Everyone knows where they were when the Twin Towers fell. It was an event plotted on the world space-time grid, and you could locate yourself for the rest of your life by what you were doing at the exact moment those iconic strakes in Lower Manhattan caught fire and crumbled to the ground. For an American, video of the event joined up with the other headlines of a 1960’s childhood: Kennedy, Vietnam, Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Kent State, Watergate, the murder of John Lennon. These were large exclamatory occasions, and yet they remained coordinates along a coherent arc in the life of the country. As a people, we grieved, marched in the streets, even rioted and set fire to buildings occasionally. And yet no matter how apocalyptic our rhetoric or keen our grief, we understood our function in the national ecosystem. We were citizens, reading the scripts assigned us in the theatre of Western Democracy.
But that which is happening to us now is both a larger event than any of those preceding it and the occupant of a different space in modern history. It’s taking place silently, in a cloud of millions of tiny impacts whose invisibility and consequence mirror the fact of connectivity itself. It is connectivity which produces the effect in our minds of a living, breathing planet of accumulating illness, and connectivity, with its decentered spin of endless proximities, that aids our growing perception that there is no longer an out there, but rather an everywhere at once. The Covid pandemic is a universal solvent that dissolves differences, levels distance and speaks all languages. It’s impossible, under the circumstances, not to think that while loading increasing amounts of ourselves onto the life of screens, we’ve been deferring a reckoning with that which lives outside them, and the repressed, as it always does, has come back to bite us in our exact most vulnerable spot.
I live much of the week in a small town in upstate New York. It was a promise to myself that when I moved back to America after years living in Italy, I would not simply return to New York City, the city of my birth, but would find an alternative to the noise and oppressive velocity of Manhattan. And yet my being here, a world away from the Upper West Side and immersed in the woods, doesn’t make me any less scared, or any less defensive. I spend as much time as everyone else asking myself: am I having a dry cough or a wet? What was the last thing I touched? Who was the last person who breathed this particular air? Is that spiral of dust falling off a delivered package simple detritus or something alive with intent?
In the Francis Ford Coppola film, The Conversation, a surveillance expert named Harry Caul, played with brilliantly depressive understatement by Gene Hackman, works as a professional debugger, charged with ridding apartments of listening devices. When the tables are turned and it’s his own apartment that’s bugged, he methodically dismantles the rooms down to kindling trying to find the hidden microphone. Eventually, with the apartment reduced to rubble around him and the bug still unfound, he sits and plays the only thing left intact in his life: his saxophone. This virus, in a way, has turned every one of us, rich or poor, married or single, isolated or congregated in cities, into our own Harry Caul.
For several years now, I’ve taught at a university in New York. This spring 2020 semester, fittingly enough, I taught a seminar on representations of madness in modern literature. I normally teach fiction workshop, which has its own tightly choreographed pedagogy of student crit and discussion. But this was a seminar, about books and ideas, and I expected the teaching style would be different: probably more dialogic and more ranging; maybe more fun.
The very first class was held on Thursday, January 24th. The reading material was some excerpts from Roy Porter’s A Short History of Madness. In the introduction, Porter deftly summarized the long history of insanity, from the earliest recorded moments when it was conceived of as “divine possession” to its containment within the asylum, and on through the game changing advent of psychiatric medication in the 1950’s, before concluding in the contemporary era, with its rainbow of therapeutic options.
The students were eighteen total. All of them were grad students, though they were an interestingly unorthodox mix. Along with the usual MFA students were several journalism majors and an Indian woman who worked at a psychiatric clinic in New Delhi, and was interested in widening her range of literary reference. Another thing many of the students had was personal skin in the game: several had emotional issues, a few had been hospitalized for depression and many were on meds. They talked about these things with the detached nonchalance with which one might talk about geopolitics or the weather. I was cheered by this openness, so different from the repressions of my own generation, and I was impressed by the mental health it seemed to imply. They were clearly an intelligent, charismatic bunch and I felt that things were off to a promising start.
On that very same day, almost entirely ignored by American media, a report by Chinese doctors and scientists was published in The Lancet medical journal. Its title was “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”. Among the salient findings of the paper was the unusually long period in which people could be symptom-free while the coronavirus was incubating. They strongly recommended personal protective equipment for health workers dealing with the disease, underlined the need for testing and because of its “pandemic potential”, stressed that close follow-up of the virus was essential.
I returned home after that first class meeting feeling hopeful for the semester. I had designed the course so that we would spend as much time as possible both surveying the technical and artistic means great writers employed to represent madness, and analyzing the social elements that defined the madness of the era in which the writers were writing. Madness takes place simultaneously in both private and public spheres, and though these mingle freely in the individual, they do so always under the aegis of power, which first names and then controls the results of that naming.
With the Roy Porter out of the way, we settled down our next week with that ur-text of female insanity, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. First published in 1882, it’s become a kind of foundational document of American feminism for its eloquent allegorizing of the plight of women in late 19th century America. This was the era of “neurasthenia,” that quintessentially American nervous disorder which was linked by many to the stresses of industrial culture and which fell, as a diagnosis, disproportionately, on women. Rest was the designated cure, though this “cure”, as Gilman makes the point, was often dangerously close to outright suppression and even cancellation of a woman’s native point of view. In the story, the protagonist has been sent to a large manorial home to recover her health, and has been forbidden to paint or write for fear of exciting herself overly. Her response is to fixate on the wallpaper whose patterns she imagines hold insidious messages, shape-shift at night while she’s sleeping, and as her mania deepens, eventually begin hiding actual people in their shadows. The reason it’s an American literary classic is only partly the pungent critique of the allegory. It’s also—as I never tired of repeating to the class—the art that went into its making. Gilman, who would later have a long career as both a “suffragette” and writer, fluidly employed a variety of very sophisticated tropes and techniques and also had a style of compelling warmth and suppleness.
On that day of January 31st, the mean temperature in Manhattan was a warm 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The bars and restaurants were jammed and the stockmarket was rocketing to record highs. Half a world away, the United Kingdom and Russia registered their first infections of the now commonly called “novel coronavirus “ along with Italy, Sweden and Spain. New cases were also added to small outbreaks in Canada and Thailand and Singapore. In America, The New York Times reported that a team of federal health employees was “improperly deployed” to two military bases in California to assist the processing of Americans who had been evacuated from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere. Distressingly, though setting the tone for what would follow, they “interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population.” These employees worked in the Department of Health and Human Services, which was overseen by a hot-headed former pharmaceutical lobbyist and executive named Alex Azar.
The class discussion that day eventually devolved into a chat about trauma, the single most widely diffused causative agent in mental illness and that which at this moment, as I write, is causing a wave of planetary devastation of its own. Trauma, the classical girder of the house of madness, is defined as “an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” Recent studies of trauma have extended and nuanced our understanding of the particular way in which trauma can lie dormant for years, and be activated by a triggering event. A person, in otherwords, can suffer a childhood breach of their own emotional integrity, metabolize it psychologically so that they no longer notice it and then have it come roaring back to life many years later based on an experience with no obvious connection to the original trauma: the sound of a voice, an image, the pressure of a hand on your back. In its shape-shifting way, its insidiousness and in particular its ability to lie buried for years before exploding inside its host, trauma is the exact psychological analog of the virus itself.
I was born into a middle class family of Socialist Jews. After a few years in Manhattan, they moved out to what was then rural New Jersey. They did this as part of a huge wave of Jewish immigration out of New York City for greener pastures. The city of Cedar Grove, where we settled, was a pleasant little burg about fourteen miles due west of Times Square. In the 1960’s, it was all classic old-style America, with milkmen bringing fresh milk in glass bottles each morning, Fourth of July Parades involving firetrucks and marching bands, local orchards pressing their own apple juice, and very few if any black faces. My schoolmates were the boys and girls who would later grow up to be the characters portrayed in the Sopranos: Italian immigrants from Abruzzo and Calabria, who worked in “waste management” or had landscaping services. They drove gleaming yachty Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals and their children, my peers, wore expensive silk socks and high-collared shirts to school. I noted their opulence but didn’t really pay it all that much attention. I was a child, and my concerns were entirely the localized ones of who could I form complicities of friendship with, and who recruit to my personal team in the big, bright upcoming game of life.
It might have been an idyllic childhood, given the pastoral surroundings, and the fact that America, in the early 60’s, was reaching the zenith of its post-war prosperity. But there was a complicating factor. My only sibling, an older brother, had severe autism, and in the 1960’s this was a difficult burden not only for him but for those in his immediate orbit—his family. The 1960’s were the Dark Ages of autism. The ailment had only been clinically defined in 1944 and remained still almost entirely a mystery. To make matters worse, a transplanted Viennese psychiatrist named Bruno Bettelheim who was very much in vogue in America at the time was pushing a theory that autism was entirely the fault of what he called “refrigerator parents,” ie, those of a fundamentally cold, intellectual disposition.
Bettelheim would eventually be unmasked as a quack, but not before having invented, for women of my mother’s generation, one of the most perfect tools of self-recrimination ever made: in his telling, she and she alone was responsible for the fact that my brother bit his hand nearly down to the bone, banged his head against the wall for hours and wept inconsolably. And yet no one, including Bettelheim, could explain how or why precisely this fact had come to pass, and no one could make it go away.
I bring up what J.D. Salinger called “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” to make a point about trauma. I had the textbook definition of a traumatic childhood, and the result of it all is simple: I can’t remember a thing. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. I’ve always envied people for whom the past, including that of their distant childhoods, is a neatly drawn schematic with a long central corridor and branching hallways containing individual years bearing perfectly organized filing cabinets broken down into weeks and months. For me, trauma was a great scouring wind that left me only the crests of waves in memory; scattered bits and pieces of recollection. There was no safe space in my childhood, no unmolested staging ground upon which to spend the time necessary to build a quiet, rooted self. For that reason, what I remember most about the formative years of my life isn’t a specific thing or still image but their exact reverse: a boiling loud absence.
As the semester went the students began to split into well defined roles. One would be the blunt interrogator; another would be the instigator of dissent; yet another would be the researcher, bringing arcane materials to bear on the discussion. One or two would be asleep at the switch, and say as little as possible But most of them would simply show up and be encouraging and happy to be there. We were knitting, in the way best classes do, as a kind of pop-up family.
That knitting deepened as we read our way slowly through Sula, the masterpiece by Toni Morrison, a book which among other things has a highly detailed description of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the portrait of Shadrach, a veteran of trench warfare in World War One. The balanced cadences of Morrison’s voice, deployed in calmly pictorial sentences resonant with feeling, bewitched the students, as they’ve bewitched generations of American readers.
Our community deepened further as we read Jeanette Winterson’s unforgettable portrait of religious mania in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and then passed on to the chiseled expanses of that Bible of madness, The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Plath was a major destination locale for the class, and we spent hours in the vast and often contentious literature that has grown up around nature of her achievement (are you Team Dark Maenad? Or Team Everygirl?). Meanwhile—we were into March by now—a noise began to be audible in the air. It was the audible hum of fear.
The fear was coming from the Grand Princess cruise ship, parked offshore in California. This plaything of the mostly elderly and immunocompromised had traveled to Mexico before wending its way back to the States, and was now commonly understood to be a giant, gleaming petri dish crammed full of coronavirus. Photographs of the virus had meanwhile begun appearing everywhere. It resembled a psychotic beachball. It radiated lurid bad vibes from its spiked antennae. Though the virus was reportedly contained within the boat, how contained was it actually? The fear began transitioning to outright panic.
America, of course, has a long and storied tradition of panics. America likes panics. Panics keep the class distinctions stable. They reinforce the differences between those with access to the real information and those without. They help unify splintered electorates and provide cover for fresh funding of the vast, cycloptic American military machine which is also the country’s largest employer. American history, in fact, can be read as a sustained narrative of panics. It is also possible to understand this tendency as a collateral effect, in a Marshall Mcluhanesque way, of mass media itself, which was born and bred in our country and abhors a vacuum: Indian Panic, Yellow Panic, Jew Panic, Wall Street Panic, Red Scare, Polio Scare—the list is endless. In this case, building in the air of early March, the coronavirus panic was still only in the initial phase, getting in its first licks, practicing its opening gambits.
Also, the virus had arrived at a peculiar moment in the life of the republic. It began its break out towards the beginning of the end of the first term of President Donald J. Trump. This wasn’t a presidency in the typical sense of the word, i.e., a coherent set of policy decisions undertaken in sober furtherance of a political vision. No, it was an extended publicity stunt, a yahoo run for the cheap seats, based on distraction, deflection and the loading of as much dazzle dust as was possible into the tired eyes of the polity. Trump was in the midst of triumphantly fulfilling the adage of Ernest Hemingway: “the age was handed the shit it demanded.” He was our President. We had made him. He came directly out of the fevers and falsities of the American dream. He had staked his entire career on graft, pilferage and cronyism and yet in the coronavirus he had finally found a foe he couldn’t spin or drown out with the help of the blow-dried benisons of Fox News. That’s because he wasn’t up against another opinion. He was up against death. And death has a way of returning one to the fundamentals. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. The coronavirus, it was becoming increasingly clear, was better at death than anything anyone had ever seen before.
Recently a fox came out in the yard by my window. It was a beautiful vigorous male fox in the prime of life and it trotted across my view with a watchful alertness, the big brush of the tail riding behind it high in the air and curved like a question mark. It stopped not far away, and sniffed the air. Its long muzzle reminded me that it was a canid, and closely related to the same family as the beloved hounds of my childhood. Once, years earlier, I’d surprised a group of fox kits alone in the woods. They’d never seen a human before, and they seemed to find me as perfectly interesting and unthreatening as I found them. For several minutes we played together in a weird thrall of interspecies equality and then I went on my way, with the image burned into my mind of their dark-eyed eagerness to engage, and their silent though no less palpable joy in our encounter.
In this particular case, the fox sighting in my backyard was cut short because it was time to return to the keyboard and teach my last class of the semester. Two months had elapsed. And during that time American life had been neatly upended forever. The virus, aided by the feckless narcissisms of our president and its own uniquely predatory skill set, had exploded in a silent chain reaction across the country. Classes had several weeks earlier migrated online to Zoom, and I’d watched our virtual community, scattered back to their homes all over the country and abroad, struggle not only with spotty internet, but with the vast uncertainty gripping everyone: where would this all end?
In the intervening weeks, we’d read many models of insanity. The agonized gorgeous lucidities of Yiyun Li. The gashed-heart howlings of Elena Ferrante in Days of Abandonment. Jean Rhys, George Saunders, Leonard Michaels, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Annie Ernaux—these writers had shown us madness as both theme and embodied in prose which attempted to mimic the condition’s focal intensities. We also perused supplementary material about the relationship of trauma and addiction, of Othello syndrome and sexual jealousy, feminism and psychoanalysis, drugs and creativity, and a fascinating essay by Esme Weijun Wang entitled Who Gets to be the ‘Good’ Schizophrenic?
Our final reading wasn’t narrative but an essay brought to my attention by one of the students. It was a book review written by an American physician named Marcia Angell of three books published on the subject of psychiatric medication. The review dated from 2011 and I was familiar with two of the three books under discussion, having read them as background for my most recent novel, which was written in the voice of a middle aged autistic man. The books were unusually thoughtful studies of the institutionalized for-profit politics behind the psychiatric medicating of America and a critique, as well, of the research typically presented in support of it. Carefully and without cant, the authors debunked forever the idea that mental illness is a result of “chemical imbalance” and proved, furthermore, that these medications, when used over an extended period of time, often produce exactly the permanent changes in brain chemistry for which they were putatively prescribed in the first place.
After this last class, (a somewhat muted affair as we’d all grown tired of the uncertainties filtering through our days, and of the difficulty of maintaining vital connections in virtual space), I returned to the essay-review of Angell. I did so because the subject was of primary concern to me. Upon the death of my parents, I’d become my brother’s guardian and was therefore given legal consulting rights over the vast gamut of anti-psychotic medication used to regulate his moods (he lives in a congregate housing unit for the developmentally disabled). This led me again to think about my mother, with whom I’d had many conversations about my brother’s meds over the years, and from there—such are the branching vagaries of memory—to a specific comment she once made about 9/11. It was a couple days after the event itself, and I was living in Rome at the time. She called, we expressed our mutual shock over what had happened, and then she paused, and said slowly into the phone, “I’m glad I’m not a young person today.” She meant, I understood, that she was glad not to be young in a world which would now only grow louder with menace and coarser, harsher, more starkly divided as a result.
I have a sepia toned photo of my mother on my desk and I’m staring at it now as I write this. She’s a girl of about 13, posing in a photographer’s studio with a fake painted backdrop of stairs and a curtain. She’s wearing a dark velvet dress cinched at the waist with a golden rope and is standing in the slightly stiff, self-conscious attitude of an adolescent doing her best to hide from herself the budding power of her own mind. Outside the window it’s sometime in the late 30’s or early 40’s. Her beautiful dark eyes are staring unseeing into the future. Try as I might, I can’t imagine the words she would say to me right now.
Cover image: New York City’s Times Square during the lockdown
This is the third of five Coronavirus reportage texts (one per continent, symbolically) commissioned by the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice to prominent international writers. The first of the series: Lives upside down written by Stanley Gazemba; the second: Lockdown in the Free Republic of Pigneto, written by Igiaba Scego