Précis — July 23, 2013, 1:00 pm

Writers Go in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep

We asked some of our favorite writers how they were sleeping. Their responses ranged from the personal, to the scientific, to the historical.

“I wake up neither because of my will nor because of anyone else’s. I wake up because my body wakes to attend to the child’s body,” writes Sarah Manguso, beautifully expressing a new mother’s altered relationship to sleep. “I await his next cry. My body rises and moves down the hall carrying me with it.” She ends her poetic essay thusly: “I’m growing accustomed to living in this new body, newly capable of briefer, shallower, broken sleep — a mother’s body, a machine designed to wake up.”

New York–area readers: Please join us at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo on Wednesday, July 31, at 7 p.m. for Sleeping With Harper’s Magazine: Authors in search of a good night’s rest. Details are here.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch informs readers that sleeping through the night is a modern idea: “Unlike the seamless slumber we strive to achieve, sleep once commonly consisted of two major intervals, a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep.’ ” In the hour of wakefulness in between, “people did practically everything imaginable” — including have sex, whose timing in the wee hours, Ekirch reports, was believed by some to increase fertility.

“I heard about gaboxadol and decided I had to try it,” writes Hamilton Morris of a rare chemical remedy for insomnia that, though it is nowhere near being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could be an improvement over Ambien, Valium, and Xanax. But what really appeals to Morris is the hallucinogenic delirium gaboxadol is said to induce. The intrepid reporter scores some: “In my darkened bedroom,” he writes, “I could hear otherworldly music emanating from the motor of a box fan, the white-noise buzzing slowing, taking on the character of an electric viola, the room’s various shadows animated by strange movements as if cast by a flickering candle—but none of this proved distracting.” Morris finds that gaboxadol is indeed the perfect hypnotic.

Rebecca Solnit wonders about the inner lives of the CEOs and world leaders who view their sleeplessness as a proud symbol of their industriousness. “They’re subjected to the same sleep deprivation as the prisoners at Guantanamo, and it affects them in similar ways,” she writes. “Sleep and dreams are the wilderness of the mind. The rulers of the world are probably eyeing that land as something that can be harnessed for production; the torturers must see it as enemy territory to be napalmed and carpet combed”

“I tell myself it’s a virtue, my failure to sleep in my own house, or at all,” writes Heidi Julavits, describing her nocturnal life as a “sleep hunter,” wandering from room to room in her Maine house with a flashlight, a bottle of pills, two pillows and a blanket. This is a lovely evocation of the perils of family life: the deep care we feel for those we love, and the anxiety that can sometimes cause.

“I’m not talking about noise. Think of the rackets you’ve slept through,” writes Deb Olin Unferth, kept up at night by fighting neighbors who doom her to “the sleeplessness of the exiled, the expat, the atheist, the existentialist, the incarcerated.” She called the police who came a few times and then stopped, the landlord stopped taking her calls, even her friends stopped speaking to her due to the long incoherent emails she wrote throughout the night. “Sleeplessness can do a number on you,” she writes. “It goes on too long and that posture becomes your personality.”

“It is always preferable to have something, or someone, to blame. At midcentury we faulted mother,” writes Christine Smallwood in her history of bed-wetting cures, which leads from ancient methods (directing the child to consume the testicles of a hedgehog) to present-day behavioral training, barbaric in its own right. “Tonight in America, 5 million of these wetters will worry themselves to sleep,” she writes, “many of them lying atop rubber sheets, moisture alarms clipped, velcroed, or otherwise fastened to their pajamas.”

“As much as I want to help my clients, I don’t empathize with them,” writes author Rebecca Curtis, who also works as a holistic nutritionist. “They cannot sleep; I can. They want to; I don’t. I hate to sleep, especially if I’m alone.” As she reviews a variety of homeopathic remedies, Curtis reveals the fears and loneliness that make her want to stay awake. “The idea of turning off my life and opening up my subconscious, my dreams, and my self (soul?) is so abhorrent to me,” she confesses, “that I have slept with the bedroom light on for the past six years.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes of his experience at a Tokyo cuddle café, where a small membership fee and thirty dollars buys a man forty minutes of sleeping time with a young pajama-clad woman. Sexual overtures are forbidden, though for ten dollars you can stare into your sleep partner’s eyes or have her pat you on the head. “Here you do pure things,” explains Lewis-Kraus’s partner. “Men come here want time, relax time. It’s like being in their room in their house. Bed is best relax item.”

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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