The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick

Divine Madness of PKD

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 thirty- three 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 that the studio send a limo to fetch him, and they did so. Dick asked Wilson to accompany him, as he believed she was conversant enough with the film industry to help the anxious author navigate its unfamiliar rituals and person­ages. Dick was particularly nervous about meeting the director, Ridley Scott, whom he had scathingly criticized 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 twenty 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- depreciatingly 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.” Zebra, so called because it camouflaged itself by assuming the form of everyday objects, revealed Dick’s world was not what it seemed. According to Zebra, time had been frozen in the year 50 a.d. by the machinations of the Roman Empire. 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 neighborhood. 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. 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, Dick was also a chronic doubter. Skeptical of the revelations he received, he considered what he called the “minimum hypothesis”: that it was all nothing but delusion. Dick struggled for years with the ques­tion of his own sanity. To be sure, he had a point: 2-3-74 included striking paranoid features. As I hope to show, however, 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. The term emergency, here, signifies both a crisis and an emergence of a more profound level of wholeness. If handled well, these powerful events can contribute to personal growth. If miscarried, they can be traumatizing. Dick was not able to resolve his psychospiritual crisis. After Zebra left him, he lapsed into despair and made a brutal suicide attempt. But the experience was so engrossing that Dick was unable to let it go. He couldn’t stop writing about 2-3-74, producing a total of four novels about it: VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, and the uncompleted Transmigration of Timothy Archer. He also churned out, over the span of eight years, an eight- thousand- page piece of philosophical- religious exposition he called his Exegesis.

Of the numerous interpretations of 2-3-74 that Dick gener­ated during his frenzied exegetical activity, most are dazzling but many spurious. The Exegesis is a remarkable achievement of the imagination. Its pages are 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 with whom he was in telepathic communication, 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.

In the chapters to come, I explore philosophical ideas along­side psychiatric concerns, not to minimize the former but to place them in context. One of the theories Dick entertained about 2-3-74 was that his visions might be symptoms of paranoid schizo­phrenia. Indeed, Dick’s imagination often drifted in a paranoid direction. He asked neighbors 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. Previous commentators have conjectured that Dick’s paranoia was the result of drug use, but many have focused on the wrong drug: LSD. Although Dick took LSD occasionally, there is no evidence that he was a heavy user. Rather, it was his excessive use of amphetamines that most likely led to paranoia.

During the zenith of Dick’s amphetamine- fueled paranoia in 1971, his house was mysteriously burglarized. He came home one evening to find his windows smashed, his reinforced file cabinet broken open, and pieces of asbestos littering the floor. The burglary, made legendary by a famous Rolling Stone article, was a baffling event that sparked Dick’s passion for creative theorizing. Dick’s imagina­tion ran wild. Were the burglars CIA operatives, Black Panthers, or political thugs? To date, the burglary remains a mystery. Like 2-3-74, the 1971 break-in is a much-discussed unsolved riddle of Dick’s life. In Chapter 6, I investigate the burglary and examine the theories Dick invented to explain it. It turns out there is only one plausible explanation for what happened: Dick did it himself.

Another topic I explore is the death of Dick’s twin sister Jane, which happened when Dick was an infant. I probe this event not because I believe that a person’s psychology is necessarily the product of his or her infancy. Rather, I do so because Dick liter­ally tells readers, repeatedly, it is the key to understanding him. I follow where he points. Elements of the story of Jane’s death, which I call Dick’s origin story, recur throughout his writing. The essence of that story is that Jane died as a result of parental neglect, while Dick was miraculously rescued from the brink of death. As I show, the motifs of the dead twin, the inhumane parental figure, and miraculous yet equivocal rescue show up often in Dick’s 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, I also address traumatic events later in Dick’s life, including separations from his parents that left him with a lifelong terror of abandonment. Like many traumatized 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, Dick’s emotional wounds opened him to religious themes of universal suffering and compassion. In Chapter 4, I take a developmental perspective on Dick’s spirituality, closely examin­ing scenes from his early life he identifies as spiritually formative. I make the case that his early traumas helped him develop a facil­ity for profound empathy and for entering dissociative trancelike states of mind, both of which contributed to his psychospiritual crisis of 2-3-74.

Divine Madness of PKDMy approach to Dick is broadly phenomenological, meaning that I delve deeply into his subjective frame of reference. I linger over the details of his inner life, in all its twists and turns. I spend more time describing Dick’s psychology, bringing out its meaning from within, than explaining it. Take note: readers unwilling to enter the complex labyrinth of the mind of Philip K. Dick might best stop here. I also make use of context, trying to get a read on 2-3-74 by placing it in the big picture of Dick’s life. I meticu­lously inspect the span of his life leading up to 2-3-74, as well as what happened afterward, in order to get clear on the difference between the overall weirdness inherent in being Philip K. Dick and the more specific weirdness of 2-3-74. And so, the following chapters include a close reading of the last eighteen years of Dick’s life: a portrait of Dick in his late thirties and forties.

In some respects, Dick is his own best psychobiographer. A vet­eran therapy patient and avid reader of psychoanalytic literature, he was a keen observer of his own emotional life. I stay close to Dick’s self- understanding, anchoring my observations in his self- analyses whenever possible. However, because he had blind spots, his self- analysis was incomplete. In Chapters 5 and 6, I will take a hard look at Dick’s darker side, not to malign him but to get a comprehensive picture of who he was in the years prior to 2-3-74. In accord with my principle of starting with Dick’s understanding of himself, however, I begin with the event he says is most central to his life’s story: the death of his twin, Jane.

Reprinted from The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold with permission from Oxford University Press. Available now from Amazon.com and wherever good books are sold. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.
Kyle Arnold is a psychologist at Coney Island Hospital and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

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