Author Biography - Clancy Sigal
Clancy Sigal writes about himself and Zone of the Interior:
I came to Britain as a weekend tourist to visit the Tower of London and stayed
for thirty years, and I still haven't seen the Tower. Buckingham Palace and Westminister
Abbey held little interest because it was "their" England - royal, smug, reactionary. "My" England
was elsewhere. At the time I arrived, as an illegal immigrant (without a valid
U.S. passport or visa), ten years after the war when the streets were still bomb-cratered,
this other England was virtually unknown except to a very few writers, like Colin
MacInnes, Ray Gosling and one or two others. Defiant, rebellious, messy, Secret
England was an unexplored land fit for heroes and thoroughly effed up by a snob-ridden,
class conscious and static society.
A few of us tried to change that.
Raised by a single mum on the dole, I was born in a rough Chicago neighborhood
which my psyche has never left. It prepared me to be comfortable in a down-at-the-heels
but workable country, like England in the fogged-up Fifties and crazy Sixties.
The food was indigestible, central heating a myth, language tricky and weather
tubercular. But you could decompress and disintegrate at your own speed, which
is what I needed at the time.
In my duffle bag I carried the past hundred years of American history. Both
my parents were wandering union organizers in the tradition of Joe Hill and Emma
Goldman. For a while I followed in their footsteps, a vagrant like Jack Kerouac
only with a radical slant. Before the FBI and police 'red squads' had computers,
it was relatively easy to stay out of jail simply by skipping town. At first
that's what I did in the U.K. too, always one step ahead of Home Office gumshoes
and Special Branch.
For a while I lost myself in the pleasant chaos of the British new left - I'm
a founding father, along with Rafael Samuel, E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall. I
helped organize the first CND Aldermaston March. But my warmest welcome came
from the Yorkshire coal miners who helped me write my first book, 'Weekend in
Dinlock'. When the US Supreme Court voted to give me back back my passport in
the landmark Paul Robeson case, I was free to travel but by now the habit of
London ran deep. I'd make my last stand here, I decided.
Before falling off the edge of the known world in the company of the 'anti-psychiatrists'
- R.D. Laing, David Cooper and the Philadelphia Association - I wrote 'Going
Away', an account of a road trip across America in the McCarthyish 1950s, influenced
by 'On the Road'. Mission accomplished, I deliberately entered the 'madness scene'
with a dual purpose, to report on it and if possible to inoculate myself with
the schizophrenia serum that would give me the illness and cure me of it at the
'Zone of the Interior' was also my attempt to contribute to what I hoped would
be a free-ranging debate on people like myself with screwed up minds or broken
hearts. Although I helped set up the Kingsley Hall halfway house - built, really,
by the singleminded devotion of Sid Briskin - my deepest emotions were stirred
by the young Connolly House schizophrenics in 'Zone'. They turned my life upside
down, caused me to laugh and cry in the same breath, and I miss them every day.
Through much of the Sixties I lived like the 'Werewolf of London', furtive,
afraid of the authorities and myself and, above all, of being caught in insane
acts and thoughts. Being in jail held no terrors for me, but 'men in white coats'
- medical professionals - who might stall or abort my 'ecstatic journey' sickened
me with fear. There was no proof I could do this thing, this experiment-on-myself,
but at a time when the Velvet Underground was wierdly regarded as good music
and hallucinogenic drugs were available for jet-assisted takeoff, I thought,
what the hell, why not?
My life at 67 Princes Square, Bayswater, was like Jekyll and Hyde's laboratory.
Respectable by day, I broadcast for BBC and wrote for the Guardian and Observer
as well as The Spectator and (most fun) Vogue. By night, in my lab-flat a haven
for diagnosed schizophrenics and runaway mental cases, it was the sadness of
madness, midnight escapes, suicide, violence, horror, sex and the elation of
'breaking through' to spaceless universes. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
is positively tame by comparison.
Now I'm in the clear, "out of the woods" in one of R.D. Laing's favorite expressions
although I'm sorry he couldn't make it with me. Dr David Cooper, whose Villa
21 at Shenley Hospital I still believe was a (not the) great way forward in treatment,
or as he would put it non-treatment of a non-illness (we disagree), also died
before his time. The person I miss most is Villa 21's chief mental nurse, Frank
Atkin, the model for 'Les O'Brien' in my book, who taught me more than all the
psychiatric texts I never read.
I never completely 'recovered' from writing 'Zone of the Interior'. First,
because it was banned from publication in Britain until now and had to be sold
under the counter like porn or samidzat. Second, the schizophrenic experience,
darkness and light, remains with me as both a reminder to keep my distance from
the romance of madness but also as something inside my now-healed heart that
tells me what my real job in life is.
And if you want to talk about true madness, where the inmates run the asylum
- the anti-psychiatrists' dream come true - come visit me in Hollywood where
I currently make my living as a screenwriter.
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