Strange Memories

Deep thoughts, odd stories, and other essays

Letter to a Young Student #8

The Abyss of Madness was written by a ghost

Dear Professor:

Your letters continue to be wonderful and I will be forever grateful for them.  I have also been rereading your book, The Abyss of Madness, and each time I return to it I find something new.  The book is so accessible and reads almost like a conversation in many parts.  I was wondering how you were able to write it in such an easygoing style and yet cover so many complex ideas.  Tell me what it was like to complete this very fine work.

Your friend, Adam

 

Dear Adam:

The story of writing Abyss is a strange one.  I did not actually write this book myself;  instead, it was dictated to me, by a ghost.  Here is the story. 

In the Summer of 2006 while I was at my cabin in Maine, one night I was on the internet returning to a special website associated with a class I had taught at my college the semester before.  The site included interesting questions I would pose for the students to discuss and allowed for online discussions in which I also sometimes participated.  Now that the class was over, the discussion board was almost entirely silent; but yet it was still available to class members if they chose to log on.  Very occasionally someone would do so, and if the stars were in the right alignment, I would show up too, and there would be a conversation about whatever happened to be on our minds.  I thought of these websites of the past as ghost sites, and of those returning to them after the class was over as ghosts floating back to a location formerly full of life. 

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Anyway, on one such night I clicked in to a ghost website and found one of my former students there, a young woman in my class who had become very fond of me in the months before.  I asked her if she knew that she was a ghost lurking in a graveyard.  She laughed at this image, and then asked me something: “George Atwood, what do you think a ghost is, really?”  After thinking about this interesting question for a few moments, the following ideas came to me, as if from a cloud:

Ghosts are not spirits of the dead who come back to haunt us; it is rather that they are unrealized possibilities of our own lives.  They are the people we might have become if we had made different choices, or if the specific situations directing us to our destinies had been changed in important waysGhosts are the paths not taken.  They are the lives left unlived, and everyone has many ghosts.  They are a little bit like virtual particles in physics:  they do not exist in a positive sense, but they are not just nothing.  They can in fact be powerful forces in a person’s existence, haunting and even disrupting the identities we have found for ourselves.”

Then I asked myself about my own ghosts: what are they, and who might I have become?

One of my numerous ghosts is certainly that of a psychiatrist, since my original goal as a young man was to follow in the footsteps of Freud and Jung, and undergo medical training as a prelude to specializing in the study and treatment of mental illness.  As it turned out, my love for psychology was so strong I could not defer the fulfillment of my goals for the many years required to become a physician.  So I became a clinical psychologist instead.  But there was the psychiatrist I might otherwise have been, and I tried to picture that person as he would have turned out.  Conversing online with my wonderful student, I visualized that psychiatrist: he appeared in my imagination as an aged, white-haired gentleman, looking rather like Carl Gustav Jung at the age of 81.  A name came forth for him: Dr. E.  I have no idea why he was given this specific designation, but as I continued to imagine him, he began to seem more and more real.  So I decided to ask him a question: 

Tell me something Dr. E.: what do you think of ghosts?”

To my surprise, the old man spoke back!  He began by presenting a theory of how so-called bipolar disorder can arise out of an attack on a person by a ghost.  His idea was that first someone crushes a possibility of his or her being, generally in order to comply with the agendas and expectations of caregivers during childhood and thereby maintain an otherwise tenuous sense of emotional connection to them.  Then that lost possibility gathers power later in life, and suddenly bursts in upon the present world of the person in the form of a manic attack.  He continued in this vein and developed a really interesting viewpoint on the oscillations between mania and depression, and I found myself writing down all he said.  It was a feeling of being dictated to rather than one of composing the words myself.  Ordinarily when I write, it is a painful struggle to find the proper sentences, to create something that I can believe will make sense to the reader.  Taking dictation from Dr. E was almost effortless, and his sentences and paragraphs emerged fully formed, needing no revision and showing a transparency that seemed remarkable.

This first encounter with my imaginary friend continued over the next few days and nights, extending to the ghosts that are the lost futures of people who have died.  Such possibilities of life, cut off by tragedy, often take up residence within the living and have amazing effects.  Many artists’ life histories show this pattern.  At the end of our discussions of ghosts and tragedy there was a manuscript, and I had no plan as to what to do with it.  So I filed it away and went about my business at my cabin in Maine, watching ducks swim by, bringing coffee to my wife, and walking my dogs in the morning.  I had no idea that the essay that had been composed would form the basis of a chapter in my eventual book, entitled “What is a ghost?”

I will sum up what transpired over the ensuing years.  Next came the theme of madness, of so-called psychosis, of the annihilation experiences that characterize the most extreme ranges of psychological disorder.   I tried again to engage Dr. E. in a discussion of this matter, and he was receptive, but with one condition.  He insisted on preserving his absolute anonymity, so that he could speak freely of his thoughts and experiences without having to worry about their repercussions on him personally.  Dr. E. made it clear that he had little respect for most of his contemporaries and wished to make his viewpoint known just to young people who had not yet locked into rigid positions on what mental illness is and on what psychotherapy can and cannot accomplish.   A wonderful conversation then unfolded, covering a variety of themes crystallizing around experiences of personal annihilation.  I found him impatient with me a number of times as our dialogue continued, and once he even struck out at me in angry intolerance of what he experienced as the unbearable stupidity of my questions.  Although I knew he was someone I was imagining, I could actually feel the sting of his withering criticisms and the physical impact of his angry blow on my head.  Dr. E. was becoming more and more autonomously real. 

Further dialogues appeared over the next few years, each unfolding as a question and answer session between the two of us.  These conversations, often interrupted by his hostility in the face of conventional thinking of any kind, covered important territories of my field: depression and suicide, dissociation and trauma, the psychotherapy of psychosis, dreams and dream interpretation, the philosophical assumptions of clinical practice, madness and creative genius.  Eventually there were 9 transcribed dialogues with this anonymous psychiatrist, and a few of them were actually published as such in The International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology.  In the community of self psychologists, there was actually some debate about the issue of his identity.  One California analyst declared that he knew with certainty that Dr. E. was a pseudonym for the great theorist, Bernard Brandchaft, widely recognized to be a close friend of George Atwood.  This was not correct, and I found it hilarious.  The old one, however, had certainly benefited from having studied Brandchaft’s writings very carefully.

In the meantime, Dr. E. was becoming more real than ever.  I had numerous dreams about him, arguments in imagination over his rigidity and intolerance of contrary viewpoints, and moments of gratitude for his openness about his clinical experiences and wisdom. I even began to picture where he might be living.  It came to me that he was residing in a trailer park just south of San Francisco, living alone with a couple of dogs, a computer, a television set, a bottle of expensive single malt scotch.  Who is to say? He might really be there!

It then came to pass that the 9 dialogues with Dr. E. assembled themselves into a whole, and I saw they collectively constituted chapters in what I thought might be a very interesting book. I had already assigned the essays to students in courses on psychopathology at my college, but the idea of publishing them as a book actually originated in a suggestion by my son, Christopher Atwood, then 18 years old.  Chris was familiar with the material and he said, with great enthusiasm:

Do it, dad!  It will be just great!”

So I began to submit the chapters to various publishers.  Although a number of reviewers appreciated much of the content of the transcribed interviews, all of them were nonplussed by the format: dialogues with an aging, often hostile and dismissive psychiatrist, one who moreover for reasons unknown needed to hide his identity.  In other words, the project seemed just too weird.

I recognized at this point, painfully, that in order for this book to fly it would be necessary to jettison Dr. E. and rewrite the manuscript in the first person singular.

Although the original conversations with him had often been angry in much of their tone, I had bonded with him as my friend and the idea of letting him go was terribly distressing.  I very much wanted him to survive into the book itself, and for there to be a mystery in the professional community as to whether he was real.  Even Robert Stolorow, at first quite a fan of Dr. E., joined the chorus of voices asking for his demise. 

As I contemplated the rewriting, my distress increased, and finally I had a dream crystallizing what the dilemma felt like: persecutory aliens had landed from space and were hunting down innocent people and planning to murder and then skewer them.  In the dream I was trying to help the people escape their horrible fate.   The aliens, I realized, were the publishing companies, as well as others who had been advising me to terminate my relationship with Dr. E.  The ones being hunted and prepared for skewering were the 9 chapters in which my aged friend had held forth at great length.  I went forward nevertheless with the rewrite, which turned out to be astonishingly easy.  Eliminating the references to Dr. E., the transcribed dialogues seemed to fall together into a natural coherence that I had not previously seen.  The resulting manuscript was then quickly accepted for publication.  It helped me to have one final conversation with the old psychiatrist, in which I asked him for advice on how to handle the issue of his identity.  This conversation appears on my personal website under the title: “Who Really is Dr. E.?”

http://www.georgeatwood.com/dre.html

Now, years later, the old man seems little more than a remote and unreal dream.   Even so, I have to say very occasionally I feel an impulse to travel to California, just in case he might be there having a scotch or walking his dogs.

I hope this account has answered your questions, Adam.

George Atwood

George Atwood, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Rutgers. He is the author of The Abyss of Madness, which examines therapeutic approaches to psychotic states.

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