In early August of 1990, about ten days before I left New York City and childhood for Arizona State University, I began hearing voices. By that I don’t mean I suffered auditory hallucinations. At no point did I imagine that literal, living people were speaking to me. Rather, I began arguing with myself about the direction of my life and the moral implications of every choice I faced. Nothing was beneath consideration; everything counted. Here I am, for example, critiquing my own taste in music:
Me: “Well it’s been ten years/ and a thousand tears/And look at the mess I’m in/A broken nose and a broken heart,/An empty bottle of gin…” Really, Max, do you think you ought to be glamorizing failure? Now that you’re facing so many opportunities, hadn’t you better listen to music that celebrates success?
Me: Huh? Who’s glamorizing? It’s just a freaking song. I mean, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it! And who in hell celebrates success, anyway, Robert Palmer? I mean, geez-Louise…
Three things are worth noting about these exchanges: First, they invariably took the form of accusation and denial. Second, the denials were never half so eloquent or thoroughly thought through as the accusations. The general effect was of a brilliant trial attorney pouncing on a yokel of a witness. Third, I — that is, the person of established habits and familiar tastes being cross-examined — always lost.
I’d have dropped the game if I’d been able, but it had an addictive quality. Once I moved into the dorms and began settling into my new routine, my critic began assuming a new character. From a swaggering, snarling prosecutor, it transformed into a girl I’d been involved with during sophomore year of high school. Like me, she was a shrink’s kid from Upper Manhattan. (We’d lived only five blocks apart; during the summer after graduation, she made a habit of turning up on my doorstep at the most unnerving times.) Also like me, she cultivated a knowing air, only hers was much more convincing. As I adjusted to the hardships of living among palm trees, I brought her back for a curtain call. The witness stand became an analyst’s couch, and the questions more brutally intimate:
Me (as her): What, exactly, do you mean to prove by getting your hair cut in a flat top like this Elliot Ness person? Do you really think adopting a macho façade is going to help you separate yourself emotionally from your parents, who —
Me (as me): It’s Mike Ness, and fuck off.
Me (as her): Someone asks you a probing question and this is how you respond. How juvenile. How typical. And you look like Vanilla Ice.
The inquisitorial voice began sounding off so automatically that it seemed to be operating quite on its own. Before long, I could experience no pleasurable sensation without a spasm of fear, since I knew something like this was coming:
Fried chicken and soft-serve with rainbow sprinkles from the buffet at the Memorial Union? Really, Max? This satisfies you? Can’t you do better than this?
Oh, I’m sure you’ll eat it. But you won’t like it. Not while I’m around.
The more my concern-trolling interlocutor seemed to take on personality and agency, the more our exchanges came to resemble battles of will. It, or she, aimed to trip me up, make me quit, make me fail, thus exposing some weakness and confirming some thesis she’d worked out privately. (Exactly what this was I never did discover, but the gist was that I was a helpless idiot.) My attitude turned openly defiant; I began gloating over successes.
I told you we’d beat Saddam and create a New World Order. What do you and Professor Chomsky have to say to that, huh?
Several times I called home to beg help. Every time I reached for the words to describe what was happening and came up with “hearing voices,” I shut up for fear I’d be locked up. Yet the record will show that, somehow, I finished the year with tolerable grades. I also played middie on the lacrosse team — we swept the Pac-10’s second division — went to Mazatlan for Spring Break, made some friends, hooked up a few times, and tried a couple of new drugs. I even nosed around the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Class until it became apparent they’d be no more willing to waive me in despite my bad eyes than the doctors at the Ft. Hamilton MEPS center had been. Despite suffering what must have been very close to a schizophrenic collapse, I managed to become, for the first time in my life, an all-rounder.
Sometime during the summer, which I spent hawking beach toys and Traci Lords videos door-to-door in Hasidic neighborhoods, the voice decamped. I began sophomore year more or less fully in possession of my ears and head.
Just yesterday, a friend was explaining to me why my conversion story failed to satisfy him. “You talk about its sociological context — your Jewish father, your Irish-Catholic mother, your sexual frustrations and disillusionment with materialism. But I don’t hear the voice of God, the one that woke Samuel in the night and made him say, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ Where’s that voice in your life? That’s what I’d like to know.”
It’s an excellent question, and I suppose I’m writing this to explain, finally, why I have no ready answer. I must have heard God’s voice clearly at least once, on the day I decided, almost out of the blue, to attend Mass in a strange church. But I can’t recall hearing it since. I haven’t been listening, you see; indeed, you could say I’ve plugged my ears to it. I go to Mass and begin each day with the Our Father and try not to commit too many mortal sins, but I prefer to keep my conversations with God strictly one-way. I’m scared to death His voice, when I do hear it, is going to sound like — you know, like that.