AN UNLIKELY STORY

1.BEFORE THE BEGINNING

I first wrote this down in the late 90’s, when it was still fresh in my memory. Going back and editing it, twenty years later, has been quite a visit with the person I used to be. It’s amazing how much we can forget about ourselves. This story is an account of my experiences with a man who was described as  “non-verbal, autistic, brain-damaged, and severely retarded,” and with a technique known as “facilitated communication,” which is now widely discredited, for reasons that make perfect sense to me, as I will explain in the course of this narrative. As I will also show, however, there are reasons why I believe that my communications with Michael were genuine, and that some other instances of it have been genuine as well. For reasons of confidentiality, I have changed all names involved, and disguised the location.Somewhere in my scattered possessions, I think I have a few photographs. If/when I find them, I will add them to this–rendered “artistically” enough to preserve the privacy of those pictured.

Twenty years ago, I began my story thus:

When does a story really begin? Two people meet and begin to interact, and that is in a sense a beginning; but what brought them together? And if their interaction reveals something extraordinary, that only the interaction of those two people could have produced, could it be that something more than just random chance brought them together? When I look at how the course of my life brought me and Michael together, I have to wonder, even knowing that I can never know for sure.

Perhaps the first marker in my life that would, in the future, involve Michael, is my cousin Rachel. Rachel was oxygen-deprived in the course of her birth, which caused serious brain damage. She was slow—slow to walk, slow to talk, slow to grow in every way. When we were children together, we were not so different; but her mind and body seemed to stop growing someplace around the age of ten, so that the parameters of the rest of her life remained the same: posters of pop crooners and glamorous young movie stars adorned the walls of her room. She had difficulty reading words of more than one syllable, and her speech stayed simple as well. In the Rudolf Steiner-based community for “developmentally disabled adults” where she lived, her days were filled with arts, crafts, the Steinerian body movement discipline called “Eurythmy,” and gardening. In many ways, she had a good life—but one for which never growing up seems a steep price to pay.

When I started to understand that I was going to grow up and she wasn’t, I went through a time of being horrified, repulsed, and fascinated by her.

I remember visiting Rachel at a summer camp in upstate New York. While our mothers chatted with her, her counsellor, and her fellow campers, I wandered off “to play” (for I was not yet so old that “playing” was an embarrassing idea), attracted to the camp’s small pond and its solitary rowboat. I joined three other visitors in the boat for a row around the pond, and as we docked one of them asked me, “Are you a camper here?”

Absolutely not,” I replied, horrified.

You’re so quiet. We were wondering.”

I hurried back to my mother and demanded that we leave immediately.

One of the advantages of growing older and more separate from my family was that I no longer “had to“ spend time with Rachel. I wanted to be with only the very hippest and most far-out, radical, intelligent, beautiful, artsy people I could possibly find. And so I joined with friends, and moved far out into the country. We started a communal farm that spawned a number of businesses. I started, and managed, one of them. Like most members of the community, I married, we had children, and, as they will, the children began to grow up.

It was at this time in my life that I encountered Tibetan Buddhism. I was fascinated with it. It was farther-out, hipper, and more intelligent than anything I had yet encountered, and besides, my wife and closest friends were taking to it like ducks to water. The promise was that in one lifetime, if we worked hard and applied ourselves, we could burn through all the stupid personality quirks that stood between us and the realization of our enlightened nature, and thus be of enormous benefit to “all sentient beings.” This had been one of the stated founding values of our community, which was no faltering in its motivation and efforts. Clearly, the world needed such help. When I thought of helping “all sentient beings,” I didn’t think of Rachel much, if at all.

What happened once I vowed to do whatever I had to do to enlighten myself and ultimately everyone was that in short order I parted ways with most of my friends, my business failed, my wife left me, I left my home and community, and then fell out with most of my remaining friends, the ones with whom I had undertaken my Buddhist practice. In shock I retreated to a distant part of the country, known to me because I had gone to college there, although I had not been back in almost twenty years.

While bouncing through a few temporary living arrangements and temporary jobs, I lucked into a second-floor apartment in an old farmhouse with a magnificent view of the nearby mountains. My landlord lived on the floor below. He was talkative and friendly, and soon told me about his work with the local mental health agency. It was easy but useful work, he told me, and suggested that I apply there for a job. He especially liked it because he was sometimes able to bring his “clients” home, and get paid for keeping an eye on them while he puttered around his homestead.

As I got to know his guests with their simple, stumbling, sometimes non-sequitur conversations, vacant, goofy, or oddly intense expressions, and strange, hopeless, repetitive lives, I realized that they were not so horrible as they had seemed to me nearly thirty years before, and that if I was serious about “helping all sentient beings,” here were some who could definitely use help. Then came reinforcement of a less conceptual kind.

Phil took a long and grateful pull on the stone pipe, and handed it to Laura; she demurely touched it to her lips and passed it on to me. In the background, the Dead shuffled on my boombox:”Well the joint was rockin’—goin’ round and round…”

Thinking about working in mental health, huh? Guy used to live on my commune works there—Joe Conrad. Got an amazing project—he’s helping all these people who can’t talk –turns out they can type stuff on computers—and some of ‘em are really smart….” The movie “Awakenings” had just come out. Perhaps I, too, could accomplish miracles?

2. WARM BODIES WANTED

The agency my landlord worked for was located in St. Pierre, a small and slightly seedy nearby city, one I had scarcely visited, despite its proximity. Its neighbor, Matsonville, was home to a liberal arts college and its attendant cultural trappings, and enjoyed a favorable reputation in the counterculture for being “peculiar.” St. Pierre, conservative, blue collar, and Catholic, was a bedroom/railhead for the few mines and factories in the area that had not played out or gone south. It had a reputation for hard labor, hard liquor, and hard luck. Since I felt that I had had enough of the first and last of these, and no interest in the second, I had avoided it. Now I prowled its side streets in search of an address, which in due course I found. The building might once have been a medium-sized grocery or furniture store, with full length picture windows all along the street. The agency had curtained them.

A few people were lounging on the sidewalk in front of the building, smoking cigarettes. Some, with misshapen faces and dowdy clothing, were obviously “clients.” Others appeared to be staff members, judging by their fancier clothing and more normal faces. They paid me little attention. I held the door open as an attractive young woman led a tall, gawky, helmet-clad man out of the building, holding his hand in a way that spoke of guidance, rather than affection.

I gave my name and resume to a secretary who sat in a glass-walled office from which she could see the main lobby without actually being part of it. She told me to take a seat in the lobby, and so I waited a few minutes, getting a feel for the place as I did. There seemed to be dozens of staff and clients. Neat but informally dressed staff members moved purposefully from one office to another; their “clients”F followed them, or else stood or sat patiently for reasons I presumed they could grasp only dimly, if at all. There were occasional inchoate cries from some; one man emitted a constant stream of profanity in a strangled, emotionless voice. Suddenly an intelligent-looking young man ran through, screaming good-naturedly at the top of his lungs, with an athletic young woman in hot pursuit. He fairly flew out the door and into the fortunately quiet street, where he stood, laughing heartily and wetting his pants. The young woman reached him in time to keep him from raising a bottle of dish soap to his lips. The receptionist had raised her head briefly at the passing disturbance. Everyone else seemed to treat it as an every-day occurrence.

The next act was a youngish, typically developmentally disabled” looking woman walking through, singing happily, “I got my period/I got my period/I got my period” over and over. One woman staffer turned to another and said, “You know, sometimes I feel like that!” Then the receptionist called my name and told me, “Danny will see you now. Second corridor on the right, third door on the left.” She returned my resume to me, and I set out into the heart of the mental health agency’s warren.

The door I sought was almost at the end of the hall, a hall which ended in a door that was decorated with a poster, which featured a “developmentally disabled,” but still photogenic person, and the legend,

JUST BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE

CAN’T SPEAK DOESN’T MEAN

THEY DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY

Failing to recall what Phil had told me, I wondered “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” then knocked on what I hoped was the right door. A gruff female voice bade me enter.

The office and the woman were tiny. Danny’s office held three desks, enough room to scoot a chair back from them, and enough room to open the door. There were no windows, but art prints of mountains and waterfalls lined the walls. One desk was littered with puzzles, blocks, and other children’s toys; another was piled high with folders and envelopes. Only the third appeared cleared for action, and it was from this desk that she was turning to greet me.

Danny was well under five feet tall, small-boned without appearing delicate. Her hair was short, dark, and simply cut; her shoulders were broad for her size, her expression serious. Even when she smiled, I would discover, her dark eyes looked sad. The somber color of the t-shirts and pants she wore that day—all her clothes were dark, somber, and utilitarian—combined with her bearing to give this tiny woman an air of great strength and solidity.

She shook my hand and met my eyes briefly but firmly, and indicated that I should take a seat. Looking behind her, I saw on her desk a framed picture of an attractive woman with a young child in her lap.—So she’s one of those lesbians my landlord’s always ranting about. Wonder if I’ll get hired. As she scanned my resume, I recalled the direct honesty of her gaze and felt that employment was not out of the question. Then she opened the interview.

Went to Allston, huh?”

Yes.” I reconsidered my confidence. The local liberal arts college was, to some people, not an academic institution but a notorious playpen for druggies, radicals, lazy rich kids—

I did, too,” she said—and gays.

We exchanged some pleasantries about our old school and then she asked me if I was interested in full or part-time work.

I’ve never worked with developmentally disabled people before,” I admitted, being careful to use the PC designation. “I’m not sure how good I’ll be at it, or how much I’ll like it. How ‘bout if I start off part time—that way I can keep my other part-time job—and if it works out I can go more full-time?”

Hmm—yeah. That would be OK. Look, we have an adult male client who needs training in basic life skills. He’s diagnosed as autistic and brain-damaged. They could tell he wasn’t right when he was a baby, and when he was about a year old, his grandmother slamed his head in a car door. Someone else is working with him right now, but we’d like to move her to a different job, and we’d like him to get his training in the morning when he’s more alert instead of the afternoon….”

In some ways, it wasn’t much of an interview; I guess I was a warm enough body.

3.MEETING A REMARKABLE MAN

A few days later, I returned to the agency to meet Michael. At first glance, he looked beatific. There was depth in his eyes, and his smile was soft beneath thinning, fine brown hair. Then I saw details: he endlessly nodded his head, with its raw, angry wound on the left temple. He was wearing socks on his hands and cloth bands on his wrists; one of the socks was stained a dull, bloody brown.

Danny introduced me to Jeanine, his current trainer. She was a recent MA graduate in social work; although made up and conventionally attractive, her eyes were more vapid than Michael’s. We conversed as I “shadowed” her and Michael on their rounds. She was quick to tell me she was dating and hoped to soon be marrying a police officer downstate. He could have her, as far as I was concerned. Jeanine “trained” Michael by leading him around the Agency’s offices, prodding him to pick up and empty wastebaskets, and helping him sort the contents for recyclables. She also had to prevent him from hitting himself in the head, which he attempted every few minutes. Thus the wound and the bloodstain.

As time went by, I discovered that his routine when he hit himself was invariable. He would pull the sock and wristband from his right hand, take his baseball cap off with his left hand, and then, slowly and deliberately, he would strike himself in the same spot, over and over again if not restrained, while blood ran from his wounded temple and the thumb of his right hand, which was the part of his fist that made solid, sickening contact with his skull.

This may sound like an easy thing to stop, but it was not. Michael would often pick a time when his trainer (Jeanine, and, soon, myself) was otherwise occupied—driving a car, using the toilet, anything that might take both hands, render me immobile, or draw my attention away from him. Simply removing his hat, or the sock or wristband from his right hand, likewise triggered this behavior.

Jeanine told me that he had two other forms of SIB (self-injurious behavior, a bit of agency slang): he would sometimes bite his right hand, and sometimes poke himself in the eye with his right forefinger. Part of my job, besides attempting to prevent these “behaviors,” would be to faithfully record every occurrence. This was necessary in order to comply with Federal regulations. The agency needed to be able to prove, if asked, that no one else was hitting him in the head or scraping the skin off his thumb.

As I gradually met more people who had known and helped Michael, I was repeatedly told that, when coffee had been freely available in his group home, Michael would down cup after cup and then bang his head against the wall. If nobody stopped him, he would continue until he had knocked a hole in the sheetrock.

Meanwhile, Jeanine told me, it was necessary to keep an eye on him in the bathroom for another reason: he sometimes “smeared” if left unattended. He was unable to wipe himself, she told me, and that, too, would be part of my job. “Six twenty-five and hour and all the shit I can wipe,” I grumbled to myself. “Some people say they’ve got ‘shit jobs’, but I’ve got the real deal!”

Jeanine, Michael, and I were sitting in a restaurant on the highway between St. Pierre and Matsonville . It was his “favorite” place, Jeanine said, though she seemed a little vague about how this was known. Someone had told her…..”You can’t take him into McDonalds,” she warned me. “He throws a fit and you have to drag him out.” That was fine with me. I didn’t, and still don’t, patronize the chain.

It was a hot day; she and I licked ice cream cones. Michael had a cup of coffee. He was obviously happy; a broad smile lit his face and he was nodding his head yes in a very emphatic fashion, waiting for his coffee to cool.

Did you ever try giving him an ice cream cone?”

Yes. He just smeared it all over himself and everything else.”

Then it was time to take Michael for a walk. Exercise was part of his “program,” approved by his case manager and his guardian. He had to be pulled along—without one of us holding his hand, he just stood in one place smiling and nodding his head.

The path for our walk, one that Jeanine had taken with him many times before, involved walking along an abandoned railroad grade and crossing a river via a bridge floored only with crossties. In the gaps between the ties, you could see the shallow, rocky, river. The ties were spaced closely enough so that an adult’s foot couldn’t possibly slip between them, but Michael reacted to them with caution and concentration, as if he was walking a balance beam. “What is his perception,” I wondered. “Does he see something different from what Jeanine and I see? Or is it his thoughts and associations that cause his caution? Or is there some other reason, one I can’t imagine and he can’t explain?” I recalled what little I had read on autism—extreme sensitivity to sound, fascination with spirals and whirling. Fear of falling? How could I possibly find out? Raising such questions to Jeanine, I met with little response. Her primary interest in “the developmentally disabled” was in rehabilitation, in helping people find jobs and live independently, and these were things that Michael would clearly never be capable of. She was eager to be quit of him.

While we were talking, Michael had stopped walking. He was standing, head cocked back, nodding happily at the summer sky. A dark spot appeared at the crotch of his pants, grew rapidly down both legs, and soon we heard a gentle dripping sound as his thin trousers soaked through.

Jeanine curled her lips in distaste. I had brought up four children, and was no stranger to pissy pants. Urine is good fertilizer, a great treatment for athlete’s foot, and a passable deer repellent. Not the sort of thing you want in prolonged skin contact, but hey—it comes off with warm water and a little soap. I took the plunge. “Since there’s nobody around, I could just change him here.”

Jeanine was obviously relieved.

I unbuttoned and unzipped Michael’s pants. As they dropped to the ground, I started pulling his underwear down. There was a, long, fat, crusty brown stain in the crotch. As I raised his feet one by one to get them off, I realized I was going to have to change his socks, too; and while I worked on this task Jeanine had to step in and hold his arm to keep him from hitting himself.

And so I became Michael’s companion. I would pick him up at his group home in the morning and drive him down to the mental health office, where we would spend an hour or so of emptying wastebaskets and sorting their contents while I tried to keep him from hitting himself in the head. Then I would take him out, usually to the Greek-Italian-American restaurant that had somehow been determined to be his favorite, and have him buy himself a cup of coffee. He was, according to his “living skills program,” supposed to hand the cashier a card saying what he wanted—but the cashier was always the same person and he always wanted the same thing, so displaying a card that read “I want a cup of coffee” was completely superfluous. I was supposed to grade him according to how well he handed her the card. I had to fake that part. You could call it a clash between formal theory and informal reality. Fortunately, there were other things to grade him on—how much prompting it took to get him to give her a dollar bill or accept the change, how neatly he poured the coffee. The act of removing a dollar bill from his wallet or backpack—or putting the change back—seemed quite beyond him.

There was also the “task” of pouring coffee. With my attention and help he would pour the right amount. Without me, he might overfill his cup, spill the sugar bowl over the counter and start stuffing sugar in his mouth, drink cream straight from the pitcher, or—you just never knew. We would sit facing each other in a booth while he smiled and nodded happily until his coffee had cooled enough for him to drink it. Then we would go for a walk, and after that I would return him to his group home and help him eat lunch. We were together for three-and-a-half to four hours a day, five days a week. That brought me a hundred and a quarter a week. I got no benefits, no paid holidays, and no vacation time. Some afternoons and evenings, I did respite work for another agency, at the same pay rate, for about the same number of hours, which sometimes involved staying up all night. With my two youngest, now teenage kids staying with me, I applied for, and received, food stamps. Somehow, I made ends meet.

That grim-sounding treadmill was what you might call “the public version of my life.” Unbeknownst to “the agency,” I was making another use of my time with Michael and the nights I spent awake in group homes. I was in a phase of my Tibetan Buddhist practice that required the recitation of a purification mantra, and I recited it out loud as I drove Michael around. I thought it might somehow help him. Sometimes he smiled and nodded while I chanted. Sometimes he would start hitting his head, and I would have to drive while holding his arm down with one hand. Holding hands with him, which he frequently initiated, kept him from hitting himself. We got funny looks from other drivers.

4. NOT YOUR AVERAGE DOORKNOB

Once again, Phil was in from upcountry. “Have you met Joe yet?” Sheepishly, I admitted I hadn’t. “Well hey, you got a nonverbal guy you’re workin’ with, you oughta give that ‘facilitated communication’ a try.”

There were two schools of thought about Michael in the agency. Some staffers thought that he was “about as intelligent as the average doorknob.” Another long-time employee told me, on the other hand, that “We used to joke that Michael was really just acting disabled so he could give Ken (the head of the agency) the inside scoop on what it’s really like.” Facilitated communication offered the possibility of communication with the mind in Michael’s body.

I had seen Joe around the agency. He was balding, with frizzy-blonde-hair and more of a twinkle in his eye than anyone else around. Seeing him was one thing, but getting an appointment with him was a piece of work. First, I needed Danny’s permission to alter Michael’s routine. Finding a few minutes to talk to her took a couple of weeks, although she was happy to say yes once I asked. Second, Joe was frequently absent, either meeting with disabled people who might be able to use facilitated communication, or talking to mental health workers who might be able to use it to converse with their “clients.” Summer had turned to fall before we were at last sitting in Joe’s office, while he explained facilitation to us. Unlike many people in the Agency, who spoke to “clients very slowly, simply, and distinctly, Joe talked to Michael as if he were perfectly capable of understanding normal speech.

Michael, we’ve found that a lot of people who can’t talk are much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected. We think you are, too, and we want to help you show us how intelligent you are. Now, I’m going to ask you some questions. Some of them may seem stupid to you, but that doesn’t mean I think you’re stupid, it’s just to help you tell us how smart you are. What I’m going to do is to start by helping you point—“

It was difficult to get Michael to point with one finger. Joe would push his fingers into the right position, but Michael wouldn’t or couldn’t hold them there until Joe let him hold his other hand. Michael loved to hold hands with people. At his group home they called it “clinging” and tried to discourage the “behavior,” but, as I said earlier, it was frequently the only way to keep him from hitting himself. Now perhaps it would be one of the keys to helping him communicate.

First, Michael, I’m going to show you some colors. Could you point to the blue, Michael?” Michael’s hand, cradled passively by Joe’s, slowly moved to the blue square. “ How about the green?” Again, a slow, deliberate movement in the right direction. “Very good. Now, let’s try letters.”

My heart was in my throat. I was awed and amazed at the simplicity of what I was seeing. I had been wondering about his mind ever since I had met Michael. Now I could begin to find out.

He wrote the letters M and J on index cards. “Can you point to the letter that begins your name? Very good! How about the letter that begins my name? Very good! How about Martin’s? Very good!

Now, here’s a Y and an N, for yes and no. Can you show me which letter is the Y? Very good. Which is the N? Great. Michael, would you like to facilitate with David?”

Michael’s hand, accompanied by Joe’s, sank toward the Y. I took a deep breath. “Let’s go,” I said.

I was used to holding Michael’s hand—to keep him from hitting himself, to encourage him to walk faster, to get him to walk at all. This was different, however; this time I was to let him steer, providing “just a little resistance,” as Joe put it. “Just give him something to push against.”

What to talk about?

Joe provided the questions. “Would you like to work on some more difficult material?” Delicately, slowly, Michael pushed my hand and his towards the Y.

Joe produced an 8 ½ X 11 sheet of paper that was almost completely filled by the letters of the alphabet, numbers from 0 to 9, and boxes containing the words “yes,””no,””help,” and “secret.” Then he asked Michael, “Can you tell us the name of the city you live in?” Letter by letter, he spelled it out. Then the state. Then the street name.

The process required a suspension of will on my part. I knew what the answers were and how to spell them. I had to disconnect that part of my mind from my arm, in a way, and only pay attention to what I could feel Michael trying to do.

Do you like living at the group home?”

Slowly he pointed to the word NO.

What’s your favorite food?”

JELLY DONUTS

Where do you like to go for them?”

DONUT HOUSE

This is really great, Michael. It’s wonderful to know that you can talk and tell us what you want. In fact, David, you probably should take him to Donut House and get him a jelly donut. Would you like to do that now, Michael?”

YES

Well, thank you Michael for helping us start to understand how intelligent you really are. You and David are welcome to come use my computer any time I’m not here.” Given Joe’s frequent travels, that was most of the time.

Uh, Joe– he’s already spent his snack money for the day, and I can’t front it to him ‘cause it’s the day before payday and I’m flat broke myself.” Michael got a dollar a day for discretionary spending, which was just enough to pay for the coffee.

Joe offered to spot us a dollar for Michael’s celebratory donut; I thanked him profusely, and we went on our way. Donut House was an easy walk from the Agency. Michael held my hand and uncharacteristically pulled me along; it was obvious he knew what was up and where we were going. We were almost there when Michael suddenly stopped and poked himself in the eye with his thumb, a form of “self-injurious behavior” (SIB) that I had been warned to watch out for. He did it “frequently,” I had been told. I never saw him do it before, or again. I guessed that the prospect of getting what he had asked for for the first time in his life was simply overwhelming to him.

At Donut House, I took the little sheet of letters that Joe had sent with us and asked him if he still wanted a jelly donut—YES—coffee—YES—cream and sugar in coffee—YES. Then, to my dismay, I discovered that his method of eating a jelly donut was to tear it into little pieces and stuff it rapidly into his mouth, where most of it did end up—except for the jelly, which tended to stick to his hands, his plate, and his clothing. This provided some amusement for the other customers, although I sensed a background of disgust and dismay that a weird, possibly dangerous character such as Michael—as if his condition might be communicable—was loose in their midst. To a visual chorus of sneers and knowing glances, I led him into the men’s room to clean him up.

I was grateful that Joe allowed us free use of his computer. Because Michael moved so slowly, communication with him was very time-consuming. We both needed practice. All too often his responses to my questions and “fill in the blanks” sentences made no sense. So, when one day he typed out the word “terton,” a Tibetan term for a finder of hidden teachings, apropos of nothing in particular, I chalked it up to a combination of his random peckings at the alphabet and my own wishful thinking. I did want him to be special.

Sometimes he would fall into repeatedly attempting to hit himself in the head while we were at the computer. When he was in that frame of mind, he would type TUTUTUTUTUTUTUTUT between the hitting episodes. He wouldn’t tell me, and I had no idea, why he fixed on repeating those letters.

One day, after we had been walking for a while, we came to Michael’s favorite coffee shop. It was closed for renovations; but workmen were coming in and out and the door was open. Before I could stop him, Michael entered and stood at the counter, demanding in his mute way to be served. I tried to explain to him that they were not open, and then tried to lead him away from the counter. He wouldn’t come. Finally, he sat down, hooting and waving his arms around in frustration, anger, and protest. I had to grab him around the chest and half carry, half drag him from the restaurant, while the owner and the carpenters looked on in amusement.

Once he told me he was tired of drinking coffee all the time, that he wanted orange juice instead. We went into one of his usual coffee places, he handed in a note asking for orange juice (I had written it.), and then he took a coffee cup and went for the self-service coffee. I had to wrestle him away from it. He seemed to me to look very embarrassed afterwards: he sat there, head on the table, looking uncharacteristically humiliated. MY BODY HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN, he told me again and again. The Michael with whom I was communicating had little control over his body, like someone tied up in the back seat of a runaway car.

 

5. BEYOND THE BASICS, AND INTO TROUBLE

Would you like to read books?:”I asked him one day.

YES

What would you like to read about?”

DESSERTS

Deserts? Hot, sandy places?”

NO FOOD

We went together to the local library, found dessert cookbooks, and I helped him trace his finger through the recipes, line by line. He didn’t always seem to be looking at the page. We found ones he said he wanted to try. It was a lot of work to get simple baking supplies out of the agency, but we made a few desserts in the agency kitchen. Did I say “we”? Michael moved only when I moved him, except to try and put his hand in anything sweet– batter, boiling fudge—no matter. I facilitated some of his movements, prevented others, and we shared the finished results, which were always at least edible. After a few weeks of this, the person responsible for funds for kitchen supplies told us she could no longer provide them—it wasn’t written into Michael’s program, she said—and we went back to merely reading recipes again. I found this increasingly boring.

Michael, this is like food pornography,” I finally said to him one day.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN

Looking at pictures of beautiful, tasty things we’ll never get to eat.”

YOURE RIGHT

And we quit looking at cookbooks. I tried helping him read Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, curious what his reaction to the psychic “retarded” people in it might be. His attention wavered after the first few pages. “Why aren’t you interested?”

I DONT UNDERSTAND HOW THE IDIOT STAYED OUT OF INSTITUTIONS

Good point. Such things were more likely in the less regulated world of the late 40’s and early 50’s when the novel was written. “What would you like to read about, then?”

SEX AND DRUGS

We read Andrew Weil’s The Natural Mind and some Henry Miller; I asked him book-report type questions about them and he gave reasonable answers. I wish I could provide examples, but if I have them they are on a floppy disk somewhere in the slowly swirling mess of my possessions, and readable only by an ancient Apple computer that may or may not still be functional.

We held these conversations on the computer at the group home where he lived. Michael would sometimes wander from the questions I asked him and tell me things about people who worked in the home:

DORIS’S HUSBAND BEATS HER AND MAKES HER HAVE SEX WITH HIM SHE HATES IT BUT SHES AFRAID TO LEAVE HIM SHES SO UPTIGHT IT DRIVES ME CRAZY WHEN SHE TOUCHES ME. SHE HITS ME WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING.

JACK (the director) USED TO SMOKE POT HE WAS MORE FUN THEN JAN (his wife) MADE HIM QUIT SHE USED TO BE A LESBIAN MADE IT WITH WOMEN IN THE AGENCY TO GET PROMOTIONS

Although we were no longer taking the walking path that involved crossing the river on the old railroad bridge, I asked him if he remembered doing that, and why he was so slow.

YES I LIKE TO WATCH THE WATER SWIRL

It turns out that this is common among autistic individuals. When I told Danny about that, and mentioned that I, too, could happily watch water swirl, she gave a rare smile and replied, “Me, too—we’re all a little autistic.”

I began to notice a peculiar and disturbing phenomenon. Michael would type answers to questions before I typed or spoke them. Perhaps I was making the whole thing up. Perhaps it was my hand that guided him to write words, and he had nothing to do with it? Then why did he so avidly drag me to the computer terminal day after day? I CAN GET IN PEOPLES MINDS WHEN THEY TOUCH ME MOST PEOPLE CANT HEAR ME THEY THINK THEYRE GUESSING WHAT I WANT YOU CAN HEAR ME SO WELL BECAUSE YOU TAKE LSD BUT THATS WHY NO ONE WILL BELIEVE YOU.

In the interests of science, I saved all our communications on the computer in the group home office. (Twenty-five years later, it is easy to forget how limited early 90’s computers were.) I labeled the file MICHAEL’S PRIVATE FILE and assumed that this would be respected.

Not long after that, Danny called me to her office. Her usually somber mood was deeper than usual. “David, the staff at Valley Road is very upset about the things you’ve been writing about them on their computer.”

What–? They’re reading Michael’s private file?! He wrote that stuff—not me.”

Look, if you want to keep something private, keep it on disc, not on a shared computer. And erase all that stuff. Meanwhile, they don’t want you there, so we’re going to change Michael’s schedule. The group home staff will bring him here in the morning. You’ll still have to drop him off there after lunch, but this will minimize contact. They’re very upset with you for writing all that stuff about them.”

Look, I didn’t say that, Michael did. He’s the one who drags me to the computer every morning. I have no reason to say that kind of stuff about those people. And there’s deeply personal things he said about me on there, too. Why would I do that?” Taking a deep breath, I dared to plunge ahead. “You know, scientifically it would be interesting to find out if he knows what he’s talking about, but it’s not the kind of thing you can just up and ask people about.”

I didn’t want to bare my private life to Danny, but Michael had shocked me one day by going into some dead-on detail about my sexual turn-ons. Was I so schizophrenic that I was projecting part of myself onto a (barely) ambulatory vegetable and believing it was him? Or did he, as he claimed, have the ability to read minds? I didn’t even want to broach the question to Danny. In the behaviorist philosophy of the Agency, belief in telepathy was a heresy punishable by firing, I was sure, and I was sure I didn’t want to get fired.

 

6. SEX, DRUGS, AND ROCK N’ROLL

It occurred to me that perhaps I could learn something about Michael by connecting him with someone who would be willing to answer intimate questions. But who? And how?

I had asked Michael what kind of music he liked.

I HATE COUNTRY MUSIC I LIKE WINGS THE EAGLES THE GRATEFUL DEAD

How could he have heard the Dead? Not on the annoying top-40 radio station they played at the group home! Surely this was my projection. I wasn’t a country music fan, was not big on Wings or the Eagles, either, but loved the Dead. They had been the band of my trips and dreams in San Francisco in the sixties. I had fallen out of love with them for a while, after the night in 1970 when I went to dance with them and the floor was crowded with seated people who cussed at me to sit down and quit dancing so they could see, while on stage Pigpen, joined by Janis Joplin (a confluence that only happened twice) cussed out the crowd for failing to dance. (“Get your fuckin’ hands out of your pockets and turn on your love light!”) A week later, Janis was dead; as I heard the Grateful Dead’s album output over the next ten years, I thought them pretty dead as well. Isolated in the deep woods of a state they never toured through, I knew nothing of their phenomenal live performances throughout that decade.

Then one otherwise dismal winter I was working in a greenhouse and another employee played a tape of some strange music that flowed and soared and mutated and took me with it. I was astonished to learn that I was hearing the Grateful Dead, live. I made connections that brought me my own tapes of their live shows. And then I went to one and discovered that communion was, indeed, being served there, and that I was not only not the last hippie in the world, that I wasn’t even a very far out one—but I digress.

Michael wrote that he had worked with a trainer who was convinced that he was highly intelligent and who had taken him home for weekends and…partied with him, as they say. I asked others in the agency about this—discreetly, to be sure—and they confirmed that one of Michael’s previous trainers had been a hippie-type guy—who had died of AIDS.

Michael asked me if I could turn him on (a request I erased from even the disc)…what a wild idea. I had been taking him home on nice days so he could “help me” while I gardened, so the next time I brought him to my home, I loaded up a bowl—and he informed me that he couldn’t get his body to suck on a pipe. He told me he needed a shotgun, preferably from a pretty girl, to really get off. I ‘m not a pretty girl, and moreover my pipe was so short that I would have had to practically kiss him to shotgun him. Not my style. He did sniff the pipe, became noticeably more animated, got up and went into the bathroom, where he repeatedly flushed the toilet just to watch it swirl, all thewhile he nodding his head yes, with a more-than-usually beatific smile on his face.

ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND DONT TAKE MUCH TO GET ME OFF THE GROUND

he commented-a quote from a Grateful Dead lyric, and a rather obscure one at that.

So Michael liked music….I had a friend at the Allston College radio station. Like the college, it was very free-form. People could—and did—play anything that wasn’t expressly prohibited by the FCC. My friend Rollie’s musical specialty was acid-rock. She was cheerful, intelligent, and incredibly overweight. She and her lover Judy had figured out how to get on SSI for being too crazy to work for a living without being diagnosed as so crazy that they had to take meds—not an easy achievement. They both had histories of horrific childhood abuse. Sometimes I thought they were grossly dysfunctional. At other times I saw them as pleasant examples of how a lot of us could spend our time if we were freed from this foolish societal hang-up about earning money. They ate, slept, made love, music, poetry, and art, and gardened a little. Judy had connected with Tibetan Buddhism at some point and did a Tara meditation, she told me once. I was bothered that they never seemed to have time for housecleaning, but other than that I thought they led a good life.

I had first met Rollie when my poet friend Louise asked me to play saxophone accompaniment to the poetry she was going to read on Rollie’s show. Rollie and I had gotten together a few times and played music, gotten high, and talked about life. I found her much more interesting than Louise, who was scared of marihuana.

I thought it would be fun for Michael to go to the radio studio and hear music through some quality speakers; besides, it was winter and way too cold to go for a walk in the park. If Michael peed his pants, at least they wouldn’t freeze to his legs while I was trying to change him. As an added touch, I brewed up some “bhangi milk”—spiced milk simmered with marihuana stems—for him. He couldn’t inhale, but he could swallow.

Michael hated to climb stairs, and I had to work hard to get him up the two flights to the station lobby, where Rollie greeted us. As soon as he saw her, his face slid into an ear-to-ear grin, his head began nodding a lazy but continual yes, and he put out his finger, indicating that there was something he wanted to say.

People who believed that I was “making up” what Michael said always pointed to the way he barely looked at the keyboard or letter sheet. This bothered me at first, and I would spend a lot of time trying to get him to look steadily, if only for appearance’s sake. But—hey, if he was “in my head,” as he claimed to be, was it possible that he could look out my eyes?

So he wanted to say something—hi to Rollie or request a song or something like that.

YOURE IN MY DREAMS I LOVE YOU MARRY ME. Not the sort of thing I would have made up. Rollie took it in stride, thanked him for the offer, and said she’d think about it. He asked her to play a Grateful Dead song, and sat happily in the studio listening to the music—until he wet his pants. Rollie was understanding about this, and said we were welcome to come visit her and Judy any time, although between them rarely getting out of bed before noon and my time with Michael ending at one PM, connection was difficult. We did get to watch “The Doors” on their VCR, which Michael seemed to enjoy immensely. Mostly, though, Rollie and Judy weren’t home, or at least didn’t answer their door. THEYRE MAKING LOVE IM IN ROLLIES MIND ITS FUN Michael would say, but Rollie and Judy didn’t quite seem open to being asked such details about their life.

Once I even raised the idea of the three of us getting custody of Michael, which would entitle us to quite a substantial stipend. Rollie and Judy didn’t say no to this, but they were clearly unenthusiastic, and the idea waned.

There was no way I was going to double-check Michael’s claims of telepathy with anyone at the agency. I had been hired on a temporary, part-time basis, and they could fire me any time. I was a single parent and couldn’t afford that. I needed to introduce him to someone I could talk to about anything…who….?! How?

 

7. A BIG SURPRISE

Next to the farm where I was renting a room was an old one-room schoolhouse that had been turned into a house. The woman living there, June, was attracted to me and had started visiting me regularly and bringing me dishes of her excellent cooking. We would smoke a little marijuana and laze around in my apartment, talking about love and the meaning of life. Our partings became gradually longer, more intimate hugs, which had led to kisses, and then passionate kisses. Romance seemed to be blooming.

A winter pageant was being presented at Allston. Simple, inspirational stories and songs, told and sung by people in pretty costumes. June was enthused about attending. I asked her how she would feel about taking Michael with us. She was highly skeptical about his “talking” at all, let alone my tales of him being “in people’s minds,” but she was willing to let him attend the pageant with us. My son, in his late teens, joined us.

Michael seemed to enjoy it. He nodded his head vigorously, didn’t try to hit himself in the head, and got through the evening without wetting his pants.

Next day, I asked him how he had liked it.

VERY MUCH THANK YOU FOR TAKING ME YOUR SON DOESN’T BELIEVE IN ME BUT JUNE DOES SHES REALLY SCARED OF SEX THOUGH SHES NEVER COME WITH A MAN.

I told this to June and assumed that her stunned silence was admission of the truth; I was saddened and elated at the same time. A few days later when our first night of making love turned into a disaster, I had confirmation, it seemed, of her fear of sex. We barely talked to each other for months after that traumatic New Year’s Eve, and it was a year until she angrily denied Michael’s statement about her, saying she was too stunned to speak, alright—not because he was right, but because of my incredible presumption in believing such fantasies. I couldn’t tell if she was finally telling the truth, or deeply sunk in denial. A few months later, in a tender moment, she confessed that, while she enjoyed sex with men, masturbation was much more intense for her—“something happens when I masturbate that has never happened with a man.” Score one for Michael?

One day at the main office, I met a former director of the Valley St. home, a loud, loose, laughing woman who told me she had “always loved Michael” and invited us to come visit her, her husband, and the severely retarded adult they took care of. (They were the folks who had allowed Michael to drink all the coffee he wanted.) While we talked, Michael picked up a People Magazine with a cover story about Roseanne Barr’s childhood abuse. “Do you want me to help you read that,” I asked. He pointed to “YES.” I held the magazine and helped him point to the words. Although he did not appear to be looking directly at it much of the time, his finger followed the lines perfectly. He became more and more upset as we read together. I wasn’t surprised; I could tell that the article related to his experience in many ways.

He started hitting himself. I asked if it was because of the coffee—“no.NO Because of the article? YES Do you want to communicate about it on computer tomorrow? YES

Next day he practically dragged me down the hall to Joe’s office.

VERY SCARY THINGS HAPPENED TO ME AT THE STATE HOSPITAL THEY CONFINED ME IN NARROW PLACES AND FUCKED ME UP THE ASS IN THE MOUTH WOMEN MADE ME FEEL THEM TERRIBLE TERRIBLE IVE BEEN MOLESTED BUT IVE NEVER BEEN LAID

He asked to see a therapist; one was available through the agency. He told her that he started hitting himself in the head whenever he felt sexually turned on, because he was afraid of the pleasure; of how the staff at his group home was angry and disgusted when he masturbated and made a mess in his bed. I felt very squeamish about the kind of detail he went into with her, and she with him; but I reminded myself that it was my job to put myself out of the way and help Michael communicate. I let the talks roll on. She basically told him that it was OK to masturbate and feel good, and for a while his self-abusive behavior almost stopped. People told me that he went through lulls and crescendos with it anyway; but the talk and the lull were surprisingly synchronous. Michael called an end to the sessions: ITS SPRING LETS GO TO THE PARK TALK TO THE TREES.

The therapist told me later that she was under a lot of pressure from others in the agency both to discuss what was going on in the sessions and to discontinue them because it was, after all, just me making the whole thing up. She told me that she did neither because they would have been a violation of her professional ethics. Thank you.

Michael was afraid of dogs. Even the most easygoing, friendly pooch would set him off, backing away. I decided to ask him about this one day. It opened a far bigger door than I thought it would.

IM AFRAID OF DOGS BECAUSE I WAS KILLED BY DOGS IN MY LAST LIFETIME

What!?

TERTON THATS WHAT I AM THATS GREAT I TRIED TO TELL YOU RIGHT AWAY BUT IT WAS TOO SOON IM REINCARNATED LAMA WANG CHUK TUTUT IS A DEMON I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR MANY LIFETIMES YOU HELPED ME DEFEAT HIM THAT WAS GREAT NOW YOU CAN HELP ME TEACH DHARMA TO PEOPLE I JUST NEED TO GET OUT OF VALLEY ST THEY DONT UNDERSTAND EITHER OF US THEY THINK YOURE TRIPPED OUT THATS YOUR PROBLEM

You mean being tripped out is my problem or them thinking that is my problem?

THEM THINKING IT KEEP THIS SECRET DONT EVEN TELL JUNE THATS ENOUGH FOR NOW LETS GO FOR A WALK

Could I just edit what you said about who you are and where you’re from and send that on to my Lama with a cover letter?

YES DONT TELL ALAN EITHER HELL KNOW WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT LETS GET SOME AIR

Yes, this was certainly something to be kept secret. “Alan” was a reference to a very close dharma brother of mine. Editing this in 2018, I don’t exactly recall whether we had had other conversations that mentioned him, or whether I had told Michael about him or whether Michael could only have known about him from “being in my mind.”

Was this an example of the same kind of projection that caused some people who thought they were facilitating real communication to come up with accusations of abuse by people who didn’t exist? (“My grandfather has been sticking his hand up my dress”—but grandpa has been dead since before the kid was born.) Or had I been miraculously guided to a an exceptionally well-hidden reincarnate lama? Over the following days I gradually got more of the story out of him. It was very slow—it took Michael an hour to type out a paragraph of a dozen lines. It was an astounding way to connect with another human being. While he typed I had to completely suspend my judgement, allow his hand to guide and mine to follow. He never hit the space bar, never used punctuation, sometimes inserted letters that were completely irrelevant to the text he seemed to be trying to produce. Over the next few days, a story gradually emerged.

THE CHINESE CAME TO MY MONASTERY THEY KILLED MY LAMA SOME PEOPLE HID THEY TORTURED ME AND I GAVE IN BETRAYED MY FRIENDS BUT THE CHINESE KILLED ME ANYWAYTHEY THREW ME TO THE DOGS I WASNT DEAD YET THE DOGS KILLED ME THATS WHY IM AFRAID OF DOGS IT WAS A TERRIBLE WAY TO GO TERRIBLE TERRIBLE NO PRAYERS NO LAST RITES TERRIBLE TERRIBLE I TOOK THIS BODY TO TRY AND GET RID OF THE SIN OF SPIRITUAL PRIDE

TUTUT IS A TERRIBLE DEMON TERRIBLE TERRIBLE TERRIBLE HE MAKES ME HIT MYSELF IN THE HEAD OVER AND OVER AGAIN (As I mentioned earlier, sometimes Michael seemed very sad and would only type TUTUT repeatedly between bouts of trying to hit himself in the head.)

EVEN WITH THIS BODY I STILL HAD SPIRITUAL PRIDE STILL HAD TUTUT BUT YOUR PRAYERS KILLED HIM THANK YOU

(Even so, Michael continued to hit himself.)

I was mindblown. I had vanquished a demon? I didn’t even know I was fighting one! How did I do it?

YOU BELIEVED THAT I WAS SMART

There was a certain plausibility to the story. He had been born during the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Tertons, finders of hidden teachings, were frequently individuals who in our society would be treated as retarded or crazy, like Michael.

YOUR SON WAS THERE WITH ME HE FOUGHT THE CHINESE THEY KILLED HIM

I WAS THIRTY WHEN I DIED YOU WERE THERE WHEN I WAS YOUNG YOU TOOK CARE OF THE TREES

Which monastery?

TSERING

I was familiar with the names of the major Tibetan monasteries, and “Tsering” was not one of them; but my daughter-in-law, who, along with my son, had become a Buddhist, had been named “Pema Tsering” by our lama.­ Had he plucked this name out of my subconscious—or had I?

I had nominally accepted the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth; part of me considered it a quaint superstition. I had never gone in for the craze of “past-life regression”; it seemed contrived at best and phony and self-serving at worst. With no emotional investment in “proving” this doctrine to myself, why would I make up such a story to tell–myself?

I decided to write a letter to the lama with whom I had taken refuge and tell him about all this. I didn’t expect a reply, since he often waited to respond to people’s questions in person, and I hadn’t seen him recently. I asked if he could meet with Michael and somehow confirm or dismiss his (my) story. Who else could I tell? No one at the agency, since I valued my job. Not June, who had thought Michael talking in the first place was my crazy invention. I sent the letter, not knowing what to expect.

A week or so later, Michael greeted me in the morning with his finger pointing out in the “let’s talk” mode, with his big silly grin bigger than usual. I took him to the computer, where he told me

THE LAMA CAME AND VISITED ME LAST NIGHT IT WAS GREAT THANKS

The next time I saw my lama, I told him Michael’s story. He accepted it unhesitatingly, gave me two little hand-folded packets of Tibetan medicine with mantras hand-written on the side, and told me to use one for myself, a few grains at a time, and to give the other to Michael, likewise a few grains at a time.

When I returned from visiting my lama, I showed Michael the packet and told him what it was. I set it in the ashtray of my car, in front of a picture of Jamgon Kongtrul, whom Michael had pointed to once and smilingly identified as “EMANATION OF MY LAMA.” (Jamgon Kongtrul, the card said on the back, was an emanation of the Gyalwang Karmapa.) I left him alone in the car for just a couple of minutes. When I returned, the packet was gone. He wouldn’t tell me what he had done with it.

Although he had told me “I WAS A BUDDHIST IN MY LAST LIFETIME BUT NOT IN THIS ONE” he didn’t mind me taking him to the library and looking through picture books about Tibet with him. Most of these were books I had already read, but, while browsing through one I had never seen before, I came across a reference to “…Tsering Monastery, which is home to a line of Nyingma Tertons….”I read the line to myself and looked over at Michael. He was smiling and laughing silently in a broader way than usual.

 

8.FIXIN’ TO DIE

Michael often expressed his dissatisfaction with the group home where he had lived, “temporarily,” for almost ten years. I could sympathize. While the staff all struck me as basically compassionate individuals, none of them had the open-mindedness or time to communicate with Michael. “THEY ALL THINK IM STUPID,” he wrote. Nevertheless, they were the people who cleaned him up when he fouled or fed himself, and made sure he had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. I think they deserved twice the pay they were getting. Patience and compassion are undervalued job skills in America today, not just in health care, but in day care as well.

Christine was unlike any other staff member at Valley St. She sparkled, she bubbled, she liked smoking marihuana. She and her boyfriend lived just across the valley from me, and I gave her rides to and from work on the rare occasions when our schedules coincided.

I LOVE CHRISTINE SHES NOT LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, Michael told me, and I relayed his appreciation to her. Then, one morning on the way to work, we talked about how hard it was to figure out what to do with him when the county was practically snowbound, and she was gracious enough to invite us to come visit her.

A few days later, we threaded the narrow, icy road down the canyon to her home. Michael sat and smiled while she and I smoked a bowl and compared notes on the insensitivity of the staff she worked with. At length he raised a finger, and I held up the board so he could “speak.”

I WANT TO FACILITATE WITH CHRISTINE

Want to try it, Christine?”

Sure.” I demonstrated the manual technique, the delicate art of feeling where another person’s muscles are trying to move and affirming that motion without directing it. Kind of like making love, but I didn’t say that to Christine, who was closer to my kids’ age than mine, and whose boyfriend I liked as much as her.

Ask him questions you know the answer to, first,” I told her. Patiently she helped him spell out his name, then hers; then she asked him if he knew the name of a nearby object. She looked perplexed, then smiled in comprehension.

I thought he would just write ‘sewing machine’, but he wrote ‘treadle sewing machine’.”

Ask him something you don’t know,” I suggested.

What’s your favorite color, Michael?” He started to spell; again she frowned before understanding came. “KELLEY GREEN.” The color of her eyes, truth be told; and my turn to smile, because Michael had told me “KELLEY GREEN” when I had asked him the same question a day or two before.

Michael wanted a home of his own. “ID LIKE TO LIVE ALONE IN A CABIN OUT IN THE WOODS AND GO FISHING AND SLEEP UNDER THE STARS,” he wrote. When I told June about this, (our relationship had survived its traumatic first night), she insisted that it must have been my projection, but I’m a vegetarian.

It was deep winter; there hadn’t been even a sunny hour, let alone a sunny day, in weeks, and the countryside was buried in snow. We couldn’t go out walking; we could barely even turn off the engine in my car without freezing. He often expressed his hatred of the empty hours at the group home. He was beginning to despair. “IM GOING TO DIE,” he wrote.

So who isn’t?” I replied.

IM GOING TO DIE FEBRUARY TENTH I KNOW HOW TO LEAVE MY BODY AND IM GOING TO DO IT” he wrote, repeatedly. A good friend of mine, as well as my daughter, both Buddhists, were expecting babies that spring, and Michael was aware of this. “IF I DIE NOW I CAN BE REBORN AS JOAN OR CARAS BABY BE RAISED IN A BUDDHIST FAMILY ID LIKE THAT.”

It seemed fantastic, but, without revealing Michael’s plans for rebirth, I told Danny that Michael had said he was going to die. That way, if he actually died, there would be some kind of evidence that he had said he was going to. She accepted it impassively. “That’s how a lot of people in this state feel on February 10th,” she said.

I awoke the morning of the tenth expecting a phone call telling me not to come to work because my “client” had died. None came, and I drove off to the agency, nervous and expectant, chanting mantras for Michael’s soul. At the former grocery store, the bus from Michael’s group home was late. My tension mounted. The bus arrived—he wasn’t on it. I hadn’t shared Michael’s prediction with the group home staff, but I’m sure my apprehension showed in my face as I asked his whereabouts. “Michael wouldn’t get out of bed this morning—would you mind going to the group home and picking him up?”

–No, not at all.

Michael was sluggish and unhappy. As soon as I could, I asked him what had happened.

I COULDN’T DO IT I COULDN’T CUT THE THREAD THE ONLY THING THAT HURTS MORE THAN LIVING IS DYING

He hit himself in the head a lot more than usual for the next several days.

 

9.THINKING AHEAD

Around the time Michael had begun predicting his own death, someone had suggested that I try taking him to the art activity center that the agency maintained. To my surprise, he agreed to go.

I asked him what he wanted to do and how he wanted me to help him.

WATERCOLORS ARE EASY HOLD MY HAND SO I CAN PAINT

I entered into that peculiar suspension of will, intention, and disbelief that joined my co-ordination and attention to his mind and arm, and we began.

It is no surprise to me that virtually no one else was able to communicate with Michael, nor was it mysterious to me that most of those who were successful at facilitation seemed to be women, sweet tempered, psychically inclined, or all three. There were definite skills involved in facilitation, skills not valued in our culture, which demands that we be forceful and egotistical if we are to be considered “well-adjusted.”

Likewise, it makes perfect sense to me that an “objective science” that takes no account of the effects of belief and doubt on an experiment, and that rejects categorically the possibility that one person might have the gift of seeing through another’s eyes, can design “tests” that consistently disprove the validity of facilitation. It’s easy to fail to see what you don’t believe exists.

But I digress. Michael mashed the paintbrush into the green paint, and made circles of varying shades and sizes. Then he dipped into brown paint and drew lines through the circles. He paused, signaled that he wanted to write.

ANOTHER PIECE OF PAPER

I got him another sheet of newsprint; he dipped into red and white so that his smears were pink, drew a long, horizontal ellipse. then a circle adjoining it. From the circle sprouted two vertical, narrow, pointed elliptical shapes.

NOW IM DONE I WANT TO GIVE ONE TO MY GUARDIAN AND ONE TO YOU

–do they have names? I wondered

FIRST IS SPRING SECOND IS RABBIT

Ah yes, I could see it. The first was trees….

KEEP THEM ITS SOMETHING I CAN RECOGNIZE WHEN I COME BACK

I was stunned. The common way that reincarnations of Tibetan lamas are recognized is by the young child’s ability to pick out articles that belonged to their preceding incarnation. In Michael’s case, what else could there be? And who else could he give it to?

What’s he talking about?” inquired the curious, friendly young woman who oversaw the art program.

Nothing much.” What could I possibly tell her more than “This is a rabbit, and this he calls ‘Spring’. The broad strokes and pale colors of Michael’s “Spring” gave it a delicate Impressionist beauty. It hung on my wall until my house burned down and it was consumed in the blaze. Sorry, Michael. I had only a couple of minutes to get out as the room rapidly filled with smoke. But, in the early nineties, that tragedy was still twenty years in the future.

I was very concerned that after many months, I was still the only person who could communicate with Michael. I was relieved when Danny said she wanted to take some time to get serious about talking with Michael. I happily sat in the agency lobby and read old magazines or talked with other trainers and clients for the one-hour sessions Danny took with him. One staffer offered me a chance to facilitate with his client, a robust, attractive, but nonverbal young woman who wrote “KISS ME STRIP ME SUCK ME FUCK ME” “thanks but no thanks,” I told her, thinking this must be my own horniness projected through her hands. I asked a male staff member if that sounded like something she’d say, and he smiled and laughed. “Yeah, she says that to everybody—but it would cost your job to do it.”

No problem.”

Facilitation revealed a high degree of sexual frustration among autistic/nonverbal people. Many wrote that they were normal minds with insufficient control over their bodies, classed as retarded when in fact what they were involved in was a sort of ambulatory paralysis. They deeply resented being considered stupid and being talked down to, but they were powerless to do anything about this, because the people who were the most condescending to them were the ones who didn’t believe in the reality of facilitated communication.

When I look at the effect that psychoactive alkaloids in belladonna and other nightshades have on human behavior, as well as initial reports on the effects of certain psychoactive terpines found in the salvia divinorum plant, I see a possible chemical basis for this theory. Both these substances disconnect the user’s perception from consensus reality; the conscious mind perceives one thing, while the body takes on a life of its own, and a “sitter” is necessary to keep the psychonaut from walking around and hurting himself. The alkaloids are active on people because our brains contain receptors for them; from this I infer that our bodies are capable of producing similar substances, with similar effects. DMT is an example of this: an endogenous body chemical that is a potent psychedelic when introduced into the body at higher than normal levels. Perhaps this is the chemical basis for autism and catatonia. With the renewed openness to psychedelic research, perhaps someone is looking into this, or soon will. But I digress….

 

10. GETTING THE MESSAGE

Danny was not condescending towards Michael—I always felt that she was my main ally in the agency’s management. After about forty-five minutes, she and Michael emerged from her office, and she told me she was making some progress communicating with him, that he said he would rather be called Peter, and that he would like to study math. I thanked her for the information and led Michael to my car. Once there, he stuck out his finger to signal that he wanted to communicate and wrote

I DONT WANT TO BE CALLED PETER I DON’T WANT TO STUDY MATH

Oh, well, I thought. I don’t want to have to be the one to break the bad news to Danny.

We swung off the main road and headed into the park. I recalled how a recent passenger had left a roach in my ashtray, and decided that it would be a good time to dispose of the evidence. As I put the little sliver of paper on my car’s hot cigarette lighter and inhaled the fumes, Michael became frantic, and signaled that he wanted to communicate.

DON’T DO THAT AT WORK THEYLL FIRE YOU FOR IT DANNY ASKED ME IF YOU SMOKED POT AND I SAID NO YOU MEDITATE

I rarely partook at work—neither the agency nor the group home were enjoyable places to be high—and while I was grateful that he covered for me, I didn’t want to put him in an awkward position. I never used herb around him again.

.That afternoon, I went to the computer on which Danny and Michael had been facilitating, and found the file in which she had recorded her efforts.

Although she hadn’t written her questions, Michael’s answers were there in

plain English:–

SMOKE IT

IT GETS YOU HIGH

DAVID DOESN’T GET HIGH HE MEDITATES

NO

After communicating with Danny, he wrote,

I DON’T LIKE TALKING WITH DANNY ITS VERY SCARY IN HER MIND HER FATHER BEAT HER UP HER BOYFRIEND RAPED HER

I didn’t know what to do about claims like this. I certainly wasn’t going to ask Danny to verify them. I decided to change the subject. “While you’re in Danny’s mind, could you find out what your mother’s address is so we can write her like you wanted to?”

NO I CANT DO THAT I CAN ONLY TELL THINGS PEOPLE HAVE STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT LIKE SEX AND DRUGS

 

11. THE DARK TOWER

The park we frequented had an observation tower in it. Part of Michael’s physical therapy was supposed to be climbing stairs, and here were five flights of them. I would lead him on, insisting that it was good for him.

He would try to bang his head, which I could prevent, or wet his pants, which I could not prevent. After a while, he got into the spirit of the thing, and would tell me in the morning

LETS GO CLIMB THE TOWER

We did it once every week or two. Mid-December found the stairs coated with icy snow, but we trudged our way to the top, where I enjoyed the sparkling panoramic view. I never thought to ask Michael if he appreciated the view, or just the challenge of the climb.

A few minutes passed. We had cooled from the heat of the climb, and it was time to descend. Not so easy, I discovered. Michael’s stiff-legged way of descending stairs made it difficult for him not to slide down the hard, icy, steep steps. The landings in the corners were small and slick; we could easily fall and carom through a landing and down another flight of stairs. And another, and another. He clung to me as best he could while I guided his feet down, step by stiff step, slowly, as the bitter cold penetrated our clothing and our bones. When at last there were no more stairs to climb, I felt my heart relax. We were alive and uninjured. Michael never asked to climb the tower again. I didn’t push him on it.

 

12. WORKING FOR A LIVING

Michael’s “rehabilitation” when I first began working with him, had consisted of emptying the wastebaskets in the main office and sorting out the recyclable paper from the trash. It was my job to time how well he could stay “on task” doing this, and how well he could differentiate recyclable and non-recyclable material. Because people sometimes threw out wet items such as cups partially filled with coffee, and organic matter like popcorn nubbins and half-eaten sticky buns, this could be a disgusting job; the only thing that made it easier was that, since the janitor emptied the wastebaskets every night and we came around at about ten in the morning, there was rarely very much to sort through. I even went so far as to ask the janitor not to empty the wastebaskets, but no dice. It was just as well, I suppose.

I soon discovered that facilitation worked well on this task: Michael would not keep moving if left on his own, but with my hand on his wrist he could sort trash quickly (for him) and accurately. I “faded” my hand back to his elbow, then his shoulder. What had been a difficult and frustrating morning’s work for his previous trainer dropped to a half hour breeze for us. After whipping through the trash, we would head out for coffee and donuts, our funds occasionally augmented by a deposit bottle or three.

Michael kept insisting that he hated this job, both in what he wrote and by repeatedly taking breaks to hit himself in the head while we worked. I talked with Danny about this. “His IPP (annual review) is coming up,” she told me. “Interview him. See what he does and doesn’t want.”

The next time he dragged me to the computer room and it was open, I had some questions to ask him.

Is there anything you’d rather not do?

GET RUN OVER BY A TRUCK

After I narrowed the focus a little further, his ultimate response was

IM NOT STUPID IM HANDICAPPED I SHOULDNT HAVE TO WORK WITH STUPID PEOPLE

One day Michael and I had a chance to work in a local ice-cream packing plant. The plant had a special section where a small crew from the Agency worked, removing defective ice-cream containers from a production line. There was no decision-making involved—the pints had already been rejected, and we just put them in crates, which the company donated to local charities to sell and raise money. None of the other workers needed a “facilitator” to help them. At first I had to pretty much move Michael’s hands in the pattern he needed to follow, but by lunchtime he was initiating the motions, with only a light touch from me to keep him on track.

Our workday was over an hour after lunch; I asked him how he liked it.

IT WAS BORING LETS EAT OUR FREE SAMPLES

We retired to a picnic bench in a nearby park and totally stuffed ourselves on ice cream. He smiled and nodded and ate ice cream. He did not hit himself. Next day he wrote

I GOT SICK LAST NIGHT I NEVER WANT TO GO THERE AGAIN

And we didn’t.

 

13. DEAR MOM

I had a friend who was an astrologer. She had been interpreting my chart and my children’s charts, advising us on our strengths, weaknesses, and possible futures, and I thought it might be interesting to have her take a look at Michael’s. His birthday was easy to look up in the agency’s file—but how could I find out what time he was born?

I was pondering this question as we were walking in the park one warm spring day. Michael raised his hand and pointed his finger. I expected a bathroom call. Michael couldn’t hold his penis and pee standing up; he had to sit on a toilet or else he just wet his pants. I preferred getting him to a toilet.

But he didn’t write I HAVE TO PEE. He pointed to just three characters:

9

A

M

My jaw dropped. The world around me began to spin, at an accelerating rate of speed. Again his hand moved over the alphabet board.

I WAS BORN AT NINE AM

The world did not stop spinning. I had said nothing out loud. There had been plenty of previous instances where he had appeared to read my mind, but how the hell could he know what time he was born? Well, I knew my birth time. Perhaps, he, too, had heard and remembered—which still seems to demonstrate that he had more brains than most people in the agency credited him with, but telling me his birth time without me asking him? This had to be some kind of a projection on my part.

I searched Michael’s records. I found the name of the hospital where he had been born. Deciding that nothing worked like the truth, I called them and told them I was doing Michael’s horoscope and needed to know his birth time. Without hesitation they checked their records and told me, “Eight-thirty in the morning.”

Mighty close, but not quite the same as nine. I asked Michael about the difference; he replied

I WAS A SLOW STARTER

A distinct possibility, I thought, but how to prove it?

The means of proof was not long coming.

One day Michael came to me and spelled out

I WANT TO WRITE MY MOTHER A LETTER

This came as a surprise to me. He had not seen or heard from her since he was ten; but he did often wish for a family, and I didn’t know of any reason why he shouldn’t write his mother.

The letter was short and to the point:

DEAR MOM

I KNOW YOU WERE SCARED OF ME AND DIDNT KNOW HOW TO TREAT ME BUT I FORGIVE YOU I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH YOUR SON

MICHAEL

I found his mother’s address in the agency files, put the letter in an envelope and sent it off. Thirty-year old man writes his mother a letter. No big deal, right?

 

14. WRITTEN IN THE STARS—AN INTERLUDE

This is the chart of a friend of mine, someone I’m thinking about going into partnership with,” I told my astrologer friend. “What do you think?”

She squinted and took a thoughtful drag on her cigarette. “I’ve never seen such a difficult chart…it’s loaded with squares and oppositions. Has your friend ever been suicidal?”

I recalled the countdown to death that I had gone through with Michael in January and smiled to myself. “In a manner of speaking, yes. Tell me—how honest do you think this person is?”

Based on the placement and aspects of his Mercury—eleventh house, cusp of twelfth, conjoint sun in Leo, I would say—he?–conceals things that he knows, has communication difficulties, and is more intelligent than a lot of people think he is….Virgo rising, Venus in Virgo, first house only aspect

a Mars square…he yearns for a partner, but he’s single and likely to remain so…Saturn in the fifth house likely to spend a lot of time confined in hospitals or jails.”

That’s very interesting. what about past lives?”

Moon, Uranus, Pluto all in twelfth house, Pluto conjoint ascendant—all

indicators of lots of ‘baggage’ from past lives.” She talked on, telling me enough that I knew to be true about Michael that the rest of it seemed to fall into place, as well. “Rational people” say astrology is a sham, that it deals in generalities, that it makes sense because we want it to. Enough of what she told me about Michael from his chart, without knowing anything about him, was easy for me to confirm from my experience. That certainly made the rest of it seem more plausible.

 

15. DEAR MOM, CONTINUED

Danny’s expression was grimmer than usual “You helped him write and send a letter to his mother?!”

Yes. He asked. Is there something wrong with that?”

Under the terms of his legal guardianship, he cannot send or receive mail without his guardian’s permission. It’s a violation of his right of confidentiality. Didn’t you know that?”

No…writing his mother a letter seemed like a reasonable thing for him to want to do. I had no idea there was anything wrong with it, that I needed to ask anybody first.”

Michael is not a legal person in the same way that you and I are. He is considered incompetent. He has no rights. You could get fired for this…and now his mother wants to come visit him. She hasn’t seen him in twenty years.”

I know. He told me.” Nobody else had. Sure, I could have guessed….

Look. I’m not going to fire you. Michael is doing better with you than

with any other trainer he’s ever had. Just…if he wants to write any more letters, talk to me first.”

No problem….thanks, Danny….”

 

16. GRAB ‘EM BY THE HAND AND YOU CAN LEAD ‘EM ANYWHERE….

Michael’s fixation on holding hands with people meant that he would go wherever he was led. And so, one hot summer day I led him to the pond near my house. The pond was right by the road, which unfortunately restricted all but the most discreet skinny-dipping. As shaky as my tenure with the agency was, I had no desire to risk getting found naked with a client. I wore cutoffs to work that day. Michael wet his pants so frequently that I figured soaking them in pond water rather than urine would give the staff back at his group home a break. It was clear, relatively clean Northern pond water, not the microorganism-rich frog pee soup characteristic of Southern ponds.

I walked him into the cool water knee-deep, waist deep, up to his neck. The pond bottom fell away rapidly. He couldn’t decide whether to cling to me or hit himself in the head, but he was definitely anxious. I held him up, tried to get him to relax and float, but he was too busy freaking out.

Enough, I thought, led him out, and changed him into dry clothes. Back in

the car he spelled out

THANKS THAT WAS GREAT I LOVED IT BUT MY BODY FREAKS OUT

When I returned him to the group home, I told a staff member what had happened. Her eyes grew wide as saucers. “You took him swimming? That’s incredible. We can’t even get him to sit in a bathtub without hitting himself in the head.”

 

17.A PICNIC

On the day Michael’s mother was coming to visit. Michael kept writing over and over again:

MOM IS COMING MOM IS COMING MOM IS COMING

I told him I wasn’t going to facilitate him repeating himself like that, I had to drive. I let go of his hand; he laughed in his desperately-gulping-for-air style. His mother had been an alcoholic teenager when Michael was born; she was scarcely older than me. I wondered if she would turn out to be some kind of hippie.

If she had been, or still was, at all “countercultural,” she kept it well hidden. She was heavily made up and attired in polyester. She was seriously overweight, but radiated the inner glow that is the true hallmark of feminine attractiveness. She introduced her “new” husband (Michael’s father had disappeared long ago), who seemed much older than either of us. He was principal of a grade school. She introduced herself to Michael. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the agency. The sun was beating down, crowds of people were coming and going, and traffic was rumbling by. There was no place to sit and get comfortable. She hugged Michael. She told him she was terribly sorry to have abandoned him to the state hospital, that “they” had told her that he did not know who she was and she hadn’t wanted to believe them, but they were the experts and she was just a high school dropout, and she had quit coming to see him. She had moved out of the state for many years, but he had never left her mind, and she had been thinking of him especially strongly right before his “amazing, wonderful letter” had arrived. She hoped, she said, it would be the beginning of a long and happy relationship. She stood there and told him this and hugged him to her like the long-lost child he was. Her husband and I looked at each other and then at them and smiled politely. It was not a time for small talk.

And Michael, Michael who would firmly and compulsively hold hands with people but just as firmly and compulsively refuse to be held any closer (“terrible things have happened terrible things” he had written), Michael stood there and let her hold him.

After a few minutes of this I suggested that perhaps we could go do Michael’s program. I had written an “exercise program” for him. This meant that we went for a walk in the park every day.

Would you like to ride to the park with me?” his mother asked.

YESYESYES

he spelled out, but firmly resisted when she tried to lead him into her car

MY BODY HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN

he explained, went by himself to my car, got in, and pulled the seatbelt across for me to buckle, just as he always did.

When I first started working with Michael, I had had to guide him through every step of the seatbelt-buckling process by making his arms and hands go through the motions. Over the course of almost a year, he had progressed to the point of being able to perform this common set of movements on his own, most of the time—but only in my car. I had also repeatedly guided his hand through the final step of snapping the belt closed, but to no avail

We walked around the park together. It took a lot of my attention to help Michael maneuver the trail, and it was a bit of a strain for his mother, too.

It was a warm day and beads of sweat streaked her face as she huffed and puffed back to the picnic shelter where we customarily ate. As usual, we had the place to ourselves.

Her husband had carried a cooler from the trunk of their car, while I carried Michael’s lunch bag and my own. The group home had sent one of their typical meals—low-end school cafeteria stuff. Not the kind of meal you want to show your mother if you value her peace of mind.

Sure enough, she got upset and dealt him out a healthy (?) portion of her homemade potato salad.

She offered me some, but I could see the red chunks of ham glistening in it, and said, “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m a vegetarian.” Vegetarianism seemed exotic to her.

We got much more conversational over lunch. You can’t just tell anybody “I have a thirty-one-year-old brain-damaged son that I put in the State Hospital when he was four and haven’t seen since he was ten, and I’ve been through hell about it,” but she could and did tell me.

I was only sixteen at the time. I was really scared. My parents wanted me to go away and give him up for adoption, but I said absolutely not. Then when I went in the hospital, they put me out completely and the next thing I know they’re putting Michael in my arms in the recovery room. I’d never seen a newborn baby before. He was really white—pale, pale white. I didn’t know he was supposed to be pink.

That lit up my attention. In the Tibetan tradition with which I was familiar, it is considered extremely auspicious if a baby is pure white at birth—though Michael’s subsequent life had been anything but auspicious. “Why was he white?”

He had been corded at birth—had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck—it took them half an hour to get him going. If I’d known at the time, I could’ve won a major malpractice suit, but it’s been so long…”

The light bulb in my head turned into a world-class fireworks display. Michael had been right—he had been “a slow starter.” At the time, I thought this meant he remembered his own birth, but he probably simply remembered hearing the story of his birth. This was not anything I had heard, and the odds of me making up a story that turned out to be true seem rather long. Again, the simple ability to remember his own story indicated far more intelligence than most people believed he possessed. But at the time, I wanted to believe that he just—remembered. The more prosaic explanation is more likely, but “unlikely” doesn’t necessarily mean “out of the question.” After all, I entitled this tale “An Unlikely Story.”

After our picnic, his Mother hugged him again for a while, and then we parted ways. She didn’t visit him again in the remaining months I worked with Michael.

 

18. AN INCIDENT AT THE GRAVEYARD

Michael also liked me to read to him—sex and scary stories, he said. I read him Edgar Allen Poe and Henry Miller. I didn’t read him any Henry Miller when his mother visited. Some days, we would go to a graveyard in town to hang out and read Edgar Allen Poe stories. I especially liked to hang out by a tombstone of the MICHAELS family, which oddly enough was next to a tombstone for a member of the MARTIN family. This oddly paired grave site was shaded by big maples and pines, and was a great place to read Poe.

We would occasionally encounter other trainers and clients there. On one occasion, we met Chuck and his trainer Mike. Chuck was obviously angry. Michael pointed his finger to let me know he wanted to talk.

CHUCK IS MAD HE WANTS TO GO TO MCDONALDS FOR A BURGER

Chuck began holding his hands to his head and squawking louder.

Michael says Chuck wants to go to McDonald’s for a burger,” I reported to Mike.

Yep, that’s what he wants.” Mike didn’t seem to think it odd for Michael to know what Chuck wanted. I had no knowledge of the guy’s preferences.

Michael kept pointing. I offered him the board.

CHUCK CAN FEEL ME IN HIS HEAD HE DOESN’T LIKE IT HES STUPID BUT SENSITIVE

This took long enough to spell out that Chuck’s squawks were fading in the distance by the time we were done.

I recall being told that when someone had first started facilitating with Chuck and asked him what he wanted, he had written,

TAKE ME TO NEW YORK AND FIX ME UP WITH A HOOKER

That thoroughly shocked the staid couple who took care of him. I don’t believe his request was granted.

 

18. WORK, AGAIN

Lonnie was an older woman who worked in the upper echelons of the agency. She appreciated Michael and the work I did with him. One day she came to us with a proposition: “I’ll pay Michael if you’ll help him paint the fence at my house.”

That’s fine with me. I don’t know how much he’ll go for it, though.”

I bet he’d go for a little four-and-a-quarter an hour.”

Michael’s response was simple and straightforward: NO I HATE WORK I DON’T NEED MONEY IM NOT STUPID IM HANDICAPPED

I told him that I thought it would be good for his handicap to do something that involved making his body do things it wasn’t used to. Besides, I wanted to cultivate a good relationship with Lonnie. She was reportedly the person who kept me from getting fired on more than one occasion, and I told Michael as much. I didn’t care if he could read my mind. I was used to talking to people, so I talked to him.

We got the fence painted. It was a struggle all the way. Michael peed his pants three times—a record. Every time I let go of his hand, he would take off his shoes and socks and start hitting himself in the head. He would hold the brush OK, but he would only dab paint as long as I kept my hand on his wrist. As soon as I let go he would, without dropping the brush, start hitting himself in the head, thus getting white paint all over his face. It took us four hours, but we did finish the job.

Michael was a total mess when I returned him to the group home. I had warned them that we would be painting, but whoever had dressed him had not gotten the word and his relatively new clothes were liberally coated with paint. People were not happy about this, but somebody did ask him what he wanted to do with the money.

BUY A COMPUTER SO I CAN COMMUNICATE THEY HAVE ONES YOU CAN CONTROL BY BLINKING YOUR EYES I CAN BLINK MY EYES MYSELF

Seventeen dollars down, and a long way to go.

 

19. GETTING LOST

I kept wondering what I could do with Michael that would prove to everyone that I was not making up what Michael was saying. What might he know that I didn’t—that didn’t have to do with someone’s sexual preference?

He had a good relationship with Chris, a man about my age who worked at the group home. Chris wanted to “adopt” Michael (thus receiving a sizeable tax-free stipend), and had been taking him home for weekends for several months. I had never been to Chris’s house. Could Michael direct me there? I asked him, and he told me he thought he could. We started out from the agency one morning, heading south.

What street do I turn at?, I wondered, and pulled over to help Michael facilitate his answer.

I DON’T KNOW THE NAME ILL TELL YOU WHEN IT’S A LEFT TURN ITS UP A HILL

Ok, I thought, just raise your hand when it’s time to turn.

We were well out of town; the suburbs and side streets were thinning out. I was sure it couldn’t be much farther. Michael raised his hand, and I made the turn one-handed, holding his arm with my right hand to prevent him from hitting himself, then pulled over to ask about the next turn.

RIGHT AT THE TOP OF THE HILL

There was indeed a right turn at the top of the hill, but we were in a fairly ritzy new neighborhood, and somehow I doubted that anyone there was working for $6.25 an hour at Michael’s group home. Nevertheless, I asked him again for directions.

THIS ISNT IT I DON’T KNOW WHERE I DON’T PAY GOOD ATTENTION TO DIRECTIONS

He hit his head a lot more on the way back than he had on the way out. When at last I did take him to Chris’s house, we turned left up the hill and then right, but in a working-class district closer to town than the place Michael and I had explored.

At the suggesetion of someone from the agency, I had once taken him to the only mall in town, since its long, enclosed walkway was a good place for clients to get some exercise in poor weather.

I HATE IT HERE I HATE MUZAK

he wrote, and emphasized it by repeated headbangings and practically pushing me out the next exit we came to. What could I say? I didn’t like the music either, and it wasn’t exactly my kind of crowd. We left and went to the park. I tuned in to the local college radio station, where a country-bluegrass show was in progress. Again he pointed, letting me know he wanted to talk

I HATE COUNTRY MUSIC FIND SOME ROCK AND ROLL

 

20. HOME AT LAST

At length one of Michael’s dreams came true: he moved out of the group home and in with Chris. Michael liked him, even though, like almost everyone, he was unable to facilitate with him.

CHRIS HEARS ME BUT HE THINKS HE JUST KNOWS WHAT I WANT

Michael told me. And so I no longer had to interact with the group home, and began returning Michael to Chris’s house (Chris would drop him off at the agency in the morning). Chris lived with his father. His mother was dead, and he himself was divorced. His sister, a young and attractive woman, was often there helping out. Sometimes I just dropped Michael off; sometimes we talked. One day when I had been invited in the house she told me, “We’re going to the mall today—Michael really loves it there…and, y’know, I’ve been teaching him to dance. She flipped on a Merle Haggard tape, took Michael by the hand, and led him in an awkward two-step around the room. “He loves country music.”

I thought, “I think he’d like about any kind of music that resulted in you taking him by the hand and holding him close,” but I held my tongue. I kept “Loves the mall? Maybe loves going anywhere with you” to myself, as well.

Maybe being at the mall with people who like it made it OK for him. It was one of the last times I saw him; I never got a chance to ask him about it.

 

21, ALL THINGS MUST PASS

Although my wife and I had been separated for several years, we were still talking regularly, and decided to try getting back together. We had separated under very angry circumstances. Once the anger had cooled down, we still cared for each other. She wasn’t interested in moving up north where I was living, and I wasn’t crazy about the long winters either, so this meant I would be moving out of state. I worried about what would happen to Michael without me. One morning when Michael had led me to the computer, he typed out

YOU SHOULD GO BACK TO MARY DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME I GOT ALONG WITHOUT YOU BEFORE ILL GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU AGAIN SHE LOVES YOU VERY MUCH

That’s sweet and noble, Michael, but how do you know what she thinks?”

SHES ALWAYS IN YOUR HEART AND YOURE ALWAYS IN HERS

As the day of my departure approached, Michael became increasingly nervous about who would replace me.

I HOPE ITS NOT SOMEONE WHO THINKS IM STUPID

he would write almost every day. Danny would tell me nothing, except that they were working on it, and were narrowing down the choices. Then, on Monday of the last week before I was to leave, she tersely told me that Ronnie would meet with us for a few days of training, starting the next morning.

Ronnie turned out to be a stunningly beautiful young woman. We conversed as we went through Michael’s morning routine. She had recently been widowed—left with a small child after an automobile accident. While I didn’t sense that she was quite in the same tribe as me and Christine, we were definitely on similar wavelengths. It seemed that Michael’s prayers had been answered.

On the second day of training, I accompanied Ronnie and Michael in her car. We went to the public library and she borrowed Hunter S. Thompson and Stephen King books to read to Michael. They dropped me off at the agency at the day’s end. As she drove away, I could see Michael trying to put his head in her lap. “Molested but never laid,” I remembered him writing. I hoped Ronnie could handle the energy. I had left her with the disc of Michael’s facilitation, deleting my letters to my lamas but leaving all his talk about demons, past lives, and mindreading. I wondered who would read it. I wondered if anyone would. I wondered if they would believe it. I was leaving the state and had no personal friends in the agency. I realized that I would probably never know.

 

22. SLIGHT RETURN

It hadn’t worked out with my wife. I was back, back to the state, back to the agency, looking for a job. A friend had warned me that the agency had changed. It certainly had. It had moved from the former grocery store in\the gritty part of town to a brand new office building in the suburbs. A certain air of informality had stayed behind.

The secretary was the same person, but the atmosphere was different—chilly, and not just because it was November.

I filled out a form and spoke with the new personnel manager, who didn’t know me from “the old days.” She told me They had many applicants for not many positions,. They would call if anything came up. I knew that meant “we’re probably not going to hire you.” I happened to walk by Danny’s office, located in a far corner of the huge building. Her door was open, and through it I saw the same cram-packed landscape she had worked in back in the old grocery store. We exchanged greetings and talked briefly and superficially about how the agency had expanded. She did not mention Michael. It would have been a breach of ethics, after all, to talk about a client to somebody who was not an employee.

I met Michael in the stairwell, beaming, holding a shopping bag, accompanied by a blonde, bland woman. She didn’t seem to be carrying an alphabet board. “Michael has a little business distributing bagels,” she told me when I introduced myself. He pulled the sock from one of his hands and solemnly offered it to me. I gravely joined him in the little ritual—took his hand briefly, the replaced the sock—one of the little energy exchanges we often engaged in that has somehow escaped mention up to this point. He and his trainer went on down the stairs and I went up them, and that was the last time I saw him.

But not the last I heard. I was hired by another agency in an adjoining county, and one night found myself on duty with a woman who perked up when I mentioned having worked with Michael. “I did, too! He started communicating with a lot of people after you left, including me. Ronnie—she didn’t last long. He was really hard on her, very sexually aggressive.

You know, funny things happen with Michael—like, one time I’m with him, and he starts saying, “WHC” over and over again, and I’m thinking, ‘WHC? what?’ and then I think, ‘women’s health center?’—I called there and it seems someone had just called them and left a very important message for me—and I don’t often get messages there, I wouldn’t have thought to call them and ask. And then another time he did the same thing, and there was an important message for me that time, too—and those were the only times he ever said ‘WHC’. Very mysterious.”

We went on and talked more about Michael, and I told her some—but not all—of my experiences with him. Of course, I have no way of knowing if she had tales that she, too, chose not to reveal.

 

23. SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

That was the last I heard about Michael. Twenty-five years later, I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. I still don’t know quite what to make of my “unlikely story.” Was I in the presence of one of those highly evolved beings said to take birth in the bodies of the mad, the deformed, the mistreated, for subtle karmic reasons or the general enlightenment of humanity? Was Michael a sort of tabula rasa who reflected back to me qualities and powers that I could not admit as my own? Or was it a lower sort of projection, in which my mind turned random circumstance and wishful thinking into a semblance of the miraculous?

I don’t think it was that last one. Too many coincidences lined up too well for it to be merely coincidental. The other possibilities? I don’t know. I just don’t know what it was that I saw and experienced as Michael. And that, perhaps, is the most profound truth of all.

When I first began communicating with Michael, I would ask him what he

wanted to do with his life.

I WANT TO TELL THE WORLD THAT NOT EVERYBODY WHO LOOKS STUPID IS STUPID

he wrote As he discovered that most people could not facilitate with him, he told me

ITS ENOUGH THAT YOU KNOW IM REALLY SMART

And who else in his world might have been able to hear or believe his story and his abilities?

As I close this narrative, I want to address once again the question of whether “facilitated communication” is valid or not. First of all, I think it is reasonable to assume that some, though not all, “nonverbal” people are highly intelligent but unable to speak, and lack full control of their bodies. Joe Conrad told stories of people who started with facilitated communication and graduated to unassisted pointing to letters or use of a computer keyboard. I don’t have any confirmation of this from elsewhere, but I haven’t gone looking.

We might also consider the fairly recent discovery that some people who appear to be in a “coma” are fully cognizant of what is going on around them, but unable to respond in any way.

Looking at the frequent failure of facilitated communication to stand up in “test conditions,” we might compare it to early clinical psychedelic experiments, in which grim doctors administering psychedelics to subjects in grim laboratory/hospital environments consistently reported lots of grim, frightening experiences from those subjects, with occasional flashes of deep insight, while researchers who gave the drugs to people in softer, more “friendly” environments came up with generally positive results. Our culture of separation likes to pretend that the observer does not have any effect on the experiment, and that is certainly true for basic chemistry, but not everything is black and white, and it seems that when we start researching the capacities of the human mind, what we report may be affected by what we are willing to see, or acknowledge seeing.

In Michael’s case, I think I have adequately pointed out that he was frequently the one to initiate the communication, and that, on several occasions, he told me things I could not have known, that proved to be true. On the other hand, some of the things he told me—about his and my past lives, and about “being in other peoples’ heads when they touch me” sound like the stuff of fantasy novels. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no beings in the Tibetan pantheon known as “Tutut” and “Kaden,” his names for the two non-material beings he would mention from time to time. On the other hand, the Chinese invasion and subsequent violent suppression of Tibetan Buddhism erased a lot of minor deities and traditions. Many monks and practitioners were killed, and whole libraries were burned, and we have no idea what was lost.

My sense of what happened is that there was an intelligent consciousness in Michael’s body with whom I was communicating, and that none of the “extraordinary” things he told me were so extraordinary as to be completely unbelievable. As to whether our connection was pure random chance, or due to the direction of some “higher power,” I remain agnostic. I will note, however, that the Tibetan tradition has it that those who have studied with the same teacher interact with each other through multiple lifetimes, and, according to Michael’s account, we were so paired. However it happened, I am the only one who can tell Michael’s story, which I promised him I would, some day, do, and now have done. Thank you for reading it.

 

APPENDIX—JOURNAL ENTRIES

I was keeping a journal at the time, and sometimes mentioned Michael in it. (Fascinating as he was, he was not the only important thread in my life at the time!) These entries are the “raw material” from which I recalled all the details I have added above. In the interest of a full account, here they are.

8-12

Michael’s attention to paper sorting seems much better if I keep a light touch on his elbow. The ten-second number I put on the chart is really low—he tended to stay on task much longer, but there was so little sorting to do that it was a little difficult to take the job seriously. I suspect that that is his attitude, as well as mine. Would like to see him take on going and getting the wastebaskets as well as dumping them.

The “buying coffee” bit would be much realer, I think, if he had money with him instead of being given money to give to the cashier. Problem is, he doesn’t always have a pocket to put the money in. This might also introduce the idea of having money to him. Or the idea of keeping track of something. Like with the balls—he picks them up and carries them around, then drops them and ignores them. Last week, he quite intentionally put one in the trash at the Pizza Parade.

Also, Friday he helped me carry out the big box of garbage. His attention was pretty on track for that.

8-15

Decided to have Michael pick up trash as well as empty it—I walk him around through it and it goes well—but when we get to the Pizza Parade, a strange occurrence—the dollar and the note that I had him put in his pocket are both gone. I give him another dollar and another note. On talking to house staff, decide to put note in his backpack pocket instead—less likely for him to deep six it somewhere. I think he thought he was pulling a fast one on me—he was grinning and grinding his teeth a lot.

8-16

Michael is grinding his teeth more today—I’m not sure if it’s related to the change in routine or not. He appears to be adapting well to it, though. Valley Rd. staff sez he’s been known to take checks and hide them in his room—seems like maybe he knows what they are. He also takes phones off the hook and turns off TV sets. Julie wants to meet Michael—maybe picnic with him.

He played with his shit today—I chewed him out and washed his hands, put his shitty sweatband in a rubber glove in his pack—will check Monday to make sure it was removed. Went to Main St. Market for lunch—Michael enjoyed it.

8-20

trash job winding down—Laurie Whitehead sez possibility of something

realer—Michael mimed packing up and leaving as soon as we got to the agency’s Water St. hq.—big smile on his face-like saying, “it wouldn’t matter if we just left, would it?”

8-21

½ hour late today—M seems uptight about it all day

8-22

emptying trash, we spilled a bunch of popcorn on the floor and had to chase around the building to get a broom and dustpan to clean it up. Although an earlier report on M. had claimed he didn’t understand the concept of sweeping a floor, he insisted on taking the broom and did a slow, careful, thorough job. Going down the stairs with him, I felt a certain sense of vertigo, as if they were much taller and steeper and at an odd angle. Wonder if this is his perception, why he is so slow on them and insists on hanging onto the wall.

Joe Conrad asks him what kind of day he is having—he’s written out “good” “alright” and “bad.” Michael points to “bad.”

8-23

Ask M. if he wants a pizza if I cut it up for him. He points to “no.” Without my car (It was in the shop.) we walk around downtown St. Pierre. Right as we start, he hits himself hard in the eye, apparently due to anxiety. (This was the day of the first facilitation with Joe, the “jelly donuts” day.)Then he cools out as I talk to him and we walk down the street. Some difficulty due to newness of coffe stop at Donut House—more money for a smaller cup of coffee. The we walk down to an Italian restaurant. Michael eats and enjoys a big plate of spaghetti—I cut it up for him. Folks from Valley Rd. come in, also Bill Ford—I introduce him to Bill, and surprisingly he looks Bill right in the eye. (Bill was an older, very hip therapist/bodyworker, and a member of the men’s group I was in.)

8-26

Michael pretty grumpy this morning—staff sez it’s because he’s getting up earlier. Dumping the trash at Water St. is even more of a farce than usual—the first can we dump has a nearly full cup of coffee in it, which spills all over the floor. We mop it up together and his mood improves after that, though he keeps letting me know he’d like to quit.

Valley Rd. staff said he was up half the night—sitting on his dresser and laughing.

8-29

We went for a walk across the railroad bridge today. His caution on the ties closely resembles his caution going down stairs. Perception problems? Crossing back over, he wants to walk on the 2×6 and, though I still hold his hand for balance, he seems to have an easier time of it.

Everybody is very happy with our relationship, even me. I think it’s OK with Michael. Question at Valley Rd. meeting about tooth pain—later he won’t eat chunks of raw carrot. Too hard to chew?

8-30

Skip Water St. and go to Pizza Parade for coffee—it seems to disorient him—he doesn’t do as well on program.

Michael seems to remember the eye doctor—goes straight to the elevator and punches the button—wish I’d waited to see whether he’da hit the right floor. Eye man says he got a more complete eye exam than ever before.

I tell him let’s go to Main St. Market and he shows me he knows the way, but once inside he won’t let go of me and keeps trying to rush the coffee pot. I repeatedly tell him to cool it, get him to give me his money, but he won’t back it down. Tell him to cool out or we’re leaving. We leave, and he’s really heavy on my arm. Won’t go down the stairs on his own. Won’t get in the car on his own. I throw his hat, pack, and one wristband in and I then I take off the band he takes off when he starts hitting himself, and sure enough he starts hitting himself. I finally pull him into the car. He’s very clinging and anxious. I sign NO to him, take his hands off me repeatedly, finally compromise and let him hold my upper arm. He cools out on the trip home.

9-3

Michael very clingy. Valley Rd. staff advises me to discourage him, but they also admit that he only does it when there’s something physically wrong with him. We went to buy a new wallet for him—walked into K-Mart. He jerked his head so sharply I thought he was having a seizure, but he wasn’t.

9-17

Michael has been very excited, begging to communicate. He spontaneously typed, “I can rite” and “I can write better” and let us know that he wanted to go to Donut House for a “filod” donut. At his IPP meeting, he started hitting his head. Asked why, he spelled out bkpk and picked up his backpack, then hit himself no more. We’ve quit doing the trash job and he doesn’t seem to be hitting himself in the head much any more. May take him to check out a painting job today, or to help me recycle some stuff.

9-23

typing with Michael—had to think of questions to ask, he tends to fade when not prompted by a question. Asked him if the left side of his body felt different from right side, or is this an OK question to ask.

NO, he says,

It’s not an OK question?”

NO

Valley Rd. reports heavy head banging but he doesn’t do it with me—in fact he enters the car more gracefully than usual, reaches for seatbelt without prompting, happy to be going to Donut House for decaf. Tells me his meds make him sleepy, he’d like to be on less meds. Danny tells me Trexan seemed to cool him out on hitting himself and make him more alert. It’s a dopamine blocker. Neurochemistry, here we come. He tells me he wants to go to Bolduc Park

Climb the tower? I ask

NO.

A front pocket on his sweatshirt makes it easier for him to get notes, money, etc., with less prompting.

Michael asked to go to Bolduc after Jack suggested it. He took his shoes off on the way; I asked him if he wanted to be barefoot in the park and he pointed to YES. He smelled a maple and a creosoted post, then I steered him to a pine with some sap running down it. He sniffed it for a while and then lay down next to the tree, on his side, curled around it. Someplace along the way, he peed in his pants, which may be why he was hitting his head in the car—he was uncomfortable.

9-24

It’s difficult to keep track of Michael’s programs—ordering coffee is a little different every day, because he does or doesn’t have his wallet or pack or whatever, and now that I’m helping him buy a donut there isn’t any change to handle.

The focus should be different, too—Michael doesn’t have a “learning disorder,” which is what his program is based on, but a communication/co-ordination problem, which, I think, should be treated differently.

Went to my place today—he helped me pull frosted plants out of their pots and recycle the dirt—it was nice to put his enjoyment of grabbing plants and pulling on them to good use. He really enjoyed standing by the horse pasture with the horses around, eating an apple in the sunshine. A golden moment for both of us.

9-30

Extraordinary communication with Michael. He doesn’t want to take daytime meds, he says. He tells me “the terrible tutut” takes over his body and “makes” him bang his head. He wants to learn how to make deserts, how to read better.

I’m beginning to suspect that Michael is not “retarded.” “Mentally ill,” perhaps, severely handicapped, certainly, but “retarded”? What does it mean?

10-1

Visiting the home of a former director of Valley Rd., Michael picks up a People Magazine with a cover story about Roseanne Barr’s childhood abuse. “Do you want me to help you read that,” I ask. He points to “YES.” I hold the magazine and help him point to the words. Although he does not appear to be looking directly at it much of the time, his finger follows the lines perfectly. He becomes more and more upset as we read together. I’m not surprised; I sense the article relates to his experience in many ways.

He starts hitting himself. I ask if it’s because of the coffee—“no.” Because of the article? “Yes.” Do you want to communicate about it on computer tomorrow? “Yes.”

10-2

He tells me that many “terrible things” have happened to him, that he would like to talk to someone about them. “I’m not retarded I’m handikapt” he spells out. Also tells me he doesn’t think he should have to work, but wants to prove to the world that he’s “not retarded but handikapt.” He’s not sure how to do that. I suggest that if he did something outstanding, it would prove it—edging towards the idea of work.

10-10

Michael has started facilitating with others, mostly at a yes/no level. He’s very happy to have a way to express his basic needs (“more soup”), but has also been clueing me in to his belief system—“treating”/talking to trees, Father Tutut and Mother Kaden, demons, etc. I think perhaps my coming on strong about them not being “good gods” (because they made him hit himself and wet his pants) has backed him off of telling me more, but he does tend to become incoherent on the subject of “the terrible Tutut” and just type that over and over again.

I asked him if he was sorry he’d told me so much. “No,” he replied, and then added “thanks for asking.”

You’re full of bad ideas about Tutut and demons,” he told me…

10-16

Yesterday Michael went to his first therapy session—talked about people putting their peckers in his rear and saying he was dumb, wanting to reclaim his name. On the way home he talks to me about “demons with no peckers” making him “fondl them.” Did they work at Bordo (the state institution where he grew up) or live there, I ask. Both, he replies.

He also tells me that his best friend Terry died of cancer six years ago. Actually it was four years. This indicates that his recollections are not necessarily accurate.

Staff worker at Valley Rd. tells me she thinks Haldol is cutting down his self-abuse; I think it’s the communication. She says his delusions are reduced by Haldol—I’m not sure it’s a good idea to reduce them chemically—how can he work through them if they’re artificially held at bay? This is also about the difference between what she expects to see and what I expect to see.

4-7

Resuming charting Michael’s self-injurious behaviors—today I practically had to hold his hand all day to keep him from hitting himself. He appeared very depressed, didn’t want to walk, go in the co-op, see Rollie, or anything. Finally he told me “Shelley hit me.” He’d never said that before. I asked him where on his body (“head, stomach, ass”) and where (“In my room I wasn’t getting out of bed fast enough for her”). I repeatedly asked him if he was certain of this, as he has sometimes in the past said things that weren’t so. He insisted that it had happened, and that was why he was so mad today. I asked him if it had happened before (“I can’t remember I have no memory”) and if it was Ok to tell Danny about it (“NO”). Then I told him I thought I had to tell Danny about it. He repeated, “Don’t tell Danny.” After telling me this, he quit trying to hit himself for a while and actually smiled for the first time all day. One of my favorite songs came on the radio and I began singing along with it. “Don’t sing.” he spelled out. Then it was time for him to go back into Valley Road Home. He started hitting himself again, and again I had to hold his arm. Shelly was waiting for him at the door.

4-8

Had to hold Michael’s left hand almost all day to keep him from hitting himself. This was unusual—he usually hits himself hard with his right fist, and these were light taps with his left. He would never say anything about why he was doing it except “Im mad.”

4-9

Same thing. Said he was horny.

4-14

Michael taps himself hard on the head a lot—says he can’t control that or his urge to hold my hand when I’m trying to drive.

4-15

young woman staffer asks Michael how he is. He spells back “Im horny.” I won’t tell her that and tell him that’s no way to talk to a woman.

4-24

Michael is wearing a hat that says something stupid. He tells me repeatedly that he hates it, take it off and throw it away, etc., but when I start to do this he reaches for it and puts it back on. “My body wants it,” he tells me.

Why not be good to your body,” I ask him.

I hate my body.” Another time, he says “my body wants to wear a hat.”

My comment in 2018: I wonder if he is still in the body that wants to wear a hat. I wonder if “he” was in that body, or in my mind. I strongly suspect that I was genuinely connecting with another human being, not my own imagination, but  I’ll probably never know.




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