The first few paragraphs from my in-progress memoir on the 20-odd years I spent working on a locked inpatient Psych Unit in Portland Oregon:
“You never knew what you’d get on 5L. The randomness fried your nerves. Each shift was a blind date with 25 pacing, bored insomniacs. As with any psych unit literally anywhere, patient mix made all the difference. Every day, as I keyed the restricted access elevator, as the lift vibrated upwards, I shrank and narrowed. Nurses got punched in the face. Glass got broken. Chairs got thrown, as did thick orange pee—from full urinals–and shit. Now and then there were angry, psychotic people who needed to be tackled and strapped down on the floors of isolation rooms, or given injections in the butt, against their will. We’d huddle in the nurse’s station watching on live feeds as they struggled against soft restraints (which used to be made of leather) then slowly, minute by minute, drifted off into drugged quiescence. I thought of dogs being put to sleep. It amazed me how meds knocked people out so swiftly. They were asleep, technically, but it seemed like a dying. It was oddly mathematical. Yet once they woke up, it started again. It wasn’t about curing anyone, it was almost never about curing anyone. It was about control. 5L was a “crisis unit.” The idea was to make the crisis stop. It didn’t. It got discharged.
5L smelled. Not a window opened. The odor was hard to specify: bad over-microwaved decaf coffee (there was no regular), bad over-medicated breath, sagging adult diaper urine, BO, the residue of bad meals, shit stained sheets dumped in hampers spread around the unit and emptied maybe once per day, if that. There were five things people always wanted to do. Smoke (it wasn’t allowed). Shave (it was, with staff standby). Shower. Make a free call. Watch “Fried Green Tomatoes” on the VCR in the day room. Rarely, people asked to read their chart. This always caused commotion. They would be told they couldn’t. They would insist, it was their chart, they had a right. The doctor would be called. They would be told no again. Maybe once or twice in 20 years a patient prevailed—the chart, in a sky blue plastic binder, was given to them. It wasn’t what they bargained for. Most likely, it was boring. It caused no disquiet. The words meant nothing. They couldn’t see themselves in the words.
The term you heard more than any other was “inappropriate.” People coughed inappropriately. They microwaved inappropriately. They changed the channels on the TV inappropriately. They listened to music on their headphones inappropriately loudly. They loitered around the nurse’s station inappropriately. They put lipstick on inappropriately. This was a land of inappropriateness. People weren’t so much ill. They were naughty—or so they were led to believe. They were bad. What they were missing, what was absent from them, was shame. They had no “governor.”
The very first writing I ever did was this: hunkering down in my lonely but safe upstairs bedroom, and imagining new lyrics to Beatles tunes. By kindergarten I knew the words to virtually every song. I had this ancient, single-unit stereo with hinged speakers attached to the side and a drop down turntable. I don’t recall too many of the songs I rewrote, but one was “For No One.” I know Paul sang it. But the Beatles, for me, was John. Fast forward 10 years. I recall exactly where I was, on the night John Lennon died. SE 52nd. Woodward. Portland, Oregon. Driving down the street in my green Ford Galaxie. The news came over the radio. Since then I’ve been through a lot of loss but this was sui generis. It gutted me. It was the death of everything. It was world murder. John, I thank you. I miss you. I’m so grateful. You grabbed me by the hair and saved me. I’m still here and still listening.
The word “narcissism” is tossed around a lot but as a concept it actually has complex and fascinating shadings. For instance, it comes in two types, one we recognize instinctively (grandiose) and one that’s a lot stealthier and “closeted” (vulnerable). I don’t think it means much to label Trump a narcissist unless you also examine the function of narcissism in his inner life and behavior, in other words what it makes him say and do and feel. This statement (see below), “IT WAS ME,” is so stunningly flawless as a summary of Trump’s psyche that it deserves italicizing. It’s terrifying to think that the leader of this nation has one unconscious, overlearned, automatic barometer of meaning: how it reflects on his preening, brittle self-concept. I’ve known lots of flagrant narcissists but they hid it mostly. Trump is a higher order because his narcissism fails to include the requisite pluck of any kind of shame.
TRUMP: “It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence – IT WAS ME.”
I was a guest on the wonderful “My Favourite Elliott Smith Song” podcast. Link HERE. Can anyone really have ONE favorite Elliott Smith song? It’s tough.
It was the summer of 1980 and I was vividly alone in our house on Mt. Tabor, my parents down in the Bay Area visiting my terrorist sister in prison. I did a lot of lurking. Anything was possible. Not a lot happened. A friend punched a hole in the wall. I met a bow-legged model for “Lawman” jeans. I opened drawers and scrounged in closets. And I played, loudly, over and over, Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes.” We had this Zenith console stereo sitting under the living room window. It was six feet by two feet, with built-in speakers you pivoted open. At times the needle was so shot it slid across the vinyl noiselessly. Not that summer though. That summer sound came out and filled me. I’m not sure I knew what “damn the torpedoes” meant but it sounded good, it sounded like “fuck it.” And there was the look on Petty’s face. It said “You’re gonna get it.” It was cocky, smirky, badass above a lurid red. The first chord of “Refugee” after the little stuttering drum was a total unleashing. It set you free. It knocked you sideways. It was the sound I wanted to live by. I bought most of the next records after that, and I played Petty songs in my college band “Stalk of Flesh.” One thing about Petty—he never disappointed you. You got what you wanted. There were misses, but the misses were outliers. My friend Connor said to me the other day, “No one tells you Petty is their absolute favorite, but no one tells you they don’t like Tom Petty either.” That seems right. He wasn’t my favorite, but I loved him all the same. Like nothing else—not poetry, not film, not fiction, not painting—music alters your day to day life. You’ve got a soundtrack in your head and it’s composed of whatever you’ve been putting on recently. It goes with you to the store. It’s there when you fold clothes or wash dishes. Tom Petty made me a lot braver that summer. He put a snarl in me. Wherever I went, whatever I did, the soundtrack was “Damn the Torpedoes.”
This talk is from a few years ago, at the wonderful, historic Austen-Riggs psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Mass. I think it’s the best overview of how I conceive of psychobiography. For those interested in the topic, or in my work, or in how I go about trying to make sense of a person, go HERE.
I was a guest on the Derek McGinty show talking about fame and the famous. Go HERE for a listen.