fascinated me most about the Vatican pavillion, though, were the books that were offered for sale, books in every European language. I had never seen such a display. The books in French were particularly exciting for me, since I had just begun to study the language, and I bought a tiny Bible, printed on extremely thin India paper, in French. I could hardly read it then, of course, but what I could read seemed to me sublime. “Au commencement, Dieu créa le ciel et la terre.” So young, so naive, so innocent – seen from the perspective I’ve since been forced to acquire, I’m almost tempted also to write “so stupid” – the words sent a kind of shiver down my spine.

Now that I think of it, it seems strange that I would have visited the Vatican pavillion alone, because that summer was one of the last times I had friends, one of the last times in my life when I was surrounded by a group of friends, one of the last times I did not feel cut off from the world around me.

I suppose that was really what made Europe so memorable for me, perhaps that may even be the reason I have tended to return so often in my life, why I have lived in Europe for so many years.

Or perhaps what made it memorable was simply the fact that we were young then, and happy. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that we were happy in a way that was different from the happiness of later life.

If we were happy, though – or should say, “if I was happy,” – then I was at times also haunted by a terrible fear of life, and by strange desires that I had to constantly suppress.

I was able to tell myself, though, that everything would work out somehow. The fear would be dealt with, the desires kept in check, and in the meantime, there would be laughter and good talk and good books. And Europe, the great adventure, Europe lay before us.

What we discovered of Europe, though, was of course limited by our innocence, confined and constrained by our innocence, which certainly was not a bad thing. Because we were so young, though, there was much we could not understand and much we could not see. Our vision was limited to the narrow world that adolescents usually focus on. Whatever breadth that world contained, we – I – acquired from the books we carried with us.

But if on rainy days in England or Belgium or any of the other countries we visited, Dostoievski or Evelyn Waugh were a refuge, an entrance into other worlds for me, there was one other place I used to seek out too. Churches. Churches mostly on Sundays when I went to Mass, but churches at other times too. Catholic churches, of course, because any other church wasn’t really a church at all. Only Catholic churches contained the bread that is God. Only in Catholic churches, I was convinced, could you really be in the presence of God.

I suppose my friends from that time, from forty-five years ago, would have a good laugh – but a friendly laugh – if they could see me now, if they could know the history of my life since that time. I must have seemed so strange to them sometimes, though most of the time I think they ignored my strangeness and concentrated on those elements in my personality that were most like the ones in their own.


From Belgium, we passed through Switzerland on our way to Italy, and in passing through it, we saw very little of the country. Oddly enough, perhaps, given the number of things there are to see and do in Switzerland, what we did do there was meet some of the people. We spent an evening in a Swiss restaurant having dinner with some Swiss young people more or less our own age who I suppose wanted to practice their English. I can think of no other reason why they would have wanted to spend an evening with a group of American adolescents who must have seemed quite childish to them.

The conversation at dinner was strained, to say the least. We had no idea what to talk about, and so conversation somehow focussed on the cheese fondu we were eating, the first time any of us had ever even heard of such a meal, much less consumed one. We never asked ourselves, of course, what the Swiss thought of us, and that was a question that might have provided some surprising, if disappointing, answers. Besides seeming childish, I suppose we must have seemed rather stupid and narrow to them as well. That is certainly what we were, however, but fortunately we didn’t know it, and the evening was soon over. I think we really had no idea how awkward and boring the evening was, even for ourselves.

It was about this time, however, that one small sliver of reality began to intrude on our travels, in the form of our tour guide, a young Danish university student named Kai. I think from the very beginning we never really liked Kai, and the feeling was more than mutual. His sloping chin, pasty complexion, blonde hair, and soft, slug-like body made him unpleasant for us even to look at, and unfortunately he had a personality to match.

Our first thought was that we had to get rid of him. Short of murdering the poor man, though, that was impossible, we were told. In a story taking place fifty years later, high school students might have done just that, I suppose, but this was the late nineteen-fifties, practically another universe. All we could do was put up with Kai, something that at first was depressing, because we thought he would ruin our trip, but something we of course eventually became resigned to, until we reached the point where we actually forgot about him and started to enjoy ourselves once again as if he weren’t there at all. If we’d thought about it, that was probably the severest punishment we could have meted out, even worse than if we really had done away with him.

What is perhaps most astonishing of all to me now is to realize how little maturity I had then, if in fact I had any at all. It was not only that I laughed at all of the quite silly adolescent jokes that everyone else laughed at. It was also the fact that I was quite surprised – and disappointed – that the whole trip wasn’t perfect, that it could be flawed by someone like Kai. How I could have developed such a ridiculous expectation is impossible for me to explain now, but nevertheless there it was. My life up to that point had hardly been a happy one. In fact, I had quite often been miserable, and yet somehow I seem to have expected that the European trip would be perfect. Perhaps I thought that with the move into my mother and stepfather’s house, all problems would be solved, and life would uninterruptedly follow a course of happiness and even bliss. Perhaps I had been encouraged in that idea, wittingly or unwittingly, by my mother.

In everything she said and did, my poor mother had always indicated her belief that if she only had money, an immense amount of money, she would be happy, and she would make us all happy. Perhaps this idea was so subtly communicated to me that I too came to believe, absurdly and without even realizing it, that now that I was with my mother and stepfather, there would be no more problems in life. At the age of seventeen, the European trip was the first small indication that this would not necessarily be so. Fortunately I had no idea at all of how my life would develop after that; I couldn’t understand that the problem I encountered on the European trip was only like that small cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand.

Except for the evening we spent with the group of young people, Switzerland made little impression on us. We spent little time there, and I think I spent what time there was looking forward to the rest of the trip, rather than enjoying what there was to enjoy in the country. That’s the way I’ve spend much of my life, however, and I suppose it’s the way most people live. Happiness is always something that is to be achieved in the future, in the coming moment, the coming hour or day or year, never in the present. Even if we’re only trying to regain the happiness we knew in the past, we can regain it only in the future. Perhaps eternity is where the present can be enjoyed. In eternity there is only the present.

Thoughts like that did not occupy my thinking very much on this European trip, and yet they were there, beneath the surface or at the edge of my consciousness.

How could they not be? The religion I had been raised in – or had raised myself in – was always with me. Some would say that God was always with me. Even on this trip to Europe I sought out churches every Sunday and went faithfully to Mass.

After Switzerland we went on to Austria and spent a day or so in Innsbruck, which at that time, not too long after the war, was still filled with the sort of quite provincial, old-world charm that we Americans found so immensely appealing. It had rained before we arrived, and the streets and buildings still gleamed, as if they had just been polished and glazed. The old stones of the buildings and pavements seemed to speak to us of centuries long past, with a sort of voice that was nearly audible, one that could not really be heard at all in North America.

We went to a market and bought some bread and fruit – taking a quite idiotic and provincial delight of our own in the fact that the cherries we bought were weighed out in kilos and not in pounds.

Perhaps now it’s no longer possible, but in those days you could walk out of the center of Innsbruck and straight up into the mountains, which is what we did after we left the market. For most of us, this was the first time we had ever seen mountains, much less been able to hike around in them. We had all grown up in the American Midwest, where mountains were for the most part non-existent and the flatness of the landscape stretching out to the horizon was all that every met the eye.

In the Austrian Alps, though, we were confronted for the first time with the grandeur and awesomeness and reality of mountains we had seen only in movies up to that point. And those movies, we discovered were no substitute for the stunning sight of these monuments to nature’s power, reaching up to heaven. Their fantastic shapes and shadows, especially on the misty day we first saw them, seemed to hold mysterious secrets that made our blood race and captivated us and drew us on. For the first time, I really understood what Mother Philomena, the nun at St. Augustine’s, had meant when she told us she dreamed of climbing mountains one day. The idea of a woman in a medieval nun’s habit scaling a peak in the Alps was still strange, even amusing, but now at least I myself could feel the attraction of the mountains. I could comprehend what drew people to them and never let them go.

I have often wondered if people who have grown up in the mountains can ever really feel about them what those of us from the flat lands feel. We cannot take the the mountains for granted. We cannot do anything but see them as planetary formations so exotic they might as well have come from a distant galaxy or another universe. And for us, of course, in those days when not every part of the world is as easily accessible as it is now, they had done just that.

The mountains around Innsbruck towered above us in great majestic forms that belonged to a world entirely different from the world we had grown up in. They held secrets that we wanted to explore, in every ridge and shadow, in peak and summit reaching up into the heavens. We made our way up a path we found, walking, not climbing, as far as we could. We stopped once to eat the cherries and drink icy water from a small stream. The day was cloudy and cool, and this subdued weather heightened and intensified the whole experience for us.

Of course in our hike we never left the lowest reaches of the mountain, but for us it was a tremendous adventure. It would be easy for me now to ridicule the attitudes and feelings and ideas we had then – ridicule them more than I already have. I suppose to do that, though, would mean that I had adopted the view that older people, more conservative people, or people with a more limited viewpoint had toward us then.

We came across a farmhouse in the mountains, and the people inside came out to talk to us. I can imagine that now, fifty years later, that farmhouse has become a five-star hotel overlooking Innsbruck. When we were there, though, the people who lived there were shy and charming and accepted some of our cherries as a gift. We couldn’t speak with them, because they knew no English, and even if any of us had studied German – which of course would have been impossible, since American high school students as a rule still didn’t study German in those days, so soon after the war – but even if we had studied German, we might not have been able to communicate with them in the Austrian dialect they almost certainly would have spoken.

But even the opportunity to come into any kind of contact at all with real Europeans was something astonishing for us, though of course we are all tempted to laugh now at such a reaction. We were, though, very young Americans.

The great, jagged land forms rising in front of us seemed to carry us up with them, up into the cool, green shapes of the mountains. In places there was only bare rock, but these places too added a contrasting beauty to the whole. We looked back down the mountain to the town of Innsbruck laid out far below, like a child’s toy map in three dimensions.

From Innsbruck we came to Munich. I didn’t know it then, but this city, with all of its contradictory qualities, was the city of Mozart, Einstein, and Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Mozart preferred Munich to Salzburg; Einstein lived here as a child; and Thomas and Heinrich Mann wrote here. All of them except Mozart were also for a time despised here – and of course Mozart would have been too, if he had been Jewish.

It is strange now to think of that fleeting encounter with a city where I have spent so much of my life. It is strange to think how ignorant I was of its past, how ignorant I was of the way my own life would, many years later, be played out in this city.

To me and to my classmates then, it was simply our first eery encounter with a country the United States had fought a long a bitter war with not long before our visit. It surprised us that people were as friendly as they were, as though we were expecting them to harbor some secret resentment of Americans. There were still signs of the war then – the blasted dome of the Staatskanzlei had not yet been repaired and the building itself not yet rebuilt. I remember the weather as rainy and overcast as well, so that my overall impression of the city then was of a place that was bleak and depressing, and I think I was rather happy to leave, never dreaming I would return forty years later to spend many years of my life here.

A city, though, has a spirit of its own, that survives in the minds and hearts of its citizens and is passed down from one generation to the next. The spirit that has drawn many others here drew me as well, and has kept me here longer than any other place I have ever lived in.

We didn’t see much of Munich then, though; it was too soon after the war. Our destination was a more picturesque part of Germany. We visited Mainz and were there on a Sunday, I think, so it must have been Mainz where I went to Mass in a strikingly modern church. It was even more modern than anything I had seen in America, though of course Mass was familiar, more familiar than it would be now, I suppose, because the priest still said Mass in Latin. I was impressed with the experience, and even moved by it, because I think I understood something of what it meant to have this mixture of the old and the new in the Church, where old and new did not really apply in a way, because I saw – and still see – the Church as sharing in eternity in a sense. The Church I saw was “ever ancient, ever new” and was present nearly everywhere in the world – the Mass the same in southern Germany as it was in southern Michigan.

I had not, as I said, travelled much in those days, so this idea impressed me enormously.

We also visited Koblenz, and travelled by boat on the Rhine, a trip that is now considered to be one of the high points of a visit to Germany. Unfortunately, I have to admit, the trip made little impression on us, certainly I was not very impressed. The famously beautiful landscape with its islands and cliffs and castles swept by us without making much of a dent on our consciousness. Perhaps we were too tired to appreciate it, or our senses were temporarily glutted with everything we had already seen in Europe.

We travelled to a small village called Oberwesel, a place that seemed to me to be like something out of a Walt Disney movie, Pinocchio perhaps.

After a day or two in a Germany as it was before the war, charming, picturesque, and after hiking a little in the surrounding countryside. We left Oberwesel and travelled overnight on the train to Rome.

We couldn’t really sleep on the train. Although we each had a berth to ourselves, there were no sheets, and we had to sleep in our clothes. It was hot, and the weather and the noise and motion of the train made it impossible to sleep, so that when we arrived in Rome, we were exhausted.

I, though, felt exhilarated by the lack of sleep. This was one of the high points of my entire adventure in Europe. Rome – where the Pope was, and St. Peter’s, the Coliseum, the Catacombs, and the whole complex history of my religion. Rome was like nothing I had ever seen before, so that even the most drab squares and streets acquired a magical appearance that only I could see, but of course that hardly made any difference at all to me.


We arrived in what definitely was for me, at that age, the Eternal City very late in the evening. We checked into a small hotel not far from St. Peter’s. I suppose now it would be impossible to find a place near the center of Rome where students like ourselves could stay, but in those days, not long after the war, it wasn’t necessary to travel to the outskirts of the city to find an affordable hotel.

The place surprised me when we moved in, because it was so clean and comfortable, and had recently been completely remodelled. Even though the rooms were small and the furnishings quite spartan, everything about the hotel seemed new and modern, at least on the surface. I remember thinking, though, that everything beneath the surface was surely full of ugliness and decay. Whether it really was or not, such an idea clearly reflected by own state of mind then. On the surface I was just an average American teen-ager, bright, healthy, full of energy. Some would have even said I was good-looking. Apparently, however, I somehow sensed that beneath that surface, something was wrong, problems had accumulated and were going to continue to accumulate and make my life very difficult. In comparison to the surface, my own life and personality were also full of ugliness and decay, even at the age of seventeen or so.

Consciously, of course, I was aware of nothing like that. All I knew at that moment that I was in Rome. I was in Rome. Surely for the whole world this event must be tremendous. After all, it was tremendous for me, and how could the rest of the world not share in it? Surely something momentous had occurred.

In my limited, narrow world, of course, something momentous had occurred, but like all of these events in my life, the impact was more emotional than anything else, and seems to have had little lasting effect. On the other hand, though, it’s impossible to say what my life would have been like without these events, without that visit to Rome, for example. I keep thinking again and again that with a small change of course at various points in my life, not only could things have been much better, but they could also have been infinitely worse. My life could have been completely ruined, ruined in every sense. I might have destroyed myself. I might never have survived at all.

So, perhaps I should not be too disparaging to the boy I was then, that adolescent floundering in his emotions and in what seems to have been romantic and religious fantasies.

Being in Rome, of course, only made the emotions stronger and the fantasies more vivid. The first evening we were there I was off on another dreamy adventure – it is difficult now not to be scornful of my attitude then.

We arrived in Rome rather late, but I could not rest until I had seen St. Peter’s, the most important place in the most important element in my life then, the Church. I understood very little then, and I didn’t realize that it was not the Church that should be at the center of my existence, but rather God, however and wherever I might finally find him.

Because the Church had become such a crucial element in my life, though, I had to see St. Peter’s; I could not sleep that night until I had seen St. Peter’s. It was within walking distance of the small hotel we were staying in, because in those days it was still possible to find inexpensive hotels in the center of Rome.

It wasn’t simply that I had to see St. Peter’s, though, it was something that was as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning. I was so filled with dreams of God and the saints and the monastic life and holiness and all of the other ideals that the Catholic Church has represented down through the ages that going to St. Peter’s that night was simply a natural part of the course of my life.

As I approached the square, I saw a part of the dome and the colonnade at the end of the narrow street I was walking on. The part I could see was lit up against the night-time sky and framed by the silhouette of two buildings, one on each side of the street I was walking along. It seemed like a miracle. This place that I had read about, seen pictures of, even dreamed about actually existed, and I was there to see it. On this night when to my young mind the city around me seemed full of infinite mystery, there in front of me was the building that I thought of as part of the greatest mystery of all.

I felt as though I had been on a kind of pilgrimage and had reached my destination. I walked slowly along the dark street toward St. Peter’s. The lighted dome and the colonnade seemed to grow larger and nearly fill nearly my field of vision. As I walked out into the open square, I felt I had been transported into another world, onto another plane of existence. I had never before seen such magnificence, which drawings and photographs could only hint at. Naïve, innocent, and provincial as I was, I could hardly grasp what I was seeing. The sheer majesty of Bernini’s architecture was all but overwhelming in the light of that dark summer night, in the Roman silence that surrounded me.

I believe I really thought that I had attained some deeper insight into God and the Church, perhaps even into my own soul, simply by being in the presence of what is in the end a tremendous work of art, executed on a scale that has hardly been equalled or surpassed in the relatively brief period that human beings have inhabited the planet.

If I had been less impressionable, I might have remembered the story of the Old Testment prophet who hid his face in the cleft of a rock after the Lord told him he would be passing by. The prophet heard the roaring of a mighty wind, but he knew God was not in the wind. He felt the raging of a massive storm, but God was not in the storm. Finally, he was aware of the almost imperceptible caress of a gentle breeze, and then he knew he was in the presence of God.

If I had remembered that story, I might have been less impressed with my first sight of St. Peter’s. I was, however, very young, even younger than my years. Or perhaps the term “far less mature than my years” would be more appopriate. At any rate, if somewhere, sometime, there is someone who ever reads this, perhaps that person will be able to overlook or forgive my childishness and stupidity.

I suppose I could point out that that childishness and stupidity were actually rather dangerous for me, because they led me to believe that the world I saw around me, everywhere, really existed, instead of being an illusion. And this error on my part led to a great deal of suffering later on in my life. I had to pay for my error with a great deal of pain.

Not that I think belief in God is necessarily an error, but it was the way I believed – that way of believing was full of dreams and wrong-headed ideas and was later to lead to many disasters, though now that I look back on my life, it hardly seems possible that anything could have happened any differently than it did, given the home I came from.

I know, I know, this story is confused and perhaps in parts doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but I must try to set it down, must try to set down all I can.

Rome itself then was a kind of illusion, in the sense that the Rome that existed at that time exists no longer. It was a somehow cozier city, not very modern, not very Americanized. It was also somehow more human, I think, though perhaps it might be possible to find that Rome again, hidden somewhere in the small streets and squares that seemed so strange and exotic, so full of something half-hidden and beautiful behind the plain facades and the narrow streets that seemed to run off in every directions.

One of the odd things I remember about the city then was a group of nuns that did our laundry. How odd it seemed to find such a thing. It was very far from the kind of life and devotion that I always thought nuns led, or should be leading. On the other hand, a simple life of manual labor like that has always been one element in the Christian ideal, though of course I had little idea of such a thing then. Manual labor carried out by a monk on a monastery in the wilds of Kentucky was one thing, but here in the middle of a noisy, busy city in the middle of the twentieth century? That was something I would not have understood if I had thought about it – which I didn’t much. Anything that didn’t fit my view of the way the world should be was for the most part ignored, even invisible. Perhaps the surprising thing was that I noticed the nuns at all. Did something somehow make me understand that my own struggle for existence, my own life, would in the long run resemble theirs in a way? I too would lead a life that to many would seem meaningless in a material sense. It would be a life that was often filled with periods of mindless manual labor, made necessary by the fact that I would do anything to survive, had in fact to do anything to survive. It would be a life frequently driven simply by the idea that I once heard in an otherwise forgettable movie: “It’s better to do something than nothing.”

The day after our arrival in Rome was the day the Pope held a general audience in St. Peter’s. Becky and Susan and I were the only ones from our group to go – the others simply interested. There was no reason why they should be. I suppose the only reason Becky and Susan came to the audience was because I was so interested in it. Perhaps they expected to see what I saw in it.

What I saw, though, was like nothing I had ever seen before in my life, like nothing I could ever have imagined. In those days the Pope was still carried high above the heads of the crowds in a sedan chair, clothed in all the medival glory of his office. We were standing at the edge of the path that had been formed through the crowd, close to where the Pope was carried by, accompanied by a tremendous roaring and cheering. As he came past, I looked up at him and there, from what seemed like an immense distance, I saw him for an instant look straight into my eyes through the round, metal-rimmed glasses he wore, his hand raised in blessing and the faintest, gravest of smiles on his lips.

Or did I see it? Many will say I didn’t, of course, but I believe I did, and even though the entire event had a tremendous impact on me, perhaps determining my fate for years to come, perhaps forever, I think it still did not make the impression on me that the poor monks of Gethsemani had made, in their simple monastery hidden in the Kentucky hills.

Still, seeing the Pope was probably the point in the trip that could not be surpassed. It was even greater, of course, than seeing St. Peter’s itself that first night in Rome. Although Europe would still make many deep impressions on me in the weeks remaining for trip, nothing would ever quite surpass what I experienced that day in Rome.

From Rome we travelled south to Pompeii and took a guided tour through the ruins, the most memorable part of which was what the guide said the symbol for a house of prostituion engraved into the wall of a building. Young as we were, in the nineteen-fifties, this was of course shocking and disconcerting for us, and we turned away as soon as we understood what we were looking at. What I took from the entire experience of the ruins, however, was a reinforcement of my growing certainty that all worldly things were passing and only the eternal was real and permanent.

This idea of course had been growing in my mind for some time, but unfortunately it remained there only on an intellectual or abstract level. I thought the idea was having an impact on my life, but if so, it was only a superficial one. And even though the idea of the vanity of the world reached glorious, romantic proportions in my mind, it crumbled and would continue to crumble under the slightest real challenge. Like all the elements of my religious ideals, this one had only the most tangential connection to reality. I believe, though, that the problem lay not in those ideals, but rather in my feeble understanding of them and in my stupidity.

When we visited Capri, what impressed me most about the island was something that was really no longer visible: the island’s ancient history as an imperial Roman residence. To me, that meant seeing Capri as it was presented in the ancient Rome of the American motion picture industry of the time, where of course all of the actors in many ways strongly resembled red-blooded Americans – and sometimes Englishmen – of the nineteen fifties.

A young friend of mine once asked me why medieval painters always portrayed biblical characters dressed in the clothing of the Middle Ages, and not in the clothes of antiquity. I said that in the Middle Ages, artists did not know how people dressed in ancient times, and so in their paintings they could only dress them as contemporaries. I think people one day may ask a similar question about Roman epics made by Americans in the twentieth century: why do they all behave and look like Americans of that period? The answer of course will be that Americans of the period could know how people really behaved, really spoke, and even what they really looked like in antiquity.

And so an Americanized ancient Rome was the only ancient Rome I was able to imagine when we visited Capri on that splendid day of brightness and sun in the nineteen fifties. We saw little that reminded us of ancient Rome. Only the sky, the land, and sea had remained the same for almost two millennia, since the time when everyone spoke Latin there.

From Capri we continued our journey through Europe, this time moving northward along the Italian peninsula and across France by train to Paris. I want to write that Paris doesn’t exist any more. Certainly the Paris that we arrived in on that day in August doesn’t exist any longer. Perhaps Paris has always been disappearing, but the city that is there today changed so much and so quickly that for people like me who knew Paris fifty years ago, what is there today isn’t Paris at all.

For me Paris will always be the city I saw as a seventeen-year-old, shining with the kind of magic that only a boy that age can perceive. In a material sense, it was a slightly shabbier city, a somewhat poorer city than what is there now. But for us it was more the city of light, it was Paris with all the intellectual freedom, all the freedom of the human spirit that that can be concentrated in one place.

What I remember most about Paris then, oddly enough, were books. There seemed to be books everywhere, and not only in the dark, comfortable-looking bookshops that looked as if they held so many secrets it would take an eternity to explore them all. We found books too – and all sorts of pictures – in the stalls along the Seine that astonished and charmed us. What an amazing, fantastic city, we said to ourselves. And everywhere, like some enchanting background music, there was the language, the grand language of France that we ourselves had studied and tried to master and tried to use.

The colors there may be brighter now, but the colors of Paris had their own kind of brilliance then that shone through the drabness of what was in many ways still a postwar city. That drabness, though, was for us something beautiful. It was European drabness, it was exotic drabness. It wasn’t drabness at all for us, but beauty translated into a minor key. It was subdued, sophisticated beauty. It was a beauty that had intelligence and charm.

Just as that beauty was not beauty at all for people who had known the Paris of a still earlier time, so the beauty of Paris now is not really beauty for us who knew Paris in the middle of the twentieth century, not long after the war. We saw Paris in handsome chiaroscuro. We saw the Paris of narrow streets and broad boulevards filled with strange-looking European automobiles. Our Paris was a city of handsome-looking couples meeting for quiet discussions in small cafes. Our Paris was a world where the intellect and spirit was surprised around every corner by a riddle or a mystery, and the corners were everywhere and the streets extended and held their mystery forever. Paris was a universe, Paris was the universe for us.

But most of all, Paris was freedom. The city seemed to exude a sense of freedom and fill our minds with it. In Paris we could move and breathe freely. In Paris we could think freely. In Paris we could exist on a different, higher plane.

And in Paris – and this is the one thing I keep coming back to when I think of that time – in Paris there was art, such as we had never seen before, art that we could never have imagined, art that we could never have thought possible.

When we visited Paris, France’s collection of impressionist paintings was still at the Jeu de Paume, and it was there that I first encountered art. It was there that I saw paintings for the first time. I was astonished at how these paintings looked. They seemed somehow deeper, the colors more profound, the paintings themselves more real than any reproduction could possibly be. I felt as if I were understanding something about painting that I had never understood before. The impact on me was extradinary and perhaps changed my life, because it was the first experience of art and the intellect that I can remember. I understood there was a whole new dimension to life, a whole new dimension to the life of the mind, that I had not been aware of at all.

Perhaps it was, in the end, Paris that had the greatest impact on me, of all the places we visited on that trip to Europe. It was in Paris I discovered what is most important for our existence, at least on a purely human level. What I found in Rome only contributed to my illusions about God. Not that I believe God is an illusion. God is real. God exists. It’s just that I had – and still have – so many illusions about him, and I think Rome contributed to that.

What I experienced in Paris though – the discovery of great art – was something I could eventually come to grasp, even if at the age of seventeen I couldn’t understand it. Even if Paris gave an unstoppable impetus to what I came to know of the intellectual life, I was unable to comprehend that then.

I was also unable to comprehend, or foresee, how violent the conflict between the Paris element and the Rome element in my life would eventually become. It would become the conflict between the intellectual – allied with the material and the physical – on the one hand, and the spiritual on the other. It would be a conflict that would eventually destroy me.

Perhaps it was that conflict that was somehow prefigured by a storm our ship passed through as we returned to North America, an early autumn storm that raged on the Atlantic. I wanted to experience those waves that came crashing over the bow of the ship, so I ran out into the wind and the rain and the water with a few classmates, until a crew member with horror and panic in his eyes came and shouted at us that we had to go back inside.

In a sense, that storm began on that bright day in the Jeu de Paume in Paris when I saw the paintings of the impressionists for the first time, and it has raged on until this very day when I am old and at last about to take leave of this life. It was a storm that nearly destroyed me and could destroy me still, except that I believe God will not refuse his help even to someone like me.

The intellectual life was closed off for me a long time ago, and it can never be opened to me again. I can, though, continue to try to open it for the young people I come in contact with. I can continue to try to explain how it was closed to me so that nothing like what happened to me will ever happen to anyone again.

Perhaps that too is an impossible dream, but I think if it had not been for the impossible dreamers of the past, human beings would not have achieved what we have so far achieved in our relatively short existence. It may be that we will one day live in a world where no young man’s mind suffers because he is denied entry to the world of the intellectual life.

It also be that we will one day live in a world where no young man is forced to choose between the intellectual life and being good. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it will be a world where no young man has to perceive himself as being in a situation where he is forced to make such a choice.


The voyage back across the Atlantic was slow, with that slowness that dreams sometimes have when you want them never to end. There were very few activities like the ones when we crossed in the other direction a few weeks before. There were not even many movies in the evening.

What there was, though was time. There was time enough to lose myself in books such as I’d never done before – and never done since. There was not only time, there was a kind of quiet that I’d never known before either, a kind of quiet that had never existed in my mother and stepfather’s house. There was silence that allowed me to immerse myself in the books I’d bought and dragged with me all around Europe – most of them more of the old, classic Penguins with the red-bordered cover. Charles Dickens, and more Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I discovered more Evelyn Waugh and François Mauriac then as well.

I think that has been the only time in my entire life that I have ever been able to read like that, without the buzz of internal or external distractions that seemed always to be generated in my mother’s house. Of course it was not her fault, though. Or perhaps it may have been simply the sea, simply being completely out of touch with the outside world – that was possible then.

Perhaps it would not be possible at all now to have such an experience of reading anywhere, at any time. The world is filled almost everywhere with the noise of civilization, or what we call our civilization, our poor, sad civilization.

The days on the ship were a heaven of peace. The cold air blew around us as we walked outside on the deck, but in the cabins and the public rooms, everything was warm and comfortable. The small library was full of books in their rich, colorful bindings, so that even if I had run out of books of my own, there would have been plenty more.

We arrived in Canada after the long, leisurely journey and then took the train from Montreal back home. By the time we arrived, it was almost time for school to start in September, and there was no unpleasantness with my mother and stepfather. I have often wondered why. Perhaps it was because I was only beginning to live with them, and they saw no reason to treat me the way they would later.

The atmosphere was not unpleasant before the start of school, my mother and stepfather were surprisingly willing to allow me a certain amount of freedom from harassment. Perhaps they had other things to occupy their energies, or perhaps they wanted to give me a chance to become used to the still new situation of living with them.

I spent a lot of time at Becky’s parents’ summer home that was located on the shore of one of the small lakes that the glaciers scoured out of southern Michigan during the last ice age. It was always a relief for me to go out there and visit them, perhaps more of a relief that my mother and stepfather realized, because they allowed me to drive one of their cars out there.

Not only was it cool and pleasant at the lake, with time for swimming and water-skiing, but the whole intellectual atmosphere there was liberating as well. It was, as always, the world of art and music that Becky’s parents were involved in that was there and that attracted me, a world that would have been incomprehensible to my mother and stepfather if they had known about it. It was the world I had always experienced with them – the music of Ella Fitzgerald, the dialogues of Mike Nichols and Elaine May on phonograph records, cool, terrific books of photographs, and the songs of Tom Lehrer.

The songs of Tom Lehrer. It was at the age of seventeen or so that I heard those songs for the first time, and for the first time heard of that magic place called Harvard. Lehrer had written a song – a kind of football song for intellectuals – called “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” It was not only a song that had us nearly rolling on the floor with laughter, but it was also a song that brought the name “Harvard” to my mind. It made me wonder what this place was, what sort of a university it was. What a remarkable place it must be, I thought to myself, if there could be mathematicians there who also wrote songs the way Lehrer did. It must be a marvellous place, the sort of place where the intellectual world of Becky and Susan and their parents expanded into a whole universe of interesting ideas and activities.

All that was absorbed and stored away somewhere in my mind. I had no thought of going to Harvard then. I knew I would go to university, of course, but I always thought I would go to a Catholic university. I’d always planned on that, in fact. And when I thought about a Catholic university, I wanted the best, or what I thought was the best. Notre Dame, located a couple of hours’ drive from our home, wasn’t good enough. I wanted to go to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., mainly because it was a Jesuit university, the oldest in the country, and therefore had to be an excellent institution. I would receive the best education possible there – the best Catholic education. I would learn the truth and my faith would be strengthened and deepened.

And then, after that, I still had in mind the idea of becoming a monk. Thomas Merton’s writings and the trips to Gethsemani had left their mark on me, and I still wanted what I considered the highest, most perfect form of life, the monastic life. There I could live for God, there I could lead a life of perfect holiness and purity and order – and happiness. I knew that such a life would make me happy, and perhaps that was the most important reason for wanting to enter a monastery – to be happy. I suppose it was a somewhat selfish reason, possibly even fatally selfish.

That fall of my last year in high school, university was a year away, but at that age a year was an unimaginably long period of time. It seemed almost foolish to think too much about what might happen in a year. It was unrealistic, almost irrational, like thinking about what might happen in fifty years, or about what might happen at the moment of death.

I focussed my thoughts an energies mainly on the present, like most people. Only the present really mattered. And as I started school, I had mixed feelings. Except of course for Becky and Susan, many of my classmates seemed resentful of me and cool in their attitude. For one thing, I’d been a kind of “traitor,” leaving University High School and going to St. Augustine’s. And now I was expecting to be “taken back” again, as if nothing had happened. For another thing, there was the question of my parents’ divorce. In those days, in that small town, when no decent people divorced their spouses, there was something shameful about divorce, and about the children of a divorced couple. In my case, what made matters worse was the fact that the divorce had resulted in an enviable rise in my social status – at least that’s how many of my classmates saw the situation.

At first, though, I didn’t feel uncomfortable coming back to school. I think the discomfort probably began after the school assembly we had, where we showed slides of the European trip. After that, I think, some of my classmates began directing a certain amount of hostility and envy toward me. I think I probably acted as a kind of lightning rod for hostility and even that could not be directed toward other members of the group that had gone to Europe. It could be directed against me, though, because I was the only member of the group who had been able to go to Europe because of the fact that my my mother and steopfather had done something wrong in the eyes of the my classmates. They had divorced their spouses and then married each other.

The hostility and envy were not directed against me in any open way, of course, but in ways that were probably even more painful for being subtle and indirect. I remember, for example, one day just before English class. We were sitting around the classroom talking. Mr. McCoy, our teacher, had just arrived, and I mentioned something about “Keith,” my new stepfather.

“Who’s Keith?” asked one of my classmates, a former close friend, with quite perceptible scorn in his voice. He knew very well who “Keith” was.

I glanced at Mr. McCoy and saw an expression of concern and discomfort on his face. He didn’t – couldn’t – say anything.

“Well, uh, I mean my stepfather,” I stammered.

My classmate looked at me with satisfaction on his face. At this point Mr. McCoy did interrupt and changed the subject, asking us about our plans for registering to take the SAT’s.

From that time on, though, my relations with most of my classmates – except for Becky and Susan – became rather distant. Whether or not my classmates were really concerned with my family situation, I thought they were, and I assumed they all disapproved. If I had been more insightful and mature, I would have seen that they all had their own lives and problems to think about and really took very little interest in me.

I suppose, though, since my parents appeared to take absolutely no interest in me, I needed to believe that someone took an interest, even a negative interest, in me. Whatever interest there may or may not have been though, I thought most of my classmates were judging me somehow. I certainly was judging myself, and condemning myself simply for existing at all. I wanted not to exist. I wanted not to have to face the difficulties my mother and stepfather seemed to be causing in the world outside of myself and in the world within, the world of my own mind.

All I could do was withdraw – or that at least was all I thought I could do. At least, if confrontation with the world was too painful, I could simply withdraw from the world, or leave it anyway. A rationale for doing this, and a way of doing it, of course was there in my dream of being a monk. Monks left the world, didn’t they? They were seeking something better. I would do the same thing. Even if I couldn’t enter a monastery, I could live like a monk in the world, or at least try to.

Naturally such a thing was stupid. However, again, when I’m tempted to blame that young boy I was for his stupidity, I think I should try to restrain myself, try not to act like the other people who did the same thing. I should try to have less contempt and more understanding for him, even though that is not an easy thing to do.

It’s not easy to forgive someone – even oneself – for stupidity and cowardice and fear and for a lack of understanding of himself and the world. Even if that person is still a boy and is in a way held captive by the web of sickness his parents seemed to have always tried to spin around him, even if he himself may have been sick for thinking such a thing, it’s not easy to forgive him.

Yet I must try to do that, no matter how difficult it may be. I must try to understand that poor boy and his misery. I must not shut him out a second time, the way he was shut out by the others around him who should have been able to help him. I must not shut him out the way he shut himself out.

And shut himself out he really did, shut himself out and shut himself up in a dream world of monasteries and holiness and God – a dream world that in a way had little to do with monasteries and holiness and God. It was all an illusion.

The only thing that gives me hope, though, hope for that boy and hope for myself, is the idea that there is a God, and that perhaps he can make use even of such illusions in order to create something better in the world and in the life of such a poor young boy.

I kept apart from most of the other students as much as possible outside of class. Relating to them and to the teacher in class was never a problem. I loved to answer teachers’ questions and I love to discuss things in class and listen to what the teachers had to say. University High School was a place for bright students, and the teachers were very good, intellectually very much alive. Besides, a classroom was a structured place, there was order, there were unwritten rules to be followed. Things were as you expected them to be.

The world outside the classroom was different, though, at least as far as I was concerned. There seemed to be no rules, not that I could see or follow. Everything was chaotic, unpredictable. There was so much about the behavior of the other students in the school that I just didn’t understand. Much easier to avoid that world, much easier to run away.

Even at lunch time, or perhaps I should say especially at lunch time, I kept apart from the other students. I used to walk across to the other side of the little campus to eat in the university cafeteria, which was quieter and seemed somehow more human and inviting to me than the high school cafeteria, with its potentially dangerous population of classmates. It was located in a simple brick building covered with ivy, and it had windows with small panes of glass held in place by strips of metal instead of wood. Built after the Second World War, it was a functional building with its own kind of sturdy charm.

I would buy some milk or a soft drink and sit down at a table, alone, and eat the lunch I had made that morning and brought with me to school in a paper bag. I sat there and read during the whole lunch hour.

And what did I read? Only those things, of course, that would reinforce my reasons for being there – things, actually, that would reinforce my being anywhere, things that would reinforce my being at all. I read the autobiography of Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” I read St. Augustine’s “Confessions” again, and I read “The Imitation of Christ,” a book I’ve since thought must have disgusted someone like Nietzsche, or would have, if he’d ever read it.

Obedience to authority, even blind obedience, humility, self-effacement, self-abnegation are the important elements in that book. I cannot say that I wanted to acquire those qualities. I thought I wanted to acquire them. What was really going on, though, was that that these qualities fitted personality traits I had already developed, not out of any spiritual motives, really, but I think simply because they helped me to survive and they offered me a certain amount of protection.

I learned obedience first in response to the behavior of my father and mother, and later in response to my mother and stepfather. I had learned that the slightest disobedience immediately provoked extremely painful retaliation and punishment, not of the physical kind, but psychological and emotional. Along with this kind of obedience came the acceptance of a sense of worthlessness, which I thought of as humility, but which was really nothing more then a sense of being defeated. What I thought of as self-effacement was really a kind of cowardice, a refusal to respond when challenged, an refusal or an inability to stand up for what I thought was important, a kind of laziness which led me to think that I didn’t have to do anything at all to protect myself, all I had to do was try to become invisible, in a sense, and let God protect me. My self-abnegaton was really only the old attitude of the fox who couldn’t get the grapes – “they were probably sour anyway.” If I couldn’t have it, if I couldn’t get it, then surely it wasn’t worth having – and I could be content with my feelings of renunciation, more than content, in fact, I could almost wallow in the pleasure of them.

I have to keep reminding myself not to be too critical of that boy I was, but it isn’t always easy. I have to keep reminding myself that the things he thought were simply the result of his own stupidity. They were not caused by any malice on his part, or by any will to deceive himself or anyone else.

The illusions he suffered from were illusions he created for himself, and the irony is that he created these illusions out of great truths. Of course it is true — though no intellectual accepts the idea now — that renunciation is good and necessary. It is not wrong to be modest or self-effacing. “The Imitation of Christ” is a great book and a man could become a saint by following the ideas it offers.

However, the boy I was did all of those things for the wrong reasons, because they were easy and convenient or because he could feel a certain pleasure in them. I have to repeat that my self-effacement was really cowardice. My modesty was really the fear of testing myself and my ideas. My renunciation was really a kind of laziness that was also produced by a fear of others, a fear of competition, a fear of trying to achieve. “The Imitation of Christ” and the desire to be a monk provided a justification for my cowardice and my fears.

Books like the “Imitation” or the desire to enter a monastery are not in themselves illusions, but the way I regarded them turned them into illusions for myself. As I continue to consider my life, I think I will find that that is true of many things that people call illusions. They were truths and I had managed to make them seem like illusions, and so for a time they remained, until I realized what I had done.

I got through the weeks and months of that last year of high school by enduring it and waiting for it to pass, an attitude that I seem eventually have adopted toward life itself, and on that I have never been able to get rid of. I waited for classes to end, waited for Thanksgiving vacation, waited for Christmas vacation, waited and waited. I suppose what I was really waiting for was simply an to waiting, an end to everything.

At one point during that winter, however, something unusual did happen. Apparently my mother and stepfather did somehow happen to notice that I was not very happy, and they decided they had to do something about it. If your car isn’t working, send it in for repair. If your child isn’t functioning properly, send him in repair too.

My mother read an article somewhere about a psychiatrist in Chicago who was also a Jesuit priest. One wintry day she came into the bedroom I shared with my brother and sat down on the bed. She had a copy of the article in her hand.

“You’ve seen this?” she said with a sympathy I hadn’t seen in her in a long time. “Would you like to talk to him?”

I told her I would, and arrangements were made. My stepfather purchased a small car for me and my brother, and I was to use it once a week to drive the hundred and fifty miles to Chicago and back to see the psychiatrist, who had offices at Loyola University.

I was seventeen years old, and not a very good driver. In fact, I’d hard driven at all, even around the town where we lived, much less on the open highway. For me, driving a hundred and fifty miles to Chicago was hardly less frightening than piloting a spacecraft to the moon would have been. And once I was there, negotiating the unfamiliar streets of the city, was bewildering, especially for someone like me, who had almost no sense of direction.

For someone as shy and introverted as I was, just getting to the psychiatrist was an ordeal. Once there, I had no idea what in the world I was supposed to do or say. The poor man tried to get me to talk, he was kind and friendly, and obviously cared what happened to me, but I had no idea what was supposed to happen. Was I supposed to feel “cured” somehow? Was I supposed to go into detail in answering his questions? Wasn’t he supposed to “tell” me something that would change me and change my life. I had absolutely no idea how a session with a psychiatrist was supposed to work.

And unfortunately, I never figured it out, which is one of the things that has always bothered me about psychiatrists, and led to so much misunderstanding. I mean, if they would just explain things once in a while, it would make things so much easier for people like me, and certainly couldn’t do any harm.

So I made the long, weekly trip to Chicago, the first few times by train, then always by car. And incidentally, I’ve often wondered about that. It wasn’t my idea. I never asked my parents to buy another car and let me drive to Chicago. It now seems to me that that itself was kind of a crazy idea. I might have had an accident — given the kind of driver I was. I might have been killed. Why did they let me do it? The dark thought occurs to me that unconsciously they may have wanted some disaster to strike that would take me out of the picture. It would have made things easier for them in so many ways. For one thing, they wouldn’t have had me around as a kind of living rebuke, like a little John the Baptist or something, whose very existence accused them of having done something wrong by their respective divorces and their marriage to each other. But I admit that’s all just another of my many weird ideas, my weird fantasies.

That last year in high school, though, was the time of at least one other weird occurrence. It wasn’t a fantasy but rather an example of the bizarre, mutually destructive relationship between my poor mother and me.

God only knows who’s at fault in such a relationship. Probably most people will blame me, so I’m quite willing to accept the blame. What matters isn’t who’s going to take the blame, but what the truth was. And the I think the truth exists independently of what we think it is or want it to be, and someday, in one dimension or another, in one universe or another, we’ll know what the truth is and was about everything.

My Latin teacher, Miss Giedeman, was a woman who always encouraged my academic ambitions, and I liked her for that. I admire her even more for it now, because I understand how rare such encouragement is in the world we live in now.

In my senior year in high school, I was a member of a special Latin class that Miss Giedeman taught. It was an advanced class and even included students from the university that our high school was attached to. Miss Giedeman suggested that I might want to write a long paper as part of the work of that class, and I eagerly agreed.

It was to be a fairly long paper, fifty pages or so, about some topic related to the Latin we were reading in class at the time.

The house I lived in with my mother and stepfather and brother seemed to me to be full of distractions, mostly created by my poor mother, who seemed to feel that she had to keep on creating some noise, some activity, some incident, always and continually, apparently so that everyone’s attention would remain focussed on her.

That was fine, I didn’t object to that – I was hardly in a position to object – but it made it impossible for me to work on something like the paper I had to do for Latin class. So I moved my typewriter and books and papers to a table in the basement, and tried to work there. But even in the basement I wasn’t safe. Every few minutes – it seemed – my poor mother would come down to see what I was doing or how I was doing.

It drove me crazy.

I suppose she was worried about me, but in was an obsessive, possessive kind of worry that was destructive and useless for her and for me.

The paper was a disaster. Because I couldn’t think or concentrate on it, I filled the pages with a translation from the French of some of La Fontaine’s fables, which made no sense at all in the context of what I wanted to do, but at least the paper was done.

Miss Giedeman had promised that I could read the paper in the Latin class, which I did, all fifty pages of it. She was embarrassed. The other students were bored to tears. I was in despair.

My poor mother had won another round. Not only had her obsessiveness and possessiveness won, but she had shown me who was the stronger, who was best, who could beat whom in the weird struggle she had seemed to set up between herself and me.

All I wanted, then and later, was to get away from her.

She could never understand why, and people have always blamed me for ignoring her, for not visiting her, for not being kinder to her. No one understand that all I was trying to do was survive. Contact with her was like poison for me. I didn’t want to die, not then, not in that way.


So I drove to Chicago every week, and every week I kept expecting to change, to be different from what I’d been, but nothing seemed to be happening. I was just as unhappy as ever. And of course I blamed myself for that. If seeing a psychiatrist wasn’t “working,” then of course the fault must be mine. I must be doing something wrong. Then in itself was depressing. Still, I didn’t give up.

I don’t know if any of the other students in school knew about my weekly trips. I think Becky and Susan did, but we never talked about it. If there were any of my classmates who wanted to be deliberately unkind, they seemed to draw the line at making fun of me for seeing a psychiatrist.

Perhaps the teachers in the school were responsible for that, I don’t know. Because it was a small, selective school — all right, you could even say it was a school for the local elite — the teachers were very good. They cared about the students, and watched over them. The teachers knew the students well, and it’s quite likely that the word was out that no one was to make fun of me for any problems I was having. Or possibly the teachers made it a point of spreading the idea that no one was to be made fun of because of personal problems they were having.

Of course, that too might be just another one of my illusions, another fantasy. I don’t know. What I do know is that my weekly trips to the psychiatrist were something no one ever mentioned. Not the other students, not my brother, and not even, strangely enough, my mother and stepfather. I just got into the car and drove to Chicago every week, saw the psychiatrist, came back, and that was it.

Of course, my parents did talk to the psychiatrist about me, but I didn’t find out about that until much later.

For my part, I just kept patiently waiting for the changes to start taking place.

Somehow they never did.

The school year just went on, and one of the smaller events that stand out is a story our English teacher assigned us to read about a village in Greece where there was a lottery every few years or so. The name of the story must have been “The Scapegoat” or “The Lottery,” or something like that. I don’t remember the name of the author, and I don’t remember many of the details of the story anymore. All I remember was that it was a story about a village where a lottery was held from time to time among the people, to choose a scapegoat. The person that was decided on in the lottery was stoned to death, as a way, I think, of expiating the sins of the village, or perhaps because it was simply a tradition.

I sometimes wonder — although I admit there’s absolutely no reason to think this way — if our English teacher was trying to tell us that in every society there are scapegoats who are selected for no readily apparent reason. They aren’t always chosen by lot, and they aren’t always stoned. But they are made to suffer, and they’re often destroyed in less brutal ways. I don’t know whether he saw me as a scapegoat in our little high school community, I sometimes think it’s possible. I certainly felt that way often enough.

I was still feeling that way when my mother and stepfather took me and my brother to Acapulco on vacation in the spring of that year, my final year in high school. My sessions with the psychiatrist in Chicago hadn’t exactly worked wonders, and I remained terribly depressed. I can remember sitting in the aircraft before we took off for the flight to Mexico City, and staring out the window at the plane’s propellers — this was a year or so before the first 707’s were put into service. I was so unhappy that I wondered what it would be like if I were outside the plane, standing on the runway in front of those propellers. I wondered what it would be like to walk into one of those spinning blurs. It would be all over in a second. No more unhappiness, no more pain, no more anything.

Of course that kind of thinking was involuntary. It required the unwilling suspension of everything I believed in, but at moments of intense misery, all the things I believed in were blotted out for a few seconds, and I felt only the possibility of relief.

The unhappiness was so deep, so much a part of me, that I think it never occurred to me to try really to communicate it to anyone. I thought it was simply the way the world was, the way I was. I think it no more occurred to me to try to communicate my depression than it would have occurred to me to communicate the fact that we are surrounded by an atmosphere of air or held to the earth by the force of gravity. These things simply were. My depression simply was. It had always been there. I think I never really thought of it as depression. I think I was so used to being depressed that I didn’t even know anymore that I was in fact depressed.

We flew to Mexico City first, before going on to Acapulco now. As I look back on that time, I wonder now if perhaps the whole family wasn’t depressed, each of us in our own way. My stepfather may have been depressed because the marriage to my mother hadn’t brought all of the happiness she may have promised him: a new, ready-made family, herself vibrant and cheerful, freedom from an alcoholic wife.

I wonder if he didn’t feel cheated somehow, because it all turned out quite the opposite from what he’d expected. He discarded one wife because he was tired of her and because she drank too much, and he acquired another one who eventually became dependent on him for the tranquillizers, anti-depressants, and other mood-altering drugs he could supply her with.

Instead of acquiring a vibrant, cheerful wife to replace the old, cranky one, he now had woman on his hands who showed symptoms of not only tending toward substance abuse but also toward manic-depressive states.

And the new, ready-made family? There was my brother, of course. He was certainly closer to my brother than he was to me, but there were constant arguments between them. But then my mother soon convinced my stepfather that my brother should be sent away to school, so their relationship never really developed the way it might have.

And then there was me. Constantly depressed, withdrawn, maladjusted, isolated, a boy whose only two friends were members of families who represented all of the liberal social and political values he hated. I was a boy apparently addicted to the strange, incomprehensible religion he as a Protestant had been raised to regard as weird and bizarre: the Catholic Church.

However, I was a valuable — even indispensable — member of our little family for one reason: I could be the scapegoat. I could be the one blamed for everything. I could be the one seen as wrecking the happiness of everyone else: my stepfather, my mother, my brother. I was the odd one out. I was the one to be gotten rid of. Or rather, I was the one they had always to be on the verge of getting rid of, for if they ever got rid of me completely, then who would they have to blame for all their unhappiness? I had to be kept far enough away — or under enough control — not to cause problems, and yet I had to be close enough and just active enough that I could be blamed for everything that went wrong in their lives.

But in the sunny spring in Mexico, thank God, I knew nothing of these things. I knew only the unhappiness that was drowning me. I could not escape that unhappiness long enough to even consider what my mother and stepfather and brother might be feeling, just as they could not escape their dark cages of internal misery long enough to consider what I might be feeling or suffering.

Once we arrived in Acapulco, though, my depression lifted somewhat. My stepfather and my mother left me and my brother pretty much alone. I felt free of them for a time. And in being free I felt a certain amount of happiness.

There are two things that stand out from that time. One of them was the experience of scuba-diving. I went with my brother, and both of us were given a quick course of instruction on how to use the equipment. Our teacher was a Mexican who had a boat and took tourists offshore to dive.

The underwater scenery where we dove was extraordinary for me, because I had never experienced such a thing before. At first, diving itself was a great adventure. The first time the instructor told me and my brother to put our heads under the water while we were wearing the scuba equipment, I instinctively kept trying to hold my breath. Then, when I made the discovery that I couldn’t go on doing that, and that I didn’t have to go on doing that, and that I could actually breathe under water, it was one of the greatest sensations I’d experienced up to that point, not just in Mexico, but in my entire life.

We left the shore on the diving instructor’s small boat and went out into the Pacific. After putting on our equipment and going over the side, we found ourselves in a world that was like nothing I’d never seen before. I almost felt as though I were visiting another planet.

The instructor warned us not to go below a depth greater than ten meters or so. The ocean floor where we were lay twenty or thirty meters below the surface of the water, but there was a small hill, or huge rock, that rose up sharply from the seabed to the depth we were allowed to dive to. We swam around in this world, collecting starfish and shells.

To be taken out of myself by such an experienced lifted the depression somewhat, but I think the depression didn’t really disappear until I got to know a couple of American university students and a New Zealander who was travelling around Mexico with them. They were staying at some inexpensive hotel in Acapulco, and I met them one day when we went shopping in the town. I heard them speaking English; I was hungry to talk to people other than my parents, so I started talking to them.

They were in their early twenties. The New Zealander was perhaps a few years older. I was eighteen, but of course a very immature eighteen, so the three of them seemed very old and very experienced to me.

One of the things that surprised me most about them was the sort of intellectual conversation we had. Or perhaps I should say that it surprises me now, as I look back on that part of my life. At the time, I took such things for granted. I thought everyone talked about such things. It is only with the passing years that I have learned how seldom such conversations can occur in life.

They were much more thoughtful, and better educated, than most American university students then, or now. Certainly there couldn’t have been very many like them travelling around Mexico then. I remember being struck by the fact that they were very somewhat cynical and sad and even a little bitter. One of them told me they had been reading Bertrand Russell and that had somehow ruined his life. I didn’t know what to make of such things then. I suppose I didn’t really understand how two people not many years older than I was could think that their lives was ruined. I think I forgot for a time that whenever I was depressed, I thought the same thing about myself. Or perhaps what I couldn’t understand was that someone could say that his life had been ruined by a book.

They seemed to really believe it, though, and I felt sorry for them. At the same time I liked them, and they seemed to like me. I like talking with them. I admired them. They seemed grown-up and wise. They’d had experience of life — it wasn’t clear to me what that meant exactly, but it was clear they knew something I didn’t.

Perhaps it was my admiration of them that made them like me, I don’t know, but what for whatever reason, they adopted me as a kind of mascot, and after a few days I went nearly everywhere with them.

Finally, near the end of our stay in Acapulco, they said they were leaving too, going back to Mexico City. They were going in their decrepit, beat-up, rusted-out Chevrolet that was clearly not long for this world, like some worked-out old mule that was about to breathe its last.

As soon as they told me about their plans, I wanted to go with them. It would be an adventure, it would be a way of being free of my parents and of the web of entanglements that had been created among them and me and my brother.

I wasn’t surprised then that my parents would let me go with my new friends to Mexico City, but now as I look back I think I should have been. Under normal circumstances, I believe my mother would never have allowed me to go. At that point in her relationship with my stepfather, however, he still had the most influence, and I believe it was he who was able to convince her that I should be allowed to go. How exactly he was able to overcome my poor mother’s obsessive over-protectiveness, I don’t know, but perhaps the more interesting question is why he would bother.

It wasn’t because he wanted to do anything for me. We were never close, and he had never demonstrated any particular interest in my future, much less any sort of liking or fondness for me. Perhaps somehow he understood that if I were to have any future at all, my mother’s grip on me would have to be broken, if not all at once, then gradually, in small steps, by allowing me to do things like travel to Mexico City from Acapulco with my friends, under conditions that were foolhardy, if not dangerous.

Or, possibly there was another motive. If I was allowed to go on such a trip or engage in activities such as scuba-diving, there was always the chance of an accident. Something might happen that would solve all of his — and my mother’s — problems forever.

The trip to Mexico City turned out to be the greatest adventure I’d had in my life so far, and for a time it completely erased the overwhelming sense of depression I’d had. The four of us, Jake, the New Zealander, and Bill and Tom, the two Americans, and I all piled into the battered, decrepit car that Bill and Tom had.

We started out from Acapulco early on a spring morning. It was already starting to get hot. Bill, who drove most of the way, had trouble starting the car — the battery seemed to be a little sluggish — so we all piled out of the car and gave it a push down the hill from the hotel where I was staying with my mother and stepfather. The engine finally started, and before we got into the car again, I turned for a moment to look at the hotel we were leaving. It was a grand, luxurious structure, out of quite a different world from the one most Mexicans lived in. The wide, spacious balconies had sweeping views of the Pacific, and the entire building combined elements of modernity and traditional Spanish colonial architecture. Everywhere there were flowers, with red the dominant color.

It would only be for a few days, but for me, at that age, to leave that world and step into one that was completely unknown, perhaps a little dangerous, and certainly poorer, that was a great and exciting prospect. I started the journey as though I’d entered a movie that promised something fantastic, something never before experienced.

It seems as if I still hadn’t learned to experience reality as real.

I think I hadn’t even learned to experience difficulties as real. The trip from Acapulco to Mexico City with my new friends was one of the most difficult journeys I have ever made, but I loved every hard minute of it. I was free for time, free of my parents, free of sadness, free of everything that had seemed to hold and constrain me, and this new freedom, I thought, I was worth whatever I had to pay for it.

We stopped several times on the long, hot, dusty road that wound between scrubby hills and through villages that consisted of low buildings made of mud bricks, dried in the sun. Every time we stopped, either to rest or to get something to eat, the motor died, and the only way of getting it started again was to push it. For this reason, we tried to limit our stops to places that were at the top of hills. Otherwise, we had to turn the car around and push it far enough in the opposite direction to start the motor.

Finally, late in the day, about fifty miles outside of Mexico City, the car finally died, for good. This time there was no hope of reviving it, but there was some hope that it could be repaired.

We were in the middle of nowhere. We’d stopped at some roadside food stand, but one of the local people told us there was a garage of sorts about a mile or two ahead. Bill and Tom decided they would walk to the garage, and that meant that Jake and I would stay with the car. There was no point in all of us leaving it and then coming back in a few hours and finding that the whole thing had been picked clean, even though it was hard to imagine how anyone would have any use for much of anything that could be taken from that car. I guess, extreme poverty, though, can make almost anything look valuable, and the people around us looked extremely poor.

Jake and I were great objects of curiosity, especially for the children. A whole crowd of them collected around us and stood watching, but since neither of us spoke Spanish, there was little we could do to communicate with them. We didn’t even have anything to give them.

Jake turned out to be something of a comedian, though. He was a short, thin, muscular man, with dark hair and a heavy beard, around thirty, and even though there was nothing intrinsically funny about him, he could make himself look funny, and this delighted the children. They laughed and tried to hide behind one another as Jake made faces at them, pretending in turns to be a clown, a monster, a crazed lunatic, a strict disciplinarian, and a total slob.

The children loved. It turned out to be a real street show. Jake had not only a gift for comedy, but for pantomime as well, so that as the time passed, he began to tell stories and relate incidents in mime, all perfectly understandable and carried off with a flair and a competence I would never have thought him capable of.

The adults too were amused, and soon we had a whole crowd around us, watching, talking, laughing. Jake made the long hours go by quickly until Bill and Tom came back in a rickety pick-up truck.

“We would’ve gotten back sooner,” Bill said, but this is Mexico, you know, and things just don’t always happen very quickly. They had to find a driver, then he had to find his cousin, who’d borrowed the truck, then we had to have a beer with them, just to show them we were good gringos and could be trusted.” He smiled sheepishly, “But we finally managed to get them to bring us here before they had anything more to drink.”

By this time it was getting dark. The man from the garage managed to fasten a chain to our car. We all piled into his truck and headed for the garage. By the time we arrived, darkness was definitely setting in and the small garage looked forlorn and lonely in the gathering blackness. A dim lightbulb hung over a car that a mechanic was working on in the right half of the building. In the other half, some men were sitting around a table playing cards and drinking beer. It looked like it would be a long night.

We pulled up in front of the place and the man with the truck unfastened the chain and drove off, leaving us feeling stranded. Bill walked into the garage spoke to the mechanic in Spanish. The man was leaning over the engine of the car he was working on. When Bill spoke, the mechanic looked up at him without interest. Without replying, without even indicating he’d heard or understood Bill, he wiped his hands on a greasy rag lying on the rusty fender of the car he was trying to repair, turned and walked out to us.

Bill followed and started speaking to him again, apparently trying once more to explain what the problem was. The mechanic walked over to our car, looked at it for a moment, then looked at us, then walked up to the front, released the catch, and lifted the hood. He seemed to be examining it carefully. Then he turned to us.

“Two days,” he said, in English.

“Two DAYS!” said Bill.

“We have to be in Mexico City tomorrow,” said Tom.

The mechanic waved his hand. “All right, all right,” he said. “I have it for you in one day.”

“No,” said Bill, shaking his head. “No, I’m sorry. Please.” His voice seemed to be wavering between anger and desperation. “One day. That’s just not good enough. We have to be in Mexico City in the morning.”

The mechanic stood and looked thoughtfully at the engine. “All right, I fix it for you now,” he said. “Five hours. But you have to pay.”

“How much?” said Tom.

The mechanic named his price. Bill rolled his eyes and looked at Tom. “All right,” he said.

“And I’ll help,” I said. “I can afford a share in that.”

The mechanic went inside and talked to the men who were playing cards. They got up and all went over to the car he’d been working on. They managed to push it out of the garage and then to maneuver our car inside in its place.

The mechanic went to work.

We waited. It was night now, and the only thing breaking through the darkness and the silence was the sound of a radio inside the room where the men were again playing cards. We walked inside.

And then we waited. And we waited. The time dragged on, and the more time passed, the more slowly it seemed to pass, until at one point, late in the night it seemed to stand still.

I thought we would be in that garage forever. I couldn’t imagine we would ever leave. The whole trip began to seem like less of an adventure and more like the grubby reality of everyday life.

The hours came and went. The people playing cards came and went, as the players changed, as if they were playing in shifts.

Outside the darkness seemed deeper and more impenetrable as the night wore on.

At some time around midnight, someone came with a large package that he handed to the mechanic who was working on our car. We saw him open it and then carry it over to the car and then our view of him was blocked by the raised hood.

He went on working, and we went on waiting.

Finally, some time in the early hours of the morning, he came into the room we were sitting in with the card players. He was wiping his hands with a piece of cloth that looked so soiled it was hard to imagine he could use it to clean anything at all.

“It’s finished,” he said, and even I could understand the Spanish words.

Bill and Tom paid the mechanic. Selfishly, I never thought of contributing, and if they’d been thinking about that, they never showed it. Perhaps we were all too tired at that point to think of much of anything at all.

We climbed back into the car and Bill drove the last fifty miles into Mexico City.


I was to meet my parents the next day. In the meantime, what we all wanted was a little sleep.

Bill and Tom said they had some close friends we could stay with. They lived in a middle-class area of the city, and it took us some time to find their house, which even I thought was a little strange, sind they were close friends. But again, I was too tired to give much thought to anything like that.

Bill and Tom were sure their friends would be home and that there would be no problem staying with them.

It was starting to get light as we drove through the somewhat narrow streets, between houses that were all painted white and built right next to one another, in a sort of Spanish colonial style. They all looked neat and trim, if not exactly luxurious, but at least, I thought to myself, we wouldn’t be staying in a slum.

It was a tremendous relief when we finally parked the car near the house and walked up to the front door. I was looking forward to hours of rest and sleep, and I could hardly think of anything else.

Tom rang the bell.

Then he rang the bell again.

He rang the bell a third time, keeping his finger on the button this time.

No answer.

“Uh, well, it looks like nobody’s home,” Jake said, his New Zealand drawl sounding extremely tired, and more noticeable than ever.

“Maybe they’re still asleep,” I said hopefully.

“No, I don’t think so,” Bill said. “Actually, they planned to spend the week with friends in Cuernavaca.”

I looked at him dumbfounded. “So what are we going to do now?” I said, too exhausted even to show any exasperation. “I thought you said they’d be here.” Then I added, “So why ring the bell at all.”

Tom looked at me and smiled the way people smile at a loveable half-wit. “We never said they’d be here,” he replied. “We just said we were going to visit them. We rang the bell just to see if they were really gone or not.”

For a moment, I had the impression he was making everything up. Then the veil of innocence fell back into place.

“Okay,” said Bill. “Let’s try the window.”

The house, like all its neighbors, was built nearly up to the sidewalk and had a wall separating it from the street. There was a set of windows, though, that conveniently projected out from the building and could be reached by standing on the top of the wall.

“I’ll try it,” said Bill. “Give me a leg up.”

I stood there and watched as both Jake and Tom lifted Bill up to the window and then supported him on their shoulders as he worked to open the window. It had been fastened on the inside with a catch, but by shaking the window slightly, Bill was trying to release the catch and open the window.

As I watched the three of them straining in the morning silence, the quiet was broken by the sound of a low, deep voice from behind us, on the other side of the street: “Eh, Señores.”

Everything stopped. Bill and Tom and Jake looked as if they’d been caught in a freeze-frame.

I turned and saw one of Mexico City’s finest standing there, leaning back nonchalantly, with one leg drawn up and the foot placed flat against the wall. One hand was resting easily on the holster of his pistol, the other was working a toothpick between the teeth of his lower jaw.

Tom and Jake slowly lowered Bill back down to the ground. The policeman started walking across the street toward us as Bill started speaking to him in Spanish.

When he stood in front of us, his face was expressionless. I couldn’t understand Bill’s explanation, but I thought the expression of total honesty on his face certainly would have convinced me, if I’d been a policeman and even if I couldn’t have understood a word he was saying. As it was, Bill’s attitude and his explanation won over the policeman, who in the end actually helped him climb through the window. Just to be on the safe side, though, he did take down our names and passport numbers.

When I think of that morning, it occurs to me that if such a thing were to happen now, the reaction of the policeman would be very different. He might even expect some small financial reward for disregarding our little escapade. The world is very different now.

Once inside the house, Bill opened the front door and let us in. It was a very ordinary house by American standards, but I suppose it would have been a palace for most of the people in Mexico. We were so tired, though, we didn’t spend much time looking around. Everyone found a bed or a couch and went straight to sleep.

Later in the day I met my parents and my brother. They of course showed no interest in what I’d experienced. Anything that happened outside their world never actually happened at all as far as they were concerned. I had the impression that what they wanted was that the family constellation should return to its familiar pattern as soon as possible. My stepfather was responsible for my brother, and my mother was responsible for me — naturally, more than just “responsible.” Possessive, preoccupied with the exclusive control of every aspect of my life. She called it love. Perhaps in some maimed way, it was.

We flew back to Michigan the next day. I never saw or heard from Bill or Tom or Jake again. I wrote to them once. I never received a reply. My mother was always the one who brought the mail in from the mailbox. I don’t think she ever approved of Bill or Tom or Jake, but of course she never approved of any relationship I had with anyone, except, sadly, herself.

After that spring vacation, the final part of my final year of high school begin. I didn’t notice it at the time, rather stupidly, but there was a subtle change in the atmosphere of the school, at least as far as that atmosphere concerned me.

The visits to Chicago continued, but the change was not a subjective one. I think it resulted from the fact that my tendency to isolate myself was noticed in the school, though I couldn’t have expected it to be. After all, if my parents ignored me, if they treated me as if I didn’t exists, why should anyone else notice if I was or was not around?

Certainly I attended all my classes. That was the best part of school for me. It was the best part of my life. It’s just that outside of classes I cut myself off pretty much from the other students, except for Becky and Susan.

My absences at lunchtime certainly must have been noticed, the time spent in the university cafeteria. Perhaps people even saw me sitting there at a table alone, reading Thomas Merton or a book like “The Imitation of Christ.”

At any rate, there was a change in the attitude that the teachers and even many of the students in the school had toward me. This is clear to me only as I look back. At the time, I was so preoccupied with myself that I did not notice it, even though my life changed.

The biggest change involved the school pageant, which the graduating class created every year. The theme was usually that of a variety show, which required a master of ceremonies. I wanted the position, even though I was hardly suited for it, but like a lot of people who are shy and withdrawn, I thought I was perfectly suited for a role like that. Others must have also seen how wrong I was for the part. Still others, though, mostly teachers I think, seem to have been convinced it might do me good to be able to play the role.

I auditioned for it, along with several other people. After everyone was considered, the selection process narrowed the choice down to two people, myself and Joe Sutter, the class star, the lively, outgoing, intelligent quarterback of the football team. Joe was a tall, good-looking redhead who had grown up in Georgia and moved to Michigan a few years earlier with his parents when his father, an executive at a local company, was transferred. He’d been with us long enough to become just about the most popular student in the school — he was also Senior Class President — but not long enough to lose the southern drawl that flowed like honey whenever he spoke.

Everyone was Joe’s friend. There was no reason why they shouldn’t be. He was likable, and he liked everyone in return. Besides being quarterback and football team captain, he’d earned letters in basefall, basketball, and track.

He was also a top student.

He was, obviously, just about everything I was not.

He was confident he would be chosen master of ceremonies of the pageant, and there was no reason why he shouldn’t be. It was the perfect position for him, the crowning achievement of an enviable high school career, one that everyone — including myself — honestly admired him for.

But he wasn’t chosen. In fact, he practically withdrew his candidacy, leaving the way open for me to be chosen. All right, Joe didn’t actually withdraw, but when I was chosen, he reacted sheepishly, as if in some odd way he realized he’d been selfish for even wanting to be master of ceremonies in the first place. He yielded the way a stronger man always yields to a weaker one in a contest in which the stronger man realizes that in the larger scheme of things it’s more important to let the weaker one win.

In the end, I suppose my role as master of ceremonies was not really so important. Perhaps I seemed strange to the audience, I don’t know. Certainly I didn’t look strange. My mother made sure I was tastefully dressed and filled the part of an energetic, good-looking American teen-ager. But perhaps there were small things in my behavior that would have seemed odd to some people in the audience. I might have appeared nervous at times, I might have lacked self-confidence, I might have given the impression of a weak personality.

I have no way of know now, except for one thing. As master of ceremonies, I was allowed to perform once myself, and I sang a song in French that was popular at the time, “Le jour où la pluie viendra.” It is a song that I think more than anything else expresses optimism about the future, but of course no one in the audience could understand it. I remember only that I had the impression that some people thought that it was extremely odd that anyone should sing in French, or perhaps it was simply that my singing voice was not very good.

The variety show was in the end a success, and in general so was my participation in it, at least from my point of view. Certainly one good thing about it was that it brought me into contact with more of my classmates, so that I was no longer so isolated. Even though it was the end of the year and the end of my high school career, this contact was a good thing.

Around the time of the variety show, something else important happened. Earlier in the year, like all the high school seniors in the country, everyone in our class had taken the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, as part of our college applications. When my scores came back, I didn’t think about them. They were just part of the process of getting into university. One day though, our English teacher came into class and started talking about them. Or rather, he didn’t really talk about the SAT’s, he talked about the students who were in the ninety-ninth percentile.

“That score sounds pretty high,” he said, but any student with that kind of score, should remember that it means he’s the top in every group of one hundred students. But there are thousands of groups of one hundred students, which means that there are thousands of students with a score just as high as his, and that he’s going to be competing with those when he gets to university.”

I thought it was in the normal order of things that he should make remarks like that. I didn’t think anything of them.

My SAT scores were in the ninety-ninth percentile.

A few years later at Harvard, all sorts of alarm bells would start ringing in classes where I thought teachers were addressing their remarks directly to me. In my last year in high school, though I just didn’t think those terms.

There was simply too much going on. After the variety show, I was no longer so isolated, and there were a lot of things happening at the end of year – parties, the school prom, trips to a nearby lake for water skiing.

No longer so isolated. That reminds me of one thing that I should have mentioned earlier. We read a story in English class that semester that made an impression on me years later. Or perhaps it wasn’t the story as much as it was the class itself, and what the teacher said about the story, which none of us understood. It was Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”

“What this story is about,” said our teacher, “is a young boy who is going insane. He’s schizophrenic, and he’s losing contact with the outside world.”

Naturally someone with a personality like mine would wonder of the teacher selected that story by chance, or if it had something to do with my own obvious isolation that year. It was a very small school, and the teachers knew a great deal about the students and their behavior. Perhaps my English teacher was concerned about me, and my other teachers as well. Perhaps my teacher was trying to warn me about the consequences of my isolation, as if such things are subject to conscious control. Perhaps they are.

Whatever the answer to that question may be, my selection as master of ceremonies for the variety show that year does seem to have been influenced by my teachers’ desire to do something to help me, and perhaps it did. I think nobody can ever be sure about situations like that, because it’s impossible to know what would have happened to me if circumstances had been different.

For the time being it seems a kind of fiction had been created, in school and in that strange family constellation I was part of. It was the fiction that I was all right, that everything was all right. Everything was normal. I was normal.

“All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” True. That’s reality, but what I was part of at the age of seventeen or eighteen was pure fiction.

In fact, as I think about it now, it seems to have been worse than fiction. Everything I was part of at the age of seventeen or eighteen years was characterized by a kind of sickness.

I would like to describe it better than I already have, but at the moment I can’t do any more than I already have. There are a lot of things preventing me from explaining any more than I already have – for one thing, my inability to talk about those areas of life that I was always taught should not be talked about; for another, there is simply the fact that I’ve forgotten so much.

All I can do is repeat the hope that I can write enough so that someday someone will be able to read this as if it were a kind of coded message and understand what it is I’ve really said, what I’m really trying to say.

Again and again, though, I have to say that I think the real key to my personality, the real reason for the weirdness of my life, is simply the fact that my poor, possessive mother was able to cut me off from the world at a young age, and I have never really been able to re-establish contact with it.

I am an extremely isolated individual.

I always was, and I always knew it. At a young age, though, I tried to turn that isolation into a solitude that would have some use in the world, some use in the larger scheme of things. Certainly this isolation and this solitude was one reason for my wanting to become a Trappist like Thomas Merton – although again I have to say that I had absolutely no idea what Merton’s life was really like. I had no idea that he suffered. I had no idea of the degree of his suffering. I thought his life was one, continuous, exalted experience of God – and I had no idea what that might mean either – and I wanted to lead such a life.

Strange boy, strange, strange boy I was. But before anyone makes fun of him too much, it would perhaps be fair to remember that he wanted to be good. He wanted to do the right thing. In his own way, he tried to lead a good life.

For a long time, he even thought that he was in fact leading such a life, and it was only years later when he understood what a really terrible person was and had been all along.

And so I finished high school, and graduated, after spending many of those years in a dream, in a fantasy of the monastic life, I, who was really the last person in the world who was suited to be a monk in monastery.

I was only suited to be a monk, isolated in the world, in the solitude of the world, which I think is much easier than being a monk in a monastery. Much easier and more cowardly.

But who know, really, which is more difficult? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

The summer went by in a daze. I was conscious of almost nothing. I went on making the trips to Chicago every week, and did some work around my parents’ house, for which they gave me a small allowance.

I had to work and save money, though, because my parents were not going to give me any spending money when I went to Georgetown University in the autumn. Since my stepfather was a physician, he and my mother suggested I work as an orderly in a local hospital.

There were two hospitals in the town then, one was Catholic and one Protestant. It seems odd now to think of hospitals classified that way, along religious lines, but in those days, in that small town, religion was still an extremely important factor of life for most people.

The Protestant hospital was located in the center of town, reflecting perhaps the dominance of Presbyterians, Methodists, Dutch Reformed Christians, and others on the life of the community. It was new and modern, but it always seemed to me to be a rather cold institution, mainly, I suppose, because it was Protestant.

The Catholic hospital also had the latest equipment and facilities, and a large new wing that seemed to me to be as large as the whole of the Protestant hospital, but the main part of the building was older. It had two wings that extended to the left and right of the main entrance, a grand drive-in portico built in a kind of neo-Gothic style. The entire structure was only five or six stories high, but it had always seemed quite large and impressive to me.

The hospital at that time was run by an order of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and many of them worked there as nurses themselves. They were members of the same order that ran the high school that I attended for a year.

The mother superior who was the administrator of the hospital interviewed me before I started working there. I suppose she wanted to make sure that I was somehow suitable for the job. After all, really the only reason I was hired was because my stepfather was a physician on the staff of the hospital.

I sometimes wonder why my mother and stepfather suggested that I take the job. Was it simply that it was easier for my stepfather to get that job for me than it would have been to get any other? Or was it a way for him to make sure that I was forced to leave my dream world and be introduced to “real life”?

Whatever the reason may have been, I submitted to the work the way I submitted to everything else in life. Was I so weak or so cowardly that I never rebelled? Perhaps. Of course I wouldn’t have judged myself to be weak or cowardly, I would have said that I was trying to be obedient, trying to be humble, trying to be good. Being good was a terribly important goal for me then – and I suppose it still is.

If it was my mother and stepfather’s will that I work in the hospital as an orderly, emptying bedpans, inserting catheters, and giving enemas, then I must submit, I must obey. That was the good thing to do, the right thing to do. What my mother and stepfather wanted me to do was an expression of the will of God, and I had read and learned that obeying the will of good was the sure way to happiness.

It was happiness I really wanted. I suppose even then being good and doing the right thing were only secondary goals. So I can’t claim any particular virtuousness in living and thinking the way I did. I was just as greedy for happiness as any one of my contemporaries who might have wanted to go out and make as much money as they could.

The work in the hospital wasn’t difficult for me. It was in its own way a kind of adventure. I got along well with the patients, the nuns, the nurses, and the other orderlies – even with one who made me feel uncomfortable because he seemed to want something from me that I couldn’t understand.

I liked working in a Catholic hospital. Somehow that made everything different. I suppose the fact that it was a Catholic hospital somehow gave me a sense of purpose. It made the work more meaningful. There was a small chapel, where, as in all Catholic churches, the single small flame always burned near the altar. That – and what it represented – was important to me too, and somehow it gave everything I did an added significance.

If my stepfather had hoped that working in the hospital might cure me of my illusions – and of course I can’t be certain that he really had such a thing in mind – his hopes weren’t realized. There was no contradiction between everything I saw there – the pain, the suffering, the physical realities of illness and even death – no contradiction between that and the spiritual ideals that were still – not simply important for me – but were the center of my whole existence.

The center of my whole existence? Really? Yes, but only in a way, I think. Only at the deepest level of my mind, at a level so deep that I was not always conscious of it. At a more conscious level, the center of my existence that summer was a small group of friends I worked with at the hospital, an orderly named Rick and two or three student nurses.

What can I tell you about them? They were so different from any friends I’d had before that I hardly know where to begin. They certainly had no intellectual interests, the way my friends in high school had – and I still saw those friends. On weekends I often went to the summer home – summer cottage, really – of Becky’s parents, located on the shore of a small lake not far from Kalamazoo. On the long, bright sunny afternoons we used to go swimming and water-skiing.

But all that’s another story. RIght now I’d like to go on telling you about Rick and the nurses. Rick was unquestionably the leader of our little group. He was tall, a football player, with the kind of outgoing, generous personality that big, athletic young men often have.

He was also probably one of the most well-balanced people I’ve ever known, and so it was a surprise, even a shock, for me to discover that his family situation was in some ways as disastrous as mine – or maybe that’s an exaggeration. It was pretty disastrous in some ways, but it couldn’t have been as bad as mine. Otherwise, Rick wouldn’t have turned out to be so well-rounded, so popular with all his friends, so likeable, or so – well – normal.

Compared to him, I felt like a freak. He never seemed to notice that, though. Perhaps he couldn’t, I don’t know. I mean, I felt like a freak, but I certainly didn’t look like one, and I don’t think I acted much like one either, certainly not around people like Rick, people I liked, people who seemed to like me.

Perhaps Rick felt like a freak sometimes too, but it’s hard to see how that would have been true. He was very tall, he was a very big man, and he must have felt conspicuous in a crowd, but he never seemed to be self-conscious the way I was.

The difference was in our upbringing. My family constellation had inflicted serious harm, deep wounds, mainly because my poor mother had managed to pretty much isolate me from the rest of the world. Rick’ s home life was the complete opposite. His father was an alcoholic, was unreliable, and generally not someone that others wanted to associate with. I think he even beat Rick’s mother sometimes.

But Rick was never isolated the way I was. I think his mother encouraged him to have as much contact with people outside the family as possible. I think that attitude on the part of his mother was as decisive for him as my mother’s attitude was for me. Rick’s mother created his life, my mother destroyed mine. I suppose you could say that in those days, when many more women concerned themselves with their families than women do now, that was real power on the part of women, that was the real power they had, as opposed to the kind of illusory power they have now, or think they have now.

What they have now, I’m afraid, is merely the remnants of apparent control in certain situations in a dying civilization. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the absence of strong men, who can work exclusively with one another, with energy, with insight, with intelligence, in a variety of situations where they understand one another completely – I think the absence of that is one of the things that will bring down our civilization one day.

Or it might be truer to say that the absence of men like that, working together, will leave our civilization open to those who would wreck it – the extremists of every stripe.

But I think we have learned at least one thing in our long history: civilization never dies out completely, certainly not Western Civilization. In the long run, as I have said to so many people so often, we will survive.


We were together that summer, all of us, Rick and the nurses and I, in a way that would be repeated the following summer, and then never again. Once in my life, though, I was part of a group of friends, and even if that’s not as much as a lot of people have, it’s more than some are lucky enough to have in their lives.

The relationship among us all was completely platonic, something that was perhaps possible only at that innocent time. And if Rick was the cheerful, energetic, boyish, and dominant male in the group, then a nurse nicknamed “Stretch” – after the way she played basketball – was the happy, giving, generous young woman among us.

Rick was my hero-worshipped, adored older-brother figure, and Stretch was the sister I never had. There were always one or two other nurses in our small constellation, but I hardly remember them now. The memories of Rick and Stretch seem to blot out everything else.

We were of course bound by a kind of love, a totally innocent, generous, always happy sort of love. Wherever we went, whatever we did, the love was there, the love sustained.

Sometimes we used to work long, sixteen-hour shifts in the hospital, if extra staff was needed, often lasting all through the night. Then in the morning we’d pack up a few things and drive fifty miles to Lake Michigan and lie on the beach all day, trying to recover the lost sleep from the night before, happy in each other’s company, happy to be alive.

I suppose if there was ever a time of innocent and even child-like happiness in my life, that was the time. There would be another period of extreme happiness, but it wouldn’t be quite as innocent, quite as free of the seemingly darker forces that my mother and stepfather unleashed and that have never really let me go.

Of course there was no sense of intellectual adventure in the time we spent together. I hardly knew then that such a thing could exist. We were, after all, Americans in our late teens who had all grown up in a two dimensional time, in a part of the country that was more two-dimensional – if such a thing is possible – than anyplace else between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

We’d pile into Rick’s old Chevrolet with small gym bags full of our beach things and take off into the sunlight, laughing, talking, listening to music on the radio. Or once in a while, my mother let me drive – or have me drive – her huge, new Oldsmobile convertible.

Though it was a symbol of everything my mother was proud of – her new status as an upper-class member of the community, her new wealth, her new home and everything else she owned with my stepfather – to me it was a symbol of everything I was ashamed of. And the things I was ashamed of were exactly the things my mother took such pride in.

I sometimes wonder how it was possible that I grew up with values that were so diametrically opposed to those of my mother, and of course opposed to those of my stepfather as well. My mother, for example, used to take great pride in being able to drive through town in one of those huge dinosaurs of an automobile that were so common in the nineteen-fifties, a enormous red Oldsmobile convertible. I, on the other hand, hated to drive that car. I was ashamed to be seen in it.

That kind of ostentatious wealth I learned to despise, but I’m not really sure how that came about. It’s true that it was probably mainly due to my religious convictions. But I think it was also somehow connected to an incident that took place when I must have been around nine or ten. There was a party for the children of our school that was held in the school gymnasium. The parents were invited. At one point in the evening a large number of pieces of candy were thrown onto the gym floor, and the children were expected to scramble for as many of them as they could get.

I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I couldn’t do it out of a kind of arrogance. I simply sat in my chair and let the other children crawl and wrestle around on the floor, fighting each other for the candy. I somehow thought I was too good to do that, and somehow that feeling is connected to the way my poor mother was able to cut me off from children my own age.

The pieces of candy were simply not worth fighting for. The pieces of candy somehow came to represent all of the material and other goods that people compete for as they grow up. Those things didn’t seem worthwhile to me. Those things all seemed somehow beneath me. And they have remained beneath me to this day.

I suppose that indicates great pride, a pride so great that nothing will break it. I myself cannot seem to break, no matter how much I might want to. But where did I learn such an attitude? From the most dominant person in our family – my mother? Yes, possibly, but if so I don’t remember any of it, and even if I did, I know I can’t blame her for anything. That would be wrong. The fault is mine for the way I thought then and think now. Or is it?

I really don’t know. I don’t know anymore. All I can do is try to set down this confusing story as best I can.

On the other hand, my lack of interest in material things – or my contempt, feigned or real, for them – I think was one of the things that helped me to survive over the years, along with clinging – as best I could – to the moral teachings of the religion I was raised with.

Certainly that summer at the hospital was something I couldn’t have survived if I had been concerned with material things and if I hadn’t had the support of the religion I so devoutly, fervently, even perhaps passionately believed in then.

“If I had been concerned with material things” – perhaps it would be truer to write, “If I thought I deserved material things, or if I thought I deserved anything at all.” It might be true to write that because I think all my life I haven’t ever really practiced any kind renunciation in the religious sense. I’ve never really renounced material things – or anything at all, for that matter. I think I’ve always believed I never really deserved them. I think I’ve always believed I never really deserved much of anything, and not much of anything is what I’ve gotten.

That summer in Michigan, before I started university, was perhaps a brief interruption in this kind of thinking, but even during that summer, the underlying theme was there. If the happiness of that summer had somehow continued beyond the summer, I would have eventually wrecked that happiness myself, because of the mainly unconscious conviction that I was unworthy of it, that I was worthy only of punishment for everything I’d done wrong, for everything that was wrong with me, as my unconscious mind saw it.

On the surface, though, I was happy that summer. Happiness was what I was aware of. The trips to the psychiatrist in Chicago continued, and I supposed they must be doing me some good.

When the end of the summer came, and I had to say good-bye to Rick and Stretch and the others, we felt it wasn’t really the end of our friendship. We told ourselves it was only an interruption. I would go to university and come back and we would go on during the following summer, as if nothing had changed.

As is always the case in such situations, the one who’s going away has hardly any time to feel sadness and regret. I was thinking too much about the next phase of my life, about starting university, about entering a completely new world that I new I had to enter, but which frightened me all the same.


I flew to Washington alone that September, to begin my studies at Georgetown. To say that I was full of illusory hope would be an understatement. I was completely confident that from now on my life would be like everyone else’s – though naturally I had no clear idea what “everyone else’s” life was really like.

In the Georgetown area that autumn, the air was clear, and the outlines of every object were vivid and sharp. The weather was warm and the color that was beginning to display itself in the trees overflowed into a bright splendor that heightened the sense of excitement and adventure I felt.

Excitement and adventure and fear – and yet the fear was made manageable by the knowledge that I was doing what I was supposed to do, what I had to do, what everyone else I knew was doing. Going to university was the only imaginable step in life for any of us. We simply took that step, without thinking much about how afraid we might be.

For someone as shy and insecure as I was, the fear was also made manageable by the fact that other people seemed to find me likeable, and so I never really had to make the first step in meeting anyone. I was friendly and helpful and cheerful with the people I encountered, and people responded to that, so any apprehension I felt toward strangers was fairly quickly dissipated.

As I think of my arrival at Georgetown, one of the odd things that stands out was the arrangement I had for doing my laundry. My mother didn’t want me to take it to a coin laundry, and apparently neither she nor my father wanted to give me money to have my clothes washed and ironed somewhere. Instead, my mother insisted that I send my dirty laundry home every week – eight hundred or so miles away – for her to wash and iron herself. Then she would send it back to me.

This arrangement seems so odd to me now that I can hardly believe it, yet at the time it seemed entirely normal. For children and young people growing up, it can sometimes be difficult to discern what is normal and what is not, outside the enclosed family circle. Certainly it was difficult at that time, when families tended to form much more isolated units than they do today. However strange our family seemed when I was younger, it appeared quite normal to me now at Georgetown.

And so I sent my laundry half way across the United States to be washed every week and received it again some days later.

I also think it odd that of all the potential difficulties that come up when a young man goes off to college, my mother mother seemed to focus on the question of how I would get my laundry done, while ignoring any other possible problem that might come up.

I suppose, though, that kind of thinking gives me one more reason to try to forgive her. Women live in a different universe from the one that men inhabit, and when they try to direct or control events in a man’s universe, catastrophe must result, at least in the long run. A woman’s view of a man’s universe is an illusory one, from the man’s point of view, because what a woman thinks is happening in a man’s universe often bears little relation to what is really happening there.

From my mother’s point of view, the only thing of any importance that she could see in my universe was the question of how I would get my laundry done. The really important things were invisible to her.

But those were days filled not with thoughts about my poor mother’s eccentricities, but with the heady excitement of being at Georgetown and at the newness of it all. I didn’t know that I was living in a world of dreams and illusions, and everything seemed full of promise in that bright autumn.

Everything, even the smallest things, the least important incidents, were full of interest for me. Everything was exotic and strange. I felt at last that I was preparing for success in life – the dreams of the monastery were forgotten. If the monks wanted me to wait until I finished university, then I would finish university first. And I would enjoy it.

And I was at a Catholic university, one of the finest in the country, so I was sure I was doing the right thing. Except. Except for one small nagging thought at the back of my mind that all the priests I talked to couldn’t talk me out of.

If I was being educated at the expense of my stepfather, I said to myself, and if it was wrong for my mother to have married him in the first place, then wasn’t it wrong for me to take money from him and allow him to support me while I was at university?

Of course there was nothing wrong with that, the priests said. And I said. To myself. And yet.

And yet.

I couldn’t get rid of that doubt that was constantly there in my mind, fluttering in the distance, like some small bird that had had one leg tied to a tree and was beating its wings against the internal bubble of my consciousness, trying to be free.

And if it had been free? Then I would have been free of the doubt, free of the small worry that I was doing the wrong thing, that my whole education was based on a lie – was based on what I had learned to think of as sin.

Perhaps it was that tiny worry that was like the proverbial small cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand, that eventually became a storm that swept down and destroyed everything that lay before it.

Or perhaps that tiny worry was only one of many small clouds on the horizon that combined into the vast cloud that ultimately encompassed my whole mind, my whole life, and blasted everything.

But at first, at Georgetown, I of course knew nothing of these things. I thought the small dark cloud really could simply be ignored and that it would soon dissipate and be blown away. And for a time I did ignore it, I was able to ignore it. I made friends surprisingly easily with other students in my classes. Or perhaps it was not so surprising. As I said, I did like other people, and I wanted to be liked. I knew how to be pleasant and kind to others. My mind was alive and full of ideas and laughter.

One of the first friends I made was Daryl, a student from New York with an utterly improbable last name. His father was head of a large international chain of language schools. He was studying Russian and was in one of my classes. He was also extremely intelligent, with that wild streak in his personality that I have always found irresistible in people. I remember once, when he was really bothered by noise in the dorm rooms around him, he said that he would like to live in a building where he not only owned his own apartment, but all of the surrounding apartments as well, so that he could have some peace and quiet. To me, fresh from the backwoods of Michigan, this seemed like an outrageously original and funny thing to think.

Daryl was tall and thin, with an acne problem, but because of his personality and wit – together with a kind of wisdom – he was someone that a lot of people wanted to be friends with. Daryl’s father spoke several languages, among them Russian – he’d read “Doctor Zhivago” in the original – and it was perhaps for that reason that Daryl’s major subject at Georgetown was Russian.

I met him in one of the introductory Russian classes. There were about twelve of us in the class, and Daryl was one of the brightest. Unfortunately, he and I both used our intelligence to see the absurdity in the way the teacher taught the class.

Dr. Morovskii was a small, wiry man, somewhere in his fifties, with a graying mustache and fiery eyes – or perhaps they were eyes that were reddened from weeping. He used to try rather desperately to ignore our laughter and other antics.

I was stupid enough not to understand what sort of impact we must have had on him, and in fact I have to say that I was not one of those who contributed most to these low-level disruptions in class. Most of the time I was actually quite serious. The opportunity to learn Russian was high intellectual adventure for me. My interest in foreign languages had reached the point where I was almost enchanted by any of them, but by Russian in particular. It wasn’t simply that it was an exotic language – it was the form that this exoticism took. It was the strange and lovely alphabet, the way the words looked printed on a page. It was the sound, the wonderful sound of Russian – it had always sounded to me like a language played backwards on a tape recorder, something I found outrageously charming, for some reason I can’t quite grasp now.

But Russian was even more than that. Russian was Tolstoy. Russian was “War and Peace.” Russian was Natasha and Prince Andre and Pierre and the whole lost world of St. Petersburg and Mosocw as those cities were seen and lived in by the aristocracy of the the early nineteenth century. Naturally it never occurred to me that if I had lived at that time, I would almost certainly not have been a member of that class. I would probably have been a peasant somewhere, because that’s what most people were. That’s probably what my own ancestors were, not in Russia, but in one of the Russian provinces, Lithuania.

The textbook we used had been written and published in the Soviet Union, and it seemed funny and exotic at the same time, because everything about it was so weird. The cover was a kind of heavy pasteboard and the binding was cheap. The pages were a sort of newsprint that was guaranteed to turn yellow within a year or so. The simple stories and readings that the book contained centered on things like driving a tractor on a collective farm or working in a factory.

Since this was the period shortly after the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era, it seems surprising to me now that such a textbook would have been used at all. Someone somewhere must at one time or another questioned the decision to use it, but perhaps no one was really too concerned about it because the propaganda it contained was so heavy-handed and even stupid that no one could possibly be influenced by it. And then too, Georgetown was a Catholic university, a Jesuit university, and the CIA director at the time, Allen Dulles, had a brother who was himself a Jesuit. And in those years, the Jesuits were still one of the most conservative orders in the Catholic Church. So probably for these reasons too, no one was very concerned about the fact that we were using a textbook from the Evil Empire, the dreaded Soviet Union.

The beginning of the fall semester gradually turned into winter, and I continued being as hard-working a student as I’d always been. I not only went to my classes, never missing a single one, but I also spent all of the hours in the language lab that we were required to spend every week. Hour after hour I listened to the Russian tapes, repeating sentence after sentence and one grammatical pattern after another.

It wasn’t really an effort for me, though. I was driven by two things. First, I clung to all of the teachings of the religion I’d been brought up with, in spite of everything, no matter how difficult it was, and this encouraged and even forced me to sublimate and channel all of my energies into my academic work. I’d always taken a positive delight in work, even in physical work. Now, the chance to do serious academic or intellectual work delighted me even more. The second thing that drove me in my study of Russian was a passion for the language itself. I found my slowly increasing knowledge of it almost completely absorbing.

At the same time, however, I also wanted to maintain my knowledge of French. However, I was already taking the maximum number of courses allowed by the university and couldn’t take any French courses. I asked my mother and stepfather if they would give me an extra few dollars a month to pay for a French tutor. They refused.

Their refusal, as always, felt like a stab wound. I couldn’t reconcile it with my mother’s repeated statements that she had divorced my father and married my stepfather because she wanted to be able to help me financially. “I did it for you,” was her constant message to me, which I half-consciously interpreted as, “I’m living in sin because of you. I’ve lost my soul for your sake.”

And yet she and my stepfather refused to give me this one small addtional help in the one area of my life that was more important to me than any other – the development of my mind. Of course they were paying for my education. I appreciated that, and I was grateful for that. But they seemed to have no real understanding of what that education meant to me. They seemed to have no understanding of what the intellectual life meant – or they had no understanding of what it meant to me.

They would spend thousands of dollars on a new car or on furniture, but they would not give me a few dollars extra every month in order to pay for French lessons. I was hurt and confused by that. My hurt and confusion, though, I blamed largely on myself. There must be something wrong with the way I’ m seeing the situation, I thought, otherwise I wouldn’t feel the way I do.

So I paid for my own French lessons from a young female French graduate student who was at Georgetown at that time. And these lessons were a delight for me, a purely intellectual delight. I loved the French language and the ability I had to master it to the degree I had. I loved the sound of it, I loved the words, I even loved the intricacies of grammar.

I couldn’t understand, though, how my parents were willing to pay for my education at Georgetown, where I could learn Russian, but were willing to allow me, in effect, to forget French.

I also wanted to continue seeing a psychiatrist. I even sought one out – a Catholic psychiatrist, of course, for that was extremely important to me. I didn’t want any non-Catholic psychiatrist, without any belief in everything the Church taught, to have influence over me.

Unfortunately, this too my parents were unwilling to pay for. I didn’t need a psychiatrist, they said. I of course thought I did, and the fact that they wouldn’t pay for one was a real blow to me. I accepted it, though, as the will of God, something I couldn’t understand but which somehow must be the best thing. A psychiatrist, I thought, would help me to be a good man, so how could God not want me to see one? It was an impossible contradiction for me, and I could only accept it with a kind of bowed resignation. All I could do was try to struggle on. And so I did.

The struggle, though, was all in the area of living. My studies at Georgetown were never a struggle. Studying Russian was a delight, studying history and English and even fulfilling the religion course requirement, all of that was a delight as well. I loved studying, and I loved learning. I loved acquiring knowledge of almost any kind.

We had a history course taught by a certain Professor Hunter, a course in American history, which was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken anywhere. It was even better than many of the courses I would eventually take at Harvard.

Professor Hunter’s course was based on an idea that was so radical at Georgetown that no one even realized how radical it was. It would perhaps be considered even more radical today, when religion plays a bigger ideological role in the thinking and behavior of many American government leaders. In the late nineteen-fifties, though, the thinking of most people was still so compartmentalized that a course like Professor Hunter’s could be taught at a Catholic university like Georgetown, and no one would notice that there was quite an apparent contradiction between the basic idea of the course and the idea that God guides the universe according to his will.

For what Professor taught was that pure chance had played an important role in the development of the United States as a nation, perhaps even a decisive role. We had been extraordinarily lucky, and at some point, he indicated, our luck might run out, and we would then suffer the same sort of decline that every other nation has suffered.

It was the first intellectually exciting course I’d ever taken, and I looked forward to his lectures – and I did well in the course. I did well in all my other courses as well. I somehow did not realize, though, how well I really was doing. Once in the English course, we had a paper assigned that was supposed to be written over the Christmas vacation. We were supposed to write an analysis or a commentary on a poem that I think was entitled “Patterns.” It was about a woman in the eighteenth century who was suffering from the constraints of an extremely rigid society. At the end of the poem, she receives the news that her lover has been killed in battle, and I think the poem ends with her anguished question, “God, what are patterns for?”

It was quite an appropriate poem, I suppose, for eighteenth-century Europe. It was definitely an appropriate poem for nineteen-fifties America.

Some time after we handed the paper in, the professor said one day he would give us our grades verbally, if we wanted, and then he would hand the corrected papers back later. After class, I went up to his desk to ask for my grade, and when I did, he looked at me in what seemed to me to be a rather embarrassed way, as if I was being foolish for even asking the question, and he said, “Well, Mr. Bennett, you received an ‘A’.”

Of course my grades were good, but I didn’t understand exactly how good they were until the end of the year. In the meantime, there was the question of my name change. My last name had been a Lithuanian name that had always seemed to me to be clumsy, difficult, too long, and hard to pronounce. When I was adopted, I had the chance to change my name to something simple, something that was more “American,” by taking my stepfather’s last name.

This was something I eagerly agreed to. I would have agreed to it even if my mother hadn’t enthusiastically pushed the idea, which of course she did. I never thought about the effect that changing my name might have on my father. I could say that this lack of thoughtfulness was typical adolescent selfishness, but probably it was more than that. It was simply my typical selfishness, I think.

I entered Georgetown with one name, and in the middle of the academic year, I had another, a better name, a more “normal” name, as I thought of it. Surely I was now on my way to being just like everyone else.

One of the courses I took – one of the things my stepfather encouraged me to become involved with – was ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which trained young male college students to be reserve military officers after graduation. It was an alternative to the draft, which then still existed. I was even a member of the Georgetown University drill team.

I had no idea what I was doing, in every sense of the word. I was just trying to be like everyone else, or like my idea of everyone else, then, in the last year of the nineteen-fifties, there, in the United States. I took ROTC so seriously that I even joined the drill team and learned to march and to spin and slap the rifle around together with my teammates. Of course it was absurd, especially in view of the way the military establishment came to be regarded just a few years later at the time of the Vietnam war. But those were, as I said, the nineteen-fifteen and America had not yet crossed the great divide where Eisenhower and McCarthyism and the fear of the communists were on one side, while Kennedy and the New Frontier were on the other.

That divide was as great as the one that would appear a few years later, with the Kennedy presidency on one side and the war and assassinations of the nineteen-sixties on the other.

And so in that strange cocoon of a world, I practiced every Saturday morning with the other members of the drill team. At the same time, though, I filled the university physical education requirement that was in place at the time, and probably that was the most important reason for me to be on the drill team. It provided a less painful way of filling what I considered a painful requirement.

Thoroughly brain-washed by my poor mother, I still thought of sports then as competely pointless, a sheer waste of time. Besides, since I’d never really played any sports with any enthusiasm, I dreaded them and feared them. Again the Harvard doctor’s words come to mind, and I have to acknowledge that my poor mother had indeed “done her work well.”

So I replaced the physical education requirement at Georgetown with the ROTC drill team. Deep within me, though, at some point my poor mother hadn’t manage to reach, I did take a sort of secret satisfaction with drill team practice. I liked it. I liked being with the other students and engaging in some physical activity. I couldn’t like sports – that had been trained and tamed out of me – but the drill team wasn’t quite a sport, and so I was free to like it.

I suppose I also like the routine of it, the mindless repetition of the mechanical movements we had all memorized. I probably liked the freedom not to have to think. Thinking was painful for me, because it meant considering all the dilemmas of my life, and there was no point in doing that, because they were all unresolvable.

They were also in many respects beneath the surface. I still thought of myself as someone who was just like everyone else. In fact, I think I even thought of myself as someone who was better than anyone else. After all, wasn’t I getting excellent grades? And just how excellent those grades really were – that was something I wouldn’t know until the end of the year, when the rankings were published, and I discovered that I had the highest grades of anyone at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and the second highest in the university’s entire freshman class.

So, I thought of myself not simply as normal. I was better than normal. I could do anything. And I completely forgot what Mr. McKee, our high school English teacher had said: that we shouldn’t forget that at university we would be competing with students who were all among the best in their class. That was something I didn’t need to remember at Georgetown, and should have remembered later at Harvard, but didn’t.

During that first year at Georgetown I was able to think of myself as being exactly like everyone else, even moreso, and completely normal, or even moreso. And of course I was a thoroughly good person, because I went to Mass and communion every day, and confession once a week.

When I was first at Georgetown, all my friends were classmates at the School of Foreign Service and the Institute of Languages and Linguistics. I lived, however, on the main part of the campus, with the students from the rest of the Georgetown freshman class. That was how I met Kevin.

For me, Kevin was like a young god, and I practically worshipped him. I’d certainly never known anyone like him in Michigan. I’d never known anyone like him could even exist, except perhaps in movies. I thought that everything he was and everything he did was perfection. I projected on him every conceivable ideal I could possibly have had at that age.

Kevin was everything I thought I was not. He was intelligent, good-looking, charming. He was open and friendly. He was an athlete. Best of all, he was quite willing to be my friend. What more could life hold?

Except that I gradually began to feel that the university itself lacked something that I wanted and needed. Whenever I read the letters of high school friends like Becky and Susan, who had both gone to small, liberal arts colleges, I had the feeling that there was an intellectual excitement at those places that was missing at Georgetown. There were always exciting lectures and discussions, that never seemed to take place at Georgetown. The life of the mind was being lived elsewhere. The spirit of the times was moving through other places and other colleges and seemed to have passed Georgetown by.

The courses at Georgetown were all right, and Keven was a great friend, but too often the paraphrase of a comment by Gertrude Stein used to come into my mind: “There was no intellectual there there.”

Because I thought I could learn about greatness by talking to those I considered great in some way, and also probably because I liked to draw the attention of such people to myself, I went one day to talk with Dr. Hunter. The former CIA officer sat in his small, windowless office smoking a pipe and looking at me through the clouds he produced. Around him shelves were piled and stacked with books, from floor to ceiling.

“Russian,” I was saying to him, “I like studying Russian.”

“Harvard has a fine Russian program,” he said. “They have a whole center devoted to Russian studies.”

I am sure to this day that he was trying to point me toward a field of graduate studies, something I could enter when I finished my studies at Georgetown. Somehow, though, I got it into my head that he was telling me about a program at Harvard that I could transfer into, then. All right, maybe not then, not at that moment, but at least after I finished my freshman year at Georgetown.

Harvard, I thought to myself, now there must be a place where exciting things are happening intellectually. Harvard must be the place to be. I thought too – quite irrelevantly – of Tom Lehrer and the song about Harvard that Becky and Susan and I had laughed about. I also remembered the attitude that they and their parents had shown toward Harvard.

These were all like whispers and shadows, though. I really didn’t know anything very solid about Harvard, except that Dr. Hunter had said there was a good Russian studies program there.

In those days, there was no Internet, and if anyone wanted information about a school or university, the thing to do was to write to them and ask. And that is what I did. I had a little Olympia portable typewriter, and I wrote and neatly typed out a letter to Harvard and asked for whatever information they could send me about their Russian studies program.

Before the answer came, however, the idea of Harvard – or an idea of Harvard, or my idea of Harvard – continued to fill my mind, and perhaps not simply to fill my mind, but lodge itself there and grow and expand, until Harvard practically became the focus of all my attention. So when I received the information I asked for, my mind was primed to receive it, like a sponge in the desert suddenly flooded with water.

Those people at Harvard who write about Harvard for prospective applicants know how to describe the university. They know how to make it appeal to a certain type of young person in the most heart-rending way. They know how to make that young person feel, “Yes! Of course, HARVARD!. Harvard is the place I’m looking for. Harvard is IT. I fit Harvard like a glove. Harvard is a whole intellectual universe – Harvard is THE intellectual universe, the one I’ve been looking for. All these things that have been written about Harvard were written for ME! Now I know that THAT is the place I must be. That is the only place I can really BE! Harvard means the life of the mind, Harvard means people who understand me, Harvard means people know live only for the mind and the intellect and all of the great discoveries the human spirit is capable of.”

I’m tempted to write something like, “And so on and so forth,” for this is more or less the way I really thought, although somehow I was able to discipline the wildness in order to write a coherent application.

Because write an application is exactly what I knew I had to do. Of course I discovered that the program I was interested in was a program for graduate students, but that didn’t matter. I wanted to go to Harvard NOW! People changed universities, didn’t they? So why couldn’t I simply transfer from Georgetown to Harvard?

If I’d known that it was far more difficult entering Harvard as a transfer student than it was being accepted straight from high school, would I still have applied? Probably. But with less confidence. As it was, I simply thought transfer students were transfer students. I had no idea that a transfer students fills a place of someone who left Harvard permanently, and almost no one ever leaves Harvard permanently. Nearly everyone who’s accepted as a freshman graduates with a bachelor’s degree.

Since I didn’t know all that, I quite calmly filled out the application and wrote the essay that was required. I was very good at writing an essay, and I don’t remember now what I wrote then – I suppose a copy of it is still on file somewhere – but one thing I’m sure of. I’m sure it was full of the longing I felt for the intellectual life, full of the aching homesickness I felt for an intellectual home.

But I suppose all that too was an illusion. My idea of Harvard was an idea of something that didn’t exist at all. And yet I don’t know if I can blame myself completely. If my dream of Harvard was far from the reality, is not perhaps because that dream was itself encouraged by Harvard before I went there? Does Harvard – or did Harvard – present itself to prospective students as it really is?

Or is it possible that the dream I had of Harvard really was reality, but it was I who was unable to find that reality at Harvard? If I had been a different kind of person, person I could have found the Harvard I’d dreamed of, the Harvard I was expecting.

But all that was in the future. All I knew at Georgetown was that I wanted to go to Harvard.

My mother and stepfather came to visit me once, in the autumn, but I didn’t mention anything about Harvard to them then. The visit went quite well. On the surface. Everyone was trying to pretend that there were no problems, that we were just a normal American family.

Of course, perhaps that’s just what we were. Perhaps every normal American family was full of the weird kind of conflicts, the undercurrent of horror and destruction that existed in our family. Perhaps that was normalcy.

Of course there were happy families then, but I’m inclined to think that there were not very many of them.

When my parents visited Georgetown, I introduced them to a student I knew from the university, an exotic young woman from Morocco, who did not seem particularly impressed either with me or my parents. It was the last time I saw her.

My parents were also introduced to Renée, another student at the university, whose father was a high-ranking Belgian official in the United States. The evening I took Renée out with my parents, she invited me to visit her parents beforehand. My parents and I drove up to a chateau-like structure in one of Washington’s better suburbs, and I went inside while my mother and stepfather waited in the car.

God only knows what I seemed like to Renée’s parents, probably like some hick. And yet Renée, even though brought up in old-world wealth and courtesy, was herself very young and unworldly. I remember the first time we met, at registration, when I helped her with some administrative formality. We began talking, and I discovered that she was give to saying things like, “The sky never looks the same as it does at home.” At the time, such statements struck me as extremely beautiful and profound.

What really mattered to me then, though, was the intellectual life. I knew some fine people at Georgetown, and I did things I’d never done before, things that were a great adventure for me. There was the time, for example, when Daryl organized a ski trip to Vermont a few of his friends. I’d never been skiing before, but I was beginning to have a certain amount of self-confidence, and I thought I could try anything. The others were fairly good skiers, I was only a beginner, but that didn’t matter to anyone.

Daryl had a sports car that his father had given him, one of the most sought-after and desirable sports cars of that period, and we used it to drive from Washington to Vermont. On the way, we stopped in Larchmont, the New York suburb where Daryl’s family lived.

I’d heard and read about places like Larchmont, seen them in the movies, but to actually be there was almost more than my adolescent little mind could deal with. Daryl’s parents lived in a house that was enormous by the standards I’d grown up with. The place was old and full of unexpored openings and unexpected treasures.

Daryl’s father received us like a French king at his levee – sitting up in the middle of a huge four-poster bed and reading “Dr. Zhivago,” in Russian. I couldn’t have imagined anything more exotic or – to my mind – sensational if I’d tried. I couldn’t imagine having a father or a stepfather who at that time even knew what “Dr. Zhivago” was, much less one who’d read it in the original.

We continued on up to Vermont, where I went skiing for the first time in my life. I was afraid at first, in fact I was afraid during the whole trip from Washington. How could I go skiing? I was never very athletic, or at least I never enjoyed athletics. Sports in high school had always been more of a penance for me than anything else. How could I possibly go skiing?

Daryl had told me not to worry. I could rent some skis and take a few lessons while he and the others were off on the slopes. I reassured at first, but then I continued to worry, the closer we got to Vermont.

We stayed in an old farmhouse, whose owners rented out rooms during the skiing season. It was cold, and the furnishings were simply, but it was something difficult, and I was proving myself.

The idea of skiing, though, was something else entirely. I’d been so brainwashed into thinking that sports of any kind were a sort of “low” activity, and the idea “proving myself” in sports, the way other boys did, made no sense to me. It seemed to be something I was incapable of, something out of another universe that I could never be a part of.

Then, in Vermont that winter, I discovered skiing. It was one of the most exciting things I’d done until then. I’d been water-skiing often in Michigan, but this was different. I was more difficult and offered a greater sense of freedom and even speed.

So, I thought to myself on my way to really being like everyone else. I’m with good friends, I’m skiing, I’m engaging in a sport and liking it for just about the first time in my life.

I loved the sense of speed as the wind blew against my face and I struggled to maintain my balance on a downhill run. Of course the slopes I was on were all very gentle inclines, but they were enough for me, they were enough to give me a greater sense of exhilaration than anything I’d ever known before.

Surely now, I thought to myself, I was breaking free of the dark world of my mother and stepfather, and I would never go back there, never have to go back there. In the bright, cold, clear air of Vermont, in the purity of the winter snows, I felt he’d found a new world, achieved a new level of existence. I felt I’d reached a turning point in his life.

As always, I was carried away by emotion, of course. Worse than that, perhaps, I was living in a world of illusion that would be shattered one day.

The real world was the one my mother and stepfather lived in, and in that world – as I was to learn in the coming years – there was no place for any “new world” or any “new level of existence.” There could be no turning point in life, as far as they were concerned. Everything had to proceed along its own dismal course, relentlessly, every day as bleak and dark and destructive as the one before.


I returned from the skiing trip almost a different person, or so I thought, a person I liked better than the person I’d been before. I was happier and more self-confident. I was just like everyone else. I’d spent my own money on the trip – my mother and stepfather would never have given me money for something like that – but it had been worth it.

Whatever changes had taken place in me, though, were changes that my parents were determined to reverse. When I went back to my parents’ home for Christmas vacation, I told them about my desire to transfer to Harvard. We sat together late one afternoon in the enormous, but tastefully furnished livingroom. The room was dark, and I sat facing my mother and stepfather.

“You want to transfer to Harvard?” my mother said scornfully. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll never get into Harvard. You have to be a senator’s son, or a Rockefeller, to get into Harvard.”

My stepfather was silent. I have to give him some credit for that. Perhaps the idea didn’t seem so ridiculous to him.

I looked down at the floor. Somehow, in spite of everything, in spite of the intimidation, I knew my parents were wrong this time. “Well, maybe it isn’t such a good idea,” I said, “but I’m going to try.”

My mother shrugged. “Go ahead, if you want to.”

Harvard really seemed to mean nothing to them, just a place where the sons of senators and millionaires studied. Harvard certainly didn’t mean for them what it meant for me.

I didn’t try to change their minds in any way. I’d already learned that it was futile to try to do that. Once my mother and stepfather made up their mind about anything, that was the end of the matter. Arguing with them only caused them to reinforce their positions in their own mind.

And so, where my application to Harvard was concerned, I did what I always did. I remained quietly determined to do what I wanted, in spite of what my parents thought, and I proceeded with my application. I suppose my my parents saw that as arrogance. If so, the punishment wasn’t long in coming.

I wrote to Harvard to find out if an interview was necessary. After a few days I received a response from the admissions office. An interview was not necessary, they wrote, it might be useful. That was all the encouragement I needed. Not long after I returned to Washington from Christmas vacation, I made an appointment with the admissions office. I made an airline reservation and managed to buy a ticket out of the small amount of cash I’d saved from the previous summer, and which was all I had to use for spending money.

I pointed out to my mother and stepfather that my brother was receiving an allowance from them and that he didn’t have to work to save his spending money for the school year. This wasn’t unfair, they said, because he was younger than I was. And if they said it wasn’t unfair, then it must not have been, or at least that’s what I told myself. Later, though, as the years went by and my brother always received an allowance and never had to work and save his own spending money for the coming year at school or university, it did begin to seem somewhat unfair. Of course my brother was younger than I was. I didn’t point out to my parents that he would always be younger than I was. I knew it wouldn’t have done any good to tell them that.

As far as travelling to Boston for the Harvard interview was concerned, my parents said they would pay for the return flight if I paid the fare to Boston. They wouldn’t pay me in advance, though, they would wire the money to me when I was in Boston.

The day I made the appointment was a day when I had the fewest classes. I planned to fly to Boston in the morning and return that same evening. It was also one of the coldest days in January, with a snowstorm that blanketed the Boston area.

I was dressed in my best clothes, the sort of clothes university students always wore then: white shirt, tie, and a suit. Over all of that I wore an overcoat that was heavy enough for the relatively mild winter in Washington, but not for the freezing snows of Cambridge. I was shivering almost from the moment I got of the plane at Logan airport until.

Part of the shivering, though, was caused by fear and apprehension. I felt so alone. In the back of my mind were the mocking voices of my parents for even thinking of doing something like transferring to Harvard. And I worried about everything. How would I get to Cambridge from the airport? Once I got to Harvard, how would I find the building I was supposed to go to for my interview?

Somehow I managed it. At some point I took the subway, which left its tunnel in Boston and went across a bridge over the Charles to Cambridge. The subway cars then looked as though they’d come out of a nineteen-forties movie, and they probably had in fact been in use since the war. But that seemed quaint to me. Everything seemed quaint, and despite the cold, Boston looked beautiful to me as spread itself out beneath a thick blanket of snow.

Everything seemed old and old-fashioned and beautiful and perhaps it was the beauty of it all that kept me from sinking under the weight of my fear. What was I actually doing, I wondered, coming to Harvard and expecting to make an impression in an interview. Surely my mother and stepfather were right. The whole idea was ridiculous. It was absurd.

In one of the information packets that I’d gotten from the Admissions Office, there was a map of the Yard, and I managed to find the building where I was supposed to be interviewed. As always, I arrived long before the scheduled time, and I had to find someplace warm to wait. I walked through the driving snow from the Yard over to Schoenhof’s bookstore and went inside. I felt almost as though I were in Europe again, exploring a bookstore in Paris where the shelves were piled high with the mysteries contained in countless volumes.

Schoenhof’s on that day so many years ago seemed to me to be a quietly intense place, where the atmosphere was suffused with a restless intellectual activity. People were bent over books they’d taken down from the shelves. Shop assistants were standing on ladders high overhead, rearranging books or looking for volumes that customers had requested. There was a bookish atmosphere everywhere that excited me.

Schoenhof’s was like no other bookstore I’d ever seen. There were books in foreign languages everywhere – in French, Russian, German, Spanish – in languages I’d never heard of, in every conceivable language, dead of living. I wanted to be able to study them all. I wanted to spend a life time studying them all, an eternity studying them all, and learning them all.

Of course this kind of adolescent passion for learning is something people will laugh at now. Many laughed at it when I was at Harvard. I was considered naïve and innocent for having such an attitude. I suppose I was naïve and innocent. My attitude toward learning was too emotional. The cold, clear light of reason was absent. I suppose that’s why I failed at Harvard the way I did.

And yet I can’t help thinking that the naïve and innocent attitude, such as I had, is really the only reasonable attitude to have toward the intellectual life. The passion for learning is what the intellectual life is all about – the excitement and the adventure of learning.

Many people will call me proud or stupid or both, but I believe that the innocent, naïve, passionate, enthusiastic attitude toward the life of the mind is the one that will prevail in the long run. Perhaps not now, not in this age, not in my lifetime, but someday.

It’s possible of course that this is one of the factors that allowed me to be admitted to Harvard. Certainly there are people at Harvard who do not treat knowledge as a kind of commodity to be traded, bought, and sold. These people recognize that a passion for the intellectual life is one of the most important qualities a human being can possess.

I don’t know how much of my personality was evident to the interviewer I talked to at Harvard that day. I remember only that the interview was short, formal, and rather distant. The interviewer was a young man who seemed almost as uncomfortable as I was. My feeling is that both of us wanted to get the interview over with as soon as possible. It was the whole reason I’d come to Cambridge and Boston, but I wanted to be done with it.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard for me to believe that the interview went very well. At the end of it, the man said to me, “Before you leave, take a walk around here and look at a few things.” And that was all. I will never know what kind of an impression I made or what the interviewer thought of me.

I walked around the Yard a little – I always did what I was told – but my main concern after the interview was getting the money I needed from my parents, in order to fly back to Washington. I didn’t have any energy left to think about anything else or to visit any other place in Cambridge or Boston.

My parents were supposed to send the money to the Western Union office in Boston. I had a map of the city and managed to take the subway from Harvard Square and make my way to the place where I was supposed to pick up the money.

Of course it wasn’t there. I was still somewhat naïve where my parents behavior was concerned, and I had expected to be able to just walk into the office, up the money, buy a ticket, and fly back to Washington.

“No, there’s nothing here for you,” said the clerk.

In situations like that, I always used to panic, and now I felt the first waves of panic starting to wash over me.

All the money I had left was some change in my pocket, because I was still so trusting where my parents were concerned. I went to a phone and called them collect. I could hear the phone ringing on the other end, and ringing. Just when the operator was saying, “I’m sorry, sir, there seems to be no …”, my mother answered the phone.

“Hello, dear,” she said. “How are you? It’s sweet of you to call.”

And then silence.

“Mom, I’m in Boston.”

“In Boston? What are you doing there?”

“Mom, don’t you remember, I told you I was coming up here to have an interview for Harvard.”

Another pause. “Oh, yes, I do remember that, now that you mention it. How did it go?”

“Mom, I think it went okay. Now I need to get back to Washington.”

“Well, all right, but it was nice of you to call.”

“Mom, I’m calling because I need money to buy a ticket back to Washington.”

“Why, didn’t you bring any money with you?”

“No, Mom, I didn’t.” At about this point, I didn’t know whether to laugh, or scream, or cry.

“Well, why not, honey. It seems a little thoughtless to fly all the way to Boston without enough money to fly back.”

Oh God, I thought to myself. Please don’t let me be angry. Please let me be calm. “Mom, you and Keith promised you’d wire me the money to get back to Washington if I paid for my ticket up here.”

“We promised you that?”

“Yes, Mom, you did.”

“Well, there’s no need to sound so irritated. We’d be happy to send you the money, but you don’t have to lose your temper over it.”


I thanked her and hung up the phone. I walked outside the Western Union office. It was still snowing, and it was still so cold that he felt all the winter clothes he was wearing were thin and summery.

He walked around until he found a coffee shop. He walked in. Young, shy, dressed in a J. Press suit and a Brooks Brothers overcoat, he looked as though he’d stepped through a time warp from another world. The tired-looking men in work clothes sitting around at the Formica-top tables seemed barely to notice him, but his painful self-consciousness gave him no rest. He felt so out of place that he wished he were invisible. He sat down at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee from a middle-aged waitress with curly, died-blond hair and a pencil stuck over her right ear.

And then he waited. Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. He wished he had something to read, but he hadn’t even brought a book from Washington. He’d known he’d never be able to concentrate on a book.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty. The sky outside was starting to take on the color of late afternoon.

He left the café and went back to the Western Union office.

The woman at the counter looked up at him. There was something like sympathy and concern in her eyes. “Back so soon, dear?” she said, using the customary Boston form of address. “I’m sorry nothing’s come in for you yet.”

David looked at her a moment. Then he smiled, although he didn’t feel like smiling. “Is there a bookstore or anything around here?”

“There’s a place that sells mostly newspapers and magazines about two blocks in that direction,” she answered, pointing out the way.

David thanked her and went out into the cold again, he felt angry one minute and depressed the next. He couldn’t understand what his parents were doing. Surely they weren’t treating him this way on purpose. But that was what made it all really bad for him. He didn’t know what in the world they were doing, or why they were doing what they did, or if they even knew what they were doing.

After an hour browsing in the bookstore, and another cup of coffee, David went back to the Western Union office. Still no money. Another phone call to Michigan.

“But Keith just came back from sending the money,” said his mother.

Just came back? What had he been doing until then? Why couldn’t they have simply sent the money earlier, as they’d promised? Tears of anger and sadness and frustration welled up in David, and he hung up the phone. Never again, he promised himself, never again would he put himself in such a situation. Never again would he believe anything his parents told him or promised him.

But somehow he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep such a promise. Somehow he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it. Not yet anyway. Somehow he knew he would go on believing them again and again until it really became impossible to believe them any longer.

Another trip to the bookstore, but no more change was left for coffee.

Then back to the Western Union office. The woman behind the counter smiled at him and looked relieved. “I have something for you this time,” she told him.

And this time she did. David collected the money and went over to the American Airlines office in the Statler Hotel and bought a ticket to Washington. Then he went out to the airport.


Back at Georgetown, classes continued more or less the way they had before, except that now he more hope in the future, he had at least the possibility of Harvard to look forward to.

At the same time, David suffered through the storms and stresses of adolescence. It could perhaps be said that he suffered the usual storms and stresses of adolescence, only in his case they weren’t usual at all. Because of the way he’d been raised – or more accurately – the way he’d been forced to raise himself, these storms were more confusing, more severe, and more painful than for most of his contemporaries.

As always, the only person he could talk with was one of the Jesuits who was there to counsel the students and who listened for hours, week after week, patiently and sympathetically, to all that David had to say, as he tried to work his way through the bewildering, endless jungles of feeling that filled his mind.

He didn’t really know what was happening to him. Once the pain became so intense, the worries about the future, that as he was sitting at his desk one afternoon, alone in his room, the horror of it all grew in his mind, and continued to grow, until the entire universe was one mighty, black gathering storm bearing down on him with all its imponderable weight.

As the blackness and burden increased, David suddenly resigned himself to it, gave in, accepted it as a man might accept inevitable death and annihilation. And then, just as suddenly, it disappeared and was replaced by a feeling of intense joy and relief and peace.

Every week David went to see the priest, telling him everything about himself, his thoughts, his actions, his hopes and plans for the future. And of course he’d always go to confession. That was the most important part of the encounter.

Often the tears would come, perhaps they came at least once during every conversations, for David was very unhappy then. He didn’t understand how he was supposed to life, how he was supposed to survive. He felt terribly, terribly lost.

Fortunately he did have his friends, more and better friends than he’d have at Harvard, in fact. If there was a less stimulating intellectual atmosphere at Georgetown, there was also less competition, and for David there were more possibilities for friendship. Whether the reason for that lay with Georgetown or Harvard or with David himself is difficult to say, though probably it was David himself, and the way he reacted to Georgetown and Harvard.

David’s roommate at Georgetown was a young man from Maine named Richard. He was legally blind, but he was able to read and write with the help of various mechanical devices – a strong light and some sort of apparatus that magnified the printed page. Richard was studying English literature. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that Richard wasn’t simply studying English literature, he was captivated by it, it was his passion. He lived and breathed English literature, and he did all it in such an understated way, that his love of the language and all that had been written in it was far more infectious than if he’d made a great issue of it with everyone he met.

David couldn’t help but be influenced by Richard. He’d already developed a taste for some of the great things that had been written in English when he was in high school, but high school had taught him very little of what English literature really was.

The books that Richard left lying around, the references he made to great English poetry, to English novels, to plays written in English gradually awakened in David something of the same interest in the language that Richard had.

David wanted to study English too. Russian seemed more and more dull to him. He’d once wanted to study Russian so that he could read “War and Peace” in the original, but that desire seemed to fade in comparison with the world of literature that he now saw had lain all around him but which he had hardly ever thought of exploring. He now saw that he’d been ignoring its possibilities.

He went to the college authorities responsible for studies and degree requirements and asked if it would be possible for him to change his course of studies from Russian to English. It was not.

He hadn’t yet been accepted at Harvard, and if he was accepted, there had been a small chance that he might not have gone if he could have studied English at Georgetown. Now that this possibility was closed off, though, he knew that there was not the slightest chance in the world that he would not go to Harvard, if he was accepted.

This was not the only crisis in David’s life. There was another, deeper one which cannot be written about even now. It shook him, though, week after week, and created continuous turmoil and confusion in his mind and in his life – except for his studies. Somehow he still managed to get the highest grades. Or perhaps “somehow” isn’t the right word. He did it by simply separating the crisis from his studies, and by managing to hide it whenever it threatened to become too obvious. As much as possible, the crisis was held within the limits of a small compartment in his mind.

He hid it from nearly everyone except the priest he spoke with every week. There within the walls of the priest’s office, before he went to confession, David often broke down and sobbed, as he tried to control forces in himself that were ultimately, he would discover, beyond his control.

He’d given up asking his parents to let him see a psychiatrist. He knew that was no longer an option. He simply struggled on as best he could.

Winter in Washington slowly turned into spring. Kevin started playing tennis in the warm weather, and David longed to play too. In spite of the fact that he’d learned to ski during the winter, though, he never thought of even trying to learn to play tennis, because of the way his mother had told him repeatedly as he was growing up that he was “not well-coordinated.” Even though the Jesuit psychiatrist in Chicago had asked him what he thought that term meant, he still never questioned what it meant or whether it was true or not. He was simply too clumsy to learn a sport like tennis or baseball or football. It was as if he had a handicap he couldn’t overcome and that simply had to be accepted.

Instead of playing tennis with Kevin, he dreamed of going off on a trip with him somewhere. He saw the two of them sitting side-by-side in a sportscar moving up and down the hills of a country highway. Where were they going? He never thought about that. They were going somewhere together, and being together was what counted. That was all that mattered.

He seems to have had a sense that his time at Georgetown was coming to an end that spring. He couldn’t know if he’d been accepted at Harvard until after the school year finished, since he’d applied as a transfer student, and whether he was accepted or not depended partly on how many students would not be returning to Harvard in the fall – and there were of course very few such students.

Somehow, though, he was quite confident that Harvard would accept him, so in many ways he started to take leave of Georgetown that spring. His grades were extremely good – as it turned out, they were the highest of the freshman class at the School of Foreign Service, and the second highest in the freshman class at the entire university.

There was one final burst of exuberance at Georgetown, though. In the late spring that year, there was an official state visit to Washington from Nepal. As always happened on such occasions, flags were hung on lamp posts on important streets in the city. Because the Nepalese flag was so unusual – it consisted of two triangles instead of a rectangle or square – David decided he had to have one, even though at the time it was not the official flag of the country. Late one night, when he was out in a car with some friends, they stopped next to one of the lamp posts and David climbed onto the roof of the car, reached up, and removed the flag from its holder.

He took it back to his room, and hung it on the wall above his desk. A day or so later in one of the Washington newspaper columns, there was a comment about the missing flag and the fact that it could perhaps be found on a dorm wall at Georgetown. No one ever came to look for it though, and it never became an issue.

More often that spring, there were low points, and the lowest point was at the end, when he was invited to a party somewhere in Washington and got so drunk he did things he was ashamed of. He got back to the dorm somehow, just before curfew. He realized how he must have looked when one of the students in the room next to his met him coming down the hallway and looked at him, a little startled at first, and then slyly and sheepishly.

He phoned his parents the next day and told them what had happened. They were shocked, of course. He heard his mother’s voice thundering across the long-distance circuits, “If anyone says anything, you just deny it!”

He didn’t say anything to the priest, though. He simply left Georgetown quietly, pretty much the way he’d arrived two semesters earlier, and pretty much the way he would leave all the places he would ever live for the rest of his life.

He couldn’t know that then, of course. If he had, he might have felt differently. As it was, he felt good. He didn’t think of himself as being a very important person – after all, his mother and father treated him as though he didn’t exist, so why should anyone else care much about him. He was sorry to be leaving Richard and Kevin and his other friends, but he certainly didn’t think they were really very sad that he wasn’t going to be at Georgetown anymore.

On the other hand, it would also be true to say that if David didn’t think about the feelings of his friends, it was because he was self-centered and somewhat selfish. He probably did not possess these qualities to any greater degree than other adolescents, but he certainly did possess them. He was quite sure he’d be going to Harvard and he expected everyone else to share his happiness at that fact. The idea that anyone might miss him or envy him or resent him because he’d be going to Harvard never entered his mind.

He returned to his mother and stepfather’s home in Michigan that summer feeling happy and confident about the future. Life was about to begin in earnest for him now. Before it did, though, he would work hard and save his money, the way his parents wanted him to, and try to enjoy himself as much as he could with Rick and their nurse friends from the hospital, especially the nurse they called “Stretch.”

This summer, though, the work would be a little different from the summer before. This summer, perhaps at his stepfather’s instigation, the hospital decided that he’d work full time in the psychiatric ward. Later, he’d look back on that experience and wonder what in the world people – including his mother and stepfather – were thinking of by making him work in such a situation. At the time, though, he simply accepted it obediently, the same way that he accepted everything else he was told to do. It was all God’s will, after all, he told himself.

He accepted it because he thought that’s what he should do. And once he’d accepted it, he found that it wasn’t unpleasant. In some ways, he even found it interesting, and it was certainly better than having to give enemas and insert male catheters and do all of the other things that were required of an ordinary orderly.

Of course there some aspects of the work on a psychiatric ward that were not very enjoyable. Once an elderly patient was so impacted that apparently there was no medicine available that would loosen his bowels. David was told to put on rubber gloves and, working alone with old man, manually dislodge the impacted feces.

Most of the time, however, the work consisted of taking some of the patients out for walks and helping them with ordinary daily activities such eating their meals or taking baths. Medication was distributed by the nurses and included some of the early antipsychotics. Thorazine was probably the drug that was most often used, so much so that even orderlies like David were familiar with the term. He and his friends used to make jokes about it.

David also had to assist with electric shock treatments, which were still being used in those days. They were given routinely to patients several times a week. In spite of his sensitivity, David didn’t find these rather gruesome procedures particularly shocking, probably because one of the nurses took him aside before the first one he ever helped with and explained what was going to happen. He eventually became accustomed to them: watching one of the nurses insert the rubber device that would prevent the patient from biting or swallowing his tongue, helping the nurses grip the patient’s arms or legs to keep them from flailing about during the electrically induced convulsion, and then taking the patient back to his room and putting him back in bed.

Much later, when he was older, he would wonder at the way these patients accepted this rather violent treatment with so much docility. The answer of course was that they had no choice.

Those were not only the days of electric shock treatments, they were also the days when nuns were lobotomized. Literally.

One day David and the others who worked on the psychiatric ward were told that one of the nuns belonging to the order that ran the hospital – though she didn’t work in the hospital – would be admitted to the ward as a patient. They were also told the nun was being admitted so that she could undergo a lobotomy.

In those days that kind of procedure was considered drastic, but not as barbaric as it seems today. Everyone was aware of the risks involved, presumably the nun herself as well, although she probably didn’t have much choice in the matter, short of leaving the convent.

It occurred to David that perhaps the nun even wanted the operation. She may have been one of those people for who undergoing surgery was a way of getting attention. Certainly there seemed to be nothing unusual about her, nothing that would call for such a serious operation, one that might leave her brain damaged in some way. But of course David admitted he was in no position to determine how necessary the operation was.

The day of the operation came and went, and the recovery period passed, and David could see no difference at all in the nun’s behavior from what it had been before. He assumed, though, that the doctors knew what they were doing and that not only had the nun needed the operation, but it must have been a success. After the nun left the hospital, she never returned, at least not while David was there.

One day when David came on duty for the evening shift, he was told there was a new patient, a middle-aged man had been admitted to the ward. The nurses said his diagnosis was depression. David didn’t pay much attention to him, because the man was very quiet and looked quite ordinary, just another balding, slightly overweight American male. He never left his room, except for meals, which all the patients ate together at tables in the large common room.

The man hadn’t been on the ward very long, a day or so at the most perhaps, when his wife arrived during afternoon visiting hours. She was in many ways like her husband – a small, plain woman who would never be noticed in a crowd. David hadn’t even noticed when she arrived. The first he was aware of her was when she came up to him as he was standing in the common room. He’d stopped to look for a moment at an afternoon news program on the television set mounted high up in one corner of the room.

“Excuse me,” the woman said as she lightly touched his arm, “but I can’t find my husband.”

David turned and looked at her. She seemed more irritated than concerned, as though she’d lost some personal possession that she expected David to retrieve as soon as possible.

He went into the patient’s room. The man wasn’t there. David then walked quickly to the other end of the ward to try to see if he might be somewhere else on the floor. David glanced quickly into all of the rooms to see if the man might be talking to one of the other patients. He was nowhere to be seen.

David went back to the man’s room and this time noticed a light coming from beneath the bathroom door. Thinking the man might be in the bathroom, David waited for a few moments in the hallway outside the room. He looked at the patients sitting in the sun in the common room, some watching television, others working on small handcraft projects.

Then he turned and walked into the room again. The room was empty, and light was still coming from under the bathroom door. He went over to the door and opened it. Forever afterward, in his memory, the next few seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. As he opened the door with his left hand, he kept his grip on the doorknob and moved his head past the door frame into the tiny room. His gaze was directed downward, and the first thing that met his eye was the sight of a human foot, in a shoe, resting in the toilet bowl. The thing was so absurd, and his mind seemed to be reacting so slowly, that what he was seeing hardly really registered on his consciousness. As his head continued to move forward, he swung his gaze slowly upward and he took in the foot, a leg, the lower part of a human body, a torso, and a head, all suspended as a whole man, a belt around his neck that was attached to a pipe sticking out of the wall near the ceiling. Before David could stop himself, his face was within eight to ten inches of the suicide’s face. The eyes were half-open and the skin was the most sickening shade of whitish yellow David had ever seen. A nauseatingly sweet odor of greasy hair oil assaulted David’s nostrils. Except for David breathing, nothing in the tiny cell moved.

What David was seeing was so far outside the range of his normal experience, that it was as if his brain was incapable of processing the visual information it was receiving. It simply registered the information and set it aside, as it were, all in an instant.

David simply backed out of the bathroom and closed the door. To anyone who’d seen him, it would have seemed as if he’d taken one look inside, seen nothing, and turned away.

He left the room and walked up to the nurse’s station, which on the psychiatric ward was an enclosed room with large windows in the middle of the floor. He went inside and stood for a moment looking at Marilyn, a beautiful, tall, big-boned nurse, generous to a fault, who had always behaved toward him as she would have behaved toward a younger brother. She smiled, but the smile quickly vanished.

“What’s the matter?” she said.

“Uh, that new patient, Mr. Corcoran. He’s hanged himself.”

Marilyn’s eyes widened.

“I just found him. He’s in the bathroom, in his room.”

“I’ll go look at him and then I’ll his psychiatrist,” she said. “In the meantime, I want you to talk to his wife.”

By that David assumed she meant that he was supposed to tell the wife that her husband was dead. Perhaps David was wrong, perhaps he was more confused than he realized, perhaps they both were confused. It’s hard to imagine that an experienced nurse would expect an orderly still in his teens to break that kind of news to a spouse.

That’s just what David thought he was supposed to do. He followed Marilyn down the hallway, and when she went into the man’s room, David walked over to the man’s wife, who was still sitting in the common room. There were patients in the room, so David asked the woman to come with him into one of the other rooms that was vacant.

They stood there facing each other for a moment. David felt as if he was acting a scene in a movie he’d never been in before. He looked at the woman. She stood there, frail, grey-haired, and worn, looking at him. Finally David said, “I have some bad news for you, Mrs. Corcoran.”

He paused, waiting for some response. There was none. She simply stared at him with the expression of a tightly-controlled, frightened rabbit.

“I’m afraid,” he went on hesitantly, “that something’s happened to your husband. He’s – ” And here David stopped. In all of the movies that contained scenes like this, the other person always took the cue, always responded with something like, “You mean, he’s – he’s dead?”

But the woman just stood there looking at him. David had to complete the sentence himself: “Your husband’s passed away.”

The woman collapsed. David managed to keep her from falling to the floor by grabbing her arms and trying to keep her upright. She was surprisingly heavy. All he could do was call out to Marilyn, who was on her way back to the nursing station. She came running into the room. She – lovely of face and intelligent of mind, but built like a lady wrestler – was able to use her considerable strength to help David lay the woman down on the bed. She told him to go and get one of the other nurses to come and help look after the woman.

Some time later they were able to leave the floor and take a break in the coffee shop downstairs. “I’ve locked the door to that room,” Marilyn said. “There’s nothing more we can do now. Tonight, after lights out and the patients have gone to bed, I want you and one of the other orderlies to take down the body, put it on a cart, and take it down to the morgue. I don’t want it done now, because it could upset the other patients. Most of them have plenty of other things to worry about besides the fact that one of them just killed himself this afternoon.”

I told her I’d do that. She put her hand in front of her eyes for a moment and then said, “I guess this is a strain for everybody. It’s hard to know what to do. You know, I called his psychiatrist a while ago, and I said to him, ‘Doctor, I’m sorry to have to tell you that your patient, Mr. Corcoran, hanged himself this afternoon.’ There was this incredibly long pause, and I thought the line was dead or something, but then I heard Dr. Blanchard say in this small, far-away voice, ‘Is he dead?’ ”

David didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What kind of psychiatrist, he wondered, would ask such a question? He wasn’t quite old enough or cynical enough to wonder: what kind of psychiatrist would ask such a stupid question?

Late that night, after all the patients had gone to bed, about an hour or so before their shifts ended, David and another orderly took down the body.

“I’ll hold him around the chest, and you undo the belt around his neck,” the other orderly told David.

He got up and stood on the toilet seat so that he could more easily reach the belt. As he unfastened it, and the other orderly grabbed the body around the chest, the air was forced suddenly out of its lungs, making a loud, ugly sound. Both David and the other orderly practically hit the ceiling with surprise, horror, and disgust.

When they finally got the body down and laid it out on a cart, David saw with disgust that the trousers were soiled with feces and semen. The man’s face was still yellow-looking and distorted.

The poor man’s body was just about the ugliest thing David had ever seen. Good God, he thought absurdly, if I ever decide to kill myself, this is not the way I’m going to do it.

Even though he hadn’t been very shocked when he found the body, a kind of delayed reaction eventually set in. The next day, and for several days afterwards, when David was reading or watching television the poor man’s face, as he had first seen it, inches away from his own, would suddenly appear in front of his eyes with extraordinary vividness, almost as though he were hallucinating. He could almost smell the hair oil again.

It was not a summer of great intellectual challenge, but David didn’t know that. He didn’t know that many of his future Harvard classmates were spending their summer in quite different ways, in ways that were preparing them, at least in some small way, for what they would be facing at Harvard.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer, though, that David found out, finally, that he was even really going to Harvard. The letter arrived on warm, bright, sunny day, and his mother and stepfather were in the kitchen with him. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the lush lawn stretched on out to the hedge marking the boundary of this stepfather’s property, along which the pheasants often walked in the early morning.

David opened the letter with anxiety and a kind of distant curiosity. Which direction would his life take now? He’d been so confident Harvard would admit him – how could they refuse?

But what if they did refuse? Then his life would turn back to Georgetown and to everything that was waiting for him there. Either way his life would be an interesting one.

He was accepted of course. And he was extremely happy. He turned excitedly to his mother and stepfather, and his stepfather growled, “Just be sure you graduate.”

The remark stabbed into David. Why wouldn’t he graduate? How could his stepfather even think something like that? Learning and the intellectual life were the most important things in the world to him? How could he possibly not graduate from Harvard?

Somehow David had learned that it was no use fighting back in life, not in any situation. When he was confronted with anyone or anything that he perceived as painful, his reaction was to withdraw, and to stay withdrawn, from that person or that thing. And so he withdrew from his stepfather. And the more he withdrew, the more his stepfather seemed to attack him – or so David perceived it. He was in a kind of endless flight from his stepfather. Eventually this would expand into a flight from his mother as well, from his brother, from his home town, and from his country.

Still, David was pleased he he’d been accepted at Harvard. Whatever his stepfather might think, it would be a new beginning for him – it would be a whole new world, in fact. He was so certain of that, just as he was so certain that nothing and no one could ever destroy that world for him – and nothing could destroy him either, he thought.

One of his former high school classmates, a girl from a good family, someone David admired for her good sense and intelligence, whose brother was studying medicine at Yale, was surprised and respectful when she learned David would be going to Harvard. David didn’t understand her surprised. He’d already started taking Harvard for granted. Years later, he think that he perhaps had always appeared rather stupid to his classmate, if she could be surprised that Harvard had accepted him.


As David grew older, it would seem to him that his whole life had been a process of waking up from one dream after another, one illusion after another. He would sometimes think that his entire life had been a life of illusion.

One of the dreams – illusions – of that summer before Harvard was the dream that would recur again and again in David’s life, the dream of heroic action, the dream of heroism. What would always be so absurd was the fact that David would remain during his whole one of the least heroic individuals anyone could possibly imagine.

And the dream of heroism was often bound up for David with the dream of friendship. That summer those dreams coincided when he and his friend Rick, the orderly, went to see a film that had just been released that year, “Spartacus.” Heroism, self-sacrifice, friendship – these became the grand themes of David’s life after seeing the film. For weeks, Rick and he used to shake hands with the “Roman” handshake nearly every time they met – each gripping not simply the other’s right hand, but the right forearm.

That would be David’s life – heroic, selfless, surrounded by friends. By now, after a year at Georgetown and summertime with his friends from the job at the hospital, he had completely forgotten the loneliness and isolation of his high school years. If he still thought about being a monk, he somehow managed to combine it with other dreams as well.

David’s life was full of dreams, but unlike artists who try to transpose their dreams into art, music, or literature, he kept trying to live out his dreams, not realizing they were in fact only dreams, not realizing that even when he was confronted with hard reality.

Perhaps he shouldn’t be criticized too much, though, for his dreams that summer. Reality was excruciatingly boring most of the time. He wanted to study languages and literature, not work in a hospital, where he felt his mind was dying. Of course he was used to his situation. He’d always had to take boring jobs. He thought that was the way the world was.

So the summer went on, with his job, with trips to the beach, and with a sense of immense enthusiasm at the thought of going to Harvard. Surely, he thought, this would be the most exciting period of his entire life. As things turned out, he was right in a way, although “harrowing” would perhaps be a more accurate term than “exciting.”

At the end of the summer, he packed up his things. His mother and stepfather arranged for him to drive to Harvard with his stepfather’s lawyer, Albert and Erika White, who were taking one of their sons to school on the East Coast.

Albert White had a professional and business relationship with David’s stepfather, and the two couples did sometimes move in the same social circles – to the extent that David’s mother and stepfather moved in any social circles at all. However, the Whites were so different from David’s mother and stepfather that they might have been mirror opposites.

They were the kind of people that David would have chosen for his parents, if such a thing had been possible. Their minds were alive, they were always looking for new things to do and new ideas to explore. They lived in a part of the town where all of the homes had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was also a part of the town where all of the people – it wouldn’t be fair to say it was a part of the town where all of the people thought the way the Whites did, but it was a part of the town where all of the people thought.

By being friends with the Whites, and travelling to the East Coast with them, David entered more deeply into the sort of world they inhabited. He was already somewhat familiar with that world, from his contact with his classmates in school. It was the Whites, though, that made him so much at home in that world that he started taking it for granted. At the same time, he made the fatal mistake of thinking that people like his mother and stepfather were – if not at home there – at least able to understand it.

Before going to Cambridge, the Whites wanted to stop in New York to visit friends and return to places they’d enjoyed in the city before. They visited a friend who worked as a translator at the United Nations – and who made David feel uneasy somehow. They also went to the Guggenheim, but David was not as impressed with the art there as he’d been with the paintings in the Louvre in high school. The only memories he would take away with him would be that of the slowly spiraling galleries and an image of the exterior of the building, which he thought quite graceful.

It was Harvard, though, it was really Harvard that he was looking forward to and thinking about all the time. When they finally arrived in Cambridge, and the Whites had left him at his freshman dormitory, David’s story continue in the way that has already been. It is now time to try to tell the story of David’s life after Harvard.


Harvard ended for David differently from the way it had begun. If his first days at Harvard were full of dreams and exhilaration and an energetic push into the future, his last day there was dismal, even mournful. His mother and stepfather came to Cambridge like visitors from another planet. David’s graduation from Harvard seemed to have little meaning for them, perhaps not at all. He had the feeling that they could look only at the surface of things, and their look was filled with mild contempt. They seemed to have no need to show him that nothing impressed them, because nothing really did. Harvard was for them a provincial backwater compared to the really great institutions, such as the University of Michigan or Ohio State.

To make matters worse, rain poured down on graduation day, for hours, the first time that had happened in decades, if not centuries. The ceremonies were moved to Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall. Since there wasn’t enough space there for everyone, only the honors graduates received their degree there. David, his mother, and his stepfather sat watching David’s graduation on television in a somewhat drab hotel room. Afterwards they went to Adams House, and all the seniors in House who were not honors graduates received their diplomas there.

They went through a line in the spacious livingroom of the Master’s residence. They shook hands with the House Master and received the piece of paper he had for each of them. At one point, David’s stepfather stepped forward in front of everyone and began ostentatiously snapping pictures. For David, it felt like another slap. Whether it was justified or not, he felt the message that his stepfather was trying to sent was: “I’m outside and above all this, and as a reminder of my superiority, I want to put you in your place in my photographs.”

David never saw the pictures his stepfather took. They were never shown to him. He never received any prints of them.

It was one more depressing blow, on a graduation day already full of depressing blows. David’s graduation from Harvard was in fact one of the most depressing days of his life. It was full of awful reminders of his failure and his nothingness.

As a child and a young man, he’d wanted to embrace failure and nothingness in his idealistic desire to follow the royal road of suffering toward the discovery of God. Now, even that was gone from his life, and that fact only added to the sense of failure and nothingness.

Later they drove through Boston. The weather was still cloudy and rainy. As they went past the rather dreary-looking Park Street corner of the Common, with its then antiquated subway entrance, his mother said, smiling, with an edge in her voice, “I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

The remark was like a curse, and it was a curse that took effect from that day on, and remained in effect for years, perhaps for the rest of David’s life. “I’ll haunt you forever,” his mother had said to him once, and the poor woman almost did just that.

The first thing he had to do after Harvard was find a job. He’d tried to do that before graduation, of course, but, weighed down by gloom and depression and feelings of worthlessness, his efforts had been quite futile.

Some of his classmates had tried to encourage him one day at lunch. They were sitting around the table, five or six of them, discussing their plans for the future. One was going to law school, others were going to graduate school, one had a job in finance in New York lined up. David of course said nothing, because he had nothing to say. He had no job. One of them commented on this, trying very indirectly to show some sympathy. David still didn’t say anything, and one of his classmates said, “David has so much confidence and has such a great future ahead of him that he doesn’t need to say anything.” Then one of them went through the motions of hitting a nail on the head.

David would remember that remark, and that gesture, with a sense of great affection, for years, when he had few things of a similar nature to remember. If other people at Harvard – many of those in the administration and the faculty and among the alumni – came to seem cold, hard, ruthless, sometimes even vengeful, at least some of David’s classmates had been kind.

After graduation, not only did David have to find a job, he also had to find a place to live. The graduate students he’d lived with the previous summer before he went back to Harvard had a room available again, so he moved in with them again. It was a simple apartment, in a three-storey wooden building, but it was extraordinarily clean and orderly – his roommates were all disciplined doctoral candidates in physics and math.

At first, David felt utterly lost. He was so naïve and inexperienced that he had no idea how to go about finding a job. He didn’t really know how people did such things. He’d made a couple of attempts just before graduation, but they hadn’t led to anything – in a way, they’d been a complete disaster for him. Or it would be truer to say that he’d made them a disaster, perhaps not consciously or willingly, but because of the rather crippled knowledge of the way people dealt with one another.

The first attempt he’d made had been an interview at Harvard’s office of career services. He was trying for a job at one of the largest and most prestigious of the national news magazines. He went to the office after making an appointment to see the recruiter, who turned out to be an African-American, who may or may not have known about David’s experience in Africa. He also may or may not have been entirely secure in his own role as an interviewer. Whatever the reason, he appeared cold, hard, and stiff when David met him – and it’s quite possible that David may have appeared the same way to him.

David walked into the room, tense and grim-faced, and the interviewer was exactly the same. It was hardly an auspicious beginning to the interview, and things went downhill from there. The entire meeting lasted less than sixty seconds.

“You never worked on the Harvard newspaper,” said the interviewer, “why is it that you want to go into journalism now?”

David’s mouth was dry, the room felt overheated. He could feel himself perspiring. What could he say? How could he possibly respond? Why did he want to go into journalism now? But why wasn’t the man asking about the things David had already achieved in his life? With a feeling of mixed sadness and anger he could almost see the questions going around in his brain in a kind of vicious circle. He sat there, wanting to say something, but not knowing what to say, feeling that anything he did say would be worthless.

He was worthless.

He looked down at the top of the table they were sitting at, then he pushed his chair back clumsily and stood up. “Well, thank you very much,” he mumbled, still looking at the floor. And then he turned and left the room.

There were two secretaries sitting at desks in the outer office. He glanced at their faces. What did their expressions mean? They looked shocked and embarassed to him; they looked shocked and embarassed for him.

God, what a disaster, he said to himself as he left the building. What a horrible disaster. And he wished the ground would open up and swallow him. What would he do? He wondered what in the world he would ever do.

It was the last time he went to the office of career services. Not only was the interview a disaster, he told himself, his whole life was a disaster. He’d never felt more worthless. It seemed to him that at no other time in his life had everything seemed so hopeless.

Feeling rejected by people he’d known at Harvard, feeling more alone now than ever before, he hardly knew what to do with himself. At other times, when he’d been wandering around the world, it’s true he’d felt lost, felt ready to despair, felt achingly and searingly alone.

Those times had never been so bad, though, because somehow it had seemed there was always Harvard to go back to. Now Harvard was gone, as far as he was concerned, and he had nothing.

He walked back to the Square. There was a light rain falling.


He thought he couldn’t go back to the career services offices. He decided to try one of the usual employment agencies in Boston. He called up Spurling and Spurling and made an appointment to see one of their employment counselors.

As so often in his life – perhaps you could even say, as usual in his life – David had no idea what he was doing. In his desperation, though, he thought it was better to do something than to do nothing. Unfortunately, because David had such a low opinion of himself, the “something” that he always chose to do under such circumstances was always the wrong thing. He always chose to pursue a goal that was at a level far below what he could have achieved.

David didn’t even notice what a really seamy place Spurling and Spurling was, at least for someone with a degree from Harvard. If he had noticed it and thought about it, he would simply have thought that it was no better than he deserved. Without fully realizing it, he saw himself as a broken human being, a bad individual who could expect only to be punished. Punishment on top of punishment – and it was something he had brought on himself, although he wasn’t sure exactly how or why. He felt only that he must have done something terribly wrong, and punishment was all he would get in life. He was bowed and broken, though, and ready to accept whatever came. It seemed pointless to try to avoid the ongoing pain and confusion. It obviously couldn’t be avoided. If he’d learned anything at all in life. He’d learned that.

It was the beginning of summer in Boston and the room was hot. He sat next to the desk of a man in shirtsleeves, with his tie loosened at the collar. It was one of many desks in the room, and there were other job interviewers going on elsewhere.

The man didn’t seem puzzled that David, a Harvard graduate, should have come to the comparatively seedy offices of Spurling and Spurling. David did notice there was an abrupt change in the man’s language, though, as he looked at David’s resume. He began words that he apparently thought made him sound like an intellectual, or at least more educated than he was. They were words that didn’t quite fit, although they were close enough in meaning to what the man was trying to say so that David had no trouble understanding him.

As David sat there listening to the man, he wondered why some people made such an effort to sound more educated than they really were. Before he could answer that question, he heard the man telling him that perhaps David could be placed as an editor at a publishing company.

“Just complete the required and requested information on these forms,” said the man, “and then regress them to me. You can transport them with you to your place of domicile, and then cause them to be returned here by the postal services.”

David was too depressed to smile at the way the man spoke, and later he would think that it was probably just as well. There was no point in offending the man, who, after all, was just trying to maintain a little self-respect.

David filled out the forms and gave them back to the personnel counselor, who made an appoinment to talk with him a couple of days later. David went back home, to his room the graduate students’ apartment. He decided to telephone Jim Radnor, his friend former tutor. Perhaps Jim would no something or someone that might help him find a job.

Jim’s voice sounded distant, though, and his attitude seemed to be one of indifference now. David recognized that whatever friendship had once existed between them had disappeared, but he told Jim he was looking for a job. “I just wanted to know if you could help in any way,” David said to him.

Jim sounded irritated. “I don’t know anything about finding jobs, David.” And the irritation was mixed with scorn, as if David should have known better than to ask such a stupid question.

David went into the kitchen. It was evening now, and Roy, one of the graduate students, the one who was more or less in charge of the apartment, was on his hands and knees washing the floor. It was a ritual he carried out once a week: washing and waxing the kitchen floor. He looked up at David, “So how are you doing?”

“Not very well. I still haven’t found anything.”

Roy wrung out the sponge he was using and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Well, you’ll be all right,” he said, “as long as you remember that right now your job is finding a job.”

When David returned for his follow-up interview at Spurling and Spurling, the atmosphere had changed somewhat. He spoke with the same employment counsellor he’d talked with before, but this time the man made no attempt to present himself as an intellectual. He actually seemed to scowl at David when they met.

“I sent your resume around to some publishing companies,” he said, and his voice seemed unusually loud to David, almost as though he were shouting. He waved his cigar excitedly. “And I don’t know WHAT you did at Havart – it’s really none of my business.” But David had the impression the man wanted very much to make it his business, but whatever “it” might be, David had no idea.

He just looked at the man, who was still sputtering. “You must have gotten into something damn awful at Harvard – that’s the feedback I’m getting from the companies I’m sent your resume to. They have absolutely no interest in you – though one of them said that if you wanted to go on the road and sell their books, they’d be willing to consider you for that.”

Under other circumstances, remarks like that would have plunged David into a depression and possibly a panic as well. But nothing seemed to affect him anymore where Harvard was concerned. Nothing that happened to him now could be worse than the torture he felt he’d suffered there. No one could do anything worse to him than what Bradley’d done.

Bradley – years later David would wonder if those publishing companies had found out from someone they’d talked to at Harvard what Bradley had said about him. He knew nothing of that then, though, and the situation seemed to be just one more blow in the storm of blows that were raining down on him. Of course it’s possible that that the man at Spurling and Spurling was simply bluffing, or the publishers were bluffing. Perhaps they knew nothing at all unfavorable about him, but simply wanted to humble him because they thought he might be taking his Harvard degree too seriously, or they wanted to put him under pressure to see how he would react.

That’s all possible, of course, but it would always seem to David unlikely. The shocked reaction of the man at Spurling and Spurling was too genuine, too deep, for him to have been faking it.

Whatever the truth about the situation, David felt he really had been struck a blow. There were more to come, though. A Boston publisher did hire David a few weeks later, as a salesman for its medical textbooks. Looking back on that from a more mature age, David would wonder how in the world he’d ever let himself be hired for such a job. Or how the publishing company ever managed to hire him. A more unsuitable young man for a salesman’s job could hardly be imagined. David’s personality was simply all wrong for it.

For every positive quality a salesman needed, David had precisely the opposite negative quality. A salesman should be outgoing and self-confident, David was withdrawn and painfully shy and unsure of himself. A salesman should be able to get along easily with people, and on a quite superficial level. David was incapable of that. He was hard to get to know, and it was very hard for him to get to know others. And as far as he was concerned, every time he met anyone, he took the meeting extremely seriously. It made such an impression on him that he couldn’t forget it. Instead of establishing a superficial relationship, David took the first steps in forging a strong bond with practically every person he met. He did it unconsciously, without even thinking about it.

It’s true that he did look the part of a salesman, and perhaps that’s why he got the job. He was young, pleasant-looking. He knew how to wear a tasteful suit and tie. But there the resemblance ended.

He discovered this before anyone else at the publishing house did. For a few days he went out on customer calls with the regular medical textbook salesman, but when he had to go out on his own and talk to people at the various medical establishments in the Boston area, he panicked. He was overwhelmed with a sense of panic. All he wanted to do was run away, disappear. He wanted the earth to open up and swallow him. He found that he could no more talk to a prospective customer than he could dance on the moon.

When he quit, he at least had the courage to do it in person, instead of just writing a letter, which is what he would do later in life – he would quit so many jobs. He told the salesman for medical books, the one who was training him, that he didn’t think he was suited for the job. He was sheepish and shy and not far from tears – it’s difficult not to be a little scornful of David’s emotional reaction to almost everything.

The salesman told the head of the department, in David’s presence. The department head looked a little disgusted – and didn’t even look at David. “All right,” was all he said. But the words “All right, then get rid of him,” were left unsaid.

It was early in the morning when he quit, the beginning of a day of beautiful weather in Boston, though not for David. He saw only rain and storms everywhere. He took the subway from Park Street back to Cambridge, feeling as if the end of the world had come, again. And since he had had that feeling so often in his life already, he almost seemed to be used to it. It was like a physical bruise that becomes numb under the weight of repeated blows

When he arrived back at the apartment of his graduate student friends, it was mercifully empty. He changed his clothes and thought about calling Jim again. But Jim couldn’t help him, he told himself. Nobody could.

It’s again possible, perhaps, to feel a certain amount of disgust, even revulsion at the the way David wallowed in despair, as though he enjoyed it, as though he wanted that. And perhaps in a way he did. At the same time, though, it’s certainly true that he was a very unhappy, even miserable young man. He simply did not know what to do.

Then he remembered something that the Wises had once told him in the course of one of those long winter evenings at their home near Harvard Square so many centuries ago, as it seemed to David. “A lot of young people,” they told him, “when they finish Harvard and don’t know what to do, go to work for a bank.” A bank? That thought too repelled him. When he was in Africa, at the height of his adventure there, had he ever thought he would ever consider going to work at a bank? In Boston?

Now, though, he was so desperate that he thought he would consider anything, even a bank. He was fatalistic, though. Whatever he had to do he would do, so he sent out resumes to all of the large Boston banks, and received favorable responses. He made appointments for interviews with two of the very largest institutions. At the first one, he was interviewed by a team of young men in their early thirties. They were obviously impressed with his background. David at that age could look very good on paper – a Harvard degree, famine relief work in Africa, time spent in the Army and in a number of foreign countries. However, he seems to have made little impression in that first interview. He never heard from that bank.

The second interview turned out to be a conversation with an aging bank vice-president who seemed ready for retirement, as far as David could tell. He was a kindly man, and he made David feel at ease in the large panelled room in which they met. David would have liked him a great deal – he would have like the whole situation – except that the prospect of working in a bank did not cut through the fog of depression and the feeling of the pointlessness surrounded him like cotton wadding.

“Of course even our management-track hires start out in working as tellers for six months,” the man told him with an obviously sincere, avuncular smile. “How would you feel about that?”

How would he feel about it? If David were to tell the truth, then working as a benk teller would be just one more turn in a destiny that seemed more and more incomprensible to him. It would be something to be borne, along with everything else in his life, until life was all finally over. He had long ago resigned himself to the idea that life was something that had to be endured. In his childish, dramatic, and ever so self-pitying way, David thought of Dmitri Karamazov going off to Siberia.

Fortunately he said none of that to the banker. His only response to the man’s question was, “I think that sounds fine.”

He returned to the personnel office and completed the formalities and then went back home. He was due to start working in the bank at the start of the following month. He spent the next few days doing what he always did when he was free to do what he wanted: he lost himself in a book.

He felt a great deal of relief, of course, at having a job. At least he didn’t have to worry about running out of money – and that was always a real fear for him. He knew his parents would never give him any, certainly not without exacting a price, so he knew had only himself to depend on. He was very careful with his money, as always. He envied his brother, because David’s mother and stepfather seemed to shower him with gifts – a car, a down payment on a house, tuition for graduate school. All those things were denied to David. He ached under the unfairness of it all, but he didn’t know how to change the situation – or didn’t want to change it.

So for the moment he felt tremendous relief, and he was able to spend his time reading. And when the first book was finished, he lost himself in another one. And when he ran out of books to read, he went over to the Square and into one of the bookstores. He stood looking at the book titles, especially those in English literature, with a sense of excitement and wonder that nothing – not even his mother and stepfather or the craziness he’d felt at Harvard – had been able to destroy.

Some days after the bank interview, though, he got a phone call from an editor in the educational division of Huffington and Moewe, one of the old patrician Boston publishing houses. When he recovered from his astonishment, David realized it was probably Jim’s doing.

Well, he thought to himself, it wasn’t exactly literature that he’d be dealing with, but being an editor working with textbooks was a lot better than trying to sell books on medicine. At least he wouldn’t have to sell anything. He could sit safely in an office and work on books.

He phoned the bank, thanked them for considering him, and told the personnel office that he’d decided to work in a publishing house. The woman on the other end of the line sound overworked to him. “Thank you for calling us,” she said in a tired voice, “a lot people don’t even bother to do that.”

“What do they do?” David asked.

“They just don’t show up,” the woman said.

David was still so naïve he could hardly believe there were actually people who behaved that way.

The woman registered his surprise, and he could almost feel her smiling at him wearily.

When David started his job at Huffington and Moewe, he didn’t feel much of a sense of excitement or exhilaration. Under other circumstances he might have, but not now. The weight of depression, the weight of the meaninglessness of life – of his life, anyway – seemed to press down on him as an almost intolerable burden. The whole world looked grey and very narrowly circumscribed.

The job at Huffington and Moewe was just a job to him. And what made his situation even worse was the conviction – so deeply embedded in his mind he couldn’t get rid of it – that what he was doing was far, far beneath that potential for greatness he believed he had buried within.

Of course it would be easy to laugh at him again. He clearly had no potential for greatness, he clearly had nothing more than the illusions that had been bred into him, not simply by his mother, but at Harvard as well. These illusions, though, were enough to make him miserable – or perhaps it would be true to say that his inability to realize the those illusions were making him miserable.

Then too, he was convinced that he’d lost everything, and found nothing to replace it. He’d lost his faith, his God. He’d lost Harvard and the intellectual life. What else was there?

David had wanted to write great things, do great things, and now he found himself confined in the worst way a man can be confined – intellectually. Of course it was David himself who was doing the confining, and there were actually times when he understood that, but he had no idea how he could break out and break free.

Perhaps he tried to suppress the awareness that his confinement was his own fault, because that awareness brought him only a sense of pain and frustration. He simply did not know what in the world he could do to find a way out of his confinement.

He could see the world outside his cage, beyond the glass bubble enclosing him, but his didn’t know how to reach that world.

And to make matters worse, that world was oblivous to his presence. He might – as it were – wave his arms and shout and jump up and down and do everything he could think of to attract the attention of the people “out there,” but he remained invisible for them. No one noticed him, no one saw him. It was as if he existed in a parallel universe, one where he could look out, but which no one else could look into – or even be aware of.

He felt his real self was buried and suffocating, but his cries were inaudible to those around him.

He might not have become the world’s authority on Milton or Keats, but there’d been a time when he’d taken it for granted that one day he’d achieve something that at least equalled such a goal.

And now what was he doing? Proofreading a textbook at a publishing house in Boston.

But he had no idea how much worse things would one day become.


An acquaintance of David’s one described him and his situation this way:

“David was obviously one of those people who imagine they have talent, who imagine they have the capacity to do great things, when in fact they are only mediocre at best. That point needs to be emphasized again and again.

“And his suffering was caused by the fact that he kept imagining there was a great discrepancy between what he was doing with his life and what actually could be doing. This type of thinking is typical of certain kinds of schizophrenics.

“By the time he started working at Huffington and Moewe, however, he was so benumbed by the blows that he imagined fate had delivered, that he no longer felt much pain. He no longer felt much of anything.

“Perhaps it is wrong to ridicule him and to be impatient with him, yet at the same time it is difficult for most people to react that way. His stepfather always thought of him as a weak, asinine little twit, and though that is an extreme reaction, it is difficult for others not to share that opinion.

“Besides the difficulty of remaining patient with David and all his illusions, there is the additional difficulty of believing that he really suffered. David was, after all, crazy. That was clear to everyone. And the question arises again and again: do crazy people really suffer? Are they actually capable of feeling psychic pain or mental anguish? Do they feel anything the way normal people do? Of course not. We can therefore remain oblivious to what appears to be suffering on their part. It is only the illusion of suffering, as everything else in their lives is an illusion.”

So David plodded on, obediently proofreading the galleys of a textbook on government that he was given to shepherd through the printing process. What he found interesting, in a small way, and even amusing, were the kind and intelligent comments that a printer wrote in the margin, in response to David’s suggested changes. It was practically the only real human contact David had in the company.

It should not be forgotten, of course, that this situation was David’s fault, even if he didn’t – or couldn’t – understand that. David had put up a wall – or a wall had been put up – between himself and other people, and he couldn’t break through it, partly because he didn’t even know it was there. And yet he longed for human contact – and these few written comments exchanged with the anonymous printer, about whom he never learned anything, not even his name, were better than no human contact at all.

His relationship with his supervisor and colleagues was distant and in some cases non-existent. At first, he worked on a different floor, away from most of the other editors in the textbook division, and this fact alone prevented much contact between himself and them.

He worked quietly on his own, checking the proofs for the textbook he’d been assigned to. And since this was the period before desktop computers had made their appearance, that kind of checking had to be done slowly, word for word, by hand, as it were. It was extremely boring, but somehow David had internalized the idea that this was all he was capable of, all he deserved.

He thought sometimes about the years as away from Harvard, when he’d taken a leave of absence, about the pain of those years, and about the hollow, sick feeling he’d had when he came back to the United States and discovered that nothing he’d gone through was of the slightest relevance or importance to his mother or father or to anyone he’d known at Harvard. It was as if those four years had somehow disappeared, like some vast archeological site that had sunk into the ground and been covered over and forgotten by everyone.

If those years had made no difference to anyone, if they had no meaning for anyone, there was nothing he could do about that – except just go on. Just go on. Just go on and hope that somehow those years would have meaning. Not in eternity, of course, David no longer believed in eternity. He no longer believed in anything. He thought he’d finally learned the lesson that his professors had been trying to teach him all through the nineteen-sixties, the idea that was widespread among nearly all intellectuals in Europe and America at the time – life was absurd and meaningless and there was absolutely no point to it all.

He had a Harvard degree and was working for a Boston publisher, but he was like a waif seeking shelter in a storm. And there were many others like him, as there are in every generation of young people. One of them he met by chance one day: Marc Welford, a Navy doctor his own age who’d just been assigned to the Naval Hospital in Chelsea.

In some ways, perhaps, Marc was even more of a waif than David was. He had just started his obligatory military service – the Vietnam War was still going on. Hopelessly, David often thought. On and on.

Marc was David’s age. He’d grown up in Georgia and gone to medical school there. Except for his internship in New Orleans, Marc had never lived outside his home state. Massachusetts and New England were unexplored worlds, as far as he was concerned.

Marc spoke with a gentle, aristocratic southern accent that he could exaggerate mightily, with a laugh, when he wanted to. He himself was gentle and aristocratic as well, possessing the kind of innate nobility that the finest human beings have. He had light brown hair and was about the same height as David was.

He’d found a small apartment on Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay, not far from the Common, and because he didn’t like the idea of living there alone, he asked David if he wanted to share it. David liked Marc, and certainly the walk to his office from Marc’s apartment was more convenient than the commute from Cambridge, so he agreed to move in.

It was still the summer after David’s graduation from Harvard, the summer of the great university strikes and sit-ins over the Vietnam War, the summer of the generation of 1968. It was a wild and unsettling summer for people like David, and perhaps for Marc as well, though David was never sure about that, because Marc rarely spoke about his work at the hospital or about his inner life at all.

Both of them dealt with the uncertainty of the times by trying to concentrate on their work and ignoring what sometimes seemed to be the chaos of the world around them. They also were able to depend on one another for support, except that David sometimes felt he betrayed Marc in his thinking. For even though Marc was an intelligent young man, David sometimes longed for the kind of incandescent intelligence of people he’d known at Harvard, at least in the first years he was there. There were so many things Marc didn’t seem to understand, there were dimensions he was ignorant of, or so it seemed to David.

David thought little about the dimensions that he himself might be ignorant of. He had in fact absolutely no idea of how much he was ignorant of. He understood, of course, that his life was different from the lives of most of the people around him, different from the lives of his Harvard classmates. He just had no idea, though, how different it really was. He had absolutely no understanding of how limited his life was.

He didn’t know – perhaps he was incapable of knowing – about the activities and achievements of the other graduates of the best universities who were his own age. Yet perhaps that statement has to be qualified. Part of him knew. Part of him suffered from a vague sense of overwhelming oppression that he had no idea how to escape or how to deal with. Part of him knew, as he plodded on day after day at his little job at the publishing company, that something was wrong with his life, that something was wrong with him. He simply had no idea what to do about it, though.

He tried once going to see the Jesuit psychiatrist he had talked to at Harvard, but that conversation seemed to lead nowhere. Besides, the man wanted to discuss a fee that David would have to pay, now that he was no longer a student. Publishers pay notoriously poorly, and David had no money for such a fee. He saw no point in paying to talk to a priest, even if he was a psychiatrist. What good had talking to a psychiatrist done in the past? David may also have even thought that the man seemed a little too interested in collecting his fee.

So the answer, as far as David was concerned was no. He would not pay the fee, and he would not see the psychiatrist. Even if he had understood what had now become of him and his life, he probably wouldn’t have talked to the psychiatrist. He simply could not understand what good it would ever do.

And so he simply plodded on, while some other young men his age were going from success to success, achieving things David had only dreamed of in what now seemed the distant past. If somehow he was aware of those young men, and of their achievements, he regarded all that with what he imagined was a kind of heroic selflessness. He tried to tell himself again, as he had before in his life, that his failure had perhaps in some infinitesimal way contributed to the success of many of his contemporaries. In the survival of the fittest, he had lost, but his meant that others had one, and he wanted to be happy for them, wherever they might be. “Upon such sacrifices, … the gods themselves throw incense.”

Of course he deserves to be laughed at for such absurd thinking, but perhaps one should not be too hard on him. He really was absurd and he was ridiculous, but he would not have wanted to be. His life experience had simply not allowed him, perhaps, to be anything else.

For a long time, things were tolerable at the publishing house. After a few months, when the first book he was editing was finally complete, his office was moved to the same floor where the general editor of the textbook division and the other experienced editors had their offices. Then he was assigned to work with one of these editors on a textbook for English literature.

This textbook had for years been an important source of income for the publishing house. It had been widely used in colleges and universities thoughout the country. The professor who had selected the material for the book and written all of the introductions and biographical essays was in failing health and had long ago withdrawn from the project. The publishing house did not want to give up one of its main sources of revenue, however, and it was decided that at least one more final edition would be brought out.

At first, David’s main task was simply to proofread the beginning of the book, in which few changes had been made. When he and the chief editor reached the twentieth-century section, however, significant problems began to appear. The notes and the biographical essays for authors that hadn’t appeared in earlier editions of the book had to be assigned to other professors of English at universities around the country, because the health of the original editor didn’t allow him to write this material.

The chief editor at the publishing house, who was the boss of the editor who was David’s boss, asked David to write an introduction for one of the new African-American writers who’d been included in the book. The introduction and biographical essay written by some professor in Florida were so poorly written that they were completely unacceptable. They were, in fact, unpublishable.

To David, it felt as though he’d been given a wonderful new toy to play with. After the weeks and months of correcting punctuation and making small textual changes, it was a delight for him to be given something of his own to work on – and more than that, something of his own to write.

It never occurred to him that the “small textual changes” had perhaps in fact been rather significant, and so well done that they’d drawn the attention of the chief editor. The result perhaps had then been the decision to allow David to try to write material for the book himself. Perhaps. Who knows? David’s life seemed filled with that kind of “perhaps.” Perhaps the work he was doing was good, perhaps it wasn’t. It seemed impossible for him to find out, really.

In some ways the publishing house seemed a little like Harvard all over again, just not quite as bad. Perhaps people considered him strange, perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they considered him unusual – in a good sense – and perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps people saw some talent in him, and perhaps they didn’t. It seemed impossible to find any of these things out for certain.

Most of the time he tried as hard as he could to answer all of these questions in the same negative way he’d answered them at Harvard: of course no one noticed him, of course no one saw anything unusual in him. He thought it would have been arrogant of him to answer them in a positive way. The pain of uncertainty, though, made it necessary for him to answer them in some way, so the most negative way possible seemed to be the most reasonable. He thought – as he had at Harvard – that if the answers should have been more positive, then that would manifest itself in the end. Truth, he was convinced, always manifested itself in the end.

As he had at Harvard, David still believed in Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha, which – rightly or wrongly – he understood to mean that truth had a force of its own and that truth would always be expressed, somehow, no matter what efforts were made to suppress it.

The fatal error that David made, of course, was not to understand that even if Gandhi’s idea had some basis in reality, the truth might not manifest itself right away. In fact, it might take so long to manifest itself “in the end” that it would no longer matter, in the end.

Of course he would eventually understand all that later in life, but by then it wouldn’t make any difference what sort of person he’d been or hadn’t been.

He worked hard on the essay about the African-American writer, and when it was finished, he gave it to the editor-in-chief. David had thought the essay was perfect, but of course the editor wanted some changes. Most of the changes, David thought, made no sense at all, and he wondered – as he often had at Harvard in similar situations – if the request for changes were merely a means of drawing him into a discussion, to test his knowledge, to test his real awareness of the meaning and implications of what he’d written.

He dismissed such ideas as paranoid, though. After all, hadn’t Bradley given the impression of agreeing with him, whenever he’d said he felt paranoid as an undergraduate? If he was paranoid then, he must surely still be paranoid. If the editor-in-chief wanted to have a discussion with him, David told himself, he would do what seemed to David to be the honest thing and call him into his office and have a discussion. He wouldn’t need a pretext.

So David humbly took the essay with the editor’s comments and made all of the suggested changes, methodically, one after the other, typing and retyping the manuscript until it was exactly the way he wanted it – there were no word processors or desktop computers in those days.

The odd thing was, though, that he enjoyed incorporating the editor’s rather abstruse – to put it kindly – comments into the manuscript in such a way that it actually was better than it had been.

The result was that the manuscript came back with suggested changes that were even more abstruse and that David actually enjoyed making. It was starting to be a kind of game. He didn’t feel the suggestions “ruined” his essay. He felt they were completely unnecessary, but he enjoyed playing with words and playing with the essay, and that enjoyment obviated any resentment he might otherwise have felt that someone was “tampering” with his work.

He felt the best way to prove that his essay was good was by simply taking suggestions that he thought were, well, sometimes stupid, and using them to make the essays better and better. David hated confrontations, and the last thing he would ever have done was argue with the editor-in-chief. He was convinced the truth would come out in the end, and that was the important thing. It was certainly better than any confrontation. David believed that confrontations and arguing never convinced anyone. They only reinforced the opponent’s belief that he was right. David thought he could cause an opponent to rethink his position by showing him that he, David, was trying to look at the question from the opponent’s point of view. David thought that this would encourage the opponent to try to see things from his, David’s, point of view, and perhaps adopt that point of view.

It would be many, many years before David understood that people who thought the way he did were suffering from what might be called one more humanist illusion and that the inhumanity of the modern world simply destroyed such people.

David would, however, find some consolation in the certainty that in the end, the inhumanity of the modern world would also destroy itself.

As for the essay on the African-American author, David worked on it and reworked it until the editor-in-chief had no more suggestions to make. David was never told, of course, whether or not the essay would be used in the book – that would have meant according him treatment that was unusual in such a company, where editorial assistants like David, and sometimes even the authors themselves, were regarded as interchangeable and disposable elements in a machine. They were entities without feeling that senior editors and senior management need pay little attention to, except if they malfunctioned, in which case easily could be replaced.

As always in such a situation, where something that mattered to him was unknown, David assumed the worst had happened and then no longer thought about it. He simply assumed the essay was not good enough to publish, even though he was assigned three other African-American authors about whom essays had to be written. They were contemporary writers and had never been included in the anthology before, and again, the professor who’d been paid to write the essays had done such a poor job that the essays could not be published as they were.

It was about this time that David started to feel something of what he’d felt at Harvard, that people who knew him at the company were starting to treat him a little differently from the way they’d treated him until then – and differently from the way they treated one another, or so it seemed to David. As he’d done at Harvard, he assumed he was imagining it all and tried to ignore it – though at the same time the return of that odd phenomenon did give him a sort of secret delight.

And that delight perhaps added to his whole problem. Trying to suppress and ignore something you’re aware of but are not sure is real, while at the same time enjoying what you are perceiving, or what you think you are perceiving – all that can set up a deadly conflict in the mind.

He tried to understand his situation by telling himself that in fact it really was unusual for an editorial assistant to be ghost-writing literary essays in the name of different university professors. But still, that couldn’t be enough to make other people talk about him, could it? Surely, he was just imagining things again, exactly as he’d done at Harvard.

And if he wasn’t careful, he thought to himself, that imagination of his would again lead to disaster, the same kind of disaster he’d experienced at Harvard, and during all the years he was away from Harvard.

David worked at the publishing company for about two years, and in all that time he never received an increase in his pay, which amounted to what would today be considered something well below the poverty line but which then was just barely enough for him to live on, if he was careful with his money. Because he never received a salary increase, David thought that the work he was doing must be worthless, and yet the writing he was doing for the anthology essays seemed to be acceptable. They seemed quite good, in fact, or at least he felt they were quite good.

It could perhaps be noted here that they were in fact very good. Many years later he discovred that the publishing company did actually publish them, in the final versions he had prepared. He was in a university library then, in his home town in Michigan, and, curious, he looked for the book on the shelves, opened it and was stunned to see his essays there. He felt good about that, but he felt pain, too. If someone at the publishing company had told him they were good enough to publish, things might have gone differently for him. His whole life might have gone differently.

He knew nothing of all that while he was still working at the publishing company, though. It was only the feeling he had that he’d done something extraordinay. It was only the feeling he had that other people were treating him and and talking about him as though he’d done something extraordinary. But since no one actually said anything to him and since he was never given any increase in his salary, he assumed that those feelings must be simply an illusion, like the illusions he’d had at Harvard.

But as at Harvard, the conflict in his mind, the conflict between what he felt to be true and what he knew to be true, was gathering force, growing in strength, and threatening to break out within him.

Of course it was David who was at fault in this situation. He should have been able to live with ambiguity better than he did. He should have accepted the fact that people will sometimes never express anything very clearly, especially in situaions where they are unsure of themselves or unsure of what they think. Or in situations where they are not sure how to confront someone who’s done something that may or may not be extraordinary.

David didn’t understand any of that, or if he had understood it, he still wouldn’t have known how to deal with it any better than he actually did. He simply did not know how to tolerate very much ambiguity, certainly not when it concerned himself. In such situations, he very quickly decided to assume the worst, to ignore whatever good possibilities there were in the ambiguity and to act as though the worst ones were true.

And yet the weight of the ambiguity pressed down on him, just as it had at Harvard. No matter how much of the worst he assumed – that his essays were worthless, that he was worthless, that he was doing a terrible job at the publishing house – the weight of the ambiguity continued to press down on him and he moved through each day as if he were living under water, where nothing could be seen clearly, where nothing was really what it seemed, where it was impossible to move or do anything, except at an agonizingly slow speed.

He no longer thought of Africa – the dream landscape of his Harvard years, filled with dream experiences. None of that existed any more. He’d come so far from it that he might as well have left all that behind on another planet, circling some far-away star. All he knew was that one day was starting to follow another, with nothing beyond tomorrow, as far as he could see.

At rare times he would go to see Professor Williams, the professor he – and everyone else – had idolized at Harvard. Williams’ house was always open to students, but even there David found no solace and no hope. He couldn’t explain himself to Williams, and Williams couldn’t understand him, or so it seemed to David.

Years later, though, he would think repeatedly of – and try to puzzle out – two things that Williams said to him on two different occasions. The first was: “There’s no such thing as damaged goods.” The second was: “The ancient Greeks always thought it was better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.”

Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he tried to puzzle out why Williams had said these things to him. He wondered if Williams thought that David looked at himself as damaged goods. David wondered if perhaps he in fact did look at himself that way. If so, he wasn’t aware of it, but that might mean only that the idea was buried so deep in his unconscious that he no longer perceived it.

Or was Williams telling him that other people, at Harvard and elsewhere, regarded him as damaged goods, and David would have to prove them wrong. If so, that was something David had at least suspected for some time, ever since he’d dropped out of Harvard near the end of his junior year, although it would be many years before he was told just exactly how damaged other people thought he was.

When he’d dropped out of Harvard, he’d been told in writing that he could not return unless he had the approval of a psychiatrist at the University Health Services. That was enough for him to realize that the Harvard administration thought he was crazy – though just how crazy, of course, he had no way of knowing, and he was never told.

With his usual naivete, he thought that all he had to do was live his life and ignore what was said about him by people at Harvard. That way, he was convinced, he would prove them wrong. Poor, young, deluded boy. He didn’t understand that what Harvard people thought of him would follow him around for the rest of his life. He didn’t understand that other people would assume that what was said about him was true, and that they would act accordingly, ignoring whatever efforts he made to prove them wrong. He didn’t understand that everyone would reinterpret everything he did, seeing in it a symptom of pathology, until his life followed such meaningless lines of development that it was quite easy for others to see pathology in it after all.

Damaged goods. There was no such things as damaged goods. That was what Williams had said to David. And David never had thought of himself as damaged goods, and it would be years before he understood why Williams had said that to him.

The other comment that Williams had made, about suffering evil being better than doing evil, also puzzled David a great deal. Was Williams saying that he understood that David had suffered evil and injustice at the hands of his parents or people at Harvard, or both? If so, David asked himself, why wasn’t Williams doing something to help him correct that evil?

Of course that was a childish question. Why should Williams or anyone do anything to help David? Just because he thought he deserved help, he would one day tell himself, certainly didn’t mean that anyone had to give it. Wasn’t he simply continuing to have an exaggerated idea of his value as a human being? If he were the sort of person that deserved help from a Harvard professor – or from anyone actually capable of give it – then he would be getting that help. As it was, he said to himself, he wasn’t that sort of person and didn’t deserve that kind of help.

Boston that winter was as beautiful as David had ever seen it, but he was no longer really capable of seeing that beauty. His mind seemed clouded by depression and confusion. He no longer thought of those times in his life when he’d been naively convinced that he was so happy that nothing could ever destroy that happiness: the first days at Harvard, a December morning on the shore of the Indian Ocean in Dar es Salaam, a summer afternoon in Cambridge and Boston when the world seemed to glow from within and to display a beauty that was normally invisible.

He no longer thought of those nearly mystical moments of happiness. If he had, he would have told himself they would never return, so there was no point at all in thinking about them.

He tried simply to go on from day to day in his job at the publishing house, without hearing any feedback about his work, without knowing if what he’d written was any good, without knowing if it would be published, without knowing whether he was right in thinking that what he’d written was really quite good, or whether that idea too was simply one more of the illusions that Dr. Blaine had indicated he was suffering from.

He was unable to resolve those questions, though. He didn’t know how to resolve them, locked up as he was within himself. And so his life was fated to take another course, another turn in the downward spiral that had begun when he’d run from Harvard the second time, the spiral he suspected would go on and on, pulling him down for the rest of his life, even as he hoped, in his adolescent way, that it would not.

If he’d been able to answer all the questions he had about himself and his work, he might not have left the publishing house, but the tension between what seemed to be true about himself and what he knew could not possibly be true had the same effect on him that it had had at Harvard. When he could no longer tolerate the uncertainty, the questions, and the tension, he simply left, got out, and ran away from the situation that seemed to be creating them.

And so he left the publishing house one day in late summer. He still had so many illusions, of course, that he thought the editor-in-chief might actually call him – or have someone else call him – and try to convince him to come back to work. He thought that would be the human thing to do. Because nothing of the sort happened, though, and because he’d never received a raise all the time he’d worked there, he was convinced that the writing he’d done was worthless.

Again, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that he would be pained, gratified, and completely surprised to discover, years later, when he ran across a copy of the anthology in a library somewhere, that the essays he’d written actually had been included in the book.

No one from the publishing company had ever tried to tell him about that, though. And certainly he never received any compensation for the published work, beyond the salary he’d been paid at the publisher’s. He wondered what his life would have been like if someone had told him the essays were good enough to publish, and if the publishing company had not let him leave.

The first thing he did after leaving, was to contact the trade department at the publisher’s, where all of the fiction, non-fiction and other books were published, books that were not produced by the educational division. David had sometimes had lunch with one of the senior editors in the trade department, an elderly – or so she seemed to David – who seemed to take an interest in him and who seemed sympathetic to his ideas and to the way he saw things. Because of that, he thought there might be a chance the trade department would hire him.

He wrote them a letter from the little apartment he shared with Marc on Marlborough Street in Back Bay, a two or three minute walk from the Common. He was so full of hope in those days. There was no disaster he thought he couldn’t overcome. Every problem had a solution then. Sitting there at the small dining table that he and Marc used as a desk, he could look up and through the windows and see the sober, dignified mansions on the other side of the street.

He could look around the room as well, that small, simple, decent room. Near the door was a large armchair that David often used to sit in, reading. For a long time he read Proust, slowly, wishing he could write like that, and, in his illusions, thinking that he could. It took him many months to finish those volumes, and even then he always felt he’d only brushed the surface, but he admired them, admired the beauty of the language, even in translation, the beauty of the world Proust described, and the beauty of the people in it.

It was in that chair too that he finally read Kristin Lavransdatter, years after the nun in high school had told him about the book. This time, though, it was Professor Williams who’d told him about it, and it was for that reason David read it. Anything that Williams like must be a good read.

He sometimes wondered, though, why Williams had suggested it. Was it only by chance? Did he think David would enjoy the story? Or was it a way perhaps of trying to remind David of the faith he’d once had and lost, a way perhaps of trying to bring him back to that faith? If so, it had little effect on David then, except to awaken a longing to believe again as he’d once believed, a longing to live the kind of life he’d learned he should live, the only kind of life he’d learned – from his catechism classes and from experience – would ever make him happy.

He entered the world of the novel the way he might have entered a gothic cathedral. At first he saw little that was interesting, certainly nothing that was very absorbing. Slowly, though, without realizing it, he was caught up in medieval environment that the novel created. After he’d worked his way past the opening lines that were meant to read like an ancient Norse saga, he was captivated by the people in the book, by the intensely human quality of the novel. Perhaps most of all he was captivated by their faith, and he wondered if people in the Middle Ages really believed with such fervor in God and all that such a belief implied. Certainly he was convinced that the people in the novel believed that way, and he longed to match their belief.

Such a thing was impossible for him then.

Sitting there at the small dining table in that room, David looked at the books he and Marc had placed on the shelves in neat rows, along with the phonograph records that everyone used then to listen to music. He looked at the neat, salt and pepper carpet on the floor, and the tidily made-up beds they slept in. Everything was orderly and peaceful. The light from outside streamed through the long beige curtains. They framed the three narrow segments of the tall bay window on one side of the room.

Everything was calm and orderly, except that – as always – in David’s mind there was fear, worry, and the sense of near despair that he usually managed to suppress. He was so sure, he was in fact certain, that everything would be much better soon.

Of course he could get another job at the publishing company. People in the trade department were even willing to interview him. The letter with the interview appointment arrived one day as he was trying to write one more of the turgid – “it moves like lead,” an editor would one day say to him – novels he’d so often churned out.

But now, now there was hope, real hope. An interview, and surely they would hire him. He’d done all right in the educational division, hadn’t he? If his inner conflicts had forced him to quit, well, that was something that couldn’t be helped. And the people in the trade department wouldn’t know anything about that, would they? Even the people in the educational division hadn’t known anything about that, he thought.

The day of the interview was one of those bright, cold, New England spring days. He walked across the Common from Marlborough Street to Beacon Hill, where the trade department had its offices. He waited in the visitors’ lounge, decorated with the firms latest publications and with furniture that reminded him of nothing so much as a waiting room at Harvard – the colonial furniture, the grey carpeting, the light streaming in through the high windows that overlooked trees and green lawn.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the two people who were interviewing him was one of the house’s young star editors, who had already made a certain reputation in the Boston media, as a writer and literary critic. He was only a little older than David, but his success and obviously intelligence made David – as always – immediately start building ideals around him which – also as always – no one could possibly have lived up to.

Richard was accompanied in the interviews by a young woman editor of the firm who also occasionally asked David questions. The conversation was bright, even electric, as they ranged across the whole field of the literature of England that David loved, from Milton to the nineteenth century. David’s naïve enthusiasm was almost boundless, as it always was in such situations where he was talking about things important to him and where he could assume that the people he was talking to had an interest that was just as all-consuming as his own.

He fairly glowed with excitement, and the day was starting to seem to him to be one of the turning points of his life. He could just imagine how splendid it would be to be working with these people, with some of the brightest people in literature in Boston. Finally, his life would be something like what he wanted it to be.

In his mind, he was already hired. There could be no doubt about it. This was it. He’d finally found his place after all the years of suffering and grief, the wandering around, the pain his parents seem to be inflicting on him. All that was behind him now, and we would have a life like other people – or like what he imagined other people had. He would get up every day and look forward to coming to work, and he would be doing work that mattered to someone, work that was important and creative. Perhaps he would even learn something more about writing and be able in the end to write something himself.

As he was talking to Richard, the door of the room they were in opened. A tall, well-dressed man, in late middle age, entered the room. He had that look of sharp-eyed intelligence that educated and even eccentric New Englanders can have, and he directed that look at David as he walked over to Richard. He leaned over, put his hand on Richard’s shoulder, smiled, and said quietly, “He’s crazy.” Then he straightened up, turned around, and, with a smile and a glance at David, walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

The incident was so odd that David didn’t know what to make of it. So, as always in such situations, he made nothing of it. He didn’t even allow himself to think that the man had been referring to him. The Harvard psychiatrist had always seemed to indicate that David’s ideas of self-reference were just illusions – or at least he never contradicted David when David said they were illusions – so he never allowed himself to think that someone might be referring to him in any situation.

Besides, he didn’t want to think that such a remark could be directed at him. He didn’t want to believe that someone who seemed to be in a responsible position in the company was saying that he was crazy. He didn’t want to believe – he couldn’t believe – that he’d be rejected for the job.

And he wasn’t.

But he wasn’t hired either.

Poor chump – what happened was this: the interview ended soon after the remark about craziness, and David went home. A day or so later, he received a letter from the publishing house together with an application form that he was asked to fill out.

And he did fill it out, but as he did so, the pointlessness of it all seemed almost overwhelming. They knew everything about him at the company, didn’t they? He already had a similar application on file in the personnel office there. His resume was also there. Why were they asking him to provide all this information again? The answer, of course, as far as David was concerned, was simply in order to push his application off into the flow of bureaucratic sludge that moved relentlessly around the company, and no one would ever deal with it.

As he sat there filling out the forms, the sense of despair and helplessness and anger and sorrow became so magnified that when he came to a question about what he like to do in his spare time, he answered, “Fill out ridiculous applications like this one.”

Needless to say, that was the last employment contact he ever had with that particular publishing house.

If David couldn’t destroy himself one way, he seems to have been determined to do it in another. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he felt so lost and confused that he didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t think of anything to do.

Except that he thought about Harvard. Harvard seemed to him somehow to hold the key to his confusion, to whatever it was that had gone so terribly wrong with his life. All this thoughts kept circling back to the years at Harvard, as though there was a riddle there that he couldn’t figure out, as though everything would finally be all right with the world if he could figure the riddle out. But what was it, he thought to himself. What was the riddle? What was the answer? Something had happened at Harvard that he just couldn’t grasp. Something had happened to him at Havard that he just couldn’t grasp.

Poor jerk, poor dumb jerk. He would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out that riddle.

In fact, he would spend the rest of his life being at Harvard, at least in his thoughts. After his great success at the publishing company, though, he was still young enough to find ways of being at Harvard physically as well as mentally. He went to the university personnel office and looked for some kind of editorial position at the university. He found that a professor of ornithology was looking for a research assistant who could edit a directory of bird species that he was putting together.

It was a job made for his despair. It would be tempting to say that he wallowed in it, and perhaps in a way that would be true, except that he had no awareness of actually wanting that. He thought he wanted to escape from his despair, but he had no idea how to do it. As always, he felt trapped, confined, and even if he knew or had known that he was trapping and confining himself, he would not have known what to do about it. His despair allowed him no way out.

In St. Teresa of Avila’s vision of hell, the worst agony was the sense of “a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough….I found it impossible either to sit down or to lie down,…they put me in this kind of hole made in the wall. Those walls, which were terrifying to see, closed in on themselves and suffocated everything. There was no light, but all was enveloped in the blackest darkness.”

David felt that those words described his own condition, his own situation, but if Teresa had her religion to show her how to avoid having her vision become a reality, David then had lost his faith and could see no escape from the awful reality surrounding him.

So, as he had done for years now, he plodded on from one day to the next, hoping against hope, hoping for he didn’t know what. He worked for the professor in the afternoon, five days a week, and told himself he was spending the mornings writing a novel. What he called a novel, though, wasn’t really a novel at all, but rather a long, tortured autobiography in the third person, and – it has to be said – so stupidly written that no one would ever have wanted to read it.

Probably David didn’t want anyone to read it. He seems to have been determined to go on with the process of wrecking his life – a process he believed that his mother and stepfather and some of his teachers had begun. Probably the last thing he would or could have done was to write a novel that anyone would ever really feel like reading.

He worked alone in an enormous room in one of the older Harvard buildings – older, because ornithology was not a field that was likely to attract enough funding so that the department could be housed in one of the newer, more avant-garde structures that were often put up at Harvard then.

Stepping into the room where David worked was like stepping back into the nineteenth century. Old-fashioned electric light fixtures made things just bright enough so that the gloom was not completely overwhelming. Still, as David worked at a desk facing the window, the room stretched out in back of him into something like a kind of primordial dusk. There were huge glass cases reaching almost to the high, Victorian ceiling overhead, some filled with books, others with stuffed birds.

There really was no editing in the work that David was doing, only the most mindless sort of proofreading. He had no contact with other people, except for the professor he was working for, who came into the room once in a while from his office next door.

What the work probably gave David more than anything else was an opportunity for an enormous amount of self-pity. And yet that judgement may be somewhat too harsh. Perhaps, in a way, he had a right to just a little self-pity. He thought there was no one he could talk to about the horrendous situation he found himself in – the complete and utter disaster his life had become. And when he thought about the hopes and dreams he had when he first came to Harvard, the disaster and the pain of it seemed all the greater.

On the other hand, did he really do enough to try to correct his situation? If he’d been asked that question, he would probably have wanted to scream out something like, “But what could I do? What can I do?” The truth of the matter was that he felt so lost that he could think of practically nothing that would help him find his way out of the labyrinth of horror he was in, the horror of nothing to do that was important, the horror of nowhere to go that might lead to some future of hope and even promise.

He could think of nothing to do except to go on day after day, nearly overwhelmed by a sense of depression that he was partly hiding and partly unaware of himself. And then there was his friend Marc, who was facing his own challenges and problems in the first year of his residency in the Navy. Besides, Marc hadn’t known David at Harvard and couldn’t see what a difference there was between the David of that time and the David of the present.

For anyone from Harvard, seeing him plod on from one day to the next, it would probably have been tempting to laugh at him or ridicule him for being so stupid is to go on living the life he was leading then. And yet, as he continued with what even he saw was a pointless, depressive existence, it might not have been inappropriate for an outside observer to feel some small amount of admiration for the David’s ability simply to go on. It did require some strength, determination, and perhaps some courage as well.

Such considerations, though, are in the end of little value in the world we live in today. In today’s world, it may be true that David deserves only ridicule for the way he lived, and for the way he thought.

There was one other rather pathetic experience David had at this time, and it is perhaps worth describing, even though the only record that exists is David’s own rather vague, written account of the event.

David had a friend who lived in New York, Will Staines, a middle-aged man who worked for an educational foundation. David had met Will when David was at Harvard, during his sophomore year, after Africa. Will had gone to Yale, was well-educated – he had a doctorate – and represented for David as much success in life as anyone could ever hope for.

They’d kept in touch after David finally managed to finish Harvard, and Will was very familiar with the series of crises and disasters that had come to define David’s life. He was also well-connected in the academic world, and perhaps had wanted to offer David some kind of help, though like most people, he must have had no idea what sort of help David really needed in order to clear up the wreckage of his life.

One weekend, Will came up to Boston and stayed with Marc and David. He’d been invited to visit a friend of his, the President of Barlow College, one of those small, selective liberal arts colleges that are actually so good that they can compete with Ivy League for students.

Barlow was in a small town not far from Boston, one of those places that has a town common in the center, with a steepled church at the edge, where the trees and the grass are green in the summer, the maple leaves bright red in the autumn, and everything seems to be made pure with snow in the winter, during the long months before the splendor of spring. It was a town that hardly seemed real.

David found himself in the middle of a group of peopl that he apparently found absolutely dazzling. They possessed the one thing, the one quality that he valued: brilliant, even shining intellects.

It was a small group, perhaps fourteen or so around the dinner table, but it represented for David one more attempt – rather sad and pathetic, considering his previous and subsequent history – to show that what he thought was also important, what he could use his mind for really mattered. He wanted somehow to make this group of people understand that he had some intellectual potential – even great intellectual potential, and he found himself trying to show them all that he was intellectually alive.

He succeeded so well, at least for the moment, that one of the younger instructors present even said, “I think we have an awakening here.”

Not really. David knew how to simulate an “awakening,” but should he be blamed for doing that? He was so desperate to be a part of an intellectual community, so desperate to use his mind, that he would have probably done almost anything to achieve those goals. He was still so desperate that he wanted to cry out, to scream, but even he knew that that not only wouldn’t have done much good, it would have been a crazy thing to do. Despite his craziness, he knew craziness when he saw it.

The next best thing was to try to show everyone at dinner that he had a mind, that he wanted to use his mind, and that the intellectual life was all that was important to him.

Somehow he tried to convey that by what he said and what he did. In what way, exactly, isn’t very clear. Apparently, however, one of the younger instructors noticed something about David, and he said, “I think we have an awakening here.” The man meant what he said, and David felt he’d accomplished something. Now perhaps something else – anything else – would follow. Would he be invited to work at the university? Or to study there? He didn’t feel confident enough to actually think about teaching at that point. Other possibilities might be open to him, though. He might actually find a way out of the desert he was in, out of the darkness. This might be it – freedom, being understood at last.

Of course nothing of the sort happened, even though when the evening ended, he was sure – as usual, in his deluded way – that he’d made a great impression on the people he’d met and that one of them would act to somehow reduce the horror of his life, to find a way of letting him use his mind, to live the intellectual life, to find that Socratic academy he’d always been looking for, where people he admired lived the life of the mind.

He even started to plan how he would move from Boston to Barlow, as soon as they offered him a job or a scholarship. Just to be sure that that would happen, David wrote a letter and sent a resume to the president of the college, to remind him that he was available.

When his offer was refused, he was disappointed, but since he’d already encountered that kind of disappointment so often, he simply had a feeling of déjà vu and managed to go on without becoming particularly depressed. Or perhaps it could be said that he managed to go on without feeling more depressed. Or feeling depressed at all. Depression had been his default state of mind for so long, that he wasn’t even really aware of it any more.


There are two other events that stand out at the end of the bland waste of that winter that David spent editing the ornithology directory at Harvard. The first was the shooting of student protestors by Army National Guardsmen at a university in Ohio. The resentment of young people toward the war in Vietnam had grown tremendously in those years, along with the government’s attempts to suppress it.

Of course the reason the murder of the students resonated so powerfully in David’s mind was that he unconsciously considered himself as someone who had in some respects been murdered, by his parents, by Harvard. He felt he’d been destroyed by those people who should have helped him to survive and flourish, and no matter how much he tried to push that idea away from his consciousness, it affected him of course, and shaped his thinking and his way of seeing the world.

He was therefore shocked and even outraged – though again he didn’t show it – by the reaction of the professor he was working for, who gave David the impression that he thought the deaths of the students was not really something anyone should be greatly concerned about.

Perhaps it was this that shaped David’s reaction to the second event that had an impact on his life that winter: the visit by a friend of Marc’s, a doctor from California that Marc had met at a convention.

They were all the same age, in their late twenties, but in some ways all three of them looked and behaved as if they were much younger. The doctor Marc had met – whose name, rather confusingly, was also Marc – was one of the most impressive people David had ever met, and the effect he had on David was electric.

Even though Marc Christiansen had achieved as much in life as David’s friend Marc, somehow those achievement made an impact on David that can only be described as extreme. He envied this second Marc in a way he’d never envied his friend, and the only way he had of dealing with this envy was to turn it into a kind of hero worship, into an almost canine sort of devotion.

David had no other goal in his life now, nothing that he thought he could achieve, nothing he thought he could live for. On the other hand, Marc Christiansen seemed to have everything to live for, even more than David’s other friend Marc Welford.

David lived in a state of constant admiration. How could anyone be so successful? Marc Christiansen was also fulfilling his military obligation, but in Maryland, at the National Institute of Mental Health. Later he planned to return to California to do a residency in psychiatry. Marc was intelligent, successful, independent. He had all the money he needed. Everything about him seemed to be a kind of miracle as far as David was concerned. For David, simply to be in the presence of someone like that, was a kind of miracle, certainly in comparison with the disaster his own life had become.

And in comparison with all the dreams he’d had when he came to Harvard, David’s life was a disaster, even more than a disaster. He looked around him and saw only wreckage. The wreckage of all his hopes and ambitions, the hopes and ambitions that the psychiatrist at Harvard had called unrealistic, even pathologically so.

And yet, he thought to himself sometimes, it was the expression of those hopes and ambitions that had gotten him into Harvard in the first place. And if he’d gotten into Harvard, could his hopes and ambitions really have been that unrealistic?

Perhaps they could have been, or so he thought to himself sometimes. Perhaps he always had been just as sick as the psychiatrist said, and he’d simply been able to fool the Harvard admissions people into thinking that he was capable of fulfilling the hopes and ambitions he’d written about on his application.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Now the one answer, now the other. Back and forth in his mind, month after month, year after year, the question he was trying to answer seemed unanswerable. Just when he’d decided the one answer must be the right one, the true one, he would begin to have his doubts, and his mind would swing back toward the other one.

And so he trudged on, weighed down by an impossible question, in addition to everything else.

Perhaps it’s no surprised that during those years David believed that his religious beliefs had all been meaningless, and that there was no God. How could there be a God who would allow him to suffer so? He’d always tried to do the right thing; in fact, he believed he always had done the right thing, or at least almost always, so why was all this happening to him. How could all this be happening, how could his life be such a disaster, if there was a God.

And even his disbelief became a burden, because it made everything even more meaningless for him.

In the late spring, after spending most of the winter editing the bird directory, David had had enough. He felt he couldn’t go on. He couldn’t describe, even to himself, how absurd and meaningless the job was. Meeting Marc Christiansen had somehow reawakened in his mind a memory of the dreams and ambitions he once had.

One day he quietly went to see the ornithology professor’s secretary and told her he was quitting. It was easier than seeing the professor himself, and anyway, David hadn’t spoken to him in several weeks. He’d been afraid if he did talk to him, the man would try to manipulate him into doing something he didn’t want to do. Of course he knew that was a crazy idea, similar to the crazy ideas he’d had as a student, and David thought that the best way to suppress it was simply to tell the secretary he was leaving, and not the professor.

She seemed a little sad, even disappointed. She’d always been kind and friendly to David, and David regretted causing her any unhappy feelings.

And so he left the museum, and never returned.

But what in the world would he do now? He decided he would spend all his time writing a novel. Not having to work at a job that confined and limited his thinking would allow him – he thought – to write something extraordinary. The writing efforts he’d made until then hadn’t been very successful, but he was convinced that was only because he didn’t have the necessary intellectual freedom. Now that he had no job, his mind would be completely free, and he’d be able to write something marvellous.

There was of course one small problem: how to get the money he needed to survive.

Marc understood how lost David was, and how desperate. Moreover, Marc was compassionate. Marc was generous, and Marc was David’s friend. If David wanted to try to write, Marc would help him out. He would let David stay with him.

And some of David’s lost years began. He wrote. He wrote every day, but nothing that he wrote was of any value. It certainly didn’t even approach the kind of writing he idealized. He wanted to write like Proust – and he actually thought he could.

Of course that was impossible. His attempt at writing was simply a withdrawal, a result of his fear of trying to engage the world – or at least that’s one way of putting it.

From time to time he did try to find another job, but as time passed and he spent more of his time alone, that became increasingly hard to do. He had no confidence in any ability he might have had, he had no hope, he had no ability even to meet people in a situation where would be interviewed for work.

The darkness he seemed to be proceeding through was relentless, and he saw no end to it. He went on from day to day, though, as best he could.

Oddly enough, even though he had lost all of his old religious beliefs, there remained in his mind an illusion – he would have said an awareness – of transcendance. When he thought about death, he had in his mind an image of a child he saw on the Common, in front of the Statehouse, after he and Marc moved into a new apartment on Bowdoin Street. The child was running up the hill in the direction of the Statehouse. His father was crouched down with his arms outstretched, some distance away from the boy, and the boy was running toward his father’s arms.

David thought death must be like that. At some point, the child would pass through an invisible boundary, as David saw it, enter another dimension, and be embraced by his father.

The apartment that he and Marc moved into was in a modern building, much newer – by perhaps seventy-five years or so – than the building they’d lived in on Marlborough Street. The change in apartments was accompanied by a change in David’s work habits and his daily routine. He no longer had a job to go to, so after Marc left for the Naval Hospital, he spent the morning writing.

He wrote sonnets, one every day for several months. At Harvard he’d had the illusion that the poetry he wrote somehow made an impression on people, even though he hardly showed it to anyone. He was convinced, though, that his teachers recognized his extraordinary talent, even his genius, in the way he wrote poetry. He wrote sonnets at Harvard, too, or sometimes long poems in rhyming couplets.

His poems were written with an adolescent feeling of passion. He felt sometimes he could go on writing them forever, and he was sure they were good. So in the new apartment on Bowdoin Street, he continued to write them, but without the same sort of passion he’d had before. He wrote mechanically now, the way he did almost everything.

And of course the poems were really not very good. He sent them to The New Yorker, and the editors promptly returned them. He went on sending them, though, every day, as though it were a kind of punishment for something he’d done, or as though he thought that if he sent enough of them, the chances were that one of them would be good enough to print – like the hypothetical group of monkeys that by chance would type out the works of Shakespeare if they were allowed to type for an infinite amount of time.

Of course what he felt within himself wasn’t so much a sense of punishment as it was simply a feeling of despair. He felt his whole life had been ruined.

When he thought about looking for another job, he thought about the poor grades he’d had at Harvard – or at least what he considered poor grades. They were in fact no worse mediocre. At any rate, he thought his grades at Harvard had been bad, and he had nothing else to show for the years he’d spent there except the work he’d done in Africa, and that seemed quite irrelevant, at least as far as other people were concerned.

And what had he done after Harvard? Nothing. Or at least nothing significant. Nothing that was of any value, as far as he could see. What could he possibly put down on a resume when he went to look for a job? How could he make a resume look presentable?

Slowly, though, moving through his depression as if through a sea of molasses, he did manage to put together a resume that described his education and the work he’d done.

People can laugh at David, or despise him, because of his despair and his depression and his inability to do anything, and yet he simply didn’t know how to change his life. He didn’t know where to go for help. He didn’t know what he could do to make things any different for himself. It seemed that all he’d learned at Harvard was that life was meaningless and absurd, simply a game to be played.

Confronted with that point of view, and even accepting that point of view, David was perhaps bound to be depressed and despairing, because he’d always had the idea that life was so much more, that life had the spiritual dimension he’d grown up with, the dimension that he still thought he was dimly aware of sometimes, in spite of everything.

His general attitude toward life, though, was that it was a senseless undertaking, devoid of significance, and hardly worth the trouble. And his overall feeling continued to be one of ongoing depression and despair.

It is perhaps a miracle he did not kill himself, but it was that shred of belief that remained in him, that there was another world, a better world than the one he knew, a world beyond this world, and it was perhaps only that shred of belief that kept him alive.

He did make one or two efforts to find a job, but these came to nothing. He wrote, for example, to one of the local television stations in Boston, compliment them on a broadcast that had impressed him. He enclosed a resume and said he would like to work there. He received an extremely friendly reply from one of the newscasters saying that the people at the station were wondering what kind of work David was looking for.

Anyone else, of course, would have interpreted the letter as a sign that perhaps the station was interested in learning a more about him, a sign that they were leaving open the possibility that there might in fact be something he could do there.

David could never find anything positive in such a response, because he could not tolerant the slightest ambiguity. Anything less than full, open, honest acceptance he immediately interpreted as complete rejection. David would carry that attitude with him through life. It would not make his life very easy.

David made another attempt to find a job, this time with the educational division of the publishing company he’d gone to work for when he finished Harvard, that time in their medical textbook division. He was perhaps naïve enough to think that the personnel office wouldn’t discover he’d already had a brief and fairly disastrous career with the company. Perhaps they didn’t discover it, but the application turned out to be a disaster for him just the same.

He was invited – “called in,” David might have put it – for an interview, and he went there in his usual state of mind, full of depression, self-pity. And self-loathing too, because he blamed himself for not being able to realize the dreams he’d had at Harvard. He was shown into a large room where various editors were working at desks and given a seat on a sofa in the middle of the room.

People were busy everywhere. They were walking back and forth in front of him and conferring with one another at their desks and at other places in the room. The area seemed to be a beehive of activity, except for where David was, on his couch. He sat there with nothing to do, except to look at a book he’s brought with him, Herman Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game,” the book that for David portrayed a utopia for intellectuals.

David withdrew into that book and into himself. The world around him there, as he was seated on the couch, seemed loud, hectic, disorderly, incomprehensible. Better was Hesse’s world of a complex, rarefied intellectual pastime. That was something he could relate to – what he thought of as the passion and adventure of the life of the mind.

He went on sitting there for a long time, withdrawing more and more into the book and into himself. He could hardly bear being where he was. He felt at kind of hatred and disgust for what he had become. He also felt a kind of hatred and disgust for the world around him.

He kept expecting that at any minute someone would call him or come to him about the interview, but no one called and no one came. It’s easy, of course, to understand why. There was no reason anyone would want to speak with him, except that common courtesy might have demanded that someone pay some attention to him. He did have an appointment. On the other hand he was practically radiating hostility, without being aware of it.

He continued to sit there and sit there and sit there, becoming more and more uncomfortable, and probably making others around him uncomfortable as well, though naturally he wasn’t aware of anything like that. He did notice that at one point, though, someone seemed to be standing in front of him, but he assumed that if that person wanted to speak to him, he would be spoken to, and so he didn’t look up. He didn’t look at anything except the book in front of him and the world inside him.

The person in front of him went away.

And a few minutes later he realized it was hopeless. There would be no job for him there. No one would come and talk with him. And he could talk to no one.

The atmosphere there was a destructive one. He knew there was no point in even trying for a job. Political correctness was not yet quite the obsession that it would become later in the century, but it was beginning to rage overywhere, certainly at companies like this one. David wasn’t completely aware of it, but he could sense that if he tried to work there, he would be destroyed. His personality wouldn’t fit. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that because he wouldn’t display his personality clearly enough to satisfy the people around him. They would probe him over and over again, just as they did at Harvard – or so he felt – because they wanted to make sure they knew exactly who he was and what kind of person he was. They wanted to make sure he was acceptable to them. All this went through David’s mind, if not at that moment, then later, after the interview, and in similar situations for the rest of his life.

He left, and from then on, he never tried to find a job in Boston again. That seemed to him to be a hopeless prospect. He was so locked in the world of his own mind, he had no idea what sort of job it might be possible for him to find.

And so he went on, day after day after day, each day grayer and bleaker than the one before.

Marc would have helped him, Marc wanted to help him, but he didn’t know what to do. And of course David had no idea what sort of help he should ask for. He only knew that as far as he was concerned his life was ruined. Harvard had wrecked his life, he believed. Or else his mother had.

As for Harvard, the ideas that the psychiatrist there would have definitely called paranoid began occurring to him as they always had. Harvard was a place, he thought to himself, where truth and the freedom of the individual were constantly being praised as ideals of the institution and the community. In fact, though, anyone who didn’t fit in at Harvard was punished, excluded, destroyed. He’d thought and even said something like that before, but now those ideas came back to him with almost overwhelming force.

It was all right to ask questions at Harvard, as long as you didn’t question the prevailing thought patterns of the people there, the way David believed he’d done. If you did that, the reaction was swift and merciless, you were labelled insane, paranoid, and everyone within and outside of Harvard was told about that label. You had no chance to survive.

At least, that’s how David saw Harvard.

Like any group, the people at Harvard had their own set of basic beliefs which they accepted as true, without realizing that they had never really tested those beliefs to see if they were true. These beliefs were so much a part of their worldview that it was impossible for anyone even to be aware of them. Only an outsider – like David – could see that people at Harvard were expected to conform, just as people who belong to any group are expected to conform.

It was all right to criticize. You could criticize anything or anyone. Except Harvard itself, and the people – professors, other teachers, administrators – who actually were the university. None of that, none of them, were the legitimate objects of criticism. Criticize Harvard, David thought to himself, and you were dead.

Was he insane? Was he paranoid? Perhaps, but certainly not to the degree that the Harvard psychiatrist claimed. David couldn’t have survived at all if he’d been that paranoid. More likely, he was simply broken and angry and sad, and the brokenness and anger and sadness came out in these thoughts about Harvard.

In which there may have been some truth.

The brokenness and anger and sadness also came out in his thoughts about his poor mother, who seemed to him to be so demented.

The months passed and David passed the time writing what he could – poems and an awful novel. He passed the time. He looked for things to fill his time with. He had no goal now that he was trying to reach. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever even had a goal. The only goal he could remember having was certainly an absurd one now – the goal of wanting to be a monk.

At first, when he’d been at Harvard, he’d been able to maintain that goal, although that goal too had probably been an illusion. He would in later life think to himself that he didn’t really want to be a monk, but rather he wanted to be his idea of a monk. And that idea, like so much else in David’s thinking, had little to do, really, with reality.

Anyway, such a goal was meaningless now. How could he be a monk, when he didn’t even really believe in God? Or at least he thought he didn’t really believe in God.

And yet, what else was there? Perhaps his beliefs were not quite so dead. Perhaps he could still persue them. And so again, as before during the lost times, his mind turned again to religion, to God, to the idea of entering a monastery – laughable as that would have seemed to those who knew him. When he was younger, of course, he’d wanted to follow Thomas Merton into the Trappists. That no longer seemed an option to him. He knew – he’d read all about it somewhere – that the Trappists had started leading a more “relaxed” life after the Vatican Council. They even spoke to one another now. They ate meat. They no longer got up in the middle of the night to say the Office. There was no longer the same sense of austerity that had drawn him years ago.

There were still the Carthusians, though. David had read about them, at least a little. As far as he was concerned – as far as he knew then – they weren’t what the Trappists had been when he’d wanted to be a Trappist. But then of course since the Trappist were no longer what they’d once been, he thought there was nothing to lose by trying to join the Carthusians.

What David hungered for was a kind of austerity, a sort of ascetic purity that would lead him to God. In spite of everything that had happened in his life, he was, at the very core of his being, still convinced of what the nuns had taught him as a child, so many years before: that God was the whole purpose of his life. Of course he hadn’t lived as though he really thought that way, certainly not in the past few years, but that idea remained fixed in his mind nevertheless.

And so he thought he might pursue this idea with the Carthusians. All he knew about the location of their monasteries was that their motherhouse was in Europe, and so he wrote to them there – to the novice master. One cold, rainy day he went to the Boston post office where he received his mail and found a letter from the Grande Chartreuse. The novice master there told him that there was in fact an American house of the Order, and it was located in Vermont, not very far from Boston.

David decided to go there. It was nearly summer and the world was full of promise. Surely this would be a new beginning. He had no idea that whenever anyone visits a monastery of an enclosed order for the first time, especially with the idea of joining it, the visit has been prepared beforehand by correspondence. Such a thing never occurred to David. He’d seen his share of television stories, where a lost, worn-out man finds his way into an isolated monastery, usually during a rainstorm or blizzard, and is taken in and sheltered by the monks who live there. What happened to them after that was something David gave little thought to.

He found out the location of the Carthusian monastery – the charterhouse – in Vermont, and early one morning in July he left Boston on a bus, determined to visit the place. He had no idea that such a thing wasn’t done, but he was nervous and apprehensive anyway. What would they say? What would they think of him? How would they react? Would they give him a chance to change his life, to start a new life? There seemed to be so much that depended on this visit – David’s whole future – that his fears and anxieties almost made it impossible for him to think rationally.

And yet, as always, from the outside, he appeared to be quite normal, very much in control of himself. He seemed a little naive, as usual, but for him that was normal. He was always, perhaps, partly lost in his own world.

He felt a little disoriented on that day he went up to Vermont, because he’d hardly slept the night before. And yet the New England countryside shone in all its glory on that bright summer’s day, so that he felt very little distress. He thought how splendid the trees that covered the hills and valley looked, with their thick, green foliage. The small towns they came to cheered him with their light and color. The world seemed reborn, and his fears about arriving unannounced at the charterhouse were crazily erased from his mind when he saw a sign for a barber shop that read, “No appointments necessary.” In his weird but rather pathetic way, David was sure that the universe itself was sending him a message.

The bus took him to the access road that branched off the main highway and led up to the charterhouse. There was a small gatehouse there occupied by an elderly couple who struck David as the kind of New Englanders who thought that the world was divided into two parts. There was New England, and then there was all the rest. New England definitely came first, while “all the rest” could in all probability be safely ignored.

David sat for a few minutes in the couple’s livingroom, while the man telephoned someone. He spoke in a low voice and then put down the receiver. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll take you up to the monastery.”

They got into a four-wheel drive vehicle, and followed a long, winding, unpaved road. In spite of all his fears, David looked with a kind of wonder at the everything around them. The trees passing by revealed glimpses of hills and valleys that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The cloudless sky overhead seemed to sing. David thought to himself that what he was seeing must be something like the very same New England that the first settlers had seen, in all its original splendor.

It could be said at this point that David was still, at least in a small way, suffering from the same sort of dreamlike perceptions that he suffered from when he arrived at Harvard. Unfortunately, that’s probably true. If David had lived in some other age, those perceptions might have elicited from others at least some small sense of understanding, some small encouragement for David to use them in some way. He might have created poetry with them, or somehow turned his whole life into a kind of work of art that would have been of some benefit to other people.

Not in the age we live in, though. Even David knew he was considered a freak in the age we live in, because of the way he thought, because of the way he saw the world. A freak and even a monster was the way he thought of himself.

Or, as the Harvard psychiatrist defined him, a schizophrenic. And so that’s what he must have been. Certainly no one would ever dispute such a definition of David’s character. Especially in later years, when it was easy to see what a wreck he made of his life.

On that day bright, New England day, however, travelling up to the charterhouse in Vermont, he was as confused and lost as he ever was, and as he would always be. And as always, he was looking for an answer in God, something which, as we all know, cannot possibly have been the answer David thought it was. Although David didn’t understand it, it’s easy for us to see that he was heading toward one more door in the wall, one that would open out onto what we know is nothing. After all, we are the rational ones, and we know delusion when we see it.

David, though, once again, did not. He approached the charterhouse happily, full of joy, eager to look for an opening out onto his broad vision of goodness, of doing the right thing, of sacrifice, of one day knowing God. David never even asked himself if this wouldn’t perhaps be the way to one more disappointment, if he wouldn’t be rushing eagerly toward one more rejection in the end.

On this day, however, at this moment, all the thought about was how lovely and austere the charterhouse looked. They drove down from the top of a low hill toward a complex of low, modern buildings made of huge slabs of gray granite and surrounded by a wall.

He couldn’t even consider such a possibility, as the prior of the charterhouse, Dom Gabriel came out to meet him. The tall, thin, rather gaunt monk was smiling broadly as he held out his hand to welcome David. He was wearing the long, white Carthusian habit, with the distinctive scapular joined on each side. His head was shaved, except for the circular ridge of hair that was the medieval mark of the priesthood. Despite all this, he struck David as nothing so much as friendly rabbi, for his round face seemed oddly, unmistakably Jewish.

He took David into his small, sparsely furnished, somewhat disorganized office. He sat down at his desk and looked at David with a broad smile. “But who are you?” he said. “Have we been corresponding?”

“My name is David Austin,” he said. “No, we haven’t been corresponding?”

“But what brings you here?” Dom Gabriel asked, looking at him directly in the eyes, and still smiling. “Why are you here?”

David hesitated and then looked down. Then he said, still not looking at the monk, “I’d like to see if I have a vocation.”

The prior sat back in his chair, his hands folded in front of him on his desk. “People who come here already believe they have a vocation. Our life is so difficult that no one can simply try it out. Anyone who simply tries it will fail. A young man who enters here has to believe he has a vocation to our life.”

David looked away again. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t know that.” He stared for a few seconds at the piles of papers on the prior’s desk, at the dusty telephone. “But I do think I might have a vocation.”

The monk listened as David described to him his long interest in the monastic life and his longing to live such a life. David told him about all the books he’d read, mostly the ones by Thomas Merton about the Trappists. “But the Trappists don’t live the way they used to,” David concluded. “I mean there’s not much austerity left.”

The prior smiled. “You know, just having an interest in the monastic life, or even the longing to live such a life, is no guarantee that God is actually calling you to live such a life.”

David felt the old stabs of rejection. They were so familiar to him that he almost felt they were coming back as old acquaintances that he was hardly surprised to see again.

His first impulse was the one he always had in the face of rejection – simply to accept what he was told and to turn and go away and look for something else, but then he said, “Yes, but I have to know. If I don’t at least try and see if this life was meant for me – or if I was meant for it – if I don’t at least try, then I’ll never know.” He paused. “And neither will anyone else,” he added.

The monk seemed to smile. “All right, you can stay here for a while. We’ll put you in one of the cells, and you can see if you like it.”

David felt one of those waves of unrealistic happiness sweeping over him, the kind he always felt when he was deceiving himself about the significance of some event in his life. He’d probably have been even more elated if he’d known how extremely rare it was for anyone in his position to be allowed at once to stay in a Carthusian cell. Normally, even those young men who are candidates for the charterhouse have to spend the first few days in the guest house, and only then are they permitted to move to a cell.

In a way, it was an eccentric – to say the least – idea on the part of the prior. Or he may simply have wanted to put David to the test, to find out quickly if he was serious about entering the charterhouse and if he had the capacity to lead a life in solitude.

At the end of the conversation the prior picked up the telephone and dialed a two-digit number. “Could you come to my office?” he said quietly into the receiver. Then he turned to David again. “I’d like to have you meet Dom Patrick, our novice master. He’ll take you to your cell.” He smiled his rabbinical smile. “Dom Patrick was sent over from the Grande Chartreuse in France to found this community over twenty years ago. He was prior then, and really everything you see here now” – he made a slight wave of his hand in the direction of the tall, thick slabs of granite that formed the walls of the room and the walls of the entire charterhouse – “everything here now is the result of Dom Patrick’s labors.”

In a few moments, a very old, very worn, very thin, but very energetic and cheerful Carthusian knocked and entered the prior’s cell. His monastic habit was somewhat unkempt. All in all he looked like a figure out of a motion picture meant to portray medieval monasticism as something backward, superstitious, and perhaps more than a little corrupt.

Except that Dom Patrick seemed to glow with innate goodness. “These are monks,” David thought to himself, “who care less about what they look like than what they are.” And with that, Dom Patrick and the Carthusians in general endeared themselves to David – in perhaps that emotional and adolescent way that certain people, places, organizations, and other things often endeared themselves to him, at least for a while.

Dom Patrick took David away and led him down a long, seemingly endless cloister corridor. On both sides the walls were made of the ever-present slabs of grey Vermont granite planted in the rocky New England soil.

To their left the succession of granite blocks was broken at regular intervals that looked out onto a central courtyard, which, like the habits the monks were wearing, could have used some attention. It was covered with tall growths of field grass that had not been mowed down for some time.

On the right side of the corridor, there were doors set in the walls, at extremely wide intervals, doors led to the monks’ cells. Next to each door was a small opening covered with another door. From what David had read about the Carthusians, he knew that the monks’ meals were passed through these openings. Their solitude was to be interrupted as little as possible.

Solitude – David followed Dom Patrick down the corridor and thought about solitude. It was something he’d always wanted, something he’d always liked, something that had always made him happy. He’d never had any fear of being alone; he’d always felt most at ease with himself and the world around him when he was alone.

Not that he really considered that a virtue. It was simply a part of his character, a part of the way he was. He hardly thought about it at all. It had been a part of him for almost as long as he could remember, long before high school, at the beginning of grade school, perhaps, when his mother had left him alone at home for long hours, for hours on end, and he’d never been allowed to go out and play with the other children. In his mother’s eyes, they weren’t good enough to associate with him.

And then in high school, after his parents were divorced and had remarried, he felt excluded somehow by most of his classmates – or he excluded himself – and he’d spent long stretches of time alone again, even at school, even eating his lunches there alone most of the time, reading books by Thomas Merton or other books like “The Imitation of Christ” in the coziness of the university cafeteria that was next to the high school he went to.

In a way, those lunch periods were about the only times he felt really safe in that last year in high school. He would become so involved in his reading that the outside world disappeared. He would be at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, on the lookout for God, feeling almost that he’d already found God, or he would be in the medieval cloister of the author of the “Imitation”. Those were the only worlds he cared about then – or thought he cared about – and the only worlds he thought he wanted to enter.

Except that at the same time he hungered for the intellectual life. There was almost nothing he like more than to be able to consider some new idea that had presented to him, in class at school or in a book or in something he heard someone say. It was always some new idea that felt like lights glittering in his mind, so wonderful sometimes that he wanted to laugh, so wonderful sometimes that he actually did laugh when he talked about it with some of the few friends he had.

And all the while he never understood how great a distance there was – at least now in our centure – between those glittering ideas and the kind of life he also longed for, in a monastery.

Perhaps if he had known, his first thought would have been that he would have to – that he wanted to – reconcile that intellectual life he loved and the spiritual life he longed for. Perhaps that too is something he might have done with his life, and in the future he would think that it was a great tragedy that his life had been wrecked and that he would never have the chance to do such a thing. He would think that way until he remembered that such a thing, such a reconciliation, would happen one day, was bound to happen one day, and that it was this great reconciliation that really mattered, not the one who brought it about.

Dom Patrick stopped in front of the door to one of the cells and opened it. David followed him inside. To the right there was what appeared to be a large workroom, and through the windows David could see out onto the small enclosed garden that belonged to the cell. Straight ahead were some stairs that led up to the second floor. When they reached the top of the stairs, David found himself with Dom Patrick in a room that was completely empty, except for a prie-dieu set in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary. Dom Patrick knelt down briefly and David did the same.

“This room is by an ancient tradition of our order dedicated to Our Lady and is used only to pray to her,” Dom Patrick said. “We kneel down and say a prayer to her whenever we enter the cell.”

They then went into a somewhat larger room on the second floor of the cell. This room was the one where I would be spending most of my time. The walls were panelled in light-colored wood, as was the floor. The high ceiling was white. Along one wall there were huge windows ranged above a long work space. The windows overlooked the small garden, and it was possible to sit there and use the work space as a desk or dining table. There was a chair, and there were drawers and cabinet below the surface of the desk. The bright summer sun came streaming in through the windows.

On the opposite wall, set in an alcove, there was a bed with a straw mattress, and a closet for hanging clothes. On one of the other walls was a door that let into a small toilet, and opposite that wall was the door that led into the room and next to it a “scriptorium:” another desk with bookshelves above it. Set into this wall also was a small prayer alcove. More or less in the center of the room was an old-fashioned wood stove, hardly necessary for the time being, now, in the middle of summer.

Everything was immaculate, and as soon as David saw this room, he knew that this was where he wanted to stay forever.

Dom Patrick looked at him searchingly for a brief moment and then smiled. “I suppose you’re hungry,” he said. “I’ll have some food sent over, and then I’ll be back later to take you into the chapel for vespers. Is there anything you need?”

David looked around the room. He saw that there were some books on the shelves. “No,” he said, returning Dom Patrick’s smile. “Thank you. I’ll be all right now.”

Dom Patrick gave a slight nod, turned around and left.

What David now experienced was an emotional rush of delight. A sign of the vocation he was hoping for? Perhaps, but this too was probably an illusion. At any rate, he thought for a time he would be quite happy in this place. As happy as he’d ever wanted to be, or as happy as he’d ever imagined he could be.

He didn’t yet see – he wouldn’t see it for many years – that every period of happiness in his life was based on some illusion, the illusion of Harvard, the illusion of his first year in Africa, the illusion of adventure when he’d dropped out Harvard, and the illusion of the charterhouse.

Again, ridiculing him for that seems a logical response, but on the other hand, some degree of compassion might also be in order. Even though what he perceived as suffering might seem absurd, he did perceive it as suffering, and he did at times feel great pain. He had of course caused the suffering and pain himself, but it would perhaps be heartless simply to laugh at him for that reason.

For the time being, though, the illusion of the charterhouse was for him sheer delight. He felt this was where he belonged, where he wanted to be. This was where he would be happy.

This was where he would be happy – perhaps that is one of the keys to David’s problems. Perhaps what concerned him really was only a selfish desire for his own happiness. He might disguise that desire with the wish to return to Africa or to enter the charterhouse or to devote himself to a thousand other kinds of “self-sacrifice,” but the truth was that all he really cared about was his own happiness, his own and no one else’s.

At that time, though, David didn’t have insight enough even to begin to wrestle with the question of whether a desire for God could ever be a selfish desire. He didn’t even understand then that this desire had been produced by a conviction that he’d acquired as a young boy, a conviction that had stayed with him all through adolescence and even up to the present moment. It was the conviction, more or less unconscious, that he was damaged somehow, that he would never be able to have the things that other people considered desirable. It was also the conviction, perhaps, that he didn’t even deserve to have those things.

And so he chose God instead.

In some ways, it could perhaps even be said that God was his second choice, even though he wouldn’t have understood that, and certainly wouldn’t have admitted it if he had understood it.

He would have said that it was his reading of Plato and St. Augustine and perhaps also of the Russian novelists that had convinced him that only God was worth living for. He couldn’t have recognized how superficial his reading of those writers had been, and how little he really understood them.

It was therefore the superficiality and weakness of his motives that made his desire for God so very imperfect.

On the other hand, a time would come when he would try to defend himself by saying that God never expects human beings to have a perfect desire for him. David would eventually tell himself that God works with whatever desire human beings may have, and leads them along the strangest and even most mysterious paths toward himself and toward home.

So if David was happy in the charterhouse, it may perhaps in the end, at least in some small way, been for the right reasons.

Carthusians don’t leave you too much alone at first. They believe that solitude is something most people have to become accustomed to gradually. There was no reason why it should occur to them that David hardly needed that opportunity. They couldn’t be expected to know that he’d been alone all his life, or that solitude was his constant companion. So not long after Dom Patrick had left him, the prior, Dom Gabriel, came by his cell.

As David sat facing him, it occurred to him once again how much Dom Gabriel looked like nothing so much as a kindly rabbi, and only a little like a Catholic monk. After making sure that David felt comfortable in the cell, he asked David to try to explain in more detail what it was that had brought him to the charterhouse.

“I’ve always wanted to be a monk, ever since I was a boy, about the time I started high school, I think.”

“But why exactly,” said the monk.

“I used to read everything by Thomas Merton that I could get my hands on. It seemed like the best kind of life, loving God, searching for God.”

“But you can love God, and search for him, anywhere, everywhere.”

“Yes, I know that,” said David, starting to feel that maybe Dom Gabriel wasn’t really trying to test him, but perhaps simply talk him out of doing something that he had no aptitude for. He dismissed the idea. “I know that,” he said again, “but I think there’s no other kind of life where loving God and searching for God is the whole point. That’s the kind of life I want.”

The monk smiled. “But is it the kind of life God wants you to have, the kind that he wants for you.”

David felt the old panic returning. “But why wouldn’t he want that?” he asked.

The monk stood up and looked down at David as he too got to his feet. “Ah,” he said, “why does God want anything, why does he will what he wills?” He smiled again. “Those are questions we’ll never be able to answer in this world. But perhaps God wants you to find him in some other way, less directly than you would here.” He looked at David for a moment. “Have you ever thought of that?”

David shook his head. He felt like a little boy. “No,” he said, looking down, “I’d never thought of that.”

He would think about it, though, at least in later years. He would think about the way Dom Gabriel, in later conversations, repeated over and over again that every monk in the charterhouse was there because he was absolutely convinced that this was the place God wanted him to be. It never occurred to David to say the same thing, because he had no such conviction – he thought he would have in the future, though. He thought this kind of conviction was something you acquired in the charterhouse, not something you had going in. “How could you?” he thought to himself. “It was impossible really to know what the life was like before going in, so how could anyone be convinced, at that point, that the charterhouse was where God wanted him to be.

It never occurred to him that Dom Gabriel was waiting for him to make that statement. David thought that surely Dom Gabriel too understood that no one could think that God wanted him to be in the charterhouse before he knew what the charterhouse was really like.

It was a brilliant New England summer, and the days passed almost blissfully for David. He followed the monks schedule. They went to bed between seven and eight in the evening and got up around midnight, said part of the Divine Office in their cells, and then went to the chapel for the Night Office. They went back to bed around two and got up again around eight, heard Mass, and then began the daily round of work and prayer, mostly alone in their cells. The Carthusians are hermits, after all.

Once in a while Dom Gabriel sent a young American monk, Dom James, to see David in his cell. Dom James was the only American in the community, besides Dom Gabriel himself, who had taken final vows and been ordained a priest. He was about David’s age and had done his novitiate in Spain. He’d only recently been sent back to the United States to be a monk in the American charterhouse.

David regarded Dom James with a certain bemusement, which probably indicates how much pride remained in David’s character – though he certainly didn’t have much to be proud of. If David had been able to see Dom James with the sort of compassion and understanding David really thought he had – but which in fact was entirely lacking in his makeup – he could never have been bemused by him.

Nevertheless, David thought he treated Dom James very well. Perhaps even David would have admitted, though, that beneath his friendliness to Dom James he did have a rather dismissive attitude toward him and may not have shown him any more respect than he would have shown anyone else his own age.

It is possible that David was not completely to blame for this attitude. David felt that no one had ever recognized what he had achieved and suffered, and even though there was a time when he did try to recognize the achievements and sufferings of others – in the hope that the recognition would be returned – he had long ago given that up, without quite realizing it. Human ideas and speech and actions tend to wither and die when no one responds to them.

Another reason for David’s attitude was the fact that he found Dom James to be a quite ugly young man, although he tried to ignore that. With his shaved head, thick lips, and fleshy nose, Dom James was no one’s idea of an even presentable looking man.

David listened patiently, though, as Dom James told him of his efforts to write a two-page essay in the novitiate, an effort he was quite proud of, as though it were something that David could never really hope to equal. This of course only confirmed David’s impression that Dom James, in addition to having a rather repellent exterior, was also really not very bright.

Years later, David would be ashamed of that kind of thinking. He would realize what his attitude toward Dom James had really been – quite arrogant and self-centered, and somewhat contemptuous. At the time, thought, David understood none of that. He would have been surprised if anyone had said he was anything but good and kind.

David’s ideal of a monk was Thomas Merton – or at least the picture of Merton that had been built up in his mind after reading many of Merton’s books. Dom James did not exactly fit that picture, and so David was somewhat dismissive of him, though again, he would have been surprised if anyone had said that to him.

There were in the charterhouse, though, a few monks who had for David at least some elements of the “Merton ideal.” One of them was Dom Patrick, who David saw as a very holy man. His undeniable rough edges even enhanced the holiness, in David’s eyes. Once, when Dom Patrick came to David’s cell, he seemed quite concerned about David, perhaps because David may have looked a little sad or confused. Apparently Dom Patrick thought David was becoming disillusioned with the monastic way of life, for he said to him – a propos of nothing that David was aware of – “If the Pope got drunk tomorrow, I’d still believe.” Apparently, for an Irishman, there could be no greater scandal than getting drunk, at least no greater scandal surrounding the Pope.

Those days that David spent in the charterhouse taught him – or reinforced in him – a pattern of thinking that had saved him from destruction in the past and would save him over and over again in the future. There are times in life when he could nothing except “Just…go…on.”

“Just…go…on.” When everything seemed hopeless, he would “just…go…on.” When he didn’t even know where he was going, he would “just…go…on.” When he didn’t even know why he was living, he would “just…go…on.” When he was completely alone in the world, he would “just…go…on.”

That may or may not have really been the philosophy that governed life in the charterhouse, but David would realize years later there were times when many of the monks must follow that philosophy in their own lives. His life had become a morass of pain and confusion, but there was nothing he could do but “just…go…on.” And by doing that, he would eventually find a way out.

The time that David spent in the charterhouse, though, was a time when he felt he was being carried “on eagle’s wings”, so to speak. He felt he was soaring, in a way, and had at last found another place – besides Africa – where he “ought to be.” Sometimes he even thought he’d found the only place he ought to be.

Those days were days full of wonder for David, some of the last in a life that would include fewer and fewer such days as time went by.

Those days in the charterhouse – he wanted them to last forever. He knew it would be different in winter – it was glorious New England summer now – but he knew winter would be splendid too.

On bright summer afternoons, once a week, he went out with the monks on their regular walk. In one of the more established charterhouses, David would have take these walks only with the postulants and novices, but here the community was so small that all of the monks had these recreation periods together.

And since they were allowed to talk to one another as they walked, David – without quite realizing it – did everything he could to make the monks realize how much he wanted to join them, and how much he thought he could bring to the community if that happened.

He was the young mascot, even though one of the novices, Frater Ignatius – he’d come from the Jesuits – was about the same age as David. Like nearly everyone who was David’s age, though, Ignatius was more mature than David, although he possessed a sense of humor that to David seemed at times uproarious. Once, on one of the walks, they were bringing up the rear of the line of young monks, and Ignatius pointed to them and said quietly to David, “Baby Carthusians.”

Not only did David almost explode with laughter then – the broken Carthusian sleep had made him a little giddy – but he would remember that remark for years afterward, for the rest of his life in fact.

“Baby Carthusians.” Perhaps that was what David was and would always be. Except that he hoped that in another world, another life, he would be a real Carthusian, to the extent that Carthusian life embodied in a mysterious way certain elements of our existence in eternity.

Of course that seems like just another illusion, but David believed it, and would go on believing it for the rest of his life.

The days passed quietly in the charterhouse in Vermont, punctuated by conversations with Dom Gabriel, Dom James, and Dom Patrick. And still through all those conversations, David could not bring himself to say what he didn’t realize Dom Gabriel had to hear: that David was convinced that it was God’s will for him to be in the charterhouse.

David, though, might have said that he was so convinced of it that saying it seemed somehow pointless, like Cordelia unable to say how much she loved Lear.

In the bright, clean cell of the charterhouse, with its pine-panelled walls and wood flooring, and its huge window that looked out onto the garden area and the beyond to the tree-covered hills of Vermont, David might have thought of Seneca’s comment that he was “never less alone than when alone.”

David certainly didn’t know who God was, had never even felt particularly close to God, but he somehow felt he was never alone in that cheerful, sunny cell in the charterhouse.

And he wanted to stay, he repeated to himself, wanted to stay, wanted to stay, wanted to stay – forever.

In later years he often thought to himself that if he could have stayed there that summer, he would have stayed and could have stayed with the Carthusians always. He too would have become a monk and a hermit.

After a month, though, the sunlit, weightless days would come to an end. “After a month,” you’ll have to leave, Dom Gabriel told him one day. The whole process of entering here is a long and complicated one. We never let anyone just come and stay forever, especially not in your case.”

David wondered what “his case” was, but as always when that kind of question arose, he avoided asking about it. He remained silent.

“You and I have talked about the situation with your parents,” Dom Gabriel went on, “and I think that before you enter here, one of the things you have to do is spend some time with them.”

David’s could feel something inside of him drop into a deep well of near despair. He’d spent so much time trying to be free of the nightmare his mother and stepfather had been trying – consciously or unconsciously – to weave around him, and now here he was expected to go back to them? He wanted to cry. Surely that could not be what was best for him. That would destroy him. Why couldn’t Dom Gabriel understand that?

It didn’t occur to him that perhaps the fault was at least partly his. He hadn’t really done everything he could to explain the situation with his parents. He’d been afraid of that, afraid of the madness they represented in his life, afraid the Carthusians would reject him simply on the basis of the craziness of his mother and stepfather.

His first thought was that such a thing was impossible. It would destroy him. His mother and stepfather would destroy him once they had power and control over him again.

But again he said nothing. He sat there patiently, waiting for Dom Gabriel to go on.

“The second thing you have to do is repay the money that you owe for your last year at Harvard.” David had explained to Dom Gabriel that he’d taken out a loan to pay for part of the expenses of his final year – he hadn’t wanted his parents to pay anything, he hadn’t wanted them to have that kind of control over him.

But to go back and live with them? Dear God, David thought to himself, how could he really do that? He’d never survive something like that.

More than that, Dom Gabriel told him that of course it would also be necessary for him to repay the three thousand dollar debt he had to Harvard. Perhaps, Dom Gabriel said, David could live with his parents and work and use his earnings to repay the debt in a year. Then he could return to the charterhouse the follow summer.

David, despite all his good intentions, did register one feeble protest. He told Dom Gabriel that maybe if he wrote to Harvard, if he told them that he’d finally found the one thing in his life that he really wanted to do, if he tried to make them see the urgency of his desire, then they would cancel his debt, and he could just stay there in the charterhouse. Dom Gabriel just smiled indulgently and said he didn’t think Harvard would do that.

So, as he always did when he experienced the least opposition, David gave up and decided he had no choice but to do what Dom Gabriel wanted. Still, he thought he’d never survive even a short visit with his mother and stepfather, much less an extended one of a year. He was sure of that – except for one thing: because David’s thinking about God had revived, and a belief in the existence of God that was perhaps even deeper than it had been before, he was able to start thinking to himself that returning to live with his parents was something he should do, after all. If that was what Dom Gabriel thought he ought to do, then perhaps he had to do it. In this situation, where he believed he would and could enter the charterhouse, then behind anything that Dom Gabriel told him to do there was another dimension, in all probability. The dimension of that goodness that the whole universe seems to favor in the end, that mystery of God that David had so desperately clung to as a boy, and to which he was clinging, in all desperation, once again.

David really believed that in spite of its apparent weakness, in spite of setbacks and failure, in spite of all the monstrous horrors and atrocities that human beings have been responsible, it was goodness that dominated the universe. Perhaps not always, perhaps not at certain times, but definitely, David believed, in the long run.

So, if he had to leave the charterhouse and return to live with his parents for a time, he would survive. And even if it wasn’t the right thing to do in any objective sense, even if there was the danger that his parents would continue their work of trying to crush and destroy him – as he saw it – nevertheless it would somehow be all right. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

So he left the bright cell of the charterhouse with its warm light-colored wooden panelling. He left with much regret, but he believed he would come back one day and be able to stay there. Surely there could be no other way for him. Surely this was what was wanted of him by that splendid goodness he was convinced was ruling his universe.

He didn’t return to his parents directly, though. He couldn’t bring himself to do that. He felt he had to prepare himself in whatever way he could. He had the feeling that he should build up his strength in order to face what he saw as their destructive power. He returned to Boston and to the apartment he shared with Marc.

He didn’t hear anything from the charterhouse or from Dom Gabriel, except for one letter in which Dom Gabriel questioned whether David really had graduated from Harvard. David sent him his Harvard diploma, which was acknowledged and returned.

Later, in the autumn, he started writing to Marc Christiansen in California again. It not only passed the time, it allowed him to think that perhaps Marc might offer him a way out of his situation, a way out of his hopelessness. Marc was something he could invest his hope in.

David was so self-centered that he thought very little about Marc Welford, whom he was living with. He thought more about Marc Christiansen, three thousand miles away in California.

To be fair, though, it may have been that David was not so much self-centered, as he was locked in his own private world of pain and misery, where almost no one could reach him.

And where he perhaps wanted to be? Perhaps, but only because the world he was familiar with – even if it was a world of pain and misery – was less frightening than a strange, new world, even if that world was filled with delight and happiness.

That whole question was meaningless for David, though, because he didn’t even know where such a world might be.


One day David received a letter from Marc Christiansen inviting him to San Francisco. Everything in David’s poor, benighted mind jumped at the idea. He was sure this would be a new beginning – he forgot about all the other times in his life when he’d been sure he’d arrived at a new beginning. Without even thinking how his decision might affect Marc Welford – they’ d been friends, after all, for three years – he started planning to fly to California.

Selfish he was, and blind. And stupid, but the divinity he’d once believed in didn’t forsake him even now that he was going to spend weeks doing things he’d known once were wrong. He flew to California, and Marc met him at the airport in San Francisco. As always happens in such cases, everything was slightly different from what had been expected, different for both of them. Marc seemed distant, and San Francisco seemed strangely provincial after cities on the east coast like Boston or New York, or even Washington.

And David looked thin and almost gaunt to Marc. David had lost weight, deliberately, because he was always afraid – unnecessarily – of being fat, or looking fat. The problem was that he’d lost too much weight, and he looked different from what Marc had remembered.

The whole visit began with everything slightly out of focus, so to speak, and that “slightly” made all the difference in the world. David no longer felt the giddy sense of hero-worship for Marc that he’d once felt, the sense almost that there was some psychic or spiritual bond between them. And for Marc, for Marc David was starting to appear in some respects rather pathological, even though he’d once told David – and often in his life had thought – that “we’re all full of pathology.”

And it was cold in San Francisco in December, David had never realized it could be so cold in California. The air was cold and damp, the weather dreary, and Marc’s apartment – in one of the city’s upscale neighborhoods – always seemed to be freezing.

The atmosphere was cold in other ways as well. David was isolated and alone, as always, and yet at the same time more than he always was. Marc had his work, his circle of friends, and even a close friend as well, in the person of Ulrich, an young Austrian doctor who’d studied in the California and was now practicing medicine there. David felt, as always, that he had nothing and no one. Suddenly he felt more lost than ever.

There was a party one evening at the house of one of Marc’s friends, a wild, decadent affair, the sort of gathering David had always avoided at Harvard, in his attempts to retain his purity – an attempt that perhaps had less to do with piety and holiness and more to do with a kind of pride, a pride in being the best, a desire to excel. That sort of basis for purity, in contrast to a real love of God, was bound to fail – but again perhaps the poor, stupid boy should not be judged to harshly in his ignorance.

It was typical of the way David lived his life that he should have avoided parties like that at Harvard, because he thought they might corrupt him, and then left Harvard when he thought Harvard itself was corrupting him, and now that he had given up Harvard and lost everything, he was giving in to to exactly the sort of corruption he’d tried to run away from.

Now he really had lost everything – Harvard, his future, his chance to do something with his life, together with the purity and moral goodness he’d sacrificed everything for.

That kind of behavior would not be unusual in David’s life, though. Over and over again from now on he’d sacrifice everything and gain nothing in return. It would be a recurring pattern, it would be the recurring pattern in his life.

At other times and other places he would be scorned and attacked for his weakness, destroyed for his weakness, as weak animals are attacked and destroyed by their peers. Perhaps, though, without any feeling of sorrow or pity for him, it should at least be acknowledged that he did suffer, he did feel pain, because of the course his wasted life took, wasted in terms most people would recognize anyway. Most people, though, could always ignore what individuals like David experienced. Didn’t they deserve to suffer, after all? At any rate, they must have done something to deserve such suffering. Or if not, well, it couldn’t be repeated too often that David was crazy, and crazy people feel no pain, do they?

Marc Christiansen too thought David must be crazy. He suggested that David talk to a friend of his who was a psychiatrist. The conversation ended when David quite lucidly explained his understanding of his situation, though not, of course, what he could do about it. The psychiatrist saw no point in a any further conversations, perhaps also because there was no money to be made from seeing David. The psychiatrist after all only agree to talk to him as a favor to Marc.

As the days and weeks past, relations between Marc and David became more and more strained. The iciness of the weather in San Francisco and the temperature in Marc’s apartment was matched in their attitude toward one another now. As always, David stayed in the apartment most of the time. He felt almost as though he were in a foreign country. He didn’t seem to speak the language. He had no idea how to find a job.

Finding work seemed as hopeless to David in San Francisco as it had in Boston, where he’d at least been familiar with the surroundings. San Francisco, though, was like a foreign city, and even though he’d already lived in so many foreign cities, David felt so lost and disoriented most of the time that even finding his way to some office for an interview was beyond him.

Besides, if he’d had no self-confidence in Boston, he felt he had less than none now in San Francisco. If looking for a job seemed hopeless in Boston, it was absolutely beyond his powers to imagine in San Francisco. Where could he go if he even wanted to start looking for a job? What could he do? He felt he had no talents, no skills, nothing he could offer to a potential employer, except perhaps his typing ability. “You’re letters are always so beautifully typed,” his mother had once written to him.

Perhaps David can’t be blamed too much for being the kind of person he was. His mother couldn’t recognize what he’d done at Harvard or what he’d achieved in Africa, but she certainly could admire his typing skills. Poor, destructive woman that she was, David would often think to himself later in life, to have escaped her and to have survived to any degree at all surely had to be a small miracle.

David would think about that in the years that followed, whenever he heard anyone say that “just surviving” wasn’t really much of an accomplishment; it wasn’t really much of a life. How little such people know, David used to think. How little they know. Sometimes “just surviving” can represent an achievement of the very highest order, and doing tha is perhaps even more remarkable when no one recognizes it as much of an accomplishment at all.

David felt as lost in San Francisco as he did everywhere else, and soon he was wondering what in the world he was doing in this strange, cold, damp city. It seemed to him he’d reached the end of the world, his world, anyway, and there was nowhere else he could go.

One morning he got up late, after Marc had left for work. On the dining room table there was an airline ticket in his name, from San Francisco back to his parents’ home town in Michigan. So that was it, he thought, that was the end of one more crazy dream.

He called his parents, and his stepfather said he’d spoken with Marc – as one doctor to another, he indicated – and it was decided that David should return home. Under other circumstances, David would probably have resented the fact that other people were making decisions for him. Now, though, because he felt he didn’t understand anything at all about what was going on in his life, he was quite happy to be going back to his parents’ house.

And then he turned where he’d always turned when life was confusing and made no sense, he turned to God, or to what his idea of God was. Surely God could save him when no one else could. He started thinking about the charterhouse again. Since he was now back with his mother and stepfather, why shouldn’t he do what Dom Gabriel had suggested nearly six months ago? What did he have to lose? Why shouldn’t he stay where he was for several months, work and repay the loan to Harvard, and then go back to the charterhouse?

His mother and stepfather of course thought it was a crazy idea, but since they’d long ago written David off as crazy, it was easy for them to acknowledge that this was what he wanted to do. “Just don’t tell anyone you want to be a monk,” his mother said to him one cold, rainy day. When David asked her why not, she replied, “Just because.” And that was all.

David’s stepfather said nothing at all about David’s plans. For him, David’s desire to be a monk was in the same category as a desire to travel to Mars. It was simply outside his frame of reference. It wasn’t that such a desire made no sense to him. Such a desire belonged to another dimension that was inaccessible to him, one that simply didn’t exist.

As far as he was concerned, crazy people always said strange things, and there was no reason to pay any attention to them.

Finding some job and repaying the Harvard loan, though, was something his mother and stepfather could understand. It was something like therapy. It would be as if David were weaving baskets in an insane asylum, because the only job they suggested was a job as a manual labourer in a local factory that David’s stepfather had a financial interest in.

It was a factory that made gears for truck engines, and David had to work the night shift, from eleven at night to seven in the morning. He and several others worked in a small room that was equipped with special machines for measuring the dimensions of gears. The men who worked on the machines that produced the gears brought them to David and his co-workers, and they measured them to see if they met the company’s standards.

David and the other “gear inspectors” were often extremely tired, even groggy, working in the middle of the night, and David often wondered just how accurate their measurements really were. The men who produced the gears, though, accepted the inspectors’ evaluations with a kind of humility and resignation that impressed David. If the inspectors found that the gears didn’t meet the required specifications, the men had to go back to their machines, reset them, and try again. This was a laborious process for them.

It was all also a laborious process for David as well. But he felt he was making a sacrifice that would surely make a difference – even though that difference might forever remain unseen. The pain of the boredom, the pain of having lost everything he cared about at Harvard, the pain of feeling he was wasting his mind, all that became part of the sacrifice to the God that he believed in so desperately, for it was God – or at least his idea of God, which was really no idea at all – that gave meaning to his life, now that everything had been lost.

Hour after hour he worked in the factory, day after day. The atmosphere was loud, dirty, and ugly, but at least the other workers were kind, decent men. And he hardly felt the pain of not using his mind, he hardly felt the pain of wasting his mind, he hardly felt the pain of not being at Harvard or not being anyplace where he could use his mind.

And through the dirt and filth of winter, he managed to save his money, he managed week after week to send a check to Harvard to pay off the loan, which at the beginning had seemed to him to be impossibly high. The dirt and filth of winter – dirt and filth in the factory and dirt and filth in the streets and on the houses in the decrepit part of town where the factory was located. Day after day David managed to survive this, while at home with his mother and stepfather he had another sort of nightmare to survive.

Because he was working at night, he had to try to sleep during the day, but because that was practically impossible, he went around in a kind of warped daze all of the time. He’d never been very good at sleeping in the daytime – he’d never learned to do it when he’d been in the Arctic during his Harvard years, or in the pulp mill in British Columbia. Those places too had been so filled with noise and activity that he’d never been able to sleep properly.

And now, in the house of his mother and stepfather, the situation seemed to him to be even worse. In the whole enormous house with its indoor swimming pool, there were three bedrooms, besides the maid’s room, which was never used because his poor mother found it impossible to retain a maid. The largest bedroom was occupied by his mother and stepfather. Adjoining it, separated by a bathroom was the second bedroom that his brother used when he was home, and the third bedroom was meant for David.

All of these rooms opened out onto a hallway that his poor mother seemed to use constantly during the day, pounding up and down on the thickly carpeted floor with a strength that was as surprising as the loud thuds that this strength produced. The family dog, a nervous, excitable wire-haired fox terrier, took over the hallway when his mother was using it, and even though the dog couldn’t pound through it the way his mother could, the animal’s loud, almost constant barking more than made up for that lack of ability.

David thought he could escape some of the noise by sleeping in the bedroom meant for a maid. This room, though, was located just off the kitchen and near the kitchen door. His mother used this door early every morning, just as David was trying to get to sleep, when she took the dog – which was invariably barking wildly – for a walk.

One day after another, David thought to himself, one day after another. Every day is one more day, and soon the succession of days will end, and he’d be free. He’s have paid off his debt to Harvard, and he’d be free.

Even that thought, though, probably wouldn’t have been enough to save David’s sanity, if he hadn’t fulfilled another requirement that Dom Gabriel had established for him: David was supposed to re-establish good relations with his mother and stepfather, but with his natural father as well.

“I think your father moved to Florida,” his mother said to him one morning, when David asked her about him. “Or out to California.” She was standing in front of the sink in their enormous, expensive kitchen. She didn’t look at David as she spoke, but seemed to concentrate on rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Occasionally she stared out the window. “I don’t know where he is.”

David was sitting at the glass-topped breakfast table near the kitchen’s bay window. “Didn’t he used to live in some small town not far from here? Didn’t he move there after he remarried?”

“Well, yes, I think so,” she answered hesitantly, warily. “They lived somewhere near Three Rivers, I think, or a little town called Cassopolis.” She opened the dishwasher. “But I’m sure they moved away a long time ago. I heard that somewhere.”

In those days, David still believed everything she told him. He decided if this town of Cassopolis was the last place his father lived, then he would start there looking for him. One bright, freezing day in December, he drove the fifty miles to the town and found his way to the tiny post office. He went inside and found the place deserted. There were no customers, and two of the three service windows had “closed” signs in front of them. Behind the middle window, a heavy-set, balding man was sorting letters. He looked up as David walked in, and then looked down at his work again.

David didn’t know what he should say, what he could say, so as always in such situations, he just blurted out the first thing that came into his head. “I – I’m looking for my father,” he said. “Daniel Adamkus. He used to live in Cassopolis.”

“Still does,” said the man, now glancing at David with some curiosity.

David reacted with something of the boyish naivete he once had. “He does?” he said excitedly. “Where is – can you tell me what his address is?”

The man took a slip of paper and carefully printed some words on it. “You turn right up here at the intersection, and follow the road to the edge of town. You’ll see the mailbox.”

David wasn’t quite sure why, but the prospect of seeing his father again made him feel glad and free at the same time. If he’d thought about it, he would have realized that the reason was that seeing his father again, created the prospect of being free from his mother and stepfather’s house. The fact that he’d never really gotten along very well with his father didn’t seem at all important to him at this point.

And yet, he thought to himself, what had become of his father? What sort of man was he now? What kind of conditions was he living in? He’d heard that his father had remarried, but that was all he knew about him. What was his wife like?

With these questions in his mind, David followed the postal clerk’s directions and drove to his father’s house. He found the address easily, there was a mailbox near the road, and as he turned into the drive, he was that the house was really the center of a small farm, and there were no other houses in the immediate vicinity.

The house was a low one-storey building, obviously well-maintained, a sort of modified version of the “ranch style” home that had been popular in that part of the country. It struck David as extremely attractive, set in the middle of a broad expanse of ground covered with snow that matched the white siding of the house itself. Green shutters at the windows gave the place an air of warmth and security and seemed to hint at coziness within.

David was relieved when he saw it. At least his father wasn’t destitute. Because it was a Saturday morning, he was sure his father would be home. He rang the bell. In a moment it was opened by a pleasant-looking, middle-aged woman, shorter than David, who smiled at him inquiringly.

“Hello,” David said. “Is Daniel Adamkus here?”

“Well, no, not right now. He’s at the Laundromat. Can I help you with anything?”

“I don’t know – I’m David Austin. I was born David Adamkus. I’m Daniel Adamkus’ son.”

The woman’s eyes widened. Her mouth opened in surprise and she covered it with her right hand. “Oh, my goodness,” she said, and her eyes seemed to become moist. “Oh my,” she repeated and stared at David for a moment. “Daniel will be so glad to see you. I’ll telephone him right away. We a have a small business, you know. A Laundromat and cleaners. Daniel’s there now. I was just about to leave to help him – it’s a good thing you came when you did.” The flood of words stopped and she looked at David. “Oh my,” she said again. He liked the look on her face. It was warm and kind, so different from the look on his own mother’s face.

In later years, David often thought that in a life full of mistakes, one of the biggest he’d made was deciding to leave his father after his parents divorced and to go to live with his mother and stepfather. He’d been weak, though, and he’d given in to his mother’s incessant pleading. Besides, at the time, he thought there was no longer any reason for him to stay with his father, if his father was going to remarry. After all, he’d always felt closer to his mother, and the only reason he’d stayed with his father was because his mother had not done what was right, as David saw it, in divorcing his father. His father had been wronged, and so David believed he should stay with him.

Actually, though, his decision to live with his mother and stepfather was almost certainly influenced by his mother’s constant reminder of all of the material advantages he would have with her and her new husband.

David couldn’t have known then how great the price in psychological maiming that he would have to pay for those supposed material advantages, which hardly materialized anyway. His mother became adept at always promising them but then never really fulfilling that promise, in order to try to bind David every more closely to herself.

Of course, there would have been problems if he’d gone to live with his father, and even though the problems would have been different, they might have been just as serious, though David really doubted that. The woman that his father married seemed to be too wise and too gentle and too sane for David to develop the kind of problems that made him suffer so much in his mother and stepfather’s house.

If he had continued to live with his father, though, even after his father remarried, David would never have known what horrors he’d suffer with his mother and stepfather. If David had lived with his father, he might have forever thought that life with his mother and stepfather would have been the better choice, that they and their money would have made him blissfully happy.

All that could never have happened, though, because his mother knew exactly how to put tremendous pressure on him, and she would have deployed every bit of that knowledge in order to move David to come and live with her and her new husband.

The woman his father had married was named Jane, and as David listened to her speaking to his father on the telephone, telling him about David’s arrival, he could see what a really kind, balanced, warm, and loving woman she was – different, sadly, from his poor mother. He could see that the kitchen they were sitting in, the whole house, radiated her warmth and love.

David was sitting at a kitchen table in front of a large window and glass doors that looked out onto a snow-covered terrace and the fields beyond. Everything in the kitchen seemed to be made of maple – the table and chairs, the cabinets. Everything was spotlessly clean, and there were small bright touches everywhere that made the room seem warm and inviting – dishes with antique patterns visible in the cabinets, potholders hanging above the stove. The room even smelled clean and wholesome to David.

In a few moments David’s father arrived, and David was a little shocked to see how small and aged he seemed. But he smiled his broad smile at David and said in the usual way, that David knew so well, “Well, well, well, look who’s here!” He had tears in his eyes, though, that contradicted the banality of his greeting. What else, though, could David have expected him to say after not seeing one another for something like fifteen years?

My poor father, David thought as he looked at the little gray man before him, my poor, poor father. What kind of a life has he had?

As it turned out, that life hadn’t really been so bad. As he and Jane and David talked together, on into the late afternoon, it was clear that the couple had struggled at the beginning, and things at first had been very difficult for his father. As often happens with these things, he’d not only lost his first wife and his sons, he’d lost his job too, not long after David had moved into his mother and stepfather’s house. It was Jane alone who’d somehow saved the situation.

And perhaps losing his job had been a kind of relief for my father. He’d had to drive fifty miles, each way, from the town he lived in with Jane to the company where he worked, in the town where David grew up. That grueling schedule had gone on for months, and it pained David to think how wretched that period must have been for his father.

Poor David, though. He had no way of knowing that in the future his life would hold many periods that were just as grueling and just as wretched. In fact, the period he was living through just then, working at the factory, was one of those times, although his dream of the charterhouse shielded him from much of the pain.

But he felt sorry for his father. David could almost feel the despair his father must have felt at that time. In some ways, after he’d lost his job, his life became even more difficult. He didn’t have to face the long, lonely drive back and forth between his home and work anymore – and that must have been really difficult in the cold, dark days of winter. He still had to face long grueling days, though, after he and Jane bought their small business. He still had to get up in the very early in the morning, at an hour when it was dark even in summer, and go to their Laundromat to prepare the machines in a way that David never quite understood but which was apparently necessary.

David had the impression, though, that this kind of life was not only tolerable for his father, it was even in a way enjoyable; first, because he had a purpose now: he wanted to do the best he could for Jane and her children, his stepchildren. Secondly, Jane was the kind of wife he probably thought he’d married when he’d married David’s mother years ago. Jane was a loving woman, she supported him emotionally and psychologically, she gave him confidence, she gave him the benefit of her sanity, her stability, her great insights, even her wisdom.

All David’s poor mother had ever offered his father was the opposite of all that. The pitiable woman, though, was simply to ill, psychologically, to function any other way. It was not her fault. At least, though, even if David didn’t escape her destructive powers, his father did.

David was happy about that, even if it meant that his father had divorced and remarried, something which in David’s still strictly Catholic mind was objectively wrong. Whether it was subjectively wrong for his father to do that – after all, his father didn’t believe it was wrong – well, that was something David would leave up to God.


In time, David got into the habit of spending the weekends with his father and stepmother, as an escape from the grinding toil in the factory, and from the sleep deprivation and general craziness of his mother and stepfather’s house. He began to live for the weekends and for the sanity it represented, and the freedom from pain.

Living in his mother and stepfather’s house brought him constant pain. There was the pain of the his stepfather’s lowering presence, his suppressed anger, the constant threat he represented. That threat was all the worse for David because it was a vague, unexpressed, Kafaesque sort of threat, as though he were constantly about to be punished in a way he didn’t understand, for something he didn’t know he’d done wrong. When the man was in the house, his hulking presence made David want to flee.

His mother made him want to flee too, but for other reasons. Her odd mental distance from David, from everything around her, combined with a stangely fierce desire to be completely in control of everything around her left him no alternative, he thought, except to run away.

During that long – very long, practically interminable – winter in his mother and stepfather’s house in Michigan, David could only run away on the weekends, to his father’s home. That was the only way he could escape the confusion and pain and conflict. That was the only time he could feel he was in a house where people recognized his worth and value as a human being, it was the only time he could feel he was in a house where people even saw him.

His mother and stepfathers house was a perfect example of the way a large, beautiful, and beautifully furnished house could be an utter hell. It was a large L-shaped one-storey house when viewed from the front, but it was set at the top of a hill, so that viewed from the rear, from the downward sloping side of the hill, a lower story could be seen. In a way, from the front, it was not possible to know exactly how large the house was.

It looked from the bottom of the hill like a fortress. A veranda made of redwood ran almost the whole length of the building and was support by huge columns made of what appeared to be large, sand colored blocks of stone, the same material that the house itself consisted of. Between these columns and the lower storey there was a terrace at ground level. From this terrace, sliding glass doors led into a swimming pool inside the house. Next to the swimming pool was a second livingroom – the main livingroom was upstairs and was reached through a wide, curving stairway that led up to a foyer and then into the sunken livingroom.

It was an impressive house, striking in its own way, with inhabitants that were as miserable as their house was beautiful.

“All that money, and they’re so unhappy,” Jane said one day, shaking her head. “I mean it’s sad.”

She was sitting with David and David’s father at the table of their snug kitchen. The kitchen, like the house itself, seemed to breathe warmth and kindness. It was certainly less grand than the house David’s mother and stepfather lived in, but it was furnished in a style that was not only contemporary but, in a strange way, almost ageless. Whenever David was there he felt secure, even protected, from some of the horrors of the past few years – or at least they’d been horrors for him.

He sometimes thought how strange it was that when he’d been in the army, he’d had a sort of recurring waking dream. In the middle of some particularly gruelling exercise, in the heat of August, for example, in the sandy arena of the army camp in Louisiana where they had bayonet practice, with everyone seeming to be screaming one thing or another all around him, the vivid image of a small house would come into his mind.

It was a simple American frame house, made of wood, and it was always a bright, clear day, with everything bathed in sunshine. David was safe there, safe from the awfulness of army life, safe from the awfulness of all his life up to then. An elderly couple lived in the house, and they were kind and protective, and they gave him an added sense of security. The house seemed somehow to be out of time, in another dimension, and the fields and woods around it, the sky overhead, everything appeared to belong to a world quite different from the one he’d always known.

Simply thinking about the house made David feel happy. Simply thinking about the house had relieved the confusion, the discomfort, the boredom, and the squalor of life in the army – although he had to admit that at the beginning, the army hadn’t been so bad. It was only during the last two months that the experience had been – he might have said – difficult.

So now sometimes, when he visited his father and Jane, he had the feeling he’d found that house, at least for a while, and he needed it, needed his father and Jane, because life with his mother and stepfather was more crazy-making – as his classmates from New York might have expressed it – than the army.

So the winter ground on, with only the weekends with his father and Jane as a relief. Little by little he was able to pay back the Harvard loan. Once, in the spring, Marc Welford came to see him for a few hours, and David explained to him what he wanted to do, and Marc accepted it and went away again.

But did David explain it to himself, what he wanted to do?

It was a question he never asked. It was a question that never occurred to him. During his teenage years, he’d immersed himself in the writings of Thomas Merton, and he believed that being a monk – and perhaps even more preposterously, a hermit – was the greatest thing he could do with his life. And actually, he always would think that. That’s what is perhaps so sad.

He would always think that, but was that too quite possibly just an illusion? Impossible to answer that question. All that can be said is that during that whole winter, what drove him on were all the ideas about the monastic life that had filled his head as a teenager. It was the perfect life, it was the life where he could try to achieve the one thing necessary, where he could find the one person, God, that would make him happy and that would complete him, fulfil all the endless longings in his mind – and in his heart and soul, if those terms still make any sense.

In the monastery he would experience the glorious silence of heaven, the powerful and all-powerful silence of God. In the monastery he would find what everyone outside was restlessly looking for. He would in some dim way commune with God in the psalms the monks spent so much time singing every day. Alone in his cell in the charterhouse, he could read about God during the time for reading, he could think about God as he sawed the wood that would be used in the winter to warm the cell, he could contemplate God as he worked in the garden of his cell, in the spring and summer and autumn, and as he walked in the garden in the winter.

“God, God, God,” says a woman in a film that David saw once, “can’t you priest talk of anything else?” And the priest answers quietly, “There is nothing else.” And for David too during that long winter, as he was working his way back to the monastery, there was also “nothing else.”

As spring and then summer appeared over the low hills surrounding the town, turning them green, David felt an irrepressible joy growing within him. What he saw as the torture of the factory work, the torture of living with his mother and stepfather would soon be over, and he would be free. Then happiness could finally begin for him. The nightmare would be over.

Poor, benighted boy, he couldn’t know, he couldn’t have the vaguest idea, that it was the nightmare that had begun and would grow worse. He couldn’t know that in comparison with what was to come, the time of working in the factory and living with his mother and stepfather would be what seemed like happiness.

When he had confirmation that the final instalment of the repayment of his Harvard loan had been received, he wrote to the prior of the charterhouse in Vermont to tell him he was ready to return there. The prior wrote back that before David could do that, he had to go to New York to take the psychological tests that were required of everyone who wanted to enter the charterhouse.

Obediently, resignedly, David made a reservation to fly to New York. He was not happy about what he had to do, but he was confident that he would pass the tests easily. After all, even though the psychiatrist at Harvard had called him crazy, he knew he wasn’t crazy. He also knew enough, though, not to deny he was crazy. He knew that for a psychiatrist – and for most other people – the surest sign of craziness in a person who’d been labelled crazy was for that person to deny he was crazy. He simply avoided thinking about the whole question.

In later years, what David would remember most about that time – the flight to New York and the visit there – was a conversation he had with an elderly, very kind, and obviously well-to-do man on the plane. They were sitting in the first class section. Ordinarily, David would never have flown that way, but he’d been moved up from economy class, because that section had been overbooked and there were vacant seats in the first class cabin.

David started talking with the old man, who was white-haired, well-dressed and had a gentle smile. After a time, the man asked him what he was planning to do in New York.

David hesitated a moment, but the man seemed so kind, so understanding, that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t just tell him. “Well, I’m going there to take the tests that are required to enter a Catholic monastery,” he said.

The man gave him a broad smile and squeezed his hand. David told the man about the Carthusians and why he wanted to become a monk – or more than a monk, a hermit. The man looked at him and gave another mysterious smile.

“I know it will be difficult,” David said, “even very difficult, but I’ve heard life goes by very quickly.”

The man smiled again, and said nothing. He reminded David of one of the old men in a poem by Yeats, wise and somehow all-knowing, at least where important things were concerned. David would often think of him in the months and years that followed. David even believed that the old man might eventually be one of those praying for him in heaven, though he could at least recognize how absurd something like that would sound to most people.

When David finally arrived in New York, he was sure he was only one step away from realizing his dream, he would soon be in the charterhouse.

Many will say that the persistence of that dream was caused by David’s insecurity, his feelings of having been abandoned by all the significant people in his life – his mother and stepfather, everyone at Harvard. People will say that because David felt so hopelessly lost, so afraid of the future and of the world around him, he saw the charterhouse as a refuge, a kind of safe zone where he would be taken care of and where he could survive all of the uncertainties of life that raged around him and sometimes almost paralyzed him with fear.

Of course there could have been some truth in all that. In fact, there probably was a great deal of truth in all that. At the same time, it might be wrong not to give David the benefit of the doubt, at least in some small way.

He certainly believed that his motives for wanting to enter the charterhouse were pure and were based on a desire to know and love God, and there may have been some truth in that too, though not as much as David thought.

However, not only did he believe, in the rational part of his mind, that he ought to love God and seek God and live only for God – or at least try to do those things – he was also, in the more emotional part of his mind, moved to do those things. He wanted to do those things out of a deep, emotional drive that kept pushing him on and made him feel happy, made him feel that he was at last doing the one thing that would make his life make sense.

Ideas like these kept him going in New York, these ideas and his own adrenaline as well. Finally, after so many years – he kept thinking this again and again – the dream would become real. Finally, the long, tortuous road would end and he would have arrived at his goal. All that reading and all those dreams about the monastery would find concrete expression in his own life.

He would find God. He would arrive at what mankind had been created for, and he would do it not merely in the next world, but in this one.

New York was hot. It was one of the hottest summers on record, and if he’d stopped to think about it, the city would have seemed unspeakably ugly to him. He didn’t stop to think about it, though, because his mind was too full of thoughts about the place where he would finally be, in just a few days.

He found his way to the office of the monsignor who was in charge of administering psychological tests for candidates for the religious life in the New York diocese and in other dioceses as well. He never saw the monsignor, of course, only some of his assistants, who administered a series of psychological tests to David.

Of course he was apprehensive about the tests, but at the same time he looked forward to them, because he was sure they would prove he wasn’t crazy, contrary to what the Harvard psychiatrist had said. He needed that proof, he needed that reassurance, and then he could return with great enthusiasm to the charterhouse, knowing that once and for all he’d shown everyone he was all right, he was sane.

He was determined to answer the questions in a way that would demonstrate his normality, just as he’d answered the questions long before in the army, determined then to demonstrate his machismo, so that he wouldn’t be assigned to some weakling clerk’s job.

He was at the psychologists office all day long, and he was sure he’d done what he set out to do. When he walked out into the streets of New York, it was hot and humid, and the city seemed ugly and dirty to him. He didn’t care, though, he knew he wouldn’t be there for long. He’d spend one more night in the city and then in the morning he’d go to Mass and take the bus to Vermont. He’d be in his idea of heaven again, when everything was clean and pure and good. He’d be away from the city, forever.

He went back to his small hotel room, read for while, went out and had something to eat, and then went back and read some more and went to sleep.

Early the next morning he went to the Greyhound bus terminal in Manhattan, bought a ticket, and boarded a bus for the long trip to Vermont. In later years, he would remember nothing about that trip. He talked to no one. His mind was concentrated, completely focused, on where he was going and what he was going to do.

It was “glorious summer” in Vermont, everything bright and fresh and green. The small towns he went through, with their steepled churches and white clapboard houses, their green commons and general stores full of products that all seemed home-made, appeared to be not a part of New England, but part of another world he’d never been aware before. And it was a world he was sure he’d be leaving forever now.

He got a ride to the gate house that controlled access to charterhouse road, and there he asked to use the telephone. He called the prior’s number and asked if someone could come down and pick him up.

He sat down on the porch and waited in the summer heat. He didn’t think about the passage of time, he didn’t even really know how much time had passed when he saw a station wagon pull up in front of him. A bald head on the driver’s side turned to him and grinned. David could see the upper part of a Carthusian habit.

It was Brother Norbert, a Norwegian monk. The community was so small, and there were so few outsiders who stayed in the charterhouse for very long, that he remembered David. “Good to see you again,” he said, with the Scandinavian lilt in his voice. Once more the thought flashed through David’s mind, the question of what it was like to spend your life in a foreign land, in a foreign religious community, never hearing your own language spoken, knowing you’d never seen your own country again. Brother Norbert seemed happier than many other people David had met in his life.

“It’s great to see you again too, Brother Norbert,” David answered. How’s everything at the charterhouse? How’s Dom Gabriel?

“The prior’s fine,” he said. “And things haven’t changed much.” He laughed. “For us, things haven’t changed much in the last nine hundred years or so.”

David smiled. That was what he wanted – not the absence of change necessarily, but a reflection of eternity. They road in silence for a moment. An expensive car passed them, going in the opposite direction. Brother Norbert waved at the elderly woman who was driving.

“You know the story of this charterhouse, don’t you?”

Yes, David told him, he did. It had been Dom Gabriel who had told him about the way a wealthy industrialist, a chemist, had amassed the huge land holdings of the charterhouse – ten thousand acres – in the late 1940’s. He’d been a not-very-often-practicing Catholic, and at the end of his life – in an almost medieval fashion – wanted to do something for the Church, something that might be of use to him in the next world, something that might make up for the lapses in this world.

He decided to give the land to a religious order that would pray for his soul after he died. That meant, almost inevitably, a contemplative order, one whose whole vocation was prayer. He’d thought seriously of the Trappists, of course. Thomas Merton had made that order practically the best-known Catholic contemplative order in the entire world. Their monasteries, in an image that could come only from America, were to be thought of as “power plants of prayer.” The nineteen-fifties were their decade in America, the era of their greatest and most rapid expansion in the New World.

The industrialist had almost given the land to them to build a monastery on, but somehow or somewhere he heard about the Carthusians, a much smaller order that until then had never founded any monasteries outside of Europe. It was the old Irish monk, who had been introduced to David a year earlier as the novicemaster, who had been prior at the time and who negotiated the deal to acquire the land. And so the estate went to the Carthusians and not to the Trappists.

All his life David would think of the charterhouse that had been built on the land: those great granite slabs with windows opening onto the outside world, would always symbolize strength and solidity and security for him. They would in his mind always be the perfect refuge from what he saw as the horrors of the world outside – the noise, the people he found so hard to deal with, the weight of materialism that seemed to drag down everything that mattered to the intellect and the spirit.

All of that was absent from the charterhouse in Vermont, and all his life long he would remember the feeling of safety the place generated in him, and the sense of freedom. Behind those walls, David felt his spirit was light, liberated, capable of going almost anywhere and doing anything, as long as he was physically present in the charterhouse.

An illusion? If it hadn’t been an illusion, wouldn’t David had been able to remain there? Wouldn’t he have done everything he could in order to remain there?

The night office, when the monks sang their songs in the middle of the night, was the time of his greatest and deepest sense of a reality beyond this world – or the time of his greatest illusion or greatest dream. He experienced – or he thought he experienced – at such moments something that he would always find it difficult or impossible to put into words. He experienced another dimension, something transcendent. He experienced God? He wouldn’t have said that, because he knew that no one can experience God. But there was, as Robert Frost once put it, “For once, then, something.”

Of course it was an illusion. It had to be, but David believed in that illusion, he believed in it with all his heart. It was as real for him as the granite walls that surrounded him with their strength and protection. And who, really, is to say that it was in fact an illusion? If live in a world where truth is relative, where it changes from one day to the next, where truth is whatever someone says it is, where what is true for one person isn’t necessarily true for another, then who is to say, in the end, that David’s perceptions were an illusion?

He would often in later years find many of his perceptions confirmed:

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

. . . or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all. . . .

“Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

David would always feel that that was what he’d known in Vermont. “The intersection of the timeless moment”. “Never and always.”

And that was how David would always remember his time in the charterhouse in Vermont, a succession of timeless moments, never and always. One day after another in the sun-filled living quarters of his cell.

The time designated as “recreation” he was told to spend working in the small, walled garden that was accessed from each cell, and from his cell as well. This he did – like everything in the charterhouse – quite happily. The garden was full of weeds which he tried to pull up from the hard, stony New England soil with his bare hands. When that failed, he chopped at the earth with a hoe until his hands were blistered.

He had nothing to plant in the garden, no seeds at any rate, but a tiny maple tree had started to sprout, and he lovingly worked around it and tried to keep it from drying out in the hot sun of August.

Dom Gabriel told him to lay a path of stones across the garden, and this he managed to do as well. The only large pieces of stone he could find, though, were large enough to form a walkway, but they were very thin.

David should have perhaps seen what would be coming a few days later, when one day Dom Gabriel visited him in the garden to talk with him. They walked back and forth, Dom Gabriel on the stone path David had made, and David at his side, on the ground at the edge of the path. With every hard and forceful step he took, Dom Gabriel shattered one of the thin stones, but he seemed neither to notice nor care. After they had walked back and forth across the garden a few times, the path looked like nothing more than a mass of broken flagstones.

David would remember that much later, and think of it often, for it was a symbol of everything that happened to him in the charterhouse.

In the meantime, there were other things to be preoccupied with. He had to serve Dom Patrick’s daily Mass, following the unusual Carthusian ritual, which he took great pains to try to memorize. In the tiny stone chapel with its massive walls and tiny windows high up near the ceiling, he knelt at Dom Patrick’s feet, and before Mass he went to confession, every day, according to an ancient Carthusian custom.

He was concerned about getting everything right, almost obsessed with getting everything right for the Mass. It was important for him to do everything as Dom Patrick wanted it done. He wanted to be obedient. He also wanted to be humble and to show he was humble, so he worried a great deal about serving Mass correctly, and this became the most difficult part of his day.

But the rest was easy: the silence, the solitude, the recitation of the Divine Office in the cell he lived in and in choir with the monks. Once a week they all went for the usual walk for two or three hours, and he was able to talk to the monks again as he’d done in the previous summer.

One day Dom Gabriel came to see him in the cell. He sat down with David in the spartan living room, and smoothed out the folds in his habit. If it was possible for Dom Gabriel to look uncomfortable, he looked uncomfortable then to David. “I have some news for you,” Dom Gabriel said.

“Oh,” said David, not know what else to say, except, “Yes?” Dom Gabriel had never looked so Jewish to David – or in a way so loveable – as he did at that moment – the intellectual, hesitating, nodding with his beak-like nose.

“Last summer when you were here, Dom Patrick was of course the novice master.” He paused and glanced at David. “But I’ve found that Dom James needs more to do, so I’ve made him novice master.”

David was floored. Dom James was novice master? Because he needed something to do? David wondered what in the world was going on. Dom Patrick may not have been Thomas Merton – David’s ideal of a novice master – but he was a lot more Merton-like than the youthful Dom James. Anyway, how could a novice master be David’s own age?

It seemed so crazy to him. He kept turning the question over and over in his mind. The post of novice master was one of the most important positions in a monastery. The novice master would be forming future generations of monks. In a sense, he was responsible for the ultimate life and survival of the monastery. David could not understand the decision to give the post to someone who simply needed something to do. How could that be?

An even more urgent question: if the monk who was made novice master because he needed something to do was also not very intelligent or insightful or even very stable, what kind of a novice master would he really be, or could he really be?

The very fact that David was asking these questions, the fact that he couldn’t simply accept the prior’s decision, and couldn’t accept Dom James as novice master was, many people will say, a good indication that he really had no vocation to the charterhouse after all, no vocation to be a monk.

A monk is obedient, a monk never questions his superiors, a monk accepts everything humbly, whether it’s food, clothing, shelter – or a novice master. Anyone who couldn’t do that perhaps had no business trying to be a monk.

One day near the end of the month that David was in the charterhouse, Dom Gabriel came to see him in the cell he lived in. It was one of those days when the New England light poured through the huge window of the cell’s living area and seemed to fill the room to overflowing. The light-colored pine panelling shone a warm and almost liquid brown.

Dom Gabriel sat down opposite David, who looked at him with his usual wide-eyed naiveté. “I’ve received the report of the psychologists who gave you the tests in New York,” he said.

David smiled expectantly, certain that these psychologists would have only good things to say about him, and certain that they would once and for all put an end to the idea that David was crazy.

“They think,” Dom Gabriel went on, with a millisecond of a dramatic pause, “that it would be a disaster for you to enter this monastery.”

David felt suspended in space, as if the ground had been pulled out from under him as part of some cruel joke. Surely there was some mistake, he thought, surely this was some kind of test. After all, hadn’t St. Benedict said that no one should be given an easy entrance to the monastery?

David also felt paralyzed, as if he had lost for a moment the power to move or speak. Surely this couldn’t be true. He’d done everything that had been asked and expected of him. He’d gone back to Michigan, he’d undergone the unspeakable horror of having to live with his mother and stepfather, he’d worked in the nightmare of a factory in order to repay the loan from Harvard. Had all that been for nothing? How could such a thing be?

Or if this really was the decision of the psychologists, why weren’t those tests given at the beginning, before he’d gone through everything that he thought would lead him to the monastery?

He felt some wild cry well up in him, but he knew it would be fatal to release it. There was nothing to do but remain silent and, stunned, think how often something like this had seemed to happen in his life. Whether or not it really had, it did seem to be part of the pattern of confused wandering and meaninglessness that his life had become since that day he left Harvard.

It seemed to him that he’d tried so often to do something, anything, that would lead to a meaningful life, but nothing had worked. He’d expected something better when he’d left Harvard – a life of achievement and goodness, as absurd as that might sound. A life of wisdom, a life of becoming a wise man, who lived for something beyond the poor existence he’d always known.

Running to Wisconsin had brought him nothing, although he’d expected to find a refuge there. Running to New Mexico was supposed to bring him adventure somehow, although he hadn’t been sure what kind exactly. And then there’d been the army. He’d thought at first that the army might lead to something, to meaningfulness and great achievement, and he’d wanted to join permanently, as other reservists in his company had been allowed to do. But, no, he’d been told that wasn’t possible and afterwards he’d always believed that his stepfather, a fairly high-ranking reserve officer, had had something to do with that. Why else had he been the only one not allowed to leave the reserves and join the regularly army, when others were given the opportunity to do that? He’d had a good record, there could have been no objection from the army’s side – except for what his stepfather might have said or done.

And then the wandering after the army, the dreams of adventure in Canada – first in Montreal and then in the far North and in British Columbia.

But there’d been nothing, everything had been a waste. And, as with millions of other lost young people in the world, then and afterwards, there’d been nobody to help him, nobody to lead him out of his confusion and distress.

And now here he was in the charterhouse and at another dead end. Somehow, after everything that had happened before, it wasn’t surprising at all.

What could he do now? Better to just leave. Who was there to argue with? He saw the divine will behind this decision, even though on a natural level he couldn’t imagine what there’d been on his test results that had made the psychologist in New York come to such a conclusion. Or had he contacted Harvard and made his results conform to Harvard’s judgement of David?

Whatever had happened, David knew he wasn’t crazy, but he also knew there was no point in arguing the matter. He still knew, as he’d known at Harvard, that psychiatrists believed that the surest sign someone was crazy was that they denied they were crazy.

Anyway, what arguments could he have brought against the mere fact that these mighty authorities, looking down from atop the enormous wall that now blocked his way into the charterhouse, had judged him insane?

There was nothing he could do, nothing he could say. He told Dom Gabriel, humbly, quietly, that he would leave immediately.

Inside, though, David felt the void opening up all around him and above and below him, an enormous, dark abyss in which there was nothing, in which he was nothing, in which his life was nothing now. The bottom had dropped out of everything and he was sick with fear and with a feeling of sinking, downward, forever.

Where could he go? What could he do now? Dom Gabriel suggested he go to a so-called house of prayer – a sort of permanent retreat house – run by a nun on some property owned by the Jesuits near Gloucester.


The main building on what had once been the estate of a wealthy family was an enormous structure, a strange mixture of Tudor and Gothic, probably put together during or shortly after the era of the great robber barons. Some eccentric member of the clan had decided to build his house not at one of the centers of architectural fashion like Newport, but near the small village of Gloucester on the Massachusetts coast.

The grounds ran straight down to the sea, and the house commanded an almost majestic view of the Atlantic, as its waves thundered against the massive rocks along the shoreline. The Jesuits apparently rarely used the place, except perhaps for occasional retreats, and they had handed over its management to Father James, a small, wiry, white-haired priest of the Order, a man formed by the old Jesuit tradition of discipline and self-abnegation. He was, however, not unaffected by the changes that were transforming the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. At times he even seem confused and unsettled by them. David did not often have a chance to speak with him, but once the old man muttered unhappily, “And moral theology is a mess these days.”

Father James had given the former servants’ quarters on the estate over to a nun, Sister Elizabeth, who had come to him and asked for a place where she could establish what was at that time known as a House of Prayer.

Houses of prayer were popular in those days, and Catholic priests and religious seemed to be founding them all over the country. They were meant to be a place where Catholic lay people, both men and women, could go and make what amounted to semi-permanent retreats, for months or even years. They were supposed to lead lives of prayer, more or less away from the world, in an effort to find God in the new, free atmosphere that seemed to be filling the Church after the Council.

Of course there was no way David could survive in such an environment – he was beginning to think there was no way he could survive in any environment. He struggled along as best he could, though, even though he felt as if he were trying to make has way forward in a few inches of dark crawl space between the enormous block of leaden depression pressing down on him and the unyielding ground beneath.

In addition to the depression, he was trying to find his way around an environment that seemed to him a superficial combination of the hippie culture of the nineteen-sixties, yogic practices from India, and the ancient rituals of the Catholic Church. And all that depressed him even more.

The nun who who was in charge of the house was away and in her place was a young woman – apparently also a nun in secular clothes – who was about David’s age. She was extremely suspicious of David and seemed obsessed with the idea that he had to be held under iron control – or at least it seemed that way to David. The resulting tension only magnified David’s depression, which in turn made the young woman somehow more suspicious of David than ever.

There was one good element of the house of prayer that David would always remember, though: a visit by a Jesuit who was also a kind of contemplative, or who had at least written books on Catholic mysticism. He gave a few talks on contemplation to the residents of the house who were interested in the subject. Of all the things he said, there was only one that David would think of again and again in later life. The priest said that no one could teach you how to contemplate. It was not something you could learn, the way you might learn to speak French or to drive a car. Contemplation was something you “caught.”

David, of course, with his exaggerated idea of his own abilities was sure that he had “caught” or would “catch” the ability to practice contemplation. In spite of everything, in spite of all the many things he’d done wrong, in spite of what he would have called the numerous, awful sins he’d committed, David still had the illusion that he was some kind of saint.

With an idea that was born of a kind of pride, David actually thought he could – as it were – “excel” at being good. If he couldn’t be great in any other way, David believed in his heart of hearts and despite all evidence to the contrary that he could be great in goodness.

Of course such an idea is absurd and even laughable, but it serves to illustrate how unintelligent David was, how much he tended to have fantasies about himself, how much of his thinking was in a way “magical,” in the sense that thought he could make almost anything happen by simply believing that it would happen.

Pride. It all goes back to a kind of pride that was so much a part of him that he was unaware of it and unaware of its terrible effects. He was unaware of the way it limited him and confined him and confined his thinking. Pride had always caused him problems – pride and the crippled way he’d related to his mother, his stepfather, and his natural father. Because of all that, his relations with practically every other human being was handicapped in some way, to a greater or lesser extent – and often to a greater extent.

His relations with his poor mother certainly stood in the way of his relating at all to any woman who was an authority figure. He felt the damage his mother had done to him, and for that reason he may always have been on the defensive with every woman he encountered who had some kind of authority over him. He felt perhaps, at least unconsciously, that she was bound to harm him some way, or she would try to, so he had to try to prevent that.

Sometimes he tried to prevent it by avoiding the woman in question – or even by avoiding as many as possible. Sometimes he took a more hostile approach and tried to appear hard, cruel, and nasty toward the poor, hapless female who was supposed to be responsible for him or in charge of him. And more often than not, he not only appeared hard, cruel, and nasty, he really was hard, cruel, and nasty.

And so it was with the poor woman that the nun had left in charge of the House of Prayer. She seemed limited – even somewhat stupid – as far as David was concerned, and there was little he could do to change that opinion.

Actually, of course, he didn’t try at all to change it. Things were as they were, and that was all there was to it. He couldn’t change anything. He couldn’t change anything in his own life, so how could he ever change any aspect of another person.

There was nothing he could do but leave. Of course. That was the only solution he could ever think of in a dispute with another person: simply leave. Go somewhere else, go to another place, where he was sure to find that people were different, that there were people he could get along with, people who could understand him and the reasons he had for thinking the way he did.

Before David left, one of the older Jesuits at the house in Gloucester gave him the address and the name of the superior of a small Jesuit community in Cambridge, a group of younger Jesuits that were studying at Harvard. The old man thought David might be able to stay with the group, at least for a while.

David had a talk with the old man before he left Gloucester, and in later years he would remember only one thing from the conversation, “You need a victory,” the old man said to him, “you need a victory.”

David thought that was clear enough, but what he didn’t realize was that the old man meant that David had to achieve that victory himself. No one else could do it for him. As far as David was concerned, that victory was something could only be given to him from the outside, because he felt so smothered and confined and surrounded by failure and defeat in every direction that it seemed impossible to him that he could ever achieve that victory by himself, on his own. Or at least it would have seemed impossible to him, if he’d been able to think in those terms. But he’d been in a sense so programmed for failure and defeat that he couldn’t even understand that the victory the old priest talked about depended on him and not on something external to himself.

He knew nothing of victory, though, not then, perhaps not ever. He would eventually learn, perhaps, that contrary to what the priest and others might say, life doesn’t have to be a question of victory of defeat, at least not in the sense most people think. There doesn’t have to be a struggle for success or money or fame or power or anything else like that. There need be only the struggle against the elements in oneself that are not good, the elements that even David still sometimes thought of as not pleasing to God. That was really the only struggle that counted. And if there needed to be a victory in life, or if David needed a victory, then that was the kind of victory he should be trying for.

But he really didn’t know any of that then, and he didn’t know anything but defeat, the worst kind of defeat. Crushing, overwhelming, blinding defeat. Defeat in every sense. For not only didn’t he experience any victory in the things he thought were important – success and money and rest – he experienced no victory even in the struggle against what was base in his own nature, which he didn’t think much about at that time, and which of course ought to have been the central point in his whole struggle.

That idea certainly had been around at least since the time of the ancient Romans. There was nothing new about it, except that it would have been new to David, if he’d been able to consider it.

There was another idea, though, that had been around even longer, that David was about to learn the meaning of. The ancient Greeks believed that no one should ever be called happy until he’s dead. When David did hear that idea – or when he was reminded of it, for he had heard it Harvard before – he wondered if the meaning wasn’t that no one could ever really be happy until they’re dead. Later, of course, he understood that no one could be called happy, because life was full of unexpected turns of events, and if a man was happy one day, he could be plunged into misery the next.

The idea would eventually also be associated in David’s mind with the idea that no matter how miserable a man might be, there was always some further level of misery he could descend to.

Certainly in his case that was true. When it was clear to him that he could no longer stay in Gloucester, either in the House of Prayer or with the Jesuits, he decided to leave – or perhaps the decision was made for him by one of the people there. As with so many things in David’s life, it’s not very clear what exactly happened, except that someone – probably one of the Jesuits – gave him the address of a small Jesuit community in Cambridge, a group of Jesuit graduate students who were studying at Harvard.

David left Gloucester and went to Harvard with a kind of despair in his mind. As so often in his life, he carried on by means of little more than his will power. He simply willed to go on from one moment to the next, to put one foot ahead of the other, one mile ahead of the other.

He took the bus from Gloucester to Boston. He had almost no money now. He hadn’t really planned on needing any when he left Michigan in order to go to the charterhouse. He got to reached Boston very late at night, too late to go to the Jesuits’ place.

Somehow he managed to get to Harvard Square after leaving his small suitcase in a locker in the bus station, but he had no money to spend on a hotel. He decided to just wait until morning, and then go to the Jesuits’ place.

But it was cold. So cold. It was autumn now, and he had no heavy coat with him, because he’d been so certain of being to stay in the charterhouse. He’d thought he wouldn’t need a coat.

He walked around for a while and wound up along the Charles, in front of Eliot House. He kept on walking in the direction of Dunster, shivering, and all at once a felt a gust of blissfully warm air. He retraced his steps and felt the warmth coming up from a grate at the edge of the sidewalk.

Away from the grate the air was painfully cold, but close to it, and over it, there was what seemed to David to be a tiny, cozy world. He huddle there. It was late. He became sleepy. He lay down on the grate, on his side, with his knees pulled up almost to his chest.

And there he slept, fitfully, caught up in a perhaps half-conscious sense of self-pity and in a fully conscious sense of sadness and despair. In one small corner of his mind, he wondered how he’d managed to bring himself to this – for even he understood in a vague and hazy way that he hadn’t really come to this, he’d brought himself to it somehow. He didn’t know how much lower he could go, but he did know that he’d come a very long way, down a steep slope, since those heady first days at Harvard centuries ago.

He couldn’t of course allow himself to consider the full extent of his disaster. He was so numb to the pain that he didn’t feel it anymore.

He couldn’t really sleep on the grate, but at least he was warm during the long, cold, night hours that he thought would never pass, though of course somehow they did. Somehow the night ended and morning came.

When it was light, it was still too early to go to the Jesuits’ place. All he could do was walk around Cambridge for a while, and look at some of the places he’d known once a very long time ago. He could go to the Square, he could walk down Brattle Street and look at the majestic old houses. He couldn’t go into the Yard, though, he couldn’t walk past Widener, with its enormous columns and its gigantic treasure of books inside.

He couldn’t walk past Thayer or any of the other houses there, or past the Freshman Union. He might have been numb to some of the pain, but seeing all that just then would have been intolerable. He needed more time. If he confronted it all gradually, the shock would not be so great. If he confronted it too suddenly, who knows what might happen? He might see the ghost of his maimed and murdered young self wandering haplessly along the paths and under the trees, crying out in a language no one could understand, his private dialect of incomprehensible grief.

Perhaps he’d become one of those people who, for the first time in human history, according to one sociologist, amount to nothing more than human garbage, one of that underclass whose existence serves no social purpose. He was one of those people society had simply thrown away. He’d been used, used up, and exploited by his parents, his teachers, his friends. Now there was almost nothing left of him.

There was certainly nothing left of him that anyone saw any point in “helping.” In the past, people had always seemed to “help” David as way of gratifying some personal need of their own. Now there was no one who would do even that.

When David thought it was late enough for the Jesuits to be up, David made his way to the house. It was in an area near Harvard Square that was made up of small wooden-frame houses, set close together on a narrow, treeless street. David didn’t think about it then, but it was a house that expressed the kind of poverty a Catholic religious order was supposed to have as an ideal.

David knocked rang the bell and in a moment the door was opened by a young man who looked for all the world like any Harvard graduate student. David looked at him for a moment, and repeated the words in his mind. Harvard graduate student. David envied him.

Or perhaps it would be useful to point out that David envied him for what David thought life as a Harvard graduate student was like. He was still, even after everything that had happened to him, immersed in the absurd old romantic dream that being a Harvard student – whether you were a graduate or undergraduate – could still be like being a part of Plato’s academy, where people sat around all day long, discussing great ideas and taking upon themselves “the mystery of things.”

He still hadn’t learn what academic life was now. There was no room for the kind of attitude he had, which most people would describe as simple-minded and sloppily sentimental. Being an academic now meant being a part of an industry. It also meant accepting the university idea of “freedom,” which meant that you were free to think, write, or say anything you liked, as long as it conformed to the ideas that were so much a part of contemporary academic life that no one questioned them. They were axiomatic: life was absurd, God did not exist, everything was permitted.

The presence of Jesuits at a university like Harvard did not call these axioms into question. Harvard’s mission was to enlighten even the most benighted mind, and Harvard was fully confident that that could be done.

Of course things changed later, in the years after David finally left Cambridge once and for all, but that was too late to do David any good.

So David moved in with the Jesuits in Cambridge for a time, in with the “hippy” Jesuits, for the house looked and operated like a hippy commune out of the nineteen-sixties. There were the same garish colors everywhere, the same old furniture, and nearly the same stress on personal “freedom.”

In his numb and dazed state, David fit right in. And money? At first he earned money by working for the Jesuits. They put him to work digging a ditch near another small building – a building containing offices – that they owned near Harvard. Digging a ditch. A ditch-digger. He could almost have laughed, if he hadn’t been so miserable. It was too prosaic to be true, but there it was.

It wasn’t that the work difficult, but the weather was so cold. And David looked at the students around him, crossing the yard, hurrying to class und the bare branches of the towering trees, just as he had done only a few years before.

David didn’t work at that job for very long, somehow he managed to get out of it. What he did after that is a little unclear – how he earned money. The only thing that is clear is that he went on living in the Jesuit house for the rest of that winter, and into the early spring. He spent a lot of time in the apartment of a graduate student he’d known when he was first at Harvard. He was hoping to spend his days writing, but in fact he wrote practically nothing, and spent his days mostly sleeping the sleep of the depressed.

At some point during the late fall or early winter, an incident occurred that to an outsider appears melodramatic, but it perhaps reflects the anguish, the bewilderment, the pain that David felt. It isn’t very clear exactly how it started, or what triggered it. Somewhere in his mind David seems to have thought that if he were crazy – and after all, at least two Harvard psychiatrists had said he was crazy – then obviously he belonged in a hospital.

One day he took the subway to a large public mental hospital and told the receptionist he wanted to have himself committed.

She took his name asked him to sit in the waiting room.

So he sat. And he sat. And he sat.

He sat there in his pain and stared at the floor, he seems to have done nothing for hours but sit there.

Finally his name was called. He was shown into a small room – it reminded him of a seminar room. It could have been at Harvard. There was a elderly psychiatrist there, with three much younger people. David assumed that were medical students, or young doctors do a residency in psychiatry. He never found out exactly which.

The older man introduced himself and asked David why he was there.

“I want to be committed. I’m crazy, so this is the place for people like me.”

The man asked him to go on, to describe his problem in more detail.

“It all started when I was at Harvard,” he spoke without emotion at first, mechanically, as though he know that nothing he said would make any difference, nothing would do any good. “And now I can’t cope anymore. I can’t go on.”

“What was it that started at Harvard?”

David glanced at the young doctors. He felt they were looking at him with curiosity, and at a distance, but with perhaps some small amount of pity, or sympathy. He looked away from them to the older physician, then at the surface of the table in front of him. “What started at Harvard?” He locked his fingers together in front of him, then put his hands in his lap. “I started having ideas of self-reference.”

There was silence.

“Ideas of self-reference,” said the older man. It was both a statement and a question. “Radio? Television? Where exactly?”

“No, nothing like that.” Hoarsely, as though he had to force the words out, and almost grieving that it was something that most people couldn’t understand. “I mean in class.”

There was silence again. They were waiting for him to go on. He thought they might wait forever. It was up to him to go on. “I mean in huge lecture halls, with three or four hundred students, I was the only one the professor was lecturing to – I thought. And I knew even then it was crazy. The professor, all my professors, were aiming whole lectures at me, alone, just at me alone.” He stopped speaking again. Then he added hurriedly, “But I never believed it. Of course I never believed it. But I was frightened. I was scared.”

“Of what?”

“Of what? Is it so hard to understand? I was scared that I might believe it.”

One of the young doctors started to say something. David looked up. The man seemed to have a kind of urgent, puzzled expression on his face. But the older man cut him off.

“But what would be wrong with that?”

That question again. Again? Where had he heard it before?

“What would be wrong with it?” he wanted to cry out again, or maybe just cry.

“I didn’t like what they were saying. It seemed wrong somehow.”

“All right, we won’t go into that just now. This is only a preliminary interview, to decide whether we think you need to be committed.”

“But I do need to be committed.” He was almost pleading with them.

“We’ll decide that. Just one more question. Do you ever hear things? Voices, perhaps. When no else is there?”


“Perhaps when you’re falling asleep, as if you were dreaming.”


“All right. Please go back to the waiting room. Someone will call you and let you know what we’ve decided.”

Perhaps because the staff was busy, perhaps because they were insensitive, or perhaps for some other reason, no one ever really “called” David. A nurse simply came to him a little while later and took him aside from the other people in the waiting area – but still within their hearing – and told him that his request to be admitted had been rejected. David stared at her for a moment. Then, as he always did in situations where some blow of fate or destiny seemed to fall on him, he simply accepted it, accepted the pain falling on the bruise, accepted what felt like a moment of destruction. He thought there was nothing else he could do, no way to resist, no way to change anyone’s mind.

His head had been laid on the block and the axe had fallen, as it always did. There wasn’t anything he could do.

He went back to his place in the waiting room and sat down. He didn’t know where to go now, or what to do, except to try to figure out what had happened. A Harvard psychiatrist had decided – when he was a student – that he was hopelessly insane, though he’d never been told of that. He was unable to function, unable to live. But he couldn’t be committed to a mental hospital.

What in the world was he supposed to do now?

He didn’t know. So he did nothing. He sat there and looked at the floor. He did not move. Perhaps he could not move. He seems to have thought that if he did not move, nothing would happen to him, no more disasters. He was barely aware of what was going on outside of the tiny space he was inhabiting, although he did here a woman say, with what David thought was triumph in her voice, “My husband’s got permission to stay here until they re-evaluate him.”

David didn’t care what happened to the woman’s husband. He didn’t care about anything except trying to focus on not receiving any more pain, of trying not to attract the attention of anyone who would cause him more harm.

It had been the middle of the morning when he’d first entered the waiting room, before the interview. Now the hours passed, and David didn’t even notice the time. His attention was focused on his own internal world and the seemingly intractable problems he was facing there. He felt had to concentrate on them; he had to keep trying to work out a solution. What would he do? Where would he go? How would he live? The same questions again and again, and there was no answer.

And yet somehow the search for an answer in the small psychic space he seemed confined to seemed endlessly absorbing. The same questions, the same answers – or absence of answers – the same thing over and over again, and yet somehow it all always seemed different to him, a kind of wondrous, internal kaleidoscope that only he could see.

The seconds, the minutes, the hours went by, but David remained frozen in time. People came and went in the waiting room. The woman whose triumph had been that her husband was committed had gone long ago. David didn’t even notice when she left. One minute she was there and the next minute he was vaguely aware her chair was empty.

All the chairs slowly emptied. It was evening, and soon there was no one in the waiting room except David. He continued to sit there. He had no reason to move. He’d gotten up once to go to the bathroom, but he’d quickly resumed his seat. He didn’t think about the future. If he’d thought about it at all, he would have thought that five minutes or five years would all be the same to him. He would just go on sitting there.

Sometime in the evening David was aware that a man in a white uniform was standing in front of him. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, sir,” the orderly said.

David didn’t respond. He didn’t move. Nothing mattered to him. He went on staring through the orderly at the linoleum floor.

“All right,” said the orderly and left.

In a little while, David was aware that there were two orderlies standing in front of him. “We’ll have to ask you to leave now, sir,” one of them said.

And he still said nothing. It didn’t matter what happened to him now. He continued to sit there.

“Fine,” said one of the orderlies, “we’ll have to do it the hard way.”

They put his arms into the sleeves of his coat, which had been lying on the chair next to him, and managed to zip up the front while he was sitting down. Then one of the orderlies picked him up by the legs, and the other by the shoulders; they carried him across the linoleum floor he’d spent so many hours staring at. When they reached the door at the top of the steps that led down to the main entrance, the orderly carrying David’s legs pushed the door open with his foot and they took him down the steps. When they reached the main door to the outside, the orderly pushed the door handle bar with his upper arm, still hold David’s legs, and backed through the door. The other orderly, still holding the upper part of David’s body, followed.

David could feel the cold night air as they laid him on the sidewalk. Even though he was wearing his jacket, the cement felt cold beneath him.

And so he lay there, eyes closed, still not caring what happened or what would happen. The orderlies left him like a piece of garbage and went back inside.

He lay there with his eyes closed, motionless. Nothing could happen to him that was any worse than the disaster his life had already become. And there was nothing he could do – he was convinced of this – that would make his life any better. He’d already tried everything. So he just didn’t care what happened to him.

David had no idea how long he lay there – it was probably no more than a few minutes – some passersby saw him lying on the sidewalk. They called someone from inside the hospital and soon he was being carried to the emergency room. He was aware – or thought he was aware – that someone from the psychiatric ward who had seen him before was called and came and looked at him. David thought the man had a kind of anguished reaction.

It was difficult for him to know what was going on. He kept his eyes closed, and he didn’t care if he never opened them again. There was no point in that. There was no point in anything. All he really seemed to want was to slip off into oblivion.

In the emergency room, laid out on a table beneath a bright light, a team of doctors and nurses surrounded him. One of the doctors tore open his shirt and examined him for wounds. Of course there were none, so then he lifted David’s eyelids and examined his eyes. Naturally the doctor knew at once that David was conscious – and that there was nothing physically wrong with him.

“I think we have a ‘scene’ here,” the doctor said, and David could feel how disgusted the man was.

They picked him up and carried him into another room and unceremoniously dumped him on what felt like a couch, upholstered in plastic. Still David didn’t open his eyes, and still nothing mattered to him. He lay there. He lay there without counting the minutes, without knowing how much time was passing.

At some point he was aware that another group of people were around him. Then he heard the voice of the priest who was the head of the little Jesuit community in Cambridge. The man was sitting down near David’s head. He put his hands on David’s face and spoke to him. “David, wake up. Let’s go home.”

And David finally opened his eyes. Perhaps he was ashamed that the Jesuits were there. Perhaps he was ashamed that they would see him like that. Or perhaps Father Ron simply spoke with the kind of authority that compelled David to obey.

He put his arm over his eyes, but then he sat up. He put his face in his hands. No one said anything.

When he was able to look around, the first thing he noticed was that he was in a room that seemed filled with abandoned objects – an old desk, a chair – and that the couch he’d been lying on really was covered in green plastic. It was torn though, and part of the inner upholstery had been torn out, so that David had been lying partly in a kind of pocket.

“The hospital called us,” Father Ron said, “they found our address in your pocket.”

David couldn’t say anything.

The only one who spoke was Father Ron. “All right, let’s go home.”

David couldn’t understand it at the time, but it must have been very difficult for the Jesuits to have him with them in the house. David couldn’t understand that because he thought that surely any group would be happy to have him among them. He simply took it for granted – the way any naive and rather self-centered person does – that others saw him the way he saw himself: an intelligent, young Harvard graduate whose life had been temporarily interrupted, as it were.

David would have been shocked he’d known how the Jesuits probably really did see him: as an object of their charity and perhaps even their pity. Someone to be helped because of their religious ideals, but certainly for no other reason.

David still didn’t understand that he would never be able to be a part of any group, of any organization. He couldn’t see that any association of human beings, of any sort, would ultimately react to him the way any organism reacts to a foreign body – by rejecting it.

It was just something instinctive on the part of other people, nothing that could be explained or defined. And certainly nothing that could ever be changed.

Perhaps it was just as well he didn’t understand any of that, though. He probably would have despaired.

The weeks and months of winter passed, and David was reasonably happy with the Jesuits. Of course he knew he would never be allowed to join them. If the Carthusians didn’t want him, then the Jesuits certainly wouldn’t either. He was damaged goods, after all, in spite of anything anyone might say, and what religious order would ever accept damaged goods?

And so, as he often did, he plodded on from one day to the next. He did make some friends among the Jesuits, although not really among those he actually lived with. That was typical of David. Whose “fault” that was is anybody’s guess. He’d never been close to anyone in his own family – not to his mother or father or brother or stepfather – so it’s hardly surprising that he was unable to be close friends with anyone in any other group he lived or worked with.

Every group is a family, and the only ways we can relate to any group are the same ways we learned to relate – a thousand subtle and ultimately indescribable ways – to our own family. That was an experience David had never had, but he was always able to fake it for a while. He could manage to pretend for a time that he was just like other people. For a time, he could get along with them the way they got along with each other.

That time eventually passed, of course, but before it did, he had to admit he liked being with the Jesuits, in their strange household. He liked being with them as they tried to reconcile the demands of the Church and the Jesuit order with the changes taking place in the world near the end of the second millennium. David couldn’t understand those changes or how they affected the church – or how they affected him.

He could see that some of the external aspects of the Church were changing, and he thought those changes were good, or in some cases something he could resign himself to.

But as for his beliefs, those changed very little. He couldn’t always live up to them the way he wanted to, but they changed very little, even in the relatively liberal atmosphere of a house of young Jesuits at Harvard at that time. Everyone wore secular clothes of course, and extremely casual ones at that. No more coats and ties from the early sixties.

The house itself, on the other hand, was like something out of the nineteen sixties, the late nineteen sixties, anyway. It was much more like a hippy commune than a religious house, or at least it looked more like a hippy commune.

It was one of those old wooden houses that proliferated decades ago in Cambridge. The Jesuits had obviously painted it inside – and perhaps outside as well – themselves, and they’d done all they could to refurbish the house in other ways as well. They seemed to have acquired all the furniture at second-hand shops. The general atmosphere was one of real evangelical poverty, and David like that. Whatever fabled sources of wealth the Jesuits may or may not have had at their disposal, they weren’t spending it on their housing.

To enter the house you walked through a rickety glass door that had a large frosted window pane in the upper half, at least as David later remembered it. When you walked through the door, you went down three steps into a large room, which for some reason was sunken by about two feet. The part of the room nearest the front door served as the livingroom, and it was crowded with overstuffed sofas and chair. David later discovered that when the small community met together to discuss things, this is where they met, and that fact seemed to account for the amount of furniture that was crammed into a relatively small space.

Beyond this area, the room became a diningroom and was almost completely filled with a large table and enough chairs to seat all of the twelve or fourteen people living in the house.

David took turns with everyone else when it came to cooking and cleaning, although the food he cooked tended to be more expensive than what others prepared. It was much easier just to buy a huge, expensive roast and shove it in the oven, than it was to spend time and effort putting together the more complicated ingredients for a less expensive meal. Later, of course, that would be added to all of the things he keenly regretted in his life, and felt guilty for.

David left only a sketchy record of this period of his life, so there are a number of questions about it that may perhaps never be answered. He wanted, of course, to be able to return to Harvard somehow, but he might as well have wanted to travel to the moon. One was just as feasible as the other. He hoped that Professor Williams could help, but of course there was nothing he could do. Once David did go to some office at Harvard to try to see about getting permission to take some classes or study for an advanced degree or obtain some kind of financial assistance that would allow him to study – it’s not clear exactly what he wanted, except that he wanted somehow to be able to return to Harvard and use his mind.

The woman in the office regarded him coldly. “You had your chance,” she said, and terminated the conversation.

He was in shock when he told Professor Williams about that, but David’s shock was so great that he didn’t even know that he in fact was in shock. He didn’t even know he was depressed. Williams must have known, though, must have seen what state of mind he was in. But what could Williams do? The power that Harvard professors have is not unlimited. And besides, even Williams must have thought of David as simply crazy, as someone he ought to be kind to, the way he would have been kind to a stray animal.

But even that sort of kindness David was grateful for, would always be grateful for.

So Harvard was out. Was there something else he could do? A book. He had the manuscript of a book that he’d left with Williams. Maybe he could get that published. After all, classmates of his at Harvard had had books published, so why couldn’t David?

His classmates, though, had written about their experiences away from Harvard, one about his life as a soldier in Vietnam, the other about his life in southern Africa, that same year David had been in Tanzania.

Their books, though, were about the real world, David’s was only about the twistings and turnings of his own mind. Still, he thought it was as good as anything his classmates had written and he sent it to a publisher in Boston, the same one David had worked for a few years before.

A few days later a letter arrived for him. The Jesuits who’d seen the envelope and who knew David had sent the manuscript to the publisher were excited for him. They apparently thought that if the publisher wanted to reject the book, the manuscript would simply have been returned. A letter must mean they were interested.

David almost dared to think so too. Then he opened the envelope and read the letter. It had been written by a elderly woman editor who’d once been quite kind to David when he worked for the publisher.

This letter was anything but kind, though. It was the cruellest message David had ever received from anyone – one of the cruellest messages, in fact, that David would ever receive. The criticism of the book was devastating. The message all but said the book was utterly worthless and of no value whatsoever.

After the initial, sharp stab of pain, though, the judgement was one David could easily accept, because he saw that what the editor was really saying was that David was utterly worthless and of no value whatsoever, and that was something with which David could easily agree.

Beyond the rejection, the letter also informed David that he could pick up the manuscript at the publishing house, which he did, a day or so later, travelling into Boston on the noisy subway from Harvard Square, getting out onto a cold, rain-soaked, wind-swept Common at Park Street, and then walking up toward the publisher’s office.

As at so many other times in his life, when the pain of just living was very sharp, he noticed little of what was going on around him that day. He felt as if he’d managed to put an enormous distance between himself and the world around him, as though all his experience was muffled and nearly everything that happened passed through his mind and was quickly forgotten.

He went into the nineteenth-century building, with its exterior built of huge, grey, stone blocks. He told the receptionist why he was there, she made a telephone call, and in a moment a young woman appeared and handed him the manuscript. She seemed cold and distant.

David took the manuscript and left.

The young Jesuits he was living with didn’t seem to think any less of him for his failure. But then, they had their own lives and their own concerns, and for most of them David was on the periphery of their mental and psychological worlds, like some mascot or pet that temporarily lodged in their house.

David wanted to revise the novel, or write another one. He didn’t want to spend the whole day in the Jesuits’ house, though, so he asked a friend of his if he could work in his apartment while he was at work. David had a typewriter that he left there, and every day he wrote a page or so of his novel, which wasn’t really a novel at all, but rather a thinly disguised autobiography written in the third person.

He could barely manage to get one page written, and then, because he was forcing himself to write, and because the writing didn’t really come from within him, he would grow unbearably sleepy, and he would sleep for an hour or so before returning to the Jesuits.

It’s not clear exactly what he was doing for money during this time. He certainly wasn’t receiving any from the Jesuits. In fact, he seems to have been paying them something for room and board. It’s possible that he was working as a security guard during this period.

At any rate, at some point around this time, he did have a job as a security guard at a construction site, in the evening or at night, a job that made him want to cry out in pain and despair.

He had no idea, though, how he could find anything else to do.

There are those who will say that if that’s all David could find to do, then that was the only kind of job he deserved. Perhaps that is so.

On the other hand, however, most of the people who had and have such jobs don’t have nearly the education or background that David had, so it my not be entirely true to say that he didn’t “deserve” any better job. The fact of the matter is that he simply had no idea how to about getting a better job. He had no idea of what kind of “job” he even wanted. Anyway, how could he possibly find any sort of work that more or less corresponded with his intelligence or background. Any prospective employer, especially in Boston or Cambridge, could very quickly and very easily find out how he’d been evaluated by the Harvard psychiatrist.

Perhaps it’s wrong for a non-professional to question the judgments of a psychiatrist, especially one from Harvard, but it does seem difficult to reconcile David as he was with the idea that he was hopelessly delusional and insane.

With a little understanding, it’s possible he might have been able to lead an orderly and successful life. David, though, seemed eminently successful in finding people who had absolutely no understanding of him at all. And perhaps that’s not so surprising. There can’t be very many people in this world who could understand someone like David, and whatever he can be criticized for, it’s true that he was a very trusting young man, so trusting, in fact, that he still believed that other people – especially people older than he was – understood him perfectly, better than he understood himself. Whatever they thought about him, whatever they told him to do, whatever advice they gave him, all that must be correct.

Perhaps David deserves to be ridiculed for that kind of stupidity, and it would be quite laughable if it hadn’t led to one disaster in his life after another. But that was something he just could not understand, no matter how many times it happened, no matter how often other people were wrong about him.

Quite possibly, this strange belief in other people’s powers of understanding began with his mother and stepfather, who always claimed to understand him perfectly. And David’s belief in goodness, his spiritual and religious beliefs, seemed to require him to believe in a trust whatever his mother and stepfather said.

Then of course, at Harvard he also encountered people – teachers and the psychiatrist – who claimed to understand him perfectly. And surely they must be right, he thought to himself, humbly and obediently, and some would say, rather stupidly.

So he worked the long, boring hours as a security guard at the construction site, and they were an agony for him, but he knew of nothing else he could do. He knew of nowhere to go or what kind of job he could get that would match his education and background. And of course, there was no one who could help him, no one who was willing to help him.

He did meet one young Jesuit who did understand him to some extent, though. His name was Stephen Rocca, a young Italian-American from New York, a young man who was as full of life as he was brilliant. He was working for a doctorate in Sanskrit studies at Harvard, doing the kind of academic work that David would have wanted to do, if his life had turned out differently. Perhaps it was that work that made David both envy and admire Stephen. If he could not do such things himself, David thought, at least there was happiness in knowing that someone was doing them.

Naturally, most rational people find such thinking outrageously sentimental and, in David’s case, almost certainly a result of self-deception, but David had no other way of thinking that would allow him to survive. If he didn’t feel happy that young men like Stephen were achieving what he once wanted to achieve – whether it was studying Sanskrit or English literature or writing a novel or any of the thousand other things David had once dreamed of doing – he would have screamed and screamed and screamed until there were no screams left in him.

Stephen had a brother, Alex, who lived in New York. Alex had also been a Jesuit for a time, but he left before taking final vows. Stephen suggested that David should visit him, if he were ever in New York, and eventually David did just that.

Alex lived alone in a kind of an apartment on the West Side. The building was not really an apartment building, but it had been more or less divided up into something like apartments, and Alex occupied one of these divisions. It was a decrepit and foul-smelling living space, really just one large room with a few cast-iron pillars supporting the ceiling. The walls were stained with mold and dark blotches that seemed to have no really definable origin. Wallpaper was peeling from some sections. On the floor, for some inexplicable reason, the carpet had been rolled up in such a way that it presented an obstacle that had to be stepped over whenever anyone crossed the room.

It was completely different from Stephen’s tidy scholar’s lodgings off Harvard Square in Cambridge. Alex himself was also in every way Stephen’s opposite. Where Stephen was disciplined and well-groomed, Alex was sloppy and unshaven. And where Stephen was rational and sane, Alex seemed long ago to have left the landscape of sanity far, far behind him. He spoke in disjointed, almost incomprehensible sentences, constantly referring to people – or even to creatures – who were vaguely threatening him.

David thought he’d wandered into some bizarre world again – it was like the world of the crazy man in New Mexico that he’d encountered when he first dropped out of Harvard, the man that his acquaintance in Albuquerque had sent him to.

Why hadn’t Stephen told him about his brother? Did Stephen know what he was like?

Later he would ask one of the other Jesuits that same question. “Yes, he knows. But what can he do?” came the answer. All right, David would think to himself, what could Stephen do? But why send him, David, to his brother? What could David have done?

He was depressed after seeing Stephen’s brother, depressed that someone could actually be like that, someone who must have once been lively and intelligent and healthy, someone with qualities David would have envied. He was depressed because somehow he’d hoped that meeting Stephen’s brother might lead to something, to anything that might make his life what it had been before, when it was full of promise and there seemed no end to the possibilities it held.

Of course, David was always hoping that something might happen or he might meet someone that would “lead to something.”

He was also depressed that Stephen might have known what had become of his brother but had sent David to him anyway.

He managed to get away from Alex somehow, on some pretext or other, away from the apartment that wasn’t much more than a hole that stank of filth and waste, all kinds of waste.

He went back to Boston, back to Cambridge, back to Stephen’s saner world. It was Stephen who helped him through that winter, and through many months afterward. Stephen believed in him, and Stephen understood him. Neither of those things led David to achieve anything, but they at least helped him to survive. And that was something.

The weeks and months wore on, and winter finally began to end. One day the priest who was more or less the superior of the little Jesuit community told him he would have to leave by a certain date. It was another one of those announcements that David was used to, so it could hardly be said he felt sad or depressed. He was already in such a state of depression that nothing could depress his mood any further. He was so depressed he didn’t even know he was depressed. He even thought he was happy, and he could often smile and talk the way a happy person would, oblivious – at least in his conscious mind – to the weight pressing down on him.

It was in one of those moods that he managed to get past the final hurdle before he left the Jesuit house – though what would have happened if he hadn’t got past it is somewhat unclear. There was supposed to be a meeting of all the members of the house, with David. What actually happened at this meeting is a little vague, but it appears to have been some kind of test. Perhaps it was even a way of exploring the question of whether or not David was suitable material for the Jesuits. If so, he failed that test, because no attempt was ever made to recruit him. Apparently the Jesuits had seen enough of him and heard enough of his comments at that final meeting to convince themselves that he was not one of them, and never could be.

Apparently the meeting was one where people could ask David anything, and he would have to answer. The details of the questioning or the interrogation or whatever it was are vague, but afterwards some of the young Jesuits told him they admired his honesty and his strength.

It seems that whatever other purpose the meeting had, it was supposed to represent a kind of ambiguous farewell. Perhaps that’s why David participated, perhaps he hoped they would change their minds and allow him to stay.

It isn’t known what David was asked or what he answered. Apparently, he in some way expressed a desire to join the Jesuits, but since he didn’t believe the Jesuits would want him, he didn’t articulate the idea very clearly, and he certainly didn’t pursue it, since it landed with a thud among those present and was met with silence. He was ashamed of his stupidity for even mentioning such a thing.

David had packed his suitcase already, in the tiny room he’d been living in, a room that wasn’t much larger than the futon he slept on, so after the meeting there wasn’t much more to do except call a cab. When it came, he gave the address of the building on Marlborough Street where he’d lived with Marc just three years before. He’d already talked to the owner of the building and rented a room.

The room he had now was on the second floor of the old building, which had once been one of those posh nineteenth-century Back Bay homes, now broken up into rooms and tiny apartments. His room was on the same floor as the one-room apartment he’d lived in with Marc. That time seemed to have been a happy one now, certain compared to the present. Whether the line “One day even these things will be pleasant to remember” ran through his mind isn’t known, but it might have – with all the memories it contained and with all the foreboding inherent in it as well.

Of course there were times now when he could barely keep from weeping. Many will find that laughable and overly dramatic, but the pain he felt was real, and it never went away. It was always there, waiting for him, at every moment, for he had little else to think about. Or perhaps it could be said he didn’t allow himself to think about anything else, or he didn’t know how to.

If he wasn’t working as a security guard before – that element of his life remains unclear – he worked as one now. That much is known about him.

It wasn’t so much that being a security guard was the lowest and most mindless job he could think of. It was the only job he could think of doing. He seemed to himself so worthless that he “knew” it would be impossible for him to get any other kind of job. He “knew” that he was completely incapable of doing any other kind of job. And there was no one to tell him he was wrong about these things, and so he believed them.

He no longer worked at the construction site. It was too far away. Now he had a job closer to “home,” in downtown Boston, in a building with offices and a large furniture showroom. He was supposed to make a tour of the building every few hours or so and “sign in” with a key at various time clocks located throughout the building, something he could not do without actually following the route he was supposed to take through the building.

The furniture showroom seems to have been one that he visited with Marc a few years before, in happier times, or the showroom reminded him of Marc, just as his room in the building on Marlborough Street reminded him of Marc. He felt a constant ache for that time and for the person he’d been then.

Of course the ache or the pain or whatever it was really had to do with something much deeper in his mind and psyche. He was still mourning – as he’d done for years and would go on doing for many more years – the loss of everything that had been important to him once: the life of the mind, the excitement of books, the thrill of those rousing lectures at Harvard, the adventure of the intellect, the great journey he had embarked on but which had been cut short, as though he’d died. Or more exactly, the journey that he himself had truncated by leaving Harvard near the end of his third year. He mourned and mourned and mourned the death of that boy. The boy that he himself had once been.

Night after night – for exactly how many nights is no longer clear, but it was probably a matter of weeks – he walked his route through the darkened building. When he wasn’t making his rounds, he sat at the security guard’s desk at the building’s entrance, where he read – of all things – the psalms. In Latin.

Of course that can be dismissed as simply one more example of David’s craziness. Why the psalms? And why in Latin?

In Latin, perhaps because he was clinging to that one small area of knowledge he’d acquired long ago, clinging too perhaps in some hopeless way to the idea the nun in one of his high schools had instilled him, the idea of Oxford. Of course that seems stupid.

Why the psalms? The poor boy could think of no other way out of his disastrous situation except to ask God for help. His troubles seemed so catastrophic, so enormous, that he thought only God had the power to correct them. And who knows, perhaps he was right.

Or perhaps, he thought to himself now and them, he really was simply crazy, just as Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, had said. Surely that was the reason he couldn’t make any sense of his life. Surely that was the reason no one, not even his mother and father, would help him. Over and over again he said to himself that it obviously wasn’t worth it to anyone to help him.

Perhaps his craziness was also the reason he carried around the burden of unanswered questions about Harvard. What had really happened to him there? Was it only his insanity that prevented him from letting go of the idea that his professors were speaking directly to him in their lectures – when the lecture hall was filled with two or three hundred students?

The questions pressed down and down on him and he tried to forget them by using any means he could. He’d forgotten about God again, except in his desperate prayers, his desperate tears.

Of course he felt sorry for himself. David was that kind of person, and if it’s difficult not to judgmental in this regard, it should be remembered that an authority like Dr. Bradley would have said that even his self-pity was a sign of his illness.

And so he struggled on, bravely, as he would have characterized it – and dramatized it – to himself. More and more, though, there were times when Harvard and all the ambitions and dreams he’d had there seemed like nothing but a dream to be forgotten.

In some ways he was able to forget, and yet his unconscious mind was still active. His unconscious mind would press its knowledge upon him in the form of an enormous weight, a half-strangled cry, and at times in the form of a kind of depression that blinded him to everything, past and present, and certainly to everything in any possible future.

He went on with his job as a security guard, hardly believing in anything now, but still praying with a prayer that was really more like an inner shriek than a prayer. He prayed with a garbled, inarticulate, interior cry that somehow he would be saved from the disaster he saw himself in. He didn’t know who he was praying to, though, and sometimes in fact he didn’t think much about that. He just prayed, though perhaps there are those who would not characterize such desperation as prayer.


Whatever it was, David did manage to find a way out of his impossible situation – or at least he thought he’d found a way out. He decided he’d go to Oxford, to study.

Of course the idea was insane, but at least it gave him something to live for. And just how did he plan to go to Oxford? He’d go back to the Arctic. When he’d gone there as a Harvard drop-out, he’d managed to save quite a bit of money – relatively speaking, or relative to what he needed then. Why couldn’t he go back there and save enough to go to Oxford?

He started scanning the want ads again, the same way he’d done it a few years before in Montreal, looking for a job in the Arctic. He didn’t expect to find a job in the Canadian Arctic again, not by looking in an American newspaper, but somehow he thought he’d find one in another place, in Alaska perhaps. Or maybe he’d just been scanning the want ads the way he always did, and came across the thing he was looking for.

No matter how it happened, one day he saw an ad for general laborers or clerical help or something like that, at a U.S. Air Force base in Greenland. The ad had been placed by a private company that had a contract with the Air Force to maintain the base. This was it, he told himself, and he was off in pursuit of one more illusion. This was the way he would get to Oxford, and then everything in his life would be all right.

Of course there were no interviews; all he had to do was fill out an application and send it in. It never occurred to David that the company might be so desperate for warm bodies that it would take anybody, sight unseen. Such things never occurred to David in his eternal optimism, in his state of desperate hope. He had no alternatives in life. He had no other hope. He needed desperately to believe that at last he was going to take a job that would lead somewhere, lead to something, and he was just crazy enough to believe that this job would lead him back to the intellectual life he’d always wanted and always thought he’d find at universities like Harvard or Oxford.

He couldn’t stop to question his optimism or his hope. That might have led him to doubt, and doubt would have led him to see this situation for what it really was: nothing more than one more dead-end job, nothing more than one more illusion. And if he’d seen the situation in that light, in the real light, God only knows what he would have done. Better sometimes to believe in anything, even in an illusion, than to believe in nothing.

They flew out of dreary U.S. Air Force base near Washington. There was a large waiting room furnished in the usual run-down military style and filled with service personnel, their girl friends or wives, and children, all waiting to be flown out to some military base around the world, where the arrival terminal would in many ways look exactly the terminal they left.

For many people, the whole atmosphere might have been depressing, but not, of course, for David. Despite all of the disappointments of the past, all of the journeys to nowhere, all of the new beginnings that had led to nothing, he was, as always, ready for another adventure. More than that he was certain that this would be the one great adventure that he’d been looking for and waiting for. The fact that every other of his adventures had been the one great adventure he’d always been looking for was simply erased from his memory.

Certainly others may laugh at David for this kind of thinking – and it surely is laughable – it would perhaps be cruel to ignore the fact that it was precisely this kind of thinking that was keeping him alive, along with beliefs he was for the moment starting to cling to again. Even the idea of living and working at an American Air Force base in – of all places – Thule, northern Greenland, was disorienting for him. What would the reality be like, if didn’t have the center to hold onto, the center that his religious beliefs gave him.

There was one element of the job he was suppose to do at Thule that he didn’t think much about, although he should have. Since he’d be working at an American military base, he’d need a security clearance from the U.S. government. He filled out a form that – when he was finished with it – consisted mainly of page after page of addresses of the places he’d lived – from Michigan to Boston to Quebec to British Columbia to Africa and places in between.

He’d filled out the form and sent off. In return he’d received all the necessary job information and a ticket for Greenland. He assumed that would be the end of the story. If they were sending him up there, then that must mean he’d received a security clearance, even though he was never officially informed of that. He didn’t know that everyone who was hired for the kind of job he was hired for – a general laborer and clerical worker – was sent to Thule on the assumption that they’d receive a security clearance. If there was a problem, the individual could simply be sent back to the States later. It was easier and more efficient to do things that way than to have every prospective employee wait for months for a clearance and only then be allowed to depart.

So he flew to Greenland with a group of other men who were going off to work the same way he was, other men, other misfits running away from something in the States, or greedy to make more money than they could in the States, or driven away by a wife who wanted them to make more money than they could make in the States, or driven away by a wife who perhaps just wanted to get them out of the way and have them send a check every month or so.

They Air Force base at Thule was divided into two parts. There was a main camp where most of the civilians and air force personnel lived. Several miles away, on top of a low mountain, there was a smaller installation, one that had once been super-secret decades earlier, at the height of the cold war.

David was first put to work at the main camp. Probably because he had a degree from Harvard, though, he wasn’t given any kind of labouring job. He was given the more intellectually demanding task of being in charge of the post office. His work consisted mainly of sorting incoming letters for the Americans at the base. The Danish personnel, who were fairly numerous, had their own government post office.

David accepted the job. What else could he do? Anyway, he’d returned to his spiritual beliefs again, so it was relatively easy for him to live and work with a sense of humility, or what he thought of as a sense of humility, and perhaps that’s what it was, at least in a way.

David kept himself alive with thoughts of Oxford. He was sure he would be there one day. He knew he’d be able to save enough money to live and study there. After all, he was being relatively well-paid at Thule, at least when he considered the kind of simple-minded work he was expected to do, and there was nothing for him to spend his money on, he could just let it accumulate in his account in Boston. There’d be nothing to it.

Oxford, the towers and spires of that mythical town were shining in the mists of his imagination. The intellectual world he knew he’d find there filled him with excitement and anticipation. His life would start moving, finally, in a new and better direction. All the past years of cruelty and bewilderment would disappear and be forgotten.

This was all he thought about sometimes. This was what gave his life purpose and meaning and coherence. This was something he simply knew he could achieve. Because of this dream, he could tolerate the mindless job and the ugliness of his workplace. He could cope with the tiresome people that he found it impossible to talk to. He had what we would consider his ridiculous dream of Oxford. He could also retreat into his room when he wanted to. He’d shipped all of his books to Thule, two hundred or so of them – he’d planned on being there a long time – and in these – to him – precious volumes he found a place that contained the things that were most important to him: ideas, literature, poetry.

He also, of course, found that his old beliefs helped him to survive. Without those beliefs, all the literature in the world wouldn’t have helped him. And of course he needed help, this poor, misguided, benighted Harvard graduate with his bookshelves filled with books in his room in the Arctic. He had no idea how ridiculous or – should it be said? – pathetic he was.

What did he realistically expect to accomplish there? Of course he never asked himself that question. He couldn’t. He had no idea, really, what was realistic about his plans and goals, and what was not. And certainly if anyone had tried to tell him, he wouldn’t have believed them.

He was so convinced that he could earn enough money in Greenland to go to Oxford that nothing would have made him change his mind, unless outside circumstances forced him to leave. So he plodded on. He started going to Mass and confession again. He prayed with all his heart. He wanted so much to survive at Thule, to be able to save some money, to go to Oxford.

The summer daylight made him feel optimistic too: twenty-four hours of sun when he arrived, though the temperature still felt like winter. He got to know a young man his own age who’d enlisted in the Air Force and been discharged. David never quite knew why. Perhaps he was a loser, too, David would think in later years. He told strange stories about “secret” work he’s done in the Air Force, work he said he was never supposed to tell anyone about. The more he talked, the weirder the stories got. Before long they were involving crashed flying saucers and visitors from other planets. Perhaps mentally unbalanced people attract each other – or people who’ve been classified as mentally unbalanced. Perhaps the young man was as schizophrenic as David was, or was supposed to be.

David saw movies at Thule, of course, along with most of the other people on the base. One of them was “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” the film about a crazy woman who nearly destroys the life of her child, except that the child manages to resist. When David saw the film, it was like looking at his mother, at himself, and at the relationship they’d had. The film let David understand so much about his situation and about his relationship with his mother. He believed he could resist the psychological abuse his mother had inflicted on him just as the child in the film had resisted.

David had no idea, fortunately, that he would never be able to do that. Like many people, though, he was nothing without his dreams and illusions, and if he’d thought the damage inflicted on him could never be repaired, he might have sunken in complete despair. So he went on believing and hoping.

Perhaps this tendency to believe in illusions and to hope that dreams can be realized isn’t really so pointless. Perhaps natural selection has produced this tendency in human beings. Perhaps sometimes the illusions have turned out to be real and hope hasn’t always been empty and pointless, at least for some human beings in the past, the ones who passed on those characteristics to people like David. And all the dreams and all the hopes are there for those precious few for whom the hopes and dreams turn out to be real, for the tiny number of people who in their realized hopes and dreams insure the survival of the whole human race.

So David, at the beginning of his time at Thule, worked in the dingy post office all day and went back to his room in the evening and plunged into Chaucer or Milton or one of the other poets and writers he’d learned to love at Harvard. In some ways he was able to look on the experience at Thule as a kind of adventure, the way he’d looked at other such episodes in his life, although there was a sort of cold fear gnawing at his soul, telling him that time was disappearing, and that perhaps this wasn’t really an adventure at all, that perhaps everything was covered by a veil of fantasy, the way so many similar periods of his had been.

He tried to think of the immensity and strangeness of the surrounding landscape, he tried to focus on that, but the landscape no longer seemed to focus on him, the way it had at other times in his life, such as when he’d been at Resolute. The beauty no longer called out to him, whispered to him, and perhaps it was just as well. If he’d experienced such things again, the Harvard psychiatrist that had diagnosed him as crazy would have been justified in that diagnosis – though of course he’d never know it.

Beauty that whispered and sang might be fine for eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English Romantic poets, but not for anyone else, not for anyone like David, someone who’d let literature and Harvard slip away, someone who’d run away from Harvard and run away from literature.

In later years, what he would remember of Thule was snow everywhere, and the cold. In his memory, which may not have been very reliable, there was always snow, and it was always cold, even in summer. He would have a hazy memory too of red wooden buildings – probably the Danish government buildings – and grey U.S. Air Force structures.

And everywhere, all the time, hovering over everything and permeating everything: the thought, the knowledge, the certainty that he was going to Oxford, that he was on his way to Oxford, and that everything would be all right. It was as if he floated on that idea, with no thought whatsoever that he might one day come crashing to earth.

Perhaps the most painful thing about being at Thule was the discrepancy between people he’d known at Harvard and the people at Thule. Some will say that David was simply a snob, and perhaps he was. And yet, there is the smallest chance that something else was involved with the kind of pain he was feeling. For no matter how frightening his experience at Harvard may have been, he’d become accustomed to a certain kind of interaction, an interaction of intelligences, with the people he knew and talked with at Harvard.

That was perhaps what he missed more than anything else. That was perhaps what caused him more pain at Thule than anything else. Certainly, many will say, that too was simply one more of his illusions, and probably it was. If David were really the kind of person who belonged among the people at Harvard, he’d never have left.

At one point, after a couple of months, he was taken out of the post office and given a minor clerical job in the Thule civilian bureaucracy. Somehow he felt more vulnerable this new position, but then he seem to have felt quite vulnerable at Thule in general, compared to what he’d felt at Resolute, in the Canadian Arctic, when he’d worked there during his period of drop-out from Harvard.

It’s possible that David had changed between his time at Resolute and his time at Thule. At Resolute he appears to have had more confidence, more of a sense of independence and more hope that somehow, sometime in the future, things would get better. At Thule, of course he had the dream of Oxford, but that wasn’t enough – David himself may have sensed somewhere in his mind that this dream was ultimately futile and would lead to nothing. At any rate, at Thule, David had relatively little real hope, compared to what he’d felt at Resolute. At Thule he felt he’d been ground down somehow, he felt vaguely threatened by the Americans around him. In Canada, at Resolute, he’d felt no fear or anxiety at all.

Was he, after all, as he’d so often thought, simply one of those people who’d never be able to live or feel comfortable or survive – or whatever it can be called – in his own country and among his own people?

And were these Americans around him his own people? Was any group really “his own people.” His mother, it seems, really had done her work well in one respect: she’d managed to cut him off from almost everyone around him. Perhaps he didn’t fully comprehend it yet, but no matter where he went or how hard he tried, he would never really be a part of any group of people. There might be places where he felt less foreign – places where he really was a foreigner – but that was better than feeling like a foreigner among other Americans. He didn’t quite understand it yet at Thule, but that was exactly his situation.

Of course Thule was full of misfits, but somehow the others weren’t nearly as much of a misfit as David was. A few of them were, despite his general feeling of uneasiness toward most people there, kind to him. One of the people was a young man, a little older than himself, who had a passionate – even an obsessive – interest in politics. He also hated Richard Nixon. Even during working hours he would have a radio at his desk that was tuned to news of the Watergate investigations. Since Kennedy’s death and the endless war in Vietnam, David had had little interest in politics, so it was impossible for him to share his friend’s fascination and his need to know, every minute, what was going on with Watergate and Nixon. At the time, David even thought such extreme interest was a little odd.

One of David’s other closer, friends was a man who’d been in the Artic for years. His name was John. He was a middle-aged family man, and what struck David most about about him was the fact that he was so obviously, a good, decent human being. Because John was older than David, and had lived in the Arctic for so long, he seemed to develop a protective, avuncular attitude toward him.

In a way, David thought John’s situation was a rather sad one. He’d left his wife and family something like twenty years ago and come to the Arctic because he could earn so much more money there than he could anywhere in the States. Of course he had a couple of months’ leave year, so it wasn’t as if he left his family forever, but nevertheless, there was obviously no real family life for him, not the kind that other people have. Although he didn’t know for sure, David had the impression that for his wife and children, John was a kind of money-machine that disgorged cash once a month.

Naturally John wasn’t the only civilian inhabitant of Thule who lived the way he lived. Perhaps David’s impression of the relationship between John and his family was a soft of overlay of stories he heard about other men at Thule, and their families.

Probably he stay in the Arctic had originally been planned as a fairly short one. Perhaps he and his wife had something they wanted to pay for – a car, the down payment on a house, appliances and furnishings. Possibly they’d thought John could stay in the Arctic for six months or a year, save enough money to buy whatever it was that they wanted, and then return to the States for good. It may be that the large income induced his wife to ask him to stay in the Arctic, in order for her to go on enjoying the kind of life she’d suddenly become accustomed to. John was the kind of quiet, good man who would have agreed to something like that because he loved his wife and wanted to make her happy – or maybe he was simply dominated by her.

But again, such arrangements were not uncommon at Thule, or elsewhere in the Arctic. The civilian Project Manager at Thule had the same kind of family relationship, and so did many others.

Of course there were others like David, or like him in the sense that he was single – there were none who’d brought a whole library to Thule and planned on entering Oxford afterwards.

The weeks passed, and still there was no security clearance for David, but he wasn’t worried about that. He thought that that must certainly be little more than a formality; otherwise, why would he have been allowed to come to Thule in the first place? He continued with his life in the orderly way conditions at the base made possible. He went to Mass every Sunday and worked a six-day week like everyone else. The theory was that since there was nothing else to do, work was the best way to fill the time.

His circle of friends expanded a little. He got to know one of the Air Force helicopter pilots who worked at the base, and a civilian who’d once been a member of the Air Force. The civilian told strange stories about esoteric areas of research – or at least he alluded to such areas, while maintaining that it was impossible for him to reveal any military secrets. He seemed eccentric to David – more than eccentric, actually – but perhaps places like Thule bring out the strangeness in people, or make people seem strange who would appear quite normal in an ordinary environment.

The helicopter pilot was also strange, although he was strange in the same way David was, so he didn’t seem strange at all. What he and David had in common was religion. They both believed, strongly, although Danny was a Protestant, one that a few years later probably would be called a fundamentalist. Or perhaps not. There was something so deep about Danny’s faith that it went beyond fundamentalism.

He and David used to talk about religion, and their discussions eventually led to a suggestion from Danny that as a Catholic David at first found a little odd, but which for Protestants was not unusual. Danny asked David if he wanted to meet every morning for a short prayer session and Bible reading. Catholics often went to daily Mass, it occurred to David, so why shouldn’t Protestants get together and read the Bible every day?

David couldn’t get to Mass every day at Thule, although there was an Air Force chaplain on base, so he agreed to the sessions that Danny mentioned. As one morning followed another, what impressed David most about Danny was that he had some of the same attitudes and reactions to God and to the Christian community that David had. This at first was a surprise for David, because in a way that was unusually limited, David had always thought that only Catholics could feel and think about God the way he did – and the way Danny did. David had somehow always thought that without the Eucharist, without the other Catholic sacraments, without a clear, unbroken line of ministers going back to the Apostles, it would be impossible for anyone growing up Protestant to feel any spiritual or intellectual or emotional movements in their soul and mind where God was concerned.

Then he realized there was something really splendid about the fact that here was a Protestant his own age who could think and react the way he did, when it came to prayer or the desire for God or the desire to lead a better life and be a better man.

So he and Danny met every morning before they went to work – Danny to his helicopter and David to his office – and before they went to work they prayed. In other circumstances, even David would have found something like that a little bizarre. Certainly at Harvard he would have found it bizarre.

Others apparently found it bizarre as well, or at least they didn’t want a good Army warrant officer to have any contact with someone like David. The upper ranks of the military at Thule had always to keep good discipline and the good of the Army in mind. The fact that David didn’t have a security clearance must have made him seem undesirable or it aroused suspicions about him and his character or background. Perhaps the details of David insanity diagnosis by a Harvard psychiatrist had already become known to the officer ranks at Thule.

It wasn’t known to David, of course, so he went on naively expecting to get a security clearance and to be treated like everyone else. He expected to be able to act like anyone else, without arousing ill-will or raising questions.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. In fact, it would never be the case as long as David lived, but he was blissfully aware of that.

At any rate, he was told by the Project Manager one day that he was to be assigned to the radar base on top of a small mountain several miles away from the main camp at Thule. Because this base was so isolated, even inaccessible for long periods of time during the raging of the Arctic winter, it was one of the most undesirable posting imaginable.

When the Project Manager told David about the transfer, David had the momentary impression that the PM expected him to protest or reject the assignment. But David thought that this surely could not be. If the PM expected him to reject it, why would he even tell him about the assignment. At any rate, David didn’t even know he could reject it. He thought it was an order to be followed, a decree of fate, and like every other punishing decree of fate that had ever come to him in his still young life, he accepted it as something like the will of God, a decision that simply was to be obeyed.

And of course it might be an adventure or it might be the adventure he was looking for.

There had been a time in his life when he’d been so impressed by a line from a novel by François Mauriac, that Christ was the great adventure. To whatever degree religion was still important – or important once more – in his life, that was an idea he’d forgotten. Probably he’d never known what it really meant. He’d simply had some romantic frisson whenever the idea happened to enter his mind, and that was all.

You might say the mountain base at Thule was an adventure of sorts, but it was only the dreary sort of adventure that David had seemed locked into ever since he’d left Africa the first time. Of course the place was like a hidden precious stone of Arctic beauty, at least when seen from a distance. Driving across the relatively flat landscape from where the main part of the base was located, across the snowy, frozen desert that the Arctic had been for millennia, watching the mountain approach in the distance, like some secret citadel at the end of the world.

Beyond the buildings on the mountain top, David could see the enormous curved structures of the radar facility, several stories high, staring impassively toward the Soviet Union. He tried to imagine the cost in human and material and financial resources that had enabled these gigantic structures to be put in place. What an insane world it was, he thought to himself. Perhaps the people were right who said it was absurd, human existence was pointless – but he would not allow his thoughts to follow that track.

The place must once have been the height of military luxury, if not glory, when it was built during the Cold War. When all of the technology was state of the art, it must have given the officers and men who were stationed there the feeling that they were at the leading edge of the defense of their nation – and of Canada and Western Europe as well. The base was positioned so that it could provide early warning for Soviet bombers approaching either continent over the arctic region.

There was a vast control room with tiers of seats where commanding officers could sit, watching the approaching threat on displays that seemed primitive even when David was there. The room was left dark and abandoned now, as was most of the vast complex that consisted of a warren of interconnected passageways and rooms, built for hundreds of military men but now inhabited mostly by a few civilians.

David never knew he’d made a mistake by not trying to avoid being transferred to “the mountain.” He was simply blind to the thoughts and feelings of those around him. Or at least he was blind in the areas where it really counted. He got along well enough with the people he worked with. They were mostly his age, and so different from him that they were an unending source of interest for him.

If there was a leader or dominant figure among the group it was a kind giant of a young man named Al. He had the build of a professional football player, and the personality of a Christian Brother. His only problem was that because he looked so tough, other men felt constantly challenged by his mere presence, and as a result he was always being provoked into fights, no matter what he might do to avoid that. Not on “the mountain,” of course, because the group was too small and had to be too close-knit, and because everyone knew each other too well.

In other places, though, as Al told it anyway, all he had to do was walk into a room, and there were people wanting to pick a fight with him. Perhaps that’s why he’d come to the Arctic, and why he was at the mountain camp.

It seemed as if they were all running away from something, just the way David was. Perhaps because of that, David found himself with a small group of friends who liked him. He was grateful for that, especially when he encountered surprising outbursts of hate on the part of others; in this case, in superiors at the mountain base.

For some reason, that sort of thing seemed to happen often to David. He found himself liked by his co-equals and hated by his superiors. He couldn’t understand why, and it was a pattern that would recur repeatedly in his life. At first, he didn’t recognize it. He was simply too naive. And so he was surprised one evening when his boss, a hard-bitten old man who drank heavily and had spent years in the Arctic already, turned to him and for apparently no reason suddenly blurted out, “Austin, shit doesn’t run uphill.”

David was so startled he hardly knew how to respond, and so he didn’t. What had he done to deserve that? Why this hatred?

Those were questions he would ask himself over and over again in the long years ahead of him. And it was something he would never figure out. He could not understand that he was dealing with superiors the same way he had dealt with his stepfather. He thought he was being obedient and good, but everything about him seemed to arouse their fury, just as it had aroused his stepfather’s. He was eliciting from his bosses the same reaction he had elicited from his stepfather.

And he was doing it over and over again. He was powerless to stop, because he didn’t realize at all that that’s what he was doing. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do in such a situation, or what he could do. So he did nothing. That of course made the situation even worse, because for David, doing nothing meant avoiding the person who hated him. He had the idea that this person would then direct his anger elsewhere and eventually forget about him. Of course that never happened. If fact, the opposite always occurred: the person who hated David hated him even more, when David avoided him. To avoid someone is very much like ignoring them, and if there’s one thing that infuriates a person who hates, it’s being ignored by the object of his hatred.

So the hatred of David’s boss increased, although that was something he might have been able to deal with if he hadn’t been hated also by the Air Force officer who was responsible for the mountain base. This hatred arose from the fact that David had not yet been given what was usually routine for workers at his level – a security clearance. Because of this, the Air Force officer decided that even though David could remain at the mountain base, he had to be escorted whenever he left the small office he was working in, even if he wanted simply to go to the men’s room.

That meant calling someone who had a security clearance, who might or might not be free, who might or might not come. So because the men’s room was only a few steps away from the office David was working in, he often went there without being escorted. He thought the whole question of a security clearance in his case was absurd anyway. He knew he wasn’t a spy. And besides, what would a spy be doing at anywhere at Thule anyway? The whole place, especially all of the equipment at the mountain base – the gigantic radar antennas, the huge control room with its tiered banks of seats, the warrens of living space – was like something out of a cold war B-movie from the 1950s, a sort of antiquated “Dr. Strangelove” set.

And though David hadn’t figured it out yet, there was in fact a Dr. Strangelove at the mountain base – his nemesis, the Air Force officer in charge of security. While David treated the whole place and the entire question of a security clearance as a joke, the security officer of course took it deadly seriously. So when David tried to be friendly with him, cheerily waving to him if he ran into him, for example, on the way to the men’s room, the poor man took it not only as a personal challenge to his integrity as a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force but also as a direct threat to the peace and security of the entire Free World.

The man was boiling inside, furious, enraged, but David simply couldn’t see it. He blithely went on his way. Happily doing nothing all day – for there was nothing to do – except sitting at his desk reading novels by Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, happily dreaming of the day he could leave for Oxford.

The day came, finally, when he could leave, but it wasn’t to Oxford. And it came much sooner than David had expected. One day, the civilian security officer at the main camp, John Place, a man who’d always treated David in a kind and friendly way, sent word that David should come to his office.

Arrangements were made for David to drive down to the main camp. He walked into John’s office and sat down in the waiting area. When John appeared a few minutes later, he motioned him over to his desk.

“David, I have some disappointing news for you, I’m afraid.”

Somehow David knew what was coming. He knew it was the security clearance problem. He’d managed to forget about it, but now his mind seemed to focus on it again almost automatically.

David looked at John. “All right, what is it?”

“There’s been a problem with your security clearance, to put it bluntly. It’s been put on hold indefinitely.”

David looked at him.

“Which means that you’re not going to get one.”

David looked down at the floor. Another hammer blow, hitting the bruise, making him feel the dull, expected pain again.

He realized there was no way out. No Oxford. No university. No future. Nothing.

Nothing except whatever meaning he could find in his own religious beliefs.

He walked around like a man who was at least partly in shock. There seemed to be some vast distance between himself and everyone and everything around him. He felt dead in his emotions, if he could feel anything at all. Nothing mattered except the next moment. He couldn’t think beyond the next moment, and in this way he managed to get through the next few days – and in some ways it was the way he managed to get through the rest of his life.

Numbness to pain was all that seemed to matter to him. He was numb now to the fact that he would never to go Oxford – under other circumstances the idea that he could go to Oxford might have made him laugh – he would never be a part of the intellectual life that was still so important to him, or would have been important if he could have brought himself to think about it.

There was nothing now, nothing now, nothing now – the words seemed to be burned into his brain.

In this state of mind, he managed to pack up his hundreds of books in boxes small enough to be sent through the mail back to general delivery in Boston – only Air Force personnel were allowed to have the military transport their belongings. Those books were so valuable to him, he would have done anything, would have labored in any way he had to, in order to keep possession of them.

When that task was over, he borrowed a vehicle and loaded all those boxes into it and took them to the post office. At the post office he slowly and laboriously took each box into the building, one by one.

It was a hard, boring task, but he couldn’t feel that through the numbness. Practically all he was aware of was that he was leaving the Arctic again in November, and perhaps that was something to be grateful for. The days were very short now, just a few hours of daylight. Soon it would be dark all the time, and David had always been afraid of being in the Arctic during the dark season. He had always thought he could never survive until daylight returned in the spring. Now he wouldn’t have to even try to do that.

The bleakness around him – that was all he saw. The search would have to begin again now, the search for something to do, for something to live for. It was the old search all over again, one painful day after another, one meaningless day after another.

And if life were meaningless, how could God exist? But he had it turned around: God exists, and therefore life is meaningful, life makes sense, everything makes sense.

Probably David didn’t really want to see that, though. He wanted to wallow in misery and despair, perhaps.

Perhaps. Or at least that’s what many would say. He alone was to blame for his situation. Whether or not that was true, wasn’t it true that he was the only one who could find a way out? There was no one he could turn to, no one he could ask for help. He was alone with the knowledge that he’d destroyed his life, and he had to just go on, day after day, for God knows how many years now.

David was given his ticket for the flight back to the States on a scheduled passenger flight that the military had flying back and forth to Thule on a regular basis. When the time came for departure, he was waiting in the drab boarding room at the Thule airport. He was sitting on a bench with some of his co-workers who were returning to the States on leave. He could think of nothing to say to them, and just sat there staring at the floor. All at once he was aware of someone standing in front of him. He looked up and met the contemptuous expression of the Air Force security officer from the mountain base.

“Well, well,” the man said, “just look who’s hear.” The scorn in his voice was so palpable that some of the other passengers seated elsewhere turned around to see what was going on. David said nothing. He lowered his head and continued staring at the flooring.

“Aw, leave him alone,” one of the men next to David said.

And at that moment, he finally understood how much the man had hated him, had always hated him. He understood that all those times when he’d smiled and waved and tried to be friendly to the officer, thinking that surely the man would reciprocate, the officer had apparently interpreted David’s behavior as a way of mocking him and his desire for revenge on David strengthened. And now he had his revenge, while David sat there with his life and dreams shattered.

There would be many other times when David would discover to his surprise that someone hated him for reasons he could not understand, but this was the first time, and perhaps the one that shocked and hurt him the most. Or it would have shocked and hurt him, if his feelings hadn’t already been numbed by the pain of losing everything he had, everything he ever wanted, everything in the form of his absurd dream of studying at Oxford.

In his mind, he heard the words repeated again and again:

“Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

“Nothing at all.”

When he arrived in Boston, finally, he realized that there was nowhere he could turn, no one he could turn to. There was no one who would help him, no one who could help him. There was nothing to do but go on from one day to the next, automatically, mechanically, like a robot. There really was no hope now, he thought to himself. No hope at all, and there never would be.

He managed to go on. There was nothing else he could do. There seemed to be a curse hanging over him and he had no idea how he could rid himself of it.

Somehow he managed to get a job – again as a security guard – but this time he didn’t have to work at night. Instead of patrolling a building with the furniture store, as he’d done before, he was assigned to Prudential Center, one of the largest office complexes and shopping centers in the city. It was winter, though, and unlike at the other building, he had to be outside. He had to walk up and down a long open area just above the ground floor of the complex, a place usually crowded with shoppers and other people.

Perhaps it’s difficult not to pity him to a certain degree. Of all the despairing times of his life, this was a time when he came closest to complete despair. He had no sense any more that life had any meaning, he had idea what he was supposed to be living for. His whole mind seemed clouded with a black depression that made thinking or understanding impossible. He could barely see beyond the next moment.

He walked, hour after hour after hour up and down the same long, rather narrow open area. He was more robot than human being. He saw nothing, heard nothing. He simply walked and walked and walked, automatically, mechanically, numb with the pain of his situation, numb with the pain he might have felt if he’d allowed himself to think about the earlier years in Boston and Cambridge, and all the bright success he’d seen in his future then.

If it’s difficult not to pity him, it’s also difficult to see that the blame for his situation lay anywhere but with him. It’s clear that he alone was to blame.

It was close to the end of winter, but the air was freezing. David didn’t care, though. His mind was numb. His feelings were numb. Everything about him was numb. He thought of nothing as he walked.

And yet there were moments when the pain came crashing in on his consciousness with such force that he could hardly stand it. The pain of leading a pointless life. The old pain of all his lost dreams of the intellect and the life of the mind. The pain of being nothing. The pain of just being. “For who would lose, though full of pain, this intellectual being, these thoughts that wander through eternity.” David would have. And gladly. In an instant. He had no courage left. He. Just. Went. On.

If David had suffered some grave injustice, or if his life had been ruined by other people, there might be some reason to feel sorry for him. He had no one but himself to blame for his predicament, no one but himself and his own stupidity.

And it was that stupidity that prevented him from finding a way out of the situation he was trapped in now. Of course he tried to find a way out, but again the attempts were quite – and this is the only word for them – stupid.

To give one example, David actually started thinking about joining the army again. This time, though, he wouldn’t be an ordinary soldier. This time he would be an officer.

This part of David’s story is not easy to tell. No matter how much anyone might want to give him the benefit of the doubt, no matter how much anyone might want to attribute some intelligence to him, he kept on doing things that only an idiot would do – if there is some explanation other than idiocy, most people fail to see it.

He went to a central army recruiting station not far from where he was working as a security guard. It was an enormous place, one that only the word “Kafkaesque” can describe. Entire enormous floors seemed to be given over to army bureaucrats in little office doing things that David would surely have thought must be important – if he thought about such things at all then.

He wandered into an office that seemed to be the place where the recruiting sergeants worked. He walked over to a desk. The sergeant who was sitting there looked up from some papers he was working on.

David seems to have had no expression at all on his face. Speaking quite mechanically, almost in a monotone, he said to the sergeant, “I want to join the army. I want to apply for OCS – Officer Candidate School.

The sergeant looked at him for a moment, as if trying to size him up. “Well, go to this room” – he wrote a letter-number combination on a piece of paper – “and they’ll fix you up.”

David took the paper, saying nothing. He turned and walked out the door, for all the world like a well-made robot. Somehow he found his way through the maze of corridors to the room he’d been directed to. Here, in this room there was another sergeant. He asked David what he wanted. David answered mechanically. He wanted to go to Officer Candidate School.

The sergeant took one look at him and reacted the way most people would in such a situation. With sarcasm. “Well, of course, for something like that you have to go to the Officer Procurement Section.”

It was all David could do to function at all. “Officer Procurement.” Did he understand the man was ridiculing him? Perhaps. But he felt too lost to care. He would follow this path to the end.

One of the other men in the room had an embarrassed expression. He looked at the sergeant as if the sergeant had just kicked a crippled.

And where exactly was “Officer Procurement”?

For that, David would have to go back to the sergeant he’d talked to first.

Which he did. The sergeant looked up as David walked somewhat mechanically over to his desk. “The other sergeant told me to go to “Officer Procurement.” His tone was a mechanical as his behaviour.

The sergeant glanced down, pressing his lips together with an irritated expression. He was clearly a man who didn’t like to see cripples – mental of physical – abused. “Well, let me have your name and phone number, and we’ll call you when something comes up.”

He pushed a pencil and a piece of paper over the desk toward David.

“And thank you for coming in.” His tone was more compassionate than condescending. He looked at David calmly.

David returned his gaze and realized the man was telling him that there was nothing more that could be done, and it was time to leave.

Years later, David learned that even if he could have made an application for Officer Candidate School, it would have been a hopeless attempt. David had naively asked the Harvard psychiatrist he’d seen during his senior year to help him get out of going to Army Reserve meetings, and this the man had done. David had rather stupidly assumed that the psychiatrist had somehow gotten him a kind of exemption. In fact, the man had told the army exactly what Dr. Bradley had said about David: that he was hopelessly, incurably insane. The army had issued a discharge on those grounds, using a euphemism to avoid expressing the real reasons.

Of course the sergeant never telephoned, and David never made any further attempts to join the army. No matter how numb his mind had become at this point, he understood that such attempts would be pointless.

In considering this part of David’s life, the question arises: just how crazy was David, really? As with many things, the answer to such a question depends on who you want to believe. If you believe Bradley and the other psychiatrist, who, it could be argued, had a vested interest in diagnosing David as they did, then David was suffering from serious mental illness. If you believe there might have been some other reason for David’s behavior, you may want to consider the fact that he was simply a very confused, gullible, but intelligent adolescent, whose parents and significant others had subjected him to all sorts of obfuscation, because they had an interest in doing so.

And what sort of interest did they all have for regarding David and treating David as they did? In the case of Bradley, it has to be said again that the poor man had to sacrifice David in order to save his reputation. He’d been “treating” David for four semesters and then David had abruptly left Harvard. That could only be because David was hopelessly ill, surely.

As for the second psychiatrist, the one David saw in his last year at Harvard, he was a guest member of the staff of the Health Center, and Bradley, now head of psychiatric services there, was his boss. He certainly wasn’t going to contradict Bradley in any way. Besides, by the time David returned to Harvard for his senior year, he really was so lost and confused and at times depressed, that any of Bradley’s subordinates could have seen in him the same pathology Bradley saw.

Perhaps it could be said at this point, that years later, when David’s old roommate, Don, had himself become a professor of psychiatry at an Ivy League university, he said in a response to a remark by David one day, “Schizophrenic? You? That’s impossible. You were no more schizophrenic in those days than I was. You must be mistaken, Dave. I don’t believe Bradley ever said that about you.”

Except that he had said it.

But if it was in the interest of Bradley and the other psychiatrist that David should be evaluated as being hopelessly insane, what interest did David’s mother and stepfather have in such a diagnosis? Again, it has to be said that it was of great benefit to them to have diagnosed as insane. Any guilt that his religious ideas caused them, because of their divorce and remarriage, could now be dismissed, if David was insane. And all of David’s liberal social and political ideas, which so irritated and even angered David’s stepfather, could now also be dismissed as the products of a sick mind.

In addition, David’s mother, like so many women who are obsessed with control, was always looking for weakness in the men around her, weakness that she could exploit to her advantage. If David were insane, she had one more lever of power she could use to bind him to her and to force him to do her will.

Under the circumstances, everyone benefited from diagnosing David as insane. Everyone except David, of course.

But that didn’t matter.

David was insane, after all. People could treat him any way they wanted to, without feeling they were doing something wrong.

After David had talked to the sergeant for the last time, even he knew the situation was hopeless. He would never have been allowed to join the Army again. And if he’d known what Dr. Bradley had said about him, if he’d known what Bradley’s diagnosis had been, he would have understood quite well how ridiculous any thought of joining the Army again really was.

He went back to his room, piled high with the books he’d had sent from Michigan, all the books he’d ever accumulated at Harvard. They were some of the most important things in the world for him, they were almost a kind of life-source for him, though Bradley would have probably said such an was sick.

Perhaps it was, but in that empty room, where David was always alone, they were the world to him, in ways it may be difficult for those people who have no love of books at all to understand. In today’s world, that is perhaps the only kind of people there are.

At least that’s about the only kind of people David would know from now on, as he moved through life.

He didn’t know that then, though, in his little room on Marlborough Street. He couldn’t know that from now on this is what his life would be, until many years in the future he would return to what had given his life purpose and meaning when he was young.

In any case, what kept him from despair in that cold, early spring Boston was mainly a paradoxical combination of desperate hope and the ability to not think very much about the future.

Every day now, he would somehow manage to get out of bed, get dressed, and walk down the steps of his building and out into the cold morning air of Back Bay. There were no leaves on the trees yet, and he didn’t think about whether or not there ever would be. He walked along the once-fashionable streets of Back Bay to the security guard office in Prudential Center. And then his day would begin.

This routine was once broken by an incident that was rather odd, although to David it seemed normal – he was apparently so traumatized during this period that anything seemed to him normal.

He was told to report to the security guard main office, in his uniform. Once he was there, he was put in the back seat of a car, told to put on his hat, and then driven around an underground parking garage. After that, he was told taken back to the office and told he could leave and home.

David never could figure out what he was doing in that car. It seems possible, however, that it was some kind of test. There might have been some kind of crime that had taken place in the garage, and David was suspected, for some reason. Perhaps, as he was being driven around there were witnesses in the garage who had seen the suspect under similar conditions, in a car, and they’d been told to try to identify him after seeing David. Or perhaps he’d simply been taken to the scene of some crime to see how he’d react. An emotional reaction would of course increased the suspicion he was under.

Why suspect David? Why not suspect him? He was a loner, a Harvard graduate doing a dead-end job, he had no friends among his co-workers, never even spoke much with them.

If there’s any significance in the incident, it’s simply that it may provide an indication of the depths that David had reached, at least in other peoples eyes, the poor boy, who, when he was first at Harvard, thought he would achieve the kind of success, respect, and status that many of his classmates had already arrived at.

The fact that he hadn’t achieved that, or couldn’t achieve it, was bewildering to him. No matter how hard he thought he was trying to change it, his life remained an unmitigated disaster.

He couldn’t understand why, but it’s clear that Dr. Bradley had been right – David was mentally ill, and everyone knew it. That was the reason no one would bother to help him. There was no point. Better to forget about him. And certainly there was no need to feel sorry for him, because – and this surely cannot be repeated often enough – crazy people like David feel no pain.


David continued with the security guard job, through the winter and into the spring. Somehow, during the summer, someone from an engineering company – of all things – in Prudential Center heard about him, heard that he’d graduated from Harvard and wanted something better to do with his life than what he was then doing.

David felt encouraged to apply to the company, and he did. Of course it could be asked why he didn’t apply for a job with a newspaper or a television station – or even with a publishing company again. The reason is simply that he felt so worthless and useless. He couldn’t believe he had anything to offer in that kind of situation. Besides, he was so terrified of even asking for such a job, that he would hardly have had the courage needed to work as a reporter, which is where he would have had to start.

He did, though, make one disastrous attempt to work at a large publishing house in Boston – not the one where he’d work before, but at one of its larger and more successful rivals. He called the personnel department, and they made an appointment for him to be interviewed by one of the editors.

He went to the editorial department on the day of the interview. Someone greeted him and asked him to wait. He was shown to a couch that was in the middle of a huge room with desks and people everywhere. He was asked to sit down, and he realized that this was the waiting area for the department.

He’d brought a book to read, the way he always did in such situations, so he sat down on the couch and started reading. And he waited. And waited. And the longer he waited, the more withdrawn he felt. He couldn’t really concentrate on what he was reading, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak to anyone either. In fact, he became more and more withdrawn as he sat there, his eyes fixed on the page. He became so withdrawn that he was practically catatonic. He sat there almost without moving, becoming more and more aware of the activity and people around him but also terrified of looking up from the page and showing he was aware of anyone or anything.

The minutes passed. He was in agony. How had he gotten himself into such a situation? Once he was aware that a woman came and stood directly in front of him, but she said nothing. And if she said nothing, then David saw no reason to look up at her. If she wanted to speak to him, he thought to himself, she would.

She stood there, and then went away.

No one else came to him. People around him went on working and talking, and he became still more withdrawn.

Finally, he had only one goal, and it wasn’t to get a job. It was simply to get out of there.

And so he did.

No one from the publishing house, of course, ever contacted him after that. Had they heard from someone at Harvard that he was crazy? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The fact that he simply sat there for – fifteen minutes was it, or a half hour, maybe even an hour? – was no doubt enough for people to figure out that David didn’t exactly, to put it mildly, fit into the house’s corporate culture.

So he went back to being a security guard with a Harvard degree. He felt the discrepancy between those two elements in his life. Did he ever. But what could he do? Again, he could simply not see any way out of his situation.

For some reason, though – perhaps David could fake sanity quite easily – he was hired by the engineering firm. It was possibly a completely mad idea, but no more mad than many others he’d had.

To start with, he was made part of a team that was involved in computer-aided design at the company. He and his co-workers must have cost the company – which no longer exists – a great deal of money, because much of their time was spent just joking around with one another.

At least it was a somewhat happier time for him, although as always in situations like that, David went over the top with his happiness. He exaggerated it and allowed it to run away with him. He’d been so miserable before that now he felt as if he’d been promoted into the stratosphere, even though his new job was hardly less of a dead-end occupation than the old one. In a sense it was hardly more intellectual, at least not when compared with those old, vague dreams of his at Harvard.

He still had no idea what the real object of those dreams had been, or what he’d been dreaming about. They’d really been nothing more than fantasies that he’d do or be something extraordinary. Perhaps the vagueness made it easier for him to forget them for a time. Meanwhile, his ability to fantasize – and his perhaps somewhat pitiful need to believe that his life was not being completely wasted – led him to think that his job as little more than a clerk at a large construction company was one giant step on the road to tremendous intellectual achievement.

Again, David’s situation would for many people perhaps bring to mind the story that Professor Williams used to tell, about the woman who went around joyfully telling all her friends that she was pregnant, when in fact she had stomach tumor.

And so, alone, with no real friends in Boston, no one who really understood him, he went on from one day to the next. He went on, and all the while thinking that his situation was quite normal, not realizing that when he was first at Harvard, he would have been horrified to think that this was the way his life was turning out. He didn’t realize that his more successful classmates were on the way to making useful, challenging careers for themselves, were starting families, while he was simply exploring a dead end.

Certainly it must be reiterated that his situation was his own fault, no one else was to blame. And yet, since he was too blind to what was happening to him even to feel any self-pity himself, it is difficult perhaps not to pity him a little. Yet it cannot be forgotten that David was crazy, and crazy people feel no pain, though they may claim they do, and so there is no need really to feel sorry for them

If he’d thought about the level to which his life had sunk, he probably would have told himself that it was only temporary. In sense, of course, he was right, because life itself is temporary, but that was certainly not quite what David had in mind.

There is a dynamic – a rather unhappy one – in the life of a good man, when people more powerful than he decide he must be destroyed. Naturally David thought of himself as such a person. Certainly his life seemed to follow the pattern of a good man being destroyed – although David was not what we think of when we think of a good person.

The dynamic goes something like this, first the man is excluded and demeaned as worthless. That did happen to David, it’s true, but there are a lot of people who say that David really was worthless, and wasn’t at all a good person. Anyway, first you exclude him, and cut him off from human contact, or the kind of ordinary human contact he’s used to. Then you watch as his behavior becomes increasingly strange.

Of course some people will claim that this is exactly what happened to David, slowly, over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps it did. David certainly was excluded. His exclusion began at Harvard, and lasted until the end.

Consider him at this point in his life: working for an engineering firm in Boston, doing a mindless job and thinking he was doing something important, thinking he was achieving something, thinking he was actually moving up in the world. Poor boy, in a way he was moving up, or “inching up” might better describe it.

The computer-aided design group that he was part of was broken up after a month or two. They spent too much time laughing and joking among themselves – the bizarre twists of the Patty Hearst kidnapping provided them with an endless supply of black humor. Each member of the team was assigned to a specific team of engineers, each responsible for their own project. David’s attitude toward the work became somewhat more disciplined, although he still joked around a little with some of the younger engineers.

At the same time, he envied those young men and felt the weight of his wasted life pressing down on him again. He envied them not simply because they’d achieved a certain professional status that was commensurate with their intelligence and education. He envied what he saw as the solidity of their lives, compared to the precariousness and even the poverty of his own.

As far as money was concerned, he wasn’t earning much, and still lived in a small room near the building where he’d first shared an apartment with his friend Marc, the Navy doctor. The difference between that period of his life and the present was so great that there was no pain he could feel, and yet the pain was there, like a sound pitched so high that it could no longer be heard. Or like a light that was so blindingly bright that it could no longer be looked at directly and was simply absorbed into the everyday run of experience and forgotten about.

David was poor but he was able to survive. He could not survive well enough, though – and this had always been true for him and would be true practically his whole life long – to actually let anyone else into his life, to develop close friendships with the kind of people who were his intellectual and social equals.

One of the saddest events during this period occurred when David’s father – his real father, his natural father – and his stepmother drove all the way from Michigan to visit Boston, to visit him. It didn’t seem sad at the time, but it became sadder in David’s mind as time went by and he understood better just how selfishly he’d behaved.

Each day during the visit, the three of them went to places like Harvard and MIT and all of the other locations that visitors to the Boston area go to. David couldn’t take much time away from his job at the engineering company, because he hadn’t been there long enough to earn any vacation time, but he spent as much time as possible with his father and stepmother. Then late one evening, on their last day in Boston, his father and stepmother came to the address where David was living. While David’s stepmother waited outside in the car, David’s father came to David’s room.

Poor man. Poor David. Poor family. David wouldn’t – he couldn’t – let his father in. David was ashamed of living in such a small, shabby place and didn’t want his father to see it. Of course that sort of shame is really a form of pride, but David didn’t worry about things like pride then. His life was such a mess in so many other ways that something like pride was the last thing he could concern himself with.

In later years, like an echo in his mind, David would hear again and again his father’s voice pleading to be let in. David just couldn’t do it. And it never occurred to him that his father could have been diminished in the eyes of David’s stepmother by David’s refusal. Could have been diminished, if David’s stepmother had been the sort of woman who thought in those terms. She was one of those women who have perhaps become exceedingly rare, and who are extraordinarily kind and never think in terms of controlling, manipulating, or dominating their sons or husbands or any other man in their life.

And so David’s father left him there in Boston, in all David’s unhappiness and even misery – after all, what choice did his father have? What could he have done for David, anyway? David had grown up practically in another galaxy; his poor father had no idea of the universe David inhabited, with all its horrors and confusion and sadness. There was nothing the poor man could do except leave, especially since that was what David seemed to want.

The question of course presents itself: what kept David going during all that time? Mainly his illusions. He had the illusion that his life was really not so bad; he’d forgotten the vague ideas of the somehow successful life he’d expected to live, years before, when he was at Harvard. He was oblivious to the way most of his classmates were living now. He had no way of comparing his life to theirs. He was blind to the depths he’d sunk to, and that’s perhaps just as well. If he’d understood what point he’d really reached, his sense of despair might have been more than he could stand.


He went on with his job at the engineering firm. The computer-aided design group was split up and each member was assigned to work more closely with some of the younger engineers. Eventually David was attached to about four or five engineers who were designing a power plant to be built in Yugoslavia.

David was so pathetically eager to prove – at least to himself – that everything he’d learned at Harvard could be used somehow, and that all the work and efforts and pain and study at that place had not been for nothing. One day a document in Serbo-Croatian appeared among the files that dealt with the power plant. No one had any idea what it was or what it meant, and there was no translation.

David was sure that he could translate it into English. After all, he’d studied Russian at Georgetown and Harvard, and there was nothing that a Harvard graduate couldn’t do. So he took the document home and spent an entire weekend with a Russian-English dictionary, and managed to make a translation. Hour after hour, he looked up practically every word. It was a hard work, but it was one of the few really intellectual tasks he’d had since leaving Harvard – and he loved it. He loved the challenge of it, loved the exhilaration of it. He loved the one-word-after-another pace, until the whole thing was finished. He loved seeing the lines of Serbo-Croation text turned into English, he loved seeing the original version and the English pages lying there side-by-side. There may have been some errors in what he did, but surely they were only minor ones.

And he was proud of what he’d done. So proud. He could hardly wait to take it back to the office Monday morning.

When he did that, though, of course no one could have cared less. It was of little importance that he’d translated the document. There was no recognition whatsoever, certainly no special sign of any gratitude.

And so David plodded on, one day after the other.

He was completely shut out of the work of the group he was supposed to be working with. His boss and everyone else treated him like something unnecessary and superfluous, as in a way he was. He’d rather pathetically tried to show he could be useful, with his translation from the Serbo-Croatian, but no one took any more notice of that than anything else he did.

Each day was a painful exercise in finding something to do. He wanted so much to belong to the group, but his boss treated him with contempt, as did everyone else in the group. He wasn’t an engineer, and everything he knew, everything he’d studied at Harvard, everything he’d ever done – Africa, Canada, his time in Israel – all of that was of course utterly and completely without value to the people he knew and worked with at the engineering company.

Hope never dies, though, and David always managed to find something he could form some kind of hope around. He discovered that there was a very small department at the firm – consisting of about three people, including the manager – that was responsible for minor forms of publicity and public information. This group put together brochures and prospectuses dealing with various projects and other aspects of the company’s activities.

One of the members of this group was a young Harvard Business Group named Daniel Marchetti. He was a short, pudgy man, one of those intense and intensely good sort of people that David thought he had once been. He was not like that any longer – if he ever had been – but he still had much admiration for people like that. Or perhaps it was that he knew he could turn to such people for help, or perhaps it was a little of both.

David always needed help, so he was probably always unconsciously looking for people who could offer that help when he needed it. Perhaps he was also good at finding other reasons for liking and admiring such people. He did not, after all, want to feel that the only reason he had anything to do with them was for what they could give him. Even David’s conscience would not have tolerated such an idea.

Daniel could sense of course when someone like David needed help. Daniel knew Harvard, and so he had some sense of the kind of person David was. He never asked how David had managed to gravitate to the job he now had, or what had happened to him at Harvard or afterward. Daniel knew that David had literary interests and had studied literature at Harvard – how exactly he found that out is not very clear. Perhaps David himself told him; perhaps he looked at David’s personnel file.

Daniel told David that the manager of his group, a French-speaking Swiss, was looking for someone to help produce prospectus material for the firm. “The job would involve a little writing, maybe some translating, and certainly the compiling of standard material about the firm for project proposals,” Daniel told him. “This standard material would be available from the files. Does that sound interesting?”

David asked him what kind of translation work was involved. “Probably some Spanish. We’re focused on Latin America right now. Can you handle Spanish?”

David could handle French and Russian – even Latin. He could certainly handle Spanish.

And the money? David didn’t ask about that. He figured he’d be paid fairly and that the company would pay him what he was worth. If he worked hard, he would be paid more. He seems somehow to have acquired the idea that company’s wouldn’t like it if he said anything about money, because that would show he wasn’t really interested in the excellence of the work he would do.

David was still such a dreamer. He still hadn’t caught on to the fact that companies today consider anyone who doesn’t ask about money a fool, because that’s all that the heads of those companies – and most people who work for those companies – are interested in.

Months later, when Daniel did find out how much David was actually being paid, he said it was “an insult.” By that time, it didn’t matter any more.

Daniel introduced David to the head of the group, Gerard Blanc, an engineer who’d grown up speaking French and German in his native Switzerland. David was impressed with that, but somehow – fortunately – managed to avoid idealizing Blanc or exaggerating his intelligence and abilities, the way he’d done with people at Harvard. Perhaps David had grown up a little, or perhaps he’d simply become so cynical or obtuse that he no longer thought much about such things.

Still, he managed to make a good impression on Blanc. If anyone in the firm’s personnel office had found out what Dr. Bradley had said about David at Harvard, apparently Blanc was never told. He treated David well and in a comfortable, friendly way.

Blanc didn’t hire David right away, of course, but after a few days, Daniel phoned him and gave him a starting date for his new job, and David was mightily relieved. The little engineering team he worked for were all but openly harassing him. He didn’t fit. They didn’t know what to do with. He wasn’t an engineer and couldn’t really contribute anything to their work. The head of the team had never seemed to like David, and no matter how hard David tried to like him, it just wasn’t possible.

Each side was glad when it was finally time for David to leave. And of course David couldn’t know it then, certainly, but this was a pattern that would be repeated as long as he lived. Wherever he worked, he never fit, he was always wrong, he was always doing things wrong, or saying things wrong. He had the wrong personality.

Only in Africa the first time, had he ever done work in a situation where people liked him, and where he liked them. Africa, though, was now far in the past, it seemed, and David hardly thought about it any more. He’d managed somehow to dull his mind to that – as he’d dulled it to so many things.

A date was finally arranged when David would leave the group of engineers and start working with Daniel and Gerard Blanc. The work didn’t require much, naturally, but as always David was able to make himself think that the job was much more important than it really was.

Certainly we can laugh at him and ask why he didn’t get a job that was important. Without trying to defend him, one could say that it might be useful to keep in mind that David no longer knew how to find a job that was important, if he ever had known. The fact of the matter was that over the years since he had left Georgetown and transferred to Harvard, he felt less and less capable of doing anything at all.

He was sometimes tempted to think that it was his mother and stepfather who had managed, in a thousand subtle ways, to undermine his self-confidence and make him feel hopelessly incompetent and incapable of doing anything. Of course he knew that such an idea was simply paranoid and if he had ever mentioned it to Bradley he would also have mentioned that he knew the idea was paranoid.

Yet any outsider would have to admit that it was just possible David was right. The destruction of his ability to accomplish anything really did present enormous psychic advantages to him mother and stepfather, advantages that would have been impossible for them to resist. For his mother, the advantage was that she was able to keep David under her control. For his stepfather, the advantage was that by making David weaker and smaller, his stepfather was able to feel stronger and larger and more vigorous.


As could be expected, David’s inability to work as part of a group of people – no matter how loosely associated they might be – manifested itself.

Perhaps it could be mentioned here that one of David’s illusions about himself was that he understood more about other people than they understood themselves. He believed he had some great insight into the minds and motives and behavior of others, an insight that practically everyone else in the world lacked.

How he ever came to believe this is a mystery, especially in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – all of which of course he chose to ignore.

Or perhaps it’s not such a mystery. It was at Harvard that David had acquired the idea – again, despite every indication to the contrary – that he possessed powers of perception and an intelligence that were quite extraordinary. Such an idea wasn’t Harvard’s fault, of course, but David’s. If he hadn’t been so arrogant – it would be tempting to write “such an arrogant fool” – he would never have thought that kind of thing.

Perhaps, though, the fault was greater than mere arrogance. Perhaps the fault was also the fact that David had been able to make the Harvard admissions people believe that he was more than just another ordinary applicant. Perhaps if David was out of the ordinary in any way, it was in his ability to deceive – and at the same time to be completely unaware that he was deceiving anyone. Perhaps David was too stupid even to know that he was deceiving other people. Perhaps it was his ability to actually believe he was exceptional that also made the Harvard admissions people believe in his abilities.

The fact that his grades at Harvard were always mediocre show just what those abilities really were, though David naturally – and in his paranoid way – put the blame for his failure at Harvard on his parents’ interference with his life.

To demonstrate the real breadth and depth of David’s imaginings about himself in relation to Harvard, it may be useful to explore further his thinking about the university around the time he entered.

He would never be aware of it and never understand it, David’s focus on – some would say “obsession with” – Harvard probably began with a small incident that happened merely by chance when he was still in high school.

In November of his last year in school, there appeared an article in what was then one of America’s most popular magazines, called “Life.” The article was the cover story one week about the young Aga Khan, who was then a senior at Harvard. The cover photograph shows him smiling broadly, fresh-faced and intelligent, holding some books and wearing what was practically a uniform for Harvard students then, a striped tie and jacket, standing, so the article states, in the garden of a friend in Cambridge.

The article and the photographs that went with it made an impression on David that was so deep he seemed no longer to be conscious of it afterward. Here was an ideal young man David could admire, they way he would have admired an older brother if he’d had one, someone intelligent, good-looking, well-to-do, and with the world clearly about to open for him and offer a sense of achievement, happiness, and his own personal form of success.

David, without realizing it, had a contradictory reaction to the article. He wanted everything represented there and actually believed he could achieve it – but at the same time he knew he never would. He was unaware of these thoughts consciously, because they would have been too much to bear, but nevertheless they were in his mind somewhere.

As the months passed, and he finished high school and went on to Georgetown, he forgot about the article. But as always happens with such things, it stayed deep in his mind, like some object resting at the bottom of the sea: always there, always what it was, no matter what might be happening on the surface.

In fact, it would be decades before he thought about that article again, before he realized that the desire to go to Harvard was in part unconsciously driven by the desire to be like that young man. Being at Harvard meant being that young man, in a way, even if he never expressed it to himself in those terms, even if he never thought about it or expressed it at all.

So part of David’s arrogance came from just being at Harvard, and part of it came from feeling he didn’t really belong there. But whatever its source, this arrogance expressed itself in his belief that he possessed some deep, intuitive, almost magical understanding of other people, their feelings and their real motives.

He understood, however, none of these things. He really was a kind of social incompetent. He was in some ways, completely inept when it came to relating to other people, and so the discrepancy between what he was and what he thought it was became more and more laughable as time passed, or laughable, anyway, for people who are inclined to laugh at others who are as pathetic as David was.

Poor, ridiculous boy. He thought his new job preparing brochures and proposals for the engineering firm was his big break – he was again like the woman who thought she was pregnant but who in fact had a stomach tumor.

His big break. He’d thrown Harvard away – for what he thought was the noblest of reasons – and had never really been able to go back, even though he did manage to graduate. He’d practically destroyed himself since that time. Besides the tumor-pregnant woman, he was also like the woman that Joyce wrote about in Ulysses, who expected “every moment to be her next.” His big break could come at any time.

It is at times so very difficult not to feel scorn and even a kind of contempt for such a young man. Stupid, misguided, benighted – all of these words apply to him, but somehow a sense of compassion may really be what is required, for those who have the patience for it.

He worked hard at his new job. He produced brochures, proposals, reports, and all kinds of written material as fast as he could – and that was very fast. He always arrived on time every morning, even ahead of time, and he worked until late in the evening. He brought his lunch and ate at his desk.

He was proud of his work. Everything he produced looked handsome and read well. It wasn’t the kind of literature that he’d once dreamed of producing, but it was something. The work allowed him to survive, after all.

And to survive alone, which David thought was the natural way to survive. He had no idea of how most people relate to one another and work with one another and depend on one another. He had no idea how people formed relationships, either at work or anywhere else.

He did everything at work alone, the way he always did. And so there were those who hated him. The secretaries especially, but also one of the other members of Blanc’s team.

As for the two secretaries, he could never figure out why they hated him. He never understood what he did that alienated them. He never understood that he seemed weak to them, and they despised him for that. He never understood that he should have paid them more attention, should have been friendlier to them. David, though, was so involved in the work he had to do, that it never occurred to him that he should talk to the secretaries, joke with them, and make them feel he liked them.

Besides, David stupidly thought that the secretaries wanted to be treated as equals, and that meant treating them the way he would treated any male co-workers.

He didn’t understand that with the secretaries against him, his work was sabotaged before it even started. He was sabotaged too, slowly, inexorably. Although it’s not easy for an outsider to know the details of what happened, there is one incident that can be related. One evening, David was at his desk and the secretaries were standing at theirs nearby. For some reason one of them turned to him and said, not very kindly, “Why don’t you just go home and have a drink, or two. Or three.”

David understood then that they thought he had a drinking problem and were trying to make it worse. Or at least he thought he understood that. As with so many things about David, it’s difficult to know the truth. What does seem clear, though, is that he’d somehow earned the hostility of the secretaries, and they were probing for any and every weakness as a way of having some kind of hold over him, or destroying him altogether.

There was another member of the group who did not like David, and who would apparently have been happy if David had just disappeared. His name was Phillip, and he seemed to have developed such a venomous dislike for David, that the only way to account for it is to consider the possibility that the secretaries may have poisoned his mind where David was concerned.

One day, David was with Daniel and Phillip near Mr. Blanc’s desk. They were working one something or discussing something just before Phillip was due to leave on one of his many business trips. All at once, for no reason at all that David was aware of, Phillip turned to David and growled, “Do you like your job here.”

Daniel made a short, low sound, as if someone had wounded him.

David had no idea what Phillip meant. Thinking that Phillip was simply inquiring as to whether he was happy in his work, David smiled and said cheerfully – and of course quite stupidly – “Yes, of course, I like it very much.”

There seemed to be no limit to David’s benightedness. He simply continued working as hard as he could, producing one report or proposal after another – beautifully prepared, printed, and bound copies.

One day, though, everything apparently crashed. It’s not clear exactly what happened, but probably it was in general what had happened to him so often before. He was forcing himself to work at something that he – at least unconsciously – believed was far less than what he was capable of, certainly far less than what he’d dreamed of at Harvard. It was, after all, basically a mindless job, and he was disliked by many of those around him. (The secretaries may have despised him because they knew he was being paid less than they were, and yet he didn’t act like their subordinate, they way they must have thought he should.)

And so he reached that point he’d so often reached: he just couldn’t do it anymore, just couldn’t force himself to go on with something that seemed so brutally meaningless to him.

One day, he simply could not go back to the office. It seems that for so long he’d made himself do something that made no sense to him, something that had no meaning for him, something that seemed small and unimportant – and now he just couldn’t force himself any longer. He’d reached his limit.

He had the feeling he’d been trying to force his mind into a small confined space, and it would drive him crazy if he went on. What his mind seemed to long for was the breadth and depth of the limitless universe he’d sometimes known when he was studying literature at Harvard.

Of course it’s difficult for others to grasp what David was thinking and feeling. Part of the reason for that of course is that it’s difficult for any outsider even to try to describe what was going on in his mind. At any rate, he couldn’t do it, just as he wasn’t able to do so many other things in his life – take that exam at Harvard in his junior year.

He felt paralyzed. No matter how hard he might will it, he couldn’t go on with the job at the engineering firm. And so he stayed in the little room he’d been living in, in the building on Marlborough Street. He stayed there and read, for a weekend. He felt safe. When Monday came, he still couldn’t go out, still couldn’t leave the room. Another day passed, and then one more.

It’s possible that David was gone about a week – possible that he didn’t go to the office for a week. Finally, Daniel called him – the Harvard Business School graduate David had worked with and who had been kind to him. Daniel wanted to know what had happened and if he was all right, David tried to explain in his fumbling way that he just didn’t see any point in going on. He wanted to quit, he said. He had quit. But he said it in a friendly way, because Daniel had always been kind to him. He didn’t want to hurt Daniel.

David felt it was one more ending in his life, or one of his series of lives was ending, but he didn’t want to think about that. He felt the pain, but he tried to think about something else.

He was happy that Daniel had called. Maybe they would want him back. Maybe he shouldn’t have quit. If they hadn’t recognized what a valuable employee he was, Daniel wouldn’t have telephoned him. He’d worked so hard and – he thought – accomplished so much. They recognized that, surely.

David met with Daniel and a couple of employees of the engineering firm in a little coffee shop near the office. David was in a cheerful mood, perhaps too cheerful, and talked about every idea he had about practically everything under the sun. (The waitress at one point came over and asked David – with complete innocence and absolute seriousness – “Are you anyone famous?”)

Daniel took David back to the engineering firm and up to the personnel department. The personnel director’s office was positioned so that he could see out of his office and across the secretaries’ desks to the main door.

David saw him sitting at his desk, saw him look at David, saw him get up and close the door with a certain finality.

Daniel seemed embarrassed. “Uh, well, maybe we should come back some other time.”

David, though, knew it was all over, knew that he would never again work for that company. One more job scratched off the list of organizations he passed through while on his meteoric rise to the top.


While other young men, confronted with the disaster their life had become, might have rallied all their energy and somehow managed to go on and actually turn their lives into something spectacular.

Not David, though. And here it is harder than ever not to feel a certain contempt for him. After all there he was, wallowing in his misery and despair. And yet the feelings of contempt on the part of any outside observer might be blocked or thwarted by an awareness that as far as David was concerned, he was paralyzed. He couldn’t move. He simply could not think or act in any way other than the way he was thinking and acting.

Of course it’s difficult for normal people to understand that, much less to actually feel what David was feeling. The feeling of being trapped in an iron box, the claustrophobic feeling, the feeling of being suffocated, all combined with what is clearly – for us anyway – the paranoid suspicion that this is what his parents – especially his poor mother – had for years meant him to feel.

And so he saw life not as an opportunity, but as something to be endured through what were now the continuous blacks and greys of his mental state. For David, life was not overflowing with promise; there were no gleaming, mysterious possibilities to be explored. For him there were only the daily minefields of fear and potential threats everywhere he looked and in almost every person he encountered.

So, perhaps to some extent Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, had been right. There was something wrong with David, and all his dreams of great intellectual achievement had been only that: nothing but dreams, and dreams of dreams.

But how was he to survive now, in Boston, at the end of this cold winter? Here, at the ends of this – as he saw it – cold world? Work as a security guard again? No, that was impossible. He couldn’t bring himself to do that again. Maybe sometime. Maybe in the future, but not now.

What then? Editorial jobs were out. He’d never be hired by the publishing companies he’d worked for before. What about working at a bank? Friends had once suggested that when he graduated from Harvard and he’d actually applied to one, been interviewed and accepted.

He sent out some resumes to banks, and even had an interview at one of the large New England banks, but in the end they decided against him, which is probably easy to understand, give the state of mind he must have been in. The other banks never even called him in for an interview.

Then what about Harvard again? After all, he’d worked there before after graduation, perhaps he could do that again. He’d do anything at Harvard, he told himself, work as a janitor, wash dishes in the kitchen, although those jobs were reserved for students. But there might be something he could do there.

Somehow he got an interview in the Harvard personnel office, but getting through the interview the way anyone else would have done was beyond him. First of all, there was the wait – did he perhaps think to himself, “There was the usual wait; perhaps they were hoping he would just go away. But then why did they invite him in for an interview? Perhaps it was only after they sent they invitation that they did some checking and found out what kind of a person he really was.

So he waited, and waited. Sitting there on a blue sofa in the middle of a large room that contained some other sofas and some chairs, together with desks arranged near the walls. It made him feel as if he was at the center of a field of observation. After sitting for what seemed to him to be a very long time, but may actually have been no more than half an hour, he looked up and saw a woman coming towards him. She was wearing a dark grey suit and had an expression on her face that belonged to someone who’d been told that here was another problem that would need to be solved.

She did not smile as she held out her hand and introduced herself. She seemed to take it for granted that he was David Austin. She motioned David into her office. He sat down, and suddenly was overwhelmed by an enormous sadness. He was afraid he would burst into tears.

He sat there for a time, not saying anything. He could feel the woman staring at him. Finally he said, “I’d like to work at Harvard again. I’d do anything – janitorial work, lawn-mowing, anything. I’d do anything just to feel I was contributing something to Harvard.”

He glanced up and saw the woman staring at him, as though something he’d said had made her angry and she was just barely able to control her anger.

Finally, after a long silence, she said, “I think you need professional help.”

In his blindness and naivete, David didn’t even understand what she meant, what kind of ‘help’ she was talking about. He simply sat there and looked away from her, down at the floor.

After another long silence, she said, “Excuse me for a moment.” She got up and left the room, leaving David to just sit there.

And so he sat, waiting for her to return. He didn’t know that that was perhaps not what she wanted, not what she was expecting him to do. Whatever she wanted, when she did come back, she made short work of David. She went to her desk and remained standing. She held out her hand and said with an icy smile, “Thank you so much for coming in. We’ll be in touch.”

David shook her hand and left. It was to be the last time he ever set foot in any office at Harvard University.

Something like a void, or an abyss seemed to open up before him now. There seemed to be nothing but disasters in his life, and each disaster was worse than the one before. The horror of each of them seemed to increase exponentially.

What could he do now? How could he survive?

He experienced himself as helpless, paralyzed, incapable of doing anything. Those were the classic signs of tremendous depression, but he didn’t even know he was depressed. Or, seen from outside, perhaps it could be said that he seemed to want to be depressed and paralyzed, although he wasn’t conscious of that, either.

He wasn’t conscious of wanting to drag himself down to the lowest depths possible, but that was what he appeared to be doing. He wasn’t aware of enjoying the whole process either, but he did in fact seem to enjoy it, seen from the outside anyway. It was probably at this point that he decided to do what had always seemed to symbolize complete and utter social failure and the worse form of degradation: he would apply for unemployment income from the state.

He went to the unemployment office in Cambridge as though it was the place where his identity as a loser would once and for all be confirmed. That’s the way he thought of himself: a loser, a failure, a reject, a hopeless case.

He stood in line in the enormous, shabby room, and looked around at what he saw as all the other losers standing in line. They were mostly men and, it seemed to David, mostly unwashed and unshaven, dejected and lethargic.

God only knows what David listed as his job goals and background. He didn’t care. It wasn’t important. Having graduated from Harvard was meaningless to him and to the social workers at the unemployment office. And what could he do? Well, he’d typed all his own papers at Harvard, he thought maybe he could get a job as a typist.

Reasonable people might scorn and ridicule him. After all, couldn’t he get a job with a newspaper or a television station? Someone else might have, of course, but not David. The depression that pressed down on him made that impossible. The depression made any thought or prospect of getting a more demanding and rewarding and respectable job appear blocked by countless insurmountable obstacles. He had no means of transportation, other than the subways and buses in Cambridge and central Boston, weren’t many of the job he might apply for in suburbs?

Buy a car? That too seemed to him impossible. How would he go about buying a car? The whole process seemed so complicated that he couldn’t imagine how he could get through it. Besides, where would he get the money to buy a car? Borrow it? How would he do that? How in the world would he do that?

He felt he was barely capable of getting through the registration process so that he could collect unemployment insurance. Somehow he did get through it, though, and started receiving the checks. The money wasn’t much, but somehow he managed to live on it for a while.

What did he do during the days that followed, as winter turned into spring and then spring into summer? God only knows. It’s safe to say he spent a lot of time in his room on Marlborough Street. He was living now in a room on the ground floor of a building not far from the place he’d lived in with Marc.

He read a lot, but exactly what he read is impossible to say. He probably went to the movies, and probably slept a lot. He did that when he was depressed, the way many people do.

He also prayed the way he always did when he was desperate, shouting out to God, silently, crying out from some deep place in his heart – anyone might be tempted to say “his poor battered heart,” except that would sound too much like pity. David is the last person in the world who should be pitied, because whose fault was it, really, that his life had developed the way it did? It was no one’s fault but his own.

There was a neighbourhood bar that he went to sometimes, when the sense of isolation became too strong. He rarely talked to anyone, though, because he didn’t know what he could say to them. What could he tell them he did for a living? He was ashamed to say that he was unemployed. Or how could he explain his life? He felt his life was such a confused mess that there was no way he could explain it to anyone.

A graduate of Harvard and such a complete failure? He thought he was the only one in that humiliating and degrading position, so how could he possibly talk to anyone.

One evening, though, he somehow did manage to get into a conversation with a very Jewish-looking young man his own age who turned out to be a graduate student at Harvard, working toward a Ph.D. in English literature. Perhaps because of those similarities in their backgrounds, David discovered that Joel seemed to understand him, or at least he didn’t seem to think that David was someone to be despised and looked down upon or that he was some kind of misshapen monstrosity – which is pretty much the attitude David had toward himself.

Joel lived in Leverett House at Harvard, which, when David was a student, was one of the most glamorous houses that an undergraduates could live, at least in the mind of some undergraduates, like David. He had always thought the high-rise architecture of the house pleasing; he even liked the elevators and the warm, friendly way the entries to each of the suites were laid out on each floor. The house had its charm – for David, anyway – in the way it had at the same time a feeling of modernity and one of intimacy.

Joel adopted David, in a way, just as he might have adopted a homeless dog or cat – out of a feeling of compassion, but also comradeship as well. David began spending more and more time in Leverett House – practically living there, until he really was living there. Joel had the sort of spacious suite Harvard often gives to graduate students who are also responsible for giving those undergraduate courses known at Harvard as “tutorials.” There was an extra room for David to withdraw to – or hide in – whenever students came to see Joel in his capacity as a tutor.

It was perhaps not forbidden for Joel to share the suite with a non-paying guest, even on a long-term basis, although in those days women were not allowed. David, of course, had had an acquaintance in Adams House whose girl friend had lived in his room there for at least two semesters, illegally, but for David to do the same thing might have been all right. Since David was no longer a Harvard student, however, neither he nor Joel wanted to take a chance. So David kept a very low profile.

No one knows what he did for food. Joel could go to the Leverett House dining hall, but certainly not David. He must have left the building to buy food at times when he could be sure he wouldn’t be seen by anyone else who might be entering or leaving.

David lived on his unemployment checks. He knew those checks would not go on forever, and he had no idea what he would do when they ran out, but he didn’t think about that. He had once been almost obsessively concerned about the future, but now he felt he was at the mercy of forces he couldn’t control, so as far as he was concerned, there wasn’t much point in thinking about what might happen in six months or a year, or even what might happen tomorrow.

In his crippled way, he tried to do the only thing – except for being in Africa – that had ever really been important to him. He tried to go on leading some kind of academic life. He had a couple of rather strange projects – or rather projects that seem strange to outsiders. To David they must have had some sort of consistency with the world he lived in.

One such project involved studying Hebrew. He’d learned a little when he lived in Israel, but he’d forgotten most of it. He wanted to learn it again, perhaps because Joel was Jewish, though that particular reason is probably the most unlikely one. Joel was completely non-religious.

It’s possible that David made some kind of connection between Hebrew and his own faith, and that also seems unlikely – except for the fact that part of his mind seemed to cling to that faith, out of desperation, out of a sense that there was simply nowhere else to turn.

He’d gotten a Hebrew Bible somewhere, but he wanted something less bulky. He wanted a small volume with the psalms, one that he could carry around with him. He liked the idea of being able to read the psalms in the original. He went to a bookbinders in Boston and asked them if they could remove the psalms from the Bible and bind them separately. The psalms began on a right-hand page, and David wanted to have a blank sheet pasted over the reverse side so that his “psalm book” didn’t begin with the last page of the previous book of the Bible. The woman he spoke to looked at him with a serious expression and said, “We don’t do that.” It was instantly clear – to David, anyway – who “we” were, and he liked the ambiguity of the woman’s expression. It left open the possibility that he was considered one of those “we.”

When he went back to pick up the small, thin black volume a few days later, it seemed to him not exactly a book, but rather something like a dark, shining jewel.

And so it was – for him. He got a Hebrew-English dictionary and started at the beginning, painfully deciphering each psalm slowly, one word after another. He remembered enough Hebrew grammar from his time on the kibbutz and he of course had an English translation, so he was able to understand quite well the sense of what he was reading.

One can picture him now, forlorn – and in the eyes of most people – rather stupid, sitting in that room, in the middle of the wreckage of his life. Perhaps the only thing that saved him was ignorance of just how deep a pit he’d sunken into.

Fortunately, though, it was around this time that he was able to make one of his crippled attempts to break out of his enclosed little world. He heard somehow – or perhaps read in The Crimson – that Robert Lowell was going to give a seminar on Shakespeare. Most people wouldn’t have given such news a second thought, but David of course was stunned by it. “Robert Lowell?” He thought to himself, “Giving a seminar?” and he knew he had to somehow get into it. He knew he could get into it. He had no money, of course. He couldn’t pay any tuition fee, but maybe somehow he could take the course without credit.

Robert Lowell, he kept saying to himself. One of the great geniuses of American literature. One of the most widely read American poets of the twentieth century, certainly one of the best of his generation.

And crazy as a loon. Many would say that this was the reason that David felt such an affinity for him. He was crazy, and, as everyone knew, David was crazy too.

Professor Williams would help him, David thought to himself. Professor Williams would help. And he went to the small wooden frame house on Athens street one afternoon and rang the bell.

“I’d like to audit Lowell’s seminar,” he said to Williams, abruptly, the way he still said almost everything. They were sitting in Williams’ small, handsomely furnished living room. The library, walled with books, was visible as David sat in a chair across from his former professor.

“But you don’t have to talk to me about it,” Williams said, with the trace of a smile. “Just ask Lowell.”

And that’s what David did. He managed to corner Lowell one day as he was about to enter Weld Hall at the start of classes. “I’d like to audit your seminar,” he said.

Some, mostly very unkind people, might say the meeting was like two crazies encountering one another for the first time. Lowell looked at David through thick glasses. He was silent. David waited. Finally Lowell, bit bear of a man, looked down at David and said, “What are you?”

“I, uh, graduated from Harvard. I like to write poetry.” David was almost stammering. He couldn’t even really look at Lowell – David could look at hardly anyone in those days, because he felt completely worthless. Many would say he was. At any rate, on that day, he might have mumbled something more, but whatever he said, it was apparently enough for Lowell.

“Come to the next meeting of the seminar,” he said almost shyly.

And that is what David did. He went to all of the seminars and sat there in awe of Lowell and found in him – or thought he found in him – some confirmation of his strange way of looking at poetry, of reading poetry. One day they were reading through one of Shakespeare’s plays – it’s not clear now which one – and Lowell paused and sat there, looking at the page. “See?” he said quietly. “See? That line sort of glitters doesn’t it?”

Sort of glitters? David thought to himself. Sort of glitters? How many times had he wanted to say something similar about poetry but had been afraid to. Or if he had said, was treated as if he were crazy.

What David didn’t seem to understand was that Lowell could say things like that. Lowell was, after all, a great poet. And David? David was, well, just David.

He still had his dreams, though. But that’s all they were. There had been a brief period when he felt compelled to write poetry, some months before his three-year absence from Harvard started, all that had ended a long time ago.

And David’s “failure” to go on writing poetry of course certainly didn’t represent a loss for civilization. If he’d had anything to say with his poetry, if he’d been any good as a poet, then nothing would have stopped his writing, not dropping out of Harvard or the months in the Army. Not the years of wandering in Canada and Africa and Israel and elsewhere. Not all of the confusion and bewilderment and pain. Nothing.

David would always remember one other thing that Lowell said during the seminar. He said, “When a mediocre writer writes something that he thinks is really good, he’ll look at it the next day and realize it’s not very good at all. But when a great writer writes something he knows is good, he looks at it the next day, and it’s still good.”

That was perhaps how even David came finally to understand that nothing he ever wrote was any good, in spite of all his crazy illusions and dreams of greatness. That was how he finally realized that Harvard had destroyed nothing in him, because there was nothing there to begin with.

The Lowell seminar was difficult for him, not because of Lowell or the subject matter, but because of his inability to relate well to people his own age, and because of his inability to express and defend his own ideas. The seminar was also difficult because David’s way of reading literature and thinking about literature was so radically different from those around him.

Some will say that this “difference” was a result of his illness. Certainly the Harvard psychiatrists he’d talked to would have said that. And probably they would have been right. Certainly David’s history of instability – mental and otherwise – would tend to support determination of mental illness that a psychiatrist would have made.

The problem was that David’s way of reading literature was so emotional. He reacted to literature. People who studied literature at Harvard were expected to be rational and objective in their readings. They were certainly not supposed to do what David had always done, which was to read literature almost as though he were experiencing it himself.

As a result, he was attacked by the other students in the seminar. David thought he was reacting to literature the same way Lowell reacted. Lowell’s presence allowed him to react that way, but he was not Lowell. He hadn’t written the poetry Lowell had written, and so in the eyes of the other students, he had no right to react the way Lowell did.

The students never attacked Lowell, of course. That would have been impossible. Lowell was too majestic a figure. Besides, he’d be handing out grades at the end of the course.

But David was someone they could get away with attacking, and there was nothing Lowell could do to defend him. Lowell wasn’t capable of that. He wasn’t really capable of defending himself, if other people attacked him.

What did David gain from the seminar? Perhaps little more than the idea that Robert Lowell looked at literature the same way he did – or seemed to look at literature that way.

But was that a good thing for David? Probably not, for it may only have strengthened his illusion that he had something important to offer the world, or that he was capable of writing something important. To imagine that there were any similarities at all between him and Lowell probably did nothing more than feed his illusion that if Lowell had achieved some kind greatness, then eventually David could too. Somehow.

In the meantime, he remained sunken in the swamp his life had become, although he didn’t think of it as a swamp, because if you live in a swamp long enough, you forget that there’s anything else in the world.


One day in early spring, Joel’s parents drove up from New York to visit him. His father was an accountant, a heavy-set, rather silent man, who gave the impression that he’d been quietly and bravely suffering all his life. He wasn’t bitter or angry, but tough and patient, and good-natured in a serious way. Joel’s mother was a teacher in the New York City public school system, and she was bright and lively, and interesting in everyone and everything around her.

One of the things that interested her, naturally, was David. It didn’t her long to figure out, of course, that Joel was offering him a roof over his head and that he was living there. She said nothing to David, of course, but later Joel would tell him that she’d asked him – in a kindly and sympathetic way – what David was doing there.

David would always remember her sweeping around the apartment, a small, fashionably dressed woman, who quickly seemed to regard him as a sort of stepson, since Joel had more or less adopted him as a stepbrother.

What surprised David more than anything else about Joel’s parents was their sense of generosity, not just to David, but to Joel himself. They came from New York with gifts of clothing for Joel, expensive shirts, sweaters, and slacks, that David knew would go be piled on top of the other unused and unworn clothes that were – shockingly for David – accumulating in Joel’s closets.

There’d been a time when David’s mother had bought clothes for him – handsome clothes that she gave him as though she were dressing a doll. All that had stopped long before, though, before his mother and stepfather seemed to acting on the principle that the less they gave David, the more they could bind him to them.

And of course Joel’s car was something that seemed almost incredible to David, because that was the last thing his own parents would have given him. A car after all not only symbolized independence, it conferred a certain amount of it. And granting David any independence, or even recognizing his adulthood, would have been, certainly for his poor mother, something like taking poison.

David like Joel’s parents immensely, and when they were gone, he missed them. He didn’t know then, of course, that he would see them again, and often, soon enough. At first, he and Joel used to drive down to New York to visit them. They lived in a handsomely furnished rent-controlled apartment in the village.

When David was younger, he’d hated large cities. But now he loved New York. He loved it in the late spring when it was still cold and when it shone and dazzled him on bright, cloudless days. He loved being there with people he knew, because it made him feel less like a visitor. Of course if he’d actually lived there, he’d have felt different about the city. He knew that, but being there with Joel and his parents was an adventure.

One evening they had tickets to a concert at Lincoln Center. In later years, David wouldn’t be able to remember what sort of a concert it had been, because he was so entranced with the idea of simply being at Lincoln Center. He was also entranced by the way it seemed so normal for Joel, and especially for his parents, as though they were driving down to the bandstand in some small New England town.

David too, of course, tried to act as though he were seeing nothing out of the ordinary. But still – the brightly lit Lincoln Center façade glowed for him in a way that seemed golden, in a way that was unforgettable, the usual adolescent fantasy that had always haunted him.

In later years he would not even be able to remember what kind of performance they attended that evening – whether it was an opera or concert – but what he would remember – always – was the kindness of Joel’s parents, especially the kind of his mother.

Joel’s father always seemed a little bewildered by the whole situation, as if he didn’t know quite how to treat David, or what he was to make of him. David’s father was by no means prejudiced, but he seems always to have lived in a kind of Judaeo-centric world, one that didn’t include goyim. It seemed to David – at least later – that Joel’s father – good man that he was – just didn’t know how to treat goyim, when it came to his personal life.

The visits to New York with Joel were a good preparation for what was to come.

Early in the summer Joel became ill. The symptoms were a fever and extreme exhaustion. His parents rushed up to Cambridge and took him to a doctor at the Harvard Health Center, where he was diagnosed with hepatitis.

His parents took him back to New York and put him in the hospital, and David was left alone in Cambridge, in Joel’s apartment in Leverett House.

With nothing to distract him – those were the days before personal computers and the Internet, even before video recorders, and Joel didn’t own a television set – David must have been mightily depressed. What did he do all day? Perhaps he read, perhaps he slept. He must have sneaked out once in a while to buy food and pick up his mail from his post office box address.

Was he lonely? David knew no other way to live. He’d never experienced any other kind of life, so he wasn’t lonely. Being alone in Joel’s apartment – being alone in any apartment – was a normal state of affairs for him.

And he didn’t think about the past. He didn’t think how horrified he would have been if someone had told him ten years earlier, when he was a student at Harvard, that he would one day be living in Leverett House like a penniless squatter, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing, leading a pointless.

No, he never thought about that. He was too worried about the present and future – at least the near future. He couldn’t bring himself to consider what a disaster he was ultimately heading for if he continued to lead the life he was leading then.

Each day followed the one before in a kind of monotonous progression. David hardly noticed them passing. He spent almost all of his time alone, of course, except for occasional conversations with Stephen Rocca, the Jesuit Sanskrit scholar. One day, Stephen invited David to audit one of his classes, a section in some larger course on Sanskrit studies.

David was again proud to sit in a classroom where the course was taught by a friend, just as he’d been proud to sit in a section taught by Jim Radnor, when David had been an undergraduate, centuries before. He may have looked strangely out of place, though, because one of the male students, kept looking at him, scowling slightly, in a way that intimidated David.

David didn’t go to any more of Stephen’s classes after that. He didn’t really go anywhere at all for some weeks. When Joel was feeling better, David talked with him on the phone, even though Joel was still in the hospital. He continue to improve, though, and one day he asked David if he wanted to come down to New York to visit him. He said David could drive his car, which he’d left in Cambridge.

Despite all of his travels, David didn’t like the idea of travelling to New York, or more accurately, he didn’t like the idea of driving to New York from Cambridge. It was a long drive – five or six hours – but that wasn’t the worst of it for David. With his faulty sense of direction, he didn’t at all look forward to threading through the maze of highways and streets that would lead him to Joel’s parents’ place in lower Manhattan. Actually, it wasn’t that he didn’t look forward to such a thing, he was very much afraid of it.

Or at least he was afraid of it the first time he did. After that, it became a small adventure. The first time, though, was filled with dread. It was easy for him to find his way out of the Boston area and head for New York, but when he got closer to Manhattan, things were different. Those were the days before any global positioning system, so David had to rely on a map to get him to the apartment of Joel’s parents, something that wasn’t very easy for him.

And when he did get there the first time, it was when Joel was still in the hospital, so there was no “buffer” between David and Joel’s parents. Fortunately, he was able to spend a lot of time at the hospital, talking to Joel, so that he didn’t have to deal with his hyper-shyness toward Joel’s parents.

Not that they weren’t kind. Joel’s mother was friendlier than ever to David, the way perhaps only a Jewish mother can be friendly. Perhaps she sensed a certain woundedness in David that made her want to take care of him even more than she would have otherwise. At any rate, her kindness toward David made the distance that somehow opened up between him and Joel’s father easier to react to.

What did David do when he wasn’t visiting Joel in the hospital? During the day, at least on weekdays, Joel’s parents were working, so if David spent any time in their apartment then, he probably did what he always did then – read. And what did he read? That is difficult to say. He might have gone on with his somewhat bizarre study of the psalms in Hebrew, or he might have picked up a long novel, something by Dickens, for example.

David loved long novels that he could lose himself in, and in those days – before the Internet and even before video recorders – there was plenty of time to do that sort of reading.

The apartment that Joel’s family lived in, the one Joel had grown up in, was almost luxurious in a way and its atmosphere – its emotional atmosphere – was warm and secure. Other than that, David took little notice of the furnishings. Others, however, might have said that those furnishings were very tasteful and similar to what could be found in a thousand other New York apartments occupied by people of comfortable, middle-class means.

He didn’t compare it to his mother and stepfather’s home – in a way, both homes were the same. One was a house in a town in the Midwest, the other was an apartment in New York. They were different in kind, not very different with the socio-economic level the inhabitants had achieved.

Not only did David not compare the two homes, he didn’t even think about either of them very much. Later in his life he would look back on this period too as one in which he experienced a kind of intellectual numbness, and perhaps an emotional one as well. Or perhaps it could be said that this period was the start of an intellectual numbness or obtuseness that would last for the rest of his life.

Of course there is also the possibility that David never had been anything but numb and obtuse. Anyway, during that first visit to Joel’s family in New York, he spent almost all of his time either in the family apartment or at the hospital, talking to Joel. In later years, he wouldn’t remember much about those conversations, except for one item.

For some reason – perhaps he simply wanted to show off that he had one more piece of exotic knowledge – but during one of the conversations, David quoted the ancient Hebrew prayer, “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one.”

Perhaps David and Joel had been talking about Israel, perhaps David was telling his friend about his visit to Israel a few years before. David often tried to relive, at least in words, the happier times in his life, and that had certainly been a happy time for him.

That sentence, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one,” had always been one of David’s favorite expressions. He didn’t know why, of course, but it probably had something to do with his long lost beliefs. It seemed to give him some consolation at some level of his mind, although he wasn’t really conscious of it.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one.” Joel looked up at David from the hospital bed, apparently startled that David would say such a thing, startled that David even knew the words.

Perhaps it would not be getting too much ahead of the story to say that for years, decades even, David would remember that immense kindness and affection that Joel’s mother showed him, every time he came to New York. For a long time he thought that she was simply a kind person, but then one day, when David was quite old, he wondered if her kindness hadn’t been caused by something else.

Perhaps Joel had told his mother what David had said in the hospital and she saw the Jewish element in David’s background: one of those people who are Jews, or who have Jewish mothers, but are never raised Jewish, are never even explicitly told that they are Jewish.

During that first visit to Joel’s family apartment in New York, his mother produced a vast assortment of pastries for breakfast, and David mentioned that there was one kind that he especially liked. Forever after that, whenever he came back to visit, Joel’s mother served that particular kind of pastry in abundance for breakfast.

Did she do all that or was she so incredibly kind to David only because she regarded him as a Jew? Perhaps. Would she have acted the same way if she hadn’t seen him as a Jew? David always believed that she probably would have.

After the first scary trip, David actually started to enjoy driving back and forth between Boston and New York. It may even have given a sense of importance to his otherwise meaningless life. Growing up in the Midwest – a part of the country his mother regarded as backward, if not primitive – towns like New Haven, New Rochelle, and Scarsdale had long ago taken on an absurdly magical glow for David. And even though he’d lived on the east coast for many years now, being close to towns with those names made him feel he’d arrived at a significant place somehow.

If he hadn’t felt that, if he hadn’t believed it, his poor, shattered life – for which he alone was to blame of course – would have been unbearable for him, poor, lost pathetic boy that he was. But driving back and for between Boston and New York the way he did – yes, that did give him the feeling that he was actually getting somewhere in life.

It doesn’t need to be said that in fact he was going absolutely nowhere. He didn’t deserve to, after all. He was crazy, he was damaged goods, so certified by a Harvard psychiatrist. The questions remains what it always was: why should anyone feel sorry for him or want to help him? What would be the point?

Joel’s mother was kind to him, and her kindness may have helped him to survive for just a little longer, until he found the next situation where people might be kind to him. Besides, David liked New York. He liked going to The Cloisters with Joel, or to concerts at the Frick, or to the theater. They saw Edward Albee’s Seascape, which won the Pulitzer Prize that year, and David thought he had a kind of revelation when the lizards in the play realized that they’d encountered a new world, and could never go back to the old.

But it was a revelation for a madman. It meant nothing in the end. And no one should have any feeling of compassion toward him because of that. Even if some will argue that his madness wasn’t his fault, somehow it seems reasonable that he should be at least partly to blame for it. Or would that be blaming the victim? Not in David’s case.

Other than the feeling that these repeated trips to New York were “taking him somewhere,” it’s difficult to imagine now what in the world David thought he was doing, or what he thought he was achieving. He doesn’t seem to have had any idea that he was helping Joel in any way.

Probably he wasn’t thinking at all in terms of achievement. He was thinking in terms of simply enjoying life. Like most people who are thwarted in their attempts to use all their intelligence and capabilities, David began to feel – unconsciously – that if he couldn’t do anything, then he might as well try to enjoy everything he could.


After a period of weeks, Joel was in good health again, and there was no reason for him to stay in New York. He wanted to return to Cambridge to continue working on his doctorate. He moved back into his suite of rooms in Leverett House, with David still using the spare room as his own.

The endless, bleak, and cold Cambridge spring finally became Cambridge summer. David spent the next few months in Joel’s apartment, writing one of his interminable novels and studying Hebrew. By this time he was receiving enough unemployment compensation to at least buy food, but he would never have been able to afford to pay rent. God only knows what he would have done if he hadn’t been able to stay in Leverett House.

The problem of paying rent was one he’d soon have to face, though, because Harvard wanted Joel to move out of Leverett at the end of the summer, to make room for another resident tutor. In other words, Harvard was pushing Joel to finish his doctoral thesis and get out into the world.

Joel’s parents promptly began looking for an apartment in Boston that Joel could live in – and they could pay for. When they found one in a large, new, modern building not far from the Charles, David was stunned. Were there really parents who cared so much about their offspring that they would provide them with a car and apartment?

Such things seemed incredible to David. The behavior of his mother and stepfather in this regard wouldn’t have been so hard to take, if they had at least shown him some ordinary kindness or tried to understand him. They never communicated with him, though. They were simply waiting for him, David thought, like giant spiders at the center of a web, waiting for him to come back and stay with them in Michigan. If he did that, David knew what would happen: day after empty day in their huge house, being treated as though he were invisible. It had all happened so often before, and he knew it would happen again.

David thought it was time for him to move out of Leverett House too. He found a tiny basement apartment on Beacon Hill. It was the beginning of summer, and even an apartment like that looked like a palace in that splendid season, made even more splendid by following the horrors of a Boston winter and spring.

He furnished the place in his tasteful way, despite the fact that his only income was still the unemployment check he received every week. He had hope, though, in addition to his extremely small income, because he’d found a new dream.

It was the dream of graduate school.

Certainly not much of a dream as far as most people were concerned, but still, for David, it was a dream.

Somewhere David found out that Northeastern University in Boston was offering fellowships for its master’s degree program in English. Northeastern wasn’t exactly Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or Yale, but even David knew he couldn’t go on dreaming of one of those universities. If the idea of going to Northeastern was depressing, well, what choice did he have? Among people he’d known at Harvard, Northeastern was practically at the outer reaches of the universe, so far away from Harvard, and so far beneath it that it barely existed. It would have been considered a proletarian school, if people at Harvard had ever taken the trouble to even think about it.

He applied for a fellowship for the master’s degree program in English. He even started the program and taught a few classes.

And then one day he saw an advertisement in the newspaper for English teachers in Iran. And that was the end of graduate school for David. If it had been a degree program and a fellowship at Harvard or Oxford, he wouldn’t have been tempted – or he probably wouldn’t have been tempted – but Northeastern? Northeastern could be treated with a certain contempt, couldn’t it? No need to honor any kind of commitment there.

Besides, Iran – now surely that would be the adventure David had always dreamed of, his once in a lifetime opportunity. And off he went on another illusory tangent – dreams of excitement in an exotic foreign country, perhaps some connection with intelligence work. Who knows? The possibilities were endless, in his imagination anyway. And his imagination was in overdrive.

He applied for the job in Iran and was accepted immediately. There was a short interview in Boston, and he handed in his resume, but that was all. He was accepted. It never occurred to him that the company that hired him was perhaps not looking for undercover CIA agents but simply looking for warm bodies to stick in a classroom to fulfil the terms of a government contract so that it could get paid.

Such things still, even at his age, would never have occurred to David – talk about benightedness or invincible ignorance. It’s hard not to ridicule such thinking and behavior.

The head of the English department at Northeastern smiled a little and shrugged his shoulders when David told him he was leaving for a teaching job in Iran. At least David was honest enough to say that he was doing it mainly for the money – his salary was huge, by the standards of the time. “Well, I certainly couldn’t afford to pay you that much,” said the professor, with perhaps a certain sadness. “I wish you the best of luck.”

David was allowed to take a suitcase and one large steamer trunk full of this belongings. He loaded the trunk with his precious books and journals – the only things that were really valuable to him, or so he thought. When the time for the trunk to be picked up came, the men from the shipping company appeared. They groaned and strained trying to get the nearly immovable item out of the apartment. Joel was there and waved good-bye to it. The send-off would one day prove to be prophetic.

As he usually did in such situations, David didn’t think of the effect his leaving would have on Joel. They hadn’t been friends for a very long time, but they’d become close enough for Joel to feel David’s absence. David on the other hand, a typical child of his times, thought only of his own situation and the adventure he was sure lay ahead of him.

To be fair to David, though, he was perhaps justified in wanting to be away from Joel. David had for some time been a kind of lightning rod for Joel’s anger and frustration – a position David had spent, and would spend, most of his life in.

David packed up the clothes he’d need in the coming weeks, until his trunk arrived in Tehran, and flew to Chicago on the first leg of the journey. He was supposed to undergo several days of “orientation” with several other members of a group of new hires, and then they’d all be flown to Iran.

While he was in Chicago, he had a chance to visit Will Staines, his friend from New York whom he’d first met while he was at Harvard, after his first year in Africa. Will was working for an international educational organization, starting a career as its president that would span almost two decades. David could hardly have known how Will’s career would develop then, or what an unusual career he’d already had, filled as it was with impressive honors and professional positions of quite high standing in the academic world and in government. David – whose time in British Africa had made him greatly respect anyone with an MBE and OBE after their name – would have been astonished to learn that Will would one day receive an even higher honor, a CBE, the title of Commander of the British Empire – or at least, because he was an American, the honorary title.

Bill came back from his office one day to find David sitting at the dining room table studying Farsi. Bill didn’t say anything, but for some reason David remembered that moment in later years. It seemed to him that Bill knew what he was doing was hopeless. Learning Farsi – as if he would continue with it long enough to actually be able to speak the language or do something useful with it.

David thought he would, though.

David thought he would do so many things.

David thought this was the beginning of some great career for him, not just another dead-end job for people who for one reason or another couldn’t make it in American society. Of course what they all thought about themselves was just the opposite. They all thought they were part of some special group of individuals, doing something critically important overseas.

To the company they were were working for, though, they were just cash cows to be milked for money that ultimately came from the U.S. government. Buzzard Educational Services, Inc., was just one of those thousands of American companies that specialize, not in producing anything, but in getting contracts with the U.S. government to provide some service at an outrageously inflated price. The main expertise of such organizations consists not really in providing the service, but simply in getting contracts. They have a few well-connected individuals at the top who manage teams that make contract bids that are usually tailor-made for the company in question.

And that is the sort of situation David now found himself in.

The only problem was, he didn’t know it. But if he had, it might not have made any difference. He would still have gone on with the “orientation” classes, the inane conversations with his colleagues, the endless discussions of food and restaurants. He would have somehow convinced himself that this time the job that he had would “lead to something.”

Poor idealistic sap. He was incapable of not surrounding himself with fantasies of one sort or another. He was so sure that the dreams of greatness he’d had, especially at Harvard, would simply have to come true. It never really occurred to him – at least not yet – that his life could ever be otherwise. He had no idea that Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, had made that forever impossible, by telling everyone that David was a dangerous schizophrenic. It is important to remember that.

He should have paid attention to what one of the other teachers said when they arrived in Tehran. After a long flight from Chicago, via Frankfurt, they were driven through dark – almost blackened – maze-like streets and brought to a hotel where they stayed for a few days. They met with some of the other teachers, one of whom said he had actually worked for the CIA but had been fired because of some bureaucratic conflict or other. David was still so naïve that he couldn’t believe such things actually happened.

It’s perhaps hard to imagine now, but David was like a lot people were then. He sincerely believed that the government was run honestly and efficiently and that people in the bureaucracy were decent and fair. What he heard from the other teacher, therefore, was hard for him to comprehend. The man seemed to be thoroughly good, intelligent, and upright. He seemed to be the kind of man that people in any organization would be happy to have working for them.

But he’d been fired from the CIA for what sounded like insubordination. Or perhaps it had been what used to be called a “personality conflict.” After what David himself had gone through in his life, he felt sorry for the man. David knew what he was feeling. David understood that if the man’s life was not now ruined, then at least it would be all but impossible for him to make anything of himself.

Or perhaps David knew that only about his own life. If so, he didn’t consciously know it. He was able still to look at life in Tehran as an adventure, in spite of everything.

He was assigned by the “school” to live in an apartment with two other teachers, both British. It was a strange apartment, but David accepted that as a matter of course, somehow. There were moments even at that time when he ceased expecting much out of life, and simply accepted, with a sense of resignation, whatever it was life offered him.

The apartment was in a rather shabby building, and was itself rather shabby. In later years David would remember a large living room, practically empty of furniture, except for an old, broken-down couch, covered with some kind of worn blanket or bedspread. On the other side of the couch were some glass doors through which a kind of garden could be seen – or what once had perhaps been a garden. Now it was a space that was overgrown with tall weeds and tangled brush.

On one side of the living room there were some stone steps that led up to a landing with a door that opened onto David’s bedroom. He never, in all the time he lived there, saw the bedrooms of the two other teachers he lived with, never wanted to see them, could never bring himself to look at them, never felt he had any reason to look at them.


There were probably few other times in his life when David felt so out of place as he did in the classroom at the language school. Because all of his students were in the Iranian army, he at first thought they might be fairly disciplined.

In the orientation meetings with a few of the other teachers, he was fairly quickly disabused of that idea, though. For most of the teachers, the students were on a level with wild animals, which David thought was a strange attitude for teachers to have.

He found their thinking even stranger in other ways, though. They told all the new teachers to assume, for example, that one of the students in each of their classes was a member of Savak, the Iranian secret police, and was reporting everything that went on the classroom. Teachers therefore should never, under any circumstances whatsoever, say anything about the Shah or the imperial family or the government, not even anything favourable, not even anything that might sound like a complement. Anything a teacher said could be twisted or misunderstood in the minds of the students. Better to say nothing at all about such things in such circumstances.

And telephones – teachers were warned they should assume that their telephones at home were being tapped.

All of this sounded extremely paranoid to David – or perhaps it would be better to say even to David, since he, according to Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, had always been extremely paranoid. Perhaps the teachers had simply been away from the United States too long, he thought to himself.

When the day came for him to start teaching his classes, he was apprehensive and nervous and completely unprepared, even though he’d tried to prepare as best he could. He’d been given the textbooks and some other teaching materials, and he’d gone over them and tried to plan some kind of lesson – but what in the world was he going to do for four hours alone in a classroom with a dozen Iranian soldiers?

Somehow he convinced himself it couldn’t be difficult. After all, he was teaching his own language, wasn’t he? It wasn’t as if he didn’t know the material. So from one aspect at least, he told himself, the whole thing should be pretty easy. What might not be so easy would be the boredom, he was sure of that. He’d been raised, intellectually, so to speak, with the idea that he’d always be working with literature in its most refined forms, either teaching or writing. His mind seemed to work at lightening speed compared to the level he was expected to work at when teaching, for example, the present tense of the verb “to be.”

So he stood there in the small, grimy classroom, on a bleak Iranian army base in the middle of Teheran, facing a group of soldiers who came from another universe – from farming villages outside the city, from all over Iran. He stood there, and even though he wasn’t really aware of it, he felt very, very sorry for himself.

He told himself that if a great literary critic like I.A. Richards could spend time during World War II helping to design Basic English, then he, David, could teach English in Iran. Of course it was hard or even painful to slow down his thoughts and speech to a level that he thought was appropriate for the classroom. He was used to saying anything and everything as fast as possible and adjusting to the new situation was very difficult for him.

Of course it is laughable that he would think of someone like I.A. Richards in this context, but at the moment, he had nothing else to get him through the day. What confronted him was not only boredom, but fear as well, the fear that many new teachers feel, the first time they confront a classroom. Even though the class was quite small in this case, around twelve students, all of them soldiers, David felt that fear.

What made it more difficult for him was the fact that he and the students had no common language. They spoke nothing but Farsi, of which David knew only a few words.

What made the situation even more difficult for David was the odd idea he had that everything about him was somehow completely transparent to the students in front of him. Why he should have thought that way is puzzling, because there was no way he could communicate with them verbally.

He stood there in front of them, feeling that they could see and know everything about him, although he knew the feeling was irrational. Occasionally whispering to one another, they looked at him as though he were a creature from another universe.

And he would have to spend the next five hours with them.

He would do that for five days a week, and his contract was for two years.

He’d managed to put together some kind of lesson plan, based on the sketchy teacher-training that his employer had given him in the United States. But this was practically the first time he’d ever stood in front of a class as a teacher. And it was certainly the first time he’d ever stood in front of this kind of class.

Somehow, awkwardly, painfully, he managed to get through those first hours. The students still felt somewhat intimidated by him, so he had few discipline problems.

During the breaks that day – and after classes were over – he went into the teachers’ room and for the first time he seemed to understand the intellectual level of most of the people he was working with. And he was horrified. How could he deal with such people?

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, most of them ignored him – or at least seemed to ignore him. Remarks from various individual teachers about how good their particular situations were made him realize there was a kind of constant competition, a sort of one-upmanship that he was expected to participate in.

That was something he’d been loath to do all his life. He wasn’t about to start now. As usual, when he found himself in such situations, he decided that the thing to do was to ignore the remarks other people made. Unfortunately, this led him to also ignore the people who made the remarks. A fatal mistake, but one that David had made, and would go on making, all his life.

From that day on, David never again went into the teachers’ break room. He spent all his free time with his students, in the language lab. The other teachers of course came to hate him for that. They couldn’t wait to get away from their students, and the idea that David was spending all of his free time at the school in the language lab with the students was almost more than the other teachers could bear.

David, though, was so – and this is really the only word that can be used here – stupid, that he had absolutely no idea what effect his actions were having on the other teachers. He was simply unaware of them, and so he unthinkingly assumed that they were unaware of him.

At first, of course, David was so new and so awkward in the classroom that none of the teachers perceived him as any kind of threat. The senior teachers who came into his classroom to observe his teaching methods must have been appalled at his clumsiness.

Of course they said nothing. After the observation lesson, though, one of the senior teachers volunteered to give David a few pointers on how to teach, how to plan a lesson, and how to enable the students to grasp the basic elements of the English language. And the “few pointers” turned out to be near strokes of genius, because the teacher was one of those people for whom teaching English as a foreign language was not simply a job, it was a vocation, a vocation she had fallen in love with, a vocation she understood as utterly and completely as it is possible for anyone to understand anything.

And she was able to communicate that understanding to David, quickly, efficiently, brilliantly, so that in a very few hours, he had acquired nearly the same level of teaching skill as the senior teacher.

The sessions with her were like an enlightenment for him, a blindingly bright revelation. If he had ever really dreamed of being an I.A. Richards in the classroom – the Harvard professor who had specialized in teaching English as a foreign language during World War II – if David had ever really dreamed of being like I. A. Richards, then he came very close to it then.

Suddenly, everything in the classroom had an ease and clarity that he had known only at few other times in his life – perhaps the work he’d done in Africa was similar, at least in that respect, in its brightness and ease and in the immense feeling of accomplishment it gave him. He looked forward to going into the classroom every day, and his students could see that, and they responded to him by paying attention and absorbing his lessons and reacting to him with friendliness and enthusiasm.

Once in a while, of course, he would remember the dreams he’d had at Harvard, of doing great things, of perhaps teaching one day at a place like Harvard – or at Harvard itself. Of working with the brightest students his country had to offer. He remembered his dreams of being able to share in the life of the mind somehow, of participating in the intellectual life in his own country.

And when he remembered those things, it was like a knife through his heart. But he had hope, he hoped, that somehow, in some way, those dreams would and could be realized. Mercifully, he couldn’t foresee that he would spend the rest of his life, so to speak, in that shabby classroom in Teheran.

Perhaps, though, it would be wrong to call that classroom shabby, because the more time David spent there, the more it became a wonderful place for him, a place he felt happy in, a place of achievement. For him, it was one small space that he had control over and could transform into something splendid, for himself and for the students he worked with, one small space in what was the confusing, harrowing – and often senseless – jungle of his life.

He developed with his students a teaching and learning relationship that would have been unusually fine in most schools, but which was positively extraordinary, if not unique, in the school he was in then.

The teachers in the school were mostly women, the students all men. Not only were they men, but they were rough, uneducated men, from villages in the provinces, often far away from Teheran. Putting them in a classroom with teachers who didn’t speak their language and who had no idea of their culture and their thinking or anything at all about them or their backgrounds – that was simply asking for trouble.

Most of the classes were simply chaotic, situations where the teachers were endlessly battling to “impose discipline” and keep the students quiet. Efforts like that, as you might expect, had the opposite effect. Noise from those classrooms, and the screams and yells of the teachers, could be heard everywhere, all day long.

Students in those classrooms were usually completely out of control, and certainly didn’t learn anything. It was hard for David to imagine how those teachers could stand it, day after day, but that was something he didn’t want to know. It was something he never did know, because he never got to know any of the teachers. He didn’t want to become like them, so he avoided them completely. He thought of himself as avoiding their pettiness and their rivalries and their gossip – and all their other qualities and behaviour that he found so repulsive.

Of course David’s thinking along these lines represented a kind of pride, although he certainly didn’t recognize that in himself. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it was more than pride, it was tremendous pride, and it would be tempting to say that he wasn’t really to blame for it.

He was an adult, though, and responsible for his own actions. If he’d never learned to be a part of a group, if he had a quasi-autistic way of relating to other people, which was obvious in the fact that he simply did not always understand normal non-verbal signals or the secondary meanings in what people said, if he was incapable of really relating to others, then that was his problem. It was his problem and his fault that he hadn’t tried to correct these failings in himself.

He didn’t, of course, even recognize them as failings, even though he ought to have done so. If he had seen these flaws in his personality, he would have tried harder to correct them, he would have tried harder to find professional help.

He’d done none of that, however, and so he had to live with the consequences. Of course David could claim that he’d tried to seek professional help, but any objective observer would have to conclude that he hadn’t tried very hard.

So there in Teheran a wall was erected between himself and the other teachers. He hardly ever saw them, hardly ever spoke to them. Not only did he never go into the teachers’ lounge, he never rode to work with the teachers in the company minivan in the morning. He’d tried it once or twice, but he’d been so disgusted by the way each one had tried to show that he or she was somehow better off than anyone else. Each one wanted to show he or she lived in a nicer apartment, or was about to return to the United States sooner than anyone else, or had some other advantage that no one else had.

Certainly the fact that David was irritated by all that was his own fault. There were a few Americans at the school who didn’t behave the way most of the teachers did and didn’t seem to be bothered by those who did behave that way.

David, though, just wanted to be free of the others, wanted to hide and be away from them. And so he hid, so to speak, in the classroom, with his students. He spent all his time with them, even his breaks. And even though the teachers were free when their students were in the language lab for an hour each day, David spent that time in the language lab with his students.

What did he think he was doing? Was he trying to prove something? And if so, what?

Nothing, probably. His behaviour was almost certainly nothing more than a result of the serious illness that his psychiatrist at Harvard had identified so many years before. That was all there was to it. David was not particularly high-minded or principled. He wasn’t even really very selfish. He was simply ill. That must be emphasized again and again and not be forgotten, because there may be people who will insist that his behaviour was somehow caused by the fact that he was gifted and intelligent and simply in the wrong place with the wrong people, who wouldn’t have a hope of ever understanding him.

Although David was apparently not able to get along with other Americans very well, he did get along famously with the Iranian soldiers in his class, and with their officers. The government did not want any fraternizing between the American teachers and the Iranian military outside of the school, but within the precincts of the school, David became great friends with the soldiers and officers. He was the only teacher who did.

The other teachers disliked the officers intensely, and the last thing they wanted was an Iranian officer visiting their classroom, but David welcomed them. For one thing, he knew that if his students saw that he was friendly with their officers, there would be few discipline problems of the kind that were constantly breaking out in the other teachers’ classrooms.

That tactic, though, was hardly necessary. David was able to establish a rapport with his students that made any potential discipline problems disappear. Not only did the soldier-students behave themselves in his classes, they were interested, they paid attention, and they learned. For the first time since he’d worked in Africa, David felt he was doing something important. He liked what he was doing. He liked the students. He felt he had value as a human being, he felt significant, he felt he mattered.

At the end of each course, which last several weeks, teachers were allowed to work for several more weeks as full time monitors in the language lab. The idea was that teachers needed this time to recover from the stress of being in the classroom. For David, being out of the classroom, having to deal with the other teachers, would have been more stressful than anything else, so he took one set of students after another, without taking the language-lab break.

That too was a fatal error, like having a well-behaved class, or inviting the officers to his classes. Such things simply antagonized the other teachers. Incredibly, David didn’t understand that. He was too caught up in the sheer joy of teaching his classes – and the respect and admiration the students and their officers showed him.

His isolation from the other teachers didn’t bother him of course. That kind of isolation never did. In this case, though, in a foreign country where he could hardly speak the language, he might have suffered from being ostracized – or rather, from ostracizing himself – if he hadn’t become friends with a remarkable married couple.

When David was very young, he’d always wanted to create an image, somehow, of people he liked and admired, to create a picture of them that would last, so that others could know them too. This was certainly true of Dan Davies and his wife Shirin, although they hardly needed someone like David to immortalize them. Dan was a poet and could do that himself.

And what fine poetry he wrote. David wasn’t the only one to think so. Long after David knew him in Teheran, Dan would go on to publish whole volumes of his work and win prizes for it in England and America.

David met Dan and Shirin through one of the other two English teachers he was rooming with, a young Englishman named Brendan, who’d graduated from Cambridge. Dan had graduated from Cambridge too, and because he and Brendan were friends, Brendan had introduced him and Shirin to David.

Where Brendan was short, withdrawn, cranky, and involved with what he saw as the misery of his situation – “I’m a Cambridge graduate, so why do I have to live in a place like this?” – Dan was tall, generous, thoughtful, and concerned about others as well as himself and Shirin.

Although they were the same age as David, David regarded them as a kind of family, one that was so different from the weird constellation he’d grown up with. Where David saw his poor mother as neurotic, selfish, controlling, and intent on emasculating her husband, Shirin was breathtakingly sane, kind to others, happy to see them enjoying their own human freedom, and absolutely devoted to Dan.

That a woman could be so strong and yet so in love with her husband and so concerned about his well-being was something that David was never able to stop being amazed at.

David used to visit their apartment on quiet afternoons when the sun flooded their livingroom with light, when he and Dan had finished teaching for the day. For Dan, David’s visits were simply one aspect of Dan’s generous personality as an artist. He liked having people around. For David, the visits to Dan and Shirin were an escape into another, more familiar, more tolerable, and more comfortable world. They were an escape from the stress of dealing with – or avoiding having to deal with – the other teachers at the school.

For David, the visits to Dan and Shirin were a way back to some faded semblance of the intellectual life he’d known at Harvard. They would sit on cushions on the floor of the livingroom and drink chilled white wine and listen to an oboe concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

The visits were like oases in the desert for David, and he would remember them for the rest of his life. They made life in Teheran bearable for him – except for one thing. No one ever talked about politics. No one ever could talk about politics, and for the same reason that no one could talk about politics in the classroom: fear of the consequences. Iran was full of stories of people arrested for the most harmless remark, like the old man at a bus stop commenting about how “oppressive” the weather was and then taken away for questioning.

Dan and Shirin did allow themselves the liberty of telling one anecdote, though. It was not long before David left Iran, when they felt they could trust him and could express their ideas openly, but at some point they told him the story of a friend who had been shopping with his mother. They were in a jewelry shop near the center of the capital, when the wife of one of the Shah’s leading generals walked in with her bodyguard.

The woman rudely interrupted the conversation between the shop owner and the friend’s mother. She couldn’t wait, she said, and demanded to be served. Dan’s friend started objecting, loudly, and the woman turned to her bodyguard and said, “Deal with him.” The bodyguard then shot him in the chest. Somehow the shot was not fatal, although it was of course serious. Dan and Shirin were able to visit their friend in the hospital, and he told them the story.

It was one of the few times that David heard anyone say anything critical of the Shah. Or more accurately, it was one of the few times that David heard anyone dare say anything critical. One of the other times occurred when an Iranian writer names Reza, who was also a friend of Dan and Shirin, told David a story about a rehearsal of one of his plays that the Empress attended with her bodyguards.

The story goes that one of the characters in the play had to use a knife during one of the scenes, and when the rehearsal was over, the Empress’s bodyguards had to account for the whereabouts of the knife.

They couldn’t do it. The knife was nowhere to be found, at least not at first. Nearly everyone, especially the guards, panicked – although the Empress seems to have remained calm. Everyone was ordered to stay exactly where they were. No one was allowed to move, much less leave the set or the theatre.

Finally, after looking everywhere for it, the guards discovered the weapon in the folds of a dress that one of the female characters was wearing.

Reza laughed as he told the story, because he wasn’t one of the Shah’s great admirers and thought that everything that had to do with the regime was at best absurd, and at worst criminal.

God only knows what happened to him after the revolution, though, when the Shah’s government fell and the mullahs took over. From that point on, I think there was even less freedom in the country than there was under the Shah.

No matter how pleasant it was to spend time with Dan and Shirin, they couldn’t protect David from the wrath of the other teachers. That wrath was something he’d created himself, of course, by ignoring them the way he had, month after month, but amazingly enough, he didn’t understand that at all.

That was so typical of him. Somewhere, probably in the home of his mother and stepfather, or even before that, when he’d lived with his mother and father, somewhere he’d gotten the idea that if he hid, as it where, if he made himself as invisible as possible, then no harm could come to him. He thought that if he avoided the other teachers, they wouldn’t notice him, they would leave him alone to do his work, to teach his students in the best way he knew how, making his classes well-organized and coherent, an enjoyable experience for himself and his students. His classes would be – and in fact were – different from the classes where the yelling and screaming of the teachers could be heard, and the noise of the student soldiers.

One day two of the school’s American administrators visited his class to do their regular teach review and critique. David knew they were coming, and his students did too, and even though they were always alert and responsive, the students were especially alert and responsive that day. It was as if they liked David enough to want to make him look good in front of two of his supervisors.

The class went so well that the administrators seemed to think that the whole thing had been rehearsed from beginning to end. Actually, it had been a real class. David of course felt very good about that. He’d accomplished so little in life, and had so few friends, that to have taught a good class and to have had outstanding relationships with his students was a great achievement for him.

Others of course, more successful people, will laugh at that, but perhaps it does no harm to tolerate the feelings and ideas of people like David who are, essentially, life’s losers. It does no harm to humor them.

He would always remember that day, though, not because it was one of the last he would spend at the school and in Iran, but because of the pure joy of it. The contrast between his surroundings and what he and the others present were feeling was so out of proportion that this too added to his happiness: the small room, the thick, fortress walls with their worn coats of paint, the dusty windows and high ceiling. Everything was shabby and poor, but in his mind there was a world of exhiliaration, a golden world, and he saw much of that reflected in the faces of his students and even in the administrators who had come to inspect his class.

It was the last such day he would have in that school. Some time later he was told he could no longer take one series of classes after another, the way he had been doing. After the current series, he would have to spend time monitoring the language lab, as the other teachers did when they finished a series of classes.

That would also mean spending time in the teachers’ lounge, something he’d never done and believed he never could do.

In this respect, from the viewpoint of any outsider, David certainly was very strange. There was perhaps a kind of arrogance in his behavior, but it wasn’t an arrogance that expressed itself in feelings of superiority. He just felt he had nothing in common with the other teachers, and he didn’t know how to pretend he did have something in common with them.

As far as David was concerned, they seemed obsessed with oneupmanship, with scoring points against one another. Each one seemed to be bent on demonstrating that he or she was in some ways superior to everyone else. And David thought he didn’t know how to function in such an environment, so he simply cut himself off from the other teachers.

How had he survived during all those months in Teheran? He had Dan and Shirin as friends, of course, but he also had another circle of acquaintances – some White Fathers who had a church that catered mainly to the expatriate community. David lived in their small community for a while, and it was through them that he made an acquaintance that some might consider even stranger – a priest at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican Embassy.

He was secretary to the nuncio, and giving him classes once a week was good for David. He was so estranged from the teachers at the Army school where he taught – something that was entirely his fault of course – and he needed some kind of work that compensated for the sense of worthlessness that his estrangement caused him.

Teaching the nuncio’s secretary not only made him feel that at least one person recognized him for what he was – an reasonably intelligent and educated person. It was a relief to him to feel that there in Tehran – a city that seemed wild and confusing to him – there was this oasis of peace, the nunciature, where someone knew him as he was.

The few hours he spent with the nuncio’s secretary each month, the conversations with this intelligent, gentle Italian priest, made him feel as though he mattered, and that was something he very much needed to feel. He simply couldn’t understand, of course, that if he felt he didn’t matter to anyone, this was because he wasn’t able – or didn’t want – to become involved with very many people at any level of human engagement. Certainly if he’d been able to be friends with the other teachers in the school where he worked, he would have found that a lot of what he did was recognised and that it mattered. Unfortunately, that seems to have been beyond him. He was too selfish, too self-centered, too proud, and in many cases too unkind to others.

The time he spent in the nunciature was like time spent on another planet. The building had been put up in another age and in a different time. It was hard to believe such a structure could exist in a country where, just outside the door, a kind of chaos always seemed to reign. Signs everywhere were written in the Arabic alphabet – incomprehensible to David. Water ran through the quaint open sewers that lined both sides of the street – probably a great advance of civilization in the middle ages, but now only a bizarre feature of an already strange city. Women walked by in the Iranian version of the Moslem veil, men were unshaven and coarse looking.

Inside the nunciature, though, things were somewhat different. David had the feeling he’d been transported Italy. The interior of the building seemed to be entirely of marble, in a style that David thought of as “modern baroque.” A broad staircase led up to the office where the nuncio’s secretary, a plump, always cheerful monsignor, was always waiting for David. They sat side by side at a desk and studied papal documents, which they discussed in English. David found the bureaucratic, Vatican prose utterly uninteresting, and he had the impression the good monsignor felt the same, but they continued, week after week, to plough through it, discussing it as best they could.

David enjoyed the sessions with the monsignor, but they of course had to come to an end, like everything in life, or at least like everything in his life. One day, as he was leaving, he happened to see the nuncio himself, at a distance. They looked at each other for a moment, but David was too far away to greet the man. The next week, when he came to give the monsignor his lesson, he was told that it had to be the last. The monsignor gave some reason or other, which David didn’t quite understand, and that was all. The monsignor was very kind, very friendly, of course, but there would be no lesson

And what had happened? David never knew. Had the nuncio checked up on him, checked up on his background? Had Harvard passed on the information that David was basically crazy? Had David’s wandering, his disorganized life been too much for the nuncio?

At the time time, none of those things occurred to David, but they did later, perhaps only when he could stand to consider such things. Perhaps he could think about them only at a point in his life where he’d returned to the old ways of thinking, the ways of thinking from his childhood – about God, about the meaning of life, about his purpose in the world, even his place in the cosmos, small and seemingly unimportant as it was. Perhaps it was only in the context of these things that he was able to consider all of the possible injustices of his life, injustices he might or might not have suffered.

After about eight or nine months in Tehran, the end came fairly quickly. One day he was told that he would no longer be permitted to take one series of classes after another without the kind of break in between that the other teachers took. David would have to spend several weeks assisting in the language lab, and spending his free time and breaks in the teachers’ room.

He dreaded that. He had so alienated himself from the other teachers, at least in his own mind, that it was no more possible for him to spend time with them in the teachers’ room than it would have been to walk to the moon.

It is perhaps impossible for others to understand, but he had developed, more strongly than ever, his horror of spending time with the other teachers. Perhaps it was his pride that wouldn’t allow him to do that, perhaps it was his sense of vulnerability, his sense even of fragility, as if any contact with the other Americans would shatter him, almost literally.

He couldn’t do it. He absolutely could not do it. So he quit. He went to the head of the school one day and told him he wanted to leave. He school administrator had heard, of course, about the tensions or disagreements between David and the others, and he made some remark about “not acting foolishly.” That didn’t do any good, naturally. It was simply not possible for David to stay. He saw the other teachers as crude, selfish, mean, and nasty, to their students and to one another, and he was apparently incapable of seeing them any other way. He had to leave.


The old dream of Africa came back to him. He’d been happy there once, and even though he’d gone back and been miserable, he’d try again. He’d go back there and surely this time he’d find what he was looking for, surely this time he could be happy there, the way he was before.

He left almost everything in Tehran. All his books, his diary, clothes – a whole trunk full of things that he abandoned, perhaps with an idea that he was getting closer to an ideal of poverty.

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