Monday, February 21, 2005

Crimes Against the State: The Autobiography of Brian P. Brown

February 21, 2005


Hey, buddy. Que pasa? Have you ever had paella? I mean good paella? Ooo paella! Have you ever had really, really good Paella? Oh it's an orgiastic feast for the senses. The want and the festival, the sights, sounds, and colors and mmmummumm mumm!! It's a Spanish dish. It's a melange of fish, and meat with rice. Very tasty.

They say it was The Grand Inquisitor's favorite non-Lenten meal.

I cooked up a paella of literary quotes. It's a feast for the eyes and mind. I've tried to make the quotes as cohesive as possible, so that the writing reads like a uniform narrative. The writing is a fantasia on my relationship with you, buddy, vis-a-vis The Powers That Be.

In a certain sense the writing is a parody of Gertrude Stein's biography, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." That work is actually Gertrude Stein's autobiography written in the third person.

I call my narrative --

The Autobiography of Brian P. Brown

To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself Gary Freedman.

If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a librarian. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a librarian there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.

This being so, I could not have observed Mr. Freedman or guessed at his reality by the force of insight, much less have imagined him as he was. Even to invent the mere bald facts of his life would have been utterly beyond my powers. But I think that without this declaration the readers of these pages will be able to detect in the story the marks of documentary evidence. And that is perfectly correct. It is based on a document, or more precisely, those portions of a document of which I have a certain knowledge: all I have brought to it is my knowledge of the human species, which is sufficient for what is attempted here.

"Words, words, words," so Hamlet said.

Mr. Freedman was a lover of words, a lover of language. We spoke to each other infrequently. But those few exchanges we had were enough to convince me that he was always happy to talk; he was a "word-child," hyperarticulate. Fully formed paragraphs issued forth in conversation with a hypnotic, limpid ease. Sooner or later, his would-be debater would be charmed and silenced.

There was an element of the demoniacal in his tireless search for just the right word to round a sentence into its proper unity, for the exact juxtaposition of words and movement that would slyly lead the reader or listener along the periphery of a story to its turning point and then propel them effortlessly to its climax. . . . No moment, however small, seemed unimportant enough to escape his almost fierce attention, and his grasp of a social situation's latent values was immediate and complete. My eyes and ears were opened anew each day to the thousand-and-one endless details that go to make up the subtle and infinitely fragile clockwork of an anecdote's interior mechanism, and to the slow cultivation of its subsoil that gradually makes it blossom into something vital and alive. I watched and listened with the consecration of a yogi.

Early in our relationship I sensed that Mr. Freedman was a lonely man, an isolated man. He seemed desperate for a kind of friendliness that he could not achieve naturally and spontaneously and he found that closeness -- or at least he imagined that he found that closeness -- in the person of his local librarian. On occasion he shared with me his views on the world: he talked about politics, literature, the arts, and science. It was his gift for language that held my interest, no matter what the topic. His knowledge of these various fields was not remarkable. Yet with his gift for words he could turn the most commonplace observations into arresting remarks.

I can give you an example. "Every man is born a Faust," he said, "a Faust with a longing to grasp and experience and express everything in the world. Faust became a scientist thanks to the mistakes of his predecessors and contemporaries. Progress in science is governed by the laws of repulsion, every step forward is made by refutation of prevalent errors and false theories. Faust was an artist thanks to the inspiring example of his teachers. Forward steps in art are governed by the law of attraction, are the result of the imitation of an admiration for beloved predecessors." Well, I ask you: is there anything novel in that observation? Not in the least. But what Mr. Freedman managed to do was to get to the core of the matter: the structural dialectic inherent in the Faust story was laid bare by Mr. Freedman's use of an appealing, aphoristic turn of phrase.

Mr. Freedman was an eccentric (I don't think he'd mind my saying so) and a self-styled genius.

He spent much of the day, every day, at the library. I didn't know how he subsisted, and I never inquired.

Mr. Freedman used to sit in the reading room of the library, where he perused newly-arrived books and magazines. He read the newspaper everyday. The reading room had several windows and could seat about a hundred people. Long tables stood in rows that ended by the windows. The library closed at sunset; in the spring Moscow had no lighting. Mr. Freedman left before dark. Of his life before he began visiting the library I know nothing.

I wish to state quite definitely that it is by no means out of any wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on Mr. Freedman. What I here set down are my impressions of Mr. Freedman. I intrude myself, of course, only in order that the reader -- I might better say the future reader, for at this moment there exists not the smallest prospect that my manuscript will ever see the light of day unless, by some miracle, it were to escape the scrutiny of the party and bring to those without some breath of the secrets of our prison-house (for has not our entire country become a kind of prison?) -- to resume: only because I consider that future readers will wish to know who and what the author is do I preface these disclosures with a few notes about myself.

I have been employed, since the Revolution, as head librarian of Public Library no. 18. The work has been agreeable. From time to time party functionaries visit to inquire about a specific patron. "What does he read?" "Does he follow a set routine of arrival and departure?" "Does the patron speak to you?" "What about?" I never fail to provide information that might be useful to the party. It has not been an infrequent occurrence that after speaking with a party official about a patron, I would never see that individual again at the library. Yes, I have been useful to the party and to the work of social reconstruction that the party has been carrying out.
God Bless the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!

I and my two assistants sit on a dais in a recess in the wall opposite the window, separated from the rest of the room by a high counter. From this vantage point little that goes on in the reading room escapes our attention.

From the outset, Mr. Freedman's demeanor set him apart from other patrons of Public Library no. 18. During the early years of his daily visits he read quietly, and but for the fact that he took a seat adjacent to my post -- which occasioned a good many chance encounters, we should have remained practically unacquainted. For he was not a sociable man. Indeed, he was unsociable to a degree I had never before experienced in anybody. He was, in fact, as he called himself, a real wolf of the Steppes, a strange, wild, shy -- very shy -- being from another world than mine. How deep the loneliness into which his life had drifted on account of his disposition and destiny and how consciously he accepted this loneliness as his destiny, I certainly did not know until I read the records he left behind him (that is, the documentary evidence to which I referred above). Yet, before that, from our occasional talks and encounters, I became gradually acquainted with him, and I found that the portrait in his records was in substantial agreement with the paler and less complete one that our personal acquaintance had given me.

He gave at the very first glance the impression of a significant, an uncommon, and unusually gifted man. His face was intellectual, and the abnormally delicate and mobile play of his features reflected a soul of extremely emotional and unusually delicate sensitivity. When one spoke to him and he, as was not always the case, dropped conventionalities, and said personal and individual things that came out of his own alien world, then a man like myself came under his spell on the spot. He had thought more than other men, and in matters of the intellect he had that calm objectivity, that certainty of thought and knowledge, such as only really intellectual men have, who have no axe to grind, who never wish to shine, or to
talk others down, or to appear always in the right.

What I know of him is little enough. Indeed, of his past life and origins I know nothing at all. Yet the impression left by his personality has remained, in spite of all, a deep and sympathetic one.

I mentioned that Mr. Freedman's conduct in the library set him apart from other patrons. For years I had observed him retrieving books from the shelves. He read these books, or passages from them, with a special intensity of expression. In truth the intensity of his emotions while occupied in this fashion, the exquisite sensitivity of his face, far exceed what I had ever experienced while talking to him. He appeared to reserve his deepest emotions for books, ideas, and the act of writing. Mr. Freedman took copious notes as he read. He appeared to be working on a kind of manifesto -- well, that's what I imagined. At times I feared for his personal safety. I knew many intellectuals. I knew how easily it was for intellectuals, for writers, to fail to heed the boundaries of conformity set by the party. As a class, intellectuals tended to be rebellious nonconformists who, not infrequently, seemed oblivious of the consequences of their independent spirit. After all, there exists a certain Communist style. Few people measure up to it. But no one seems to flout that way of life and thought as openly as do intellectuals. Why they have to flirt with danger, I can't imagine. The free thinker is a mockery of the whole world of conformity, a walking insult to it. If at least one's past is one's own secret -- but, as is often the case, there are people in the party who know such renegades inside out.

For many months, Mr. Freedman had been working ferociously on the manuscript that he hoped would finally make his literary reputation, or so I imagined. From what I could gather, both in my brief conversations with him and from my first-hand observation of him at work, he appeared to have grand visions for his manifesto. But I must say, I never really became acquainted with the content of the document in its entirety. My knowledge of the text was limited to what I gleaned from occasional scraps of notes that he discarded, from chance comments Mr. Freedman made, and from the books he borrowed from the library.

I got on well with Mr. Freedman. As is sometimes the way with men whose natures are really quite opposed, we got on very well. During our brief exchanges I would hold forth gregariously on topics that interested me: German Romanticism, the state of the poor, the struggle to find one's own private truth consistent with the common good, and so forth. Mr. Freedman, thin, angular, and restrained, listened more than he spoke, and when he talked -- of contemporary politics, or social reform, or the importance of education -- he did so with Euclidean clarity and a modesty that tended to obscure the firmness of his convictions.

As I say, I knew little of the content of Mr. Freedman's manifesto, and it was not in my power to verify the truth of the experiences related in his manuscript. I have no doubt that they are for the most part fictitious, not, however, in the sense of arbitrary invention. They are rather the deeply lived spiritual events which he has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experiences. The partly fantastic occurrences in Mr. Freedman's fiction come presumably from the later period of his patronage of the library, and I have no doubt that even they have some basis in real occurrence. At that time Mr. Freedman did not in fact change very much in behavior and in appearance.

Overall I had a favorable impression of Mr. Freedman. Many held contrary views. Mr. Freedman was not universally loved. In truth, Mr. Freedman presented layer upon layer of difficulty to disentangle. His neighbors said of him that after an hour you love him, after a week you hate him, and after ten years you start to understand him. One of the local shopkeepers said that if you didn't have a personality conflict with Mr. Freedman, you didn't have a personality. Those who had known of Mr. Freedman's past said that he was a combination of Machiavelli and Mr. Rogers: "The conventional image of an engaging man is one who is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Mr. Freedman is just the opposite." Part of his mystique for some was his careful and successful positioning as someone "above the fray." He gave off an air that he was too good for others, or certainly better than the rest of his peers.

According to some he was a maddeningly-contradictory figure. An avatar of morality and truthfulness, Mr. Freedman bent the truth and had a singularly nasty side to his character that ultimately contributed to his difficulties with other people. One patron warned me: "Despite his intelligence, he has a vindictive streak, a mean streak, that surfaced frequently and antagonized people." Another patron said that Mr. Freedman liked to carve up an opponent, make others laugh at him, and then call it a joke. He stretched the truth to the point where it became dishonest to call it exaggeration." I heard someone say that Mr. Freedman was "a hyperbole addict." I must confess that generally not a week would go by when I didn't hear some criticism of Mr. Freedman. "He usually claimed the moral and ethical high ground" but "practiced an interpersonal style based on exaggeration, disingenuousness, and at times outright deception." It was said of Mr. Freedman that he seldom, if ever, repented of his nastiness or asked forgiveness. Instead, when called out for an egregious personal attack, he displayed the advanced skills of evasion that made him such an effective manipulator. All in all the picture that emerged was one of "narcissistic loner." Mr. Freedman was never a regular guy, the sum of his parts never quite added up to that. He talked his way through life, yet in some profound way he never learned the language of men.

Small wonder that friendship -- lasting and meaningful friendship -- eluded Mr. Freedman. He seemed, as I've already said, desperate for a kind of friendliness that he could not achieve spontaneously and naturally. He once asked me: "Are you familiar, Comrade Brown, with the small German ceremony called 'Duzen'? The ritual calls for two friends, each holding a glass of wine or beer, to entwine arms, thus bringing each other physically close, and to drink up after making a promise of eternal brotherhood with the word Bruderschaft. When it's over, the friends will have passed from a relationship that requires the formal 'Sie' mode of address to the
familiar 'Du.'"

I recoiled at Mr. Freedman's remarks. It was as if Mr. Freedman were making a personal proposal of some kind to me. I must admit I found Mr. Freedman's innuendo revolting. That degree of closeness between two men seemed to me unnatural. I ended the conversation abruptly.

My impression of Mr. Freedman was that of a man who was desperately lonely, who lived in deep emotional pain, and who lacked the means or motivation to change his life.

I often wondered: "What must the sleepless nights of such a man be like? What occupied his thoughts?"

Be that as it may.

I will now tell you about the significant and fantastic events that transpired on an early spring day in the year 19--. Mr. Freedman -- or Comrade Freedman, as he had been known (as we all had been known) officially since the Revolution -- had set out alone from his house in Prince Alexei Street, Moscow, for an extended walk. It was a spring afternoon in that year of 19--, when Russia was just beginning to emerge from the ravages of the Great War and the Revolution and its aftermath. He was overwrought by a morning of hard, nerve-taxing work, work which had not ceased to exact its uttermost in the way of sustained concentration, conscientiousness, and tact; and after the noon meal found himself powerless to check the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him, that motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides. He had sought but not found relaxation in sleep -- though the wear and tear upon his system had come to make a daily nap more and more imperative -- and now undertook a walk, in the hope that air and exercise might send him back refreshed to a good evening's work.

April had passed its midpoint, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in. Mr. Freedman had barely begun his walk when he was accosted by two uniformed men. The two men stopped Mr. Freedman and inquired of his identity. It was a mere formality; they knew it was Mr. Freedman. The two men were party functionaries: pallid and plump bureaucrats in the employ of the governing regime.

"Tenth-rate old actors they send for me," said Mr. Freedman, glancing round again to confirm the impression. "They want to finish me off cheaply." He turned abruptly toward the men and asked: "What theater are you playing at?" "Theater?" said one, the corners of his mouth twitching as he looked for advice to the other, who acted as if he were a dumb man struggling to overcome a stubborn disability. "They're not prepared to answer questions," said Mr. Freedman to himself and walked on with the men. "Just follow us," said one officer. "And remain quiet," said the other. "Nothing will happen to you if you cooperate with us. No harm will come to you if you follow orders." Mr. Freedman accompanied his two warders in

Someone must have traduced Mr. Freedman, for without having done anything wrong -- as he saw it -- he was arrested on that fine morning in April 19--, as the noon hour approached.

Mr. Freedman, a 50-year-old unemployed attorney, was eventually brought to the maximum security ward of the Moscow Central Institute for Forensic Psychiatry. I later learned through my contacts in the party that four months earlier, while searching the house of an acquaintance, the KGB agents discovered a book -- or rough draft of a book -- written by Mr. Freedman, that was critical of the Soviet social system. In this book Mr. Freedman defined himself as a "Marxist partisan" and a patriot of his country. He used language indistinguishable from that of the "official" and "approved" concepts current in Soviet social and political thought. However, the book was an impassioned argument for reform of the state in order to bring about greater prosperity and free expression in the country.

Mr. Freedman was arrested and charged with "antigovernment propaganda and agitation harmful to the interests of the Socialist state." Because he was uncooperative during his detention, he was referred for a psychiatric evaluation by a KGB investigator, who wrote in the referring document that "There are strong reasons to suspect that this detainee suffers from chronic mental illness, which is responsible for his behavior and has resulted in serious crimes against the state, with which he is charged."

The prisoner arrived in handcuffs, looking anxious and fearful. At the beginning of his admission report, the forensic psychiatrist, Comrade Dr. Martin, took note of "burning and penetrating eyes and an unearthly calm."

During the interview the prisoner insisted on his right to take notes and to write down the questions asked him; when this was denied, he refused to participate in the evaluation interview. On the ward, surrounded by seriously ill offenders, he kept to himself, and was described as "withdrawn, with long staring spells, and persistent refusal to discuss his thoughts and feelings." The ward staff was puzzled by his "excessive wariness, and his belief that something had been put into his food was described in ward notes as 'paranoid.'"

By the end of the first week, the prisoner was demanding to see the medical director of the hospital; when the director obliged, the prisoner confronted him with an accusation of "collaborating in crimes against humanity." The prisoner categorically denied the criminal nature of his activity and claimed that he pursued his chosen profession in writing a book about legal guarantees for freedom of expression.

From the information provided by the secret police investigator and summaries of treatment obtained from the local health center and the district mental health clinic, the forensic psychiatrist learned that the patient had "a stormy adolescence," during which he pursued, with abandon, the study of his country's history, literature, and art. He was described by his teachers as "stubborn, oppositional, and obsessed with his ideas." His principal wrote: "This young man is far too sensitive and intense for his age. He is negative about everything our country stands for and his tastes in art and music are bizarre. However, he is a highly intelligent young man, and with proper guidance and education, can be an asset to our country."

The records of the local employment board revealed that the prisoner was relieved from compulsory employment because of a diagnosis of "psychoneurosis" established by a psychiatrist at the district mental health clinic. The records from the clinic described a man who was "moody, preoccupied with his interest in history, precise and compulsive in his habits with some excessive concern about his health."

By the end of the third week, the prisoner was forcibly given small doses of a medication. He became weak and apathetic, complained of dryness of the mouth, increased appetite, and grogginess throughout the day, and an increasingly troublesome tremor. This was described in the record as "paranoid refusal to believe in the good intentions of the medical personnel, and inability to develop insight into his condition and his own needs."

When medication produced no change in the prisoner's attitude except for obvious side effects, it was discontinued. One week after this, the prisoner was looking more cheerful, and finally agreed to cooperate with the expert committee, consisting of three forensic psychiatrists. When the committee saw the prisoner, none of its members had had a chance to read the manuscript that brought the man to the attention of the authorities. During the interview, the prisoner was attentive and guarded, and later was described by one of the members as "hypervigilant" with obvious "ideas of reference." The committee unanimously agreed on the diagnosis offered by the forensic psychiatrist: schizophrenia. The committee recommended compulsive psychiatric treatment for Mr. Freedman "because of his inability to have a critical attitude toward his own condition and circumstances and failure to cooperate with necessary medical treatment."

The KGB investigator knew that the state world have considerable difficulty in prosecuting Mr. Freedman since it would have had to prove that he had a malicious intent to "undermine and harm the interests of the Socialist State." Because Mr. Freedman is articulate and persuasive, a public trial would have been embarrassing to the government. Knowing that Mr. Freedman had been given a psychiatric diagnosis that exempted him from compulsory employment, the KGB investigator reasoned that a trial would be unnecessary and that the credibility of Mr. Freedman's ideas would be undermined if his behavior could be attributed to a mental disorder.

The forensic psychiatrist was given inadequate and biased information, had no access to his "patient's" family or former colleagues, and had to deal with a frightened and unwilling man. Practicing within a social system with an extremely narrow range of "permissible" behavior and within a profession that uses an extraordinarily broad concept of schizophrenia, the forensic psychiatrist could very well have been sincere in considering Mr. Freedman mentally ill. It is also possible that the psychiatrist was cynically using his power to make diagnoses, hospitalize, and treat in order to satisfy an implicit request from the KGB to take this "troublesome" man off their hands.

Whether or not the forensic psychiatrist actually believed that Mr. Freedman was ill, he probably justified his diagnoses as follows: The onset of Mr. Freedman's schizophrenia was, as is usual in this illness, at the time of adolescent transition to adult life. He exhibited overvalued ideas, instability of mood, inappropriately intense and single minded pursuit of interests unusual for boys of his age, and obsessive compulsive personality traits. He developed a system of rationalized obsessive preoccupations with seeking reforms in Soviet society. His tragic world view is evidence of chronic dysphoria and anhedonia. His belief that he can make a contribution to the social theory and well-being of his country is evidence of an overvalued idea that has progressed into a fantastic delusion of reform. His cautious attitude toward authorities and state-appointed physicians is an expression of paranoid and self-referential perceptions.

In any event, we heard about Mr. Freedman's arrest at the Public Library. I, for one, was not surprised. For years I had feared for Mr. Freedman's safety, given the unusual nature of his ideas and his passionate investment in the act of putting his ideas in writing. But was Mr. Freedman truly mentally ill? Is it possible that the decision to arrest Mr. Freedman was unjustified? Is it not possible to view his difficulties as the result of the interaction between his personality traits and the prevailing political and social norms? Perhaps in another society Mr. Freedman's personality traits might not cause any particular difficulties -- indeed, might even be rewarded. Of course, I dare not make these sentiments public knowledge. The party deals harshly with those who question the correctness of its actions. Still, one wonders.

I have not seen Mr. Freedman since the day of his arrest. No, I am sure he has not taken his life. If he has been discharged from the hospital I am sure he still goes wearily up and down the streets somewhere in Moscow, sits for days in libraries, or lies on a hired sofa, listens to the world beneath his window and the hum of human life from which he knows that he is excluded. But he has not killed himself, for a glimmer of belief still tells him that he is to drink this frightful suffering in his heart to the dregs and that it is of this suffering he must die. I think of him often. He has not made life lighter for me. He had not the gift of fostering strength and joy in me. On the contrary! But I am not he, and I live my own life, a narrow middle-class life, but a solid one, filled with duties. And so we can think of Mr. Freedman peacefully and affectionately, William and I.

Mr. Freedman belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.

I neither approve nor condemn Mr. Freedman. Let every reader of these notes do as his conscience bids him.

/s/ Comrade Brian P. Brown

Check you out next week, buddy. Give my regards to The Ambassador.