What did you want to be when you grew up?
A firefighter? A lawyer? Even in college the question came up. What’s your major? For my generation the answer was always a lie. “An MFA,” we’d say, but what we really wanted to be, our greatest aspiration, was to be insane.
Punk = insane, but only on the weekends. As did drinking and LSD. As did the Cacophony Society and Burning Man. As did fight clubs. Once, one ’70s summer, my mother kicked me out of a chair. Summers in the desert of eastern Washington State hovered around a mid-day three-degree temperature. You did your outdoors work in the morning and evening. During the day you hid inside and read, and I was reading a book—probably Lisa, Bright and Dark—and mom lifted one foot and put it against the side of the chair and kicked me over while saying, “Nobody is ever going to pay you to sit around and read books all day.”
Lisa Shilling is 16, smart, attractive—and she is losing her mind.
The future offered nothing but wage slavery and the Vietnam War. What was there to do? I’ll tell you what there was to do. There was insanity. There was ranting, raving, pissing-on-the-floor madness. For boys insanity was a good out. As a Maxwell Q. Klinger (M.A.S.H.) or anyone in Catch-22 or Randall Patrick McMurphy, you got a pass. Instead of getting drafted or sent to prison, you got time in some cushy insane asylum like Billy Bibbit, where you could ride out another four or five years. Ride out the war. To go insane was a little like college, but without the student debt.
For girls, insanity offered sympathy and attention and glamour—yes, glamour. Insanity = Cool. Just look at books like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Go Ask Alice and The Exorcist. And The Sterile Cuckoo. Of these our Holy Grail was the book Sybil.
Her name is Deborah. Her age is sixteen. She lives here. But her allegiance is to the world of her fantasies.
Ah, the glory that was Sybil. To have a split personality was our ticket out of the increasing conformity. And the friendless isolation of the latch-key generation. In every shopping mall you’d stumble across the same Orange Julius. The same B. Dalton’s. Le Corbusier had tightened the screws on how everything looked, and now the world was forcing the Metric System down our throats. The only way to “succeed” was to become a copy of a copy of a copy. The teen in a grey flannel suit.
Eve Black. The girl who loves nothing better than a few hookers of gin and a romp with a stranger.
Sybil became our Joan of Arc. The novel and film took the crazy single mother from Carrie and elevated her to new heights. Throughout high school the go-to chant of rebels became, “Sybil, hold your water!” It replaced even “I can see your dirty pillows!”
For those of you poor souls who missed the boat, Sybil was the true story—somewhat debated—about a woman so tormented in childhood that her personality had fragmented into sixteen distinct selves. Sixteen. That’s more BFFs than most people get in a lifetime. Sybil Dorsett was her own basketball team. She was her own clique. Her own gang, homies, crew. Sybil could be the cast of her own Glee. She was her own slumber party. Sybil didn’t need to beg for followers on social media, no, she was her own built-in platform. Her own Entourage and Brady Bunch. She was her own band, never lonely or left behind, forever on tour.
My generation looked at Sally Fields tied to the piano and dribbling her enema water on the hardwood floors and said, “That’s my out.”
It was Sally’s salvation, too. After a career of playing squeaky clean characters such as Gidget and The Flying Nun—a rip-off of The Sound of Music the way I Dream of Jeannie was a rip-off of Bewitched was a rip-off of Bell, Book, and Candle—it only followed that to get grown-up roles like Norma Rae she’d have to get her hands a little dirty. To play Sybil Dorsett did the trick. Before that Joanne Woodward had been the classic crazy. In The Three Faces of Eve she got to be the good girl and the slut. Crazy = Sexy. Just look at Anthony Perkins or Hopkins. Look at Hannibal Lecter, twenty years down the road.
You can just picture Alfred Hitchcock standing on the leftover set of Psycho and saying, “How am I supposed to repurpose all these stuffed fucking crows…?!” Then slapping his forehead and barking, “Somebody! See if Tippi Hedren is under contract!”
In Sybil Joanne Woodward came back as the therapist who cures Sally Fields. Therein lay the promise that crazy wasn’t forever. We could dial-switch our way through a dozen-plus personalities the way people surf the web nowadays. And it wouldn’t be our fault.
Did I mention that crazy also got you laid? Look at Henry Winkler in Heroes. He was bat-shit certified—and he still got Sally Fields at the end as she wailed the romantic tagline of the era, “Please don’t be crazy! Because if you’re crazy I can’t have you!” It’s crazy gets crazy, crazy loses crazy, crazy gets crazy back.
Maybe there were other ways to be a different person every few days, but becoming an actor was too difficult. To go crazy looked easy and fun. Even toilet training goes out the window, and instead of applying to colleges we could vie for the best loony bins in which to ride out a few years. And in case you think I’m being crass and glib about the subject, I’m not. At that point in the culture, crazy looked like as valid an option as anything else.
Until Ronald Reagan took the option off the table. All the classic madhouses closed their doors, and those of us looking for the soft option got blindsided by deinstitutionalization. The dream ended.
So, how can we still make those Sybil dreams come true? How can you keep a protective layer of crazy between you and the world, while being your own dream lover and BFF and body guard? Your own warm cocoon of funny, bright, courageous people who love you, you and only you. The solution is obvious. It’s not kids, kids grow up.
In the summer of 2007 I finally found myself in the Sussex County Mental Hospital (where they were shooting the movie Choke). A very happy ending.
My mother was wrong.
Writing is better than playing video games.
If the box office haul and character admiration in regard to the recent ‘Joker’ (2019) movie is anything to go by, people seemingly still want to grow up and get a career in insanity.
See also the re-emergence in the popularity of Patrick Bateman. Insane = good looking, wealthy, and banging two hookers at the same time while flexing your muscles for yourself to admire in a mirror.