Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions
ISBN:0-15-127358-8 (c)Copyright 1984 by John F. Michell
This chapter reprinted in full the with author's permission.
Copies of Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions may be ordered from the author.
Send $24 or £12 to the following address. Price includes airmail postage.
11 Powis Gardens
London W11 1JG
Amanda Feilding lives in a charming flat looking over London's river with her companion, Joey Mellen, and their infant son, Rock. She is a successful painter, and she and Joey have an art gallery in a fashionable street of the King's Road. Another of her talents is for politics. At the last two General Elections she stood for Parliament in Chelsea, more than doubling her vote on the second occasion from 49 to 139. It does not sound much, but the cause for which she stands is unfamiliar and lacks obvious appeal. Feilding and her voters demand that trepanning operations be made freely available on the National Health. Trepanation means cutting a hole in your skull.
The founder of the trepanation movement is a Dutch savant, Dr Bart Hughes. In 1962 he made a discovery which his followers proclaim as the most significant in modern times. One's state and degree of consciousness, he realized, are related to the volume of blood in the brain. According to his theory of evolution, the adoption of an upright stance brought certain benefits to the human race, but it caused the flow of blood through the head to be limited by gravity, thus reducing the range of human consciousness. Certain parts of the brain ceased or reduced their functions while others, particularly those parts relating to speech and reasoning, became emphasized in compensation. One can redress the balance by a number of methods, such as standing on one's head, jumping from a hot bath into a cold one, or the use of drugs; but the wider consciousness thus obtained is only temporary. Bart Hughes shared the common goal of mystics and poets in all ages: he wanted to achieve permanently the higher level of vision, which he associated with an increased volume of blood in the capillaries of the brain.
The higher state of mind he sought was that of childhood. Babies are born with skulls unsealed, and it is not until one is an adult that the bony carapace is formed which completely encloses the membranes surrounding the brain and inhibits their pulsations in response to heart-beats. In consequence, the adult loses touch with the dreams, imagination and intense perceptions of the child. His mental balance becomes upset by egoism and neuroses. To cure these problems, first in himself and then for the whole world, Dr Huges returned his cranium to something like the condition of infancy by cutting out a small disc of bone with an electric drill. Experiencing immediate beneficial effects from this operation, he began preaching to anyone who would listen to the doctrine of trepanation. By liberating his brain from its total imprisonment in his skull, he claimed to have restored its pulsations, increased the volume of blood in it and acquired a more complete, satisfying state of consciousness than grown-up people normally enjoy. The medical and legal authorities reacted to Huges's discovery with horror and rewarded him with a spell in a Dutch lunatic asylum.
Joseph Mellen met Bart Huges in 1965 in Ibiza and quickly became his leading, or rather one and only, disciple. Years later he wrote a book called Bore Hole, the contents of which are summarized in its opening sentence: 'This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my skull to get permanently high.'
The first part of Bore Hole is about Joey's earlier life, preceding his conversion to the perforated head movement. He was born within a few days of the outbreak of the Second World War, was educated at Eton College and Oxford University and, at the age of twenty-one, found himself in London, on course for a career as a chartered accountant. The marvellous era of the 1960s was then dawning. New modes of music, combined with the sudden appearance and popularity of all sorts of drugs, were giving rise to radically new styles of thought and fashion. Joey had always been an enthusiast. Following the example of his father, a former Oxford rowing blue, he had become a renowned sportsman during his schooldays, ending up as captain of the Oxford University boxing team. In London, the devotion he had paid to boxing was transferred to drugs, beginning with amphetamines and cannabis. At about that time a book came into his hands called Wisdom, Madness and Folly: the Philosophy of a Lunatic. Its author was a manic-depressive, and the insights he recorded were similar to those Joey was experiencing through drugs, persuading him that life at large offered more interest and excitement than could be found in an accountant's office. He abandoned professional studies for life in London's High Bohemia.
The account in Bore Hole of its author's career during the 1960s constitutes a valuable record of the peculiar atmosphere of the period. Joey's friends included drug-addict crooks and con-men, as well as many of the young artists and aristocrats of avant-garde society. Among these were Jane Ormesby-Gore and her future husband, Michael Rainey, whose Chelsea boutique purveyed colourful outfits to Beatles, Rolling Stones and others of fame and rank; Christopher Gibbs who provided the same sort of customers with fine English furniture and country houses; Kenneth Anger the mystical film-maker; Sir Mark Palmer, the Queen's page who rose to become an itinerant horse-dealer; Lord Timothy Willoughby who disappeared from his boat in the Mediterranean; and Joshua Macmillan, a grandson of the then Prime Minister and an early victim of alcohol and amphetamines combined. Their favourite resort was Torremolinos in the south of Spain, where Rainey's sister, Shelagh Tennant, had a night-club. She disapproved of Joey's passion for drugs, but liked him enough to bear him a daughter, whom they presented to his mother for adoption. With other friends, the beatniks, bohemians and early hippies of Torremolinos, he enjoyed the life of a free spirit and the diversity of sex and drugs on offer at the time. After an experience of mescalin he decided that he had only one drug problem, how to obtain more of it. Soon the pleasures of Torremolinos became widely famed, waves of fresh hedonists arrived for a share in them, and Joey and his friends were impelled to seek new playgrounds. He found his in Ibiza where, on his first evening, he met Bart Huges and took his first LSD trip.
Many writers have tried to describe the effects of drugs such as LSD, mostly without conveying very much. Joey's effort in Bore Hole is at least intelligible: 'I felt brilliant, god-like, able to understand everything. At the same time as being fascinated by the way I could see things as though through a magnifying glass, I could hear all the sounds of the town outside the house as well as those inside, and each perception registered quite clearly, distinct from all the others though related to them, like the various instruments in an orchestra. Now I knew what eternity meant. Time seemed to stop and still everything was moving. I was ecstatic. I kept eating sugarlumps. I could feel that this was the energy I needed to get round this universe in my brain.'
The eating of sugar during the LSD trip was due to another of Bart Huges's discoveries. His explanation for the effects of taking drugs was that they cause constriction of the veins carrying blood from the head back to the heart, thus raising the volume of blood in the capillaries from which the brain takes nourishment. This is in the form of oxygen and glucose, so if there is not enough sugar in the blood, the brain is liable to pangs of starvation, resulting in feelings of unease or horror and, as they say, a bad trip. Those under Bart's influence made sure that they took plenty of sugar, fruit juice and other sweet things with their LSD, claiming that their drug experiences were thereby made delightful and never became frightening.
It was not so with other people. As the powerful acid (lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD) made the rounds of Ibiza, the sensations of awe and ecstasy it first inspired quickly turned to fear. It is a drug which accentuates all perceptions, including self-awareness, and many who took it casually for pleasure were shaken to the core by the images of themselves encountered under its influence. Waves of paranoia swept over the drug-fanciers of Ibiza. Dr Huges diagnosed sugar-lack, and he and Joey did their best to spread the word about sugar-cubes and 'Brainbloodvolume' among the stricken acid heroes. It was in vain. No one seemed to have time or patience for their lectures about the connection between sugar, the brain and LSD. There was a nasty scene when Joey introduced a French woman tourist to acid, insisting that she take sugar with it. She had previously been drinking, and her combined ingestions caused her to vomit and lose control. She fled to her husband who accused Joey of trying to poison her.
Back in London, Joey took on the task of preparing his fellow countrymen for the coming of LSD. He exhibited the magnificent scroll with coloured diagrams which Bart had designed to demonstrate the mechanisms of Brainbloodvolume, and he also composed an open letter to drug dealers about the advice they should give their clients on taking acid. A notable character in London at the time was Michael Holingshead, who had assumed that name in reference to the mystical third eye, or hole in the head, as a symbol of enlightenment. Holingshead was the original acid guru who had initiated Timothy Leary by giving him his first taste of LSD. His flat in Pont Street, Chelsea, was headquarters of the World Psychedelic Centre where neophytes could enjoy their LSD experience in a pleasant atmosphere with music and soft lights. Joey told him about Bart Huges's discoveries, but the guru was unreceptive to the idea of making a physical hole in his head, maintaining that the third eye should be considered purely as a symbol. But he was won over to the theory of sugar and fruit-juice as an aid to LSD-trippers, and he helped circulate the open letter among acid-dealers. The World Psychedelic Centre became so popular that it attracted the attention of the police, who closed it down and arrested its officials, Joey included. In the Magistrate's Court he spoke eloquently in defence of LSD, elaborating on a text from Bart Huges's writings, 'The evolutionary religion protects the right of the individual to have his own blood in his own brain.' The Court was evidently impressed and fined Joey £20, considerably less than the other defendants.
Early in 1966 money was raised to bring Bart Huges over to London and lodge him in a Chelsea flat. LSD was the sensation of the time, and there were many who believed that the unique experiences and insights it provided were about to revolutionize patterns of thought and behaviour throughout the world. The press was full of the subject, and Bart and Joey were much in demand for lectures and interviews. Inexperienced in the ways of journalists, they had supposed that their theories would be reported as seriously as they were expounded. They were soon disillusioned. After a lecture they gave at the respected bookshop, Better Books, they were approached for an interview by two journalists of the Sunday newspaper, The People. Their attitude was sympathetic, Bart and Joey accepted them as genuine seekers after truth and they spent a whole night together in deep study of Brainbloodvolume and trepanation. Eager to see how the message had been presented to the world, Joey was out first thing Sunday morning for the paper. In it was a crude article about Bart under a banner headline: THIS DANGEROUS IDIOT SHOULD BE THROWN OUT.
Wild, virulent articles in the popular press about the orgies of drug-fiends were varied by occasional attempts on the part of journalists to present the LSD phenomenon in serious terms. The results were sometimes ludicrous, as when the BBC asked Joey to arrange for their team to televise a group of acid-takers. Recording rational interviews with people on LSD proved no easy task; George Andrews, veteran author and cannabis-smoker, managed to recite some poetry, but nothing coherent emerged about the advantages of sugar and trepanation. In the end the BBC had to fill in with shots of some writhing figures, as if suffering from belladonna poisoning, which they presented as victims of a bad LSD trip.
Bart Huges's ideas had their best reception among artists and bohemians. Among those impressed was Heathcote Williams, who published a dialogue between Joey and Bart in the literary Transatlantic Review and made a trepanation scene the climax of his award-winning play, AC-DC. An important convert was Julie Felix, a world-famous (in London) American singer in the style of Joan Baez. She was eager to promote the doctrine of trepanation and recorded some of the propaganda songs which Joey had composed, including Brainbloodvolume, The Great Brain Robbery and Sugarlack.
The time came when Joey felt he had preached enough and that he now had to act. He did not agree with Holingshead that the third eye was merely a figure of speech, believing in its physical attainment through self-trepanation. Support for this can be found in archaeology. Skulls of ancient people all over the world give evidence that their owners were skilfully trepanned during their lifetimes, and many of these appear to have been of noble or priestly castes. The medical practice of trepanation was continued up to the present century in treatment for madness, the hole in the skull being seen as a way of relieving pressure on the brain or letting out the devils that possessed it. By his scientific explanation of the reasons for the operation, Bart Huges had removed it from the area of superstition, and Joey Mellen proposed to be the second person to perform it on himself in the interest of enlightenment.
Bart had become a close friend of Amanda Fending, and they went off to Amsterdam together while Joey took care of Amanda's fiat. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for to bore a hole in his head.
The most gripping passages in Bore Hole describe his various attempts to complete the operation. They are also extremely gruesome, and those who lack medical curiosity would do well to read no further. Yet to those who might contemplate trepanation for and by themselves, Joey's experiences are a salutary warning. It should be emphasized that neither he, Bart nor Amanda has ever recommended people to follow their example by performing their own operations. For years they have been looking for doctors who could understand their theories and would agree to trepan volunteer patients as a form of therapy. Strangely enough, not one member of the medical profession has been converted.
In a surgical store Joey found a trepan instrument, a kind of auger or corkscrew designed to be worked by hand. It was much cheaper and, Joey felt, more sensitive than an electric drill. Its main feature was a metal spike, surrounded by a ring of saw-teeth. The spike was meant to be driven into the skull, holding the trepan steady until the revolving saw made a groove, after which it could be retracted. If all went well, the saw-band should remove a disc of bone and expose the brain.
Joey's first attempt at self-trepanation was a fiasco. He had no previous medical experience, and the needles he had bought for administering a local anaesthetic to the crown of his head proved to be too thin and crumpled up or broke. Next day he obtained some stouter needles, took a tab of LSD to steady his nerves and set to in earnest. First he made an incision to the bone, and then applied the trepan to his bared skull. But the first part of the operation, driving the spike into the bone, was impossible to accomplish. Joey described it as like trying to uncork a bottle from the inside. He realized he needed help and telephoned Bart in Amsterdam, who promised he would come over and assist at the next operation. This plan was frustrated by the Home Office, which listed Dr Huges as an undesirable visitor to Britain and barred his entry.
Amanda agreed to take his place. Soon after her return to London she helped Joey re-open the wound in his head and, by pressing the trepan with all her might against his skull, managed to get the spike to take hold and the saw-teeth to bite. Joey then took over at cranking the saw. Once again he had swallowed some LSD. After a long period of sawing, just as he was about to break through, he suddenly fainted. Amanda called an ambulance and he was taken to hospital, where horrified doctors told him that he was lucky to be alive and that if he had drilled a fraction of an inch further he would have killed himself.
The psychiatrists took a particular interest in his case, and a group of them arranged to examine him. Before this could be done, he had to appear in court on a charge of possessing a small amount of cannabis. The magistrate demanded another psychiatrist's report and remanded him for a week in prison.
There followed a period of embarrassment as the rumour went round London that Joey Mellen had trepanned himself, whereas in fact he had failed to do so. As soon as possible, therefore, he prepared for a third attempt. Proceeding as before, but now with the benefit of experience, he soon found the groove from the previous operation and began to saw through the sliver of bone separating him from enlightenment or, as the doctors had predicted, instant death. What followed is best quoted from Bore Hole.
'After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last! On closer inspection I saw that the disc of bone was much deeper on one side than on the other. Obviously the trepan had not been straight and had gone through at one point only, then the piece of bone had snapped off and come out. I was reluctant to start drilling again for fear of damaging the brain membranes with the deeper part while I was cutting through the rest or of breaking off a splinter. If only I had had an electric drill it would have been so much simpler. Amanda was sure I was through. There seemed no other explanation of the schlurping noises. I decided to call it a day. At that time I thought that any hole would do, no matter what size. I bandaged up my head and cleared away the mess.'
There was still doubt in his mind as to whether he had really broken through and, if so, whether the hole was big enough to restore pulsation to his brain. The operation had left him with a feeling of wellbeing, but he realized that it could simply be from relief at having ended it. To put the matter beyond doubt, he decided to bore another hole at a new spot just above the hairline, this time using an electric drill. In the spring of 1970 Amanda was in America and Joey did the operation alone. He applied the drill to his forehead, but after half an hour's work the electric cable burnt out. Once again he was frustrated. An engineer in the flat below him was able to repair the instrument, and next day he set out to finish the job. 'This time I was not in any doubt. The drill head went at least an inch deep through the hole. A great gush of blood followed my withdrawal of the drill. In the mirror I could see the blood in the hole rising and falling with the pulsation of the brain.'
The result was all he had hoped for. During the next four hours he felt his spirits rising higher until he reached a state of freedom and serenity which, he claims, has been with him ever since.
For some time now he had been sharing a flat with Amanda, and when she came back from America she immediately noticed the change in him. This encouraged her to join him on the mental plane by doing her own trepanation. The operation was carefully recorded. She had obtained a cine-camera, and Joey stood by, filming, as she attacked her head with an electric drill. The film shows her carefully at work, dressed in a blood-spattered white robe. She shaves her hair, makes an incision in her head with a scalpel and calmly starts drilling. Blood spurts as she penetrates the skull. She lays aside the drill and with a triumphant smile advances towards Joey and the camera.
Ever since, Joey and Amanda have lived and worked together in harmony. From the business of buying old prints to colour and resell, they have progressed to ownership of the Pigeonhole Gallery and seem reasonably prosperous. They have also started a family. There is nothing apparently abnormal about them, and many of their old friends agree in finding them even more pleasant and contented since their operations. There is plenty of leisure in their lives, mingled with the kind of activities they most enjoy. These of course include talking and writing about trepanation. They have lectured widely in Europe and America to groups of doctors and other interested people, showing the film of Amanda's self-operation, entitled Heartbeat in the Brain. It is generally received with awe, the sight of blood often causing people to faint. At one showing in London a film critic described the audience 'dropping off their seats one by one like ripe plums'. Yet it was not designed to be gruesome. The soundtrack is of soothing music, and the surgical scenes alternate with some delightful motion studies of Amanda's pet pigeon, Birdie, as a symbol of peace and wisdom.
Typist's note: I don't recommend any of the practices discussed in this article. I also do not wish to bring notoriety to Amanda and Joey. I have been interested in Trepanning since I read about the ancient South American practice from a copy of National Geographic. If anyone has any information on this subject then I certainly welcome mail. I am also looking for a copy of Amanda's film, Heartbeat in the Brain.
Finally, I would like to plug the book:
Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions ISBN:0-15-127358-8
(c)Copyright 1984 by John F. Michell (I have seen his name spelled Mitchell in some references).
This is a very interesting book about eccentrics and the best that I have read on the subject.
Copies of Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions may be ordered from the author.
Send $24 or £12 to the following address. Price includes airmail postage.
11 Powis Gardens
London W11 1JG