Slowly over the years, her freedoms diminished, but most of all in her own mind
February 1994, from the head trauma unit
The real injury does not have a specific date, not one you can mark on a calendar, unless of course you consider it to be the day she was born, as we in her family now do. My mother knew during Arden’s childhood that she was somehow very different from the rest of us and from other children. My mother didn’t realize then how deep the trouble went—the signs of it were for many years subtle, more subtle than they later became, and we attributed them to personality and eccentricity. But the poison of her illness has become more marked over the last decade or so, most dramatically during the last couple of years, so that we have been fearful of her well-being and at a loss for how to help her. As the sister closest to her in age, and once very close to her in interests—we were the two readers of the family—I have watched her deteriorate from someone who could, though with difficulty, hold down a job and manage a life to a person living on the streets, eating out of garbage bins, talking to her reflection, calling in the middle of the night with wild stories, believing that people were following her, videotaping her, even poisoning her, as part of a conspiracy to discredit her and to kill her. About this head injury there may be no precise medical records, or at least none we are aware of. But the trouble and the trauma long predate this injury.
How has Arden seemed to us? What do we know of her? In the early years, Arden progressed from (as a toddler) clinging strongly to her mother, often screaming and going rigid when brought to another child’s house to play, to (as a young child) attempting but being unable to maintain friendships with children her own age, to (as an older child) seeking out younger and younger children to play with, to (beginning in adolescence) withdrawal, bitterness, isolation, loneliness, moodiness, suspicion. At first her suspicions centered around others doing her wrong by mistreating her. Whatever the situation, whoever the people involved, it was clear that others meant—and inevitably did—her harm. To hear her tell it, she was always the victim of some injustice, some cruelty. This was true in her younger years at school and later as an adult in the workplace as well. Then there were the delusions, also centering around harm, which I remember beginning around the age of 15. Men tended to communicate with her telepathically, seducing her in public places with their minds. She could feel them calling to her, she’d tell me, and had to fight them off. Incorporeal beings, the spirits of the dead, made contact with her and were intimate with her (she could feel them inside her, she said). A neighbor of ours was a witch and Arden felt she had to confront her and stop her, which she did by placing a very straightforward note in this woman’s mailbox.
After her junior year, Arden dropped out of high school and wandered around the country, trying theater, living on a farm, continuing to search for some way to fit in. I didn’t see her a lot then, but we corresponded from time to time and she occasionally popped in from some other part of the country without warning. In her early twenties, Arden discovered what was to eventually become not only her favorite activity, but her obsession—watching people. Whatever else she was doing, she watched people. She kept notebooks on them, on what they did and said, how they interacted with her and with others; she felt she understood them in a way that others were unable to, not being clever or gifted enough. She especially liked to sit up all night in cafes, drinking coffee and writing her observations. After some time she felt she understood not only the people and events she was observing, but through them she began to know things about people and events elsewhere, because all things were connected for Arden, and events in one sphere (a coffee shop or a laundromat) could point to events in an entirely different sphere (the political or corporate especially). Many times over the years, Arden explained to me that she had a special understanding, a special ability, for seeing what other people could not. For Arden, the rest of us moved in a dark and murky ignorance of the events shaping our lives, but she was able to see past the superficialities of daily living into the inner and deeper workings of reality. She read her life, and the lives of others around her, in an intricate web of symbols and metaphors, believing, not unlike some medieval monk, the world to be laid out as a set of symbols deliberately placed there for her to interpret. Others might go to a film or watch a television show and see only entertainment, but Arden knew such things carried messages, commentaries upon her life or what she ought to do. As the years went by, it seemed that every waking moment brought her intense revelations. The clues, when revealed, might seem subtle to others, but to Arden they were ripe with meaning. Nothing in life was without a deeper significance: the smallest details spoke volumes. And gradually she spent more and more of her time in pursuit of these clues and this understanding. It became the whole focus of her life. She was like a woman on an eternal high, but instead of drugs, it was her own brain signaling her.
In the last few years, she has found it more and more difficult to live with other people, and more and more impossible to hold down a job. She began “dumpstering” (eating out of garbage cans, and collecting and storing garbage) about ten years ago; she’s been living on the streets or in shelters off and on for the last five or six. She maintains two or three storage spaces at all times with what she collects from the dumpsters. As far as I know, she no longer works. And in the last few years, whenever she worked she seemed to hold the job for only a few months or even weeks before some problem with it developed.
Sometime in 1989, about a year or so after she came to the Bay Area from Seattle for good (something had happened there, she let slip, that meant she could never go back, but she won’t talk about it further), she stayed in a shelter in San Mateo and later moved in with a family in Belmont. At first, she just didn’t get along well with them, but she soon discovered (as she related to us) that they were mixed up in, or maybe headed, an international drug ring and white slave trade. Whenever she was out of the house, she began leaving tape recorders running in her room to collect evidence. Soon she began leaving the house specifically to replay later what was said while she was out, and she realized (again as she told us) from those conversations, and the other evidence she had collected, that she was right. Eventually she believed that she had discovered where they kept the private plane they used to ship drugs and girls out of the country, and she began to be afraid that, one night, she too would be on that plane to prevent her from telling what she knew. She was phoning frequently in the middle of the night then to talk about her findings and the danger she was in, and one time when she had phoned at about 2 am from a pay phone somewhere downtown, she broke off in the middle of her conversation about being kidnapped to whisper that she had spotted a number of men, or perhaps it was the same man, wearing a red hat that evening, that she could see another one right now, and that she knew they were following her. It was the red hat, she explained.
Not long after that, about two to two-and-a-half years ago, the revelation about the major car companies and the history of the auto came to her, and this has been the strongest and most persistent of her nightmare fantasies to date. This revelation came to her, she explained, through watching the interactions of pedestrians and automobiles, but somehow the wrong people discovered that she was onto them and that she was collecting evidence. They knew she had decided to do a documentary on her findings—she was incautious enough to threaten someone driving recklessly in a car with the expose she had planned—and now people were following her, bugging her conversations from pay phones with friends and family, and trying at first to run her over, but later to discredit her by videotaping her, planting razor blades in her bags, even poisoning her. She’d been having difficulty concentrating and could no longer write, and she realized, when she thought about it, how they did it, the night they poisoned her coffee when she went to the restroom. She distinctly remembers being dizzy after returning to her coffee and drinking it, and ever since that night she hasn’t been able to concentrate, she hasn’t been the same, there’s something wrong with her mind. It scares her. She’s hunted and now she can’t fight back. The razor blades might help, if she were ever attacked, and she does carry them in case she needs them, but that doesn’t seem to have been her idea so maybe that’s not a good idea. One night the police were chasing her and she threw them away, because perhaps the razor blades had been planted to get her arrested.
In the beginning, it was unclear who these people were who wanted her silenced, but now she knows that it is the car companies themselves (Ford and General Motors) in conjunction with the CIA. It seemed for a while that they wanted to kill her, and sometimes it still seems that way, but more often it seems they want to discredit her, to put her away and be rid of her that way. That’s another reason why she cannot see a doctor. (Sometimes she is furious with me, sometimes merely weary, for not believing her, but sometimes she says it is too dangerous for her to speak of this to a doctor.) The doctors are particularly bound up in the conspiracy, she says, because their families and those of the car companies come from the same stock, the same social strata, and the secrets are passed from father to son (in her stories, men seem to be more dangerous), perhaps in secret societies, so if she goes to a doctor, she knows the car companies will find her for sure. Of course, they do know where she is now, because she calls sometimes late at night, or at 2 or 3 am, to let us know another piece of information or sometimes just to check in, in case “something happens” to her before morning. And she knows that she is being followed and videotaped. So I guess what she means is if she goes to see a doctor, then the car companies will have her where they want her, off the streets and not observing their activities. She worries about her family too. We’re all in danger because she has talked to us, and because she loves us. Her conversations over the pay phone are regularly bugged, because they have ways of doing that with special electronic equipment, so sometimes she’ll call one of us just to see if we’re all right. If she finds us not home, she’ll call repeatedly in a panic until we arrive back at the house and one of us answers the phone. Once in the middle of the day (a rarity) she called me specifically to check that the door between our garage and the house was, at that very moment, locked and she urged me to always keep it locked, whether I was in the house or not. In this same time period, she called Carole to ask what was her life worth? To say that she had no value, that she didn’t produce anything or help anyone, that her life was messed up, and that she wanted to die. She sobbed over and over, unable to stop, that she wanted to die.
Over time, conversations with Arden have spiraled completely out of control, into a dark and dangerous reality. The conspiracies against her that, for many years, centered on coworkers (at work) or housemates (at home) have now progressed from such petty personal squabbles to situations that she fully believes are life-threatening. And though most often she vehemently denies that anything is wrong with her, from time to time over the years she has sought help, but cannot seem on her own to stay with any program. And where once, perhaps a decade ago, she was creative and articulate, even seeming sometimes to set aside the conspiracies and delusions for a time, now she is always fearful, often confused, sometimes incoherent, and the fear of being hunted never leaves her. And we believe that it never will, that the deterioration we have watched helplessly will continue, that her behavior will become more and more bizarre, that her life will spin more and more out of control, that she will inevitably become dangerous if not to others than to herself, unless and until she receives medication and professional care. We’d like to see her given a chance to rebuild something of a life for herself, something more than living on the streets, a victim of the delusions of her own mind. Those delusions are a prison like no other, and she is never, ever free of them. Never, ever will be, it seems.
Arden was in a coma for about three weeks after stepping out in front of a car. She then remained in the head trauma unit for several months, after which she was released into a board and care. But not yet conserved. There were to be many more years of her living homeless and wandering the streets before we could get official supervision and court-ordered medication. By then, her capabilities were even more diminished, her life that much more bleak. In October of 2008, she stepped out in front of a train. That was her last battle.