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.