Recently, I began listening to a podcast called Disgraceland, which chronicles crazy stories about famous musicians. The first episode told the story of the rising 1950s piano pop star phenom, Jerry Lewis, who, as I already knew, married his barely teenage cousin. As I pressed play on that first Disgraceland podcast, I thought, how much crazier could this story of Lewis possibly get? Oh, well, there’s also that pesky potential murder!
This got me thinking. Some famous writers have crazy stories we’ve all heard, but what if we haven’t even scratched the surface. So, I went in search of the weird, but supposedly true, stories of famous authors. There were many to choose from! But I’d like to start with Philp K. Dick. And, if this post is interesting to people, perhaps I’ll do more stories on other authors. Let’s start with Dick and see how it goes.
Philip K. Dick, aka, Do Post-Dental Surgery Drug-Fogged Authors Dream of Electric Gods?
My fingers run along the creased spines of his titles neatly ordered together. The Man in the High Castle. A Scanner Darkly. Famous books by Philip K. Dick made into famous movies and TV shows. The most well-known adaptation of Dick’s work is probably Blade Runner. That movie invaded my imagination with its dark visual story before I ever read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired the cinematic classic.
But once Dick’s words trickled into my brain, his version of Bounty hunter Rick Deckard supplanted the Harrison Ford version. The meta-character created by Dick had a depth and sorrow I’m not sure any actor could capture. (Although Ford came close!) Dick’s science fiction stories, thick with detail and rampant with societal commentary, grazed along the line between fantastical and just real enough to be frightening.
What sort of a mind comes up with these tales? Is it purely a wonderfully, sometimes darkly vivid, imagination? And can such an imagination bleed from the page into reality? Or does Dick know something most of us refuse to believe: there is more to this world than most of us will ever realize.
The strange story of Philp K. Dick begins on Wednesday, February 20, 1974. Watergate loomed on the horizon. People sang along to “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand. And on a cool afternoon in Fullerton, California, an agoraphobic author with cotton stuffed between his teeth answered the door.
In front of him stood a dark-haired woman holding a white pharmacy bag. Dick’s jaw ached where his impacted wisdom teeth had been removed. Although struck by the woman’s beauty, he desperately wanted the prescription medicine she’d been sent to deliver. He reached for it. Then he paused. Something caught his eye and suddenly he stood, frozen and confused.
Up until this point, Dick had not led a perfect, unblemished existence. He’d had four failed marriages, abused amphetamines and even attempted suicide. Perhaps he was just ready for a life-changing experience. Perhaps he saw what he needed to help him mentally survive in a world he found difficult to manage. Maybe he was crazy. Or, maybe it was something else, something more mystical and magical than the rest of us can fathom.
Dick would eventually call this experience the “2-3-74 experiences,” meaning February to March 1974. And what happened during that time helped make him a genius or a madman or maybe a little of both.
As Philip K. Dick stood on the threshold of his apartment, the sun glinted off something around the woman’s neck – a thin, gold chain. Dangling from the bottom was a tiny pendant in the shape of a fish sign. Suddenly, a “pink beam” of light shot from the necklace into Dick’s face, hypnotizing him. Later, he came to believe the beam gave him wisdom and clairvoyance. But at that moment, the famed science fiction author stood dumbfounded as a strange vision galloped through his mind.
Vision is probably not the right word to explain his experience. It was more a memory in which Dick was a secret Christian in ancient Rome discussing the cryptic signs the Christians used for their hidden communications, one of which was the symbol of the fish. Dick dubbed the experience “anamnesis,” meaning loss of amnesia.
Dick explained the experience as “an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind. It was almost as if I had been insane all of my life and suddenly I had become sane.”
In the ensuing days and months, Dick experienced more and more strange visions, some, like scenes from first-century Rome, he saw as superimposed on top of his suburban town. He also heard things, like music playing when the radio wasn’t even plugged in. Voices and lucid dreams became interwoven into his daily life. He even claimed he felt another independent personality shifting around inside him.
Given his obvious history with drugs and potential mental illness, any competent psychiatrist could have listed off a million plausible causes, all non-mystical, to explain Dick’s experience.
But there was more to the story. In fact, there were witnesses to corroborate the strange visions and occurrences, namely is fifth wife Tess and their son Christopher. Those songs Dick heard coming from the radio, even after he’d turned it off and unplugged it, Tessa heard them too.
Although the strangest incident occurred one afternoon when Dick woke up with a start from a nap screaming for Tessa to call a doctor because their son, Christopher, had an inguinal hernia and needed immediate life-saving surgery. Rushing their son to the hospital, the doctors confirmed the diagnosis.
Later, Dick would claim he had no idea what the voices where talking about. Even after the hospital staff thoroughly explained the procedure to him, he still demonstrated only a rudimentary understanding and even misspelled the medical terms in later writings of the experience, despite clearly articulating the issue during his vision.
Dick’s hallucinations continued, growing more powerful until he began to live two parallel lives. In one life, he was himself, Philip K. Dick and in the other, he was Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the first century AD. The visions and claims of entities living inside him continued on and off for years after the initial event.
Dick wrote about the experiences in several works, including journal entries (published in abridged form as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick), the semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth and then in VALIS, The Divine Invasion and the unfinished The Owl in Daylight (the VALIS trilogy).
The visions eventually became too much for his wife, Tessa, and she and her son left Dick. Although sad and lonely, Dick did find comfort in these experiences, although at other times they greatly traumatized him. He continued to write and discuss the visions until his death on March 2, 1982.
As a final aside, there are many different versions of this story, seemingly even from Dick himself. While they all follow the same general trajectory, the details vary and sometimes conflict. I chose the versions that seemed to be from the most reliable sources or at least the ones most consistent across sources, although they could all be repeating the same mistake. Regardless, the ambiguity of the story seems to fit well with Dick himself who questioned the details of his own experience.
“On Thursdays and Saturdays I’d think it was God,” he once said. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I’d think it was extraterrestrials. Some times I’d think it was the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences trying out their psychotronic microwave telepathic transmissions.”
Perhaps he is right and it is all of those things or none of them. Because in a world created by Dick, either real or imagined, reality is never simple or even real.
And if you’d like to see this story in graphic novel form, please check out: The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17