Precognition, the writer and James Purdy
When I met the writer James Purdy we spoke of his play Children is All. It tells of a mother waiting for her son’s return from prison. Such is the tension of her waiting that when he does appear, an escapee, she has had a stroke and does not recognize him. Yet mother and son, as two dying figures, each discover some comfort in the other’s arms. For Purdy it was evidence of being ‘plugged in to nature’. The story was seeded as an idea by Purdy’s friend Miriam Andreas, a tale of a boy getting home from prison. Richard Purdy, Purdy’s film actor brother famed for his Shakespearean roles, made his long awaited return home where he was not recognized by his mother. Both mother and son died shortly afterwards. This emotional twinning, of play and reality, was not recognized by Purdy but by his friend and assistant John Uetter. The remarkable thing about it was the timing. First Purdy wrote the play, and years later the brother returned home to not be recognized by his mother. ‘So the story of Children is All came true later on,’ Purdy told me.
In return I told him a story of my own, about the writing of my new novel Ectopia.
I had written a section in which insects swarm down onto the seventeenth birthday party of the two twins, Steven and Karen. Their mother, ballooning towards a perfect sphere, receives the full brunt of the swarm. It’s the final straw for her nerves. She is institutionalised. The swelling affects her face to seal her eyes blind. She sits in her institution and points her face at the window to take in the effects of sunlight.
Then my mother got ill. After some history of pulmonary difficulties, perhaps emanating from a pulmonary embolism she suffered when giving birth to me, she was on her way to visit me for lunch when her lung suddenly punctured. The result was a series of agonizing weeks in hospital, from which she would never emerge. She entered a visionary state, in which she saw angels hovering over the beds of those patients who would shortly die. And then a process happened in which the air escaped from her lungs and inflated her. For some days she swelled and swelled, and nothing could bring the swelling down. She bulged beyond recognition, the swelling inflating the skin around her eyes, the cheeks, the eyelids, until she was rendered blind.
It was summer. The hospital windows were open. I walked in one afternoon for a visit and the ward was filled with the afterbuzz of high drama. A swarm of flies had entered some hours earlier. My mother, swollen to immensity, her eyes sealed blind, unable to move, had been coated with a layering of the insects.
‘That’s precognition,’ James Purdy commented when I told him the story. ‘You’re in touch with your unconscious, because actually our unconscious knows everything. That’s why we’re afraid of it.’