Simon Winchester by Patrick McGrath

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
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Simon Winchester is the author of numerous books, most notably the recent New York Timesbest-seller The Professor and the Madman. It is the true story of a wealthy 19th century American doctor named William Minor, who served as a battlefield surgeon during the Civil War and then went floridly mad. He became obsessed with prostitutes and formed the unshakable conviction that he was being persecuted by Irishmen. He fetched up in a seedy bit of London called the Lambeth Marsh, where one night he shot to death an innocent man quietly going to work in a nearby brewery. Dr. Minor was so obviously insane that he was promptly locked up in Broadmoor lunatic asylum.

This is where I come in. In 1955, some 35 years after the death of Dr. Minor, my father became medical superintendent of Broadmoor. I grew up on the grounds of the great asylum and came to know it very well indeed. So I was fascinated to learn that mad Dr. Minor, during the long years he was incarcerated there, became one of the most brilliant and prolific of the many scholars who contributed to that vast monument of Victorian lexicography, the Oxford English Dictionary. The story of his work on the dictionary, and of his relationship with its legendary editor, James Murray, is reconstructed In all its glorious strangeness in The Professor and the Madman. I talked to Simon Winchester about it, and about many and various other things, over a long merry lunch in New York recently.

Patrick McGrath How did you come upon the story of The Professor and the Madman?

Simon Winchester My last book was about the Yangtze River. Typical travel book, nicely reviewed, goes nowhere. And I’d signed up with Holt, who are my publishers here, to do a book on tramp shipping. I was going to buy a tramp steamer, which you can get for about £85,000 and sail it around the world with a friend of mine—a lovely romantic thing. But once again I could see its fate: nicely reviewed, but ultimately on the remainder piles. And I was in my house in the country, reading a book by an English chap, Jonathon Green, called Chasing the Sun, which is a history of lexicography. It didn’t get very good reviews over here. It did all right in Britain. But in it there was a footnote reference to Dr. W.C. Minor, the lunatic American murderer who contributed so brilliantly to the Oxford English Dictionary. I knew nothing of the story. But I had a friend who was a lexicographer in Oxford, and I rang her up from the bathtub and said, Elizabeth, do you know the story of W. C. Minor? And she said, Yes. In fact, you’ve rung the right person; I wrote a paper about him 15 years ago. I’ll fax you a copy now if you like. I said, It strikes me as a majorly good story. Is it true? And she said, Oh yeah, it’s true. No one’s really written extensively about it because the files have been locked away in Broadmoor.

PM So off you went to Broadmoor.

SW Yes. But the odd thing about it was that I first went to my editor at Henry Holt and said, Look, I’ve come across this story, which I really think is a rip-roaring yarn; it could keep a roomful of people in a state of rapt attention. And she said, It’s just a magazine article. And I said, Come on. Let me do it for you. I’m not going to ask for much money. I’ll do the tramp steamer book afterwards, and this may delay it by a month, if that. And she said, No.

PM And that was the end of you and Holt.

SW I gave them back their money and did the book anyway.

PM What happened at Broadmoor?

SW The rule in Broadmoor is, you’re not allowed to talk to patients unless they talk to you first. That was fine, I observed that rule. So I went to see the two cells W.C. Minor occupied, one now occupied by what looked like a violent and an unpleasant man. The other, where Minor had his library, looked almost military—you could drop a coin on the bed and it would bounce, that kind of thing. Well, one day its occupant met me in the corridor. He said, Oh, I’ve heard about you, you’re coming to my cell an awful lot. Why? I said, I’m researching the life of a man who lived in your cell about 120 years ago. He said, Oh, what did he do? He was a foreigner, this guy. And had a nice ready smile, although the attendant told me the readier the smile, probably the more appalling the crime. I said, he was a murderer; he shot someone. Oh really, said this foreigner, I’m in here because I shot someone. I murdered an ambassador in the ‘80s. I’m a relation of [a rather well-known terrorist leader], and the shooting precipitated [a historical event in the Middle East] in the spring of ’82. And then he was sort of hustled away.

PM Did you check it out?

SW I checked it out and it was true. An ambassador was coming out of a London hotel at about that same time and was shot and injured by a member of one of the better known insurgent organizations. And that did indeed lead to very dramatic developments in the region. And my question is, What is this man doing in Broadmoor? Is he being squirreled away by the Foreign Office, put somewhere that he can’t be found? He’s probably as sane as the day is long. Broadmoor and the Foreign Office both wrote to me and told me that under no circumstance could I use this passage in my book. I had signed this piece of paper saying I wouldn’t divulge any information about contemporary patients, and I went along with it. But I think that perhaps politically sensitive criminals, who have committed major acts of terrorism with worldwide implications, may be hidden anonymously at places like Ashworth, Rampton, and Broadmoor, just to keep them out of circulation. Does it ring at all true to you?

PM My father never mentioned such things. He retired in ‘81 and I certainly can’t imagine it happening under his regime. I don’t think I’m being naive here.

SW Maybe I’m being unduly dramatic. Maybe the chap is mad.

PM An official explanation might be that this man became psychotic in jail. A lot of Broadmoor’s patients do come from the regular prison system. Is it something you would want to pursue?

SW I don’t think I can because I’ve signed this agreement. So no, I occasionally remind myself of it and mention it to people like yourself just to see if it rings true. Actually I have a personal interest in this kind of thing. Years ago I spent three months at a mental hospital getting electric shock therapy. I had six sessions, with all the ear-popping, bruising, amnesia, et cetera. Having spent some time among mentally ill people—more ill than I ever was—I became more sympathetic than most, so I was fascinated to get inside Broadmoor.

PM You’re not the first person who has said to me that ECT works.

SW Really?

PM I knew a man in a mental hospital in Canada who was quite psychotic. He described himself as being unable to escape from a certain rigid configuration in his thinking. But electric shock scrambled his brain so effectively that he was freed up; he wasn’t trapped in his own thoughts anymore.

SW And he’s now a functioning member of society?

PM I don’t know. This was another top-security place. I worked there years ago.

SW Was it Penetanguishene?

PM Yes! How did you know?

SW I was there very recently.

PM Really? Why?

SW Because I think it’s a beautiful name, I love it. I go up to Canada and stay on Georgian Bay a lot. So I asked some friends who knew about the place if I could go there. I didn’t know you worked there.

PM I did when I first left England in 1971. My dad got me a job in the Oakridge division. It was an extraordinary place in the early ’70s. They were using LSD, Zen meditation, all sorts of things to treat the criminally insane. There was a deliberate breakdown of patient/staff distinctions. There was a place called the Capsule, a huge room in which six or eight patients and four or five staff would go naked and essentially spend days or even weeks there. Their food would come through a hatch in the wall. The idea was that men with severe personality disorders—psychopaths, schizophrenics—were ill because feelings of pain from earliest childhood had been so deeply buried. But if you took away everything that could serve as a distraction, if you got down to the naked man himself, then eventually all that pain would come pouring out. After which, the personality that had been constructed as a so of defensive shell—well, it would be shattered and a reconstruction of the self could begin to take place.

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Simon Winchester. Photo by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy HarperCollins.

SW Have you set any of your writing there?

PM No, I never have. I did go back last November, just to see whether there was a story there, a then-and-now story that I could write for Ian Jack at Granta. I discovered, as I’m sure you discovered, that it’s now a very conventional mental hospital, none of those wild and radical therapies are being tried anymore.

SW Do you know Oliver Sacks?

PM I met him once. I was at a dinner and there he was. He was about to go to Alberta to do his investigation of Tourette’s syndrome. He just sat at this dinner table while we all jabbered away.

SW He said nothing?

PM He said nothing, and all the time I had the feeling that he had the best stories in the world.

SW Bernard Levin once—we were in Hong Kong, we were talking about Awakenings—he said, When you’re growing up, you read a book a week that changes your life; and when you are in your twenties, you read a book a month that changes your life; and when you are as old as I am, 60 or whatever, it’s a book every decade: and he said Awakenings was the one. I would like to see what Sacks would have made of that thing I had.

PM Oh?

SW Yeah. I’m still puzzled about what it was. It was weird. I will never, ever forget the first day it happened. I was at Oxford, I was a geologist, and I had completed the longest essay I had ever done and gone to bed. I was reading Of Human Bondage, and I got to page 32—these little details are important to me because I’ll never forget them—and I went to sleep at maybe three o’clock in the morning and woke up in such strange state of mind. The whole world had changed. I didn’t know where I was. I got up and I remember dressing, and then I bumped into people on the streets; and when they talked to me, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I bought a newspaper—I found it difficult to do the money transaction—and nothing in it made sense, every story was really weird and I picked up every spelling mistake. I drove a car that day and crashed it. Of course all this made me very unhappy because I thought I was going mad. Anyway, I then went to sleep and didn’t wake up for 48 hours, and then I sat in a chair, just staring out the window—I was afraid to go out. I looked at my watch and it was eight o’clock in the morning and then I looked at it again and it was six o’clock at night. Time went past so rapidly. These periods always lasted exactly nine days, and after day seven, I would feel the symptoms starting to lift. I’d read the newspaper and I wouldn’t be astonished and horrified by the stories anymore. I’d put the misprints in their proper context. And then after day nine, I was fine. Three or four times a year, throughout the late 1960s, when I was leaving university, going off to work as a geologist in Africa—beginning my life, in other words—this thing would suddenly grab me by the throat and for nine days I’d be completely useless. The doctors couldn’t understand what I was talking about when I explained it. They gave me these drugs which did no good at all, because they were classical antidepressants. I wasn’t depressed. I was upset about what was happening to me, so I was technically depressed, miserable because I was being gripped by this weird thing. And then one day I was in Carlisle and the doctor said, I think what you need is ECT. So he committed me to Garlands and I had six sessions. I’ve been perfectly well ever since, but it still is a mystery. It made me sympathetic to mental illness. It made me realize that the brain is just as vulnerable as any other part of the body.

PM And nobody could offer you any explanation?

SW No. But when I was researching this book, I looked up things like dissociative fugue—it clearly was a fugue state—I had never heard the word used in this sense, but it was a slightly aberrant temporary mental state, so it’s a fugue. Chemical in origin, I assume.

PM You weren’t overworking? Doing drugs?

SW I was overworking, I was just entering life. But I wasn’t doing drugs, I was doing what I loved. I was going on expeditions. I was on a big expedition in east Greenland when one of these episodes happened. I was on the ice cap. There were six of us hauling sleds up the Greenland icecap—terribly, terribly difficult terrain, huge crevices and things. And for nine days I was useless. People would say, What’s wrong with you? And I would just mumble and go to sleep in my sleeping bag.

PM You have good recall of these periods?

SW Oh, I could, even now, remember every minute. In my rational periods, everything was fine and I did well at the university, I got married, we had a baby, I got a job, first as a geologist, then ultimately as a journalist, we came back from Africa, and eventually settled in Newcastle—and then it started happening again.

PM It must have been terrifying.

SW It was. I travel all over the world and sometimes when I’m in some godforsaken hotel room in the middle of nowhere, I wake up and for a few seconds I first of all think, where am I? And then I think, Am I all right? Thank God it hasn’t come back! And it never has, but there’s always in the back of my mind when I’m in a strange place, the fear that it will come back.

PM So the world becomes random and unpredictable?

SW Totally unpredictable.

PM And therefore threatening. Were you violent, ever?

SW Oh no, quite the reverse. I was terrified by the outside world, which in every way was threatening to me, but no, I never responded with violence.

PM I sometimes wonder when the mad act violently, whether it isn’t in response to a perceived threat, in that the world has become so chaotic and so menacing that there’s nothing to be done but strike back at it.

SW That sounds eminently reasonable, yes.

PM Now Simon, I’ve learned a great deal about the American Civil War from your book.

SW So did I.

PM I hadn’t heard of the Battle of the Wilderness, where all those men died in the brush fires that swept the battlefield. It’s a good point you make when you say that armaments and weaponry had become increasingly sophisticated by that time, but battlefield medicine had failed to keep up. So as a sensitive young man, William Minor is seeing people’s bodies literally being blown apart. Do you think that this triggered his insanity?

SW You know, before that battle there is no evidence in his reports of any strange behavior, and yet he was behaving oddly within a month of it—arguments and fights in the mess, brothel visiting, drunkenness, dueling.

PM My father became a psychiatrist as a result of his experiences in World War II. He saw very clearly that men’s minds were damaged as extensively as their bodies by the experience of war, if not more so.

SW You’ve never been in a war?

PM I’ve never been in a war at all.

SW Have you seen Saving Private Ryan?

PM Not yet.

SW Well, in a way, to see that, I think you understand a little of what it must have been like. It would drive me completely, completely mad.

PM I had an uncle who killed himself because apparently he couldn’t live with the memories of what he had done in the war, knock out an Italian machine gun nest, kill a few men.

SW I think my father was traumatized by his war experience.

PM Was he?

SW He was on the D-day landings and after struggling up the beaches, he was captured and taken off to a prison camp in Brunswick, and spent the rest of the war there. He didn’t try to escape. I think he had been badly beaten and he was scared. He was released in March, 1945 by big-bellied, gum-chewing, beer-swilling, happy-go-lucky Americans, who said, Hey Limey, get out. And as a result of that, I think, he’s loathed America ever since. He loathes the fact that I live here. He’s got this immense chip on his shoulder that these guys saw him in an emasculated condition.

PM No gratitude to the savior, only embarrassment and humiliation.

SW Feeling he ought to feel grateful, but he isn’t. It was doubly weird because he had been in the African desert. He had come home in December 1943 for a 72 hour leave. My mother became pregnant, as a result, with me. So he then went to Normandy, was captured, and when he came back to England, having been released by these Americans, the house was a different house from the one he had left because it had been invaded by a squalling infant. They never had any more children, I think he found his domestic tranquillity so brutally changed when he came home that he resolved never to change it again. I was sent away to boarding school when I was four and a half, and really never lived at home again. I suppose it has allowed me to wander around the world ever since in a very non-domestic way. But to take it a step further, I have three sons who live in London, and I’ve been close to them, but not in the classically paternal way. They look on me as an older brother, we’re chums. And I think the reason is that there was such scorn for family life in my little family, and that can be traced back to D-day. I’m fascinated by these evanescent trails that people draw through genealogy-what makes people the way they are.

PM And a man who comes back from war needs mothering.

SW Yes, and the mothering was being given to someone else: me. He was always sort of—

PM —resentful?

SW I wouldn’t say resentful—he was always terribly proud of my efforts, that’s another thing. He was a brilliant man, an engineer, he made guidance systems for torpedoes and he worked with tiny little electric motors, very intricate engineering, beautiful. And here am I, doing the exact opposite from him. I’m sort of the dilettante with the grasshopper mind, jumping from one thing to another, having a nice life, and an apparently easy life. I know that on the one hand he’s proud, but on the other, he’s—I wouldn’t say embittered—but he has a strange reaction to it. And yet, as he gets older he’s now 77—he’s been getting more and more benign. And at long last he’s ringing me up in New York and asking me to describe my problems and tell him what New York is like. He’s losing this edge of angst that I brought into his life.

PM My relationship with my father changed enormously the first time there was a book.

SW Yes, for the better?

PM For the better. There had been great skepticism about this plan of mine to be a writer. But when a book was actually produced, then the paternal pride swelled up and, by God, the boy was right all along! And as my name is his name, by proxy he took great pleasure in it all. Let’s go back to your lunatic lexicographer. What conclusions did you draw about why Minor’s work with words, with language, was so particularly therapeutic?

SW The work lends itself to obsessive behavior. You can just drown in it, just get utterly lost. I think his particular illness was diverted by his fascination with what he was doing. In the ward notes, there were no symptoms of anything going wrong when he was working on the dictionary. When he put his book away and closed his drawer, then things started up again.

PM Did he ever work on words that were in any way relevant to his own pathology?

SW No, he deliberately didn’t. And I’m surmising that it was deliberate. No, he tended toward words which interested him particularly, words with an East Indian origin, like caravan and bungalow.

PM Compiling a dictionary by the Victorian method, every word neatly categorized as a distinctly separate thing—how satisfying this must have been for Minor, establishing these neat boxes where the meanings are contained. Whereas at nighttime, the world became haunted he heard demon intruders in the ceiling and the floor. It’s the interstices between things, that’s where the evil lurks. Whereas in the dictionary, there are no interstices, every line is organized, every meaning is contained one room or the next.

SW Did you like the book, generally?

PM Your book?

SW Yes.

PM Hugely.

SW Well, you may have not liked it. You may say, Oh and by the way, I thought the book really sucked.

PM I’m sorry I should’ve said…(laughter) I enjoyed it hugely.

SW And it rang true, the description of Broadmoor?

PM Oh very much indeed. Yes, the idea of the gentleman lunatic was something that my father did talk about—he had old Etonians and bank managers and senior diplomats in there.

SW I loved the way Minor wasn’t allowed to send his picture to the royal family. There was never to be anything sent to the royal family because so many patients believed themselves to be the royal family. There was a wonderful moment, the day I discovered that Minor cut off his penis. I went up to Oxford that day, and I was telling everyone, You’re not going to believe what I discovered today. And then I was going down on the train that evening, back to London, with two lexicographers, one of them being Elizabeth Knowles, who I’d rung from the bathtub at the beginning of the story, and the other being Jenny McMorris, both spinster ladies of a certain age, So we’re sitting in the train, you know, rocketing through Reading, and I’m telling the story of the fifth of September, 1902, when Minor comes to the gate at the end of the ward saying, Quick, I need a doctor. Why, what’s the problem? I’ve cut off my penis. Everyone else in the railway carriage was listening, and at that moment, there was a common Ugh, amazed gasps, except for these two women. And then with one voice they said, Autopeotomy. And Elizabeth said, Well, actually the word doesn’t exist, peotomy does. But if you put it in a book—as I duly did—in a way that it can be used contextually, we’ll see that it gets into the third edition of the OED. And now my 15 minutes of fame is guaranteed.

PM So it’s going in?

SW Yeah, I’ll be in the OED.

PM Just like William Minor.

SW Right.

PM Autopeotomy.

SW Autopeotomy.

PM I thought the book was structured very nicely—to start with the murder and then to move between the two men. Murray, the editor of the OED, and along. Minor, its most prolific contributor, and along the way give us details of the Civil War, and save the autopeotomy until the end.

SW I’m on this publicity tour at the I moment and I’m having to give a lot of talks about the book. The way I give the talk is, I start with the idea that there were no dictionaries, which amazes people. It amazed me. And then I talk Murray’s speech in 1857, which instigated the creation of the OED Then I read out loud that job application he sent to the British museum, where he lists all the languages he can speak—Dutch, German, Moeso-Gothic, Celtic, Sanskrit and so on.

PM But he doesn’t get the job.

SW He doesn’t get the job. I think they don’t believe him. And then I get up to the point where he takes command of the dictionary, and prints an appeal for volunters. And I say that’s the end of story one. Now move back to almost the same time as he’s being brought into the world, about 5,000 miles to the east in Sri Lanka, where another child is born, William Minor. Then I go through Minor’s life up to the moment where Eliza Merritt brings him a package of books in Broadmoor, with Murray’s appeal for volunteers in it. William Minor opens it, finds the slip of paper, and at that moment the audience realizes why there are two stories!

PM And then of course you’ve got the delightful coincidence of how physically similar the two men are.

SW It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? But you know the trouble is—I’m going to ask you. this as a final thing—you’re a highly-regarded fiction writer and I’m a journalist who’s written some reasonably well-reviewed travel books. Your next book, perhaps, won’t be such a high risk for you as my next book is going to be for me. Because if I don’t succeed big-time again, then this next book is going to be a far worse failure than all of the books I’ve done before. So I’m approaching the new book that I’m doing—which is about cannibalism in the Arctic in the 1880s—hoping that it’s as good a story as The Professor and the Madman, because I’m going to be judged by a much harsher standard than previously. Anyway, I’m not asking your advice, I’m just saying—

PM But I feel exactly the same.

SW So you are intimidated?

PM Very much so (laughter)—deeply so. It’s gone through phases. First, I couldn’t get out from under the shadow of Asylum. But then, writing the new book, it began to take off and I became intrigued with where I was going with it, and then I couldn’t care less about Asylum. But every time since then that I’ve had doubts about it, or gotten stuck, I’ve again felt that this new one is not going to measure up. But then I think, well, I’ll probably get hammered anyway because they don’t let you get away with two in a row. So you just have to—

SW —develop a thick skin. Most of the time I can sustain it, but there’s an occasional moment where—

PM Oh God yes! However, cannibals in the Arctic circle…

SW That’s only one aspect of the story. It was basically the destruction of man’s reputation by a New York Times story that brought to light the cannibalism during an expedition he led where 19 people died. He battled, for the next 50 years of his life, to restore his ruined reputation. He did all of these wonderful things: founded National Geographic magazine, founded the National Weather Service, put down the last Indian rebellion in America, masterminded the relief operations of the San Francisco earthquake, but it wasn’t until 1935, when he was 93, that Congress decided he wasn’t the chap you couldn’t invite to dinner because he might eat the guests. They gave him a Congressional Medal of Honor and he died two months later. So it’s another story about battling against the odds. But I have to stand back from it and say, This is a simple, pure, good story. You can tell this one around the campfire at night and they’ll be enthralled.

PM Have you nearly finished it?

SW Oh, I haven’t really begun it yet.

PM What about the tramp steamer?

SW My dream is to do it. It’s never going to make any money. I should go away and write the book and the ship should sink and it would be the end of my life and that would be fine with me. I want to do it because I love the sea.

Get Well Soon by Constance Christopher
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Originally published in

BOMB 66, Winter 1999

Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

Read the issue
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