In Heaven Everything Is Fine by Josh Frank with Charlie Buckholtz

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  In Heaven Everything Is Fine:  The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre

Authors: Josh Frank with Charlie Buckholtz

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, biography, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it made me feel sorry for Chevy Chase for like a minute or so.

Availability: Published by Soft Skull in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I bought this book in my typical accumulator manner.  I was at the annual New Year’s Day sale at BookPeople and the title caught my eye because like all slightly weird girls in the ’80s I was way into Eraserhead. It took me a couple of years to get around to reading it and I should have read it the moment I brought it home because this is a very readable and entertaining biography-true crime hybrid.  The prologue of this book is one of the funniest things I have ever read.  Ten pages of utter mayhem that should have humbled Chevy Chase forever.  The prologue is the price of admission for this book, the reason you should read it, but after those hilarious, raucous ten pages, the rest of the book is deeply engrossing.

I had never heard of Peter Ivers before this book, which means I also had not heard of New Wave Theatre. He was a man who needed a book to help people like me know who he was and why he was so important and influential, even though his name is not remembered to the degree that his influence should dictate.  The book as a whole is a look at how the Ivy League drama departments and National Lampoon magazine spawned Saturday Night Live, a whole bunch of hilarious 70s films like Caddyshack, and how Peter Ivers was a member of all those specific tribes as well as being a pioneer who introduced punk and new wave music to America on an early cable station.

Peter Ivers was one of those people who was perpetually ahead of the curve, able to know instinctively what was going to be the next big thing. Educated at Harvard, Ivers was primarily a musician and a song writer but his influence spilled over into much of the entertainment industry.  Yet despite having his finger on many pulses, he never really achieved the level of fame his talent and perspicacity deserved. Worse, he was murdered right when it looked like he was about to become as famous as the people in his circles, like Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. His is a very sad story in so many ways, but at the same time the overwhelming sadness wasn’t apparent to me until I began to write this discussion because this book really is such an engaging, rollicking read that the sheer entertainment value of the book blunted the injustice of Ivers’ murder. That’s not a flaw, either, because eventually the reality of the waste of life hits you, but it’s also a testament to the interesting nature of Ivers’ life and the interesting nature of those around him that this is not a wholly sad book.

It’s actually maddening to realize what an interesting person Ivers was and know that he slipped under my radar for all these years, and the reason he was not even a blip on the mainstream radar is because he was indeed so far ahead of the curve that the public didn’t appreciate his efforts until the moment was gone.  Muddy Waters once said that Ivers, who never missed a chance to jump up on stage and jam with blues men of great renown, was the best blues harmonica player alive, but Ivers’ band’s new wave album was released and received with little fanfare.  However, David Lynch heard Ivers’ album and decided that Ivers’ sound was just what he needed for his bizarre film school effort, Eraserhead.

Typical of Ivers career, being recognized by Lynch and working with the filmmaker didn’t really do much for Ivers’ career, even though Ivers was responsible for one of the most iconic scenes and songs in film history – the mumps-cheeked girl in the radiator singing “In Heaven Everything Is Fine.”

That creepy voice?  That’s Ivers.  How the hell did I not know this all these years?

Well, I didn’t know it because Ivers’ influence and talent were often a part of someone else’s dream and goal.

Ivers seems to be best known for his work on New Wave Theater, an early live performance cable show with a format that introduced the public to a number of LA new wave and punk bands and popular comedians.  Peter, the host, played the provocative, Harvard Boy weirdo to many rough-edged bands.  Ivers was a tiny man but never failed in his role, often angering bands, sometimes being threatened by them as he interviewed them.  That he often assumed a slightly homosexual persona only caused some of the more macho bands to channel their sense of unease into potential violence.  However, many bands caught onto what was happening, understood the purpose of Ivers’ veiled jabs and sparkly appearance, and became friends with him, notably members from bands Fear, 45 Grave and The Dead Kennedys.

After a couple of years of hosting New Wave Theater, Ivers began to chafe under the pressure put on him by show producer David Jove, a drug-addled madman who surrounded himself with even madder madmen.  Ivers had found a song-writing partner and together they were creating excellent songs that were selling well, and was poised to take his career in a new direction.  Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters ended up performing songs he and his partner wrote.  With a blossoming career as a songwriter ahead of him, he eventually gave Jove notice on New Wave Theater.  Shortly after giving notice, Ivers was found in his apartment, bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

The way the police handled the case will leave incredulous anyone with the most basic understanding of crime scene containment and murder investigation.  Before the investigation even began, while the bloody sheets were still on the bed where Ivers died, people were permitted to come into Ivers apartment and rifle through his belongings, take out items, bring in new items and ultimately the police felt that Ivers was just some freak who likely got picked off by one of the punks he hung around with.  The influence of the famous people advocating for Ivers – an ex-girlfriend who was a studio executive and Harold Ramis among them – wasn’t enough to overcome the horrible way the police handled the investigation.  He was killed in 1983 and the most-likely suspect has died of cancer, so there will never be much in the way of justice for Ivers, outside of this book that shows us all how important Ivers was and how was he the sort of guy who anticipated MTV several years in advance, who understood the importance of David Lynch before anyone else, who could walk the talk amongst Harvard graduates, street punks, Hollywood executives, pop stars, blues men, and the cinema avant garde.

The book details all the relationships Ivers had with rich and powerful people, as well as giving the reader a look at his personal and romantic relationships.  The former are pretty interesting, the latter less so (I found his long-term girlfriend so insufferable that I found myself glossing over all passages involving her – she was the sort of woman who considered herself counter-cultural, accepted a job with a major studio in defiance of her personal beliefs, then spent weeks crying about it – bleah), but even the less interesting passages don’t really diminish what an interesting person Ivers was and how interesting this book is.  I sailed through it in two readings.  Seldom do biographies or true crime books demand my attention this way.

The best line in the book:

To Peter, underutilized potential was a tear in the fabric of the cosmos.

The hell of it is, Peter’s potential was never underutilized.  Plenty of people utilized it.  He just didn’t receive much benefit from all that utilization.

This is one of my shorter reviews because the scope of this book is such that one either goes on at length and still barely scratches the surface or one mentions the best parts and still barely scratches the surface.  For once I decided to err on the side of word conservation.

But I cannot emphasize enough how very funny, actually hilarious, the prologue is.  Seriously, I read it out loud to Mr Oddbooks and we both laughed until we could not breathe.  Chevy Chase, in a mohawk wig, trying to host a New Wave Theater-successor while shit-faced drunk, completely unfamiliar with punk culture, screaming at bewildered punks, “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE WHO THINKS THEY CAN TAKE ME DOWN?!” while Cyndi Lauper waits in the wings, presumably wondering if she should fire her manager.  Highly recommended.

Most Outrageous by Bob Levin

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester

Author: Bob Levin

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, pornography, constitutional issues

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It may not be full-bore odd in the way that many of the books I discuss here often are, but it’s unsettling and at the end of the book I had more questions than I did at the beginning. This book also dovetailed neatly with some of the work I am doing preparing for upcoming Jim Goad/”Rape Me” discussion, so discussing this is a warm up for what is to come. So the book may not be odd, per se, but it’s worth discussing here because I say so.

Availability: Published by 2008 by Fantagraphics Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Pornography as a whole doesn’t bother me. I’ve read every argument for and against it and ,all in all, the Red in me says all work is exploitation. Some of us get exploited more than others. Pornography is an ugly business, uglier than most, but it serves a purpose and I can’t look at anyone who makes or performs in pornography as being a victim. At least not in every circumstance. I sure know a few hundred dollars a scene or for a set of photographs, on the victim-scale, sure beats the hell out of working for minimum wage in retail or scrubbing toilets. People may say the latter work permits workers to have more pride but sentimental ideals like that are worth very little when you cannot pay your bills.

Whether or not opponents of pornography like it, pornography that involves consenting adults (within the legal limits of federal and state law) is protected under the First Amendment. Pornographic depictions in the form of drawings are far more lenient, as in the USA it is still legal to draw children in pornographic situations. Even if we loathe it, we have to tolerate it if we want to live in a free society. But it’s important to note that a free society is not always a healthy society. That’s where Dwaine Tinsley comes in.

If you aren’t familiar with the “Chester the Molester” cartoons that used to appear in Hustler, I tend to think you are a lucky person. I admit that my truly negative opinion of the cartoons are probably coloring this discussion, but I also am struggling to approach this with an even hand. That struggle is helped greatly by Levin’s book, because though I knew of “Chester the Molester,” I knew nothing of the man who had created the cartoons.

Dwaine Tinsley was born poor white trash and had an upbringing that was less Dickensian than straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel. Throughout his life, he had an affection for plump women, marrying a couple of them, and eventually he made a decent life for himself as a cartoonist. His daughter from one of his earlier relationships moved to live with him and his new family when she began to have problems at home with her mother and, from all accounts, Dwaine and his wife did their best to give his daughter, called “Veronica” in the book, a nice life with some basic household rules.

But when “Veronica” began dating a man whom her father and stepmother disliked, a man who apparently got her hooked on cocaine, she began to make allegations that Tinsley had molested her. Her accusations came during the time when incestuous abuse of children was becoming a very big topic in mainstream society, from movies like Something About Amelia to talk shows with an array of people who had increasingly unbelievable stories about abuse. Tinsley went to trial for molesting his daughter and was convicted, supposedly, on the merits of some taped phone calls he had with “Veronica.” The transcription of those phone calls, when read dispassionately, are devastating to Tinsley’s denial that he did not molest his daughter. Those calls can also be open to interpretation, as a man who knows his daughter is troubled and is refusing to enter into another tiresome, interminable discussion about something that never happened.

But it’s also very much a possibility that Dwaine Tinsley went to prison because his daughter was urged by a boyfriend to blackmail her father. But mostly he went to prison because he was the creator of “Chester the Molester.”

Seriously, if you found out that the artist behind a cartoon wherein disgusting old men stalk and sexually interfere with children, mostly little girls, was accused of raping his daughter, would you even be surprised? Would you shrug and think, “Stands to reason that a man who would draw such cartoons might actually harbor salacious feelings toward children?” Is it even possible that a man who drew such a cartoon could get a fair trial if his work was invoked as proof of his overall degeneracy?

That’s why I am discussing this book here, even though it’s not so odd. It’s because it’s a hard book. Tinsley comes across as a sympathetic man. Levin does an excellent job of showing Tinsley as a man with a good work ethic, a sort of working class hero who made good after a crappy childhood, overcoming the limitations that are often part and parcel of being a “son of the soil.” But he’s also a man who drew some of the most vile cartoons, cartoons that in most cases were utterly devoid of irony (and often humor) because he claimed he was satirizing and lampooning the behaviors of pedophiles. That made me uneasy. And that sucks on my part because a man’s crappy attempts to create valid social satire is not proof positive that he has the urge to rape a child.

To make matters worse is the picture that Levin chose to lead off the book. In this picture, a pretty young woman is sitting on a low wall of some sort. She has her legs spread and Tinsley is leaning back against her, his ass level with her crotch. He is smoking a cigarette and she has her arms wrapped around his neck. I assumed it was a picture of Tinsley with one of his wives or a girlfriend. Of course, later I learned that the “Veronica” in the picture was Tinsley’s daughter. Without any signifiers of who the girl was when I first looked at the picture, I would never have thought the picture was of a father and his daughter. It was creepy and unsettling when I realized the relationship between the two people in the picture.

And that’s dangerous, isn’t it? Lots of families express themselves in ways that I may find odd but are not engaging in incestuous or even unhealthy behaviors. What can one really tell from one photograph? What can one tell from a photograph when the father inks “Chester the Molester?” And why would any man want to ink a cartoon like “Chester the Molester?”  

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Strange Case of Edward Gorey

Author: Alexander Theroux

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, utter pants

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it is a biography (ostensibly) about odd-icon, Edward Gorey.

Availability: Published by Fantagraphic Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As biographies go, I guess you could say this is one. But if you love a good biography, you’re not going to want to read this book. You may not even want to read this review.

But if you, like me, are a Gorey fan, you will both buy this book and read it even after I tell you it’s largely a worthless read. Gorey fans, like all fanatics, want to read anything and everything about the man. I am a moderate Gorey fan. I have one of his drawings tattooed on my body, I have a little shrine set up to him and one day I want to have a collection of Gorey first editions. So even with the status of being just a moderate Gorey fan, I know that had I read a review like the one I am writing before I put this book on my Amazon wish list, I would have purchased it and read it anyway (actually, my copy is a Yule gift from Mr. Oddbooks). Because that’s what an ardent fan does. We collect things relating to the object of our adoration, even if those things are mediocre.

This book has interesting moments but they are few and far between, and those moments are generally content that will not be new to long-term Gorey fans. Still, it was pleasant being reminded of how eccentric Gorey was, how he eventually stopped wearing fur because of his love of animals, how he sewed stuffed animals by hand as he watched television, how he would do work for anyone who asked, even those who could pay very little.

But after one admits that this book has some charm, one can only list its many problems. The first is that in the first fifteen pages, Theroux manages to write in a way that is so alienating that a casual reader might be tempted to give up. I am a reasonably intelligent woman who has devoted my adult life to reading. I fancy that if a reasonably well-educated person with a devotion to books found Theroux’s verbiage cumbersome, then it is safe to say it was, in fact, too much for a biography of a beloved pop culture icon. But who knows? Perhaps the words enchiridion, coloraturas, the French phrase le cercle lugubrieux, and karfreutagian have slipped into the common lexicon without me noticing. If not, they were odd word choices in a biography such as this. This is not the sort of book that can tolerate the interruptions that come when the reader is forced to put the book down in order to look up words and French phrases. But luckily Theroux stops showing off so egregiously around page 15. Still, not a good beginning.

The Spinster and the Prophet by A.B. McKillop

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Spinster and the Prophet: H.G. Wells, Florence Deeks and the Case of the Plagiarized Text

Author: A. B. McKillop

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, feminism

Why Did I Read This Book: Like any book fiend of long term addiction, I often buy books in frenzies. I have no idea where or when I purchased this book, so I no longer know what initially drew me to it. But once I noticed it on my shelf, it still went unread for a couple of years because though I didn’t have any feelings for H.G. Wells one way or the other, I had a feeling that I would have pretty strong feelings once I was finished reading this book. I was correct.

Availability: Published in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am not a big science fiction fan, so H.G. Wells, while I certainly read him and was socially aware of him, was not an author for whom I had any great affinity. But it was nevertheless disappointing to realize that he was a completely unlikeable, self-absorbed, trivial, priapic worm. Add to it that he may well have been a plagiarist who stole words knowing the person whose words he stole would likely have no recourse because she was not famous, had little money of her own, and most importantly, because she was a she and not a he, and it would appear H.G. Wells was a vile little man in many respects.

I often do my best to avoid biographies of writers or performers I have any sort of respect for. Like I said, I had little opinion about H.G. Wells before reading this book and knew this book was unlikely to paint him in a favorable light. Yet I was shocked at how much I disliked him at the end. I had once read about his affair with Rebecca West and their child in a different book, but I had no idea how he more or less rubbed his wife’s nose in it, how very young West was when the affair began, how Wells used his literary status and genius as an excuse to fuel and justify his sexual id. I haven’t felt such disappointment learning about the life of a literary figure since I found out what a repellent human being Robert Frost was. At least I had far less literary heart invested in Wells when I read about him.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the book: Florence Deeks, a middle-aged Canadian spinster, began to research and write a history of the world focusing on how women had shaped the world, from ancient matriarchies to the then current roles of women in societies. It took her five years of research and writing, beginning and roughly ending with the first World War. She submitted the manuscript, which she called The Web, to the North American branch of Wells’ publisher, Macmillan. She had long conversations with a particular editor about the book but did not receive it back, rejected, until almost two years had passed. The manuscript, when returned, was a mess, smudged and showed signs of heavy wear, wear that would become crucial in the court case that showed how some of the worn pages contained plagiarized passages. It seems very likely from the evidence that McKillop presents in the book that the editor that Deeks dealt with at Macmillan obfuscated the location of the manuscript and sent it to Wells, who had himself been discussing writing a history of the world. Indeed, Wells, to that point a man who wrote mainly turgid, lightly veiled autobiographies of himself, according to his assertions, managed to write a massively researched book in record time, a book that bore similar amateurish marks as Deeks’ endeavor. Despite many expert witnesses who showed the distinct similarities between Wells’ book and Deeks’ book, despite many appeals, the courts consistently decided against Deeks in her court cases. Wells’ book, The Outline of History, a best-seller then but now largely ignored, made Wells’ fortune secure.

Deeks herself immediately saw similarities between Wells’ work and her own rejected manuscript, similarities that several experts echoed. In fact, the entire outline of Wells’ work echoed her own, unique outline. Moreover, Wells used references to works Deeks had agonized over whether or not she should quote but ultimately did not. That Wells used the same source that Deeks in her inexperience had not cited, himself not citing the author, was particularly damning. That Macmillan could not prove where the manuscript resided when it was in their custody – indeed, there is a record that indicates it was received twice at the office when Deeks only submitted it the once – also lends credibility to Deeks’ belief that Wells altered her manuscript.

The proof that Wells likely did not write his 1,324 page history without pilfering Deeks’ work seems likely on its very face and despite all the compelling examinations of the similarities between the texts, the most damning evidence to me was the timeline involved. Though Wells was an undeniably erudite man, he had only written fictional novels and did not have experience as a historian.

Three of the most experienced and prolific professional historians in the world, James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard and James Henry Breasted, had required several years to research and write their collaborative history of Western civilization. Wells and his ever-faithful wife ventured into their first and only exercise in the writing of history with few research notes and little intensive help from others, and somehow managed to accomplish the task in a span of time so short it beggars the imagination. In mid-November 1918, nothing on the project had advanced as far as the typescript stage. By February 15, 1919, Jane [Wells’ wife] had produced 50,000 to 60,000 words in typed form. Twenty days later her husband… had written between 75,000 and 80,000 [additional] words, researching along the way. At the end of the year, the whole manuscript was complete.

This is all I am going to quote from the book on the topic of the investigations and the trials that compared The Web to The Outline of History. That part of the book is extremely interesting, a sort of literary CSI. But I will say that after reading about the number of bad acts on the part of Macmillan employees, the analysis laid out by Deeks’ witnesses and Wells’ own response to the accusation (attempting to smear Deeks), I believe H.G. Wells stole large parts of the book that made his fortune.

But despite learning about Wells’ nasty and underhanded disputes with literary icons like Henry James and many other acts that shed a bad light on him, his utter need for and complete contempt for women almost overtook the plagiarism claim this book puts forth (and in my opinion, proves). But in a sense, that is what this book is about. The book’s topic is plagiarism in a specific sense, but the overarching theme of this book is how one man, the publishing industry and court system deprived one woman of her voice and work but also deprived all women of having access to a book that would have described their own unique role in history. You see, when Wells plagiarized The Web, he removed all of the work that Deeks did to show how women had indeed played a role in shaping the world. Not content just to steal, he stole the work and stripped it of all its original intent.

Yet worse was the fact that even as ambitious as his plagiarism was, it would never have been possible without the toil of his wife, Jane. Jane, of all the women Wells used in his life, suffered the most. She wasn’t even permitted the luxury of using her own name. He called Catherine Wells “Jane” during their entire marriage, a name she did not encourage but could not dissuade him from using. His two-named wife clearly played a role in getting The Outline of History ready.

By all accounts, Jane Wells, once more a silent voice at a crucial point in her husband’s career, was his saving grace in the creation of The Outline of History. “Without her labour in typing and retyping the drafts of the various chapters as they have been revised and amended, in checking references, finding suitable quotations, hunting up illustrations, and keeping in order the whole mass of material for this history, and without her constant help and watchful criticism, its completion would have been impossible.”

The theme of how Wells played a role in silencing and marginalizing two women is the theme that stuck with me above all the injustice, all the proof of plagiarism, above all the sexual indiscretions and bad behavior on Wells’ part. Even as the reader feels perhaps a modicum of pity for Wells, as he at times was indeed pitiful, this book simply serves to remind the reader that in addition to being a fair science fiction writer, a terrible literary fiction author, a man of many affairs, and probably a plagiarist on more than one occasion, Wells can best be remembered as a man possessing such monumental ego that he would not permit his own wife to have her own name.

The Spinster and the Prophet is meticulous researched, and while it includes recreations of what the author thinks may have happened in some scenes, he makes it clear that he is using this writing approach, and his recreations never seem fanciful or forced. A literary tome about literary crime, it was both erudite and accessible. I enjoyed reading it and definitely recommend it for those out there who enjoy biography, history and a good, down in the dirt expose on what really happens when the socially privileged close ranks.

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Authors: Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, photography, psychiatry

Availability: Published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book was an unexpected comfort for me. I walked an interesting road in psychiatric medicine (I can call it interesting now with some distance – at the time it was an unrelenting nightmare from which I feared I would never wake) and the stories of the patients in this book, the psychiatric fads that doomed many of them to inappropriate care, showed me that in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same, which may sound horrible in a sense, but really it put my own experience into perspective. And despite some similarities between my own care and the care of one of the patients in the book, I feel incredibly lucky to live in the present age, current deficiencies in mental health care notwithstanding.

This book discusses the lives of 10 people whose suitcases were left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Painstakingly researched, the identities of the people whose belongings were found in the hospital attic long after their deaths are explored not only in terms of their lives in the hospital, but also in terms of who they were before they ended up at Willard. Though we in our modern ways may see old psychiatric homes as barbaric – and they were in some respects – they were society’s attempt to deal with people who may have had profound problems, most of whom had no where else to go. Many who were considered “incurably mad” found themselves in poor houses, where their behaviors made them subject to terrible abuses. In 1869, Willard took in patients who had been deemed unsuitable for poorhouses and workhouses (and a pox on every person who thinks a return to either is a good idea).

… Willard received only patients from across the state who had already exhausted the public resources of their counties. Even paupers did not want to witness people kept in tiny cells and iron locks, being fed through openings in their doors, never let out until their limbs were crippled. Women were regularly abused by all comers, and the whole business had turned into a matter of public disgrace.

But even as the mentally ill were shipped to the countryside, it bears mentioning that the hospital’s goal was to be self-sustaining, meaning that the patients were required to work in fields or in workshops in order to fund Willard. Moreover, the institution had the perspective that they needed to provide a “morally” correct place for the mentally ill, giving them certain stigma while attempting to help them. Masturbation was cause for alarm and at times confirmation that the patient was in fact quite mentally ill. A sex life was completely off limits to the mentally ill at Willard.

Because of the psychiatric fads of the time, most of the people in this book and likely many at Willard were diagnosed with schizophrenia or various forms of hallucinatory dementia when the fact is few actually had the condition. In a similar parallel to a lack of early understanding of how some psychiatric drugs affect blood sugar and cause diabetes, many patients were put on drugs that caused them permanent neurological damage. Some neuroleptic drugs caused tardive dyskinesia and some doctors did not understand the causation between the drugs they prescribed and the uncontrollable fidgeting they saw in patients.

The psychiatrists who first introduced neuroleptics noticed rather quickly that the drugs caused symptoms not unlike Parkinson’s disease, but saw this as evidence that the medication was working effectively, rather than as an indication that it caused neurological damage… Nevertheless, decades later, when the full extent of the problem had become quite obvious, psychiatrists continued to prescribe these drugs for most patients in institutions, despite their limited effectiveness and the disfiguring and disabling side effects.

If this sounds primitive, we needn’t pat ourselves on the backs too soon for our improved medications.

Second generation neuroleptics, also called “atypicals,” were considered more effective and less likely to cause side effects than the older drugs, which are significantly less expensive. The NIMH study showed that these highly praised medications were no more effective than the cheaper drugs they replaced, while causing a new slew of side effects, including diabetes and heart disease. A 2006 British study had similar results…

People who know well those who are mentally ill, especially those with bipolar disease, often remark that they just don’t understand why sufferers don’t take their medications. Well, you see, the meds often don’t work as well as one would hope, they make you gain untold amounts of weight, can give you permanent neurological problems, diabetes, as well as creating addiction to the drug that makes withdrawal a dicey prospect. The behavioral problems these drugs are supposed to address often are dwarved by the health and further mental problems they cause. Some benefit from atypical antipsychotics, to be sure, but many walk into taking such drugs without a full picture of what the drugs may do in the long run.

Of the ten stories, several were heartbreaking. For example, the Russian emigre who escaped from a WWII internment camp with his wife to New York, where he began creating an excellent life, only for his wife to suffer and die from a catastrophic miscarriage. He broke down and became psychotic after her death, and ended up at Willard, where he spent the bulk of the rest of his life. A folk artist of no small talent, he painted scenes from his native Ukraine. In his suitcase, he kept the flowers his wife had carried during their wedding ceremony in Austria in 1945.

But the person in this book whose story most affected me was that of Margaret Dunleavy, an orphan who left Scotland and was an accomplished nurse in the United States until the intrusion and a complete lack of understanding in the medical and psychiatric world left her confined to Willard for the rest of her life. Margaret had contracted tuberculosis and worked in a tuberculosis hospital, but she suffered several setbacks in her life, setbacks that cost her the job and the lodging that came with it. She was placed at Willard for what was supposed to be a temporary stay that became permanent. She entered Willard with 18 trunks, the contents of which she was seldom allowed access to, her car was repossessed, she was seldom able to see her companion and perhaps boyfriend of many years, and all the accomplishments in her life were dragged from her as her life became that of an institutionalized patient. She described being sent to Willard as being “like a fly in a spider’s web” and she was right. She was ensnared in psychiatric faddery and a tendency by some doctors to dismiss a patient’s pain and to diminish the addictive properties of the drugs they prescribe.

Her trunks were filled with her life’s possessions – linens, carefully wrapped china, diplomas, many pictures of the road trips she took with friends. Her immigration papers, her medical certifications and letters from friends and her male friend, embroidery, patterns, and most importantly, pictures of her with her car. An independent woman, Margaret never married and rare for the time, she owned her own car, traveling on vacations with female friends, her mobility giving her freedom. And unlike many at Willard, she had friends who stuck by her until the end. The depth of her friendships, the loyal bonds that those who are extremely mentally ill enough to be institutionalized for life often have a hard time forming, should have been a clue she was not schizophrenic, but the dogma of the time said she had the disease and she was treated for it until she was a shell of a person.

Margaret, who had tuberculosis and was diagnosed with gastric problems, had a doctor she preferred, driving far out of her way to see him. She was given belladonna and codeine, both of which were addictive to some extent and made any psychological problems the chronically ill woman had even worse. Her worsening health, the worsening health of her male companion, combined with worry about her family in Scotland at the outbreak of WWII, caused her to show signs of fray. Her employers at the tuberculosis hospital intervened in a way that now seems outrageous – they terminated her care, her personal relationship with her doctor and forced her to see a more local doctor. Losing contact with her trusted physician, combined with an abrupt termination of her drug regimen, caused Margaret to break down, landing her forcibly institutionalized for life on the following, extremely insubstantial grounds:

“Annoys people. Accuses people of persecuting her and talking about her. Says switchboard operator listens in on her conversations and that people on other floors can be heard talking about her.”

Once at Willard, her physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria, she was diagnosed in the face of all known reason with dementia praecox (an archaic term for schizophrenia) of long-standing, and was prescribed medication that ensured her frail health degenerated more and that if she was not mentally ill before entering Willard, she was certainly mentally unwell when she died there.

Her story is so resonant with me because in the summer of 2008, my mother almost died, I lost two beloved cats within weeks of each other, and I knew I was losing my job. I was in distress, sought help, and in the face of all that I know about myself, accepted a bipolar diagnosis and began to take atypical antipsychotics. What began as an emotionally difficult time morphed into physical misery that I hope I never face again. I was placed on Geodon, within days was shaking, felt snakes under my skin, stopped eating and started hallucinating. I asked the psychiatrist for help and he prescribed me enough Xanax to ensure a terrible addiction. It all culminated in a stay at a psych ward after the voices in my head told me to kill myself. The four day stay in the locked down ward did stabilize me until the voices stopped, but I also left the place on Prozac, Wellbutrin, Xanax, Valium, Trazedone and Ambien. I developed an addiction that almost cost me my marriage because the drugs made me so crazy I wanted to leave my spouse of 15 years. I have shared my experience and while it is certainly not the norm, too many have shared similar experiences of being shoe-horned into inappropriate diagnoses (most often bipolar, the 21st century answer to schizophrenia and dementia praecox), crippling addictions, and doctors who pile medication on top of medication with seemingly callous disregard as to what such drugs may do as they fine tune their patients’ brains.

(And though it goes without saying, I must say anyway that meds help a lot of people. I would never tell anyone not to take meds if they had a realistic diagnosis, understood all the ramifications of taking psychotropics and made an informed decision. My descent into hell had none of those elements involved, and that was the problem. My experience is not a testimony against psychological pharmacology, but rather an encouragement to approach one’s mental health care with information and caution.)

In the course of reading Margaret’s chapter, I was introduced to the idea of the chaos narrative, which helped me make sense of what happened to Margaret as well as what happened to me in the bowels of the psychiatric system.

The chaos narrative is essentially an anti-narrative, because the self in the midst of chaos has no time for reflection or the ordering of narrative in a way that makes meaning. As Frank [Arthur Frank, the creator of the idea of a chaos narrative] puts it, “A person who has recently started to experience pain speaks of ‘it’ hurting ‘me’ and can dissociate from ‘it.’. The chaos narrative is lived when ‘it’ has hammered ‘me’ out of self-recognition.” Chaos stories are hard to hear, both literally, because, in their lack of sequence and causality, they may not be apparent as stories to the listener, and figuratively, because they are anxiety-producing, even threatening, to the listener, a reminder that anyone of us may find herself in this painful state.

In this age when doctors barely have time to get your basic history, it is unlikely many know a chaos narrative for what it is. They hear a rambling patient, who may be fidgeting with nervousness and tension, who cannot sleep, who is plagued by a sense of doom and may be acting out, and the narrative seems indicative of the psychiatric disorder du jour. In the midst of most of these stories, chaos narratives were at play – illnesses, life upheavals, and misfortune – and doctors did not hear the stories they were told.

Modern psychiatric life is different now, to be certain. A heavier emphasis is placed on pharmacology than long-term therapeutic care and those whose mental illness is severe will not have their possessions discovered in disused attics because many are homeless now due to the drastic termination of funding mental facilities experienced in the Reagan administration. It is hard to say which is worse – being in an institution your entire life when you don’t need such care, or being on the streets, unable to get such care if you do need it.

I suspect most people will read this book and feel a kinship with one of the people described through the possessions they left in their trunks, possessions they were denied while they were at Willard because the people in this book, all quirks and bad behavior aside, are so very ordinary, very prosaic. Each trunk represents a life truly interrupted, and in their cases, generally never to be resumed again. Truly a heartbreaking work. I highly recommend it.

The Prankster and the Conspiracy by Adam Gorightly

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Prankster and the Conspiracy

Author: Adam Gorightly

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, conspiracy

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, Robert Anton Wilson wrote the foreword. That’s sort of a clue right there. But overall, this book covers almost all the bases of oddness: Kennedy assassination conspiracy, Jim Garrison, the 60s in general, Discordianism, CIA spooks, and, Jesus help us all, Sondra London.

Availability: Published in 2003 by Paraview press, you can get a copy here

Comments: You know, I still sort of love the Discordians, even though the whole riff often wears thin for me now. Twenty years ago, I was an avid member of a Discordian offshoot, The Church of the SubGenius. (My SubGenius names were Lady Helena Burningbush and later Lady Helena Burningbook, and Google away – I am lucky that most of my asshattery as a young person occurred before the Internet came to make sure our every act of silliness is recorded for eternity.) But as I got older, I just didn’t see the point anymore. I still see some value in the sort of social satire that such parodies permit, but in the final analysis, I’m pretty earnest and cloaking one’s self behind so many layers of sarcasm and inside jokes in order to make a point ultimately is more work than I am willing to do to prove I am not one of them.

But when Kerry Thornley (Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) and Greg Hill (Malaclypse the Younger) created Discordianism and co-wrote the Principia Discordia, it was a natural rebellion against the postwar rage for order that permeated life in the 1950s, and the tricksterism had a profound point, one that has become diluted over time, especially now that the Internet makes being a trickster almost mandatory. But 50 years ago, before 1960s rebellion embraced chaos and dissent, Discordianism was a precursor and perhaps catalyst for serious social change. Kerry Thornley, as described in this book, is a man who inspired and in many senses created the counterculture in the United States and while some of the assertions of Thornley’s influence seem overstated to me, he is a person whose role in creating the counterculture has been overlooked in many quarters, and one has to wonder how much his unwitting and unwilling role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy contributed to Thornley’s name being forgotten more than it is remembered.

This book is both Thornley’s biography and an examination of conspiracy theory, and I think that Gorightly’s refusal to settle on a specific opinion, to analyze and give the facts that he does, gives this book far more impact than had he just put on a tinfoil hat and delivered the standard “Warren report bad, Garrison good, Oswald patsy” line that has tarred those who truly worry that there was a CIA conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy (hi, I am one of them). According to Gorightly, Thornley, who served in the Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote a book about him before the JFK assassination, and lived in New Orleans during the appropriate times, may have been manipulated by the CIA, and he may not have. (As some may or may not know, the infamous picture of Oswald holding a rifle and a copy of a Communist rag, supposedly taken in his backyard, is very likely Oswald’s head grafted onto Thornley’s body.) Given how insane and paranoid Thornley became later in his life, it is hard to tell what really happened.

For example, Thornley knew a very creepy man, Gary Kirstein, whom he mostly called Brother-in-law, who was an unsettling influence in Thornley’s life, and planted ideas that made Thornley think that perhaps he was subject to mind manipulation by the CIA. Thornley specifically believed this because he somehow or another (if at all) picked up rogue radio waves with his mind, an activity that Brother-in-law seemed to know all about. However, the only person who could have proved that Brother-in-law really existed, Greg Hill, died before anyone could question him on the subject. Others who lived in New Orleans at the time and knew Thornley could not verify that Brother-in-law existed. Thornley later believed Kirstein was E. Howard Hunt and Gorightly is of the opinion that Brother-in-law could have been Hunt but does not stake his reputation on it.

And with the mention of E. Howard Hunt, creepiest of the creepiest of spooks, you can tell that this is one helluva fun conspiracy tome, and one of the better because the author, while clearly subject to interesting beliefs (aren’t we all) maintains an air of interested speculation without ever confirming or denying anything. I left the book with the feeling that Thornley was very likely on to something, that perhaps he was an unwitting participant in one of the darkest moments of history, but his subsequent mental illness makes it impossible to know the truth. One of his friends at the time, then Grace Caplinger, now better known to some as character actress Grace Zabriskie, adds to the idea that Thornley’s memory, or at least his interpretations of memory, are to be held in doubt. Thornley described himself as having a long affair with Grace. Grace recalls one incident of not-very interesting sex that never happened again. His ex-wife Cara said that she never experienced some of the things Thornley claimed, like three black helicopters flying over their home. As Thornley drifted further and further into psychosis, it is impossible to know what happened and Thornley’s life does not make it any easier to parse out.

Peripatetic, even when he remained in one city for a while he never seemed to live in the same place for long, Thornley was truly a man who both brought about change and was subject to it. Like a Whitman poem, his mind contained inconsistent multitudes. He initially believed the Lone Gunman theory of the JFK assassination and wrote a book, Oswald, explaining this theory. He later recanted this theory. He became convinced Oswald was a CIA plant who was assigned to ferret out Communist sympathizers in the military and was later a part of a fringe CIA conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Jim Garrison, no small loon himself, called Thornley to a grand jury in order to recount the testimony he gave to the Warren Commission, and was so angered with Thornley’s testimony that he charged Thornley with perjury, though the charges were later dropped.

Though this book does speak of a mentally healthy Thornley (relatively speaking), much of the book documents his decline into mental states even the odd like me find unnerving. Thornley, after his divorce from his wife Cara, went through an exhibitionist sexual phase, which seems normal enough in some quarters. People experiment with all forms of freedom when long term relationships end. But in the manner of many biographies these days, it is revealed that perhaps Thornley had pedophilic tendencies, though if he had them, they were of a short duration and he regained his sense of restraint and decency. One can see this man becoming so mentally adrift that the sexual freedom he in part helped herald in could, in a drug haze, cause him to misapply his sexual freedom to children. If it seems like I am using too many words and dancing around the topic, it’s because that’s exactly what I am doing. I hate the idea that even unhinged Thornley would become so far afield that he could not see the lack of morality in sexual interaction with children. Though this is a very small part of the book, it stuck with me. Everyone these days is either a pedophile or a closet Nazi when their biography finally comes out.

Thornley died in 1998 of complications from a rare disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis, and though his madness cleared enough at times to permit him moments of humor and clarity, one of the ways I know he was probably deeply entrenched in psychosis is that in his last days, he evidently had a friendship, if not relationship, with Sondra London. My distaste for London runs hard and deep. She has become such a scourge in her by now routine attempts to cozy up to violent murderers for a chance at love, renown, and potential book fodder that she has caused death row inmates to call her a skeeve. She pissed on the memories of the brutally murdered as a self-admitted serial killer lovingly serenaded her in court as she beamed like a teen girl being courted for the first time. I never really saw her as a person much interested in telling the stories of the insane, the broken or the criminally violent as much as someone who would do anything for money, publicity or to satisfy her admitted hybristophilia (or, to paraphrase her, she likes bad boys).

She is a loathsome human being who has made a career out of manipulating deeply mentally ill or sociopathic if not psychotic killers into collaborating with her on books (her collaboration with the disturbed and completely ill Nicolas Claux is truly disturbing – asking that man to illustrate a book on vampire killers is in no way subversive or in the spirit of Discordianism – just exploitative and completely callous). That Brother-in-law set off Thornley’s creepometer but London did not speaks of deep psychological pathology on his part. Gorightly had her number though, stating that even though London has recordings of Thornley important for any biographer, her status as his one true love prevented her from sharing them. Until she was offered money. And poor Thornley, to be on that woman’s list of “true loves”: Gerard Schaeffer, Danny Rolling, Keith Jesperson… Interesting that even they revile her now.

Back to Thornley: No matter what your opinion is of the JFK assassination, or even Thornley’s role in it, it is safe to assert that the madness and paranoia that plagued him in his later life was sparked in no small part by those who were either involved in the assassination or used the assassination to push their personal agenda. He started off as a sparkling trickster and died sick and paranoid, a very sad ending to be sure. I think this was one of the finer biographies and conspiracy books I have read in a while. Complex, interesting, mildly skeptical and interested in the truth but willing to admit it may never be known, and most importantly, evenhanded, open, scrutinizing yet ultimately kind to its subject. I highly recommend it. Gorightly has a book about the Manson Family that I think I will give a go soon.

Sick Girl by Amy Silverstein

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Sick Girl

Author: Amy Silverstein

Type of Book: Memoir

Why Did I Read This Book: I find stories of medical drama to be compelling reading, but to be honest, I bought this because I was distracted and reaching for a book about a Munchhausen by Proxy survivor and grabbed this instead and did not notice until later.

Availability: Published in 2007 by Grove Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I frequently buy books in error or in haste but this is a book I think I was supposed to read, in a mystical fate sort of way. I’ve had health issues before and have become miserably depressed because of them. I also, despite my time as a comparatively mildly sick girl, still neglect my health something fierce. Reading this book made me realize what a whining sack of crap I can be at times (relativism here – all suffering is relative, truly, but sometimes reading other people’s pain can really help you put your own into perspective). It also made me take some steps to take better care of myself and my spouse. I don’t like being that person, the one is who inspired. It seems cliched behavior, in a sense, to be that breathless and impressionable. I can go so far as to say that I resent being inspired. But this book did inspire me as it infuriated and upset me.

So strong was my reaction to Silverstein’s memoir of her heart transplant, I had a morbid need to make sure she is still alive. She is, but in discovering this, I found online jerkwaddery of the worst sort. Silverstein is beyond a doubt the model heart transplant patient. The average amount of time allotted to a heart transplant recipient is around a decade and Silverstein is, by the timeline in the book, looking at year 21. She is a difficult woman and patient, in that she questions doctors’ advice, knowledge, intent and demeanor, but she also never misses the numerous pills she must take, she eats an exemplary diet, does not drink, and keeps herself in good physical condition by running. But she also makes no apology for her anger and at times irrational outbursts. She speaks openly of her odd and visceral reactions to something as mild as taking Prednisone. She does not hide her bafflement, her sadness and her unreasoning fury and I loved her for it.

But some walked away angry after reading this memoir of a woman showing her reality and rising above some of the worst pain and misery a person can endure. They said that because Silverstein expressed the frustration and pain that comes from being a transplant recipient, she might in some way discourage people from donating their organs. They thought she seemed too unappreciative. Evidently to be worthy of a heart transplant, doing everything to stay alive is not enough. Evidently one must be slavishly grateful to the point that one never expresses a negative thought. Who knew? I tell you what. I’m a donor and I want my organs, should I die and they be worth a dime, to go to someone like Silverstein, someone who may be irascible at times but willing to do whatever she must to make the most of my sacrifice.

Silverstein, who was initially told she had a virus in her heart in her early 20s, documents her time in the bowels of the medical system, a system that is not wholly honest, is willing to shunt off a patient to another doctor when she asks questions and one that is not willing to be open about what a patient can expect. One doctor repeatedly refused to tell Silverstein if there was any way she could manage to give birth to a child. He told her the truth later, that she should not do it, and gave a patronizing excuse as to why he saw fit to deny her this opinion for years, as if she was a child and needed to be shielded from the truth of her life.

The worst parts are the medical mishaps she lived through. Her primary care physician missed the early signs of her condition and responded to her chronically low blood pressure by telling her to eat more salt. A year later, she was on the transplant list. Silverstein experienced a heart specialist who likely would have killed her had she continued listening to his advice. He told her to get up daily and move around while she was waiting for a heart so that she would be in better shape when she recovered. The problem with this advice is that any exertion led Silverstein to v-fib, requiring her to be shocked with a defibrillator in order to get her heart beat back under control. After a couple of days of being subject to the paddles on her chest every time she got out of bed and yet still being told she must continue getting up, Silverstein simply did what she had to do – she stayed in bed against doctors orders, sometimes not even changing her underwear or brushing her hair because the exertion was such a strain on her heart.

Though her family was close and good to her, though she had a loyal fiance who stood by her side through it all, Silverstein writes of the fear, the loneliness, and the sense of otherness that a sick person feels. Moreover, when she interacted with her fellow transplant patients, the sense of otherness was still acute. She followed the rules – she took her meds as required, immunosuppresive meds that made a pregnancy risky, so she adopteda little boy. She eschewed alcohol. She kept up with her health carefully while watching women in similar straits have children and require second hearts, drink wine with meals and die young. Even as stubborn and brave as she is, something many of us dream of doing – running with the bulls in Pamplona – became akin to a torture march for Silverstein. Even watching her adored child play soccer could evoke a sense of alienation and bitterness for what her body had dealt her.

But she still got up every day and did what she had to do. Even when she was so tired she wanted to lie down and just die.

There were moments in the book when I think perhaps Silverstein did not recognize her grace. Her husband is very deferential to doctors and can become disappointed when she becomes angry and rude with doctors who frustrate her. She also described at times too how once she had her transplant and seemed healthy, her husband and others tired of knowing about her condition and the impact it had on her. I don’t know how I would deal with that, the sense that no matter what, I may not have someone solidly in my psychological corner. But she sees her husband, who is actually mostly described in glowing terms in the book, as a counterbalance to her understandable anger and fatigue. In the end, she cuts people a lot more slack than she seems to give herself credit for.

The scene when Amy realized she could not have children and began to sob in a cab bothered me to no end. Her father and stepmother were in the cab with her and her father declared, perhaps under stress, that he did not have to listen to it all, and got out of the cab when it came to a light, his flight forcing her stepmother to leave the cab, too. Silverstein does not carry the anger and resentment such a scene would have imbued in me. When it is later revealed Silverstein had a genetic heart malfunction, a condition is looks like might be plaguing her sister, and not the virus she was initially told, she told her stepmother. Her stepmother’s response was to shut down, to refuse to hear it, to insist it was a virus and Amy was wrong. Again, I have no idea how I would have dealt with this but I suspect anger instead of retreat would have been my path.

I, like many others, thought that once a heart patient gets a transplant, their troubles are over if they don’t reject their heart. I had no idea the number of biopsies they must endure, the number of doctor appointments for the rest of their lives, the constant fear of conditions transplant patients develop. The description of how the severed cardiac nerves in a transplant patient results in delayed heart reaction stunned me in its obviousness and as something I doubt anyone without a heart transplant ever considers. For example, if someone startles you, you feel the cardiac reaction of increased heart beat and quickness of breath minutes later because all you have left to control such reactions is your adrenal system which does not respond as quickly as your cardiac nerves.

But the worst of all of Silverstein’s tale is that the baffled medical community seems to cloak ignorance, understandable though it is, as arrogance. I felt my own blood pressure rise as I read Silverstein’s attempts to maintain her sense of dignity while placing her life in the hands of men who hated admitting they did not have all the answers. When her condition baffled a doctor who had seen her many times, she watched as the curtain went down over his face when he was confronted with the inexplicable. Because her body did not respond as it should (actually, this was good – her body unexpectedly and without known cause reversed artery damage), the doctor’s friendly demeanor left him and Amy felt abandoned as she watched him leave the room.

This was a compelling, frank, naked book. It was not an easy read at times. But I am glad I read it, mistake though it initially seemed to be. This raw memoir of a woman who is happy to be alive but not always grateful for what life entails discusses deep issues of what it means to be sick, how constant pain and fear will affect even the strongest will and how we as a society need to ask ourselves why we are so sold on the cheap, easy inspiration of Hallmark Movies of the Week that we want the chronically ill to be mindlessly grateful for every moment of peace they achieve.

The Last Madam by Christine Wiltz

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

Author: Christine Wiltz

Type of Work: Biography

Why Did I Read This Book: I love New Orleans. It is my favorite place on the planet, which is a remarkable thing to contemplate given how sensitive I am to smells. So I read most things to do with New Orleans. I also am a sucker for true crime. So it was a win-win situation, made all the better when I found it on close-out at one of those transient book stores that pop up in old, abandoned Linens ‘n’ Things and Nike Superstore buildings.

Availability: Published by De Capo Press in 2001, it is still in print. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I’m unsure how to go about reviewing this book. What do you say about an adequate biography that is interesting because the writer is competent and the subject matter is relevant to your interests? It was a fun-enough read and because I tend to keep any books that are not outright garbage, it will have a place in the biography sections on my shelves. But it was a merely adequate book. Not particularly thought-provoking. I read it when I was ill with H1N1, when Dr. Seuss would have been challenging, but this book went down easy and did not require much of me, even as I found it interesting. It seems like all praise for the book is damning it faintly, but it’s not often a book falls into the middle zone with me, a place where I could take it or leave it. But seeing as I how “took” it, it is on that basis worth discussing.

As I say above, I love New Orleans. I read every book I can that involves the city. It is the place where I should have been born and if my spouse could find the sort of work there that would support us, it would be the place where I live.

So it takes a lot for a person in a biography largely set in New Orleans to overshadow the town I love so much, but Norma Wallace managed it. Wiltz does an adequate job of painting a picture of New Orleans from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, but I found myself more interested in Norma than any of the places she lived.

Norma Wallace was born into bone-crushing poverty, likely in 1901, but she continually shaved so many years off her age that when she died it was reported that she was years younger than she was. I knew Norma was going to break my heart in the first chapter when the author recounted a story from Norma’s youth. Norma lived next to a bakery that made lemon pies and the smell wafted to her daily but she could never afford the few pennies one of the pies would cost. She frequently begged her mother for a pie and when her useless, dissolute parents took in a lodger, her mother promised Norma that she could finally get one. Except the lodger committed suicide when the rent was due. Norma never got her pie.

But Norma was a smart girl, and in the way of too many smart, poverty-stricken girls, she saw a very profitable way to make money: Prostitution. When a doctor (a doctor!!) turned her out in her early teens, Norma’s die was cast.

The CIA’s Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The CIA’s Control of Candy Jones

Author: Donald Bain

Why I Consider This Book Odd:
The title sort of gives it away, and conspiracy theory always falls into the realm of odd for me.

Type of Work: Utter fiction masquerading as non-fiction.

This book cannot seem to stay in print. Initially published in the 1970s, this hot mess was reissued and has since been taken out of print again by that bastion of quality publishing, Barricade Books. I am not questioning Barricade’s publications choices – were it not for publishers like them, where would this site be, in certain respects. Rather, I am referring to the actual quality of the book itself. I suspect that given a ream of paper, a rusty razor and some Elmer’s glue, I could have created a less brittle, more even-paged, smoother-spined, perfect bound book than what I got in the mail. This book was new and looked like it had been mangled by a wolf in a sauna.

But really, it says something when Barricade Books still has the Turner Diaries on its back list, but drops this dog turd of a book like it’s inside a paper bag and set on fire. It says a lot. It says, “This book has less appeal than a crappily and awkwardly written book by a neo-Nazi about the impending race war.”

So given my overall snert at the quality of content as well as the quality of the book itself, I am not even linking to the vastly over-priced copies on Amazon. If, after reading this review, you still want to read this book, send me an e-mail at ireadoddbooks at gmail dot com. Talk to me real pretty and I’ll send you my copy. It’s called sharing the love. (Book has been claimed! YAY!)

One of the best things about conspiracy theory is that it is generally interesting. It may be crazy. It may make you doubt your own sanity as you read it (why yes, there IS something lizard-like about the British Royal family). But I defy you to read anything by David Icke, Jim Keith or Tex Marrs and not be entertained.

Never has conspiracy theory been more boring than it is in the hands of Donald Bain. He seems a competent enough writer, so the perhaps the problem lies not with his skill as a teller of odd or improbable tales, but rather the material he was given to work with. If conspiracy theory is to be offered with not even the slightest amount of “proof” other than the hypnotically induced memories of someone claiming CIA-connections, then it needs to have an element of the outrageous in it. Black helicopters. Lizard people. A vast international conspiracy of bankers and politicians who have sex orgies in between attempts to take over the world. Something. Anything more than a weird man who hypnotizes his equally weird wife and TA-DA! She was controlled by the CIA because, you know, she says she was.

Seriously. Aside from the fact that she told her lawyer some weird stuff, a picture of Candy Jones in a black wig (a former model in a wig – the hell you say!), and a handful of people who claim Jones acted weird in candlelight and around oriental music, there is no other proof that Jones was ever involved in the CIA. Her assertions that she carried messages all over the world for the CIA are all the reader has to go on in order to have even the tiniest sliver of belief that makes conspiracies so tantalizing. After reading this book, one gets the impression that Candy Jones, far from being a victim of the MK-ULTRA CIA program, was really a mentally fragile woman who either manipulated or was manipulated by her husband, the radio host “Long John” Nebel, who was either a whackaloon in his own right, or a complete dick. Since it feels sort of weird to speak ill of the dead, let’s go with the former.

Here’s the story in brief (or as brief as I can manage): Candy Jones (real name Jessica Arline), was born into an affluent family and had elaborate memories of really bad childhood abuse that left her subject to developing a split personality (I have no desire to debate whether or not MPD or DID exists). She became a model, did USO tours overseas in the Pacific front in WWII, developed a tropical disease, and was treated by a doctor who later recruited her to work for the CIA.

She was susceptible to the offer because a terrible first marriage left her deeply in debt with no way to pay for her aging mother’s medical bills and her sons’ private educations. Since she was traveling anyway for work, excessive travel would not raise an eyebrow. So she became a CIA mule, all payments were made directly to her debtors (thus eliminating a fabulous element of proof), and she was subjected to “vitamin” shots that clearly by her own descriptions were not vitamins.  Moreover, she was frequently hypnotized so her other personality, Arlene, could handle stuff when things got too much for Candy. According to her memories, Candy was starved, beaten, sexually abused and programmed to commit suicide all by CIA operatives.

All of this came to light because she exhibited a weird element to her personality after she married John Nebel, and had issues sleeping. Nebel, who was evidently Art Bell before there was an Art Bell, naturally took it upon himself to hypnotize his wife so she could sleep and all of this came to light. Nebel, who had an interest in the bizarre, off-beat and paranormal, evidently never once thought it odd that he, a psychiatric layman, would hypnotize his wife, and given his love of the conspiratorial, he never once questioned her stories.

But the stories are not that interesting. Never does the reader know what messages Candy delivered. The reader never sees Candy in action at all. We simply know of what she supposedly did through interminable hypnosis session after hypnosis session. No action, no sense of real belief in her recollections, so overall, this book was tiresome.

But even a boring book can be disturbing.  I was set on edge during the scenes where Nebel goaded his wife into giving him the responses he wanted. It was unnerving, and as someone who loathes descriptions of torture, these sections came dangerously close. Nebel, in the face of all compassion and reason, assumes the role of the men whom his wife thinks tortured her, drawing out information. The section where he forces Candy to reveal a sexual torture scene, forcing her to relive mentally what she thought happened, was a torture scene in its own right. That anyone then or now thinks this appropriate, or done in a spirit of mental health or greater justice, is insane.

After reading this book, I was torn as to what it was I had really read. Had Jones and Nebel concocted the story as a book idea – both were writers before they married. Had Jones hoodwinked Nebel? Had Nebel manipulated a mentally ill woman into creating a conspiracy fantasy, something his life work makes it clear he would have found fascinating and enjoyable?

Ultimately, I don’t think either Jones or Nebel had ill-will or created anything from whole cloth. I think a fragile woman prone to nervous fantasies married a man who had little sense and a desire to uncover uncommon truths.  Together they created this really bad attempt to tie Candy to the MK-ULTRA project, not out of a desire to deceive, but rather it sprung from their respective weaknesses.

Regardless, it was a horrible book. YMMV, but far better, more intriguing, and frankly, believable conspiracy theory exists. Give this one a miss.