"DOC" on PBS: The life and fictions of Harold Humes

"DOC" on PBS: The life and fictions of Harold Humes
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Watching wasted genius, a life gone wrong, is compelling and poignant, but with "Doc", airing December 9, at 10PM on PBS' Independent Lens, we feel much more like guests doing a post-mortem on a private party where the drinks may have been dosed.

"Doc" is a documentary by Immy Humes about her father, the novelist and cultural figure, Harold L. "Doc" Humes, who was by many measures a success: he was a founder of the Paris Review, wrote two successful and acclaimed novels, "The Underground City" and "Men Die" (which Random House recently re-released), and ran Norman Mailer's 1961 campaign for Mayor. "Doc" is also notable for featuring interviews with many now-deceased cultural and literary lights such as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Timothy Leary and George Plimpton.

However, Hume's achievements are only half the story. Just at the moment that Doc reached the pinnacle of his achievements in the mid-1960s, an overdose of LSD led to a mental break that would last the rest of his life, and keep him from writing again. Instead Doc became renowned for turning up on the campuses of Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, as a self-styled philosopher and pied piper, living in students' rooms and engaging them in his theories and philosophies. Eventually Doc settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught massage and acupuncture and relaxation techniques that also involved what Doc referred to as the "medicinal" use of marijuana, before dying in 1992 of prostate cancer.

The story Immy Humes tells is compelling because it is a story of great talent unfulfilled, and because it is a family story of mental illness and of reconciliation. Doc's life touched many famous ones and to many he was a memorable character - but to his family he was absent, infuriating, embarrassing, and yet cherished, a mystery which they attempted to decode.

Immy Humes has unearthed great material and found brilliant ways of making Doc's journey visual - she found his handwritten notes for a never-written autobiographical novel, and tracked down a long missing film Doc made called "Don Peyote" - a modern retelling of Don Quixote that in some ways stands as an oracular prediction of how Doc would lose his own mind to drugs and spend the rest of his life tilting at windmills.

I was particularly interested to see "Doc" because I actually met Doc a few times in the late 1970s and early 1980s and even wrote a paper for a journalism class on Doc. So it was interesting to see Doc again and to compare it with what I knew about him.

Harold L. Humes was born in 1926 in Douglas, Arizona. His father was a chemical engineer. The family moved to Princeton New Jersey where Humes attended high school and got the nickname "Doc", based on the crazy scientist character "Doc Huer" in the Buck Rogers comics. Thinking he would follow in his father's footsteps he went to MIT. Before he could matriculate he left to join the Navy (he claimed that he was asked to leave MIT after a late night adventure involving a "Cliffie"). In 1948, he went to Paris, where he was the publisher of an English language publication The Paris News Post, where he first met Peter Matthiessen. In 1952, Humes, Matthiesen and Plimpton would found their own literary publication, The Paris Review.

Before the Paris Review was even launched Doc returned to the US to take classes at Harvard. He studied creative writing with Archibald Macleish, and there was some talk that he met Leary at Harvard and first tried LSD then (in another account it was after the Kennedy assassination that he returned to Harvard and took a "death trip" with Leary ingesting more LSD than was thought humanly possible.).

In any event, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Humes married, had his three daughters, and demonstrated his genius in forums as diverse as writing his novels, playing jazz and chess, and even by building a paper house.

The brilliance of Doc's novels are not to be underestimated. "The Underground City" (1958) is a labyrinth-like tale set in Post World War II France. Set against the backdrop of the trial of a Vichy official who may or may not have collaborated in the death of a French resistance unit, Humes explored the workings of the French resistance, the habits of foreign correspondents in Paris, American Embassy protocol, and the intricacies of the Paris sewer system. "Men Die," (1959) a shorter and more experimental work, was narrated by several voices who, for the most part, on a Caribbean Island Naval Base set to explode at the outbreak of World War II.

In 1963 Gay Talese, writing in Esquire in an article called "Searching for Hemingway" wrote about Doc's talent and brilliance. In "Doc" Mailer says that Humes was the only person he knew who was more intellectual arrogant than him.

In 1965 the Humes family went to London, and while his wife was away he was visited by Timothy Leary, who left him with a supply of LSD. Doc then took a trip from which, essentially, he never returned. There is plenty of evidence that Doc was already filled with the paranoid and manic notions that would occupy him for the rest of his life, but there is no question that in London Doc crossed a line.

Humes was institutionalized briefly but when released he was no better and, as "Doc" makes abundantly clear, he became a danger to his wife and family who fled back to New York.

Although the next few years are unaccounted for in the documentary, when I interviewed him in 1979, Doc did not want to dwell on his institutionalization but told of meeting John Lennon and a theory they constructed about Beatles fans having been "maniads" a term they came up with to describe people that the government induces into a frenzy or mania about something, in this case the Beatles, in order to keep them sowing discontent and revolution.

Doc also spoke extensively (he only spoke extensively) about being in Rome, running a detox clinic. He claimed that he was treating Intelligence agents who had been made into heroin addicts. Humes treated them successfully he claimed with massage, and with hashish and cannabis. It was also during this period that he claimed the CIA did something to him that made it so if he tried to write the pain in his legs became unendurable. He also told me that he had fathered a child, Malcolm, named after Malcolm X, with an Italian woman who later died under circumstances that Humes described as "suspicious" leaving the child to be raised by the child's grandparents.

Doc next appeared in New York in 1969 at Columbia University handing out $50 bills to students as part of an self-devised economic experiment. One of the young men whose room he crashed in was Paul Auster, then a student. As Auster says, "everyone wanted to be around him."

From Columbia, Doc moved to Princeton, and then to his daughter Alison's room at Harvard.
I first heard of Doc as this figure who was living in the Harvard dorm room of my high school buddy Stephen Fenichell. After Doc wore out his welcome at his daughter's room he spent the next year and half staying in various dorm rooms including Fenichell's. Fenichell and his suitemates were highly verbal young men who met their match in Doc who was engaged them in extended conversations that seemed as much part of their education as what went on in class.

"Doc" gives some sense of the compelling "raps" that Humes delivered on a wide range of subjects from Chinese Herbal medicine, clouds, the history of pharmacology, The FBI, the CIA, mind control experiments. Plimpton called Doc "a talking encyclopedia." Timothy Leary once told me that he considered Doc "a national treasure." "He is our country's greatest paranoid," Leary said.

One day in 1979, I was speaking to Fenichell when he told me that Doc was in prison in New Jersey and that he was going to visit him. I asked if I might come along and interview Doc.

My first meeting with Doc took place at the Mercer County Men's Detention Center in Trenton, New Jersey. Doc was being held on several charges arising out of an arrest several years before in Princeton, New Jersey for possession of marijuana, unruly conduct and for assaulting a police officer. He had been arrested in Massachusetts when he ran a stop sign in full view of a police officer, who discovered the warrants for Humes when he ran his license. Humes fought the extradition,, but when he lost the police came for him, and found him at a restaurant in Boston called Passim's where Allen Ginsberg was performing.

A year later when I interviewed Ginsberg on the subject, he recalled that he had known Doc since the late 1950s around the time that "the Underground City" was published, and that Doc had invited him to his place to show him his shiatsu massage and explain his theories about the Opium War in Vietnam. Ginsberg told me that he found Doc's theories "correct yet essentially undocumented - just gossip." Ginsberg invited Doc to his show the next night. Ginsberg suspected that Humes knew he was going to be arrested and arranged for it to occur during his show. In the end, Ginsberg said, "I'm not taking a stand either way on Humes... I just can't figure him out."

I first saw Doc through the glass partition separating us in the visitor's area. The visiting room at the Men's Detention center was made of ten little cubicles where one could sit on a luncheonette-type stool and look through a glass partition at the inmate you were visiting while speaking to them on a corded telephone receiver.

Doc had long grey hair that he had pulled back into a pony tail and sported a short beard that was also grey. He was wearing prison issue green overalls and looked thin, and somehow taller than his 5'7". All in all he looked healthy, well rested and composed. He seemed to give off a feeling of concentration and of serenity.

On that day we spoke - or rather he spoke, for he did most of the talking, for several hours. He called himself a "dissident scholar" and claimed his research was in the field he dubbed "the no man's land between medicine and politics." He spoke confidently and intensely about Marijuana reform, the Vietnam War and the Heroin trade. It was all very serious and very much off point - having little to do with his arrest. Doc was determined to see things his way, even if the rest of the world did not.

He claimed that he wanted to go to trial to have the courts take judicial notice of the medicinal value of cannabis and many of his other theories. In the end, as was often the case with Doc, the court decided tangling with Doc was not worth the trouble - he would claim that they feared the truth of what he was saying, and they would say they just feared his talking any more. (They let him plead to a "disorderly person charge and released him for time served).

When I next saw Doc several years later, he was living in Cambridge again. The house was on Brookline Avenue halfway between Harvard and MIT and I climbing three flight of stairs to an apartment which also doubled as a massage and acupuncture center. There were quotations from Mao on the wall and several posters about Chinese herbs. There were several young people there, working, hanging out, including Glynnis a young woman Doc had met at Bennington College and Devin, their baby (In "Doc" she describes how she had painless orgasmic childbirth using Doc's massage and marijuana treatment).

Doc was wearing denim overalls but seemed hale and healthy. As he talked he puffed on a pin-thin joint. Doc told me again about how British Intelligence "had run me through one of their brain laundries." As a result, he suffered from "leg aphasia" - meaning that the mind control he'd been subjected to made it so that when he tried to write (and he meant write fiction), he would get pains shooting in his legs that were so powerful he could not work. He described the pain as akin to a Pavlovian reaction.

He told about me the novel he had been working on when he stopped writing. It was meant to be written as the brief of a disheartened Cold Warrior, Dorsey Slade (this is the novel that Immy Humes found the outline for and that she references throughout "Doc.").

And then he told me that he had another idea for the novel he would want to write if he were still able to write novels.

It was about a fellow he told me, who lived in Paris, and was friendly with all these writers and whoses real goal, Doc told me, was to make himself a character in their novels. His life would be lived in out in other people's works.

Whenever I think of Doc now I recall that conversation. Because that, essentially, is what happened to Doc.

There is a moment in "Doc" when the novelist Alan Cheuse says "imagine what Doc would have achieved if he had lived longer" and then Immy points out how revealing a statement that was - because Doc did live longer, he just didn't produce more fiction. But even before his death, Doc was succeeding in being remembered.

Doc had been appearing in the press since the late 1950s. Talese profiled him in Esquire. At Harvard he started to appear in the unpublished short stories and novels of the students whose rooms he stayed. Doc has appeared in the works of Paul Auster. I even think I saw something of Doc in the movie "With Honors" starring Joe Pesci, about a homeless man at Harvard - that too seemed to be inspired by Doc.

In the end, Immy Humes' "Doc" is haunting because of we see how the patterns of Doc's life played out and all the ironies that ensued. Doc who as a young literary lion was arrested for free speech then spent the next several decades talking without stop. Doc who made "Don Peyote" would lose his mind and spend much of his time being arrested and fighting fantastical legal battles stemming from his drug use. Doc who accused his closest friends of being agents, would learn that one of his closest friends, Peter Matthiessen, had been a CIA agent in their Paris Review days, and used the Review as a front for his activities. And finally, after Doc's death, Immy Humes would discover that Doc who claimed the FBI was watching him, was actually being watched by the FBI for more than 30 years.

And there are further and more poignant ironies: If only the man who spent so much time advocating for the medicinal use of cannabis and the treatment of anxiety, who spoke of the "pharmacopia", had taken legal drugs to regulate his brain chemistry - he might have had that longer professional life Cheuse hoped for Doc. If only the man who feared microwave radiation, had taken radiation for his prostate cancer - he might have lived longer.

Finally Doc who wanted to write a novel about a character who sought to achieve immortality by appearing in others' works, succeeded in doing so himself. "Doc" is proof of that.

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