"The nature of things is in the habit of concealing itself"
—Heraclitus, as often quoted by Philip K. Dick
As a science-fiction writer, Philip K. Dick was—sometimes painfully—without peer. As a writer, period, Dick was as valuable and as uniquely American a part of the literary pantheon as Vonnegut or Chandler, an author whose genre machinations belied fierce technique and a brilliant, insatiable intellect. Even as a philosopher and latter-day theologian, Dick was a voice—sometimes an intensely disturbing voice.
But as a part of Orange County, a place he sometimes derided as "plastic-town, USA" but somehow never managed to escape, he was for all intents and purposes invisible. And 20 years after his death, he has yet to really reappear.
Certainly, Orange County is a long way from the Berkeley of the 1950s, where almost-native-son (he was born in Chicago in 1928 but moved to Berkeley in 1931) Dick brought home horse meat from the pet store for his second wife to cook while he struggled to sell short stories to the science-fiction pulp magazines. And the Bay Area was where he first fought and won his reputation.
But it was here in OC that he saw one of his masterpieces (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) published. It was here in OC that he wrote the landmark A Scanner Darkly, slated to be the next film; here in OC that he put together his capstone Valis trilogy (Valis, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer). It was here in OC where Hollywood discovered him: 20 years before Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg turned one of his short stories into Minority Report, Dick was catching rides up the 5 freeway to watch his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?transform into the sci-fi classic Bladerunner.
And it was here in OC that Philip K. Dick had what he called his "2-3-74 experiences"—for February and March 1974, though they would crescendo and finally end in November 1980. That's when—as best as he could figure out—he talked with God. Yes, that God. Or maybe he just went crazy. Or maybe it was one of the infinite possibilities in between.
For some reason, no one here really knows about any of it.
"In Providence, Rhode Island, if you ask people about H.P. Lovecraft, they've heard of H.P. Lovecraft," says novelist Tim Powers, a longtime friend who met Dick the day he stepped off the plane at LAX. "If you go to Sonoma and ask about Steinbeck, they know who Steinbeck was. In San Francisco, they know Dashiell Hammett. But in Santa Ana, nobody's heard of Philip K. Dick."
In the late spring of 1972, of course, Powers had only barely heard of Philip K. Dick, the same as a lot of other people. Dick had won a Hugo Award for his 1963 novel, The Man in the High Castle. He'd written Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (arguably his most famous work) in 1966.
But by 1972, he was hurting badly. His fourth marriage had collapsed, he had slid into amphetamine abuse, and he'd been shattered by the still-unsolved burglary of his Bay Area home. After delivering a landmark speech in Vancouver, he attempted suicide and ended up in a drug-treatment center called X-Kalay. When he walked out of the gate at LAX to meet Powers, he didn't exactly look like a famous science-fiction writer.
"He had a sportcoat and tie, but the sportcoat was kind of too small for him because he'd been doing a lot of manual labor at the X-Kalay place—pitching big wooden beams into the back of trucks, he said," Powers recalls. "He had a cardboard box tied up with an extension cord, and he was carrying the New World translation—that's the Jehovah's Witness translation—of the Bible. To mollify customs, he said."
Only weeks before, Dick had written Cal State Fullerton professor Willis McNelly, whom he had met at an earlier science-fiction convention. He discussed the possibility of archiving his manuscripts at the university library—McNelly was putting together a special sci-fi collection, and Dick's manuscripts had been jeopardized during the break-in—and then gingerly wondered if there was any chance of relocating to Orange County.
"Shall I tell you to come to Fullerton?" McNelly quickly responded. "It's an answer you have to give yourself. Despite its disadvantages, Orange County has many things to offer. There's love and need anywhere, even in this county-wide monument to a mouse."
And after McNelly shared Dick's letter with some of his students, there was also an offer of a place to stay. For what McNelly described as a "modest share of the expenses," two CSUF roommates were willing to cook, keep house and offer "fringe benefits." ("However that may be defined," McNelly added).
Dick got there as fast as he could. He was deeply unhappy in Canada, and there was nothing left for him in the Bay. Where else did he have to go? On the ride from LAX, Powers remembers the author as cheerful but ragged, talking all the way, trying to feel out the people he'd be living with and a place he had never even seen before.
Says Powers, "He seemed—mainly—desperate."
That particular housing situation lasted for a month or two—a scary month or two. Dick ended up sleeping on the living room couch, too burned-out to write a word, too paranoid to catch his breath. Fresh from the spot-the-narc drug culture up north, Dick saw a potential police presence in any neighbor with a CB radio. And his roommates weren't helping him calm down ("Anyone who stayed in the bathroom more than a couple of minutes was running the risk of having the door broken down because everyone would assume you were attempting suicide," Powers says. "I mean, I never was, but everybody else seemed to be.").
But a new apartment and a new roommate later, Dick was starting to relax. He'd incongruously managed to blend into the college social scene to the point of being named an "honorary student." You never would have noticed his big gray beard, Powers says. Between his dazzling record collection, his encyclopedic conversational abilities (Dick had always been a compulsive and iconoclastic learner, dropping out of UC Berkeley philosophy courses because they bored him), and his lack of pocket change to spend on burgers, he fit in just fine.
"What he found was a place where he could live," says Paul Williams, a longtime friend and later executor of Dick's literary estate (as well as editor of the Philip K. Dick Society newsletter). "And I think he was surprised. He was aware of that Nixon-paranoia side of Orange County, but in some ways, he found himself more comfortable here than in hip—or overly hip—Berkeley and the Bay Area. Since I knew him throughout this time, I saw him become more and more comfortable in this environment. And of course he found what he was looking for when he met Tessa."
That would be Tessa Busby, a girl he met at a Fourth of July beach party (relocated to a Tustin home when all the barbecue pits at the beach were taken). He was supposed to start dating her mom—instead, he would go on to marry her. She was a "little black-haired chick," Dick wrote, "exactly like I'm not supposed to get involved with." Most of his adult life had been characterized by tumultuous relationships with other dark-haired girls.
"He thought I was a cop," Tessa recalls of the first time they met. "That maybe I was underage and trying to get him busted for that, or else a narc who thought he was into drugs. He was really paranoid—but it was a paranoid time. And he just seemed so lost and helpless."
By the end of that not-quite beach party, they'd "had their heads together, mumbling to each other," Powers says. "And it never stopped."
So she was just 18, and he was 43—with four ex-wives.
"It just didn't seem to matter," she says.
Powers remembers when Dick proposed to Tessa—one of the times it didn't quite take. They were at Disneyland, finishing their sandwiches at a table at the Carnation Restaurant on Main Street and waiting for their friends. Abruptly, Dick turned and said, "Tessa, will you marry me?"
"I thought, 'Oh, man, what am I doing here?'" Powers says. "So I reached across the table, took the pickle off his plate and then kind of turned to look away down the street. And just as Tessa was about to answer, he says, 'Just a sec. Powers! What are you doing with my pickle?'"
"You were done," Powers said warily.
"I was saving the pickle for last," Dick said.
"Well, here, you can have it back."
"I don't want it after you've been gumming it."
"Well, I'll get the lady to bring you another pickle."
"I don't wanna bother the lady," Dick grumbled. "I just want to make the point that you shouldn't be snatching food off other people's plates."
All that time, says Powers, Tessa had been waiting to answer. And then everyone else showed up, chattering away, and she never got her chance. "The moment," says Powers, "was lost."
Tessa has moved up to Crestline, a mountain town in the San Bernardino range. Looking back, she says she didn't mind the first few times God—or whatever it was—talked to her husband.
"At first it was exciting," she says. "But after a while, it was like, 'I don't want to hear about your visions!'"
The visions started in Dick's apartment on Cameo Lane in Fullerton during that Watergate spring of 1974, a few months after he had written A Scanner Darkly, the masterful coda to his doper years set in a futuristic Orange County ("Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself," he'd lament).
He married Tessa in the spring of 1973—presumably after a pickle-free proposal—and gone into a sort of seclusion with her and their new son, Christopher (the third and last of Dick's children). Between Dick's burgeoning agoraphobia, his worries about friction with the IRS over unpaid taxes, and his blood pressure clawing its way into the danger zone, they weren't getting out much. So whatever it was came to them.
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!'"
Orange County is a gorgeous coda to Dick's life, Powers says. His Fullerton and Santa Ana years were the last and arguably most accomplished third of his career—had he died in that apartment in Vancouver in 1972, he would have died an author of immense unrealized potential. He had honed his techniques for 20 years, and the 2-3-74 experiences gave him a chance to tackle the questions that characterized nearly everything he ever wrote—What is real? What is human?—with renewed vigor and energy.
To his credit, when those questions exploded into his own life here in Orange County, he met them head-on, with the humor and determination he'd always put into his characters. He may have written science fiction, says Tessa, but he was really a philosopher. Even if he never quite got the answer.
Powers remembers a call from Phil: he'd figured out the universe, he said.
"I said, 'Cool!'" Powers says, "And he said, 'So can you come over after work?'"
"Yeah, I'll be right over," Powers said. "But listen: Can you write it out as a limerick?"
"No, I can't write it out as a limerick!" Dick snapped. "It's the secret of the universe—come on!"
But when Powers pulled up on his motorcycle, Dick had a limerick for him anyway:
The determinist forces are wrong
But irresistibly strong
While of God there's a dearth
For he visits the Earth
But not for sufficiently long
He'd even written an alternate ending:
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But of God there's no dearth
For he visits the Earth
Though just for sufficiently long
And that was Philip K. Dick, Powers says. He wrote like a man possessed. He—maybe—talked to God. He even put the secret of the universe into a limerick. But he could never quite make up his mind exactly which way it was supposed to end.
Annie Knight contributed to this story.
Back issues of the Philip K. Dick Society newsletter are available online. Dick's papers are on permanent loan at Cal State Fullerton.