Report — From the February 2014 issue

A God More Powerful Than I

Understanding a stalker’s love

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In the spring of 1796, a young Cambridge graduate named Charles Valentine Le Grice moved down to Cornwall to become a tutor. His friends were dismayed. Le Grice had prospects. He was close to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb. He also had a sweetheart in London. “Le Grice is gone to make puns in Cornwall,” Lamb wrote to Coleridge. “He has cut Miss Hunt completely: the poor girl is very ill on the occasion; but he laughs at it.”

The job in Cornwall sounded rotten: a sickly boy on an estate called Trereife, just outside the fishing harbor of Newlyn, about as far west in England as you could possibly go. The attraction, Le Grice’s friends surmised, must be the mother, a nobleman’s widow. “He will, of course, initiate himself quickly in ‘whatsoever things are honest, lovely, and of good report,’ ” wrote Lamb. Le Grice did just that. He married Mary Nicholls in 1799 and became a curate. He spent the rest of his life writing sermons, essays about fishing nets, and iffy poems about the glories of England’s westernmost tapering: “O! Land of yellow ling, and powdr’d hake! / O! Cornucopia of clouted cream . . . ” His pupil died of “ossification of the body,” in 1815, and the only issue of the new marriage, Day Perry Le Grice, inherited Trereife instead.

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

Jeremy Le Grice, a descendant of the lost poet, moved into a set of lofts at the back of the manor house at Trereife in the mid-1990s with his wife, Lyn. The estate, which had shrunk since the eighteenth century, was owned by a cousin. Over the years, Jeremy and Lyn had made a habit of refurbishing old farms and barns, partly to suit their work (he was a painter and needed the space for his canvases; she was an interior designer), and partly to suit their large family: they already had five children between them, from earlier marriages, when they became a couple in 1970. Their only child together was born the following year. They named him Jude.

Jude grew up to become a singer. He sang a glorious bass in church choirs, and when he was not singing, he cut down trees. He was huge and curly-haired, a man of the outdoors. He followed his impulses, which were romantic and historical and all his own. He did not seem to be leading a modern European life. He spent years living on a roof in Rome. He rescued people from earthquakes. He was in a shipwreck. A friend said the only expression he had ever heard that described Jude adequately was in French, and it meant “clown of God.”

But Jude’s life went terribly wrong. He has spent much of the past decade locked up in psychiatric wards. He fell in love with a girl, pursued her relentlessly, and was prosecuted as a stalker. Refusing to recant his love, Jude disappeared deeper and deeper into Britain’s mental-health system. To his family and to people who had known him a long time, it was obvious that a grave injustice had occurred.

I heard this story from a friend in the summer of 2009 and wrote to Jeremy and Lyn soon afterward. They invited me to Trereife and I spent the day with Jeremy in their drawing room, next to an old rocking horse, talking about his son. “He thinks in very epic ways,” Jeremy said. “This is the difficulty.” He and Lyn decided it was too risky for me to write an article about Jude. They didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize his release from hospital, which they believed could happen at any time.

Two years later, however, I got an email from Lyn. “Developments with Jude are not progressing,” she wrote. For the first time, she and Jeremy were beginning to lose hope that Jude might ever be free. Under British law, he was allowed to appeal his hospitalization once a year. Every year, he tried to do so. But each appeal was a significant undertaking: new psychiatric reports had to be drawn up and a tribunal of doctors and judges assembled at the hospital. In an age of funding cuts and apparently limitless bureaucratic incompetence, these had become almost impossible to organize. But Jude’s next tribunal was in late September, and Jeremy and Lyn wanted me to come.

We arrived at the hospital, on the edge of the ancient Cornish town of Bodmin, at ten o’clock in the morning. Bright-green fields lay to the west. We were shown into a waiting room whose aesthetic horror seemed almost contrived. “These dreadful blinds one gets accustomed to,” Jeremy assured me. He and Lyn sat down on a red sofa. There was a power outlet between their heads.

We waited and waited. The tribunal was delayed, and then canceled. Someone had forgotten to invite one of the judges. (By Lyn’s reckoning, hearings of Jude’s case had been postponed fifteen times in the previous three years.) No one knew how Jude would react. In the past he had responded to such setbacks by refusing to take his medication, or by abusing the limited freedoms he had accrued — the intricate constructed steps by which he was supposedly being reintroduced into normal society — by going into Bodmin to drink.

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

Today he was not even surprised. When his parents, followed by two female nurses, led him out from his ward into the sunlight, he appeared resigned to the delay.

Since adolescence, Jude has been physically imposing — tall and very broad. In his twenties, years of forestry work made him resemble a socialist-realist statue. Now aged forty, and softened by antipsychotic drugs and years of inactivity, Jude was on the heavy side. But he had dressed up for the judges: he was wearing pale-blue trousers, a cream-colored jacket, and a shirt of blue and pink checks. His beard was freshly trimmed and there was color in his cheeks. He looked like a small giant on his way to a country wedding.

To atone for the botched tribunal, Jude’s supervisors allowed him to leave the hospital for a few hours. We went for lunch at a nearby pub. A Liverpudlian nurse named Phil, with tattoos on his neck, came to keep an eye on Jude. As we ate, Jude said that he wished he had just been given a prison sentence rather than having to go through this eternal, interrupted appeals process. “I think I would have been a lot more productive,” he said.

After lunch, we went for a short walk along the nearby path of an old railway track. Jude and I fell into step on the sunken line, under a canopy of leaves showing the first signs of autumn. This was the first of around a dozen conversations I would have with him over the following months in which he tried to describe the vast bedevilment of love that had reduced his life to its current confusing state.

Talking to Jude is an unusual experience. He looks you in the eye but speaks slowly, with a circumlocutory quality. You are tempted to finish his sentences but you learn not to, because you realize that you can rarely anticipate what he wants to say or the often rather formal words he will choose. Jude once told me that, as a boy, he played “at a vast radius from the house.” He gives you travel directions as if you might be a hobbit. “You climb up all the mountains and you go straight into Wales,” was how he told me to find a town where he once lived.

That day, Jude looked at the branches above our heads and wondered aloud whether it would be a mast year — a bumper harvest of nuts and fruit. He said that he had been thinking about what to say to me and was feeling overwhelmed by all the connections, all the associations, all the context he wanted to explain. “If my particular story is told,” he said, “where do you take it from?” Did it start with the westward migration of Charles Valentine? What about the death of Jude’s grandfather in the early months of the Second World War? And what of Cornwall’s industrial decline? “I’m a bit wary of pressing those buttons, really,” he said.

It was time for him to go back to the hospital. Phil was standing by a white van. “It’s going to be hard for me this afternoon,” said Jude. He took Lyn’s head in his hands and put his forehead against hers. They said goodbye. “They’re not going to let me out, Mum. That is the reality.” Phil tooted the horn as they drove up the hill.

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is a journalist living in London. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Inside the Snow Globe,” appeared in the July 2011 issue

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  • guest

    This piece was GREAT, just read in the dead-tree version. Sad, moving, sympathetic to all parties, a bit scary, a bit funny. Recommended!

  • Jim Loving

    Agree, this was worth the read. It hit close to home, with home being the USA mental health system and diagnosis of schizophrenia. The sad part of the story to me was how late in the game Jude’s diagnosis came, and how he became trapped in the system. The article mentions how the UK system, in section 37 of their Mental Health Law, requires patients “develop insight into their condition.” A Recent groundbreaking book by Xavier Amadore – “I Am Not Sick I don’t Need Help” takes a look at the research literature of the last 10 years an he posits that lack of insight – or onogsognosia, is actually part of a physical disfunction in the brain’s frontal lobe, not ‘an attitude problem.’ For that reason he tweaked the Motivational Interviewing technique and developed LEAP – a method to as the article states, help the patient determine on their own that the “collateral damage is not worth it.” It is a huge change in thinking and one everyone needs to come to grips with.

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