Excerpted from Love, Lies and Marriage (FSG), a book in progress
When the cops beat on the door I was in a warm bath pecking at my basilic vein with the Global knife my second wife had allowed me after expelling me from our house. I had finished half a bottle of Valium, was drunk, and had said goodbye to my girlfriend on the phone. To dramatize my account I lied to her. I told her I was using a hunting knife, though where I would have acquired such a knife is a question that would have occurred to a sober me.
Soon, through a sort of relay race of cellphones from New York to Kansas City, the police officers arrived at my door, just as—cutting a straight line down the wrist like you learn to do in the movies—I had finally drawn a decent row of promising red sprinkles of blood. Did I intend to kill myself? Difficult question. A suicide attempt can be very much like falling in love. You’re not really sure, as you proceed, what is real and what you’re making up as you go. You’re genuinely uncertain how the whole thing’s going to turn out. You want it but you don’t. It seems both inevitable and impossible.
They took me to the psychiatric ward—I’d been there before (I tried to escape, in the night, in my slippers and hospital robe, and failed; I was caught by a nurse, a security guard, and some locking exit doors)—and I sat, most days, with a muscular, startlingly good-looking Irishman (Daniel Day Lewis-style, truly handsome) who, the whole time I was there, spoke only once and never stopped crying. Mostly he cried noiselessly. I never learned his name. He could have been a saint who had taken a vow of silence and now could do nothing but weep for the world, or for the sufferings of Jesus.
One Sunday afternoon a group of us rebelled and refused to go to group because the Kansas City Chiefs were playing the New England Patriots. We put the game on; they turned off the TV. I went to the nurses’ station and explained with all of the authority of a tenured professor the demonstrated therapeutic effects of a little good clean fun. They turned the TV back on. My Irishman cried through the game, too, though he laughed more than once while weeping and we even high-fived each other after an unlikely touchdown. Our team won, an unheard of result for the Chiefs. The morning I left was the one time I heard this sad man speak. That’s when I found out for certain he was Irish.
“It was a good football game, wouldn’t you say?” He smiled at me. He was looking me straight in the eye, and the tears ran down his cheeks unceasingly.
“It was the best football game I ever watched,” I said truthfully. In fact I don’t like to watch football. The last time I’d watched a football game was the last time I’d been in the ward. Or perhaps the time before that.
We didn’t shake hands. And then the orderly took me downstairs, where the dean of my college was waiting to pick me up and take me out for buffalo wings.
People lie a lot in psychiatric hospitals. The staff lie unremittingly to the patients, about meds, meals, messages, you name it; the patients lie to the psychiatrists, faking happiness and serenity; the psychiatrists lie to the patients (I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “I think you’re ready to go. I expect we’ll release you tomorrow,” only to find that the old cliché holds: tomorrow never comes); we patients lie to each other, in group and out of it, about why we’re here, what we’ve done, who we’ve betrayed, who’s betrayed us; we lie on the phone to the people who will take our calls on the outside; people from the outside call in and tell lies about what’s going on out there. It’s a lot like jail that way (to this day, a lot of psychiatric wards are very much like jail cells—I’ve been in those, too—except there is more room to roam in a ward, and they are cleaner and have better windows).
But the reason I mention the Irishman is that he stands out in my mind as a person I never lied to, and who never lied to me. A bond of strong affection had formed between me and this solitary penitent or martyr. I’d been thinking, all these forty-four years, with two wives, two mistresses, and three daughters—not to mention my own mother and father (I’m a kid in this narrative, too; we all are)—that love depended on lies. Of course, I wasn’t entirely wrong.