The Guardian – Our beautiful sons could die before us

The Guardian, 16 August 2014 – Our beautiful sons could die before us: Nick Taussig thought his son Theo was a bit of a late developer. If only that were true. Doctors diagnosed Duchenne, a devastating genetic disorder – and everything changed. He will not rest until he finds a cure.

We judged it to be little more than a routine appointment with the pediatrician, and so only I had gone, not my wife Klara. Both of us did not need to be there. Would she not confirm what we suspected? That our soon-to-be three-year-old son, Theo, was just like me, no more than a late starter. My mother had reassured me – as only mothers can – that I had been the very same. I did not crawl, just walked, and this I did about a year too late. And my speech, well, that was late also. I had said nothing until I was two and a half.

Theo was his father’s son, therefore, developing in his own inimitable way, and the pre-school manager was simply being neurotic and overzealous in her concern for Theo’s development – his failure to hit certain key milestones. His nursery was not worried in the slightest. An occupational therapist, a physiotherapist and a speech therapist had assessed him, and they had raised no major concerns. And so was this not just final confirmation that Theo was fine, albeit a little slow in getting his act together?

The pediatrician took to him immediately, Theo charming her with his big blue eyes and shy smile, behind which lurks a great confidence, as if he already knows he’s in possession of good looks, which will serve him well as a teenager and young man. She took out some toys. He did as he always did and flopped clumsily on the floor, almost in the manner of a rag doll, legs splayed either side, and began to play. She asked me about him, the usual questions. When did he sit up on his own, crawl, walk, talk, blah-blah-blah? I answered as best I could, unsure of exact dates, though my answers were not important because, well, he was his father’s son.

He sat for quite a while and played. “I think he’s an intellectual,” the pediatrician said warmly, then asked him to get up, and he did as he always did and heaved himself to his feet, using his hands to help him stand, looking as if he was climbing up his legs. She then said she wanted to see him walk, and we left her consulting room. Theo, excited by the change of scene, did as he always did and waddled fast down the corridor, his idiosyncratic gait – hips swinging camply from side-to-side – a perfect metaphor for his development: he did things his way. And lastly, she wanted to see him walk up some stairs, which he likewise struggled with, taking one tentative step at a time whilst clutching at the wall in the absence of a rail, until after a few steps he gave up, crawled up a few more, then insisted that daddy carry him the rest of the way.

We returned to her consulting room, where she explained she would like to take a blood test, which I judged to be no more than precautionary. We arranged it for the next morning. And that was that.

She called the following afternoon, the results already through, asking to see us tomorrow, and this time could we both attend please, mum and dad. “Is there something wrong, do you think?” Klara asked. “No, not all. I think she’s just being very efficient,” I replied.

We walked into the hospital again on the morning of Thursday 26 June. This is just six weeks ago, I realise as I write this, and yet it feels like an eternity. Why does time have the habit of slowing down quite so much when we are in pain? I still cannot remember exactly what she, the pediatrician, said, though she spoke with great tenderness, her voice quivering, on the verge of tears. “He has very high levels of creatine kinase…this points to muscular dystrophy…and by virtue of his age and sex, it’s statistically most likely he has Duchenne.” I could not bear to hear this last word, which possessed an appalling finality, but even worse, I could not bear to see my precious wife floundering with the diagnosis, because she did not yet know what I knew, what this word meant.

I knew because a year before I had approached Alex Smith of Harrison’s Fund further to reading a newspaper article entitled, “I Wish My Son Had Cancer,” Alex alluding to the fact that cancer research is far better funded and resourced than muscular dystrophy. I was interested in making a documentary film about his extraordinary attempt to complete an Ironman Triathlon – a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride and a 42.2km marathon – carrying his 35kg disabled son, Harrison, the whole way. To this end, I’d even written a pitch for broadcast, describing how Alex had first learned of his son’s fate, the doctor explaining that, “Harrison cannot produce dystrophin, a protein we all need to build up and protect our muscles. As a result, every muscle in his body is deteriorating. He will most likely be in a wheelchair by twelve, will suffer from respiratory failure, heart failure and other debilitating orthopaedic complications, and will die in his late teens or early twenties.” Was there any hope? Alex had asked. “No, the disease is 100% fatal,” the doctor had replied. This was now my son’s fate as well.

I began to cry, then found I could not stop. I was barely able to speak. The appointment ended with the recommendation that Oskar, our eight-month-old son, be tested also. Klara thanked the pediatrician, and the four of us left. I held Oskar, while Theo took mummy’s hand. We walked aimlessly through the maze of corridors, until Klara eventually suggested we go to the canteen and eat something: the boys needed their lunch.

I ordered some food, for Klara and I too, though well aware that neither of us would eat. How could we? Klara uttered the word, at which point I told her what I knew of Duchenne. She started to weep, in this dour canteen, as a group of student doctors looked over at us, likely wondering what diagnosis we had just received. Theo responded by smiling at his mother in between a large mouthful of mozzarella and tomato panini, as if reassuring her that, in spite of the fatal genetic illness he had just been diagnosed with that would kill him before he was a man, all would be okay. And I could not bear this smile, because at that moment all could never be okay, as our son, our beautiful son, was going to die before us.

We have to call family and friends, Klara and I realised when we got home, and this was exhausting, as they all responded so differently, some crying while others held it together, doing their best to be strong and supportive. We got to the point where we were tired of having the same conversation over and over. “What’s the treatment?” There is no treatment. “But what about steroids?” They do little more than postpone the inevitable by a few years. “Might there be a scientific breakthrough?” Possibly, though we cannot count on this. “How are you?” We’re ok, when what we really wanted to say was we’re drowning. “You’re so brave.” Thank you, when what we really wanted to say was what fucking choice do we have, should we just give up now?!

The next few days and weeks, Klara and I entered our own private hell, the shock of the news quickly replaced by a desperate grief – it was as if our son had already died – and in my case, a malignant sadness, which gnawed at my heart like a cancer. I was unable to sleep, to think, and struggled to even look at Theo, as whenever I did, all I saw was his cruel and painful decline, his muscles wasting away before my eyes. He would never play rugby, never make love, never make it to university, never realise his full potential. One morning, after just a few hours sleep, I went for a run. I pushed myself until I could not take another stride, then sat down on a bench and wept, praying that Theo live a full life and I die.

Oskar was diagnosed with Duchenne as well. Klara was distraught when I called from work and told her. Her parting words to me were, “We must be incompatible.” I did not tell her that she is the carrier of the defective gene, X-linked inheritance a defining characteristic of Duchenne. I hurried home as fast as I could, desperately worried for her. I felt like I inhabited a nightmare as I stood there, on a packed platform, listening to the loud and continuous laughter of a group of businessmen beside me. Lost in a haze of grief, I got on the wrong train. When I did finally get home, I found Klara with my parents. She looked fragile, unlike her, as she is always so very strong. “It’s me, isn’t it, I’ve given it to them…” she uttered, and all I could do was hold her and kiss her and tell her I loved her.

The following week, the love and support of family, friends and colleagues proved vital, sustaining Klara and I when all felt lost. We found ourselves fluctuating wildly between hope and despair, one minute sure that a cure would be found in time, further to reading yet another article online, the next convinced that one would not, with us doing little more than deluding ourselves. It took my sister to remind me that, “Right now, the boys are very happy, and will continue to be, as long as you give them all your love and care.” And she was right.

I will cherish them to the very end, but also will not rest until a treatment and/or cure is found, of which there is the real prospect of one now. There are 2,500 British children with Duchenne and 300,000 worldwide. Ninety nine per cent of sufferers are male. It is a cruel and horrible disease, and the most common fatal genetic disorder to affect children around the world.

Last weekend, we were in a children’s playground. Klara was helping Theo navigate a few of the different climbing frames. A father behind them escorted his two daughters, Theo’s age or thereabouts, and became increasingly impatient. Why is this boy so slow? Why is his mother so protective of him? he wondered, then huffed and sighed. I wanted to rip his head off. How dare he dismiss my son in this way! Does he not realise that this woman, my beautiful wife, is not cosseting her child, but rather aiding him, because his hips and shoulders are too weak? My son has a disease, is disabled, and this prick doesn’t realise it. Well, I will make him realise, I thought, as I prepared to confront him. I looked at Theo again and he was smiling, enjoying the challenge of the last obstacle, and I looked at Klara, who was so present with him and always has been. Christ Nick! I rebuked myself, and walked away.

In that moment, I understood that I have cherished and loved Theo and Oskar more this past month than ever before. Their diagnosis, in this respect, has been a perverse blessing, forcing me out of my stupor and delusion, and urging me to really be with them as opposed to being too often preoccupied with work and worry. Klara knew from the moment they were born that we were blessed and privileged to have them, and has never lost sight of this. But I did lose sight, on occasion. I took them, my beautiful boys, for granted.

A wonderful man, a friend of my sister’s, said to me a few weeks ago, “Certain children choose their parents, and Theo and Oskar have chosen you and Klara, as you possess the qualities and strength they need.” Before I was told my sons were dying, I would have dismissed these words as no more than sentimental claptrap, but now, I hold them close to my heart.

If you would like to help fund the world’s best researchers and scientists find a cure, please donate to Harrison’s Fund: harrisonsfund.com

Nick Taussig is running a marathon on 21 September for Harrison’s Fund. If you would like to make a donation, visit justgiving.com/NTaussig

theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/16/our-beautiful-sons-could-die-before-us

 

Roof – The Broken-Hearted

Roof, Shelter’s magazine, September/October 2006

The plight of the homeless first really dawned on me when I was twenty-one and living in America. My friend, Justin, and I were fast running out of money and needed work: we’d prepaid the rent on a short-term let – a poky studio flat just big enough to swing a cat in – and had just a few weeks remaining before we were out in the cold. Well, at least we were in Los Angeles, we told ourselves, the sun nearly always out in southern California. But, thankfully, work came in the nick of time.

We were hired by a pushy, blonde and busty LA girl – yes, the bosoms had, of course, been surgically enhanced – who was willing to take a chance on two young Brits (I doubt she would have hired us were we Mexicans), with no work permits, who needed money. However, it must be made clear that her motives were not entirely philanthropic: she knew she could pay us bugger all because we were working illegally, and it wasn’t as if we could throw the worker’s rights book at her. We had no rights … we were ‘aliens’ (according to the US Immigration and Nationality Act)! She also happened to have a bit of a soft spot for Justin: she couldn’t resist the English accent.

And so it was that we came to work for Balloon Celebrations, a business that made its money from selling latex, albeit latex balloons rather than condoms. The company was housed in a small retail complex that consisted of several shop units, and there was a common area at the rear which provided access to a large parking lot. It was there that I first met Lennie.

He was the very antithesis of the person I was working for. Not only was he not busty and blonde but also was someone who would have refused point-blank to cater for the excessive and ostentatious whims of the wealthy, and this was not just on account of his socialist principles. We had customers who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own birthday party, and this was just the cost of the damn balloons! Lennie, rather, was someone of modest and humble disposition who lived a life on the streets, and had done for many years.

I heard him before I saw him, a man with a gravelly voice reciting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. His recital immediately piqued my interest, not least because it was strange to hear the words of a nineteenth century English poet being spoken by a tough-sounding American guy in an ugly car park – though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a beautiful one – against a noisy backdrop of slamming doors, honking cars and moaning dump trucks.

Immediately I went looking for the source of this recitation, and with the closing words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ I finally came upon a man in his mid-fifties with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick beard with streaks of grey in it, slender, and of average height it appeared, though I could not be sure as he was sitting down, leaning against the side of a dumpster. He wore a threadbare jacket, check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. By his bare feet there was a plastic bag full of old books and magazines.

The first thing I did was to offer him money, a dollar bill, which he refused with a gentle shake of his head. Had he not been homeless then I surely would have done something else first, perhaps said hello, introduced myself, asked his name. But no, on account of his appearance I assumed he wanted money and nothing more. He smiled, his eyes a radiant blue, then said, ‘I don’t want your money, but if you’ve finished with that sandwich in your hand then I’ll have the rest of it.’

I promptly gave it to him, and so it was that I came to know a little of the life of Lennie.

In many respects he was a man of great dignity, and such a quality does not come easy when you’re sleeping rough, when your clothes are ragged and filthy, your body foul-smelling and dirty.

Lennie had taught English literature at Penn State University. He had married late, to a woman he loved very much, and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. However, she had died suddenly, in the blink of an eye, in a car accident: the driver who hit her had been drunk.

During the months following her death, torn apart by grief, Lennie found it increasingly difficult to cope: he struggled to hold down his job, struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning. In the end his mental collapse was swift. One day he was simply unable to get out of bed, and just lay there in a fetal position. He spent three days like that until he finally summoned the will to call for an ambulance: he was immediately hospitalized.

His story was familiar to me – I had also suffered a mental collapse, though not on account of grief – but I had been fortunate enough to have someone there to pick up the pieces. And once I had got through the initial period of crisis, where the symptoms of anxiety and depression were most acute, I had the benefit of continued support: a roof over my head, free health care, someone to talk to. But Lennie, after he was discharged from hospital, had none of these things: he was simply bundled out of the door with a few pills in his pocket, some Prozac (an antidepressant) and Xanax (an anxiolytic).

It was a broken-heart that had rendered him homeless, that had changed the course of his life irrevocably, and I only discovered for myself what a broken-heart could do a few years later when a relationship I was in with a woman I loved very much fell apart.

It was with this experience and with Lennie in mind that I began work on my first novel, Love and Mayhem, a book about love and what can happen when it is lost.

Lennie’s story is sadly typical of many who live on the street. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t a junkie, and he wasn’t just plain lazy – far from it in fact, he walked miles every day and was an avid reader (an activity which often requires significant thought, concentration and diligence, that is unless you’re reading The Sun newspaper) – but he had suffered a mental collapse, had then not been given the necessary care to help him back to work, back to mainstream society, and so had been left to muddle along on its fringes, in the shadows, behind dumpsters or in shop doorways.

Marginalized, life on the street had slowly become a way of life for him, and by the time I met Lennie he was almost committed to this renegade existence. And why not, part of me thought. If this life he now led gave him some measure of peace and happiness after years of pain and heartache, then why not just let him be.

Writing about Lennie makes me think of the plight of someone closer to home, Anne Naysmith, who lived for three decades, until 2002, in an old beat-up Ford Consul parked on a wealthy residential street in Chiswick, west London. A former concert pianist, she had suffered a nervous breakdown after a failed love affair. She subsequently took to living in her car, and had become quite content there. However, an argument slowly began to rage between the street’s residents until those who were most concerned simply about how her presence might affect the value of their homes finally won the day: they promptly had the council remove the car, and she was forced into public housing.

It does seem, when it comes to people like Lennie and Anne, that we are often too quick to force others to live as we do, and struggle when they cannot or will not conform. Perhaps we would sometimes do better to merely listen, to remind ourselves of what a broken-heart feels like. Or maybe it is just that our heart is yet to be truly broken?

A Descent Into Darkness

It was the beginning of 2007 and life ambled along until the darkness struck, creeping up on me like a dense black cloud and then raining down on me, upon which my world was turned upside down for good.

I was thirty-four years old, still single, and wondered whether I was destined to be a lifelong bachelor: I had not been in a committed relationship for a number of years. My writing provided me with the rationale to be alone. Were I in a relationship, I would write less, be less productive. Were I married, I would be a negligent husband, in love with my work instead of my wife. Were I a father, I would be absent, forever tucked away in my ivory tower, consumed by the next book rather than my child’s well-being. It seems we are able to justify anything to ourselves, even if what we justify is self-destructive, is detrimental to our happiness.

I had written two novels and was working on my third, a sombre tale about a boy soldier who is forced to kill. In the midst of research, I was trawling through numerous accounts of child soldiers, which made for shocking reading. Boys no more than nine, ten and eleven years old described how, after an initial period of indoctrination where they were bullied and brutalized – it made clear to them that they would be killed should they not carry out orders – then went on to kill, first with horror and regret, but later without compunction, with relish. The most violent species on the planet, and one which is utterly dominant, we humans descend swiftly into brutality.

Though I anticipated the effect that such accounts might have on my psyche – they would likely darken it, blacken my view of human nature – I did not limit my reading of them, rather read them, the ones I had, then sought out others, scouring libraries and the internet like a fanatic in search of the most grisly, the most horrific. Why did I do this? I might have contempt for the tabloid editor who feeds the base appetites of his readers with countless sensationalist stories of sex and murder, yet here I was, the willing reader, intoxicated by endless accounts of violence and mayhem. My hypocrisy was clear.

However, beyond this need to gratify my abject and morbid desires, I was also driven by a determination – no more than this, a near missionary zeal – to confront, rather than to shy away from, the very worst that humankind has to offer. This pursuit was destructive – it made me increasingly introspective and morose – though was driven also by intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and moral purpose. I was desperate to get to the heart of humanity.

Had I had romantic love in my life – a woman beside me whose warmth and care ensured that I retained a necessary amount of hope and optimism in spite of all I was being confronted with – I would not have descended into darkness. But I did not. I was desperately alone. Hemingway was right about men without women: they are more prone to violence and despair.

My violence did not manifest itself outwardly, thank God. I did not feel compelled to commit some of the awful acts I had read about which now haunted me, be it the Congolese boy soldier who became a serial rapist of young girls or his rebel commander who went even further and butchered the women he came across like livestock, though only after he’d raped and sodomized them first. No, rather my violence expressed itself inwardly, atrocious thoughts and impulses ruling and tormenting my consciousness day and night.

It got to the point where their frequency and intensity made me first wonder, second worry, and third be sure that I would act on them, commit a gross act of violence. Why else why would they consume me as they did? I must possess an elemental cruelty like Hitler, a sadistic nature like Marquis de Sade. I must be predisposed to violence. There is evil lurking within me. I shall finally explode and wreak havoc on the world, in the manner of a serial or mass killer.

This barrage of questions, thoughts and impulses whirled around inside my head like an endless carousel, the search for answers to them, or some comfort from them, also without end. Yet I simply had to know. And why? Well, to be sure that I was not cruel, violent or evil. This need for certainty was as persistent as the doubts which plagued my mind. Was I, Nick Taussig, not a kind and decent person after all? Had I not shown myself to be moral and loving?!

What I was experiencing was ego-dystonic, my questions, thoughts and impulses feeling repugnant, distressing, unacceptable and inconsistent with the rest of my personality. However, perhaps my ego was simply unable to accommodate my darker side, and so had skewed my self-image, forcing me to view myself as kinder and more decent than I actually was.

Ultimately, the doubt slowly crippled me, rendering me increasingly helpless and desperate. Days working from home became long and arduous as I struggled to focus on what I was reading and writing, my concentration span becoming shorter and shorter until it was comparable with that of a gnat’s. Sadly, I was distracted less by the promise of laughter that a radio sitcom would offer or the experience of joy that a collection of jazz music would bring – such playful and nurturing diversions would have done me the world of good – rather more by the opportunity for further dark and aberrant rumination when I happened to read or hear another piece of news about a killer on the loose or a rapist who had struck again. Did I, beneath my veneer of gentility and goodness, want to do the same? Could I become that man, these men? This was my mind’s default position now, brooding endlessly on violence, murder and mayhem.

I was no longer able to appreciate anything joyful. I longed for peace, for my mind not to be consumed by deathly feelings, though the only peace I got was when I closed my eyes and fell asleep. It was a serenity I only experienced unconsciously. And I would never sleep for long, no more than four hours, from eleven at night till three in the morning, and when I woke I would be wide awake – as if I’d just had a massive line of coke – staring wide-eyed and blankly at the ceiling, in silent dread of what was to come: the unrelenting spew and flurry of my thoughts. I never got myself up – this is what I should have done – instead lay there consumed by rumination, until when I eventually did, some four hours later, I was exhausted and felt like I had not slept at all. Every day felt like the last.

It got to the point where I was unable to live on my own anymore: I needed help. I was fortunate enough to be able to call on my mother. Crucially, I was in need of someone whom I could confide in like no other, someone I was able to share my awful thoughts with and yet who’d love me all the same. I could confide in my psychiatrist, I thought – he proved a crucial pillar of support for me in the subsequent weeks and months – yet he did not love me as my mother did, and still does.

When I telephoned her and told her I was falling apart, there was no judgment in her voice, only care and concern. And when I told her that I needed to come and stay, she did not hesitate, despite the clear burden of a thirty-four year old son on the brink of emotional collapse, but instead welcomed me with open arms.

The first few weeks with her were awful. She was not awful, quite the opposite in fact, full of tenderness and compassion. Rather, what I went through was. I entered my own private hell.

I immediately began to smoke again, despite having given up for several years, and smoked like I’d never stopped, getting through at least forty a day. I puffed like a patient on a psychiatric ward – where I would have been had it not been for my mother’s love – chain-smoking, needing something to do, to focus on, to occupy me, other than my troubled mind. I ceased eating, food becoming anathema to me – rare because I have a hearty appetite – my only sustenance cigarettes. I’d lost some weight already – in the few weeks before I left my flat – but now I began to lose more. Within a fortnight, I’d shed two stone. My mother urged me to eat, even though I didn’t want to.

Depression had set in, this was clear, my anger and violence turning inward. The depressed mind literally attacks its keeper. It will starve it, make it thirst, dirty it, rob it of sleep. It is not dissimilar from the starving body, which, once it has run out of food will ravage, cannibalise itself. When I got up every morning, I saw little reason to wash, to brush my teeth. Standing in the bathroom staring blankly at my reflection in the mirror I did not experience a healthy desire to care for my face and body, to look after them, instead felt the antithesis of this: I wanted to neglect them, even harm them. And so I did not wash, did not brush my teeth. Then downstairs in the kitchen, I would have a morning cup of tea. I did not enjoy this, as I would have done before. It served only one purpose – to lubricate my dry throat and enable me to resume smoking. A few hours later I’d manage a banana, at best a piece of toast, and this I would similarly take no pleasure from. Again, I ate principally to quell the queasiness that was building in my empty stomach after the first six or seven cigarettes of the day.

My mother, though she was busy with work, with other family members and with her daily chores, would sit patiently with me at the breakfast table as I stared into space chain-smoking. My mother, as a student nurse, had trained in a psychiatric hospital – mandatory for all young nurses of her era – and my behaviour surely reminded her of this placement, the troubled patient unable to engage with the world, lost in the frenzy and sadness of his own soul, though in this instance the patient was unfortunately her own son. Her mere presence would open me up, encourage me to speak, to voice what was troubling me. I uttered no more than a few words at first, non-sequiturs, which most likely made little sense even to her, who knows me better than anyone. But as the days and weeks went by, I said more, a lot more.

The specific psychiatric disorder I was suffering from, obsessive bad thoughts, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, is perhaps best articulated by Herman Melville, who wrote, “One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction, but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.” This trembling I experienced every time I had a perverse or repugnant thought of a violent or sexual nature, and what immediately followed was a sense of horror with myself, followed by shame and self-contempt. How can I think this? I am a bad person. I am a danger to others. Perhaps I should kill myself. Fearful of my thoughts and of myself, and eager to protect others from what I feared I might do to them, I had become a prisoner. Imprisoned by the contents of my mind, I had subsequently imprisoned myself.

The worst night came after a change in antidepressant medication, from seroxat to prozac (which my psychiatrist judged might be more effective), and the prescription of sleeping pills, which though getting me off to sleep still left me waking after four hours more exhausted than before as I now had to also contend with the effects of pharmacologically-induced fatigue. I had fallen asleep early, at ten o’ clock, and woke at two o’clock in the morning. In spite of the grog of zoplicone, the non-benzodiazepine hypnotic I was being prescribed, I was feeling restless. Gazing at the bookshelf beside the bed – my parents’ home is full of books and could surely service the whole village they live in – amidst countless histories of Central and East European countries and other books on political and economic theory (all my father’s books here), I spotted a biography of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, a book which I had read when first published in 1993. In it, the author, Brian Masters, attempts to understand what drove this man to rape, torture, murder, dismember and, in some cases, eat young men and boys between 1978 and 1991. In light of my fragile emotional state and the disorder I was suffering from, perhaps the last thing I should have done is pick up this book, and yet I did. I was seduced by the “imp of the perverse,” this phrase coined by Edgar Allen Poe, which Dr. Lee Baer explores in his important and compassionate work on obsessive bad thoughts, The Imp of the Mind.

In Poe’s words, “We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees  our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in the cloud of unnamable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genie in the Arabian nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genie, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall – this rushing annihilation – for the very reason that involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination – for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it…”

It is this very paradoxical impulse that drove me to read the book from cover to cover in three hours. I read it frantically and urgently, barely pausing for breath, smoking incessantly as I did, convinced that it would provide a definitive explanation of a human being’s descent into evil, and that I, once in possession of this knowledge, would never succumb to evil. I was also eager to assure myself that I could never become this man because I was different in kind: I was essentially good, not bad. And yet once I had finished I did not find myself reassured and comforted, as neither did the author offer a conclusive answer as to why Jeffrey Dahmer did what he did nor did he confirm that I was different in kind from his subject, that I could never do what he had done. Rather he offered me the truth.

This truth was difficult to stomach because it did not provide the certainty that I wanted and needed. According to Brian Masters, there were many contributing factors which drove Jeffrey Dahmer to kill again and again, and these included his parents’ divorce, their neglect of him, his alcoholism, his clinical depression, his repressed homosexuality, his frequent loneliness, his lack of success in holding down a job, his inability to moderate his sexual desires and violent fantasies, his failure to seek treatment and take responsibility for his actions, amongst many others. Likewise Masters concluded that the difference between his subject and the average man was one of degree not kind. In his view, any one of us could descend to the depths of Jeffrey Dahmer’s behaviour if circumstance, character and environment misaligned and conspired to bring out the very worst in us, and if we, like him, did not show the necessary willingness, remorse, resolve and moral obligation to confront what we were becoming, and change what we were doing.

Riddled with even more doubt, I closed the book and sat on the edge of bed, twitching and longing for sunrise. For I had had enough of the night. The pressure of my thoughts, the intensity of my doubt, I was no longer able to tolerate. The suffering became so great that I suddenly imagined I was in the grip of an abominable nightmare and would wake at any moment to find that the last few weeks and months had been nothing more than the working of my troubled unconscious. And yet I was wide awake, I was conscious, and still my mind played havoc with my soul. I listened to the wind whipping through the trees outside, the rattle of the old sash windows in the bedroom, the patter of branches on their glass, and wished that the night would simply carry me away. But it did not.

I waited there on the edge of the bed for an hour praying for the sun to finally rise, sitting on my hands like an anxious and distraught child in need of its mother, unable to smoke anymore since my mouth and throat were so dry – incapable, it seems, of standing up and walking the few small steps around the bed to the little sink in the corner of the room where I could fill my empty glass with water and drink. And when the sun at last began to rise, I took myself upstairs to my parents’ room, standing there and hoping that they’d wake and offer me some comfort after a hellish night of fear and anguish. As a boy I used to suffer from nightmares, and would escape the dark and quiet of my bedroom and tiptoe downstairs to the lowest landing of the staircase from where I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen, this offering me sufficient relief and consolation, and there I would fall asleep until either my mother or father found me and carried me back upstairs to bed. And though they did not carry me now – I doubt they would have been able to – they provided me with the very same support and reassurance.

From this dreadful night, the light slowly returned. My mother showed her extraordinary quiet strength, possessing the composure, benevolence and resilience of a priest taking confession, as I talked about my troubles and fears: her work as a psychotherapist put her in good stead here, imbued with sufficient patience and wisdom. These confessionals then moved beyond the gruesome and unpleasant material of obsessive bad thoughts to my life in general, which, in spite of my professional success, desperately lacked something – a woman in my life and the prospect of a family, a child or children of my own. I had a string of romantic relationships behind me which had not worked, and I wondered whether, after several years without one, I had simply become too accustomed to living alone.

It seems my mother’s love for her son enabled her to both refrain from judgement where necessary and to absorb much of my distress, permitting my pain to become her own. She also encouraged me to eat once more, to regain my strength after many weeks of malnourishment, and also to wash, to care for my body after much neglect. As my strength grew, so did my conviction that I was a worthy human being, in spite of my occasional grisly thoughts, and that I was worthy of love.

Romantic love did not come right away, but when it showed its face, in the form of Klara, I could see it very clearly. For she possessed some of the same qualities of my mother, a deep and boundless heart, and a willingness to confront the human soul in all its ugliness and beauty, misery and happiness. With her love came a calmer mind, a mind more willing to be still, less reliant on reason and intellect, and more, on feeling and intuition; a wiser mind, more willing to live with doubt, uncertainty, the unknowable; and crucially, a more loving mind.

Love and Mayhem, Chapter 34

The last few days, Catherine has felt like she is flying: she is happy all the time. And she feels like this now as she squints her eyes, peering through the branches at the blue above her, flying through the sky, over a lush landscape and towards a big city. And suddenly she is in the city, gliding above streets and people. She dives down and then swoops up again, up the side of a very tall building … yes, a skyscraper. Up and up like a bird.

Oh … she, Catherine, can do anything, absolutely anything. The whole world is hers. Everyone is beautiful. She loves them all. She wants to help everyone in need, care for them all. Life has become a daydream, a carnival of magical colours, everything so bright and clear, wherever she looks. Catherine does not know why she feels so elated, so wonderful, powerful: it does not make sense. But she does know she must savour this high while it lasts: she has secretly been longing for it for some time. She stared at herself in the mirror when she got up this morning and did not quite know who she was.

Catherine puts on her headphones now as she looks at the sky again, blue, so blue. She feels like she is going inside the music, feels it so closely she becomes it. Personal identity gone. She is a soprano’s voice. The pluck of a guitar string. She is so free. It feels like an orgasm; it is unstoppable. She is higher than she has ever been before, Catherine thinks. She knows she is flying too high, like Icarus she is too close to the sun. Her fall is inevitable, but she does not care. While she feels this good, may it last as long as it can…

View the book Love and Mayhem


Love and Mayhem, a review by S. Modi

“This is a remarkable first novel written by Nick Taussig. In short, if you want to experience life through an emotional, intellectual and an almost hidden soul, Nick has managed this with pure perfection.

‘When fate’s got it in for you, there’s no limit to what you may have to put up with’ (Georgette Heyer). Fate and love are apparent parallels in Nick’s world. A riveting read.” M. S. Modi