Sources I studied in Spring 2017 when I wrote this essay concur with additional sources that I examined in preparation to post this essay in March 2019, on an intriguing fact about Dr. Price: his homelessness and suicide in a squatter’s flat in London began with his decision to understand why people volunteer at places like Tucson’s Primavera Foundation.
Unseeables Terrified to be Seen
A Norwegian novel from 1890 does a better job for me than anything else I’ve seen of casting a light onto the shrouded souls of the faceless daughters and sons who roam sleepless through cities and villages of every latitude. Hunger, a novel by Norwegian author and winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature Knut Hamsun, tells the story of an unseeable. An unnamed homeless man who travels the streets of the Swedish capital in a quest for food. Told in the first person and based on Hamsun’s own life, the novel details the daily, sometimes hourly, psychic injuries suffered by a struggling writer who experiences hunger so great that he considers eating the very pencil that he hopes will feed him. Hamsun points out in microscopic detail that as our bodies lose nourishment, a strange, distorted reality takes its place. Even though it’s common to encounter unseeables from the streets who six months ago sounded fine but now seem paranoid and not entirely connected to reality, Hamsun’s brutally honest examination of this decline from the inside of the starving person was the first time I’d learned anything about the process.
The internal destruction of Hamsun’s narrator suggests a particular kind of tumultuous future for another kind of unseeable I get to meet from time to time. And that unsettles me. That is the soul who has always been paid to think. To create. The one who then finds herself on the streets because the mind that has always been her measure of self-worth decided it was tired of that game. People like Alfred Postell, a Harvard Law classmate of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who lost his law firm job after becoming mentally ill and has been seen roaming the streets of the nation’s capital; actress Margot Kidder, most known for playing Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve’s Superman, who ended up sleeping in cardboard boxes and people’s yards in the L.A. area after her own problems with mental illness; and George Price, a polymathic scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, made strides in cancer and computer research, and became known for seminal work in evolutionary biology. A man who became active helping the homeless in North London until he killed himself in a London squat by cutting his carotid artery out of his throat with nail scissors.
Unseeables just like these come here looking for housing like everyone else. Psychologists, lawyers, artists, doctors, business owners, scholars. Sometimes they look and smell the same unfortunate way as too many others I bring up those stairs. But more often than not they start the day at one of the downtown faith communities that offer breakfast and showers. And when it comes to clothing, like everyone else on the streets, they scrounge through the discount and give away deals at local thrift stores. Or they look for something on the donation rack downstairs. Something that won’t remind them of the strange, unfamiliar world they now unwillingly live in. And often there’s just not much to choose from.
The first hint I might have had that a person had a cerebral career is often in her speech. Complex sentence structure. Complex words. A slip of the tongue about foreign travel. But when I first meet them, they don’t say much. For almost every one of these formerly-paid thinkers comes here concealed in a coat of tightly-woven shame. And if one of them isn’t wearing one, it’s over an arm or easy to retrieve from the top of a frail but pretty back pack that someone from the caring caste gave her.
Shame for the world-class genius whom schizophrenia banished him to the streets three presidents ago. He’s the one who for the first time identified a mathematical construct I can neither identify correctly or understand but which opened the door to important discoveries in space science. He’s the one whose mastery of equations was first noticed when he was four but for whom all equations now lay on the floor as a balled-up spider web.
Shame for the anesthesiologist who remains on federal supervised release after a term in the Bureau of Prisons. The U.S. Attorney’s office had sent out a press release that told the world that the accomplished physician agreed to surrender his medical license as part of a plea deal in a Medicare fraud case. I’m sure it was just a careless oversight, but the prosecutor’s press release somehow failed to remind the public that seven years earlier the physician nearly bled to death on the sidewalk in front of his midtown apartment building. A gang had picked him at random to participate in the initiation of three new members. No guns. Just knives.
Following several dozen surgeries and many months in the hospital and in rehab, the doctor gradually returned to a full schedule at the hospital. But along the way the opioids that were prescribed to lessen his pain became the source of pain he would know the rest of his life. He became an addict. And even though he often appeared euphoric when he went to surgery, he was often impaired. But his efforts to cover up his addiction by defrauding Medicare is what prompted a months-long investigation.
Of all the cases the FBI and DEA and Secret Service, etc. brought to the U.S. Attorney, the federal prosecutor asked the grand jury to indict the doctor. Thanks again to a press release, the doctor’s televised arrest and word of his appearance in front of the U.S. magistrate judge were already big news. And that gave two benefits to the newly confirmed U.S. Attorney, a corporate tax lawyer whose only experience with criminal law was securing a sweetheart deal in a DUI case for the grandson of a U.S. senator. Prosecuting the physician for Medicare fraud sent an ominous message to others. And it would sound good to voters in future political fights for higher office to claim that she was a “law and order” candidate who sent those with prestige and money to prison just the same as she did anyone else.
The mathematician, the former anesthesiologist, and others who whose identities and brands paid them to think all tell me the same thing. Each says it a little differently from the others. But they say just what a Masters-level unseeable told me last week after telling me about her stellar career: “Not one thing that I accomplished counts anymore.”
In a way, she’s right. Each of these worked hard, and many played by the rules. Most accomplished much. After years of expensive education, personal and family sacrifice, and years spent mining deep for primary sources in a dozen countries, that mother constructs and defends the most significant research project of her life, a project that she hopes, and which may, transform an entire field of study and lay out the new map by which human lives might now move forward. Or what about that man waiting downstairs to meet with me? After too many midnight rendezvous as a law clerk for a firm on the 60th floor of a steel and glass stockade and after missing far too many of his daughter’s soccer games, that one is entrusted with the power to create or destroy entire companies, the power to save or end a human life in a court of law. For the person who is paid to think or perhaps create, both sense of personal identity and personal brand are perhaps forever fused.
Now among the unseeables, the prospect of being seen by a volunteer they know from church or the country club terrifies several of them so much that they like to see me by appointment. They remind me of Hamsun’s narrator, who secured a night’s sleep inside a jail cell by lying that was a famous journalist who lost his keys. And I’m sure that, like Hamsun’s starving writer, these people so fear admitting their poverty that they skip free food prepared for the homeless.
But also like Hamsun’s narrator, these clandestine veterans of seminars and international conferences and visiting teaching assignments sometimes get their covers blown. And when that happens, they try to present outer shells of respectability. But that’s often a fool’s errand. For those who are paid to think, personal and professional destruction is seldom a private matter. And it doesn’t matter if they’re at fault or not. Their value is in their minds, and these can no longer be trusted. By them or anyone else.
The career casualties I meet can’t be trusted even by that fast-food restaurant on the corner. They come here looking for a warm, dry place to stay because they have nowhere else to turn. Whether their paths to destruction traveled through mental illness or substance abuse, these people too often unwittingly burn their own villages to the ground and set fire to every bridge along the way. So that mother of three with the M.D. and a stellar 20-year career often can’t supply the professional or personal references asked for by that job application on the back of the bright, whimsical tray liner under her burger and fries.
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George Price has prompted quite a few to write about the scientist, the Price Theorem, etc. Readers might find this article in New Republic a good starting point to learn more:
The Scientist Who Gave Himself Away | The New Republic