Unearthing skeletons


INTERVIEW:Life, for novelist Dirk Wittenborn, is stranger than fiction. His unusual family history informs the pages of his latest novel, ‘Pharmakon’, a thought-provoking look at psychiatry, pill-popping, and the pursuit of happiness through finding a cure for unhappiness, he tells BELINDA MCKEON

EVERY FAMILY HAS its secrets, says Dirk Wittenborn. Every family, he says, “has its bogeyman”. So, in a way, the Wittenborns of New Haven weren’t really that unusual. Not really. But even Wittenborn himself doesn’t look convinced by that idea. He may just have written a novel, Pharmakon, inspired by his family’s past, but that doesn’t mean the whole complicated history has untangled before his eyes. It was a riddle before he began to research it, he says, and it’s still largely a riddle now.

And what a riddle. The Wittenborn family secret was fully formed long before Wittenborn himself arrived on the scene. It involved his father’s psychiatric research (pioneering in its time, and still making an impact today), the student who was one of his research subjects, a loaded gun, a list of names, a near miss for his father, mother and siblings, and the point-blank shooting of his father’s closest psychiatric colleague at Yale.

Pharmakonis modelled on that mystery, narrated from the point of view of a son who is born, like Wittenborn was, in the years after a shocking murder has rocked not just his family but an entire community. The father in the novel, Dr Friedrich, is a Yale psychology professor who becomes obsessed with the potential of a new treatment. In New Guinea, he learns, cannibals who consume the fermented leaves of a certain plant become blissful and relaxed even in the face of great stress. How revolutionary could just such a treatment prove in the anxietyriven US of the 1960s? Revolutionary indeed, as it turns out; the Greek word pharmakon means not just “cure” but “poison”, and Friedrich’s attempts to make a difference to a troubled people result only in trouble for the people closest to him; in his fixation with the larger picture, Friedrich becomes blind to the details that might keep his own family happy and safe from fear. And it’s one of the ironies and achievements of Wittenborn’s novel that by doing precisely what the character of Friedrich failed to do – thinking about, and focusing on, this family – it unlocks the very understanding for which he strove. Wittenborn’s novel, that is, sees and grasps the larger picture, the picture of a confused and frightened America, pill-popping its way through anxieties which no pill, ultimately, can dissolve.

Wittenborn’s father was the research scientist Dr JR Wittenborn, a big name in the development of psychopharmacology in 1950s America. In his house, over dinner, the “kings of pharmacology traded war stories about their treatments”, his son recalls. Out of Wittenborn’s labs at Yale and later (post-scandal) at Rutgers, trotted several of the earliest incarnations of the mood-altering drugs which now crowd bathroom cabinets everywhere. His father was obsessed with the possibility of finding a cure for unhappiness, says Wittenborn – with the possibility of chemically manufacturing its opposite – and the Yale student, the pistol and the death list were the upshot of an experiment gone badly wrong.

Wittenborn was 13 when he learned about the man – or rather, the boy – who had come to kill his father, and who had walked away and instead murdered his father’s colleague. But even with these details in place, he had only the vaguest outline of the forces that had shaped his intense, eccentric, melancholic family. His mother was also a scientist, and the language in which his parents spoke to each other was the language of neurology, of psychiatry, of the drugs that coursed their way through corridors of the human brain to numb, to erase, to elevate.

Other things were not spoken of. That the Wittenborns had an actual “bogeyman” out there, in a Connecticut hospital for the criminally insane, was never discussed. But this family silence made perfect sense, Wittenborn now sees, in the context of the larger silence which was at work in the US at the time – the silence upon which the work and the careers of his parents and their colleagues depended to a great degree. In the US of the 1960s, says Wittenborn, everyone was scared, and everyone was crazy, but what could not be admitted was that the apparent cure for these ailments was only making them worse.

“It was like madness was contagious back then,” Wittenborn says. “My father’s generation had survived the Great Depression, won the war, come back to a can-do spirit. And then came the Cold War, segregation, Vietnam, the assassinations. Anxiety became a huge problem, and there was a huge market for the stuff my father and his pals were prescribing. And then part of the madness was that the cure for it became the cause of more madness. It was like we had no obvious bogeyman or enemy, just this thing, the human condition.”

Wittenborn is not exactly a fan of the kinds of drugs his father created. He’s no Tom Cruise; he’s not jumping on the sofa in the upstairs lounge of his Brooklyn apartment (a lovely, light-filled space on two levels, with a concrete floor that has cracked and aged with a strange, utterly accidental beauty), hollering and railing against psychiatric medicine of any kind. But he does believe, it’s clear, that America has over the past couple of decades come dangerously close to drugging itself into a stupor. America doesn’t seem to have time to be contemplative, to go into therapy, he says. “We do not live in a thoughtful, contemplative time.” America wants rapid results, he says, wants to take the fast elevator out of the basement. “Like any new technology, your laptop, the gas engine, it changes the way we live. But these drugs, this new technological revolution, is changing us. And I wonder. Every time they do the DSM index, there are new diseases, new sub-diseases listed on there. And I wonder, do these diseases really exist, or are they being created because they’re new markets for drug companies? And are we medicating people to make them better? Or to make them better at running the treadmill of our society? Rather than changing the things that are wrong, that are obviouslywrong, with the way we live.”

Nor is he comfortable with any branch of medicine that routinely puts kids his daughter’s age on Ritalin to help them to focus on their schoolbooks, to steel them into “working harder, eating less”, as Wittenborn puts it, invoking Boxer and Clover, the over-travailed horses of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

One of the most prevalent narratives of contemporary psychology in America is the fear that fills children born just after 9/11, whose mothers were pregnant when the attacks took place; the idea that there is a whole new generation which absorbed terror in the womb, the wary, jittery, distrustful class of 2018, who can’t help being anxious because they learned it, somehow, even before they were born. There are traces, in a sense, of Wittenborn’s own story – born into a riddle, into a tension, which would dominate his whole way of looking at the world. But forget that birth into anxiety. Wittenborn, if you buy into that theory about post-9/11 children, has a whole new case study on his hands. His daughter, Lilo, was born two days after 9/11, two days after her mother, Kirsten, had gone into labour in front of the images on the television screen. In a Guardianarticle a year later, Wittenborn memorably described the scene: images of Ground Zero playing on a CCN loop in the maternity ward. Another woman in labour three months early, having just lost her husband in the attacks. The smell of burnt flesh in the air outside the hospital, the fighter jets in the air, the walls papered with photographs of the many, many, many missing souls.

Lilo, as we talk, skips through the apartment with a school friend. They chat their way from the TV room to her bedroom, to lunch downstairs with Kirsten (who’s a psychologist, but don’t bother paging Dr Freud, because she’s there before you). When Wittenborn drops down to them for a moment, I can hear the little girls telling him they’re eating their lunch “like famous people do”, whatever that means. Lilo, Wittenborn says, has shot down all requests to join him for games of tennis, telling him that her hobby “isn’t tennis, it’s reading”. As Laszlo, the wisecracking neighbour in Wittenborn’s novel might say: yeah, real anxious.

But it’s certainly true that Wittenborn knows a thing or two about having the jitters, about feeling scared and paranoid about the world at large. In the 1980s, shortly after his first novel Zoewas published, and while he was a writer on Saturday Night Live, Wittenborn dived head-first into a self-destructive binge involving huge amounts of cocaine that came close to killing him.

A trip to Indonesia around the same time left him with a virus that went undetected for two years and that did huge damage to his heart; the coke can’t have helped either, and because he was taking it partly to ease the chest pain, he became caught up in a very vicious and dangerous circle. His career plummeted. The people he considered his friends disappeared. Even today, listening to him talking about how cruel a city New York can be to those who have failed, it’s clear he’s still shaken by this abandonment. Neither were his family of much comfort; rather, they were “cruel”, he says, seeing his addiction as evidence of a “character flaw” that had always been there. “I knew that it was somewhat sad and funny and I guess ironic that, as my dad was testing drugs on tens of thousands of people, I was experimenting with drugs myself in pursuit of synthetic joy,” he says.

Wittenborn underwent massive heart surgery and put himself through cold turkey in a friend’s cabin in upstate New York. His career came back to life; he wrote another novel, Fierce People, through which he explored another aspect of his family life, the bizarre world of super-rich Wasps (it was released as a film in 2007).

But it’s in Pharmakon, for all its many fictional elements, that he grapples with the skeletons in the family closet which rattled loudest. And he knows that it’s significant that it has taken him until now to get around to doing that. Both his parents are dead now; his father gone eight years, his mother just over a month. She read the book in proof form, praised it, stressing that it was fiction, and asked her son if she could correct a few details. What she corrected, he says, were all the typos in the manuscript, nothing else.

“This, in a way, is a book where I’m contemplating what I feel about parenthood,” he says finally. “And I think to understand my father, to judge a parent, you need to have been a parent. Pitfalls, the mistake you’ll make to protect your child.” He knows some novelists, he says, who deny that there are ever any autobiographical elements in their fiction, a claim he never believes, and which he would never want to make for his own work. “I think because I write to understand things in my life, that to be dishonest about that would be counter-productive. The whole point is that you want to figure out how this world works.”

Pharmakonis published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)