The whole topic of 10/29 is never a matter of small talk to me. It’s no academic discussion. If someone casually says to me, “Hey, tell me your story,” I tell them, “Nah, it’s not going to work that way.” But if somebody asks me, sincerely, “You were that guy — the guy who was fired on the basis of cartoon physics? Can you talk about it?” Then I say “Why don’t you ask me questions, tell me what you want to know, and I’ll tell you what I can.” That’s so much easier. I can handle that. Any other way is exhausting for me, and I don’t want to do it.
To this day, it’s impossible for me to give a summary explanation of how I really felt and what I really went through without telling everything — every single thing that I went through. I don’t know how, psychologically, to tell someone an abbreviated version of what happened to me. People ask, and I say, “Yeah, I was retroactively certified insane.”
“Really?” they say.
Then they ask for more.
“Yes, I and everybody else thought I was perfectly sane for three-and-one-half years, but it turns out that I was actually insane the whole time I had the delusion of sanity.”
Then what? Then what?
It’s a very intense and personal place to go. It takes a lot out of me. I don’t like bringing it up. I don’t go around telling people I was retroactively certified insane on the basis of cartoon physics on 10/29.
“There I was, The Robert S. Strauss Building, October 29 . . . ” This isn’t the goddamn World of Commander McBragg.
Will I tell the story if asked? It depends on who’s asking and what kind of emotional space they’re coming from. But my story is not a cocktail party trick or somebody’s cheap entertainment option.
Obviously, and for many reasons, it’s an experience I now feel compelled to share with all seriousness, honesty, and emotion. But I can only tell it one way. That’s from beginning to end, with nothing left out. And frankly, rarely are there times and places where that’s an easy or appropriate thing to do.
Suffice it to say that I don’t like telling this story. I don’t even like thinking about it. For almost ten years I’ve only talked about the story on blogs. And I’ve never really told the whole thing to anyone. That’s hurt a lot of people. It’s hurt me too. I want to tell it now. I need to tell it.
And I want to get it right. I will try hard — very hard — to tell it exactly like I remember it.
I’m still not sure I understand it — what it’s meant, how it’s changed me. Some call me a hero for it — for what I didn’t do on 10/29 — the fact that I didn’t burst out in howls of laughter when I was told that, according to the laws of cartoon physics, I had been determined to be retroactively insane. I’m not very comfortable with that. What I do know is I need to tell everything to everybody (and I need to hear some things as well).
I know that if I retrace my steps, I can tell you how I came to be in the office of one of the senior partners of one of the largest law firms in the world, Robert S. Strauss Building, on 10/29, sitting in front of a seemingly sane attorney at 11:45 am when he told me: “We have determined that the entire time, three odd years, that you thought you were sane, you were actually — unknown to everyone at the firm — completely bonkers.”
And then I spent the next twenty minutes inside the building. I made it out, barely.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got to qualify for a half-million dollars in federal money — Social Security disability, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, you name it.
Sometimes I feel so awful about it. I can’t hear myself think a single thought. Other times I draw such hope and clarity from it. Either way, it’s time to talk about it. So let me try to tell you, and myself, what I was told at about mid-day on 10/29. Like I said, I will try to get it right.
As best as I can recall, I was told the following:
“You see, Gary, at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, an unemployable employee is considered fully employable — and may be permitted to accrue an outstanding employment history — until such time that the firm’s senior managers notice and react to the fact that the employee was unemployable the entire time he was employed. The employee is then officially unemployable.”
That was it. That’s what I was told. It’s like those cartoons you saw when you were a kid. The cartoon character walks off a cliff and keeps walking in mid-air until he looks down, notices he’s in mid-air, realizes he should be reacting to gravity, and falls head first — into a pile of money.
And here I wonderfully am, twenty years on, and a few hundred thousand dollars richer!
From The Washington City Paper, March 1993.
The law ‘n’ lobbying firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld may have civil rights leader Vernon Jordan among its partners, but it still has racial tension in its ranks. Patricia A. McNeil, a black data-processor fired from Akin Gump last April after 4 1/2 years of employment [just before her pension plan would have vested], has sued the firm, charging racial discrimination. McNeil’s suit, on file at U.S District Court [in Washington, DC] alleges that her supervisor, described as “Ms. Robertson” in the suit, engaged in “offensive conduct such as telling racial jokes, making comments to the effect that blacks are perceived as not working as hard as white employees, are shiftless, lazy, [and] incompetent….” When McNeil became pregnant with her second child in August 1991, Robertson said “she did not understand why blacks have so many babies,” according to the suit. “These were not isolated incidents,” says McNeil’s lawyer, James Kestell, “we have plenty of witnesses to the racial jokes.” (Akin Gump did not return Washington City Paper’s call to discuss the suit.)
I don’t remember how I first heard about this termination, but it must have been when Margie Utley, the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Rights, called my name and assigned me to investigate it. All I know is the termination had just happened and that at that time there was only one side to it: Her name was Patricia McNeil and she was the one who had been fired.
It was April in Washington, D.C. and there had been a lot of suspicious terminations that spring. After all, the country was in recession and employers were looking at every way to reduce labor costs — lawful or unlawful. This was yet another termination. But while most of the others were ignored by the media, this was not. There was no very good reason why the case of Pat McNeil was singled out, except the possible victim of a Title VII violation was a classic archetype: Her pension plan was on the verge of vesting, she was black, she had sought maternity leave–just the kind of person who should not end up the way she did–and for some reason the media, in its collective sense of outcry, covered her termination.
There was another reason the case aroused media interest. Pat McNeil’s supervisor was a known racist — while one of the firm’s executive partners was Vernon Jordan, stalwart civil rights advocate and confidant of Washington’s power elite.
Pat McNeil had worked at the firm for four-and-one-half years, so why? What had happened? What went wrong?
Acting is the work of an actor or actress, which is a person in theater, television, film, or any other storytelling medium who tells the story by portraying a character and, usually, speaking or singing the written text or play.
Acting requires a wide range of skills, including vocal projection, clarity of speech, physical expressivity, emotional facility, a well-developed imagination, and the ability to interpret drama. Acting also often demands an ability to employ dialects, accents and body language, improvisation, observation and emulation, mime, and stage combat. Many actors train at length in special programs or colleges to develop these skills, and today the vast majority of professional actors have undergone extensive training. Even though one actor may have years of training, they always strive for more lessons; the cinematic and theatrical world is always changing and because of this, the actor must stay as up to date as possible. Actors and actresses will often have many instructors and teachers for a full range of training involving, but not limited to, singing, scene-work, monologue techniques, audition techniques and partner work.
People say I am paranoid. Paranoia, as we all know, is a thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself. Making false accusations and the general distrust of others also frequently accompany paranoia. For example, an incident most people would view as an accident, a paranoid person might make an accusation that it was intentional.
Am I paranoid? I prefer to think I am not. I prefer to think that over the years I have been subjected to a wide assembly of bad acting. There is good acting and there is bad acting. It doesn’t take the polished skill of a talented director to detect bad acting. Any reasonably intelligent adult can see the wide difference between a high school production of Hamlet and a performance of the play presented by gifted actors. Bad acting always betrays a lack of sincerity, a disparity between what the actor intends to express and what he succeeds in expressing. The talent to detect bad acting is akin to the ability to detect the disingenuousness of people in our environment.
Why is it that we so readily accept the notion that an individual can detect bad acting, but we are so quick to dismiss as paranoid an individual’s perception that people in his environment are insincere?
I used to work at The Franklin Institute Research Laboratories in Philadelphia. I worked for a man named Bernard E. Epstein. Maybe once or twice a week he’d ask me to go out and get him lunch. The requests were short on repertory.
He would either ask me to go to the Kennedy House, an apartment building in downtown Philadelphia that had a deli on the street level or The New Franklin, which was around the corner from The Franklin Institute.
If he sent me to the Kennedy House, his request would always be the following: “Get me a roast beef on rye with a little mustard, and a cream soda, if they have it.” In fact, the Kennedy House always had cream soda. I don’t know what I would have done if the deli didn’t have any cream soda — but, as I say, that eventuality never arose.
If he sent me to The New Franklin, his request would always be the following: “Get me turkey on a Kaiser roll and hot tea.” I don’t remember what he wanted on his turkey sandwich.
I started working at the Franklin Institute on July 13, 1970 and I left in the summer of 1979. That was a lot of lunches for Bernie.
You know, he never said to me, “Here kid, here’s five dollars. Buy yourself lunch.” But I live to serve.
Roots. My father’s parents were Jewish immigrants from the Baltic states. My grandfather was born in Vilna, Lithuania. And my grandmother came to the United States from Riga, the capital of Latvia. My grandmother’s native language was German, my father used to proclaim proudly. “She didn’t speak Yiddish like some prost Russian Jew.”
They hadn’t known it, these Northern and Eastern European Jews, but each of them, pondering the momentous decision to leave the native country, was only a tiny drop in what became the Third Wave of Jews to Philadelphia. They were different in physique, culture, and class from the English Jews (the First Wave) and the German Jews (the Second Wave), both of whom, safely established in the City of Brotherly Love, were, in the main, hostile to these Jewish brethren. Not only did the newcomers threaten the status of those who had preceded them, but they were arriving in too great a number. Indeed, the Third Wave of immigrants to the United States made this the greatest mass immigration in all history.
William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania, unlike the others, was designed first as a sanctuary and in this sanctuary these men and women were to come into their full fruitfulness.
But all the same, upon arrival in this country these homeless and frightened Baltic and Eastern European Jews had to manage their fear, the sense of isolation, estrangement, and rejection. Most were in dread of ridicule. Daily crucial decisions had to be made: what to call oneself, whether to speak Yiddish, German, Russian, or English, which neighborhood to live in, what songs to sing in public (even in private), what to read, whom to court, how to dress, how to cut one’s hair, what foods to eat, and which, if any, of the 613 commandments to follow.
Should one imitate the Philadelphia establishment’s Anglican-Church Jews, intermarry, take on the coloration of the new landscape and safely disappear into it, or, winding the ancient leather phylacteries around one’s body in prayer (as my grandfather did his entire life), join battalions of disinherited brethren who were looking forward to “next year in Jerusalem?” If the latter, might this not lead to a new ghetto? But must a choice be made in this free land? Were there not German Jews in Philadelphia, who were 32nd-degree Masons and who nonetheless prayed visibly at the most exclusive synagogue, Kenesseth Israel, and were admitted to the Mercantile Club and to the golf links of the Philmont Country Club near Jenkintown? Perhaps one could remain a Jew, but of a certain kind.
Wholesale name-surgery — the simplest form of self-mutilation in the service of becoming American — was common in this Third Wave: Favoshenko became first Fabush and then Phillips; Rabinowitz, Robbins; Goldstein, Galdston; Horowitz, Harris; Cohen, Conn; Kaplan, Copland; and Russman, Ross.
For my grandparents, Freedman remained Freedman. My grandparents kept their name and their religion. They remained pious, orthodox Jews till the day they died.
Nose-surgery came later, with affluence. Some refused all such transformations as demeaning and hurried to build an extension of the immediate families in the form of landsmanshaft (fellow-countryman’s lodge) with other Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Galician, Austrian, Latvian or Lithuanian Jews, preferably all from the same town. The monthly dues, a considerable sacrifice, insured them against collective identity-dissolution and provided them with the more tangible benefits of legal advice, medical help, and ultimately, burial plots. At the meetings they could talk about their past and of “America, America” or of “Americhka, goniff” (America, thief).
It’s been alleged by some — a few, and certainly not an entire horde of enthusiasts — that I’ve had a glittering career as a psychotic. It was always on to the next delusion, the next hallucination or, more likely, the next disability check. Now, with the lights dimming a bit, it might be time to consider that this career I’ve been cobbling together from stray ideas of reference, delusions, and alleged cognitive deficits — none of it planned — might actually have a touch of glitter to it.
It all began for me, in a clinical and barely legal sense, during the war weeks — not “the war years” as World War II is sometimes called — but the war weeks of early 1991.
I was not part of the Great Generation, having missed out on World War II by the inescapable fact that I was not even conceived until seven years after hostilities in that war had ended. Still, I thought of us — the boomers — as being a reasonably good generation. We were the generation who protested the draft in the sixties, waged a noble battle with The Imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon and who — if we were Jews — went off with wild abandon to shack up with what seemed a limitless horde of willing shiksas.
But in 1991 — those crazy war weeks of 1991 — the year I succumbed to the ravages of psychosis, there was a war going on, albeit a dreary affair. The Persian Gulf War had very little panache to it. It was mostly about rambling through sand storms, blowing on your hands and losing semi-solid Hershey bars to the desert heat. There would be no heroic storming of the beaches at Anzio, with John Wayne egging us on. Still, it was a war, the only one we had in the early 90s — the decade before a handful of terrorists who couldn’t even land a plane (and proved that they didn’t really need to know how to land a plane) drew America into a smorgasbord of seemingly interminable military engagements.
I was finishing up a three-and-one-half year stint of sanity — or so it seemed — at a large D.C. law firm before I was advised, on the morning of October 29, 1991 — months after the war weeks had passed — that for the previous three odd years I had actually been insane. One of the firm’s senior partners summoned me to his office. He had determined that I was not fit to serve. I was being discharged. Only later did I learn that the firm feared I might be homicidal, ready to turn my arms on fellow comrades.
And so it was that my career as a psychotic began during the war weeks of 1991, so many years ago. The war weeks ended in the same year my battles, retreats and campaigns with asymptomatic paranoid schizophrenia began.
He’s got the Shiites blocked.
But sheikhs from Riyadh mock,
“Can’t log those flight hours over south Iraq!”
Can’t fly, can’t fly,
Warplanes are banned from Basra skies.
In psychoanalysis a patient’s seemingly disjointed utterances can be compared with the fragments of an image, as with an unassembled jigsaw puzzle. The analyst has to have the ability to defer judgment — to “wait for a picture to develop.” Analysis requires of the analyst an ability to listen “with evenly hovering attention” (as Freud said), sometimes over long stretches of time, to allow the latent meaning of the patient’s unconsciously-determined confessions, as revealed in the patterns of thoughts and feelings of the patient’s manifest narrative, to emerge.
In a session with a psychiatrist years ago I had said to him: “Today is the anniversary of my first day of college, 24 years ago, Monday September 27, 1971. I can still remember that day. My first class was introductory philosophy; it was at 2:00 PM. The teacher’s name was Dr. Rieman — George Fred Rieman. I can remember that he took a picture of the class with an old Polaroid camera. You know, he had a seating chart, and he wanted to know people’s names, he wanted to remember people; he coordinated the seating chart with the people in the picture. He counted down ‘one alligator, two alligator’ — it was a Polaroid picture — he had to wait for the picture to develop.”
My statement, “he had to wait for the picture to develop,” — manifestly relating to a Polaroid image — was a symbolic reference, or metaphor, for the requirement imposed on the psychoanalyst to defer judgment.
Though I feel hopeless — though I’m convinced things will never change for me — I have the freedom that goes with being psychotic. And for that I’m thankful. For me life is just one big joke. And you know why I’m free to feel like that? I’m crazy! And how do I know that I’m crazy? They (the paranoid “they”) told me so. I also have the financial freedom that goes with my eligibility for Social Security disability, something that I never dreamed of qualifying for.
Why did things end up like this for me? I had so much going for me. I’m an artist, I suppose. Definitely a failed artist. An “artiste manqué,” as they say.
From my childhood years to middle age, I have been a solitary and lonely man. Repeatedly I have identified throughout my life with the miserable and the forlorn, and I have clung with a death grip to whatever person, place, or belief that seems the current answer to my anguished and ceaseless search for orientation and structure. You know that death grip well, don’t you, my friends?
I was not an easy child. According to family lore I was indulged by “tender-hearted parents” but still proved “troublesome and self-willed.” Schoolmates who knew me before I was twelve, years later, particularly remember my apartness: “He did not play like other children but read all sorts of books insatiably. . . . He liked to go by himself on many long walks across the fields. . . . He went off on his own for most of the time and wandered for hours alone around West Oak Lane and even quite a long way from that Philadelphia neighborhood.” My sister recalls that as I grew older I was “perfectly unconscious of having distressed [my] parents in that [I] never joined the happy family group, never met people, but always sought solitude.” Struggling constantly with melancholia, I, as a child and man, was an observer rather than a participant.
As an adult my dream of happiness has posed an insoluble paradox. At the same time as I see the world of everyday events and people as infinitely appealing, I see it as overwhelmingly threatening; every corner in the “dizzying tangle” of nature reflects my own internal chaos. The best I can do to keep my tumultuous and unstructured fears and longings at bay is to withdraw from social contacts, retreat rather than merger consistently characterizes my efforts to establish satisfying relations or settle on a career or a job of any kind. Only after having committed myself to the art of psychosis — psychosis, if done well, if done properly, as psychosis should be done, is, after all, an art, perhaps the highest art — did I seem able to overcome a pervasive sense of inadequacy and disillusionment; but even then only in the work of writing do I experience feelings of adequacy and fulfillment.