Quitting the Nairobi Trio: A Memoirby Jim Knipfel
In His New Memoir, the Author Spends Six Months in a Locked-Door Psych Ward, Only to Find that Life Can be Better on the Inside.
As His Account Opens, Knipfel has Just Failed at Yet Another Frenzied Suicide Attempt and has Been Picked Up by the Police. Soon Thereafter He is Forced to Settle into a Hospital Psychiatric Ward, Waiting Until a Doctor, Whose Once-a-Week… See more details below
In His New Memoir, the Author Spends Six Months in a Locked-Door Psych Ward, Only to Find that Life Can be Better on the Inside.
As His Account Opens, Knipfel has Just Failed at Yet Another Frenzied Suicide Attempt and has Been Picked Up by the Police. Soon Thereafter He is Forced to Settle into a Hospital Psychiatric Ward, Waiting Until a Doctor, Whose Once-a-Week Sessions Last Ten Minutes Each, Deems Him Mentally Fit to be Released. Effectively Abandoned, Knipfel Begins His Self-Analysis and Embarks on a Series of Haphazard Skirmishes to Regain His Sanity, Make New Friends, and Devise Ways to Pass the Time.
Ultimately, a Revelation from Public Television and Insights from a Fellow Patient and the Late Comic Ernie Kovacs Provide Knipfel with a Way Out, one that Only a Paranoid, or Knipfel, Could Appreciate.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 5.18(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.82(d)
Read an Excerpt
Where I Am?
It's never easy telling your mother that you've failed again. Especially when she seems to have a pretty clear notion of how, and she's sitting across the room from where you lie strapped to a hospital bed. I had let her downI'd let both my folks downagain. It was a bad habit of mine. I didn't try to, Lord knows. It just sort of happened, no matter how much I cared for them.
I was in the intensive care unit of Minneapolis General Medical Center. I was bound to a bed in a small room whose walls were formed by stiff gray curtains. Through a wide opening in the curtains, I could see a doorway and half a desk across a wide corridor. Men in white uniforms were pushing carts and beds back and forth. There were clatterings, beepings, mixed voices, the rolling of metal wheels on a tile floor.
The guttural German screams that had woken me had finally been silenced. It had taken me a few minutes to comprehend that it was my own voice I'd been hearing, yelling in a language I hadn't spoken in two years.
"In jener Gegend reist man jetzt nicht gut!" erupted from my mouth as my surroundings bled into cohesion earlier that day. "Und hast du Geist, sei doppelt auf der Hut!"
I was screaming Nietzsche, I soon realized. Worse still, I was screaming Nietzsche in rhyme.
"War ich krank? Bin ich gewesen? Und wer ist mein Arzt gewesen? Wie vergass ich alle das!"
Needles were in both my arms. Something long andnarrow and sharp had been inserted into the end of my penis. My wrists and ankles were held in place by leather bands.
I'm in a hospital screaming in German, strapped down and screaming in Germanby God, I must've gone completely insane.
That epiphany filled me with relief. I'd be able to spend the rest of my days in an institution, saying funny things. I'd be fed and have a place to sleep. I'd have freedom to do with my time whatever I pleased, say whatever I pleased, so long as it made no sense. I had it made. I was rid of useless daily obligations. I'd join the ranks of the visionaries who'd died in madhouseslike Artaud and the Marquis de Sade.
Unfortunately, everything caught up with me then.
I opened my eyes more fully to find my parents sitting in chairs at the foot of the bed. My father's eyes were emptied wide and his normally smiling face was drawn and tired. He looked even worse than my mother, who appeared to be waiting uncomfortably for me to yell again.
"Hi, you two," I said in English, without rhyming.
My father snapped to attention. He was a burly man, six feet tall and two hundred pounds, with short graying hair thinning in the back. After a moment the broad smile I was more used to broke across his face. He jumped out of his chair and stepped to the bedside.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, tentativelystill uncertain, it seemed, whether I recognized him or not.
"I think I need a shave." I wiggled my sore arms the best I could.
"Do you know who I am?"
My mother sat up straighter. Under the silvery red curls swept back from her forehead, her eyebrows were poised and curious. She pulled her blue winter jacket tighter around her shoulders, watching us.
"George James Knipfel," I replied, making sure I got everything right. Even my tongue felt tied down. My father let go a loud whoop and slapped his heavy hands. He swung toward my mother, who was crying again, then back to me.
"Last time I asked you that"he was fighting his own tears"you told me I was the Man in Blue. You said, `Whatcha gonna do 'bout the Man in Blue?'"
It was all very embarrassing. I had been rhyming for a while.
I had four intravenous drips hooked into my body. My parents explained that I had spent the past three days in a delirium, lashing at nurses, swinging at doctors, trying to pull needles out of my arms. Late the night before, I'd started in with the German.
Whatever I had done to my body, they told me, had caused my kidneys to shut down. The only reason I was alive was the fact that I had stumbled into the hallway of my apartment building and made a lot of noise. One of my neighbors, thinking I was on PCP, had called the building manager, who in turn called the cops.
"We went to your apartment yesterday," my mother said softly, after my parents had both pulled their chairs closer to the head of the bed. Her voice was broken and exhausted. "What were those pills?"
The pills. Oh, man.
"There is only one prospect worse than being chained to an intolerable existence," Arthur Koestler once wrote. "The nightmare of a botched attempt to end it."
"They were blue and green pills, all mixed together in a cup."
Five nights earlier, I had had a planone that made perfect sense. Having been through the suicide game so often since my early teens, and having seen the effect it had on the people I cared about and trusted, I concocted an alternative scheme that would provide the proper result, but without the excess guilt.
In the few moments when an honest voice spoke in my head, it was clear that it was cowardice that had kept me from going all the way before. I had never succeeded because I didn't have the nerve. That quiet voice, though, was usually shouted down by the hubris of youth, which after each failure screamed loudly and more proudly that I had survived again simply because I was too strong, that I could not be killed, that I was invincible.
Regardless of the voices, I kept at my repeated attempts into my twenties, when I was a philosophy graduate student at the University of Minnesota. There, apart from taking seminars, writing papers, and attending academic cocktail parties, my responsibilities involved teaching a handful of undergraduate classes.
Over the past weeks, a woman in her late forties who was taking one of my night courses, "Introduction to Humanities," had been leaving me obsessive love notes. I had found them in my office desk, in my notebooksplaces she shouldn't have had access to. I suspected she was following me around as well. I had no evidence of this beyond the notes, but those were enough for me to believe that she was capable of many things.
My plan was simplemake it look like murder, and make it look like she did it.
I left her most recent scribbled note"WHY won't you pay attention to ME!?"on my desk at home. I placed a can of frozen orange juice in the kitchen sink to thaw. This would show any investigating officers that my life had been continuing along its steady, uneventful path, that I had not expected anything weird to happen. Next I grabbed a steak knife, went to the front room of my apartment, removed my shirt, and slashed the knife through it three or four times.
I put the shirt back on, then reached behind myself with the knife. I felt for the slashes and tried to make corresponding cuts in the flesh of my back. My stalker had attacked me with the knifeI was trying to get away when she slashed at me from behind. When I fell on the knife, it would look as if she'd murdered me.
Mishima I was not, however. The "wounds" on my back turned out to be little more than scratch marks, because my arm couldn't reach very well. I couldn't even throw myself on the knife. I lacked the courage to drive the blade into my heart or my guts. Mishima had a few thousand years of philosophy behind him, and a man with a samurai sword standing next to him, ready to lop off his head. I had neither. Four years of philosophy might make you want to kill yourself, but it's not nearly enough to help you go through with it.
I left the knife on the floor, took a spindly kitchen chairone with armsand slid it down the hallway against the closed bedroom door. Back in the kitchen, I reached under the sink for a roll of heavy electrical tape. Then to the front room again, where I snatched my trench coat from a hook by the door. I put the coat on and slipped the belt out of the loops. I made a noose with the buckle, tied a knot in the long end of the belt, then flipped the knot over the top of the bedroom door. I closed the door, tugged on the belt, and saw immediately that it could hold my weight, no problem.
Now instead of her having stabbed me, it would look as if she'd followed me home (I was still wearing my trench coat, after all), then strapped me to the chair with the electrical tape before strangling me with the belt. She was a big woman, this student of minethey'd see that when they arrested her. Big and crazy. She'd overpowered me, bound me to the chair, made a noose out of the belt, looped it over the door, and let me strangle to death.
I had to admit that this was my best plan ever. In my mania, I had even forgotten about the "killing myself" part of the setup, having centered most of my scheme around the idea of framing this poor, lonely woman.
The first problem, I soon discovered, was taping myself to the chair.
The feet were simple as pie. Just put each foot next to one of the front chair legs, and wrap the tape tight around the ankles. And the right hand was no problem, eitherjust get the tape started, roll it around the wrist and arm a few times, then bend down and rip the tape off with my teeth.
It was the left hand that would be tricky. I was right-handed, and had already taped that arm to the chair.
With my free left hand, I stuck the exposed end of the tape to the left arm of the chair, wrapped it around a couple of times loosely, bit it off, then worked my hand the best I could through the loop. It was pretty sloppy, not in the least convincing, but it would do for show.
The belt noose was hanging a few inches above and behind my head, flush against the bedroom door. I raised myself and the chair off the ground, sliding up against the closed door, trying to nudge the noose around to my face so I could fit my chin through the hole. Eventually, using my nose and mouth, I got it into position. Then, with the noose around my neck, I paused to catch my breath.
I should've thought of all this beforehand.
I took a last look around at my little apartment and slowly sat back down, feeling the fabric tighten around my throat.
When I was a kid, I experimented a lot with cutting off the blood flow to my brain, to see how close I could get to passing out. I'd use my sister's jump ropes or hang my head over the back of a chair. I always stopped before the lights went out completely.
It was the same old feeling here. First the lips begin to feel cold and thick, and the ears begin to ring a little. Then the eyes feel as if they're going to pop out of their sockets, but the lids swell and close up, I guess to keep the eyes in place. The ringing in the ears gets louder and louder, blocking out all other sounds, and the head starts to pound. Soon everything goes red.
Now, though, something was wrong.
It wasn't happening fast enough. The blood was pounding in my head, and my breathing was labored, but I wasn't flying toward unconsciousness the way I used to when I was young. I'd been hanging there for what seemed ten or fifteen minutes, and I was still every bit as conscious as when I started. Except now I had a headache and I couldn't hear anything around the ringing.
I dangled with my butt inches above the seat of the chair for some minutes more, hoping it would surprise me, sneak up on me, slap me into darkness. It didn't.
This time it wasn't a matter of losing my nerveit was a question of realizing that my plan simply would not work. I tore my left hand from the loose loop of tape (That wouldn't've fooled anybody anyway) and started freeing my right wrist. Doing so, however, pulled my body around, twisted the chair a few inches from the door, and tightened the noose around my neck. Things started going dark.
My fingers clawed at the tape around my right arm. No! This can't happen! I could feel myself slippingmuch too quicklyinto unconsciousness. Not now!
As I grunted with the effort, my right hand twisted from the chair, and both hands shot to my neck. I pulled the belt away from my esophagus and jugular. I took a raspy, desperate breath of air, and removed the noose from around my aching head.
Freed, mostly, I sat back and thought about what I'd just done, what I'd just tried to do.
That was really fucking stupid. Really, REALLY fucking stupid.
I leaned over to untape my legs, realizing how dumb I looked. That woman would've continued to walk the streets freely. Frustrated and exhausted, more depressed than ever, I put everything away, poured myself half a milk glass of whiskey, downed it, and went to bed.
The next morning I got up, put on my trench coat, and wandered downtown, stopping in every drugstore I passed, lifting as many boxes of over-the-counter sleeping pills as I could fit into my deep pockets. Dozens of packages, over three separate trips. That night, all hesitation flushed from my muscles, the shirt with the knife rips still on my back, the flimsy steak knife still lying on the floor, I would wash the pills down with the bottle of cheap scotch sitting atop the refrigerator, waiting for just such an occasion.
I couldn't tell all that to my mom while I was strapped down to a hospital bed. It would break her. She knew that I'd tried such things before. She'd seen the bandages and, later, the scars from the previous time.
When you're in the momentplanning, preparing, executing, lost in the cruel logicyou cannot afford to think of the people you care most about. That would ruin everything. Afterward, when you've failed again and you are confronted with the people you could not afford to think about, only then can you look at the plan from the outside, and see what a stupid ass you've been.
There was the timeI must have been about fifteen, and had come home from school all jittery with annoying youthful enthusiasm. I'd been reading Descartes and the Transcendentalists and a bit of Indian philosophy for the first time. I sat by the back door tugging off my shoes and started explaining a theory of mine to my mom as she stood at the stove working on dinner. Nothing we saw around us, including her, including me, existed, I proposed. It was all merely a grand dreamwhether it was ours or a distant god's, we'd never know. We were nothing but figments of someone or something's imagination, and therefore, nothing we did really mattered.
I went on outlining my theory, tickled and proud, until my mom finally turned from the stove and looked at me with a quiet sadness in her eyes. "You know, Jim," she said, "sometimes you make me real mad."
With that, I fell silent with shame and went up to my room feeling like a show-off. She was a smart and sensible woman, my mother, but she simply had no time for cockamamie half-baked adolescent philosophy. She knew already that it would lead to nothing but trouble. Sometimes I think she was right. Sometimes I think I would have done a much better job of getting along in the world had I listened to her and not taken my own nonexistence so seriously.
"Let's talk about it later," I told her now, referring to the pills. "Once I'm out of this place."
So much else has happened between then and nowevents I didn't know how to tell anyone about. Not until I understood them more clearly myself.
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