22 November 2011

So Art Spiegelman went off to college and found that not all people grew up with Holocaust-surviving parents who had already lost one son and awoke screaming in the night. Then, as he tells Lawrence Weschler, originally for Rolling Stone, and now collected in A Wanderer in the Perfect City, he had a psychotic breakdown. His recounting of it is hilarious. I wish I'd done psychedelics before going crazy, and that my psychosis went away.

In 1966, Art left home for Harpur College, the experimental sub-campus of the State University of New York at Binghampton, and there things began to come seriously unmoored. The underlying conflicts with his parents roiled to the surface now that he was no longer in their immediate presence. Furthermore, "Binghampton was one of the early capitals of psychedelics," he says, "and the drug culture definitely accelerated my decomposition beyond any containable point." His intensity became increasingly manic. He was living off campus, in a forest cabin. "And I made a strange discovery," he recalls. "I was just kind of holding court, people were coming to visit, and I found that if I just said whatever came into my mind, the atmosphere would get incredibly charged - and if I kept it up, within half an hour, either my guests would run out, screaming, or else we'd approach this druglike high. It was like a primordial sensitivity session. And this was going on for days on end. I wasn't eating, I was laughing a lot, I was beginning to suffer from acute sleep deprivation. I was starting to experience these rampant delusions of grandeur. I was sure I was onto something, and sure enough, I was - a psychotic breakdown."

Eventually they came to take him away (he informed the school shrink that the top of his head looked like a penis); he was dispatched by ambulance to a local mental ward (exaltedly he wailed in tune with the siren); they sedated him (it took three full-bore shots) and threw him into a padded cell. ("Waking up, my first thought was that I was God alone and that what I really needed to do now was invent me some people.. Later I began to scream for a nurse, and when this guy came in, I said no, I wanted a nurse. He said he was anurse - I'd never heard of such a thing as a male nurse - and I said, 'Gee, how do you people reproduce here on this planet?'") Gradually, they reeled him back in - or he reeled himself back in; they didn't seem to be of much help. One attendant, a conscientious objector doing alternative service, befriended him and advised him on how to get out. ("He told me to drink less water - they seemed to think I thought my brain was overheating or something - to play Ping-Pong, lots of Ping-Pong, and to blame it all on LSD, which was a category they could understand; all of which I did, and within a month I was released.")

He was released on two conditions: first, that he start seeing a psychotherapist on the outside, and second, that he go back to living with his parents. "Living at home was exactly the wrong prescription." Spiegelman said, "since it was home that was driving me crazy. I said this quite emphatically to the shrink one day, and he asked me, 'So why don't you move out?' I told him about the condition. And he said, 'You really think they're going to throw you back in if you don't follow their conditions?' I said, 'Gee, thanks.' and immediately left both home and psychotherapy.

"The wonderful thing about the whole episode, though, is that it cut off all expectations. I'd been locked in a life-or-death struggle with my parents. Anything short of the nut house would have left things insoluble. But now I could venture out on my own terms. Over the years, I have developed a terrific confidence in my own subconscious."

Art was out of the house, but the tormented Spiegelman family drama did not subside, and a few months after his release, his mother committed suicide.

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