Excerpt: 'The Disquieting Muses' by Thomas Heise


Photograph by Dirk Ingo Franke

Did your insomnia begin then, I asked him as I looked down to make a mental note of the elapsed time on my phone’s voice recorder – 163 minutes – as we strolled through the sunlight in Mitte onto Alexanderstraße and across the Spree into the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, where it was raining. Though we had been walking together for most of the afternoon and were, in my estimation, no longer strangers, having already talked at length that morning in a busy café at the back of the mazelike Hackesche Höfe, he politely said no to the invitation to join me under the umbrella and continued on in silence, now with rivulets of water running down his neck. He had remarked to me at the start of our interview, which now seemed to have begun ages ago, that he had traveled to Berlin for reasons that appeared to me to have nothing to do with his time in Gowanus, Brooklyn other than that it was while living there that he learned that his estranged father, a German, had been killed instantly when his sedan plummeted to the bottom of Mensinger Ravine near the town of Lübbecke, four hours west of us. Arranged by an ex-wife who lived in the countryside, the funeral had taken place before he had arrived a month ago in September on a redeye from JFK, yet nevertheless his intention was to remain in Berlin for another few weeks. He told me that when he lived in New York, he had made a point once a month to frequent a German tavern in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood with white-flowered curtains and waitresses in nineteenth-century Bavarian folk costumes, where he would eat schweinshaxe and spätzle, dishes that he confessed he didn’t particularly care for, but which he imagined his father would have eaten alone after a difficult session with a patient. He admitted that he knew little about his father’s actual life, apart from a few letters, but deduced what he could about him from his own motivations and thoughts, believing as he did that his father’s DNA must be informing them somehow and must be, he imagined, shaping his personality and the words he spoke. I listened quietly, not wishing to comment or show my surprise when he disclosed that he felt his father was latent in him and that he had the propensity to return at any moment, that he might surface atavistically in some strange compulsion or tic, which we generally assign to the bizarreness of aging, whereas he was sure was really do to the latest appearance of traits that lay dormant in us, like vestigial organs and body parts, such as a tailbone that suddenly begins to grow. It was the only way that he could explain his need to be in Berlin in the wake of his father’s death, he said, as we stopped along the river to watch a houseboat pass under an archway.

By coincidence I happened to be in Germany for a conference at the University of Duisburg-Essen on a new medication in phase three trials that induces selective amnesia by blocking the formation of dendritic spines between synapses in the brain. In combination with traditional cognitive therapy, it was showing such promising results for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that doctors at the conference had taken to calling it, half in jest, Nepenthe Pharmakon, the magical potion to quell sorrow that Helen in the Odyssey discreetly administered to the grieving Telemachus and the warriors of Sparta. Before he dived into the data of his clinical findings, Doctor David Ezekiel, the keynote speaker of the major study under discussion, toasted the room with a glass of Spätburgunder from the podium, and quoted Homer, Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, thought to slip a drug into the wine they drank, one that calmed all pain and trouble, and brought forgetfulness of every evil. Whoever tasted it would shed no tears that day, not though his mother and father lay there dead, not though they put his dear son or his brother to the sword, before his very eyes. A low murmur of congratulatory laughter, the only that I heard at the conference, rippled through the audience. I had paid close attention to his talk but can remember only a handful of words from it, for my mind had remained fixated on the notion that the ameliorating forgetfulness that Homer spoke of, meant as it was to wash away the horrors of life, left one without the human capacity for sorrow, deeply traumatized but unaware of it, as if in a waking coma, like the undead whose numbers among us seem to grow every year. After the conference, I continued to contemplate what it would feel like to be calmed of all pain and trouble as I watched the soft hills of the Ruhr Valley roll by, occasionally nodding off to the rhythmic images of farmhouses, red cottages, and aqueducts that were occasionally interrupted by the beautifully desolate work-yards and rusted blast furnaces from when the region was known for its advanced industries, which now stood as remnants of some former civilization. I had taken the train east in hopes of spending a few days of quiet in Berlin when I found a posting he had left on an Internet message board where those stricken by severe cases of insomnia had gathered to share their experiences. His brief reply – I can meet for a coffee, Thomas W. Heise – arrived on October 29th, 2012, 3:40am. Since the prior winter, I had been interviewing chronic sufferers of insomnia to better understand the disorder’s psychiatric and environmental causations and its common symptoms, mental and physical fatigue that are familiar to all of us, and to track down where I could any evidence of its more unusual manifestations – panic attacks, hallucinations, delirium, prolonged periods of double vision – and to find, if possible, one or more of the rare, unfortunate cases of Fatal Familial Insomnia, a mysterious disease whose hundred or so known victims in the final stages enter into a state of suspended animation and, like travelers unable to recover from what the world has shown them, stare day and night from their beds with eyes fixed open on nothing before eventually passing away. As had a number of the other insomnia sufferers I had spoken to, Thomas had a nearly photographic memory and a pronounced loquaciousness – words flowed out of an endless river within him – yet he showed no signs of drowsiness, and in fact, he had a seeming inability to be at rest, which manifested in incessant walking through the city at a fast clip. As a child, I was often subject to bouts of motion sickness from the movement of my mind alone when I would lay in bed reading, one hand dangling over the side as if I were in a canoe, I remember him telling me later, or when peering at the large, World War Two-era map of the world that I would unfold over the wooden floors in my room, and though the feeling was not unpleasant, similar to the slight twinge in the stomach and the feeling of universal weakness that were once unmistakable symptoms of nostalgia that afflicted soldiers and poets, he said he learned that the sensation only subsided completely when he kept moving, but that otherwise it was always present, if ever so slightly.

By the end of our time together, which stretched out in a series of conversations over three days, with breaks in between when often late into the night I sat alone with a cup of coffee, followed by one or two glasses of wine or a tumbler of whiskey, transcribing our meetings in my hotel room, it seemed to me that he was deeply withdrawn, like a man sinking into himself but also looking for a way out, or perhaps, a way back, so to speak, and that the wanderlust he exhibited was homesickness that he perpetually displaced into a stream of language. In fact, I sensed something of it even on the first day, but I hadn’t words for it, when we turned a corner in Kreuzberg and stumbled upon a group of Red Cross nurses huddled under a dripping canopy where several stretchers were occupied by weary Germans donating blood. The country’s supply was dangerously low after thousands of liters, having been discovered to be contaminated with Hepatitis C, were disposed of, poured out into huge white bathtubs in front of cameras and newspaper reporters in hospitals in Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin. He slowed a few feet behind me to watch a syringe change color as the man, maybe fifty or so, steadied his eyes on the nurse’s face while blood was quickly siphoned out of him. Three other Germans, gauze bandages in the creases of their arms, stood at a wooden table set up on the sidewalk where they were drinking orange juice from small plastic cups. By the time that we had looped around the street, walking for a few minutes in silence to the raindrops on the embarrassingly large red umbrella from the hotel that stretched nearly the entire width of the sidewalk, he returned to the question that I suspected hung over him. Not exactly, he said, it started two weeks after the night that I have been telling you about, when my time in Gowanus turned, I can only describe it, as increasingly odd, and then he said no more. We paused in front of the window of a Turkish bakery where two men with their faces buried in the morning newspaper looked up to stare out at us, and where a woman in a hijab was pulling a tray of börek from a clay oven in whose recesses I could see a pile of smoldering wood. Across the street was a dour five-story apartment building whose entire south side was a mural of an astronaut in an Apollo-era suit floating backwards into the emptiness of space. A few minutes later, as the weather rapidly deteriorated, we took refuge in an alcove amongst fig trees in terracotta pots and several overgrown philodendrons, whose thick leaves arched out into the sheltered courtyard of chairs and benches imbued with a sea-green light filtering through the glass ceiling that made the whole interior seem as if it were submerged in a mist. It cast an intricate pattern of leaves on the ground that I was following with my eyes, when glancing up I saw him move to the stone archway to the street, where he stood in a military-style parka that he had kept on throughout our conversation that day, even when we had been inside at the café, as though he might have to leave at a moment’s notice, and which he wore to each of our subsequent meetings and never, to the best of my memory, removed during our time together. Three schoolgirls, slender, almost boyish in blue and white uniforms, walked by closely together in the rain, and as he stood there utterly absorbed in the movement of their bare legs, like a character out of a late-Victorian novel, he quickly retrieved a heart-shaped amber bottle from his pocket and waved it under his nose, and when he returned to the bench, his eyes had tightened into screws. He began telling me that everything he gazed upon he saw in high definition, even the delicate hairs on a woman’s fingers. At first I was unaware of this condition, he said, naturally assuming that I saw what others did, and then later I learned to see it as a gift of the minute particulars of the world that as a child I had no name for, but which moved me nonetheless. On our walk, Thomas had mentioned in passing his childhood in northern Michigan where he had been raised in a ramshackle Mansard house that he had shared with his mother, a nurse at the local hospital, and her aviary of rare birds. Her favorite was a red-winged parrot from Papua New Guinea that she handfed sunflower seeds, and which would speak the one word it knew, “Tunde” or Tuesday in Melanesian Pidgin, each time he entered her bedroom. When I was thirteen, just as other boys were going through puberty, but which for me came on quite late so that well into my teenage years I had the build of a young girl, I became increasingly fascinated with her pets, especially with their plumage, seeing as I did with precision the quills of each feather as the birds perched in the trees of the aviary with their wings stretched out on display, or noisily preening themselves. As I entered my early twenties and began dating, he said, I was accused by women of being a man in the grip of an idée fixe, one who in their minds, was never fully present and who would appear to wander off in the middle of a conversation, to have become intensely preoccupied by the iridescent swirl in the wallpaper, or a waitress’s turquoise bracelet, more precisely the way the copper coil in it caught sunlight, such that my pupils were dilated ever so slightly and my face would assume a blank expression. When pressed about what it was I was thinking, I would answer honestly, nothing. It’s a gift I now largely regret, because as I grow older I see with diamond-like lucidity that the world is composed of only a few elements continuously rearranged into new shapes, he said, and what I had taken to be inexhaustible variety – the layered cerulean colors in their wings – is no more than the series of clever repetitions adapted for the weather, which I am more and more convinced is true of people’s personalities as well, limited as we are as a species to a few types that range, as least in my experience, from the morose to the ebullient. He paused, looked at my mouth. I feel as though I am only a thought, the only thought in existence, he said out of nowhere, as if the idea had just come to him. He reached inside his parka and handed me a notebook and said he was writing a novel in the form of a memoir, nothing more at present than a ramble of notes and impressions as he searched for a way to begin, but that he would be grateful if I would agree to read it. Then he turned and departed.

Where he spent the remainder of the afternoon or the next day I cannot say for certain, but consumed with thoughts about his father as he was, I suspect he walked by the apartment in Prenzlauer Berg where his father had lived from the early 1980s until his death, a modest flat on the third level of a pale blue prewar building with a box of geraniums in the center window of each of its six floors and within shouting distance of the historic Rykestraße Synagogue, and stood out in front as he had everyday since his arrival to confirm once again that the address number displayed in ceramic tile above the wooden door with a brass knob awkwardly in the center, as is the style in Europe, was thirty-three, Thomas’s own age. I sat in the courtyard, feeling as though all my energy had been drained out of me, as if experiencing a sudden onset of jetlag that had been delayed more than a week after my own flight from New York and now having caught up to me left me nearly unable to move, so fatigued in fact that I fell asleep on the bench, only to be awoken just before dark by an elderly Polish woman tapping her broom on my shoes. I proceeded back to the hotel on foot and found the journey interminably long, despite being no more than a mile away, in part because the sidewalks were now crowded with shoppers who poured in streams out of every U-Bahn entrance with the weather having lifted, so that moving more than a few feet at a time was almost impossible, and in part because I had headed several minutes in the wrong direction after I had crossed the street to avoid three or four young women, whom I assumed were prostitutes, leaning in a vestibule and waving to passersby. They were squeezed into impossibly tight dresses that left no room for error and that appeared to constrict their movements to such an extent that walking was not a viable option. The hotel on Wallstraße, where I had been staying the past two nights, was a nineteenth-century building of gray stone with a plate glass façade that stretched more than a hundred feet, which must have been installed after damage from the war. In the late afternoon, hotel guests, along with the receptionists on duty, plus the concierge, and the bellhops in their red valet jackets and brimless caps, would gather in the lobby, like an extended family standing for a portrait, to appreciate the unobstructed view of the sunset and for a few minutes each day all work would cease and if the front desk phone rang, it would go unanswered. It was a daily ritual I was sorry to have missed as I entered shortly after nightfall, everyone having already dispersed to separate rooms or the narrow bar on the first floor. The hotel housed several dozen permanent residents, all women it turned out, in efficiency apartments who shared the common areas with passers-through, and who were distinguishable by their advanced age – most of them were well into their twilight years and had moved into the building long before the GDR fell from power, which to some I am sure would have come as news – and by their habit of wandering around the hotel in their bathrobes and slippers at all hours of the night. Not a day passed during my stay that one of the older occupants didn’t meander up to another floor or into the staff’s wing, lost in the timelessness of dementia, only to be good-naturedly escorted by Ahmed, the hotel’s lone security guard, back to her humble quarters. One such apartment, #212, happened to be across the hall from me, and as I was returning to my room, I peered through the partially open door into the dimly lighted living room of perhaps no more than a hundred square feet which held a moss-colored sofa, threadbare around the arms, and a roll-top desk, the kind I have always associated with serious writers, above which hung a production still from Shanghai Express of Marlene Dietrich with her cheekbones tilted upwards, beautifully revealed and yet hidden by the butterfly lighting popular with the studios in the period. A similar image of Ms. Dietrich rested atop a doily on my mother’s dressing table throughout my youth, along with other starlets from the Golden Era of the 1930s and 40s – Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Vivien Leigh – that she had an unusual fondness of, especially for the austere femininity that made them almost androgynous, and whose films, which seemed to play on a continuous loop in the two televisions in our house, she had nearly memorized. Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin, she would sing to me at night, sitting at my bedside when my father was away at his office, and as much as I was soothed by the rich vibrato of her voice, I had trouble falling asleep to it for I couldn’t help but think that the song was a warning, and I suppose all young boys think this, that once the door was closed, and the lights in the house were turned off after she had finished going from room to room, that she would not return.

Through the evening I sat at the hotel’s huge black laminate desk that formed a monstrous U covering much of the floor space in the room and gave me the distinct impression when I looked through the three north-facing windows, speckled with rain, that I was steering a ship over the ocean. It was there that I began to read Thomas’s journal, with my own beside it in order to record whatever thoughts should come to me, unsure as I was at the time whether his case would further my research or whether in the end my conversations with him would amount to nothing more than a curious diversion from my work. His pages were rippled with deeply indented blue handwriting and bordered by elaborately detailed drawings of acanthus leaves, vines, and tangled vegetation of the sort one finds as a motif in Byzantine architecture or in the margins of Medieval manuscripts, which I figured must have been a way for him to gather his memories as he wrote, but two days later as we walked through the Gemäldegalerie discussing the extraordinary refinement of Vermeer’s paintings and the way they often contain smaller paintings inside of them, neatly framed in the background that lend the scenes around them great mystery, he professed he drew the designs only because he found them beautiful, and then rolling up his pant leg he revealed an acanthus leaf ornamenting his left calf and told me that he hoped one day that it might cover his entire leg. Quite unconsciously, I found myself drawing the same images in my notebook that night, though without the same level of intricacy or success, and I noticed as well the next morning that more than once in the course of reading I had accidently transcribed his sentences word for word, so that the line between what was supposed to be his description of his own life and what was supposed to be my analysis of it was frequently crossed. Life in Charlevoix was un-notable, he had written across the top of the first page, a small dot on the map surrounded by cold-water lakes, and unremarked upon by the outside world apart from a passing reference in a newspaper article every few years as the second home of John Bennett Ramsey, the father of the strangled six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét, and of the young Richard Loeb, who with his friend Nathan Leopold conspired and carried out a plan to murder Loeb’s fourteen-year-old second cousin, Bobby Franks, whom they bludgeoned about the head with a chisel until he succumbed to his wounds. I knew little of Michigan and to the best of my knowledge had never heard of Charlevoix, but I had watched with the rest of America the unfolding drama of the Ramsey case in Boulder in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, from the bizarre ransom note claiming to originate from a small foreign faction that referred to themselves as the S.B.T.C., to the police suspicion swirling around the parents, the death of the mother at forty-nine from ovarian cancer, the false confession of John Mark Karr, a self-described pedophile arrested in Bangkok ten years after the murder, and who after disappearing from the public stage resurfaced briefly in the Maldives working as a teacher and living under the name Alexis Valoran Reich as a rather striking woman. And I knew of the legendary Leopold and Loeb murder in Chicago from a graduate seminar at Princeton on abnormal psychology, where it was presented as an exceptional instance of criminal psychopathology by two fantastically intelligent teenagers. Leopold, whose reported IQ of 210 hovered at the threshold where genius is often indistinguishable from madness, claimed his mind had been seized by Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch and that he felt compelled to seduce Loeb, himself rumored to have scored 160 on the Stanford-Binet exam, to the notion that their brainpower placed them beyond good and evil. One of the defense experts, the alienist Harold Hulbert, traced the murder to less philosophical causes. Their intellectual overdevelopment, he testified, correlated with emotional shallowness and physiological abnormalities, for instance, Loeb as late as eighteen still was in possession of three of his baby teeth and had the prepubescent voice of a child. The doctor asserted that as a result of a disorder of the endocrine glands and the sympathic nervous system, the two young men had at best merely an academic realization (his words) of what they owed to society. A six-year-old-boy is justified in pulling the wings from a fly, if by so doing he learns that without wings the fly is helpless, Leopold professed, a statement whose meaning seemed derived not only from the killing of Bobby Franks, but from the fact, too, Thomas wrote, that Leopold as a boy was a respected ornithologist, and had even spoken as a teenager to the American Ornithological Union in Boston about his scientific research. The third-floor study of the Leopold family’s rambling Victorian house that consumed nearly an entire block in the affluent neighborhood of South Kenwood was said to be completely given over to the 3000 bird specimens that he had acquired on hikes through the fens around Chicago, expeditions which eventually led him to the hills of northern Michigan with Loeb the summer before the murder to search for a Jack Pine Warbler, a nearly extinct songbird that he was seeking as the highlight of his collection. When summering in Michigan, Thomas wrote, the Loeb family stayed on their 1,600-acre estate comprised of formal European gardens and a French Renaissance style castle constructed from fieldstone, replete with gabled roofs and towers and several barns, and which looked as though it might have been transported from the coast of Normandy. Loeb was said to stroll the grounds in the morning with his ever-present companion Leopold, inspecting the servants and the Holstein cattle, walking with their arms about each other’s shoulders as if two halves of the same person. Three years after their son confessed and was sentenced, only later to be slashed to death in a prison shower, the Loebs abandoned the estate, he wrote, and over the decades its ownership fell into dispute and, untended, the property became overgrown with brambles, the stone walls covered with obscenities, the roofs under the weight of autumn leaves and snow collapsed in several places. As a young boy, I used to ride my bicycle through the vaulted archways of its wind-swept arcades. I caught a glimpse of John Bennett Ramsey once, he wrote, when he quickly passed me in a raincoat through the doorway of a bakery, but even in the brief flash of his eyes, which had closed more with age, I could see he was all these years later haunted by the daughter he had named for himself and who his wife had molded into a living doll. For her final Christmas, the Ramsey revealed in the book they penned together, The Death of Innocence, to exculpate their guilt, they had surprised her with a lifesize My Twinn doll, fashioned to look like JonBenét from pictures her mother, Patsy, had furnished the dollmaker, with two matching outfits so the daughter and the doll would dress alike, but about this final present, she had appeared uninterested, placing it aside immediately that Christmas morning to play with some jewelry she had been given. Patsy looked at me, raised her eyebrows, her husband wrote. Sometimes the big gift you had in mind for your kids really wasn’t the hit you had expected, the father concluded. After an affair with the mother of Natalee Holloway – the Alabama teen whose vanishing in Aruba in 2005 sent dozens of camera crews looking for her – an affair of mutual grief, one suspects, for his child as much as for his late wife, Mr. Ramsey married a comely fashion designer at Castle Farms, the former estate of the Loeb family now rehabilitated as a wedding venue, in what was described in the papers, predictably, as a fairytale setting.

His account of the Ramsey and Loeb families trailed off at that point, and the following three pages of the notebook were entirely phalerated with acanthus leaves, then on the next page he wrote, at a young age, I had become a mental traveler and an aspirant (though that was not a word I knew then), always in search of a world more beguiling than where I was born.

Excerpt republished with permission of the author.

About the Author:

Thomas Heise is the author of three books, the novel Moth; or how I came to be with you again (2013), the literary and historical study Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (2011), and the poetry book Horror Vacui: Poems (2006). He is currently a professor in the Department of English at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He can be found on Twitter @thomasheise.