On another planet

In a fascinating new ‘psycho-biography’ of science fiction visionary Philip K Dick, Kyle Arnold reveals how the writer’s hallucinatory, speed-fuelled creativity had its roots in the haunting death in infancy of his twin sister

Kyle Arnold
Friday 24 June 2016 13:31 BST

Just after Christmas in 1981, a scruffy science fiction writer named Philip K Dick was excited to receive an invitation to visit the studio of the film Blade Runner, which was to be released a few months later. Blade Runner was the first of many major motion pictures based on Dick stories, and the only one filmed during his lifetime. While Dick was an industrious author and had published 33 novels, he was a poor man most of his life, and never had mingled with Hollywood glamour before.

He’d been asked to visit the film set earlier, but it was far away and Dick, who had a history of near-fatal car accidents he attributed to his own wish to die, had largely given up on driving. An actor friend, Mary Wilson, told him to insist the studio send a limo, which they did. He then asked Wilson to accompany him, believing she was conversant enough with the film industry to him navigate its unfamiliar rituals and personages.

Dick was particularly nervous about meeting the director, Ridley Scott, whom he had scathingly criticised as unoriginal in a review of Scott’s previous film, Alien. A mystical contemplative, Dick balked when he heard from Scott that Blade Runner would omit the spiritual themes so central to his writing. But despite all this, the two got along unexpectedly well, and photos of the meeting show them goofing off with big smiles. When Scott took Dick into a screening room and showed him the first 20 minutes of the uncompleted dystopian sci- fi film, Dick was spellbound. When the lights went on, he exclaimed that watching the footage was like having a mirror held up to his mind.

What neither Scott nor most audiences of Blade Runner knew was that Dick’s mind really was every bit as far out as what was on the screen, if not more so. Dick had grappled with madness, and self- deprecatingly referred to himself as a “flipped-out freak”. When he saw the Blade Runner footage – which included a scene of a murderous android undergoing a psychological evaluation – he might have been reminded of the time he called the police during a bout of paranoid terror and warned them he was a machine who should be locked up. Dick not only wrote stories about androids, but sometimes was afraid he literally was one.

There are many other instances of Dick’s life imitating sci-fi, the most notorious of which was his declaration that in early 1974, he was zapped by a bright pink light that uploaded mystical information into his brain. He believed the source of the light was a benevolent entity he nicknamed “Zebra” (because it camouflaged itself by assuming the form of everyday objects). According to Zebra, time had been frozen in the year 50 AD by the Roman Empire and the rest of history was an illusion.

His mind awakened by the pink light of Zebra, Dick witnessed scenes from ancient Rome superimposed over his neighbourhood. He heard a voice in his head uttering cryptic messages and felt guided by an otherworldly entity. He saw streams of red and gold energy reshaping his environment. Many of his visions were chilling, but they were also exhilarating. The stories Dick spent his life conjuring were now real. His identity was transformed. In Dick’s mind, he was no longer just a sci-fi genre writer, but a mystical seer and prophet. And because Dick’s visions of 1974 were most powerful in February and March of that year, he referred to them collectively as 2-3-74. They have perplexed Dick fans and scholars ever since.

After 1974, the visions faded, and Dick tried to come to grips with his experience. Although wildly imaginative, he was also a chronic doubter. Sceptical of the revelations he received, he considered what he called the “minimum hypothesis”: that it was all nothing but delusion. He struggled for years with the question of his own sanity. To be sure, he had a point: 2-3-74 included striking paranoid features. However, I believe it is best to classify 2-3-74 not as a delusional episode but as a complex psycho-spiritual emergency, an intense psychological breakthrough resembling mental breakdown.

Dick was not able to resolve his psycho-spiritual crisis. After Zebra left him, he lapsed into despair and made a brutal suicide attempt. But the experience was so engrossing that he was unable to let it go. He couldn’t stop writing about 2-3-74, producing a total of four novels about it. He also churned out, over the span of eight years, an 8,000-page piece of philosophical-religious exposition he called his Exegesis, a remarkable achievement of the imagination crammed with intricate philosophical reasoning, Gnostic mysticism, Jungian psychology and occultism, all intertwined with autobiography.

Each section of the Exegesis offers new theories, new explanations of 2-3-74. Dick proposes that the intelligence behind the pink light may have been God, the KGB, a satellite, aliens, a first-century Christian named Thomas, the CIA, a version of himself from a different dimension or possibly his deceased twin sister contacting him from the spirit world. Each new theory of 2-3-74 telescopes out into further possible theories, ad infinitum. Dick never settled.

One of the theories he entertained about 2-3-74 was that they might be symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed, Dick’s imagination often drifted in a paranoid direction. He asked neighbours to conceal his identity, complaining that the FBI, CIA, or KGB was after him. In 1971 he was admitted to Marin State Psychiatric Hospital for claiming he was being pursued by government agents. Close examination of the context of Dick’s paranoid episodes, however, reveals they are most parsimoniously explained as byproducts of his voracious consumption of speed. Dick began taking prescription amphetamines for asthma as a child and later ingested massive doses to fuel the frenetic pace of his writing. Because of its impact on the dopamine system of the brain, amphetamine abuse often causes paranoia.

Another huge impact on Dick was the death of his twin sister Jane in infancy. He literally and repeatedly tells readers that this is the key to understanding him. Elements of the story of Jane’s death – Dick’s “origin story” – recur throughout his writing. The essence is that Jane died as a result of parental neglect, while Dick was miraculously rescued from the brink of death. Hence the motifs of the dead twin, the inhumane parental figure and miraculous yet equivocal rescue appear often in his life and work. As Dick said to his biographer Gregg Rickman, he “re-enacted” Jane’s story.

That said, in addition to Jane’s death, there were also traumatic events later in Dick’s life, including separations from his parents, that left him with a lifelong terror of abandonment. Like many traumatised people, he was largely unable to establish secure attachments to others. Dick had stormy relationships that drove him to the brink of suicide. Yet, his history of trauma also contributed to his development as a spiritual contemplative.

It is not unusual for traumatic experiences to awaken spiritual insights. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, cracks are how the light gets in. Similarly, I believe that Dick’s emotional wounds opened him to religious themes of universal suffering and compassion. But in some respects, Dick is his own best psycho-biographer. A veteran therapy patient and avid reader of psychoanalytic literature, he was a keen observer of his own emotional life. So let us look at the event he says is most central to his life’s story: the death of his twin, Jane.

Philip Kindred Dick was born a fraternal twin, in Chicago, Illinois, on 16 December 16 1928, along with his sister Jane. Dick’s mother, Dorothy, was an aspiring writer and feminist activist. She had Bright’s disease, a chronic kidney disorder which, when active, left her bedridden for days at a time. She was frequently weak and sick. When well, she worked for the Department of Labour editing pamphlets. Dick’s father, Edgar, an ex-Marine and First World War veteran, was an inspector for the Department of Agriculture. He visited farms to count livestock and ensure their numbers did not exceed permitted quotas. Edgar brought a knife with him to these inspections. If he found an extra sheep, he killed it.

The couple met in Colorado, and married soon after Edgar returned from combat the First World War. A few years later, Edgar’s job took the couple to Chicago, which in the 1920s was a notoriously dangerous city rife with organised crime. In the frigid winter of 1928, Philip and Jane were born six weeks prematurely in the Dicks’ Chicago apartment. No one expected twins. Although Dorothy contacted a local doctor to help, she did not arrive on time. Edgar had to deliver the babies himself. (“I had delivered a lot of calves,” he later said.) Philip was born first, and dark- haired Jane came second.

The twins were tiny. Philip was 4.25lbs, Jane 3.5lbs. Dorothy would later tell Philip that both infants were so small she was able to nestle them in a shoebox, an improvised incubator placed on the oven to keep the babies warm. According to Dorothy, Philip and his sister spent the first weeks of their lives sickly and malnourished because Dorothy was unable to produce enough milk for both children. In a letter to Philip that she describes as an apologetic “mea culpa”, she writes: “For the first six weeks of your life, you were both starving to death because the (incompetent) doctor I had could not find the right formula for your food and because I was so ignorant I did not know how desperate your condition was. I did know things weren’t right, but I didn’t know how to get other help.”

Dorothy says the doctor could not explain how to feed the babies formula to replace the breast milk she could not provide. She sent for her mother to help, but when she arrived two weeks later she was overwhelmed. Edgar withdrew from the agonising situation, taking refuge in a men’s club. Meanwhile, the twins were slowly dying of starvation. To make matters worse, Dorothy accidentally burnt Jane’s leg with a hot water bottle when they were six weeks old. Much later, a few years before Philip’s death, he was to have visions of a world saviour, Tagore, whose burnt legs were stigmata of the sins of mankind.

After Jane’s burn, a miraculous series of events unfolded. By chance, a salesman for MetLife Insurance stopped by, offering $50 life insurance policies for children, which included a free home visit by a nurse. The Dicks took the salesman up on the offer. A generous reading would be that they took out the policies to secure medical care for their children; less generous that they planned to take advantage of Philip and Jane’s imminent deaths so they could collect the benefits. In any case, the nurse arrived a few days later and noticed that not only had Jane been badly burnt, but both twins were so malnourished they were on the verge of death.

Philip and his sister were rushed to the hospital. Jane died on the way there. Philip was assessed to be about a day from death, but in a stroke of luck, it happened that Chicago had the first premature infant care centre in the United States. After Philip was placed in the incubator and fed formula, he stabilised and began to gain weight. A closer brush with death and a more miraculous rescue are hard to imagine. Not only did he come very near dying, but his fraternal double didn’t make it. If not for the family’s chance meeting with the uncannily named MetLife salesman, if not for their proximity to the only medical facility with the ability to support premature infants, Dick would have died.

Dick’s origin story both inspired and entrapped him. His mother told it to him again and again while he grew up, so that it defined both his own identity and his place in the world, and made Jane an intensely present absence in his childhood, bridging the real and the imagined. Thoughts of Jane were of someone who had never been fully real for him. Like science fiction, they were of what might have been, what should have been, and what was not. They were intimations of possibilities, of stifled alternative universes.

Jane was a window to other worlds. Yet, for the most part, Dick could only gaze through the window, unable to pass through it. His creativity was catalysed by longing. He compulsively re-enacted his origin story throughout his life, repeatedly running afoul of authorities, chasing his deadly muse-twin in destructive relationships with women, and seeking salvation through a kind of desperate spirituality. As he writes in his journals, “the ultimate problem confronting me all my life has been the senseless injury to and neglect of my sister”.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Divine Madness of Philip K Dick’ by Kyle Arnold (OUP, £12.99), to be published on 1 July

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