As cruel as the world itself.
If a Man be Mad (Permabooks, 156 pages)…there couldn’t have been a more appropriate title for this gem hidden amidst the American literature. Walker Winslow, writing as Harold Maine, had written this fascinating book while living in Big Sur, at a time when other great writers, such as Henry Miller resided nearby. Whether it was Winslow’s gift or the proximity of some of the greatest in modern American literature, Mr. Winslow has achieved what only but a few writers are capable of. He shook my world.
Near the beginning of the book, he mentions an encounter with an inmate in insane asylum. This encounter is brief, but the impression is lasting.
…“Come on in boys,” he called. “They’ll get you sooner or later.”Some of the boys swore that he said , “I’ll get you sooner or later.” I knew what he’d said. It sounded worse to me than what they thought he’d said.
…And so it begins.
Comprised of two separated books, before and after, shall we say, the story follows Winslow on his quest to find himself. A man torn apart from early childhood, he struggles not only with his own shadows, but also with the society at large; mainly its arrogance and ignorance, lack of understanding and its unwillingness to change its ways, no matter how wrong they may be. Writing in first-person, Winslow recounts stories of men and women on both sides of the fence separating the insane from the sane, yet, he clearly portrays the malicious nature of the so-called sane, which the insane are incapable of. At times a psychological thriller, at times a downright horror, a human horror, the story moves swiftly away from childhood innocence to the first day in mental institution. An alcoholic, but above all, a vulnerable human being, Winslow experiences his first awakening — the institutions are not meant to cure people, they are merely put in place to prevent them from being free. From the inhuman indifference the guards and caretakers display without any regard for the patients, to the accounts of brutal beatings when a patient gets out of hand, Winslow portrays his first stay at a mental institution with cruel honesty. When he gets out, uncured, yet a changed man, he goes from institution to institution. Touched by death more than once, Winslow recounts his hopes after discovering AA and his first pleasant experience at a hospital in NY, where the staff seems to care, giving the reader hope that the world is perhaps not as screwed up as it appears.
Bouncing between near-death incidents (brought about by his drinking), marriages, divorces, struggle to be the artist he wants to be (not the artist he has to be to get paid), schizophrenia and consciousness, Winslow walks a dangerously thin line. When he tries his luck on the other side, whether to help himself or others, as an attendant in one of the dreaded institutions, he discovers that the whole system is flawed. His descriptions of the inhuman treatment of veterans returning from the war seemed almost unbelievable, until the recent scandal regarding a VA hospital broke out. It is sad to see that 60 years after this book was published, we, as a society, are still doomed by the same mistakes.
Without spoiling anything for the reader, Walker Winslow’s story may not be unique in its core, but it is a uniquely told story. I have never read another book quite like this one; so poetic, so disturbing, so timeless. A mad man’s account of the mad gathering we call civilization, a cry for help lost amidst the applause for politicians, a light of hope lost in the darkness. If a Man be Mad is a story worth reading over and over, for it does not get old, it does not get boring, it does not cease to disturb. One man’s humanity against Humanity at large, philosophy, psychology and drama — mixed together in a deadly cocktail of words — bled onto the pages by an amazing author.
-Henry Martin, author of Mad Days of Me: Escaping Barcelona, 2007
The old business of morning. A body, a mind, a place, and the task of reconciling the three. It wasn’t yet daylight when I woke; the drive for drink was still in me with all its empty, quaking urgency. I felt as if I might have drunk myself into oblivion the night before and fallen, as I often had, into a strange bed. As I raised up to see where I was I could feel the soreness in my neck and belly. Then I saw the locked door and the grilled window and fell back on the bed. The pajama jacket had split during the night and the seat of the pants had parted in the middle. Slowly, uncertainly, I tried to link together the chain of events that had brought me to this room in this condition. As I did so they seemed less reasonable than the thousands of drunken phantasmagorias from the past.
When a man has lived long with guilt he will assume that he is guilty even when he is overtly persecuted. Some old and perverse emotional alchemist turns every remembered act into baser metal. Just as I had spoiled everything I had touched in the past, I was sure that I had now destroyed my chance of psychiatric help. I’d insulted the head doctor, antagonized the attendants on the day shift, and talked too much to the night shift. Already I had betrayed my wife’s hope. God, I wanted oblivion now!
My feelings of that morning have much in common with the feelings of many men and women who find themselves in my position. I was assuming that I was a moral culprit instead of a sick man; automatically assuming that my keepers had a right to beat me, that I warranted the doctor’s contempt, and that I had no right to protest even if genuine wrongs had been done me.
It had been that way out in society. No matter how much I might resent what people did to me or said about me, I was defenseless. Because of my moral failure I was always without armor and without arms. I could look at what was being done to other people only in order to judge society’s malevolence and bigotry. I could protest for myself only in the name of the underdog. The girl in the car, the man who hanged himself, and the frail Chinese I had seen floored by an attendant’s blow came to my support, but that support was fragile. All three had by now an unreal quality. Getting knocked down as a part of the admission procedure into a modern mental hospital was incredible.