Monday, June 5, 2017

New York Times review of Close Encounters, 1995

Giving the U.F.O. Group A Shot at Persuasion
Published: June 5, 1995
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOURTH KIND Alien Abduction, U.F.O.'s and the Conference at M.I.T.
By C. D. B. Bryan
476 pages.
 Alfred A. Knopf.

 Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind," is about as mainstream and respectable as a publisher can be. The author, C. D. B. Bryan, has written estimable histories of the National Air and Space Museum and the National Geographic Society. The book's main event is the so-called abduction study conference from June 13-17, 1992, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the direction of David E. Pritchard, a physicist there, and John E. Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist. 

 So even a complete skeptic is inclined at least to consider what Mr. Bryan has to report. While the very notion of the book remains incredible, more trustworthy circumstances under which to entertain it are hard to imagine. 

The two submitted book cover designs. the one on the right would be chosen

 As Mr. Bryan reports, he attended the five-day conference, took extensive notes, talked to the participants during breaks and over meals, and followed up with "postconference interviews," some of which involved sitting in on hypnosis sessions with witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens. 

 If one boils down their testimonies to a single archetypal event, what they experienced involved first a sense of foreboding, the sighting of bright lights in the sky and the stalling of the cars they happened to be driving; then an awareness of missing time, a feeling of acute anxiety and the discovery of cuts or gouges on their bodies. 

 Later, under hypnotic regression, they recalled being wafted into spaceships by small gray beings who communicated telepathically with them and performed medical experiments, often involving sex.  

Understandably enough, the reader's mind boggles at these reports, and one feels some sympathy for the committee at Harvard Medical School that recently criticized Dr. Mack, the co-chairman of the conference, for his research on subjects claiming to have been abducted. 

 You naturally reject the logic of their testimony: that creatures could appear out of nowhere in craft that defy the laws of matter. You wonder why these aliens show up more in English-speaking countries than in the rest of the world, and why, if they are clever enough to travel through different dimensions of time, they would want to breed with humans or perform countless experiments on them. And you look for flaws in the witnesses, presuming them to be publicity-seeking nuts who are likely to be repressing some sort of childhood sexual trauma. 

The Japanese translation

 But Mr. Bryan's report anticipates these objections. Perhaps the case for the believers is best summed up in what Dr. Mack calls the "five basic dimensions" of the abduction phenomenon, which he summarizes this way: 

 "1. The high degree of consistency of detailed abduction accounts, reported with emotion appropriate to actual experiences, told by apparently reliable observers. 

 "2. The absence of psychiatric illness or other apparent psychological or emotional factors that could account for what is being reported. 

 "3. The physical changes and lesions affecting the bodies of the experiencers, which follow no evident psychodynamic pattern. 

 "4. The association with U.F.O.'s witnessed independently by others while abductions are taking place (which the abductee may not see). 

 "5. The reports of abductions by children as young as two or three years of age." 

 The effect of reading Mr. Bryan's book is far from enlightening. Rather one experiences it with the outlook of someone reporting an abduction: although one senses it is happening, one still doesn't believe it. 

 Nor does it help that Mr. Bryan's text is disorganized and repetitive, and shows signs that it was written hurriedly ("Budd Hopkins has arranged for Carol and Alice and I to attend one of his support group meetings after dinner that Friday"). And once you've read a couple of abduction accounts, you might as well have read them all. 

 So you race to Mr. Bryan's final chapter, titled "Various Theories." Here you are not much reassured to learn that some theorists consider alien abductions a phenomenon to make us aware of "other realities; further, that it is during, or within, some sort of overlapping of these realities that alien abductions occur." Others believe alien abductions to be a program to raise human consciousness of the earth's ecological needs, taught us by creatures from another dimension. 

 Still others support the speculation of C. G. Jung in his old age that U.F.O.'s might be "materialized psychisms," or, as Mr. Bryan puts it, "actual physical or paraphysical objects created by the collective unconscious." 

 Finally, the closest approach to a rationally acceptable explanation is a theory that physical abuse in childhood somehow makes people sensitive to electrical disturbances in the brain's temporal lobe. Such disturbances can produce "dream states" or "psychical seizures" in which people mistake fantasies for reality. Yet believers insist that memories of sexual abuse are more likely to be a screen for abduction than the other way around. 

 Mr. Bryan himself comes away from his experiences benignly skeptical. He writes that he "would like to believe" in some of the creatures he heard described, but that "I cannot honestly say I have come across any hard evidence of their presence." With his somewhat rambling report, he persuades you in the end that something very odd may be happening and that, as believers like to say, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. But that's about the sum of what you get from this strange and disturbing book. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bokonist 1969

After reading my post, In Praise of Vonnegut, I thought why the hell shouldn't I post the entire New York Times profile from 1969

Kurt Vonnegut,
Head Bokononist
C.D.B. Bryan/1969
New York Times Book Review.
6 April 1969. pp. 2. 25.
Copyright 1969 by the New York Times Company.
 Reprinted by permission.

 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of six novels and two short-story collections, lives and writes in an old house in West Barnstable on Cape Cod with his wife, six children, a sheep dog, and a tidal wave of house guests. Vonnegut is over 6 feet tall, a rumpled and shaggy 46-year-old fourth generation German-American with a drooping mustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant-major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial alter-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug. 

 Seated, Vonnegut disappears so deeply into cushions that he resembles a courdroy covered bat-wing chair that has been dropped 2,000 feet from a passing airplane. He is the impatient humanitarian, the disappointed-but-constant optimist, an ex-P.R. man for General Electric, ex-Volunteer Fireman (Badge 155, Alpaus, N.Y.), ex-visiting lecturer, Iowa Writers' Workshop, and ex-Cornell chemistry major turned amiable Cassandra whose short stories and novels since 1961 have reflected an admirable -- if not sinister -- blending of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain. 

 Among Vonnegut's earliest fans were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Marc Connelly, Jules Fieffer, Graham Greene, and Terry Southern. But today whether because of, or in spite of, the fact that Vonnegut's novels are now being taught at universities, the under-30's are beginning to grant him a cultish attention which Vonnegut finds "very gratifying, it really is. It's charming," an attention that has long been overdue. And, happily, an increasing number of general readers are finding in Vonnegut's quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man's inhumanity to man an articulate bridge across the generation chasm. For a distressingly long period Vonnegut's novels have been ignored by just exactly the broad readership he had most hoped to reach simply because critics, uncertain quite how to categorize him, either dismissed him as a "science fiction" writer -- 

 (Vonnegut: "I objected finally to this label because I thought it was narrowing my readership. People regard science-fiction writers as interchangable with comic-strip writers.") 

 Or called him a "Black Humorist" -- 

 (Vonnegut: "One day I was sitting on the beach at Cape Cod and this enormous bell jar was lowered over me and I managed to read the label. It said, 'Black Humor by Bruce Jay Friedman.' I find the label mystifying.") 

 Or, with nothing but the best intentions, critics judged Vonnegut a "satirist" and thereby all but doomed him to a life of abject poverty. 

 (Vonnegut: "I speak a lot at universities now, and people ask me to define 'satire' and, you know? I've never even bothered to look it up. I wouldn't know whether I'm a satirist or not. One thing about being a chemistry major at Cornell, I've never worried about questions like that. It was never important for me to know whether I was one or not.") 

 Still other critics, unwilling to forgive Vonnegut for having written patently commercial short stories, ignore his work entirely. 

 (Vonnegut: "When I was supporting myself as a freelance writer doing stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, I was scorned! I mean, there was a time when to be a slick writer was a disgusting thing to be, as though it were prostitution. The people who did not write for the slicks obviously did not need the money. I would have liked very much to have been that sort of person, but I wasn't. I was the head of a family, supporting the damn thing in what seemed -- to me, at least -- an honorable way. During most of my freelancing I made what I would have made in charge of the cafeteria at a pretty good junior-high school.") 

 In the hopes of avoiding similar pitfalls I telephoned Vonnegut and asked him, if he had his choice, what he would most like to be known as. He answered, "George Orwell." 

 In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965, Eliot P. Rosewater, heir to the Rosewater fortune, crashes a science-fiction writers' convention being held in a Milford, Pa. motel and interrupts their meeting to say, "I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one either, but one that will last for billions of years. You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really know what machines do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous mistakes, accidents, and catastrophies do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to Heaven or Hell." The speaker may have been Rosewater, but the voice was Vonnegut's own.

 "All writers are going to have to learn more about science," says Vonnegut, "simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment. To reflect their times accurately, to respond to their times reasonably, writers will have to understand that part of their environment. . . C.P. Snow and I are both very smug on this subject because we both have two cultures -- H.L. Mencken, by the way, started as a chemist. H.G. Wells, too." 

 Vonnegut has stated that he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants to be read by men in power and he knows politicians have neither the time nor the inclination to read thick books. "I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them," he says, "and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world." 

 Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut's writing. The first is Be Kind; the second is God doesn't care whether you are or not. In his introduction to Mother Night, a novel (published initially in paperback in 1961, republished in hardcover in 1965) about an American intelligence agent whose cover was as an anti-Semetic radio broadcaster for the Nazis, Vonnegut introduced a third message: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." 

 Vonnegut's message in Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children's Crusade is: 

 "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee." 

 Is he a pacifist? "I've got four boys of military age and none of them are going," he told me. "It's a decision they reached on their own, I've certainly not brought any leverage -- one thing I've said to them, too, is that if I were them I would go. Out of morbid curiosity. This exasperates a lot of people. But, knowing myself, I think I probably would go, although I'd be sick about it the minute I got over there and realized I'd been had." 

 Should Vonnegut go, Bokonon's epigraph at the end of Cat's Cradle seems appropriate: 

 "If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity, and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016: Reading The Great Dethriffe 40 Years Later

    Dad was a journalist first and foremost, even when writing his three books of fiction. P.S Wilkinson, The Great Dethriffe and Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes were all thinly veiled accounts of his life, his relationships, his thoughts and feelings about the times in which he lived. Friends, family members and neighbors would pick up these books and read them the way I imagine celebrities thumb through People Magazine, half in hope and half in dread of finding themselves within the pages.

   My sister and I appear in The Great Dethriffe as Syd and Ashbel. In the book George Dethriffe and Alice live in Winander, CT ( a name Dad probably dug out of a book of William Wordsworth poetry to double for the gated village of Tuxedo Park, NY) . To take a break from an argument with Alice (Mom) , George (Dad) visits his children's bedroom in to look in on them and what follows is straight out of family lore :

   Ashbel lay curled up tightly, his mouth open, one delicate hand beneath his cheek. Syd, in her bed, lay arms and legs outstretched like a free-fall parachutist.
   What do they dream about I wonder? Once, when Ashbel was a little over two, I heard him speak just one word in his sleep. He said, "Truck!" and, oh God, I hoped he was dreaming of the most glorious truck there ever was. Ten huge wheels with chromium rims on either side, a high crimson cab with air horns sprouting like rococo angels' trumpets from its peak, a trailer of silver with bright lights for its trim, lights along that trailer like a midnight passing train.
   "Truck!" said my son and the wind rushed out of his throat like tumbleweed across a darkened interstate.
   I have never heard Sydney speak in her dreams. She, like her mother, holds it in.

I've been told "truck" is the first word I ever said. That description of my sister --holding it in --may be the only true fiction here. I don't believe my sister has any issues with communicating her feelings.

  Published in 1972, The Great Dethriffe can be read as a fictionalized account of the events that led to my mother and father's marriage and divorce, a subject neither ever wanted to discuss much with me. George Dethriffe and his wife Alice fell madly in love --"Marriage at first sight"--but five years later, the passion is gone. They are both cell mates in a marriage. Alfred Moulton, his best friend, is a writer who, early in the book, tries to convince Dethriffe he shouldn't marry Alice.

  "Does she love you, really?"
  "Yes," he said. "Yes."
  "More than she loves herself? Don't forget, Alice Townsend looks out for herself. And you have every right to be just as selfish as she is."
  "Well, I'm not sure how true that is," George said. "But, like I keep trying to tell you, you just don't know Alice!"
  "I'm just worried you're going to marry her for all the wrong reasons. I'm worried that you're getting married because you think it's time to get married." I turned back from the bar and sat down in my leather chair again. "You feel you're old enough, and you haven't got anything better to do, and so you're going to marry Alice Townsend. All I'm trying to suggest is that you still have time to get out of it if you want to."
  "But I don't want to," George insisted.
  "Alright., here's another idea. Why don't you, instead of getting married next month, why don't you take Alice with you and go off somewhere and live together. Hell, go someplace where no one knows you're not married. Try it out before you make it legal. I just have the feeling that you're getting married out of some misguided sense of responsibility."

Author photo and description which always bothered my sister and me. The "child" is our half-sister Amanda.

  And it was somewhere here, about 107 pages into The Great Dethriffe, that I realized Alfred Moulton and George Dethriffe were the same person. Quite the revelation for me! Alfred speaks in the voice of my father after his divorce, trying to look out for his younger version. I'm sure, in real life, both his friends and his brother, Saint, tried to talk Dad out of getting married five year after graduating from college. Here, the case for and against the marriage is made over the course of pages and pages of text, from the Kennedy administration through the start of Nixon's first term.
  My parents's marriage lasted fewer than four years. One day Dad left the three of us in the house in Tuxedo Park and moved into a small New York City apartment.

    It took me a moment to start the cold engine, and then I backed the car up and turned it around. Just before I left, I looked back in the rear-view mirror at the kitchen. Alice  had come to the door and was watching me. And I'm not entirely sure this is true because it seems so patently absurd, but I think...I think, that as I left, I saw her wave.

 Dad apparently led the life of a bachelor before his Mexican divorce went through, while my mom moved with us to Aiken, South Carolina.
  Dad died in 2009. I'll never be able to talk to him again and ask the thousands of questions that have come up as I've written this blog. But I can open his books and spend hours in his presence, making these very personal connections with him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

1954: Uncle Saint reporting from Fire Island?

    My cousin Katharine and I have every reason to believe the young barefoot reporter seen in this 1954 NBC news footage is our Uncle Saint. The footage is for a story about New Yorker theatre critic Wolcott Gibbs and his weekly summer newspaper The Fire Islander. Gibbs was a friend of Saint's step-father John O'Hara back then ( thus the name "Gibbsville" in so many of O'Hara's stories) and must have known J Bryan III as well. Gibbs even recruited O'Hara and other friends to write for The Fire Islander.

  With literary lions providing much of the copy, it was up to the Gibbs's reporting team to handle the day to day news and Uncle Saint, the former managing editor of The Virginia Spectator at U.VA, appears to be up to challenges like covering trustees meetings.

   In the first issue of The Fire Islander Gibbs promised his readers:

    Our reporters will be instructed to get around. There are usually twenty little communities in any community. It will be their job every week to get in touch with a representative member of each of them and come back with the facts, upon which the editors will them superimpose grammar.

  Why would Gibbs devote so much time to a little read broadsheet?

"I'm in love with the goddamn beach!"


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Witty Dotty

  These are photographs of Dorothy Parker and her canine companions that my Grandpa Joe took a year before she died at the age of 73. I found them inside the cover of Sunset Gun, a collection of verses she wrote in 1928.

   No Dorothy Parker biography is complete without the story of how my grandfather first met Parker, the Algonquin wit who wrote "Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses". By the mid 1930's she was drinking a lot and even suffering from blackouts. 
     The year was 1933. Joseph Bryan III was a childhood friend of Parker's future husband Alan Campbell. The two ran into each other at a dance in New York.

Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker

   "Come along at once," Alan said. "Dottie Parker is here and she's dying to meet you."
   Grandpa Joe, then a 29 writer,  followed him to the edge of the dance floor, where Dorothy was holding court. To his amazement, she seemed thrilled to see him. It seemed she couldn't believe her luck in meeting the author of a recent New Yorker profile. She insisted he take a seat next to her. She flooded him with complements and eventually worked up to a proposition: would he be interested in collaborating on a play with her. He said of course he would and they agreed to meet the next morning.  

     The following day, at the stroke of eleven, Grandpa Joe appeared at her hotel and asked the doorman to ring her.

  The following excerpt is from Grandpa Joe's 1985 book Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady):

    She was a long time answering, but finally he said, "Mr. Bryan, madam...Mr Bryan...." He turned to me: "Will you spell it, sir?" I spelled it, and he repeated, " B, R, Y, A, N, madam...Yes, madam." He turned to me again: "Mrs. Parker asks what you wish to see her about." I don't know how I made myself heard over the noise of my heart crackling, but I succeeded, because presently I found myself in the elevator, even though I was already achingly aware that she'd have no recollection of our glittering plans from the evening before. It proved to be worse than that: she had no recollection of it, it never happened.
  I saw Dottie many, many times afterwards...but never once was that first evening ever mentioned. For all that she retained of it, it had never happened.

  When Dorothy Parker died, she willed her ashes and her entire estate to the Dr Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination complicated matters. For 20 years her ashes were kept in a can in the office of a New York lawyer. When columnist Liz Smith made this public in the late 1980s, Grandpa Joe wrote the lawyer, offering to help have the ashes spread over her late husband's grave in a Virginia cemetery:

   God knows I have no desire --none!--to push myself forward in this sad affair, but I can't stand by and let the ashes of a friend and so distinguished a writer be tossed into the street.

 That's not at all what happened. Dorothy Parker's ashes have been placed in a memorial garden at The NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. Her estate has earned the NAACP a great deal of money.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams

I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Williams several times on movie junkets and shared one of those rare couple of minutes when cameras aren't ready to roll. We talked about my son's imminent birth. Robin leaned in, that famous face widening in a grin you've seen a hundred times, saying "Aw, there's nothing greater in the world!"

     I told him we were having trouble coming up with a name. It was really between Cooper, a name that would work whether he was an actor, writer or baseball player. Or Tucker, a family name. I said my fear with the name Cooper is the other kids will wind up calling him Cooper the Pooper. Robin shook his head. "No, no they won't. They'll call him "Cooper the Super Duper Pooper". And there was hardly a beat before he added. " But that's a lot better than Tucker."

      So that's my Robin Williams story. The lightening fast wit and, above all, the generous humanity. What a sad day for me. And my son Cooper.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Bryan Boys

Upon the death of J. St. George Bryan, 66, in June, 1945 the Bryan-owned Richmond New Leader ran this editorial:

Sharply etched as was ST GEORGE BRYAN in personality, he seldom thought of himself, so far as we observed, otherwise than as a member of a family, the son of JOSEPH BRYAN and the grandson of JOHN STEWART, of Brook Hill. If he had ever analyzed the psychology of a name, he would have put the emphasis on BRYAN and not on ST. GEORGE.
    This was true, in varying degrees, of all five of the sons of JOSEPH and ISOBEL LAMONT STEWART BRYAN. They were brothers in spirit to a degree more marked even than that of their diversified individuality.

John Stewart Bryan surrounded by his newspapermen

 JOHN STEWART BRYAN was the senior in spirit as in birth, versatile, humane, captivating in manner and of eager intellectuality. 

DR. ROBERT C. BRYAN was unique in charm, skillful as a surgeon, profoundly interested in all his patients, and of a broad sympathy that made him the cherished counsellor of hundreds.
 JONATHAN BRYAN, the third son, much resembled his grandfather, JOHN STEWART, in person and in financial acumen. Singularly successful in business, he was far more than a businessman. He was socially irresistible, an intellect at once restless and philosophical, interested but always balanced, a MAECENAS whose full encouragement of promising men and noble enterprises will never be known.

 THOMAS PINCKNEY BRYAN, the youngest and the first to die, was regarded by his admiring brothers as socially the most captivating of them all. Wherever he went, he won hearts impulsively. Never did he enter a company that he did not seek to do kindness to every member of it. His brilliant law career was climbing to its shining crest when he succumbed to typhoid and pneumonia. No man of his day was more lamented.

   ST GEORGE BRYAN,  the fourth of the sons, and the survivor, had his special share of the family endowment.  His amazing wit, which had become a tradition in his lifetime, was one aspect only of a mind curiously intuitive. Those who worked with him in the newspaper business were accustomed to say of him that if he were asked for an instant answer to a question of business policy, he was almost inerrant. He might mistake if he pondered; he seldom did if he followed his intuitions. It was a remarkable quality and it helped to explain a fact in Richmond journalism that should not be overlooked: The years of his most active participation in the management of The Times Dispatch --roughly, 1909-13--were those in which its new foundations were made secure.

   It is a grievous duty to bid farewell to the last of the "BRYAN boys," as they affectionately were styled through a long generation. Seldom is a city blessed with so many sons of a single family who gave so much and in so many ways to the enrichment and enlivenment of life. In saying Ave et salve, there is comfort in the reflection that of the next generation , seven sons and four daughters carry on the fine tradition. Six of the sons of the "BRYAN boys"  are in the armed services. One had given his life. So widely have these grandsons of JOSEPH BRYAN scattered that few of them will walk tomorrow the gravel path to GOD's acre at Emmanuel Church; but many friends will follow--to remember the five, to thank GOD for them, and to sing reverently and gratefully, "The strife is o'er, the battle won...Allelujah!"

J St George Bryan in 1890

Another editorial, this was most likely from the Times-Dispatch:

No Richmonder of his generation was more sought after as a friend and companion than J. ST. GEORGE BRYAN, whose death occurred yesterday after a long period of failing health. His warm-heartedness and geniality, his capacity for friendship, inspired the same qualities in others. Tall and handsome, with a fine presence, he was a striking figure , and his gift for bon mots and repartee, his seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, made him the center of many gatherings.

    His quick wit was always in evidence, and as a mimic he was incomparable. Few dared to cross swords with him in a good-natured duel of words, for the intrepid one who did so was apt to be verbally skewered, albeit deftly and without the infliction of a wound. Among the few who were able to swap repartee with MR BRYAN on anything like evn terms were the late EGBERT G LEIGH and the late CHARLES COTEWSORTH PICKNEY . It was an unforgettable experience to sit in the old Westmoreland Club and listen to the scintillating, crackling conversation of those remarkable men.

   They are gone, and so are the four brothers of ST GEORGE BRYAN--JOHN STEWART, DR ROBERT C., JONATHAN and THOMAS P. BRYAN, who passed on before. Five such notable brothers would be hard to find in Richmond's more than two centuries of history. Of the charming gentleman who outlived all the others, and whose death occurred yesterday, it can truly be said that he was a man of unusual gifts and high integrity, worthy of his great heritage.