Sunhill Asylum, October 31, 1963

Maria Torris knocks twice on the door and Pontius cries:


She quickly pats her hair and goes inside.

‘Ah! Doctor Torris. Take a seat. You’ve come to discuss Jack Vallis I presume. Put me in my place, and all that.’

She sits down:

‘No. I’ve come to reason with you, doctor to doctor.’

‘You want to stop his E.C.T? Too late. He was treated an hour ago.’

‘You had no right! He is my patient!’

‘He’s a dangerous psychotic. You saw the way he behaved back there. That’s hardly normal is it?’

‘He was frightened. Frightened of you. Jack Vallis might be psychotic, but he is also highly intelligent and articulate. Instead of giving him E.C.T. perhaps you should try reasoning with him.’

‘Oh, I am well past reasoning with Jack Vallis. I tried that approach years ago. I once stood him in-front of a big mirror and showed him his reflection; there he stood, done up to the nines like a ghastly freak, admiring his stockings. “Take a good look at yourself,” I said. “You’re a man, not a woman. And you’ll never be like Marilyn Monroe, no matter what you put on.” Do you know what he did next? He smashed the mirror and tried to cut his own throat. I was suspended for a week. Doctor Hardy accused me of humiliation by psychiatric interrogation. And by-the-way, you shouldn’t have touched him like that: it was highly dangerous.’

‘You don’t understand. When he grabbed my hand, something happened.’

‘He went into seizure, that’s what happened.’

‘No. I felt a heat—an extraordinary heat. There was power in his palm…’


‘Yes; it was so very hot and—I almost felt I knew him.’

‘Knew him? Knew him from where?’

‘I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.’

‘My dear girl, in case you didn’t know, the theory of animal magnetism went out with Mesmer and Puysegur in the nineteenth century. Your naive willingness to suspend disbelief in the facts and dive straight into the patient’s subconscious mind is most revealing.’

‘Don’t be facetious. I’m a Jungian analyst; I deal primarily in the subconscious mind and all its manifestations. But you are only aware of Jack’s mental state from without. You know nothing of its interior relations. I wonder, what would you have done to Saint Paul during his conversion on the road to Damascus? Diagnosed him as an epileptic or asked about his vision? Jack’s subliminal state retains important information that must be dredged to the threshold of consciousness. But I cannot access that state if you erase his dreams and memories with E.C.T.’

‘If you ask me, he’d be better off without his dreams and his memories.’

‘Better off for who?’

‘Pah! All that talk of goblins and witches. The man is a bone-fide lunatic. He thinks he can walk through walls and move objects with the power of his mind! What he needs is a full frontal lobotomy!’

‘You’re no better than a witch doctor yourself. Do you believe in phrenology too? I wouldn’t be surprised if your theories of mental illness were based on the shape of a person’s head, or the physiognomy of their face.’

‘How dare you.’

‘But isn’t that the history of our profession? Psycho-surgery might result in a cure that’s acceptable to you as a clinician, but what good is that cure when it all but kills the patient?’

‘I did not invite you into my office to be lectured. I don’t agree with your Jungian approach. Not at all. I’m a Freudian materialist.’

‘Oh? Then perhaps you share Freud’s lively enthusiasm for cocaine, which he regarded as a magical substance?’

‘Don’t be a fool. Besides, that’s neither here nor there. All great physicians are liable to err once in their careers.’

‘Oh yes, I know all about great physicians. Great physicians who enthusiastically embark on unscientific trails of brain mutilations, and cause the unnecessary suffering of thousands! Or who advocate the excision of teeth, intestines and sexual organs, on the grounds that all psychiatric illness is attributable to bacteria in the mouth, guts and gonads. Great physicians are prone to great crimes.’

‘All progress has its price.’

‘You listen to me: I’ll get Jack Vallis out of here, by hook or by crook, if it’s the last thing I do.’

He scoffs:

‘You’re welcome to try. It takes but two signatures to commit a patient under the Mental Health Act, and eight to get them released. I certainly won’t be signing any petition.’

‘Dr. Hardy believes Jack Vallis is an autistic savant; and your over-zealous application of E.C.T. is erasing his talents.’

‘Autistic? Jack Vallis? That’s total nonsense. How can he be autistic? A salient characteristic of autism is the failure to acquire normal language skills. In contrast to having depressed language skills, Jack Vallis displays a complete mastery of words. That’s hardly autistic, is it? Unless you mean to tell me that the hypothesis of left hemisphere dysfunction is completely bogus? Jack Vallis is anything but autistic. If I cut out the Wernicke area of his left parietal lobe, then he’d be autistic.’

‘You’d like to do that wouldn’t you doctor Pontius—shut him up for good. It would make your world so much simpler, to have a moronic puppet under your care, than an intelligent eccentric who contradicts all your beliefs about the physical world.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘You know very well what I mean. Jack Vallis has powers.’

‘Powers? Lady, I think you better go home and take a sleeping pill. You’re clearly overwrought and rapidly making your position here untenable. The only power that Jack Vallis has is the gift of fantasy. He’s delusional on every level; he fantasizes that’s he’s a baby girl; he fantasizes that he’s a Parisian Lady; he fantasizes that he can talk to spirits and—’

‘Well, perhaps he can.’

‘What? Talk to spirits? Are you mad? If you really believe in the realities of the invisible world, then you have no right to be practising psychiatric medicine…’

‘What is mental illness?’

‘Don’t you know?’

‘Do you? I just think that all too often mental illness is whatever a psychiatrist says it is. Is it mentally ill to believe in God?’

‘Well, if you want my honest opinion, yes, it is.’

‘So the likes of Newton, Bach, Michelangelo and Wordsworth would all be certifiable in your book? After all, Newton believed in alchemy, and spent much of his life searching for the secret of the philosopher’s stone.’

‘That’s not strictly fair. It is well known that there’s a fine line between genius and madness.’

She claps her hands:

‘Ah! Thank you doctor Pontius! That’s the first bit of sense you’ve spoken all day. You think Jack Vallis is mad. But I disagree. I think he’s a genius gone awry. And just like Newton, he’s strayed a little too far over that fine line.’

‘Clearly your interest in the patient is more than just professional. Perhaps you share some of his delusions? Do you talk to spirits, consult mediums, or commune with the dead?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Yet you are a woman of faith, are you not? Don’t deny it Doctor Torris—I’ve read your Curriculum Vitae; your initial vocation was a nun: you spent three years in a Roman Catholic convent, before packing it all in and taking up psychiatry. So don’t tell me you don’t believe in God.’

‘My beliefs are not relevant to the case.’

‘Of course they are. As a Jungian you ought to know that. You might have set out to analyse Jack Vallis in an objective and impersonal manner, but within a matter of hours, your personalities have become intertwined in a most dangerous manner. How can you make any objective judgement when you share his belief in a spirit world?’

‘How can you, when you don’t? Your mental equilibrium is completely opposite to Jack Vallis; you are only concerned with blotting out those aspects of his personality of which you don’t approve.’

‘I want to deliver him from his demons. Jack Vallis hears voices and believes himself possessed; but demonic possession is merely a hysterical phenomenon occurring in psycho-neurotic people. You decry me for lack of faith, but in reality I am nothing but a modern day exorcist. E.C.T. is a well proven method of casting out the devil. I have seen much harm done by people who believe themselves possessed; but they do not need a priest; all they need is the attention of a competent psycho-surgeon. Oh, I’m not surprised that you disapprove of my methods. After all, you have fallen under Jack’s spell. Doctor Hardy was a man of faith, and he too fell under the spell. Whatever Jack Vallis said to you in his cell, I strongly advise you to forget it. Jack Vallis is a deviant sociopath, possessing a brilliant mind, but without any conscience to guide it.’

‘I think you’re projecting. That sounds more like a description of yourself. And it reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of two lab-rats in a cage. One rat was pressing a lever, and he said to the other: “Boy, have I got these guys conditioned: every time I press the bar they throw in a piece of cheese.” You see, mental illness is just a matter of perspective, doctor Pontius.’

‘So you think Jack Vallis is a perfectly sane individual, is that it?’

‘That’s not what I said. Don’t put words in my mouth.’

‘You’re not familiar with the patient. He suffers from acute schizophrenia. As such, he’s highly susceptible to hallucinations. Vallis often thinks he’s dead. At other times, in states of mania, his imagination is elevated far above it’s natural pitch, and becomes full of religious raptures and conceits. Schizophrenics will often believe themselves saints or holy prophets; and if they are remotely superstitious, it is only inevitable they claim themselves bewitched, or fancy themselves witches or wizards. Unless you mean to tell me that Vallis really can walk through walls?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. All I’m saying, is that instead of trying to cut out his voices with a knife, we should first try to listen to them; talk to them; find out what they want.’

‘What? And give his auditory hallucinations the credence of an entity? Oh no, I think that’s a very big mistake. There is great danger in what you propose: you will turn his mental pathology into an existential reality. He already believes his seizures of the occipital cortex are visions from God. If we confirm such delusions people will subscribe all pathological processes to supernatural origins; and all morbid impulses will be attributed to devils! Good god woman! Do you want to take us back to the dark ages?’

‘No. I am merely trying to point out the incommensurability between the body and the psyche. As a medical materialist you attribute the psyche to physical strata in the brain. But as far as Jack Vallis is concerned, all matter has a kind of psychic quality. You cannot explain how the brain produces consciousness; that is why your so called cures are little more than butchery. What if Jack Vallis is right, and our psychic aspect extends beyond the realm of biochemical processes? What if living consciousness is not an isolated entity of the brain, but forms the substructure of the entire material Universe? An energy field that is receptive to human thought. Then Jack’s claims of psychokinesis would not be insane at all; they would be part of what Jung called the Unus Mundus.’

‘The Unus Mundus. This is utter lunacy. You have no idea at all, do you, doctor Torris? We are all under pressure to change a situation that is rapidly getting out of hand. Do you know how many people hear voices, or commit crimes because they are led astray by invisible entities? Our job is to preserve the status-quo of civilization. People like you and doctor Hardy go to great lengths to criticise the brutality of my methods, but in actual fact, every leucotomy I ever performed was done on compassionate grounds. I never take out my leucotome without first asking: “would I do this to myself if I were possessed in the same way?” My entire life consists only of my patients; my whole ambition rests solely in doing them good, and my own happiness on promoting theirs. And I might add, I get great pleasure in seeing reason return to a mind that has long been deprived of it.’

‘But what is reasonable and rational to you is not necessarily morally right or even beneficial for the patient.’

‘Jack Vallis is one of the most disturbed and piteously afflicted psychotics I have ever seen; he systematically ignores his surroundings and imagines himself to be in another place and time; his constant disruptions have made life here impossible. There are over three-thousand patients at Sunhill. Are you aware that the cost of health care is increasing year on year—and our budgets are shrinking? It is difficult to do anything positive when people like you get involved in acrimonious debates about the damage psycho-surgery does to the general populace!’

‘You don’t understand… You can’t give Jack Vallis a lobotomy! You can’t!’

‘Why not? I have been treating him for over five years. You have met him for all of thirty minutes, yet you claim to know him personally and believe that he has magical powers. Have you any idea how that sounds? I think you would be better off working as an exorcist at Vatican City, than as analyst at a lunatic asylum. I fully expect my colleagues to back me up; instead you undermined my authority in front of the patient, and affirmed his delusion that I am only intent on doing him harm. I’m sorry, but you give me no choice in the matter: I must refer my concerns to the board of directors. I will get my secretary to type a formal letter of complaint.’

She begins to sob.

‘Oh doctor Pontius! Please, don’t do that!’

He sighs and shakes his head. Reluctantly, he pulls out his handkerchief and hands it across the desk:


She takes it and blows her nose:

‘I’m sorry doctor Pontius. But you making a terrible mistake. If you’d felt what I felt—when he touched me… Oh! What’s the use in trying to explain! … Perhaps you’re right … Perhaps I shouldn’t even be here…’

‘Now, now. Lets not do anything hasty. You’ve had a nasty shock, that’s all. Even normal rational people can be thrown off balance by a patient like Jack Vallis. When under stress we all become hyper-suggestible, and are led to believe in the most absurd things. Once you start to believe in a patient’s delusions, you run considerable risk of developing a psychotic break yourself… Are you in residence yet?’

She sniffles and wipes her nose:

‘No. I’m still renting a flat in Preston. I move out at the end of next month.’

‘Very well. Go home and take the rest of the day off. Come back tomorrow and we can talk about this when the air has cleared.’

‘Yes. I think that would be best.’

*      *      *      *

It was pouring with rain when the bus pulled into Sunhill. Maria Torris took a seat on the upper deck and watched the distant hills through the front window. The events of morning had caused a strange inner collapse, and she felt her whole world tumbling down around her. How could Jack Vallis know so much about her life unless he was truly psychic? And if he was psychic, he was surely the most important subject ever to be found in the field of parapsychology. His accurate descriptions of so many personal details was verifiable proof that consciousness was not bounded by the brain, but part of the Unus Mundus. She would make this clear to the board. She wouldn’t let Pontius snuff him out like some inconvenient truth. Medical materialists like Pontius had turned Man into nothing but an automaton that could be cut up and rearranged to suit. Yet how furious she was with herself for breaking down in front of a male colleague! But it wasn’t Pontius that upset her—it was Jack. When Jack held her hand, a forgotten seed seemed to awaken inside her. She was on the brink of tears, even now; it felt like the religious awakening she had at sixteen, when she saw The Raising of Lazarus by Magnasco. [i]

The country air began to fade as the stink of factory chimneys wafted through the vents and the distant lights of Preston flickered in the gloom. The suburbs were swathed in smog; sulphurous halos hung about the street lights and the oncoming traffic seemed to float in the air. Thunder purled. Then the heavens burst with a shower of hail that rattled the roof; pellets swept across the road like manna, filling the gutters with virgin white ice. She could still feel Jack’s palm burning in her hand—a numinous force that seemed to penetrate the very depths of her soul. Images flashed in her mind’s eye: a ray of Light penetrating murky waters; a jewel flickering in the darkness. What had Jack done? What was the meaning of this psychic collision? Doctor Hardy warned her not to touch him, but now it was too late: she was bewitched. She remembered a blinding flash—a super-radiance that flooded her body. Then blackness. It took the nurse five minutes to bring her round; and throughout that time she felt herself suspended between worlds, drifting in a huge misty soap bubble. That’s all she could remember. Yet she couldn’t shake off the conviction that she knew Jack from another place. I can walk through walls. She began to doubt herself. Where did his psychic powers end and his delusions begin? Even if Jack was psychic, the divinity of Scientific Truth would not uphold any evidence that was accompanied by such ludicrous claims. An articulated lorry screamed past, its black tarpaulin flapping in the wind like a phantom. Maria sat in trance, watching the city wobble through the windows as the hail turned to rain. The bus came to a halt in a long queue of traffic. The idling engine throbbed through the seat and every so often the brakes hissed with impatience as the wheels edged slowly forward.

The corn exchange clock was striking six when the bus finally pulled into Lune Street; it was already dark and the charcoal sky flashed with lightening. Torrents of rain swept off the tiles and gurgled in the drains, flooding the pavements with sheets of water. Ducking under her gaberdine, Maria dashed for the Corporation Arms where a large sign gleamed on the frontage: TETLEY’S ALES. It wasn’t the best place to stay in town but it was all she could find at short notice; besides, at four guineas a week (including breakfasts and lunch on a Sunday), it was far cheaper than The Spread Eagle Hotel which blazed like the Blackpool Illuminations on the far side of the road.

Maria took the side entrance by the Ribble Records shop and crept up stairs. The anaglypta walls were stained with tobacco smoke and the banister felt sticky. A dim light glowed on the landing where an angel wept on the pediment of her bedsit door. She was half-way up the stairwell when the landlady popped her head out the tavern porch:

‘Maria, is that you pet?’

‘Yes, Mrs. Forshaw.’

‘Have a good day love?’

‘No. Terrible.’

‘Never mind pet. Get those wet clothes off, before you catch a cold.’

Mrs. Forshaw stood there for moment, the tip of her cigarette glowing in the dark; she listened and waited, adjusting her curlers as Maria continued up stairs. Then a gruff voice said:

‘Eileen! Shut the bloody door, woman! You’re letting the cold in! I’m not made of money: I’m a publican not a sheik!’

The tavern door closed and Mrs. Forshaw vanished back inside.

Maria Torris got undressed and took her usual shower on the second floor, ogled by the man in room nine as she returned down stairs. Back inside her flat, she poured herself a large brandy then took Jack’s file from her suitcase. Amongst the many notes that doctor Hardy had scrawled in his illegible hand, she found a large journal entitled: The Trial of Jacques Vallin. Kicking off her slippers, she curled up in bed and began to read…

Copyright (c) Nicholas Shea 1992-2017.