A Very PhilDickian Existence

Minority Report author Philip K. Dick found Orange Countys truth stranger than science fiction

Dick usually said his first vision, on Feb. 20, 1974, was triggered by a necklace worn by a dark-haired—of course—delivery girl from the local pharmacy. It was a fish sign, like that used by the early Christians, she explained, and at that instant, Dick experienced what he called "anamnesis"—loss of amnesia.

He was suddenly flooded with vivid images of first-century Rome; he'd look at Fullerton and see an ancient empire that never ended superimposed over the 57 freeway or the Cal State Fullerton campus. He had memories of a life he'd never lived, heard voices in his head, had intensely realistic dreams, even felt another independent personality shifting around inside him.

So far, consistent with the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. Or maybe a drug flashback from his Berkeley days, even though he was now living clean. Or schizophrenia, maybe. Something mental, something internal. Something mundane.

But how would that explain the radio that kept playing music even after it was turned off and unplugged? Tessa heard it, too. "It was playing songs like 'You're So Vain' and 'You're No Good,'" she says. And then they poked into the vacant apartment next door and found all sorts of mysterious electronic equipment.

Or the time Dick leapt up from a nap and told Tessa to call the doctor—to tell him Christopher had an inguinal hernia and needed immediate life-saving surgery. Sure enough, the voices were right, even though Dick had no idea what they were talking about. Even writing about the incident in Radio Free Albemuth and Valis after the procedure had been explained to him, he still misspelled the medical terms.

"He told me what I needed to know," says Tessa, "but it's like that wasn't Phil talking."

It could have been a plot out of one of his own novels, Dick would write a bit ruefully—a modern-day science-fiction writer talks to God in Orange County, California, just a few miles away from Nixon's birthplace and Disneyland. But it was real. Or at least as real as anything else that had ever happened to him. And even Philip K. Dick—the author whose work burst out of the science-fiction pulp ghetto with wildly innovative technique, whose plots turned the genre inside out, who could make a hero out of a sentient Ganymedean slime mold, robot cab drivers, or the nebbish noble Everyman fuck-ups of the future—hadn't been ready for that one.

The visions followed him from that apartment in Fullerton through the crest and ruin of his marriage with Tessa ("It's hard to live with a genius," she says, "but I'm not easy to live with either."), through the infancy and childhood of his son, and finally into his writing. Besides Valis and Radio Free Albemuth (and his final books, The Divine Invasionand The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), Dick spent many a long night on his Exegesis, an unpublished examination of what had happened to him during 2-3-74 that runs into the millions of words.

In some ways, it's a strange conclusion to a career that, especially with Bladerunner, looked as if it was about to take off: a final, titanic work that hardly anyone has ever read, a turn from science fiction to Christian theology. But his last books—particularly Valisand The Divine Invasion—are some of his most sophisticated and powerful. And for Dick, says Williams, it's a happier ending than anyone might have expected.

"It's disturbing to read [the Exegesis] because it just seems way over the top," he explains. "But truthfully, his search for the meaning of it was more joyful than desperate. He really enjoyed staying up for 10 hours in the middle of the night, writing—sometimes by hand—his brand-new theories about what it all meant. You get some of that in Valis. But it was just his nature."

After Tessa and Christopher left him in 1975, he made what he described in Valis as a "spectacular" suicide attempt—slashed his wrist, downed 30 Libriums and 49 tabs of digitalis, and sat in the garage with the car running. But the car stalled, and his pharmacist had called the paramedics.

He survived—"The infinite mercies of God make no sense whatsoever," he wrote—and moved to Santa Ana, into a gated condo complex just east of Main and Civic Center, where Tim Powers and other friends lived just down the street. And he found, friends say, a new sense of purpose in his 2-3-74 experiences that sustained him until he died of a stroke in 1982. He was just 53.

"I keep seeing this sort of phantom taking form, this view of Phil as a tortured insane genius, and it just isn't accurate," Powers says. "He was the funniest guy I ever knew. And anybody who just reads Valis would see that: 'No, this is not a crazy guy. He's laughing at it. He's holding up all the theories and making fun of them.' He was perpetually theorizing about things. You'd say, 'Phil, you know what you were saying yesterday about prehistoric man and the CIA and Xeno the philosopher?' And he'd say, 'That's a bunch of nonsense, Powers!' 'It is? But it sounded good last night!'"

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