Donna Lee Gorrell
(Inner Ocean)Donna Lee Gorrell was a precocious child. When she was eight, she started reading books on psychology. At nine, it was Dante, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky --- "but I found them depressing." In high school she did Freud, Kant, Sartre, Nietzsche, Plato and Descartes, and, later --- Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki.
In November of 1972, after reading Essays on Zen Buddhism, she looked up and saw a wall:
Suddenly, the wall crumbled like a large building imploding from carefully placed explosives. It fell upon itself and disappeared.
This was the beginning. For the next nine months, Gorrell was subjected to recurring visions, attacks of paranoia, moments of ecstasy. She had battles with "dark forces." She received messages, "It's not who you are, it's what you are." In the grocery store, looking at the vegetables, she had a catatonic attack, "lost in communication with the amazing generosity of God's bounty."
At one point, a third eye erupted in her forehead. ("To my relief, it didn't reflect in the mirror. It could be seen through, but it couldn't be seen.") At another time, she saw "two gaseous planets." At yet another, a flower erupted from the top of her head.
All the while, she wants to tell someone, but she is afraid they will think her mad. It is a real fear: one of her earliest childhood memories is of her mother being hauled away in a strait-jacket.
There is a friend she almost tells; she almost opens up to another, a hippie who works at her store with her. Towards the very end, she goes into a state of "Electrifying Oneness," and she decides to confess what has transpired over the last nine months to her husband Pete:
I spoke of doing laundry when suddenly as lightning shot through all of us in the circle, I went out of my small body and became the entire universe and everyone in it. I also told him I felt there were now two of me, that I had a new sense of understanding about creation, and (so as not to upset him) that I would be OK...
Pete nonchalantly responded, "That's nice."
Isn't that the way it's always going to be? You're doing the laundry and suddenly you see God, sprout a flower out of the Sahasrara-
chakraand, too, a third eye. You've turned into two people but you're now at one with the divine so you blab it out to your partner- for- life, and he says, "That's nice." And then he goes out to get some pizza. Such has been the fate of many of the great religious mystics of all time: we can imagine some of Jesus' friends in Galilee, whispering about him, "Did you hear what he said about him and God? Christ! What a hairpin!"
Gorrell is desperately afraid of going down her mother's road --- the road of a certified paranoid schizophrenic; of, perhaps, being taken away to some institution (in those years, it was far easier to commit family members). She is unwilling to tell anyone what is happening to her --- except us (and this some thirty years after the fact). For those of us who have been there, the spectre of lunacy is sometimes almost impossible to separate from the spectre of religious passion, and in Perfect Madness, the two of them are conjoined.
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So, on the one hand, we may be reading the words of one who has, in her words, "experienced the most absolute experience that any human being can have." On the other, it's entirely possible that over that nine month period Gorrell went around the bend. She doesn't make it easy for us to figure out which it was --- and that may be the driving power of the book.
Her knowledge of the ways of Eastern religion and the steps to Enlightenment are letter perfect: she knows the words, she knows expectations, she knows the vocabulary. On each page, there are quotes from the likes of Meher Baba, Teilhard de Chardin, Yogi Ramacharaka, Seth Speaks, Zen Master Hakuin.
With the power of her descriptions, we have no doubt that for almost a year something overwhelming was going on inside her head. In this regard, I was reminded of the mesmerizing autobiography of Daniel Paul Schreber, whose Memoirs of My Nervous Illness tells of the intricately interweaving logic world of paranoia and pain and revelation.
Gorrell tells us that nirvana is the very same vacuum state as the original state of God. Has she achieved enlightenment? Maybe --- but the entire corpus has a feel of uncertainty, and of overstretching. In a small 200 page book, there are over 150 quotes from different spiritual texts. There is, too, her unwillingness to reveal even a bit of what is happening to her family and friends.
We suspect that there had to be someone she could trust not to call the Thought Police on her, for one of the key elements of achieving harmony in Eastern religion is the sangha --- the fellowship (in the West it is the agape, the brotherhood). In Chicago where she lived there were dozens of masters and students of Zen, Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism who would have provided some direction; at worst, some comfort.
Enlightenment or schizophrenia? Our doubts flow from something as simple as the words "I," "my," and "mine," which, at times, threaten to swamp the reader: on one page alone --- page 90 --- I counted twenty-five of them.
In addition, there is the lack of any sense of fun or humor in her tale. Admittedly, it was a harrowing experience, but as Pema Chodron reminds us, in the depths of religious experience there has to come a time when we realize how funny it all is (at the same time, how deadly serious it all is --- which becomes part of the comedy).
Finally, and most telling, it is the undertone of self-pity. Should an enlightened being still have a touch of the martyr? Early on in her new and earth-shaking experiences, speaking of the moment when she understands, for the first time, the Tao, and self-acceptance, she says,
I rose from the ashes of my past and decided everyone else should, too. I ordered myself some spaghetti with meatballs, put on my red polka-dot negligee, turned on the television, and waited for Pete to come home. I had been forgiven all my transgressions and thought so should he. But I guess Pete forgot where here was because I didn't see him until dawn.
Self-pity? Maybe yes, maybe no. One of Bo Lozoff's favorite stories tells of the master who lost his only son. His followers find him weeping, beating on the wall. They say, in so many words, "What's happening? You're the master. You're supposed to be above all this."
He says, "Yes, yes --- I know. But it hurts!"--- A. W. Allworthy