Ember in the Brain
Dreamed 1983/3/31 by Chris Wayan
A FEW DAYS EARLIER
I went to see Frances, starring Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer, whose mom groomed her as a child actress, ruled her life, took her earnings, and tried to keep her from boys. When she went on strike and refused to act, demanding independence, her mom locked her up as insane! Over the years, she stoked a reckless, burning rage in Frances... but they solved that. They lobotomized her! Imprisoned, chained, raped.
Years later, let out, she testifies against the system on TV, but her old fire's burnt out. She says "the only thing sustaining me is faith in God." Ironic and touching, since, as a girl, she won a school contest with a controversial essay: "Why I don't believe in God." And then went out to prove God didn't see at least one sparrow that fell.
Or is this just the movie version? I did see a TV interview with the real Frances Farmer. She seemed wholer than Jessica Lange's version of her, brilliant though it is. I get the sense her wild acting-out was daring them to stop her rage against her mom, a rage she couldn't bear. She dared them to do it, and they did. And now, in a way, at a price, she's at peace.
Of course, peace isn't everything.
A FEW NIGHTS LATER
I'm being stalked by assassins: lizard people, fast as skinks. They pack modern guns, and I have only a bronze sword. Still, they fear me--we're trapped in a maze, and at close quarters, I'm pretty terrifying. You see, I'm the Hulk--or awfully similar. When I psych myself up into battle fever, I turn massive and greenish... and invulnerable to any weapon I notice.
I do have to notice, so a mob of skinks firing fast can get some shots under my hide.
But the terrain favors me. A labyrinth has no room for big battles. Endless alley ambushes. Ack! Whack! Over.
Two skinks jump me in a hall. I fight savagely, enjoying it... and kill them both.
I'm calming myself out of that battle fever when a third enemy, this one human, comes round a corner, and after a brief fight, he's down stunned and bleeding on the floor. Head wound.
I used to know this guy, a former acquaintance turned traitor. Even though he's an enemy, I can't just let him die when there's a chance he could be saved. I kneel and look at his wound. The top of his skull's been sliced off like an egg, baring a patch of brain. A small chunk of shrapnel drilled into the center of his brain, below the rational areas--down around the hippocampus and amygdala, where emotions are coordinated. So hot it glows red. It's cooking him from within!
It'll surely kill him unless I pull it out. Brain tissue itself feels no pain, so he lies still when I say... but if I pull it forth, the red-hot thing will touch the lips of his wound, and the outer meninges and scalp WILL feel the fire. And if he thrashes around he'll surely die. I could pour cool water on the glowing ember till it cools enough to be removed. But I don't have any, and that too might make him move.
To make matters worse, he's convinced he's doomed. Without hope, he won't try to restrain himself seriously.
Yet I know in my hulking bones that despite the frightful wound he can live--and heal fully. If he'll just try. By letting me try.
NOTES IN THE MORNING
I am not the Hulk. I'm slender and fragile and I don't like to fight. It hurts too much. One reason I shared this dream was that it was so startling to find myself inside such a different body--feel what it's like to be huge, muscular. And thuggish. Dream-me liked to fight and didn't feel pain as vividly.
The character in the dream I am like, and this is the dream's warning, I think... is the man with the ember in his brain. Like Frances Farmer--burning with outrage. I burn! I resent successful, attractive people, people who grew up without being bullied, shunned, spat on & and bashed as I was. Red ember in my brain!
And I can't go on like this. It has to be removed. That's going to hurt--more than leaving it alone to cook me slowly. But that'd kill me.
As I do it, the crucial thing is not to act out, lash out in pain. Hard to do when I'm hurting! Hurting myself.
But I have to. Frances couldn't do it--and they lobotomized her for it.
39 YEARS LATER
Every family has secrets we hide some from outsiders, but some secrets... even we don't know. My family turns out to have been linked to Frances Farmer in a way hidden to me at the time. Deliberately hidden.
I only learned the truth gradually about my uncle Hugh. In the mid-1950s, he flipped out and said he was Christ. They locked him in an asylum--Agnews State (in California), later exposed as one of the worst in the US. They gave him heavy shock treatments. He ran away, and begged my dad not to send him back, said they were making him worse not better. My dad took him back to face more shock. Hugh was broken--a recluse for the rest of his life, perpetually scared he'd be rejailed and retortured if he went out.
All my life, I've had nightmares of hospitals, jails, and death camps, where smiling faceless doctors torture their patients. I asked my parents if any early experiences could explain this. And after DECADES of denial...
...my folks finally admitted they took me at age 2-3 to visit my uncle in the insane asylum. Over and over. No one knew yet that I was a child prodigy with an IQ pushing 200, grasping adult conversations and vibes that normal kids couldn't. Still, why'd I have recurring nightmares of being strapped down, of weird wires stimulating brain seizures? I never saw them shock my uncle, after all. They didn't show even adult visitors that!
These were harder to explain, until recently. One day, my parents FINALLY mentioned the follow-up: Hugh recovered gradually, and as we were the closest relatives to the hospital, so he lived with us on weekends for months or a year, while he still suffered from intense fears and hallucinations. They left me with him alone. You just think that babysitter you had must have been psychotic. Mine was.
I told their little confession to my sister. She said "when I was very young, you explained in detail how electroshock was administered." My uncle had confided everything to me, a small child he couldn't expect to understand... and I'd taken it in. All of it. Not just the atrocity itself, but its implications. Fail to conform, and this is where your irresponsible parents will send you.
I remembered none of it consciously. Yet it shaped my life. And it took me decades of persistent digging to reveal even a partial truth.
Ember in the Brain clearly reacted to Frances. But it's not just a parallel situation--it turns out Frances and Hugh were locked up and abused in the same asylum, at the same time--its worst period of abuses. They may have met--I may even have seen Frances there, during visits to my uncle.
A FINAL REVISIONIST NOTE
Wikipedia lists a lot of records and testimony implying the film exaggerated--Frances Farmer was raped, electroshocked and abused a dozen ways, but not in fact lobotomized.
But then, they didn't have to lobotomize my uncle to wreck his life. Or haunt mine.
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