Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.
Liverpool Crown Court, January 5, 1956.
I recall little of my arrest – just three laughing policemen, rocking back and forth like funfair marionettes. As I lay on the cobbles, kissing their boots, I realised that I was half-naked, dressed in female underwear: a rubber girdle, silk stockings, and a lace slip torn about the shoulders.
I was held in detention and brought to trial the following year. The charges were medical fraud, embezzlement and industrial espionage. But I remembered nothing. Only that I was a Parisian Lady who had fallen upon hard times. My claim was regarded as preposterous and brought hoots of derision from the jury. This angered the judge even more:
‘Does the accused find my court a joke?’
‘No my Lord.’
‘Then you will retract that remark.’
‘I cannot retract it.’
‘Because I have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I am a Parisian Lady, through and through.’
‘How can you be a lady?’ flustered the judge.
‘Don’t ask me,’ said I. ‘You’re the one in a frock and wig.’
The judge turned puce with rage; his lips drew tight across his teeth and the veins bulged on his temples like two fat worms. Then he bawled:
‘Silence! You were born male! Are you not subject to the same bonds as other men and women? Namely, that we cannot change sex just as we please! From now on, you will refer to yourself a Jack Vallis. Is that clear?’
‘Are you mad or a fool?’
‘Neither my Lord. I know the names of all the Judges in the land, and surely you are the least qualified to judge my case.’
‘How dare you!’ fumed the judge. ‘Just who do you think you are? To question my legal qualifications? You don’t even have a formal education!’
‘On the contrary, I’ve read Shakespeare, Byron, Austen and Joyce. When I was ten, I thought Ulysses to be the finest novel in the English language – a crown which I later withdrew after a second reading of Pride and Prejudice; although I must confess, I find Jane Austen rather tedious at times. But I now esteem Orwell far above Austen, and believe Coming Up For Air is a masterpiece unsurpassed for the texture of its prose. I am also fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and several other languages, including ancient Sanskrit. But my German spelling is poor, and my Dutch suffers from bad pronunciation. I am familiar with all the philosophers from Hermes to Hulme; my favourites being Plotinus and Pascal. In particular Pascal. That is why, I confess to you now: I believe that I am dreaming. For this life has all the substance of a nightmare. What else? I have kept a journal since I was six, yet it would surely make you blush to read it. For I refer to myself as Jacqueline throughout, and write long soliloquies to my clitoris. I am, and always have been, a Parisian Lady. So why do you insist on calling me Jack? Jack is a numpty, who can’t tell his cock from his fist.
The jury twittered with nervous delight and the judge slammed his gavel three times:
‘Order! Order in court! … Jack Vallis, let me give you some advice. That tongue of yours will get you into trouble. Let it be known that I am a patient and sympathetic man, well versed in the foibles and extremities of human nature. But I will not sit idly by and watch you subvert the case. Clearly, amongst your many other talents, you are also an accomplished liar. A pathological liar. I don’t believe that you’ve read a single word of Joyce. Let alone Hulme or Pascal. On the contrary, the sum total of your philsophy extends no further than Batman and Catwoman. Or some other comic trash. You might fool the jury with your wicked jests, ignorance and conceits, but you won’t fool me. Let the Prosecution continue.’
At this, the Prosecution launched into a full attack on my sexuality which rambled on at great length and concluded with the ominous words:
‘…Your cross-dressing is not only a crime of the intellect, but a matter of perverse disposition. Sexual deviancy is a most insidious and pernicious enemy to civilized society. It is a heresy, to be ferreted out and quashed at all costs.’
‘I concur,’ said the judge. ‘Does the accused have anything to say in his defence?’
‘God save all transsexuals – the most persecuted, vilified and misunderstood members of the human race.’
‘Your lack of contrition will only bring a heavy sentence.’
‘Then I swear never to dress in public again.’
‘That is quite beside the point,’ said he. ‘The offence lies not in the act alone but in the very intention. And whilst these degenerate desires pollute your mind, you remain unfit to be amongst upright men and women – honest folk who work hard for a living and strive to live decent moral lives.’
As if to prove his point, the Prosecution dredged up all my sordid crimes in forensic detail: my kleptomania for female under garments; my extensive collection of pornographic magazines; my addiction to ether; and my wayward youth in a remand home for boys.
‘Jack Vallis calls himself a spiritual healer. From his house on Selborne Street, he ran “The Psychopathic Institution For The Cure of Disease.” We have all seen his advert in the evening paper. But Jack Vallis is a fraud and a quack, who prays on vulnerable women. When his house was raided by the police, they discovered some books by Wilhelm Reich, a notorious psychoanalyst whose sexual experiments attracted the condemnation of American doctors and educators. Reich strove to cure his neurotic patients with “orgastic potency”, which he defined as “the capacity for complete surrender to the flow of biological energy without any inhibition – the complete discharge of all dammed-up sexual excitation.” Here are a few of Reich’s books, found in the possession of Jack Vallis: “Mysteries of the Organism”, “Discovery of the Life Energy”, “The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality”, “Orgone Energy in The Body”, “The Imposition of Sexual Morality”, “The Sexual Revolution” and “The Function of The Orgasm”. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have ordered the banning and burning of all Reich’s books. And any book containing the word “Orgone” must be destroyed. The disciples of Wilhelm Reich are cultists of tantric sex and anarchy. Wilhelm Reich now resides in the Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary.’
The Prosecution then produced a box-file containing sixty eye-watering photographs of drooling women. And these were passed amongst the jury. The pictures were far from explicit, but he went on to explain:
‘These obscene portraits depict women in the throws of orgasm. Extended orgasm induced by machines. Sex machines. Allow me to describe these infernal devices. They consist of a large phallus attached to a steel rod; the rod in turn is attached to a flywheel which is driven by an electric motor. This cumbersome contraption is designed to simulate the mechanical action of coitus. But with far more rigour and speed. What it does for a woman goes beyond the capabilities of any mortal man. The machine is not shown, but look at the faces. The primal expressions speak for themselves. Have you ever seen such licentious and Corybantic debauchery? And I ask the court, where did the accused obtain such lurid pictures? Did he build the machine himself? Was this his “healing service” that we read of in the papers? The charlatan Jack Vallis, who claims “The Triumph of Love” is the cure to all diseases? But who secretly belongs to a cult of sex and anarchy?’
The implication drew the most venomous stares from the jury. A bald man perspired and patted his brow with his hanky. Two women ran out the chamber in distress. But none of this was a life I recognised. As for the photographs, I’d never seen them before. The charges were surely lies. I’d been stitched up good and proper.
When the jury had reassembled, my lawyer asked:
‘Why did you jump from train?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘Was it your intention to kill yourself?
‘I don’t know. Are you sure I jumped?’
‘The guard saw you jump.’
‘The train was travelling at speed. You opened the door and threw yourself upon the tracks. Have you attempted suicide before? Please tell the court.’
Yet as I stood in the dock, I became mute and could raise no word to my defence. The true reason for my arrest remained a mystery. The past was full of holes. All I wanted was to live in peace. Yet it seemed my entire life was an ugly cause célèbre. I had spent an eternity travelling from one tribunal to the next, trying to justify my existence to petty-minded bureaucrats who were only concerned with the rules and legislations of Nature. Why was I condemned? Was it my nefarious meddling with the flesh? My cures and miracles? Or just the base rank of my transsexual delinquency?
My plea of insanity was upheld by the Grand Jury – a testimony doubtless in my favour. As for all the other imputations and charges heaped upon me, they remained unproven by the Prosecution. Nevertheless, I was convicted of gross indecency. The judge assured me that I had gone very far on the road to the perdition; yet he conceded that my salvation lay not in penal retribution but in the hands of psychiatrists. And so it came about, by the will of Satan, that I was committed to Sunhill Asylum.
I was taken down and examined by a doctor in a tweed hat. He looked like a bloodhound with droopy thread-vein cheeks and whiffed of whiskey. His briefcase was crammed with draughts and unguents, all in pretty tinted bottles.
‘Can you do miracles?’ asked I.
‘No. Can you?’
‘Yes. But unjust men twist the law to suit their prejudice. If I claim that I’m a woman, I am a liar and a heretic. If I say that my safety depends on God, I am a hypocrite. If I am ready to confess my crimes, that is not enough. If I say that I wrought miracles amongst you, it is not a sign of angels, but of fraud and counterfeit.’
He drew close and examined my eyes, parting the lids to study the conjunctiva. I sat motionless, listening to the air wheezing through his hairy nostrils.
‘Do you know what month it is?’ he asked.
‘No. It’s January.’
‘Of course, January, yes. I spent Christmas in prison.’
He pulled away and wrote something on his clipboard.
‘Am I sick doctor?’
‘I’m afraid so, yes.’
‘Is there a cure?’
‘That remains to be seen. Do you know where you are?’
‘Don’t you know?’
My heart began to race. He took my blood pressure and said:
‘How can I relax? I’m frightened.’
‘What are you frightened of?’
‘Sunhill Asylum. I don’t belong in a place like that.’
‘It’s not so bad. The doctors will help you. It’s a fine hospital.’
‘But it’s for lunatics. I’m not mad, I tell you.’
‘Can you give your full name?’
‘Jacqueline de Belloc.’
‘Where were you born?’
‘I was a Caesarean. Cut from my dead mother’s womb by a witch. A real witch, I tell you.’
‘And you can perform miracles?’
‘Of course. I’m The Parisian Lady. Truly, I am. Why don’t you believe me?’
His only reply was a subcutaneous injection of morphine. The effect was instantaneous and a delicious warmth flooded my brains. Then to my utmost horror, two apes entered the chamber. I shrieked in terror, for they wore smart black uniforms with white sashes across their chests.
‘This is Jim and Pete,’ explained the doctor. ‘They’ve come to take you away. Understand?’
I couldn’t fathom it. Apes in suits. But I recognized the Maltese Cross emblazoned on their caps: the Order of the Knights Hospitaller. Between the eight pointed star were rampant lions and unicorns that leapt momentarily into the air; miniature castings, but now full grown and pulsing with life, as they ran about the walls in whirls of gold. My eyes remained fixed on the badge. The emblem was imbued with cryptic meaning – a key to arcane mysteries beyond my recollection. A scroll of text read: Saint John’s Ambulance Brigade. The words conjured visions of a severed head – my head – oozing blood on a silver plate, served up by Salome at a Freudian feast. Wicked, salacious Salome, executioner of Saint John, scribe of Revelation. Saint John, girt with skins, mad hermit of the desert, with parched tongue and hollow eyes, whose food was locusts and wild honey. Oh blessed Saint John! Exile of men, will you not baptise me and wash my sins away? My will is united to God’s will; as for my carnal desires, they are from the Devil and cannot stain my soul. Saint John, evangelist of Patmos, bring me before The Lamb. Baptise me a new woman. A woman of flesh. For that alone is the road to my spiritual perfection.
‘All right doc!’ grinned Pete. ‘What have we got here then? Another one for the loony bin?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ replied the doctor, signing a slip.
‘Sunhill Asylum,’ tutted Jim. ‘That’s way up on the moors. A right long wack. It’s a five hour round-trip, fella. And we don’t get paid beyond the city boundary.’
‘Take it up with your brigade,’ replied the doctor. ‘The Lancashire service doesn’t come off Christmas rota until Monday. And this can’t wait. The patient is suffering severe psychosis.’
‘Anything else we should be aware of?’ asked Pete.
‘Oh he shouldn’t be any trouble. I’ve given him a strong sedative. He’s away with the faeries. Just strap him down tight.’
Within moments I was carried off on a stretcher and shoved unceremoniously in the back of an ambulance.
We moved in stops and starts, weaving through the city, the bell ringing on the bumper. How I longed to see the streets! The shops and thoroughfares! That world of human pleasures I might never taste again! Recumbent as a corpse, all I saw was a small lozenge of sky through the rear window. Yet even this narrow scope was a precious heavenly vista. Fiery mackerel clouds flashed between the rooftops as pigeons took roost on grimy pediments. The firmament was ablaze and Venus twinkled like a seraph.
I had fallen with Lucifer.
Fallen into The New World.
We came to standstill and the bell cut dead. The driver cursed:
‘We’ll be here all bloody night at this rate!’
Then a paper boy cried:
‘Man on Fire! Read all About It!’
On hearing these words I was overcome with a hideous perplexity and fell into a haunted sleep.
I hurtled through the darkness, sulphurous lights streaking past the windscreen. I was out of my body, floating above the dashboard. But I scarcely knew who or what I was; I felt like leaf upon the wind, blown hither and thither, from one world to the next. I needed some means to hasten my end: a dagger, some scissors, or a length of old rope. No doubt I would die in some horrible manner. And my secret would go with me to the grave. I pondered in silence, a traveller in Time, watching the road rush beneath the headlights. Jim was humming at the wheel, whilst Pete read the paper, scanning the newsprint with his torch. Then he gasped and said:
‘Ere, Jim, get a load of this… ANOTHER CASE OF SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION.’
‘Ye wha?’ exclaimed Jim. ‘Ye blaggin’ me ’ead.’
‘No fella. That’s what it says…’
‘Read it out then…’
‘A police car remains at the scene where a man died after he burst into flames. A postman has told of his “sheer horror” when he rushed to help a man who died just minutes after he was engulfed in flames on Prescot Street. Richard Barns, 56, ran out of his delivery van when he saw what he thought was a bin on fire, but was left shocked when he found it was a man ablaze.’
‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Jim.
(Modern reader, I wonder at your sensibilities and manners; for I know you would rather see this man on fire than hear of him. But having transcended my old existence, I am weary of pandering to your cinematic expectations. The horrors of my conflagration are ever present in my mind. The fire waxeth within me hourly, silently and unseen. For what I ceased to be and what I have become is a holocaust of the soul. To those seeking lurid spectacle, rest assured, there is time enough for my infernal pyrotechnics. But meanwhile, I beg your patience and understanding. For the Devil insists that I tell my tale exactly as it happened. And to do that, I am obliged to be honest, and forfeit the frescos of cartoon fulguration. Let us proceed into darkness…)
‘…The postman rolled the burning man over on the ground in a bid to smother the flames. He said he knew first-aid and performed Artificial Respiration until the emergency services arrived, but the man died at the scene despite efforts to save him. Mr. Barns told how he spotted the man in flames at the traffic lights. “I felt sheer horror and just rushed over to help,” he told the Liverpool Echo. “Some other people were already there, but it felt like the whole street was in panic. There were some girls from the florists fetching buckets of water to chuck over him, but I knew that would be bad for his skin, so me and this other bloke rolled him on the ground to put the fire out.” He added how he had been left traumatized by the experience. “I just keep seeing his face,” he said. “I couldn’t go to work today. I keep thinking about what happened.” Liverpool Police confirmed the death of the man, who has been named as Michael Flaherty, an escaped patient from Sunhill Asylum.’
‘Bloody Nora!’ exclaimed Jim again.
‘Detective Superintendent John Cribbs said officers from the force had attended the scene. “The Ambulance and the Fire Service were already in attendance,” he said. “The man had suffered serious burns. He was given oxygen therapy but sadly died. No-one else was injured, and we are not looking for anyone else in connection with the case. It is not being treated as suspicious.” A file is being prepared for the coroner.’
‘Not suspicious?’ scorned Jim. ‘Sounds bloody suspicious to me…’
‘—And get this… The death in Liverpool comes just weeks after a man died when he burst into flames whilst walking down Lune Street, Preston.’
‘Burst into flames!’ gasped Jim. ‘Another one! Christ! It’s a bloody epidemic!’
‘John Ridge, 70, died in the tragedy despite the efforts of witnesses who tried to put out the blaze and save him. Investigators with the Preston Fire Brigade were unable to find anything at the scene that would have sparked the fire. An inquest is expected in the coming weeks to determine the cause of death of the former bricklayer originally from Donegal, Ireland.’
‘Human combustion!’ exclaimed Jim again. ‘Well f— me sideways… I’ve never heard the like.’
‘’Ere Jim! The sooner we get this whopper delivered to that madhouse the better. I don’t want him self-combustin’! Not in our van!’
When we arrived at Sunhill the grounds were veiled in mist. Fettered to a trolley, I was wheeled through a grim mausoleum by a porter in a blue coat. He had a fat greasy face with a nose like a pig truffle. The entrance to my cell was guarded by an iron door, wide enough for the trolley to enter. The cell itself was long and narrow, with a barrel vaulted roof that attained a height of about eight feet; it had a stone floor with whitewashed walls, and was furnished with an iron bed, a chamber pot and a copper wash basin. High in the vault was a fanlight window criss-crossed by heavy bars. A full moon shone through the panes, and I thought of Margot, flying to the sabbat on her broomstick.
As I lay there gazing at the moon, I knew my fate was a conspiracy of the gods. Had the Cyclops betrayed me to the authorities? Had they discovered my horde of gold? Or had the Jinn entombed my soul in another vessel to suffer my sins all over again?
In vain I prayed to the Virgin but the Rosary eluded me. I couldn’t even recall my name or the year of my birth. Then I remembered the words of Longchenpa, the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist:
Since everything is but an apparition,
Perfect in being what it is,
Have nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
One may as well burst out in laughter.
And so I did—mad, hysterical laughter that soon turned into howling tears of rage.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2022. All rights reserved. First published on WordPress 3rd Aug. 2022. Republished 4th Aug 2002 due to some typos and omissions.