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Author Biography - Clancy Sigal

Clancy Sigal writes about himself and Zone of the Interior:

I came to Britain as a weekend tourist to visit the Tower of London and stayed for thirty years, and I still haven't seen the Tower. Buckingham Palace and Westminister Abbey held little interest because it was "their" England - royal, smug, reactionary. "My" England was elsewhere. At the time I arrived, as an illegal immigrant (without a valid U.S. passport or visa), ten years after the war when the streets were still bomb-cratered, this other England was virtually unknown except to a very few writers, like Colin MacInnes, Ray Gosling and one or two others. Defiant, rebellious, messy, Secret England was an unexplored land fit for heroes and thoroughly effed up by a snob-ridden, class conscious and static society.

A few of us tried to change that.

Raised by a single mum on the dole, I was born in a rough Chicago neighborhood which my psyche has never left. It prepared me to be comfortable in a down-at-the-heels but workable country, like England in the fogged-up Fifties and crazy Sixties. The food was indigestible, central heating a myth, language tricky and weather tubercular. But you could decompress and disintegrate at your own speed, which is what I needed at the time.

In my duffle bag I carried the past hundred years of American history. Both my parents were wandering union organizers in the tradition of Joe Hill and Emma Goldman. For a while I followed in their footsteps, a vagrant like Jack Kerouac only with a radical slant. Before the FBI and police 'red squads' had computers, it was relatively easy to stay out of jail simply by skipping town. At first that's what I did in the U.K. too, always one step ahead of Home Office gumshoes and Special Branch.

For a while I lost myself in the pleasant chaos of the British new left - I'm a founding father, along with Rafael Samuel, E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall. I helped organize the first CND Aldermaston March. But my warmest welcome came from the Yorkshire coal miners who helped me write my first book, 'Weekend in Dinlock'. When the US Supreme Court voted to give me back back my passport in the landmark Paul Robeson case, I was free to travel but by now the habit of London ran deep. I'd make my last stand here, I decided.

Before falling off the edge of the known world in the company of the 'anti-psychiatrists' - R.D. Laing, David Cooper and the Philadelphia Association - I wrote 'Going Away', an account of a road trip across America in the McCarthyish 1950s, influenced by 'On the Road'. Mission accomplished, I deliberately entered the 'madness scene' with a dual purpose, to report on it and if possible to inoculate myself with the schizophrenia serum that would give me the illness and cure me of it at the same time.

'Zone of the Interior' was also my attempt to contribute to what I hoped would be a free-ranging debate on people like myself with screwed up minds or broken hearts. Although I helped set up the Kingsley Hall halfway house - built, really, by the singleminded devotion of Sid Briskin - my deepest emotions were stirred by the young Connolly House schizophrenics in 'Zone'. They turned my life upside down, caused me to laugh and cry in the same breath, and I miss them every day.

Through much of the Sixties I lived like the 'Werewolf of London', furtive, afraid of the authorities and myself and, above all, of being caught in insane acts and thoughts. Being in jail held no terrors for me, but 'men in white coats' - medical professionals - who might stall or abort my 'ecstatic journey' sickened me with fear. There was no proof I could do this thing, this experiment-on-myself, but at a time when the Velvet Underground was wierdly regarded as good music and hallucinogenic drugs were available for jet-assisted takeoff, I thought, what the hell, why not?

My life at 67 Princes Square, Bayswater, was like Jekyll and Hyde's laboratory. Respectable by day, I broadcast for BBC and wrote for the Guardian and Observer as well as The Spectator and (most fun) Vogue. By night, in my lab-flat a haven for diagnosed schizophrenics and runaway mental cases, it was the sadness of madness, midnight escapes, suicide, violence, horror, sex and the elation of 'breaking through' to spaceless universes. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is positively tame by comparison.

Now I'm in the clear, "out of the woods" in one of R.D. Laing's favorite expressions although I'm sorry he couldn't make it with me. Dr David Cooper, whose Villa 21 at Shenley Hospital I still believe was a (not the) great way forward in treatment, or as he would put it non-treatment of a non-illness (we disagree), also died before his time. The person I miss most is Villa 21's chief mental nurse, Frank Atkin, the model for 'Les O'Brien' in my book, who taught me more than all the psychiatric texts I never read.

I never completely 'recovered' from writing 'Zone of the Interior'. First, because it was banned from publication in Britain until now and had to be sold under the counter like porn or samidzat. Second, the schizophrenic experience, darkness and light, remains with me as both a reminder to keep my distance from the romance of madness but also as something inside my now-healed heart that tells me what my real job in life is.

And if you want to talk about true madness, where the inmates run the asylum - the anti-psychiatrists' dream come true - come visit me in Hollywood where I currently make my living as a screenwriter.

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