by BJW Nashe
Home burglaries are always upsetting. Having one’s home broken into and one’s belongings stolen is a personal violation. It’s only natural to be angry and sad in this situation. Reasonable people, however, soon accept the fact that they have been the victims of an all-too common and fairly banal crime. They might decide to put better locks on the doors and windows, or invest in a home security system. Maybe they will even move to another neighborhood. In any case, they will get on with their lives. The burglary is not a life-shattering event.
For Philip K. Dick, it was considerably more complicated. When the acclaimed author of numerous mind-bending works of science fiction had his home robbed in late 1971, the event was seen as more than a simple robbery. It was a personal vindication, a political prophecy, a cultural watershed moment. For years Dick speculated and theorized about the break-in — which the local police, incidentally, were not very interested in. This only made Dick’s speculations grow wilder and more elaborate. Surely police indifference must indicate the possibility of a sinister, far-reaching conspiracy. At times, Dick even entertained the notion that he himself had committed the break-in, as an act of self-sabotage.
A Beautiful Mind
Nothing was ever simple or straightforward in the life and work of Philip K. Dick. Indeterminacy was his modus operandi. His legion of fans — known affectionately as “Dickheads” — find his mind-games richly rewarding. In everyday life, such games can grow tiresome. But Dick raised them to the level of an art form. And we can see how the same qualities and themes that made his best novels so fascinating were closely interwoven into Dick’s own personal life. Shifting “realities,” mental illness, drug experiences, political conspiracies, artificial intelligence, divine revelation — Dick didn’t need to concoct this material out of the blue. It was part of his daily existence. He lived and breathed the crazy stuff he put into his fiction. And he tended to analyze events in his life in the same way that he told stories in his books. He was the master of the pseudo-event, or the “what if…” scenario. What if the Roman Empire never declined, and the modern world is an illusion? What if the Nazis actually won World War Two? What if the government has brainwashed us to conduct surveillance on ourselves? What if God is an evil, insane deity? What if Nixon is actually a communist? What if I have a split personality, which leads me to break into my house to commit a “robbery?”
For certain creative or deranged individuals, there are no limits to this sort of thinking. With Dick, it led to plenty of brilliant story-lines. But it was no recipe for a happy, stable home life. Even when Phil was relatively calm and productive, he was still prone to dramatic mood swings and paranoia. At his worst, he was a raving lunatic who would phone up friends in the middle of night to discuss suicide plans. The amphetamines he abused for years to help him churn out novel after novel only exacerbated his tenuous mental condition.
Dick’s personality was many-layered. He was a brilliant conversationalist, a charming and witty raconteur, an intellectual powerhouse who knew all about gnostic philosophy and classical music. He could also be very kind and generous to those he cared about. Yet his relationships with wives, lovers, friends, and colleagues were usually fraught with desperate psychopathology. To enter into his orbit was to risk getting lost in a hall of mirrors. Phil Dick-land was a nice place to visit, for many people. But staying too long might drive one mad. One of his tricks, in fact, was to try and convince others that they were going insane, not him. He might be up for days on end, tormenting his wife with his fears that the CIA and KGB were spying on him. Then he would insist on driving her to the hospital, where he would explain very calmly to the doctors that she was having a nervous breakdown.
The Scene of the Crime
Philip K. Dick’s lasting fame is now guaranteed due to renewed interest in his work and because several successful films — Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report — have been based on his work. During his own lifetime, however, Dick was never a hugely successful author.
In 1971, Dick was 41 years old. After publishing science fiction novels and stories for twenty years, he had managed to achieve some level of recognition and notoriety, with a loyal following among sci-fi readers and counter-culture types. His book The Man in the High Castle won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1963. John Lennon had expressed interest in making a film based on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Harlan Ellison had included Dick in his ground-breakingDangerous Visions anthology in 1967. European theorists and critics were calling Dick a genius — a postmodern American Borges. Yet financial success continued to elude him, and now, for the first time in his adult life, Dick was not working on any new books.
Dick’s personal life was a shambles. His fourth marriage was ending. He was living in a house at 707 Hacienda Way in San Rafael, California filled with drifters, drug casualties, and assorted hangers-on in various stages of mental duress. Low-level drug dealing was a constant at the house. Phil would sell pills to anyone who happened to drop by. He had a revolving cast of characters as housemates. There was Rick, a speed-freak who kept loaded rifles under his bed and was sure the FBI was after him. Phil kicked Rick out of the house when he sensed Rick was plotting to kill him. Then Phil hired a couple of “Black Panther types” to guard the house from attack. There was Donna, a free-spirited young woman who blew into town on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle and ended up living at Phil’s house. Dick was infatuated with her, but also accused her of being a police informer. One lost soul staying with Phil imagined that aphids were crawling all over his skin, so he doused himself with Raid bug spray. He was rushed to the hospital. A few months later, he killed himself. The bizarre, paranoid lifestyle of the house would be brilliantly captured in Dick’s later novel, A Scanner Darkly.
So Dick’s living situation was chaotic, to say the least. His home might be seen as a microcosm of the post-Sixties crash-and-burn. Everyone was disillusioned and taking mind-altering drugs. Most everyone seemed to be going crazy. Dick’s twenty years of amphetamine use had taken its toll. In 1971, he was taken to psychiatric wards on two separate occasions because of suicide threats. He told doctors he was taking 1000 methedrine tabs per week, which is perhaps an exaggeration (Dick loved hyperbole). Yet there was no doubt he was a serious addict, heading for an inevitable breakdown, and possibly an early death.
In November of 1971, Dick began having premonitions that something momentous was about to happen. Several mishaps with his car as well a series of late night threatening phone calls from anonymous strangers were seen as ominous signs. Phil bought a pistol and began prowling around the house at night, peering out of the blinds on the windows. He was certain that he was under surveillance, and facing some sort of imminent attack from hostile forces. He called the police to demand protection, but they ignored him. They knew all about the whacked-out writer on Hacienda Way. He frequently rang them up to share his outlandish “concerns.”
On November 17, Dick returned home from shopping to find his windows smashed in, the house torn apart, his stereo system gone, and the steel-plated fireproof cabinet for his papers and manuscripts blown apart as if by explosives. Phil may have been shocked. But above all, he felt vindicated. In a state of near euphoria, he immediately called the police. “You see, I’m not so paranoid after all.” Two detectives grudgingly paid a visit to the house. One of them asked Phil, “Why did you do all this?” The next day, when Phil went down to the police station with a list of stolen items, he was brushed off, and told he would be better off leaving town. No one wanted to investigate the break-in at the loony bin on Hacienda Way.
Phil Dick, however, was very interested in investigating the break-in. In fact he was obsessed with it. He may have lost personal items during the burglary, but he had also received a tremendous gift. For one thing, his paranoia was confirmed. All of his fears and suspicions were now justified. Even more important, he now had new material to serve as grist for the great Phil Dickian mill. He would spend the next three years feverishly spinning his wheels around and around the mysterious break-in. The crime was tailor made for his unique imagination.
Shooting for the Baroque
Dick rejected most simple explanations of the break-in. Surely this was no “normal” crime based on random greed. It had to be related to the dark forces that Dick was so attuned to, which he saw at work wherever he cast his gaze, but which most people were somehow blind to. Just read the news, take a look around at what was happening. There was no such thing as a simple crime, in this context. As Dick himself wrote in his novel Valis: “The mentally disturbed do not employ the Principle of Scientific Parsimony: the most simple theory to explain a given set of facts. They shoot for the baroque.”
When pop culture journalist Paul Williams showed up to interview Dick in 1974 for aRolling Stone article, they spent considerable time discussing Phil’s various theories on the break-in. These speculations were so weird and yet so well-suited to thezeitgeist of the Watergate era, that when the article was published in 1975, the Phil Dick home burglary became a cause celebre among dope-smoking hipsters all across the nation. That was part of Phil’s genius. He was a lightening rod. He had a knack for tapping right into the deeper currents running though society.
In keeping with his baroque imagination, Dick entertained the following theories of the break-in:
- Religious fanatics: Phil’s association with leftist Bishop James Pike had led a group of zealots to ransack Phil’s files for damaging information on Pike. This is not as far-fetched as it might initially appear, given Bishop Pike’s controversial stance at the time on a number of issues. And Dick was fairly close with Pike, on a personal level.
- Black militants: African Americans in Phil’s neighborhood — who may have had Black Panther sympathies — had thrashed his home in order to frighten him away. Most consider this to be a fairly ludicrous, since it is highly unlikely that any Black Panthers had strong feelings about Phil Dick at the time.
- Right-Wing Militants: Phil was opposed to the Vietnam War, so he thought he was a target for reactionaries. One hanger-on at the house, “Peter,” was suspected of belonging to a group such as the Minutemen. Peter tried to persuade Phil to insert “secret coded information” about biological warfare — in particular, a virulent strain of syphilis Peter claimed was being used against the U.S. Peter supposedly threatened to kill Dick if he refused to cooperate. This is the kind of scenario that would easily find its way into Phil’s fiction.
- Local police or narcs: Phil suspected that cops were interested in his house because of drug dealing that went on there. Cops may have broken in as part of a raid, or simply to intimidate him. Or narcs may have broken in to gather information on the house’s residents. This may be remotely possible. Yet local police could have busted Phil any time they liked. Why conduct a break-in?
- Federal agents: The FBI or CIA may have been responsible for the break-in as part of their wide-ranging surveillance and counter-insurgency activities. This was an ongoing concern of Phil’s, which seemed less far-fetched after Watergate, when the details of COINTELPRO were publicized. Here Dick’s paranoia turned out to be justified. In fact, reality was even worse than what he was thinking.
- Drug-crazed thieves: Phil told Rolling Stone that there were so many feuding drug addicts hanging around in his circle of acquaintances that most of his friends thought he had been ripped off by some of these characters. Phil himself tended to prefer the more conspiratorial theories, since his safe had been destroyed and his files ransacked. Why would junkies steal his tax forms and canceled checks? Still, it is difficult to view the break-in as not being somehow drug-related. But who knows?
- Phil Dick himself: Local police thought he had staged the robbery as a stunt. At times, Phil entertained the notion as an interesting possibility. He was willing to toy with the idea, but never took it too seriously. It was a good way to mess with people’s heads, especially during interviews with journalists.
- Military intelligence: Phil wondered whether some of his sci-fi ideas — for instance, about mind control — had struck a little too close to home. Phil noted that a disorientation drug with the code name “mello jello” had been stolen from the U.S. Army. They were checking for leads on this theft, and hoping to recover the drug. Phil thought “Peter” — the guy with the syphilis theory — may have been an intelligence agent. Who knows?
More significant than the truth or accuracy of any of these conjectures was the fervor with which Dick analyzed them and discussed them with anyone who would listen. He spelled out each of his theories in vast detail in letters, notes, conversations, and interviews. All of this provides us with a window into how his mind worked, and how his fiction was created. Welcome to Phil Dick-land. In true Dick fashion, the mystery of the break-in was never solved. But the stories of confusion and obfuscation that spun out from the event were fascinating. They fit right into the rampant paranoia of the times. Dickheads love them.
The break-in marked the end of Phil Dick’s amphetamine “animal house” on Hacienda Way. Fate intervened when he was invited to attend the Vancouver SF Con in February 1972 as a guest of honor. He set to work on a speech to deliver at the convention. The text for the speech, called “The Android and the Human,” marked his return to serious, sustained writing. It is filled with all of his customary wit and brilliance, and seasoned with more than a dash of baroque madness and paranoia.
Dick bought a plane ticket for his pal Donna, hoping she would accompany him on the trip. But she backed out at the last minute. So Dick left for Canada alone, taking along with him his new speech, a battered suitcase with two changes of clothes, an old overcoat, and a Bible.
At the convention in Vancouver, Dick’s appearance and speech went well. He was interviewed and photographed and taken out on the town. Afterwards, with nothing left for him in San Rafael, he decided to stay on in Vancouver. He spent a few weeks wandering around the city in a daze, popping pills and losing his grip on reality. On March 23, 1972, lying in bed in his fleabag hotel room, Dick tried to kill himself with an overdose of potassium bromide. Later on he somehow emerged from his stupor and called for emergency assistance. He spent some time in the hospital, and was then transferred to a drug rehabilitation center called X-Kalay, which only treated heroin addicts. In order to gain admittance, Dick lied and said he was addicted to heroin.
Dick never returned to the house on Hacienda Way, which soon went into foreclosure. He stayed at X-Kalay for a couple of months, detoxed from the drugs, then flew back to California — this time to Fullerton, where some writers and professors agreed to help him relocate and get settled. Dick never went back to regularly using amphetamines. His life only grew stranger, however, when in 1974 he began having a series of mystical experiences which he spent the remainder of his life attempting to figure out — in typical baroque fashion. These experiences would inspire the trilogy of books that many of us Dickheads consider to be his greatest work — Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Philip K. Dick died of a stroke in 1982. He was just 53 years old. The home burglary remains a mystery. The mystical experiences are still open to interpretation. One thing is certain: Phil Dick is now considered one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.
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