Familial Concerns

I've recently just finished a splendid book on African literature,

Writing Madness: Borderlines of the Body in African Literature

by Veit-Wild. The book takes a look at writers in Africa and how being

on the fringes of their given nations' governments (be it colonial or

post) pushed them towards madness and forced them to write to deal with it (I'm not doing it any justice here, but there is a great explanation in the book on how people who are in the fringes of any society are indeed mad—driven there, or

considered as such, or otherwise).

Of course, I didn't expect to have a world-shifting read when I started

the book. I only wanted to read it to hear an expert give me a handful

of further readings from African Authors who didn't necessarily come

vetted through the normal channels such as the NY times. To that end, I

found several strong writers listed; including one, Marechera, with a

story collection, Scrapiron Blues (African Writers Library).

The main gist is that the book got me thinking about how madness can be

seen in everyday life and how we ignore it. Living in New York one sees

plenty of homeless people. Some seem to be going about their daily

business, though others are notably "out of it", or mad.  The vast

majority are with the former; one homeless man I've seen promises to

write poems for a set amount of money. It's these ones who stir the most

inside me since they seem only slightly removed from a person in a

home. I always wonder what they did to gain such a lot in life.

I see the same thing with artists in the past who were talented but not recognized. Some like Zamyatin died in obscurity after they were exiled for their creations, while others were never even recognized until much later. In a way they were

in the fringes. In a way that is a sort of madness.

All this thinking about madness led my mind to dwell on madness within

my family. In that sense many families are much the same, with their own

quirks, each bordering on madness. Most families are safe from complete

madness (something that tends to limit a family's ability to continue

the bloodline), but they have a little of it due to the diversity

inherent in our biology; and since most people I know aren't rich enough

to completely hide that madness, stories about one mad relative or

another abound.

What follows is a story from a friend of mine (update, feb2015, this

is a story with many links that will only add to it and create a world

all of its own), Gerad , who never lies. He hails from a family that is only just off the boat, from a country which I cannot pronounce or place on a map. He also is a graduate of a highly respected institute of higher education and is currently pursuing a tenure at a smaller college. That, however, might make him truly the

madman of his family, especially when one considers how rigged the

tenure track is towards having cheap labor (he's still a lecturer).  All

that follows is exactly as Gerad said (with his permission):

I have a cousin, Tim, whom I had to babysit once. Not so much babysit, for the young man was nearing an age where he could care for his own food and water and what

not, but more that he was  not trusted by his parents for reasons I'll explain. I was not privy to these matters. You see my parents and Tim’s parents were from a

generation where it was expected to keep things from those in the younger generations.

I don't like this. But perhaps when the moment comes to divulge family

secrets to my children (of which I have none) I too will hesitate;

either because I don’t trust them, or I will feel the weight of the

secrets and imagine that any other being made of at least 50% me

wouldn’t be able to bear such a burden.

I was wary that they would speak ill of the Tim, who had always seemed

bright and somewhat kind. Most of the other stories about the madmen in

my family were filled with harsh, mean men (it was always men, though

sometimes spinsters would get the same treatment) and their foolhardy

attempted conquests of intellectual or real lands that were ultimately

unconquerable. None of these people brought good to the family name, and

were usually mental and financial burdens on all around them.

The night of babysitting, I walked into the house, bid the young Tim hi and settled down to get some work done.  Tim, not yet in his teens, but achieving awkwardness with eyes that wouldn’t stay on anyone speaking to him, decided to play video games in the room next to me. He asked me to look. I watched as his avatar stalked grown men from rooftops in some long ago past, while a knife in his hand turned on

guard’s throats and they screamed out in half-muffled and a-tad-too-realistic cries. I nodded, smiled, and decided that I should get to know this Tim of my family. I asked him if he was enjoying school—a horridly unimaginative question that I hated as a child and teen, but now that the roles were reversed, I couldn’t see anything else

that would make sense as a question.

He talked about a couple classes which he found to be somewhat

interesting: math and something or the other. I observed him a little

too much as he talked, he squirmed. I laid my eyes on the TV instead,

but that only increased his nervousness.

From his outside looks, baby-faced with a black mop on top, he seemed

normal. But there was something in his eyes that reminded me of

dreamers. We’d had a few dreamers in my family, both sides from what I

hear, and none of their stories had ever ended well. Usually, they’re

looked at with a mix of romanticism—at least the beginning of their

stories—and disdain, for what they failed to achieve: never anything in

the name of technical weighable achievements, which our

technocratic family demanded.

Tim then asked me about what it was I was doing. I told him that I was

writing, and could see his face fill with dread and worry. Which meant

he was possibly normal for our family. I went back to what I was doing.

I looked up periodically, to see that Tim was staring at the pause

screen of the video game. After some time, I looked up and he was gone,

the screen still paused with a man leaping from a rooftop, a dark

medieval skyline stretching out in the distance, and a guard on the

bottom of the screen about to turn around. I could smell macaroni and

cheese cooking, and I decided that Tim was perfectly fine for this


Funnily enough, my mother called, and after she asked, hushed and

worried, about how Tim was doing, I scolded her for worrying about the

kid, and possibly warping him with that worry. The pause and sigh that

followed told me that she was disappointed in me, again. Then she

started to worry about me, asking what I was doing to gain a real career

or push my bosses for a promotion and all. I hung up after my mother

grew tired of analyzing what I had done wrong, and went back to my


Except now I couldn’t write anything because I could feel, sense, a

discomfort churning up my guts. I realized that it was quieter than

normal. I looked up and saw Tim staring straight at me from another room. At first I was disturbed, then a waft of pride came over me, then worry. I asked him what he was doing.

He blinked then disappeared. I thought about going after him, but yelled

instead. He didn’t return an answer. I went back to trying to write. My

mind was darting about: on the conversation with my mother, on the

myriad of things that could have gone wrong in my life, on things that I

couldn’t ever control (but the ones that I could control it would

appear that I did incorrectly). I decided to read Borges,

Ficciones to be exact. For a few moments I lost my place in that Argentinian's world and was taken away.

But at this point I felt that same churning of my stomach, which spread

to my chest, then my head. I looked up. Again, Tim was staring at me.

This time he didn’t look away, but held my stare until I was scared. I

growled at him.

He nodded and came over, sitting across from me. After a few moments of

silence, I let out a sigh. There must have been something to worry

about, otherwise why was he acting this way? Then, like a ghost, a

memory rushed through me.

It had been a few months ago when there was an impromptu family reunion,

there had been a fight between my parents and his. During this

altercation Tim grew from that bright eyed creature full of curiosity to

one of complete dejection. He yelled out something indiscreet and

asked: "Why do I have to be here, why can’t I be there?" This statement

silenced the argument and our parents exchanged worrying looks.

Now, looking at Tim, I sensed that something about him wasn’t just wrong, it were as if a part of him wasn’t around, wasn’t


I remembered that as a young child he had an issue with craning his

neck to stare at clouds, the sky, ceilings, so much so that he had to

visit a doctor to get it fixed. Was that what my family had been

whispering about?

I asked him what he wanted. After he mumbled a bit, I discerned that he

looked up to me, so I acted kinder. Finally he told me he had something

to show me. He turned and walked. I got up and followed. He led me to

the basement door before pausing and looking at me. He twisted the knob

and into the darkness we descended.

Not to be completely dramatic, but we entered the basement, no lights,

except for a few lamps lighting up the top of a long pine desk. On it

were wires made into a cube-matrix. I stood across from Tim, watching as

he rested his hands on the desk, his nervousness now showing up as

tremors in his fingers. I asked what it was and with a heavy sigh he

explained the game he was inventing or at the worst bringing out from

obscurity. It was a 3-Dimensional-go game, a variation of that ancient

Chinese game that made chess look like child’s play. The 2-Dimensional

version, that is. That anyone could look at that game and think that

they needed a harder (as I would assume the 3d game would be) version

was beyond me.

Tim proceeded to explain he game and the reason he made it and how he

had made it a playable version of the 2-D original. Awkward he was, but I

decided that perhaps this one of our family wasn’t so bad, that he was

at least trying to be original and in a world like the one we’re living

in here in this 21st century and on, originality isn’t the entire death

knell that it once used to be, especially when it’s applied to something

like games.

So he went on and on about how he saw this game as an all new way to

make the mind smarter, something about how it would allow those who have

a grasp of it to program better or solve other problems because of its

multi-connectivety (its rules would be same: in that a stone when placed

down—here it would be clipped on—would be taken off if all of its free

spots were taken, and a group of stones needed two eyes; the main

difference being that a stone when placed is connected to 6 other spots

instead of 4). He explained how he had the stones (here a 3-D ball that

could be clipped into place) interact with the cube (wired up to be a

7x7x7 cube) via a small electronic switch which would light up the

adjacent connections to the immediate points nearby a placed stone via

LED lights. This allowed one to better see which groups were where.

Therefore instead of having black and white stones, he had red and blue,

so that if two stones next to each other were of opposing colors, they

would light it up and emit a green color.

I nodded my head, impressed. I asked him if he had played a game. He

said thousands. I asked with whom. He stared at his contraption until he

was sweating. I realized that I may have crushed his trust and decided

to tell him that he was brilliant, and that this was one of the more

amazing things I had seen (cutting myself off before saying for someone

of your age). It was. I asked if he wanted to play a game.

Stuttering, he rudely said that he didn’t bring me here to play games. I

held back a retort since he was too young to know that what he was

saying was offensive. I asked him what he wanted to show me. Again he

stared at his contraption.

It’s there, he said and jerked his head towards a dark corner of the

basement. I hesitated. Not one to be superstitious anymore, not at this

age, not when life throws worse things than any comic book at you, yet I

felt the grip of evil. Tim grabbed my wrist. He was stronger than he


He told me that he wasn't crazy. I knew this wasn’t going to be good.

Then he started to go into a whole confession (that's what it sounded

like) about where he got this idea for 3-D go and other such things. It

was from a peoples who were living in a world which he accessed by from

various points in the basement. That corner he pointed, and seeing a

glowing orb of light, unlike any other, I froze in place. He continued

to describe this almost alien world where the people were kind to each

other and only cared about that and maybe the ideas that one could come

up with, no matter how crazy those ideas were.

He went on to say that they may not speak a language close to what he

spoke, but it was a perfect place to escape and that he could get away

from the pressures that his parents placed on him. Not only this, but

the cities where these aliens lived, alien furnaces provided the only

light as their original planet had been burned out by a supernova long

ago and they were forced to live on a dark rock in the corner of our

galaxy. The trees in these cities were crystal and extended farther than

the eye could see.

And I knew then that I had been wrong to accuse my parents and his

parents of having been overly-worried. Memories and pieces of knowledge

I'd suppressed floated to the top. Our family had had a handful of

people who had nearly been institutionalized. Every generation had had

one. I felt fear for this relative who was out in the fringes, amazing

game invented, or not.

I respectfully declined to see the magic corner of his. Why? Because I

too had a handful of the same quirks he did. What if I saw what he did?

So I did what any normal person would. I was as nice to him as possible

and in the end I decided to ignore that wing of the family for as long

as possible, only helping to feed the rumors so that something would be

done about Tim. I knew then what madness was. It was a decrepit disease,

not some inherent trait, and I would have to try my hardest to keep it

out of my system. I also understood that the fight with madness was the

fight for the preservation of civilization. That's when I switched my

field of study from literature to computer science.

And that's the story. I never heard any updates from Gerad about what became of his cousin.

The End