DIVINE INVASIONS: A LIFE OF PHILIP K. DICK
By Lawrence Sutin
Reading biography can be a disillusioning experience. Before reading this early but still authoritative (and more or less official) biography of the SF legend Philip K. Dick I was well aware of many of his problems, especially those regarding his sketchy mental health and truly epic levels of drug consumption. What I didn’t know was how despicable a person he was. That Lawrence Sutin is a highly sympathetic biographer makes such a revelation all the more remarkable, and troubling.
Dick’s professional career was nothing out of the ordinary. He wanted to be a serious mainstream author, feeling, perhaps a little too keenly, that science fiction was a ghetto. Nevertheless, SF was his true and only métier, and after some early experimentation (and failure) in more realistic forms he settled into genre. The pay wasn’t great and he had to make up for it by writing at great speed, often with the help of copious quantities of amphetamines (which, apparently, his father had started him on as early as the age of six). When success finally came knocking he was basically written out, increasingly absorbed in personal mythologies not unlike those imagined by Blake and Yeats. For various reasons (agoraphobia, hypochondria, natural disinclination) he did not lead a healthy lifestyle and died from a stroke at the age of 53.
In all of this there is little worth taking note of. It is a fairly typical writer’s life of the time. It is in his personal life that Dick’s story gets ugly.
Dick was effectively an only child (he had a twin sister who died as an infant). His parents divorced while he was quite young. His reaction to this was to become a dangerous, demanding, self-pitying, and manipulative man-baby who spent the rest of his life trying to wreak revenge upon his mother, who he quite unfairly despised (Sutin remarks that of “all the aspects of Phil’s personality, this is perhaps the most startling and saddening”).
Since he wasn’t close to his mother as an adult his revenge could only be achieved through a series of proxies. He married five times and had many other lovers and girlfriends. Possessed of charm and minor celebrity, he had no trouble finding women to play the part (and there are always plenty of codependent types who are willing if not eager to play such a part regardless). Within these relationships a pattern became established. While in a relationship he became withdrawn. His writing took precedence over everything. To this end he set up separate working quarters and expected to be free of domestic duties, including the drudgery of child care (he fathered three children). “There were two practical limits to Phil’s parenting,” Sutin tells us. “He never did diapers, and he insisted on quiet while he wrote.” Were there really only these two?
As with all such types, Dick was the real baby in any relationship. When he did not get his way he turned violent, physically abusing at least three of his wives. This was not mental illness but emotional degeneracy. Says one wife: “His mood swings were more like a child’s temper tantrums than the wild ravings of a lunatic”:
Phil, when he could not convince me by argument, would sometimes stamp his feet, tear open his shirt – buttons flying everywhere – or stomp off and throw himself on the bed. Sometimes he needed to be held, even rocked, and talked to soothingly. He often demanded all his meals in bed. He had to show me everything he wrote, and I had to read it NOW, not a minute from now. He had no patience. Often, he would snap his fingers to get my attention; this infuriated me.
At the time of these observations Dick was 44 years old: waking up in the middle of the night and forcing his wife to fetch him a drink and then hold and comfort him, “talk to him as if he were a very small chld.” Later, another prospective mommy turned down his offer of domestic partnership because it would have been too much “like baby-sitting.” Yet another would comment that “whoever was with him at this time would have to be a full-time . . . I was going to say nursemaid – but companion, housekeeper. And not expect the same from him.”
Nursemaid was in fact the correct word, and the observation that the role of caregiver had no reciprocal benefits is worth underlining. Tantrums and beatings would apparently follow frustration on his part, though always with the understanding that he was the victim of any psychological shortfall. After beating one wife and forcing her to leave (Sutin writes rather callously that “the blows caused no great physical harm, but they ended the relationship”) Dick would later introduce this ex to a friend as “the girl I was in love with until she beat me up.” This is disgusting, as is his plaintive whine about the routine his relationships inevitably fell into:
in each case I took a young girl who lived at home and had nothing, gave her what she wanted; whereupon she left, with my child. It is as if I am a bridge for fledgling girls, taking them to womanhood and motherhood, whereupon my value ends and I am discarded.
I think most people would see this as intentionally getting things the wrong way around. The emotionally needy older man taking young “fledgling girls” home with him, sexually and emotionally satisfying himself upon them, then discarding them when faced with the competition presented by a real baby. Except that Dick saw himself as being discarded, as having been used. After the birth of his son, he even claimed postpartum depression.
For a man-baby has to see himself as the victim, as the one who is always having things done to him. This was very much of a piece with Dick’s paranoia, his sense that big bullies – the I.R.S., the F.B.I, aliens, whatever – were waiting outside the door to pick on him. Behind all these bogeymen was the bad mommy. It was really all her fault. Other women, ones willing to be mothers themselves, would have to be made to pay.
Dick’s place in the SF pantheon now seems assured, especially given his wholesale adoption by Hollywood. And he remains one of the few SF writers whose work I can return to again and again, his worlds remaining as suggestive and evocative as ever. Of the man himself, however, I feel I’ve now been told more than enough.
Review first published online February 4, 2016.