Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Mystery of “The Jet-Propelled Couch”

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An absolutely fascinating column by Mark Frauenfelder:

When I was 15 I read “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” the true story of a psychiatric patient who believed he could teleport to a faraway planet. I’ve been fascinated ever since.

I learned about it from the Vaughn Bodē Index (1976). Bodē (1941-1978) was an underground cartoonist best known for Cheech Wizard. In an interview in the Index, Bodē lamented the fact that the patient in “The Jet-Propelled Couch” had been “cured” of his delusion. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about this patient, so I scoured used bookstores in Boulder, Colorado until I found a copy of The Fifty-Minute Hour and Other True Psychoanalytic Tales (1955), by psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner (best known for his 1944 book Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis Of A Criminal Psychopath, which was the inspiration for the James Dean movie of the same name). The Fifty-Minute Hour contained five fascinating case stories of Lindner’s patients.

The most famous of the five cases was that of “Kirk Allen,” who Lindner described in the book’s final chapter, “The Jet-Propelled Couch.” According to Linder, Allen (a pseudonym) was one of Lindner’s patients, born in 1918, who was a physicist at “X Reservation,” a “government installation in the southwest” (probably Los Alamos National Laboratory). Allen had made important contributions during World War II (probably as part of the Manhattan Project). After Allen’s superiors observed him chronically spacing out on the job while muttering about his travels to other planets, they sent him to Lindner’s Baltimore office for long-term treatment.

Lindner described Allen as friendly and polite, and seemingly free of mental illness. But as Lindner got to know Allen, he learned that his patient had a traumatic childhood that affected him profoundly. Allen had grown up on an island in the tropical Pacific where he felt isolated from other children. His mother and father (a high-ranking member in the U.S. Military) paid little attention to him. “Throughout childhood and early adolescence,” wrote Lindner, “he was haunted by the difference between himself and his companions, a difference not solely of skin color but of social heritage and the innumerable subtleties of life.” To make matters worse, Allen’s governess sexually abused him for many months when he was eleven years old, which added further trauma.

While living on the island, Allen came across a series of science fiction/fantasy novels in the library that starred a protagonist who shared his name. The books provided an escape for his unhappy life. Allen read and re-read the novels.

“As I read about the adventures of Kirk Allen in these books,” Allen told Lindner, “the conviction began to grow on me that the stories were not only true to the very last detail, but that they were about me.”

He began fantasizing about additional adventures starring his namesake. His reveries were so rich in sensory detail that Allen came to the conclusion that his imagined escapades weren’t fiction — they were actually taking place in the future and he was somehow tapping into them. The fantasies grew and continued for years. He eventually discovered that he could leave his earthly body and travel forward in time to live as the heroic Kirk Allen on a faraway planet. He also learned he could spend a year or more as the spacefaring Allen and return to Earth, where only a few minutes had passed.

Here’s how he described the experience to Lindner: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I perhaps should note that Cordwainer Smith was a very fine science-fiction writer — one of my favorite authors.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2020 at 7:06 pm

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