Article — From the December 1954 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access the Harper’s archive
ALERT: Usernames and passwords from the old Harpers.org will no longer work. To create a new password and add or verify your email address, please sign in to customer care and select Email/Password Information. (To learn about the change, please read our FAQ.)
Article — From the December 1954 issue
The man on the couch was a young government scientist who presented his analyst with a curious problem–he believed, quite simply, that he was living part of his life on another planet. A more extended version of this case history will be published in Dr. Lindner’s forthcoming book, The Fifty-Minute Hour.
The chair behind the psychoanalyst’s couch is not the stationary object it seems. I have traveled all over the world on it, and back and forth in time. But it remained for Kirk Allen to take me out of this world when he transformed the couch in my consulting room into a space ship.
My tale begins on a sultry June morning in Baltimore with a telephone call from a physician at a government installation in the Southwest. He said he was calling about a patient whom he wished to refer to me. “This fellow is a man in his thirties,” he said, “a research physicist with us out here. As far as I can tell, he’s perfectly normal in every way except for a lot of crazy ideas about living part of the time in another world–on another planet. Washington sent him out to do a key job, and until a few weeks ago he was going great guns. But lately he’s out of contact with the work so much and for so long that something’s got to he done about it.”
“How did you find out about his ideas?” I asked. “Did he complain to you or what?”
“No,” the doctor replied. “Allen–the patient’s name is Kirk Allen–thinks it’s all perfectly natural. Of course, he’s sorry about the drop in departmental efficiency. Says–get this–says he’ll try to spend more time on this planet! His department chief sent him to me, and frankly I can’t handle it. I’m just an ordinary medical man. That’s why I’m calling you. You see, Allen is under contract. We’re required to provide medical services for him, but we’re not set up here for his kind of case. However, we’d be responsible for all his expenses. I’d like to send him on to you.”
I hesitated. “Tell me,” I said, “is it your impression Allen requires hospitalization?”
“Oh no,” he replied quickly. “I’d say this… fantasy, I guess you’d call it, is a perfectly innocuous business. I mean, Allen appears to be completely unaffected by it most of the time.”
After a little more hesitation, I agreed at least to interview him.
Kirk Allen walked into my office three days later. Any speculations I had had about him as a “mad scientist” evaporated when I saw him. A vigorous man of average height, clear-eyed and blond, his seersucker unwrinkled and his panama encircled with a gay band, he looked like a junior executive. His manner, as he introduced himself and we made some initial small talk about the weather and his flight East, was charming. He spoke with just enough diffidence to let me know that the situation he now found himself in was slightly embarrassing.
His pleasant, well-modulated baritone voice intrigued me from the first. Although his speech was unmistakably American, it had a vaguely foreign, musical lilt. This observation I chose as the point of entrance for my clinical examination of him.
“You were not born in the United States, were you, Mr. Allen?” I said.
“No,” he answered, “but how did you know?”
“The way you talk. I would suspect you spoke a softer language at one time.”
“You’re right,” he said. “My first language was a Polynesian dialect, but I thought it was pretty well hidden. Does it annoy you?”
“Not at all,” I said. “As a matter of fact, I find it quite pleasant. Tell me, how did it happen?”
“My father,” he said, “was a naval officer. I was born in Hawaii, where he was stationed when the first world war broke out. My nurse until I was six years old was a Polynesian woman, and it was her dialect I learned to speak as a small child. Later my father was Commissioner on one of the small mandated islands …. “
Kirk Allen was the only child of his parents’ marriage. His father, already an old man when Kirk was born, had been married previously and was even then a grandfather. Kirk recalled him as a man of imposing presence, proud, taciturn, stern. From those about him he exacted absolute, immediate obedience, for which the only reward was a gruff monosyllabic acknowledgment or, in Kirk’s case, a tousling of the boy’s hair with his heavy hand. To cross this old man was dangerous. The walking stick he carried was never out of his grasp; there was no one on the island, except his wife and the transient white governesses, who did not at some time feel its weight. And yet, Kirk said, something about his father was warm and kind. That quality was remembered in later years chiefly through the boy’s sense of smell; a blend of tobacco, whisky, leather, and salt air would evoke, for Kirk, a poignant picture of the aging gentleman who was seldom seen out of naval uniform, who conducted his home and “his island” like the wardroom of a battleship.
Kirk’s mother was at least thirty-five years younger than the Commodore–as his father was called–and temperamentally his opposite. Her father had been a wealthy diplomat who had served in most of the European capitals and died under tragic, somewhat scandalous circumstances in Italy. Soon afterward her mother, who could not tolerate the revelations following his death, retired to Honolulu with her daughter, then eighteen. There the girl, under constant supervision, fell into a kind of apathy. Then she met the elderly widower and after a brief courtship married him, perhaps, Kirk now speculated, as a desperate means of escaping from her mother.
Immediately after her marriage Mrs. Allen recovered her natural ebullience. The Com- modore was indulgent with his beautiful young wife and their home rapidly became Honolulu’s social center and remained so through the war years, although the Commodore was not often present.
More from Robert Mitchell Lindner: