Fugue States

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Fugue state: a psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia of personal identity. The state can last days, months or years. Usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.

The summer I turned twenty-two I went mad. Or should I say, nearly went mad. Approached the borders of madness, perhaps, then retreated. Or crossed over and came out the other side. Yet madness has no borders; once you have gone there, there’s no way back. Or so it seemed to me that summer. Even now, more than forty years later, it’s hard to say exactly what happened: not least because, as the borders of madness approach, memory becomes something other than we generally assume it to be. Less recall than trauma, if that makes sense. So, obviously, does thought. So does everything else. Consciousness alters and with it, reality. All things become questionable, including the questions themselves.

It’s a long time ago but there are still fragments in mind, images of estrangement and engagement, reminders and intuitions, and from these I may be able to make something comprehensible, perhaps even true: though truth might be too exalted an ambition. I’ll settle for narrative coherence. Plausibility, in other words. Truth might thereby be served but only if, like beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder. So I will try to say what my incipient madness was like. It seems important to do so because, once it passed, I was able, for the very first time, to enter into the life I wished to lead. As if, in fact, madness was a territory I had to traverse in order to get to the place I wanted to be. A stage in learning how to live. It might be like that for other people too.

I have no desire to implicate anyone else. Nevertheless, however much it might have felt that way, I was not alone. There were always others. Even at the precise moment when I realised I might be going mad, someone was there. Her name was Karen. Although we were lovers, I didn’t know her very well. I don’t even remember how we met. She was probably just as inexperienced, uncertain and afraid as I was. Most of us were, then. She was from Dunedin; once, when I told her I had previously been infatuated with a woman from down there, someone she also knew, she cried; why, I never knew. Unless it was because she cared for me more than I thought she did.

Karen was small and dark and good looking and didn’t say much. The moment of truth came when we were in bed in my room at 56 Grafton Road one morning and I said—I remember the exact sentence, although not why I said it—I’ve finally become a complete animal. And, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, and I heard what I had said, the fear descended upon me. A cold, dark, numbing, airless dread. As if I’d pronounced a doom upon myself. As if my increasingly erratic and self-destructive behaviour over the past year or so had been leading inexorably to this point, at which I would understand what I had been doing, articulate it and then feel afraid. It was the coming to consciousness of the results of my willed dissolution. The culmination of my dérèglement de tous les sens.

I don’t know what Karen said. If she said anything. I think my confession frightened her. It was frightening. I wonder now if that was the last time we slept together. Perhaps. I think she might have left that day and not come back. It was December, 1973, and my room at Grafton Road was very beautiful: downstairs, at the back of the house, with glass sliding doors outside of which was a wooden deck that gave onto a wild garden full of weed trees. The Domain, over a hidden creek, began at the back of the section. It was all leafy green shadow and lemon yellow light, where birds sang; but beauty is of no account when you are crossing the borders of madness.

I remember I had two black and white kittens someone had given me. A male and a female. They had been taken too soon from their mother and still needed to suckle. I would wake up in the middle of the night and find one in each of my armpits, sucking industriously away at the hairs that grew there. This might have been after Karen left. I had nothing to do. No job, no work, no project, nothing. I’d dropped out of university that year, in order to become a poet; but it hadn’t happened. There were poems, lots of them, but they were, like me, awkward and strange; and I believed in them as little as I believed in myself. Now they, too, had dried up.

Money? I don’t know. I must have had some because the one thing I reliably did, every afternoon, was go up to the pub and drink until I passed out. I woke up in some strange places. Once I found myself lying on an old mattress in the waste land behind the house next door, #60 (where was #58?) with no idea how I got there. Missed my way stumbling home probably. Mostly, though, I did make it back to #56. Another time I remember meeting an old girlfriend outside the pub and dragging her down there with me. She came, but now I wonder why? That night I was singing, over and over again, the chorus of a Rolling Stones song: Don’t play with me ’cause you’re playing with fire; while she looked incredulously on. How did the sweet boy she knew turn into this sottish oaf? Perhaps she felt sorry for me.

What did I even mean, a complete animal? That I had alienated myself from all finer feelings? All merely human responses? Become a brute? I’m not sure. I might have thought that, if I could get back to operating on a purely instinctual level, I would thereby find my true self. In the same way that many people then wanted to get back to nature, back to the land. As impossible as that sounds. I knew I was in trouble. After Karen, after meeting my ex, after the drunken nights at the Kiwi and the vague stumbles home—I realised I had to do something. But what? And how about the actual animals, the kittens, who depended utterly upon me—the most undependable human alive, you would have thought; but I must have looked after them because they didn’t die. Or not then.

In fact, one of them came with me when I went down to Wellington. Because that’s what I did, although I can’t now recall the processes that lead to my decision, if mine it was. I can’t remember how the kitten came with me either; common sense says that must have happened later, after Christmas, when, using Laurence’s van, I moved my things down. It was the boy kitten, his name was Bill and I gave him to a friend of one of my younger sisters in Upper Hutt, where I like to imagine he lived a long and happy life. Though I think he was run over. I don’t know what happened to the girl kitten. I don’t even remember her name. Maybe Karen took her.

We hitch-hiked to Wellington. Just Dean and me. Dean was my best friend, my drinking partner, my confidante and my support. No matter how weird I got, he would always be there for me. Perhaps, being somewhat self-obsessed, he didn’t really notice what was going on? But I think he did. We had been in some extreme situations together over the past year and took a proportion of insanity, as it were, for granted. I don’t know how mad I would have had to have gone before Dean abandoned me. Perhaps he wouldn’t ever have done so. Anyway, it didn’t happen. He got me to Wellington. For which I am eternally grateful. The painter, Dean Buchanan.

But the trip was a nightmare. By mutual consent, whenever we found a ride, Dean sat in the front and I sat in the back. In those days you were usually picked up by people on their own; and the general rule, when hitching in pairs, was that you alternated: because it was the job of the person in the front to do the talking; which could be onerous. Except I was no longer capable of conversation. Even the most casual remark—How you going, mate?—filled me with anxiety. More complex offerings seemed to disclose depthless ambiguities. The fear, as I tried to work out what the person was saying, what they meant by it, how dangerous they really were, was entirely disabling. In this state of advanced paranoia, people looked as well as sounded terrifying: bloated, bug-eyed, red-faced, snarling, sweating, their teeth shiny with saliva as they licked their chops.

I had lost the monitoring self, the one who says, no, that’s delusional, that’s not really happening. This is just another day, this is a normal person, a farmer perhaps, driving us through Taupō, along the shore of Five Mile Bay, past Waitahanui and on into the hills. That’s the lake out there, a slight chop on the waters, whitecaps, glints of golden light; pumice on the beach where I paddled as a child. The mountains blue against the distant sky. I was clutching a book the whole way. A talisman. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung. It was a paperback and on the cover was Carl himself, avuncular, smiling, pipe in hand, the picture of sanity. Jung wrote: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. I was looking both ways at once and the only thing I could see was nightmare.

At that time my parents were living in a rather grand house in the leafy, expensive part of Upper Hutt called Heretaunga. An elegant white weatherboard dwelling at the end of a long drive lined with ornamental cherry trees. Whenever I visited, I didn’t write or call or telegram ahead to say I was coming. I would just turn up, unexpectedly; it suited my sense of myself as a maverick, a free spirit. If Dean was still with me—though I don’t think he was—that would have been alright. He was a friend of the family. I think I probably walked up the gravel drive alone on a balmy summer evening, went in the back door, which would have been unlocked, and surprised them all doing whatever it was they were doing.

I have two distinct memories of that visit over Christmas, 1973. Both are disturbing. One is of a family dinner, possibly on the night I arrived. It might have been a Sunday. I recall cold cuts, boiled eggs, a salad, potatoes tossed in butter and mint. Sweet corn. I had taken to wearing around my left wrist a rusty metal chain I dug up in the garden at Puka Puka Road, Puhoi, North Auckland, where Dean and I and some others squatted in an old farm house for much of the past year. It was an undistinguished artefact, of unknown provenance, but certainly not meant to be worn as an item of personal adornment. My youngest sister, who was fourteen, noticed it and asked me what it was? And I recoiled, I clutched my wrist and I snarled: It’s mine!

There was a startled silence around the table, as everyone contemplated the inappropriate response, the aggression, the lack of empathy, let alone manners, I had shown. I realised it too; for me it was a moment not unlike the one in which I proclaimed my animality. But I didn’t do or say anything, I didn’t apologise or explain, I just waited until normal discourse resumed. Curiously, though, as I write, the incident recalls another from earlier that same year. My friends and I were going to a garden party at my eldest sister’s house in Mt Eden and along the way I found, on the road, the dried-out corpse of a pigeon that had been squashed under the wheels of a car. I picked this gruesome object up and attempted, upon arrival at the party, to present it to my sister. I remember the shock, the repugnance and the dismay upon her face as she refused my twisted offering. The silence among the watching guests. The weirdness. What on earth was I doing?

The other episode must have taken place after Christmas; possibly on New Year’s Day. My mother was hosting a party. For her new, her literary friends, because she was on the way to establishing herself as a poet. She had already begun to work on her edition of the letters of A R D Fairburn (1981); she must also have started publishing poems in magazines, ahead of her first book, In Middle Air (1975). And I, her son, the poète manqué, got hold of a bottle of brandy and drank from it until I passed out, on the sofa, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the party. Did I snore, or slobber, as I slept? I don’t know; but I remember my mother’s fury after her guests had departed. I had ruined her party and shamed her in front of her friends. She was beside herself with rage.

Ours was not a happy house. My father had lost his job as a headmaster and had been hospitalised, at least once, for alcoholism and depression. The treatment failed; he wasn’t cured; he spent all day, every day, with his back turned, chain smoking and sipping from a continually re-charged glass of sherry. He loathed my mother’s literary friends yet insisted on being present whenever they came around: a baleful, accusatory presence in the corner of the room. My sister, two years younger than me, survived a suicide attempt the previous August. She took sleeping pills and crawled under a boathouse in Herne Bay, where the owners found her, unconscious but alive. After a period in hospital she had come home to recuperate. Although nobody ever said this, I think we all knew the damage she had done to herself was irrevocable. As, indeed, it was.

In the context of these two unfolding tragedies, my behaviour, though deplorable, was a minor matter. Yet there were affinities with both my father’s and my sister’s predicaments. The habit of drinking myself into oblivion was an imitation of my father’s futile self-medication, for instance. And some of the symptoms of my distressed mental state mimicked those my sister, to a far more serious degree, suffered. In the throes of a schizophrenic attack, she too became paranoid; had difficulty understanding what people were saying to her; was inclined to believe the world was full of threats and violent terrors. But there the parallels end. I did not have, as she did, aural and visual hallucinations. I did not hear voices saying I was worthless and telling me to die. I did not see demonic faces, slavering and grimacing, morphing from the walls. My ‘madness’, though real enough to me was, beside hers, inconsequential.

I have one more incident to relate. It is from later in the summer. I was lying in bed in the room at the end of the hall; a single divan, just inside the door; there were two other beds, both, I think, empty, under the window that gave onto the clothesline and the vegetable garden. This had been my room when I lived at home, four years before. And I was lying there, falling asleep, when I saw loom over me the spectre of my friend Laurence, holding a knife; with which, I knew, he was intending to kill me. I saw Laurence and I saw the knife; but he was not there. He was in Auckland, 400 miles away. And yet I saw him—an apparition so real I cried out and tried to shield myself with my hands from the imminent blow of the knife. And then Laurence disappeared, leaving me there, heart hammering, sweating, gazing into the dark.

Why Laurence? He was a tall fellow who always wore a herring-bone overcoat, even in the heat of summer, and liked to cultivate an air of mystery. His lips smiled faintly beneath his walrus moustache; he rarely spoke. When he did, his remarks were cryptic, knowing, opaque: what did they mean? He was a cartoonist and his cartoons, too, were enigmatic, his characters almost wordless; when there was a speech bubble above their heads, it would most likely be empty. Laurence owned a red Bedford van with a sliding door on the side and, during our rapscallion days at Puka Puka Road, we used to career all over the countryside in it, drinking and carousing. If Cameron was with us, and had his .303, he would shoot feral goats or turkeys which we would then take home to butcher, cook and eat. Laurence had a girlfriend, Philippa, who was tiny, a gamin with an elvish face and bright eyes. She spoke as seldom as he did and I always wondered if it was her who left a note on my desk which read: Today is the day for fucking.

It might have been guilt over Philippa, or it might have been Laurence’s own sinister game-playing—if that’s what it was—which caused me to focus my fears upon his person. Even so I knew, as soon as he disappeared, that the presence I had seen looming above my bed was an hallucination. Oddly enough, knowing that did not lessen its power nor the fear it provoked. If my mind could do that, what else could it do? What might happen next? I would still like to know if this visitation came before or after Laurence, out of the goodness of his heart, trucked my worldly goods down the island in his red Bedford van; but I don’t. The chronology is lost.

I didn’t have much: books, records, a stereo, a few clothes; the tartan blanket that has been on my bed since childhood. No furniture and no kitchen things. Andrew McCartney, another lost soul from those far off days, travelled with us, on one of his increasingly aimless flights from one rural job to another. I think we drove down through Te Kuiti and Taumarunui and Raetihi, parked on the banks of the Whanganui and spent the night above the river. Somehow, probably in consultation with my parents, I had decided to move to Wellington. It was to be a new start. I was going to go back to university to finish my degree.

What about the madness? There are a couple more things to say about it. One is that, over the course of 1973, my friends and I became enamoured of the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Hughes’ Crow (1970), along with Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel (1965), to us were sacred texts. We read and re-read them; in my own verse I imitated Hughes’ work. Which now seems to have been a colossal mistake. I took from him a conception of the natural world defined by violence—nature red in tooth and claw—and attempted to mirror that violence in my poems. No wonder I thought I was turning into an animal: I was trying to inhabit a Ted Hughes poem.

Plath, meanwhile, romanticised death as a lover whom she would embrace; as in time she did. Another poor model for a confused young man to follow. My sister, too, was a Sylvia Plath fan: her own suicide attempts, the third of which was successful, were to some extent imitative of Plath’s appalling example. The only extenuating circumstance I can offer for this calamitous mania is that we reckoned our obsession with violence and death to be, paradoxically, life-affirming; in that our worship of the mortal and the transitory would make our days more intense, more momentous, more real. Needless to say, or perhaps not, I no longer think that way.

The other insight gained from the events of that summer was, perhaps, genuinely life-affirming. It is that those distortions of perception and apprehension characteristic of mental illness, once experienced, do not go away. They are like the sensory alterations consequent upon the use of drugs. Those do not go away either; they become incorporated into your  psyche, your memory, and may thus enrich both your interior landscapes and your view of the external world. Having felt the terror of my own animality, and the fear of what it might do to me, or I with it, I cannot dismiss the testimony of those who have undergone similar things; even when, as in my sister’s case, those experiences are far more powerful, and more deadly, than mine ever were.

Not only do the insights of madness persist: I believe my schizotypal episode increased my potential for empathy. So that, gradually, over the course of the summer, in the undemanding routines of the parental home, even one as afflicted as ours was, those insights sank into my mind, taking their place as potentials, things that may not have been desirable but were certainly possible. To which attention must be paid. They added to my knowledge of what could happen in a life. With the consequence that, when I was ready to move out of home again and resume an independent existence, I found myself ripe for the chances that came crowding thick and fast upon  me.

How peculiar, it seems, looking back: so much of my despair in that last year in Auckland had been focussed upon my inability to write; and the lack of any prospect of publishing the meagre bits and pieces I did manage to complete. In Wellington, without my even trying, publishing opportunities immediately presented themselves; and so, to satisfy them, I had to learn how to write. How serendipitous. One February day I went in to Victoria University and, from the noticeboard outside the student union, copied down the telephone number of a household seeking a flatmate. I don’t know why, from the dozens available, I chose that particular one; it was the only number I rang; and it was where I ended up living. 96 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn.

A member of that household was then music writer, now political journalist, Gordon Campbell. He put me in touch with Roger Steele, editor of Salient, the student newspaper; Roger said he’d consider publishing anything I might like to offer to him. And I decided to try art reviewing. My only qualification was that I had spent a fair amount of time watching Dean paint; and, by following up on his enthusiasms, had begun a rudimentary course of self-education in art history. Kandinsky, Klee, Miro. Otherwise, I had my eyes and my curiosity; and they turned out to be enough. It was 1974 and, unbeknownst to me, in faraway Luang Prabang, in an opium den behind the Shell service station, Red Mole had already begun.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Fugue States

  1. Elisabeth

    I met you first, Edmond, at a life writing conference in Newcastle many years ago and at morning tea we talked about how hard it was to write about the unspeakable in autobiography, about those hours in the past when horror happened. And here you have done it with such eloquence and coherence, I am in awe.

    • me

      Yes, of course, Lis, I remember it well. 2008. It does seem a long time ago now. As to writing the unspeakable, we can only try – and it’s never quite all there somehow.

  2. Cool what a rich life for a writer.Great that you survived your inheritance rich & strange & got pen to paper Martin.

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