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How Psychiatry Almost Stopped Burning Man: A Story of Hell and Liberation

As Burning Man nears its 30th anniversary, USA Today has published an article attempting to explain how this still somewhat freakish event came into existence.  I enjoyed the article, but as someone involved in the origin story it tells, I believe that an important piece is being left out.  This relates to how misguided “mental health treatment” came close to disabling a key organizer of the early Burning Man.  This piece is a fascinating tale in itself, but more fascinating when considered as just one example of how a flawed approach to mental health treatment forms a barrier to many forms of cultural evolution and renewal, with oppressive consequences for society as a whole.

It seems to me that we commonly hear sanitized tales of creative accomplishment that leave out the churning chaos that these developments may have emerged from.  Then, when people do encounter such chaos or madness, in themselves or others, they see it just as something to be suppressed, rather than something more complex and full of potential as well as hazard.  Eventually, the fear of going near such chaos forms a kind of cultural straightjacket, suppressing everyone.

The USA Today article describes, as one of the events leading up to Burning Man, an event I organized where participants were invited to wander about downtown San Francisco acting as “mad” as they liked, knowing they were being watched over by “mental health workers” who were part of the “mental health tour” and who would keep them out of trouble with the public and make everything seem “under control.”  While the article reports that the purpose for this event was simply to see how “the public would respond to people who actually were in need,” my actual intention was to create a situation where people did not have to act “sane,” where they could feel free to explore other, more chaotic aspects of their being, and where such exploration would be made safe by the presence of tolerant others who would act as an interface with the often intolerant world we were immersed in.

This was important to me, because I had gone on my own journey through states that could be labeled “mad,” and I was also close to others who had similar experiences, some of whom were getting pulled into a mental health system that focused on suppression of such experiences rather than making it safe to explore them.  And one of those people I was close to at the time was John Law, who later became one of the three primary founders of Burning Man, and who also provided critical financing that allowed Burning Man to survive in the years before it pulled in sufficient funds to finance itself.

It is Law’s story I want to focus on here, in particular the story of how psychiatry almost managed to pull him into the role of a chronic mental patient.  I believe this story is important because it naturally leads to the question: how many people like him might be making amazing contributions to our world, if they weren’t getting “helped” by being pulled into a system that is focused on suppressing their experience rather than understanding it and seeking to find what is of value within it?    Anyway, here’s the story:

At age 16, Law was starting college in Tennessee, financed by a “rehabilitation scholarship” meant to turn him around after a period of juvenile delinquency. He was living in a dorm, away from his family for the first time.  He had no clear idea of what he wanted from attending college, though he had chosen forestry as a major.  On the social front, he was involved with friends who liked to drink a lot and pop pills like various forms of “speed,” and to get money for all that as well as other needs, he worked as an engraver in a jewelry store.

It wasn’t going very well however.  His focus on his education was not strong, as he didn’t have a clear sense of what he wanted to do with his education or with his life.  And with all the substance use, and the stress of trying to work a job as well, it seemed impossible to study effectively.  His mental state became increasingly foggy.

Then something big happened:  a student in the dorm attempted suicide by jumping out of the building.  Law isn’t sure if this succeeded or failed, but in the process the window to Law’s dorm room was smashed.  This had a big impact on him, and in his foggy state of mind, he began to wonder if it was actually he who had jumped.  Then, he began thinking he had actually succeeded in killing himself and was now in hell.

Still carrying those feelings some days later, he went to work as normal.  But things weren’t normal.  As he watched a co-worker, he saw the man’s fingers appear to multiply till there were 8 or 10 on one hand, and a monocle over his eye used for the engraving work also appeared to multiply; then he looked directly at Law with a clearly demonic leer.

Law’s response was to bolt from his workplace, and to call a cab, requesting to be taken to a mental hospital (or something).  He didn’t know what was wrong exactly, but suspected it was something to do with his mind.  The cab driver took him to an outpatient facility connected to the university.  By that time Law’s thinking had shifted and he was convinced the driver was part of a giant conspiracy against him, but he paid his fare anyway and walked into the building.

There, not knowing how to describe what was happening to him, he explained he had just taken a massive dose of LSD and was having a bad trip.  (He had actually not taken hallucinogens in recent months.)  Rather than talk to him about his experiences however, or provide any kind of comfort, agency staff simply placed him in a room and told him to wait.  After what seemed like a long while, Law got up to leave:  but two staff members followed him, forced him to return and then locked him in the room.

Once locked inside the room, there was nothing to do but to watch the clock.  It was a big clock, that made a big “click” as each minute passed.  Then it stopped dead; Law found that odd.  Finally, a doctor entered the room, who looked to Law like a corpse, which made him recoil.  The doctor said nothing much, but reached out to take his pulse.  As this was happening, Law looked at the time on the doctor’s watch – the exact same time as the time the clock on the wall had stopped!  This was too freaky, so Law pulled his hand away.

What followed was foggy – getting sedated, and then shipped to a hospital.  Once there, it seemed he was an object for study, and he was convinced the other “patients” were graduate students playing a role so they could better observe him.  No one really tried to talk to him though, and he refused to say anything to anyone, at least until one evening a young intern approached him.  The intern was very friendly, and talked to him for a long time, until finally Law opened up about his life and family and his experience of being in hell.

But that’s when things went very wrong.  Instead of continuing to listen and explore, the intern began explaining to Law that perhaps if he invited Jesus into his life, he might get out of hell!  Feeling manipulated, Law yelled and attacked the intern, knocking him down.  What followed was restraint and another injection.

This was not the only time Law became violent on the ward – he estimates there were three or four times in total.  And while to outsiders his fits of agitation may have seemed simply “crazy,” there was a story he could have told about each one, had anyone cared to ask him.

For example, there was the time he was, with the other patients, watching Walter Cronkite deliver the news.  Like many Americans, this was a routine for him long before coming to the hospital, and he very much trusted Cronkite and his sidekick Eric Sevareid to speak objectively about the facts of the day.  This evening, the news seemed to be about a “pygmy uprising” in Africa.  As Law watched, feeling complete trust in the objectivity of what he was seeing, Sevareid stopped in the middle of his commentary, looked directly at Law, then pointed at him – and his finger came out of the TV set – and he declared “You are in hell!”  Law can’t now recall exactly what his response was after that, but it was very agitated and the hospital responded with more restraint and sedation.

Law recalls that the whole hospital experience lasted at least two weeks, probably less than a month.  Eventually he stopped hallucinating, perhaps as a result of the drugs, but he was not talking to anyone, and he felt he lacked the mental capacity to form words into sentences.  (From a psychiatric perspective, this was cognitive dysfunction and negative symptoms.)  Law isn’t clear on why the hospital agreed to release him in this condition, but he suspects that his father pushed for it.  His father was a college professor with a long history of standing up to authorities and bureaucrats, and was already skeptical of mental health treatment approaches as they had impacted another family member.  (Parents and other relatives cannot always make a difference like this, but in Law’s case, his parent’s willingness and even likely insistence on taking him home was probably pivotal in his recovery.)

Once home, things did not always go smoothly.  But Law doesn’t remember anyone insisting he continue to take drugs, and he recalls his mom taking him on long drives, during which he was again vividly hallucinating, probably as the drugs wore off.  Law himself was not inclined to talk, and his parents were stressed and his father avoided any talk about what had happened, while his mother talked about it only a little.  But his younger sister wanted to talk about everything, and Law started responding to her, and as he did he started coming back to himself.

But this return to himself came with more problems.  He didn’t know what to do with the shame of having failed to make good on his scholarship.  And his family was not happy when he started reconnecting with the friends with whom he drank and took pills.  This came to a head one night and an argument with his dad became physical, and his dad, a former boxer, punched him and knocked him out.  Overwhelmed by this event, Law packed up that evening and left home.

That night, camped out by the side of the road, he sobbed and felt his life was ruined.  The next morning however the sun came out, and he felt the promise of new beginnings; he decided he was a completely new person!  He hitchhiked to Michigan to meet up with my brother Ken, a close pal of his since second grade.  A few months later he and Ken hitchhiked to the SF Bay Area to visit me, and then Law decided to relocate there.

The timing of this was great for me, because I had just alienated the one friend who had been close to me during the last couple years when I had been going through my own altered or “extreme states.”

Unfortunately, the first time we became roommates together didn’t work out too well.  Law was inspired to recreate something like the Haight Ashbury “crash pads” made famous during the late 60’s, but many of the people he invited in to stay rent-free were a bit difficult to get along with.  For example, I recall the guy who decided he would paint a mural on the dining room wall, and who expressed certainty that it would be such a great work of art that the rest of us should be happy to let him eat our food and then clean his dishes for him.  When I (among others) critiqued this plan, this guy and his friend threatened to murder me.  Soon, there was no one left interested in paying rent, and the whole situation collapsed.

From a mental health system perspective, this housing disaster would be taken as evidence of both grandiosity and poor judgement on the part of Law, evidence that he was still “mentally ill.”  From a more open minded developmental perspective though, that same story could be taken as evidence of his emerging creativity and leadership qualities, even if mistakes were being made along the way.

Our second attempt at being roommates, a few months later, was more successful.  At the time we were both employed and fitting in enough to get by, but also deeply alienated from conventional society and looking hard for ways to create something really different.  For a while, we just talked together and imagined the sorts of things we might like to see happen.  Then, I was lucky enough to learn about a rather obscure but innovative institution called “Communiversity,” and Law and I together joined in for the initial meeting of its most famous “class,” the San Francisco Suicide Club.  I liked it a lot, but for Law, it was magic:  he quickly found his role as a leader first within the Suicide Club, then in the follow-up group the Cacophony Society and eventually, Burning Man.

Interestingly, while Law’s story is told in many places, such as the historical book This is Burning Man and in Law’s own book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, the part about an encounter with madness and with psychiatry is not included.  Mention is made of his record as a juvenile delinquent, but no words about his time as a mental patient.  When I asked him about this, he explained that in order to really build a new identity for himself, it always seemed necessary to put everything about madness and psychiatry away, to bury it.  Fortunately, he is now willing to be open about this part of his past, and he has approved this story as it is written.

From my point of view, the really sad thing is that so many people who go through experiences like Law’s do not ever manage to break away from psychiatry and build a new identity.  They are taught to see their internal chaos as simply “illness” and to focus on fighting it, rather than learning that if approached correctly it can also be a source of creativity and personal and possibly cultural renewal.  That’s why I think it is essential that stories like Law’s be told and understood, so we really come to understand madness itself in a completely different way, and to respond to it much differently.

Interestingly, while madness often follows childhood trauma, that was not part of Law’s story.  Both his parents were loving, and he related well to siblings and peers.  He had a particularly strong role model in his father, who showed courage in standing up against racism and corrupt bureaucracy within the academic world in which he worked.  But there were also big contradictions in his life and upbringing that weren’t being addressed.  His parents had sent him to Catholic school, where the rigidity he encountered didn’t gel with the independent thinking he had learned from his dad.  As he entered high school, he was introduced to various forms of rebellion in the form of drugs etc., but nothing that formed any coherent path to a future existence.  By the time he entered college, he had one foot into trying to “make it” by conforming to a society that seemed rigid and meaningless, and one foot into drugs and thoughtless rebellion that also offered no future.  Nothing was working.

Further, while Law’s dad was articulate and courageous when confronting obvious corruption, he was not adept at talking about deeper contradictions of the conventional society that he was part of and which he encouraged his son to join.  So there really wasn’t a forum within his family or with anyone else he knew at the time for talking about the contradictory pressures he was experiencing.  Unfortunately, a bind becomes a double bind when one can’t talk about it.  There is no longer any conscious way out of the mess:  instead, the existing order has to break down if there is going to be any relief.

For Law, this meant entering “hell.”  From the point of view of psychiatry, the problem was that he thought he was in hell when he wasn’t, but from a more humanistic point of view, the problem was that his life was indeed turning into hell.  To get out, he first needed to experience that consciously, then he needed to let the fixed beliefs about his life that he had previously identified with “burn away” so that he could resolve the contradictions and find a new path.

From the point of view of many traditional cultures, this is all very understandable.  Shamans routinely understood they would have to go through things like experiences of dismemberment and destruction in order to explore new forms of existence and experience.  But psychiatry focuses only on the suffering involved in “breakdown” and ignores the possibility of “breakthrough” and renewal that can follow, if only people get the support they need to allow their psyche to reorganize into something new.

When I think of Law’s story, I find the image of the “pygmy rebellion” to be especially interesting.  One reason madness can be so terrifying is that parts of our mind with which we were previously barely familiar can be suddenly doing things that throw our whole system out of control.  This “rebellion” of the less conscious parts of our mind can be understood to happen as an attempt to free us from the ways we are stuck, but if we then feel too threatened by its actions and just focus on attempts to “put down the rebellion and restore order” then the end result can be getting stuck in struggle, or what Eleanor Longden called a “psychic civil war.”

When Law decided to see mental health “help” he was experiencing profound alienation between his somewhat paralyzed and stuck conscious mind and less conscious parts of his mind, the latter of which were playing terrifying games with his sense of reality, for example “taking over” the image of favorite news announcers to instead make proclamations that were “delusional” if understood literally, but which did accurately describe what was going on in internal reality.

One of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, was fond of pointing out that if one’s car goes out of control on a slippery surface, the way to regain control is somewhat counterintuitive:  one must turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid.   This is the equivalent of finding something of value within the madness and then going with it, developing it.  The mental health system of course does the contrary, it focuses on turning against the skid, attempting to completely suppress the “madness.”

But fortunately for Law, he was able to slip outside the grasp of psychiatry, and then to “turn in the direction of the skid” and to join in rebellion against the established order in a more conscious way.

Law never again had a “psychotic episode.”  Instead, he joined with others who had experienced similar bouts of alienation, to experiment with altering their own and other people’s sense of reality, so helping many discover that sense of freedom and play that had earlier emerged as that rebellion inside his own mind.

Interestingly, Law’s allegiance to play and resistance to fixed structures of authority led him to argue that Burning Man should be disbanded once it became large enough to require rules and more established authority.  In the last year he participated, 1996, the theme involved an attempt by corporations, allied with Satan, to take over Burning Man itself.  The video below captures some of the spirit of that event, and includes an image of Law “fighting back” against the corporate powers by climbing to the top of their headquarters, Helco Tower, setting off a bomb to ignite it, and then escaping via zip line:

Life itself is beset with contradictions.  “Revolutions” of various sorts can make room for new life, but they quickly collapse if we don’t do anything to support them, to stabilize the new forms that emerge.  Unfortunately though, the very efforts we take to stabilize our lives often turn and threaten to become deadening.  An interesting reflection on this process was expressed by the Kafka quote that recently appeared on MIA, “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

Opinions now vary as to whether Burning Man continues to be a dynamically growing and vital revolutionary event, or if it has itself become a soulless monster in need of being destroyed so something new can emerge.  But leaving that dispute aside, I want to focus on two more basic realities:

First, it seems that no matter how “life supporting” our personal mental structures and identities or our cultural forms and frameworks may be, they do eventually run into problems, they become “soulless” and in need of renewal.  Having them break down or burn away can be painful and even dangerous, but this process can also be vital, and may be required so that new life can emerge.

Second, we really need a “health” system that understands and supports this process of breakdown and renewal, rather than attempting to simply suppress it. John F. Kennedy has been quoted as saying that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”  When we attempt to suppress revolution in the mind, those revolutions just become more chaotic and difficult to understand, and “chronic psychosis” becomes much more likely.

Fortunately, other pathways are possible.  Lots will have to change, but telling and reflecting on the stories of those who found such alternative routes is one step toward creating a future where the norm will be for people to be supported in working through their personal revolutions in whatever way makes the most sense for them.

And then maybe, with luck, the very people we learn to help effectively will then turn and help the rest of us find pathways toward a very necessary cultural renewal.  That is, their ability to see things differently may eventually help us all find radical alternatives to the current pattern that David Oaks calls “normal people destroying the planet” or “normalgeddon.”  That’s the bigger challenge…….

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