A hurdle called truth.

Magic requires tacit cooperation of the audience with the magician--an abandonment of skepticism, or what is sometimes described as the willing suspension of disbelief.


It was a 1954 book I had read in college, The Fifty-Minute Hour. The author, a psychoanalyst named Robert Lindner, had been called by the Los Alamos National Laboratory to treat a brilliant young nuclear physicist whose delusional system was beginning to interfere with his secret government research. The physicist (given the pseudonym Kirk Allen) had, it turned out, another life besides making nuclear weapons: in the far future, he confided, he piloted (or will pilot - the tenses get a little addled) interstellar spacecraft. He enjoyed rousing, swashbuckling adventures on planets of other stars. He was "lord" of many worlds. Perhaps they called him Captain Kirk. Not only could he "remember" this other life; he could also enter into it whenever he chose. By thinking in the right way, by wishing, he could transport himself across the light years and the centuries.

In some way I could not comprehend, by merely desiring it to be so, I had crossed the immensities of space, broken out of time, and merged with - literally became - that distant and future self . . . Don't ask me to explain. I can't, although God knows I've tried.

Lindner found him intelligent, sensitive, pleasant, polite and perfectly able to deal with everyday human affairs. But, in reflecting on the excitement of his life among the stars, Allen had found himself a little bored with his life on Earth, even if it did involve building weapons of mass destruction. When admonished by his laboratory supervisors for distraction and dreaminess, he apologized; he would try, he assured them, to spend more time on this planet. That's when they contacted Lindner. 

Allen had written 12,000 pages on his experiences in the future, and dozens of technical treatises on the geography, politics, architecture, astronomy, geology, life forms, genealogy and ecology of the planets of other stars. A flavour of the material is given by these monograph titles: "The Unique Brain Development of the Chrystopeds of Srom Norba X", "Fire Worship and Sacrifice on Srom Sodrat II", "The History of the Intergalactic Scientific Institute", and "The Application of Unified Field Theory and the Mechanics of the Stardrive to Space Travel". (That last is the one I'd like to see; after all, Allen was said to have been a first-rate physicist.) Fascinated, Lindner pored over the material. 

Allen was not in the least shy about presenting his writings to Lindner or discussing them in detail. Unflappable and intellectually formidable, he seemed not to be yielding an inch to Lindner's psychiatric ministrations. When everything else failed, the psychiatrist attempted something different:

I tried . . . to avoid giving in any way the impression that I was entering the lists with him to prove that he was psychotic, that this was to be a tug of war over the question of his sanity. Instead, because it was obvious that both his temperament and training were scientific, I set myself to capitalize on the one quality he had demonstrated throughout his life . . . the quality that urged him toward a scientific career: his curiosity .. . This meant . . . that at least for the time being I 'accepted' the validity of his experiences . . . In a sudden flash of inspiration it came to me that in order to separate Kirk from his madness it was necessary for me to enter his fantasy and, from that position, to pry him loose from the psychosis.

Lindner highlighted certain apparent contradictions in the documents and asked Allen to resolve them. This required the physicist to re-enter the future to find the answers. Dutifully, Allen would arrive at the next session with a clarifying document written in his neat hand. Lindner found himself eagerly awaiting each interview, so he could be once more captivated by the vision of abundant life and intelligence in the galaxy. Between them, they were able to resolve many problems of consistency. 

Then a strange thing happened: "The materials of Kirk's psychosis and the Achilles heel of my personality met and meshed like the gears of a clock." The psychoanalyst became a co-conspirator in his patient's delusion. He began to reject psychological explanations of Allen's story. How sure are we that it couldn't really be true? He found himself defending the notion that another life, that of a spacefarer in the far future, could be entered into by a simple effort of the will. 

At a startlingly rapid rate . . . larger and larger areas of my mind were being taken over by the fantasy . . . With Kirk's puzzled assistance I was taking part in cosmic adventures, sharing the exhilaration of the sweeping extravaganza he had plotted. 

But eventually, an even stranger thing happened: concerned for the well-being of his therapist, and mustering admirable reserves of integrity and courage, Kirk Allen confessed: he had made the whole thing up. It had roots in his lonely childhood and his unsuccessful relationships with women. He had shaded, and then forgotten, the boundary between reality and imagination. Filling in plausible details and weaving a rich tapestry about other worlds was challenging and exhilarating. He was sorry he had led Lindner down this primrose path. 

"Why," the psychiatrist asked, "why did you pretend? Why did you keep on telling me . . .?" 

"Because I felt I had to," the physicist replied. "Because I felt you wanted me to."

Kirk and I reversed roles, Lindner explained, and, in one of those startling denouements that make my work the unpredictable, wonderful and rewarding pursuit it is, the folly we shared collapsed . . . I employed the rationalization of clinical altruism for personal ends and thus fell into a trap that awaits all unwary therapists of the mind . . . Until Kirk Allen came into my life, I had never doubted my own stability. The aberrations of mind, so I had always thought, were for others . . . I am ashamed by this smugness. But now, as I listen from my chair behind the couch, I know better. I know that my chair and the couch are separated only by a thin line. I know that it is, after all, but a happier combination of accidents that determines, finally, who shall lie on the couch, and who shall sit behind it.