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by Mark Vonnegut
Seven Stories Press, 2002
Review by Tony O'Brien on Apr 22nd 2003

The Eden Express

In 1969 Mark Vonnegut graduated from Swathmore College, packed up his Volkswagon, and with his girlfriend Virginia, and dog Zeke, set out for British Columbia. At 21 years of age the young man was disillusioned with his society, dissatisfied with his education and at a loss for direction in his life. Marijuana fuelled his sense of difference; the draft provided a more concrete reason to opt out of society and look for meaning wherever it might be. The result was an experiment in alternative living, pushing the boundaries of experience, ending in a spiral into madness, and, eventually, recovery. Vonnegut's account is a modern odyssey, a journey into hell and back, recounted with refreshing honesty in The Eden Express. A Memoir of Insanity.

Life on the commune at British Columbia was alternately blissful and tormented, peaceful and fraught, safe and perilous, innocent and contrived. The conviction that the group was building a new social order was usually ample compensation for the privations of living off the land. But for Mark Vonnegut the experiment with drugs, alternative lifestyle, communal living and apparent freedom from convention exacted a heavy toll. As his perceptions and behaviour became more and more idiosyncratic and bizarre, his conviction that this was all inherently meaningful grew. Mark became the community's mystic, his delusions and hallucinations were seen not as characteristics of a mind losing itself, but of a mind discovering itself and the eternal truths of the universe. In time his physical and mental state deteriorated into self-starvation, emaciation and suicidality. He developed bizarre ideas that he had brought about natural cataclysms causing the death of Virginia, and that his father had committed suicide.

After two admissions to psychiatric hospitals, interspersed with a familiar story of resistance to any psychiatric explanation of his problems, rejection of medication, relapse and traumatic readmission, Vonnegut reluctantly accepted that medication might be helpful and returned to the farm sane, although lacking the zeal and energy that had driven him during its development. His decision to leave is a poignant moment, recognition that the hippie lifestyle had not fulfilled its promise, that his relationship with Virginia was over, and that he would have to leave Zeke behind. The Eden Express documents that experience, from Vonnegut's decision to drive north in search of Eden to his return, by way of intense periods of psychosis, to the society he had rejected.

The reissue of The Eden Express comes at an interesting time in the history of madness. Originally released in 1975, Vonnegut's account of his encounter with insanity, his attempts to deny, understand and control it, is an intensely personal account of his individual life, and of a period often remembered as misinformed, misguided and foolish. The notion that 'mental illness' was at best a social construction, at worst a fiction maintained by a powerful elite had wide currency, especially amongst Vonnegut's peer group of disaffected college students. A society that waged an unjust war could not be trusted in a matter such as soundness of mind. If society was mad, who could provide a standard of sanity? Vonnegut notes in his introduction to the new edition:

At the time I would have endorsed the radical notions of R. D. Laing that insanity was an insane reaction to an insane society.

Just as the naïve optimism of the seventies gave way to realism and perhaps to cynicism, social accounts of madness have been supplanted by biological theories and preoccupation with risk management. The pendulum has swung from the individual to the state as the legitimate focus of interests. And yet there is much in Vonnegut's account that is consistent with alternatives to biological reductionism and risk management. Throughout his intense periods of delusional thinking, Vonnegut struggles to make sense of the world as he sees it. His account, constructed as a narrative, exemplifies that whatever 'explains' madness has to be integrated into the biography of the individual in order to restore a functional sense of self. This applies as much to biological explanations as to the social theories that gained currency in the 1960's and 70's.

And yet as this memoir shows, a plausible theory might somehow explain the experience of madness, but prove futile as a means of rescuing someone from its consequences. Knowing that madness is an individual's rational response to an irrational society is no substitute for protecting that person from the dangers of madness. Whatever explanations Vonnegut constructed as to what was going on were inadequate to re-anchor him to a reality that he could live with and that others could understand.

More than anything else Vonnegut's book is a powerful personal story. It captures his drift into madness from his initial beliefs that he had somehow gained privileged access to another reality, to his growing recognition that the intensity and idiosyncratic nature of these experiences were separating him from his friends, his lover, from the world he had built around him.

Of course such a complete account invites many interpretations; many temptations to speculate about the nature and cause of madness and mental illness. There is evidence of family stress, intergenerational conflict, sibling conflict and of stress related to being the son of a newly famous author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Mark Vonnegut's relationship with Virginia seems distant at times, even dysfunctional, prompting speculation about psychosexual conflicts. There is no doubt that drugs played a part, although in the context of family and personal stress and a general sense of anomie it is not clear that their role was decisive. That Vonnegut regained his sanity and continues to live free of the psychosis that tortured him as a young man argues against the need to settle such disputes, and in favour of effective intervention and support for those afflicted by madness.

Mark Vonnegut continued his recovery by studying medicine at Harvard Medical School, and currently practices as a pediatrician. His current views on madness reflect the orthodoxy of his profession, but they are of less interest than his clear and compelling account of a time in his life when such comforting truths were all but inaccessible. There is an irony in Vonnegut's reversal. Since the 1970's, theories of social causation of mental illness have given way to biological theories, although, it has to be said, with little conclusive evidence for either. But the young Vonnegut's view that it is society, not the individual or some interior aspect of him, that we should turn for an explanation for experience, is exemplified in the popular literature of the time, such as Cuckoo's Nest, The Catcher in the Rye, or Vonnegut senior's Slaughterhouse Five.

Whatever one chooses to believe about madness, The Eden Express is a book of enduring value. It is testament to the clarity and force of the writing as much as the subject matter. As a work of social history The Eden Express  provides not only a case study in the formation of a counterculture, but a detailed record of how large scale political and social forces, were played out in the life of one individual. Those who missed it the first time round should read it now; those who read it back then should give it to their kids.


© 2003 Tony O’Brien


Tony O'Brien, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing, University Auckland, New Zealand.