by Ewa Mazierska
It is a cliché that language does not merely reflect reality, but creates it. But it rarely happens that by calling somebody this or that we make a person adhere to the meaning of this word, by becoming, for example, a cad or a fool. But in the case of Megan, who named her daughter Alice in honour of the famous heroine of Lewis Carroll, it felt that way. The name was innocent enough, and very popular all over the world, but it was also like an invitation to have at home somebody who would travel her own way, traversing more than just space. Signs of that appeared early on. The girl was born in the crazy year of 1968, with eyes wide open and an ironic smile, as if she was convinced that the world was hiding something and she was adamant to get to the bottom of it. The nurses, puzzled by her insomnia, suggested giving her more food and drink (which she refused), adding to the torment of Megan, who even before managing to recover from the pain of childbirth encountered another torment caused by the perception of being inadequate as a mother. Nothing changed when the baby was brought home – she ate very little, she slept very little, and seemed to swallow the whole world with her big eyes. Later she was diagnosed with severe astigmatism, which might explain her alertness. Her insomnia caused a wedge between her parents. Megan thought that Alice should not be left alone when awake, because it is sad to be abandoned, plus the lack of communication could lead to a deficit in intelligence, which is, of course, a bad thing. Robert, Megan’s husband, did not care much about the consequences of Alice’s solitude and was of the opinion, that if the child is left alone, she would fall asleep, plus they, the parents, had a right to a normal life, whatever the circumstances.
Alice developed faster than other children, but in an unbalanced way. At school she excelled in English, art and later chemistry, but did not do well in subjects requiring abstraction such as maths. Even adding two and two was for her almost an impossible task because she could not understand what numbers represented; she had to experience them sensually. As a result of this and other idiosyncrasies, she had problems at all educational institutions. Teachers did not like her mixing with other children, claiming that she did not fit in and was a bad influence on them, although few were able to explain what her exact problem was. Some suggested moving Alice to a place for children with special needs. Such suggestions made Megan angry with the teachers for treating her daughter as if she was a nutter, as well as with Alice for not making more effort to fit in, at least by pretending that she was like everybody else. Megan spent a lot of time teaching Alice to say the right things. The advantage was her ability to pass for a normal child. The downside was that Alice avoided situations where she had to perform this way. This was not because she was against performing altogether, but because she wanted to play according to her own scenario, in her own film, which, in her view, was infinitely superior. Megan herself often did not know when Alice was being genuine and when she merely repeated formulas without believing in them or even understanding them. She was hovering between accepting Alice the way she was and trying to change her. Maybe this is the case with all parents, but Megan was aware that in her case making a mistake might have fatal consequences. As a child, Alice asked visitors many questions, but not because she was interested in their lives, only in that which their lives were missing, for example, ‘If you weren’t working at the university, where would you work?’, ‘If you did not have a daughter, would you have something else instead?’, ‘If you met an alien creature who lived forever, would you marry it for the sake of giving your children eternal life?’,‘If you suddenly lost your memory, what would be your first thought?’ etc. People whom she asked these questions initially assumed that this was some kind of game, but the persistence with which she inquired about these possible worlds, their internal organisation up to the minute detail, and their relationship with other worlds, suggested that she was not interested in them as a mere intellectual experiment, but wanted to experience them in the flesh.
When she was about six, Alice said: ‘This world does not interest me anymore. I want to be in a different one.’ Her aunt, to whom these words were addressed, found it funny that a small child might have such a grandiose ambition, but her mother was not laughing; she was annoyed, and was explaining to the little girl with a tired expression: ‘Alice, there is only one world: this world. You have only one life, your own life. Rather than thinking about another world, try to live here. There is plenty to do here, in this house, in your own room.’ Alice did not say anything, but it was obvious that she was not convinced, and to show that she was following her mother’s advice while simultaneously making her point, she turned her room upside down, throwing clothes out of wardrobes, books from bookshelves and dismantling her bed. And it was only the beginning of Alice’s difficult behaviour.
A new set of problems appeared when Alice entered her teenage years. First she wanted to live as a man. She assumed masculine behaviour and changed her name to David. Luckily she was too young to have a sex change operation, as this was what she was particularly interested in: the very moment sex is changed. Then she wanted to learn how it feels when one moves to a different state of existence. For an outsider it looked as if she was trying to commit suicide, but Alice did not really want to do it for its own sake, but to capture the moment when one achieves a different state of consciousness, being on the threshold between life and death. Liminal states were always of special interest to Alice, not only because they were borderline, hence added to the worlds she could inhabit, but also because she believed they offered a new perspective on the two types of existence, on which they bordered. Being on the border really meant being in three different states at the same time. Luckily for Megan, Alice remained on the threshold between life and death before it was too late to bring her back to consciousness. By this point Megan and Robert had split up and Megan moved to the States, in search of a better job and because she believed that this country would be better attuned to her daughter’s personality.
This constant fear that Alice would die was eventually too much for Megan. She decided to leave Alice in psychiatric care. The place she chose on the advice of a friend specialised in young autistic patients, from puberty till late twenties. It had a reputation for not only providing good care, but also, miraculously, enabling some patients to return to society. This was because, as the manager informed Megan, they did not try to change the people suffering from autism into normal citizens at any cost, but rather ‘go with the tide,’ trying to adjust themselves to their worldviews. Megan did not know what ‘going with the tide’ might mean in the case of Alice, and was somewhat sceptical such an approach would work, but did not enquire or suggest anything. By this point she assumed that both their lives were damaged beyond repair, ‘fucked up’, as she used to say, even if such an expression did not suit her way of speaking. The only dream which she was left with was to reach the end in peace, without extra drama.
Alice did not object to being institutionalised. When they were parting, she said with sensitivity, which moved Megan to tears, not least because it contrasted with her daughter’s usual lack of care for the feelings of others: ‘Mum, do not worry about me. If things go wrong in this place, I have plenty of worlds to choose from.’
The place was private and very expensive and to afford it, Megan moved to a one bedroom flat in a rather drab neighbourhood in Chicago. To do so, she had to get rid of much of her stuff, including her cherished souvenirs. It felt like the expansion of Alice’s world was at the expense of her world shrinking. But Megan did not care, partly because dealing with serious problems makes one indifferent towards trivia, partly because she knew there would be nobody to pass on her possessions to and partly because she saw the logic in their modes of living. Luckily, it turned out that the money was well spent. Alice was allocated a therapist called Paul who had significant achievements in helping autistic youngsters. Rather than, as Megan always tried, fixing Alice on this world, Paul not only travelled with her to her ‘wonderlands’ but provided her with the tools to create them safely and efficiently, by introducing her to computer games. At the time they were still novelties, but Paul knew the basics of their design. It was enough to introduce Alice to the idea: the rest she did herself. Soon she was able to invent stories, do graphics and everything else needed to create them. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, she was recognised as one of the best in her field. No doubt she owed her success to the fact that she was always running simulations in her head and just needed better ways to test them. In the 1990s she became a mini-celebrity and some journalists drew parallels between her and Bill Gates, as both apparently came across as being detached from (material) reality. They were computer people not only on the account of understanding computers, but having ‘computer personalities.’ Or, perhaps, as Paul noticed, Alice was more than a ‘computer kid’; she was a ‘clone kid’: she would embrace the possibilities of human cloning, if they would become available. She was a 21st or 22nd century child trapped in the 20th century. Why it happened to Alice, nobody knew. But her case was not unique. Often consciousness is more advanced than the material conditions which allow it to use its power; this is one of the conditions of progress.
On the one hand, Alice’s successes brought Megan some joy. Thanks to her daughter’s substantial earnings as a game designer she could move to a better apartment and stop worrying that Alice would end up destitute. On the other hand, however, they confirmed her suspicion that she mishandled Alice’s education or even that her daughter’s achievements were a measure of her handicap; she was so good with virtual reality, even a ‘genius,’ as the media described her, because she was so bad with normal reality. On this account, however, she was wrong. Designing virtual worlds made Alice interested in the real world, which by then she kept in utter contempt. This was because she realised that there was a certain matrix in it, which all her parallel universes mimicked. Maybe even her mind was not advanced enough to design a truly original universe. Another possibility was that it was genuinely optimal. Alice was keen to find this out. In her thirties her main interest became documenting what lent itself to her senses. She became an ardent photographer, single-handedly creating a new style of art known as ‘photographic neo-mysticism.’ The specificity of her work was that she was able to catch the multiplicity or, as some critics claimed, spirituality of everyday objects and activities, in a manner associated with Gerhard Richter. The difference between her work and Richter lied in the fact that she was not a trained artist; she apparently took her photos randomly. Subsequently she used them in her computer games, which added a spooky feel to them.
According to the stereotype of a psychotherapist, who cures not only through his words, but also through his deeds, Paul became Alice’s first lover. It happened when she preferred to be David, rather than Alice. He convinced her that it was unwise to acquire a penis till she explored the various possibilities of a vagina and learned how to be a man from the most reliable witness: her lover. Their lovemaking, rather than full of sounds of real or fake orgasms, was accompanied by thorough discussions about each person’s different sensations. Paul enjoyed it thoroughly and regarded Alice, despite her lack of experience, his best lover. Unfortunately for Paul, Alice was unable to stay faithful to one person; promiscuity was part of her ‘parallel’ approach to reality, her search for wonderland. Her next lover was a boy named Andy, who was living in the same ‘nuthouse’ and suffered from the opposite mental disorder to that which befell Alice – extreme fear or repulsion of anything which was not fixed to the last detail. He had to have his food arranged on a plate in a particular way and he had to dress himself in a specific order. He believed that the world was permeated by a feeling and thinking substance, or even was such a substance and the humans were obliged to respect it; the opposite could lead to a catastrophe. Unlike Alice, who started to be seen as an avant-garde, Andy saw himself as a relic from an earlier epoch, when living creatures were in tune with their surroundings. He could not make other people understand how they should live, but he had to live in a specific way. This was difficult because he didn’t always know what to do himself. In his pantheism he was a relic, but in his confusion he was a contemporary man.
Lovemaking, like everything he did, for Andy was a matter of not disturbing this feeling substance, so he approached it in a very careful, even anxious way, focusing on the act, not his partner. More or less, this was also the way Alice treated sex. Perhaps because they occupied two extremes, he with his ontological and epistemological asceticism, she with her greed for reality and unquenched curiosity, they gravitated towards each other. In the ‘nuthouse’ they were regarded as a couple and they were to some extent, although they lacked a crucial component of love or friendship: empathy. The only person towards whom Alice had a feeling approximating love was her mother and this was mostly a physical bond. Living away from home Alice missed her mother’s touch and smell, therefore in her thirties she moved back in with Megan. They rented a large apartment in Chicago, overlooking a park, as they both liked living near nature, even if for different reasons.
When it seemed that life had eventually started to treat Megan well, she got dementia. She was losing her memory and stopped recognising people, although she remembered Alice most of the time. Paradoxically, never before had they enjoyed each other’s company as much, despite its limitations or maybe because of them. Alice, with her insider knowledge that each person’s reality is different, accepted her mother’s dementia easier than most children, assuming that when her mother was not with her, she was exploring a different world. Moreover, their sensual bond grew stronger, the more difficult it was to maintain verbal communication. Megan, for her part, stopped caring about Alice’s escapes to ‘wonderlands’ and just enjoyed having her around. Ironically, with the passage of time she saw in her daughter many different people: not only Alice, but also her own mother, her daughter’s old friend, her cousin. Sometimes she thought her daughter was male or was a ghost. ‘My mum and me are on the same plane now,’ commented Alice jokingly. ‘Both scatterbrained.’ And to underline that they were alike, she’d hold her face up to Megan’s. It was difficult to know whether Megan understood this gesture, but she always smiled when Alice did it.
Ewa Mazierska is an academic who writes short stories in her spare time.