clay_vessels

Sunhill Asylum, December 3, 1956

Jack scowls at Dr. Hardy and says:

‘I know why I’m here. You want to find the cause of my psychopathic malady.’

‘Is that such a bad thing? I want to make you better. Don’t you want to be cured?’

‘If you don’t mind me saying so doctor, that’s a bloody stupid question. Of course I want to be cured. But I won’t get cured in Sunhill. This is a lunatic asylum. For lunatics. And I’m not a lunatic.’

‘But you believe that you’re a woman.’

I am a woman.

‘Unfortunately, the evidence for that claim is non-existent.’

‘Do you think I’m a lunatic?’

‘That’s not how it works here.’

‘How does it work?’

‘I ask the questions, not you.’

‘But it’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? Am I mad or not?’

‘It’s not so much a question of being mad Jack. Sometimes, when we’re sick, we can’t see the wood for the trees.’

‘So I’m blinkered by my own psychopathy. Is that it?’

‘If you want to put it that way, yes.’

‘Is that why I’m shackled to a chair?’

‘The restraints are for your own safety.’

‘Have you ever worn fettered boots?’

‘I can’t say I have.’

‘Well these are too small. They pinch in the toe. I’ve got blisters. And sores on my Achilles heel.’

‘We’ll find you a bigger size. How about that?’

‘I mean, it hurts to walk about in these things. Do I have to wear them?’

‘Just for the time being, yes.’

‘But why? I’m not a convict, am I?’

‘No. But if it weren’t for me, they’d have sent you to prison.’

‘I suppose I owe you a debt of gratitude, then?’

‘I’m just doing my job. It’s my job: to help people like you.’

‘Perverts, you mean.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘What about you doctor?’

‘What about me?’

‘Do you have a narrow suggestible personal life?’

‘Are you making me fun of me, Jack?’

‘No.’

‘Tell me, when did you first imagine that you were female?’

‘I didn’t imagine it.’

‘Well, when did you first think it?’

‘As soon as I realised that others saw me as a boy. Haven’t we had this conversation before?’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Are you leading me round in circles?’

‘Why would I do that?

‘I don’t know.’

‘You think I’m out to get you?’

Blinkered by my own psychopathy. Do you think my perceptions are blunt by nature? Or that I have a defective conception of right and wrong? Is that why the nurses put the hose on me? Is my transsexual mania a degenerate condition?’

‘You tell me.’

‘What about my kleptomania? Do you find it expedient to conflate the two?’

‘You only ever stole female garments.’

‘Why does the State call my punishment treatment?’

‘You understand that your behaviour isn’t normal for a young man?’

‘Is it providential for me to agree with everything you say?’

‘No. I just want you to be honest. You don’t have to agree with anything.’

‘Well, I don’t agree to my treatment. Your disciplinary measures impair my health.’

‘Is that why you refuse the ice bath?’

‘I don’t like being naked. Especially in front of other inmates.’

‘Why?’

‘I find my genitals disgusting.’

‘Why is that, do you think?’

‘Well they can hardly be called æsthetic, can they?’

‘You find them ugly?’

‘Repulsive. And perfectly silly. Banal.’

‘They give no pleasure?’

‘Only when I hide them in a girdle. Or a pair of silk knickers. The female body is so much prettier: everything is neat and prim, and in its proper place. I should like to be rid of my genitals altogether. Apart from my clitty that is. I feel like a freak, with that thing hanging between my legs.’

‘Have you tried to harm yourself before?’

‘Before?’

‘Before you came to us. Before you jumped from the train.’

‘I don’t remember the train. But I tried once with my uncle’s cut throat razor. I had to use a mirror. Everything was upside down and back to front. I didn’t get very far. I only nicked my scrotum. It didn’t half hurt. Ma was angry because I stained the sheets. She spent all morning at the kitchen sink, scrubbing the blood out. A votive offering for the gods.’

‘When did you start dressing as a girl?’

‘I promise to answer your questions if you answer mine.’

‘All right. Fire away.’

‘Are you suggestible? Would you make a good subject?’

‘Subject?’

‘For hypnosis, I mean.’

‘I doubt it, Jack. I’m hypnophobic.’

‘You’re frightened of going to sleep? Why? Do you have nightmares? What about? Tell me.’

‘No.’

‘Are you afraid of the dark?’

‘No Jack, are you?’

‘Yes. The dark terrifies me, to be honest.’

‘That’s only natural. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of people are afraid of the dark. It’s only human. So tell me, when did you first start dressing as a girl?’

‘You still haven’t answered my question. Why are you hypnophobic?’

‘That’s none of your business.’

‘I think that’s very unfair Dr. Hardy; you want to know all about my secrets, but won’t tell me any of yours. So you’re afraid of falling sleep. Why?’

‘If you must know, I suffered shell-shock during the war. I have flash-backs. War isn’t a pretty business, you know.’

‘Of course not. Forgive me for prying. But why did you fight in the war when Christ taught non-resistance? He who takes up the sword shall perish by the sword.’

‘I fought in the war so you could sit in that chair and call yourself transsexual.’

‘No. You fought in the war because you were hypnotised by the state. Christians must not bare arms. The arsenals of war are forbidden by the Christ. You should have become a conscientious objector. Then you wouldn’t have nightmares about the men you killed.’

Hardy fumes and wags a finger:

‘Oh really? Is that so? Well you listen to me Jack Vallis, what you think of my military exploits is neither here nor there. First and foremost, I’m not a soldier, I’m a doctor. A doctor. Understand?’

‘A doctor of the mind–’

‘Yes, a doctor of the mind.’

‘…Who has been hypnotised by science. Men like you make very good candidates.’

‘For what?’

‘Automatons.’

‘Why? Are you a hypnotist?’

‘The conditions for suggestibility are fixation of attention, monotony, limitation of voluntary movements, a narrowing of the field of consciousness, and a tendency toward inhibition. Personal qualities which you display in spades.’

‘You seem to know a lot about it.’

‘I’m on the cutting edge, me.’

‘Was that part of your work?’

‘Work?’

‘As a stage performer.’

‘I wasn’t a performer. I was a fortune teller. Amongst other things.’

‘Do you have powers?’

‘What sort of powers?’

‘Can you hold a hypnotic influence over others?’

‘In the old world they called it witchcraft. At least, you Freudians like to connect it with nervous affections, like hysteria and epilepsy.’

‘Quite so. What did you do? Read palms? Tarot cards? Tea leaves?’

‘No. I used a crystal ball.’

‘Did you have visions?’

‘I know a that trick.’

‘Trick?’

‘You want to put words in my mouth. If I say I had visions, you’ll claim I suffer hallucinations.’

‘Well did you have visions or not?’

‘What’s the point of gazing into a crystal ball if you don’t see anything?’

‘So you had visions? Yes or no.’

Of course I had bloody visions!

‘What did you see? The future?’

‘Yes. I saw us together, right here, right now.’

‘Hallucinations, Jack.’

‘Not hallucinations. I’m psychic, remember?’

Hardy consults the file, licking his index finger as he paws each page. Then he looks up and grins:

‘Ah yes! Blackpool pier. It’s here in black and white. Psychic. How could I forget such a thing? Gypsy Jill.

‘That’s me, Gypsy Jill.

‘Well, psychic is a very loose term. It covers all sorts of mental derangements.’

‘I’m not deranged. I saw us in a vision, I tell you.’

‘You probably dreamt it last night. False memory syndrome. Let’s just say you have an over-active imagination. So where did you learn hypnosis?’

‘That term is so passé. I prefer to call it disaggregation of consciousness.’

‘Have you ever been hypnotised? Do you see yourself as disaggregated?’

‘Absolutely. Disaggregated, disassembled, deconstructed, deflated, disappropriated, deconsecrated, disembodied and defected in every way. I’m completely screwed-up doctor.’

‘How are you screwed-up?’

‘I think you need to brush up on your psychology. Inhibition of the personal self causes mental dissociations which are the basis of all psychopathic disease.’

‘Inhibitions? What sort of inhibitions? How are you inhibited?’

‘Are you blind? I’m trapped in a male body! For Christ’s sake!

‘Calm down Jack.’

‘I’ve told you before: my name is Jill.

‘I can’t call you that.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you’re Jack. You’re a man. Isn’t that obvious? Jack you are, and Jack you shall remain, ’till your dying breath. It’s nature Jack. Sex. It’s Nature.

‘Are you completely brain dead, or what? You’d better show some respect, and start calling me Jill. How would you like it, if I called you Nancy, or Becky, or Daisy? You wouldn’t stand for it, would you? It would make you pretty damn mad, going through your whole life being called Daisy, wouldn’t it? Why? Because you’re not Daisy, you’re Robert. Well I’m Jill, see? So you’d better get that into your thick skull. Jill. Got it?’

‘I’m sorry, but I refuse to call you Jill.’

‘Why not Daisy? Frightened of pandering to my delusions?’

‘You will refer to me as Dr. Hardy.’

Daisy! Daisy! Give me your answer do! I’m half crazy, all for the love of you! I can’t afford a Johnny, a plastic bag will do, but you’ll look sweet, under the sheets, with me on top of you!

‘If you want to bawl that vulgar verse, I’ll return you to your cell.’

‘You pompous Freudian ass.’

‘Don’t be impertinent.’

Me? You don’t even have the decency to call me by my real name! My god! What a hypocrite! I can’t have a therapeutic relationship with a man like you!’

‘Well you’re stuck with me, so you’d better get used to it.’

‘Where’s my corset. Give it back.’

‘I can’t. We threw it in the furnace.’

‘That was my personal property. You had no right. It cost me a small fortune, that did!’

‘Tight lacing is unhealthy. Especially in a man.’

Especially in a man. My corset was my chief source of comfort and pleasure. And I am perfectly desolate without it.’

‘Desolate? Why is that do you think?’

‘Because it accentuated my bosom above, and my hips and buttocks below.’

‘But you don’t have a bosom.’

‘If you think tight-lacing is evil, then you’re a bigot. A good corset is comparatively harmless, especially considering the wonderful improvements it makes to girl’s small assets.’

‘You’re not a girl, Jack.’

Pig!

‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a pig, I’m a man.’

‘A man with a very piggish personality.’

‘You are addicted to bad habits. Perversions. Sexual indulgence and its effects upon the mind are more harmful than alcohol.’

‘Oh really? Is that why I’m suicidal?’

‘Without female attire and the pleasure of dressing, you are suffering from withdrawal, just like a dipsomaniac. But all this will pass in time. Sexual indulgence is exhausting to the nervous system, and in a person of weak constitution, can be fatally so.’

‘How can dressing as a girl be fatally indulgent? If anything, it makes me feel more alive.’

‘Masturbation can induce insanity; and insanity perpetuates the masturbation. The end result is dementia.’

Dementia! What about lobotomy and ECT? I’d rather have a wank thank you. At least I won’t end up a vegetable. Anyway, who said anything about self-abuse? I prefer not to indulge in that sort of thing.’

‘Don’t you get errections?’

‘Sissies don’t get stiffies. I come like girl, with one finger only.’

‘It doesn’t disturb your moral conscience, behaving like a girl?’

‘No. But it obviously disturbs yours. What kind of therapy is this? A veil of foolish words, with vague misconceptions hanging between them. I think you’d look great in drag. It would take years off you.’

‘Are you attracted to men dressed as women?’

‘Consider it part of your moral therapy. You’re very melancholic after all. When was the last time you had a bit of fun?’

‘Tell me, why do you call yourself The Parisian Lady?

‘Because I lived in Paris in a past life. And, of course, I was a lady. A real lady. But that doesn’t mean I’m mad, does it? I don’t belong here. I should be discharged.’

‘I had another female patient who called herself Countess. At one time she called herself Queen. And when excited, she became insanely snobbish. She ran about about the wards, throwing toilet rolls like streamers, shouting, screaming, flinging her arms about, running, leaping and turning somersaults. Any attempt to restrain her was met with violent blows. Does that sound familiar?’

‘What are you suggesting? That I did those things?

Hardy says nothing, but glares sternly over his spectacles.

‘Well did I?’ asks Jack, horrified. ‘Did I do those things?’

A tense silence. Then Hardy continues:

‘She was a shameless nymphomaniac, subject to depraved hallucinations. Without medication, she became restless, discontent, irritable, fanciful, suspicious, paranoid, foolishly regretful, and suffered spurious love feelings which ended in catatonia and manic depression…’

‘How awful.’

‘Yes. And the fact that you can’t remember these things, proves to me that you cannot be discharged. Meanwhile you will lay aside any notions of your past life. And you will no longer refer to yourself as The Parisian Lady. Are we clear Jack Vallis?’

‘Like I said, a very piggish personality.’

‘Humour me. Just how am I piggish?’

‘Your consciousness is embryonic and undeveloped. Your ego is fully under control of the fear instinct, despite the fact that you pride yourself as a rationalist. I think you need a visit from The Devil.’

The Devil, indeed. There’s no such thing as the Devil, Jack.’

‘Oh yes there is.’

‘Tell me about Him.’

‘No.’

‘Are you referring to a mythical being or a living person?’

‘Both.’

‘Is it one of the doctors perhaps?’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps not.’

‘Be specific. What ward is he from?’

‘He’s from down there.

‘Down where?’

‘You know. The basement.

‘What happens in the basement?

‘All sorts of shocks and surprises.’

‘What kind?’

‘The kind that send you to hell and back.’

‘What happened in the basement? Did Dr. Pontius give you ECT? God damn it!

Jack flinches as Hardy slams his fist on the desk:

‘Why are you so angry doctor?’

‘Because I gave Pontius strict instructions to leave you alone.’

‘It’s not your fault Dr. Hardy. That fact is, I’m incurable. You do realise that don’t you? You’re wasting your time with me. Go and find another patient. Please, Dr. Hardy. You should let me go, before its too late.’

‘Too late? Why do you think your incurable?’

‘Because there is no cure for a girl like me. Transsexual surgery is an esoteric art. Besides, my bones are set in their ways. Look at these whiskers. I’m all mashed up. Only the angels can fix me.’

‘There’s lots we can try.’

‘What do you recommend? Rest in bed? A restricted diet? Strophanthus? Aloes and iron? Sulphonal, sunshine and plenty of fresh air? Ergot, insulin and enemata? Hard exercise? Galvanism? Digitalis or potassium bromide? What about cannabis? Or seclusion in a darkened room? How about arsenic? Or listening to the rain? For god’s sake, you might as well give me a length of old rope… In ancient Rome, they threw transsexuals in the Tyber.’

‘Well, we won’t do that.’

‘No, but you’ll dunk me in ice baths and put the hose on me…’

Hydrotherapy. It’s called hydrotherapy.’

‘—And if that doesn’t work, you’ll section my frontal lobes. Well, I’d rather take my chances in the Tyber, if you don’t mind.’

‘It would be facetious to quarrel with you. But you can rest assured we have your best interests at heart.’

‘Then you must listen to me Dr. Hardy, please. This is very important. You must listen before I forget.’

‘Forget what? What is it Jack? Hmm? What do you want to tell me?’

‘Something is coming. Something terrible.

‘That’s just your Cassandra complex talking. You mustn’t pay attention to apocalyptic fears. You predicted Doomsday only last week. But nothing happened. The world goes on, just as it’s always done.’

‘But we don’t belong here. This is all wrong. Everything is wrong. You must leave this place. We both must.’

‘Leave? That’s out of the question. Sunhill is best place for you. Until you make a full recovery, that is.’

‘But this is the wrong world!’

‘This is the only world there is, Jack. And you belong here, just like everyone else.’

‘No! This is the wrong world, I tell you! There’s nothing beyond Sunhill. Nothing. Just a void of empty space. Mist.

‘We’re surrounded by the moors Jack. The moorland fog. It’s always like this in Winter. It’s a little bleak and isolated, I grant you, but it’s lovely in Summer. Wait until Spring. You’ll see.’

‘Have you walked the precinct lately? When was the last time you left Sunhill? You live here don’t you. I mean, when was the last time you left the asylum gates?’

Hardy looks perplexed and scratches his head:

‘Well, it’s funny you should ask me that. Because I was thinking the very same only this morning. I’ve run out of shaving sticks, you see. I usually get them in the asylum chemist. But they’re out of stock. So I thought I’d take a trip into town. Let me see now, the last time I went to Preston was several months ago. I have very little need to leave Sunhill. Especially during the winter months.’

‘Go to the precinct wall.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s surrounded by an abyss. Or if it isn’t now, it soon will be. There’s nothing beyond Sunhill. Nothing.

‘That’s fantasy Jack.’

‘It’s the truth. Sunhill is surroudned by void. And it’s getting bigger. The precinct is shrinking, inch by inch. We’re being eaten up. Devoured by the darkness. Soon there will be nothing left. Nothing but oblivion.’

‘Well that’s very odd Jack, because I heard the milk van this morning at 5.00 a.m. It came bang on time, whirring up the drive with its bottles rattling. The milkman left a fresh delivery on the kitchen steps. Fifty crates, is the usual quota, if I’m not mistaken. Is that not odd? I mean to say, if there’s nothing but an abyss beyond the precinct wall, then how does the milk van get in and out? And what about the post? I received a letter today from London. Was it sent across this abyss? Who delivered it? And what about the staff – all the nurses, doctors, cooks and groundsmen, who commute by bus? Do they traverse your abyss to get to Sunhill?’

‘Ah, well, yes, that’s complicated. And whilst I know the answer to that question, I am not at liberty to give it.’

‘But why?’

‘Because it’s too dangerous for you to know.’

‘Why is it dangerous?’

‘You wouldn’t understand why, Dr. Hardy.’

‘Try and explain.’

‘That would be like giving a nuclear trigger to a small child.’

‘I see. Well, this abyss of yours sounds very dangerous indeed.’

‘Don’t patronise me, doctor.’

‘But it makes no sense, Jack. Why should I believe anything that makes no sense? I’m a scientist. I deal with facts. And what you’re telling me defies logic and common sense. As does your claim to be a woman.’

Les esprits médiocres condamnent d’ordinaire tout ce qui passe leur portée.

Hardy pricks up his ears in surprise:

‘You speak French?’

‘Of course. I’m The Parisian Lady.

‘Sorry, my French is a little rusty. Could you repeat that?’

Les esprits médiocres condamnent d’ordinaire tout ce qui passe leur portée.

‘Er, no, I mean in English…’

Men of second-rate intelligence generally condemn everything that is above the level of their understanding. … La Rochefoucauld. Maxim number eight-hundred-and-seventy-six. Comprendez vous?

‘I see. So you look down on me. Is that it?’

‘Not as much as you look down on me.’

‘I don’t look down on you Jack.’

‘Yes you do. You think I’m a pervert.’

‘I’m here to help you, Jack.’

‘Then let me go! Before it’s too late! You must let me go. You must!’

‘But where shall you go? If Sunhill is surrounded by an abyss, then surely, this hospital is the safest place to be. It’s the only place to be.’

‘I don’t belong here! This is the wrong world!’

‘But you’ve spent your whole life here, Jack. In Lancashire. You were born in Liverpool, remember? This is your world, Jack. It’s where you belong.’

‘Not here. This is the wrong bubble.’

‘Then where do you belong?’

Jack wrings his hands and rocks back and forth in the chair, tears glinting in his eyelashes, mascara running down his cheeks in sooty rivulets:

‘I belong in a world where I don’t have to explain myself to men like you. Where I can be who I am on the inside. Where my body aligns with my soul. But that’s impossible in this world, impossible.’

‘That’s right Jack. Impossible. I’m glad you understand that now. Finally, we’re getting somewhere. Do you know why it’s impossible?’

‘Because the Devil made this world. The Devil. Can you hear Him? He’s laughing at us.’

‘You hear the Devil often?’

‘All the time. He put us here. In this bubble. Both of us. I don’t know how He did it. But He did. Ask yourself how we got here. Do you know? Eh? Do you know how we got here? Think about it. It’s infernal – this whole thing – infernal, isn’t it? You know what I’m talking about. The war. The Devil did it. He made us ridiculous. He put me in this wretched body. The Devil, I tell you.’

‘Don’t worry about the Devil.’

‘Freudian fool,’ snivels Jack.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Freudian fool. They serve it in the kitchens. Freudian fool. Not gooseberry fool, Freudian fool. Everyone thinks it’s gooseberry fool, but it’s not. It’s Freudian fool. They’re all eating Freudian fool. And the joke’s on you. You big fat gooseberry.’

‘That very insulting Jack.’

Listen! Can you hear Him?’

The Devil?

‘He’s here…’

‘Well I can’t see Him.’

‘He prefers to remain invisible, intangible, impalpable – especially to men of science. Didn’t you see him on the battlefield? Or sense Him, even?’

‘No. All I saw on the battlefield were young men getting their brains blown out. There was no Devil. Just the carnage of politics.’

‘He’s sniggering. That’s what He does: snigger. He thinks it’s funny – you sitting there, pontificating, pretending to understand my existential condition as a symptom of mental derangement. You think the organic brain is a material thing, purely in itself. A lump of jelly. You think men are meat robots, without a higher purpose. You believe that consciousness falls asunder at Death. You define my transsexual condition as psychotic illness. And nothing I do or say will convince you otherwise. You think the outer must always be an expression of the inner: that our outer shape reflects our inner nature; that we’re defined by this fleshy pith; that gender is genetically determined by our chromosomes. Wake up you Freudian fool! We are not the body! We are spirits! Spirits in clay vessels! Let me go! I’ve got to get out of here!

‘But there’s nowhere to go Jack. Where shall you go?’

‘Beyond the great abyss, to find the Eternal Light, and fuse myself with The Divine Unity. Then I shall have no other compulsion but the perpetual will of God.’

‘You mean Heaven? Is that where you mean?’

‘I mean The Garden of Earthly Delights.’

‘And where’s that?’

‘It’s all around us. But we can’t see it. It’s a place of spiritual liberation. Total freedom in accordance with Divine Will. The Garden of Earthly Delights.’

‘Another bubble?’

‘Yes. But I can only enter that sphere when I have finished my task.’

‘Which is?’

‘Transmutation.’

‘I see.’

‘A task which belongs to the Life of Unity. You must let me go Dr. Hardy. I must seal the door where darkness dwells. Only when I have sealed the abyss, and retrieved the ‘Sparkling Orb of Divine Humanity’, will Mankind be free.’

‘That sounds like a myth Jack. A task of Hercules. Or Christ Himself.’

‘Your Freudian mind is sealed in negation. But the psychology of Man mingles with the psychology of God. The myth is real. The fairytale is real. You must let me go. Something terrible is coming.’

‘Well I can’t let you go Jack. I can’t. What you’re saying is ridiculous. Can’t you see that?’

Jack seethes like a madman, thrashing in the chair, his fetters clanging on the iron wheels:

Let me out of this damn thing!

Concerned, Hardy rises from his desk and subdues the air with his hands:

‘Calm down Jack, calm down. There’s no point in getting upset.’

Oh God! Oh God! We’re doomed! Why won’t you listen? … They’re coming! We’re running out of time!

‘You’re perfectly safe. Nothing can harm you. Nothing is going happen.’

But I’ve seen it! Spatial Inversion! The Al-Jinn! It’s all my fault! I made it happen!

‘Hallucinations, Jack. They’re just hallucinations.’

Go to the precint wall! Take a look for yourself! The edge of the world! There’s nothing beyond Sunhill Gate! Nothing but darkness! Eternal darkness! A chaotic abyss! You must let me go! I’ve got to put it right!

‘That’s silly Jack.’

‘What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you listen to me? Call yourself hypnophobic? You’re soporific! Comatose! Your eyes are open, but you see nothing of this world! What a malediction – to misinterpret your sleeping for waking and your waking for sleeping! To sleep a perpetual sleep, and never wake! Wake up Dr. Hardy! Wake up!’

‘You’re clearly distressed. I’ll give you a sedative. We can talk again tomorrow.’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2022. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Clay-baked male genitalia. Roman votive offering. Copyright © Welcome Trust Images. Wikimedia Commons.