Author: Gloria Naylor (yes, that Gloria Naylor)
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: God help me, but just bear with me for a moment. Back when I stumbled across the information about Johnny Gosch and the whole Franklin Scandal, I did a search and somehow ended up on the site of a woman called Eleanor White – I can no longer recall the exact link that got me there, but believe me, I got there. Anyway, Eleanor is a person who believes in gang stalking, meaning that organized groups of government entities and private citizens stalk her, breaking into her home, wearing out her clothes, breaking her furniture, leaving mounds of dirt on her kitchen floor, tapping her phone calls, harassing her at work, following her every move and using advanced technology to read her mind. The site had some unintentionally hilarious moments, like when White or someone else posted pictures of some very ratty long johns worn through at the crotch as proof that someone was breaking into their home and wearing out their clothes.
But ultimately, there was nothing funny about any of it because no matter whether or not you believe these people’s claims, the fact remains that they think this is happening to them and some are terrified. Regardless, the first link on the Alphabetical Site list White had on her site was to a review of Gloria Naylor’s 1996. So I had to get a copy. It took me a while to make myself read it. And I don’t even really want to discuss it here because I know that the end result will be a lot of e-mails if not comments from people who genuinely think they are victims of gang or multiple stalkers and will accuse me of being part of the vast conspiracy of people loosening the buttons on their coats, taking their new tires and replacing them with bald radials in order to make them miserable, or beaming thought rays into their brains to inspire suicide. But I read it and by my own messed up, self-imposed rules, discuss it I must.
Availability: Published in 2005 by Third World Press, it is still in print via the publisher’s website or you can get a used copy here:
Comments: I am a grad school dropout. I finished one semester and realized I was just not cut out for it. I was 26 and didn’t want anybody telling me what to read anymore because I just wanted to be left alone with my true crime, my conspiracy theories, my Loch Ness monster photo analyses and my Fay Weldons. I flat out didn’t have the mental discipline it took to get my Master’s, which was no surprise really because as an undergrad, I would stay up until the wee hours after studying to read the books I wanted to read, sometimes faking my way through classes because I couldn’t bring myself to read Beowulf or Mrs. Dalloway. But in that one semester of grad school, I took an African-American women’s writers class and studied Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. We read The Women of Brewster Place and Mama Day, the latter being not a great novel, but not a bad one either. And the former, in addition to winning a National Book Award in 1983, was a favorite of Oprah, who starred as one of the characters in the mini-series based on the book.
I wonder if Oprah has read 1996. I wonder what she thinks about this book, about what has happened to Gloria Naylor. Something in me tells me she hasn’t read this book. Nor have most Naylor fans who may stumble across this discussion. I am using large quotes from this book in order to discuss it thoroughly and if it seems like I am ridiculing Naylor or anyone else who believes in mind control or gang stalking, I’m not. But if I don’t use her words and react to them with candor, it will be impossible to show why this book is so shocking and so odd.
Gloria Naylor purchased a dream home on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. She set out to spend her summers there, relaxing away from New York and gardening. All was idyllic except for Eunice Simon’s cats. Her neighbor’s cats routinely dug and defecated in her garden. Visiting with Simon did Naylor no good and relations between the two degenerated. Things came to a head when Naylor put out poison to kill tree rats and ended up killing one of Simon’s cats instead. Yes, as in every book I read these days, there is a dead cat in 1996. Things spiral completely out of control when Naylor loses it in a supermarket and snipes at Eunice, “You bitch.” Simon hears “Jew Bitch” and it’s katy bar the door.
At this point, the book slides completely into speculation on Naylor’s part, a retelling of what she thinks must have happened (and bear in mind, Eunice Simon is a pseudonym, as are most of the names in this book, so trying to research what happened to Naylor is impossible). According to Naylor, Simon’s brother is highly placed in the National Security Agency, and though he is tired of his oversensitive sister, he finds that Naylor has tenuous social ties to Black Muslims and begins to make her life hell on those grounds. Using the anti-Jew sentiment that Eunice misheard in the supermarket combined with anti-Semitism perceived as the aim behind Black Muslim groups, Dick Simon from the NSA not only launches an investigative campaign against Naylor, but he also calls in the local ADL to assist stalking and tailing her.
Naylor’s garden is killed off by stalkers. Her home is broken into. She is followed everywhere she goes. Her computer is hacked. Three students recruited by the NSA to torment her – she calls them The Boys – terrorize her at all hours. A friend who visits her is threatened. She returns to New York and the organized stalking continues. Every few minutes, cars stop and open and slam close their doors outside her apartment. Neighbors let the NSA set up a computer and satellite in their home so that thought rays can be beamed into Naylor’s brain. These thoughts they send her are meant to cause her to try to kill herself. When Naylor fights back against the thought rays via inner strength, the NSA ups the ante and begins to read her thoughts and respond to them in real time via typed words on a computer, a sort of intercranial instant message conversation. Untold amounts of money and man hours are spent on tailing and antagonizing Naylor, who accidentally killed a cat and spoke admiringly of the Million Man March.
I am not going to dither here as others have who have read this book, refusing to comment on the factual truth of the events as Naylor perceives them. Outside of sites on organized and gang stalking, you will find scholars weasel out of dealing with the horror of the content by stating the largely irrelevant: that whether or not you believe Naylor was a victim of organized citizen and government stalking, isn’t this an interesting look at race relations in America, a sober reminder of the potential for a tyrannical police state or a fascinating combination of narrative fiction and speculation? That’s some bullshit right there, folks.
I won’t waffle because it is a condescending move not to state facts plainly because I don’t want to look like I am calling a renowned writer crazy. Yes, race relations are still terrible in this country. Yes, the government is intrusive. And maybe Naylor set off a Jewish neighbor with some ties to the NSA and Naylor was investigated a bit rigorously as a result. But nothing else here that Naylor describes as a fictional narrative of true events is even plausible. There are those who think that the fallout of her dispute with her neighbor caused Naylor to become mentally ill. I have no idea. But this book is full of delusions.
When a person says they are stalked, I can believe them. When a person says they were investigated rigorously by the government, I can believe it. Believe me, I can believe it. We all have stories to tell in this post 1984, post 9/11 age. But when a person tells me that the government has been reading their mind with a computer and a type of satellite, typing in responses to their thoughts in an abusive argument, not only can I not believe it, but it brings into doubt even the rational, reasonable accusations the person made. Given the paranoiac belief that Jews are fueling the attacks against her, reliance that Naylor has genuine understanding of what happened to her is crucial to being able to tolerate this book as much more than an anti-Jewish polemic in which a misunderstood insult in a grocery store can launch the entire force of the Anti-Defamation League in a campaign of terror. But then again, I also think only a True Believer in the utter corruption and complete, almost God-like competence of our government will be able to believe the whole of 1996.
This is gonna be one of my longer discussions so read the rest under the jump.
Our government does terrible things and can never keep it a secret. The government tapped phones and monitored online usage of citizens after the invasion of Iraq and could not keep it secret. If our government had the power to read minds and implant thoughts, it would not be a classified secret for long and they would not invest the incredible man hours to use this technology on the handful of desperate people who think they are being abused in this manner. It took a team of people, if Naylor is to be believed, to organize the campaign against her, using private citizens in the ADL and members of the NSA, as well as students recruited and sent to the remote South Carolina island where she lived. Expensive and esoteric technology was installed in the homes of private citizens, agents were flown all over the country, homes were rented, and countless man hours spent harassing Naylor, and not, say, the mafia, suspected child molesters, drug traffickers or groups the government thinks are subversive, like the actual Nation of Islam. Naylor because she killed a cat and was suspected of uttering a Jewish slur trumped all of the true criminals and counter culture groups the NSA could have trailed.
The book also makes it clear that even with the added element of being unable to believe much of what Naylor says, it also seems as if Naylor was her own worst enemy talking to her neighbor with the cats. She initially approached her neighbor with cookies to discuss the cats. The second time she went over, she was not particularly polite.
She was doing what she could, she told me, but her babies needed exercise. I suggested she put them on a leash and walk them up and down the Avenue of the Oaks.
So, this little town has a New York writer who comes only for the summer and her closest neighbor is expected to keep her cats in when they are accustomed to having outside access. As an outsider in a small, insular town, her reaction to the situation with people who lived there full-time and for much longer than she had would have rankled everyone, even folk like me who think pet cats are safest indoors. And as an outsider and a woman of color, her time in the South in a small town may have triggered some latent paranoia. And who’s to say some paranoia was not warranted? Small towns in the South can suck mightily even for those who have lived in them for generations. The late Steve Gilliard discussed the complete culture shock he experienced when he, a man of color and native New Yorker, visited South Carolina to see family. As a woman who has lived in the South my entire life, I can tell you that despite the fact that we have a black President, entrenched and at times violence racism is still all too real. If she got her neighbor’s hackles up, I can understand why Naylor may have had her’s up as well. In the beginning, it seems easy to explain what is happening to Naylor, but later nothing is simple.
Oh yeah, in this scene we also discover the cat Naylor dislikes the most is named Orwell. I am not making this up. Then she puts out poison for tree rats and accidentally fells the mighty Orwell. Had I been Eunice Simon, I would have been terribly angry at Naylor for “accidentally” killing my cat.
The death of Orwell the Cat triggers a series of break-ins, Naylor’s garden gets ruined, and her computer is hacked. Frankly, to someone not in the grips of paranoia, her computer compromise sounds more like hack-kiddies than a government probe.
I booted up again, went back to into my WordPerfect program, and after a short while there was another spoof box that was labeled “Trouble.” And the text in this window read, “Big Trouble. We’re Gonna Die.”
Naylor begins to wonder if the government was in fact responsible for the hack on her computer because the whole thing was very unprofessional. But instead of assuming that she was hacked because some hacker somewhere wanted to see if he or she could do it, she decides that perhaps private citizens who are in conjunction with the government are responsible, civilians she thinks have “the power to disrupt my life.”
In the first 50 pages or so, I clung to the idea that maybe this was not going to be as bad as I anticipated but the next passage of Naylor’s imaginings put to rest any hope that I was going to be able to finish this book without a heavy heart. She conveys the next scene from the observations of an NSA agent.
Looking around at the group gathered in Eunice Simon’s living room, he realizes it isn’t going to be easy. The room is packed with operatives from the ADL and NSA, and each is arguing for a piece of the action.
Yes. A room full of NSA agents and private citizens have assembled to argue over who gets to stalk, harass and terrorize a woman who killed a cat and has a tenuous connection with the Nation of Islam. If that seems reasonable to you, you may want to stop reading now.
It goes on:
Things will be a lot more efficient now. First of all, they now have the manpower for blanket surveillance. There is no place she can go or plan to go without their knowledge. There is no one she can talk to, fax, or e-mail without them knowing about it. They can follow her on trains, on planes and definitely in that red truck. She is a woman alone, for God’s sake. She has no organization behind her, has few friends and no help. If she tries to get help, they’ll know about it in plenty of time to divert it, or at least to plan their next strategy.
This passage is a litmus test. If you see how this could happen, chances are all of this discussion is an affront to you. If you wonder why it is that the US government and citizen groups would stalk one woman with this degree of manpower and organization when there are anti-government, overtly anti-Semitic and openly violent groups that pose a far greater threat to the fabric of this country than Naylor, then chances are you understand why this book gave me stomach cramps.
Once she returns to New York, Naylor seals the deal for anyone who was still on the fence as to whether or not she was completely delusional. After installing a tiny computer and satellite in Naylor’s neighbors’ home – her neighbors, in Naylor’s mind, are complicit in the campaign of terror – a man Naylor calls Agent Browne demonstrates how the whole set up works.
“Now,” Agent Browne says, “aim the dish toward my head and type any word into the computer.”
Paulo types in “hello.”
“You typed ‘hello,’” Agent Browne says. “Now, type in a whole sentence.” Paulo types. Agent Browne still has his back to Paulo. “You typed ‘Bring me the keys to the kingdom,” Browne says. “And how do I know? I heard it.” He taps his forehead. “I know what you’re probably thinking, and believe me, this is no magic trick. You have in your hands some of the most advanced technology in the world. We’ve known for a couple of decades that sound can be produced in someone’s head by radiating it with microwaves. It’s now been refined to work with this computer program. This program translates key strokes into bursts of microwaves that bypass the ears and hit the auditory section of the brain. You are, in effect, speaking directly to the brain. And the brain ‘hears’ you. For all the target knows, she’s just had a fleeting thought that originated within her.”
Naylor then goes on to say that the satellite has a 50 foot range and the vocabulary of the computer is 72,000 words. This is mad science here. None of this science is now nor has ever been a threat. The government may be working on it but aside from the research of paranoiacs, there is no proof. This is science fiction. It gets more fantastic as more science fiction gets added to the equation when simply beaming thoughts into Naylor’s head does not work. Dick Simon shows up with a newer infernal device.
“This is vastly different from what you’ve been using because it gives you feedback. You know what an EEG is–a machine that reads brain waves. Well, this is the mother of all EEGs because it translates the brain waves that make up thought. Every time you think a word or a sentence, you hear it inside your head, don’t you. This machine hears it as well as prints it out onto this screen.”
“It’s a world without secrets,” Paulo says.
“No more secrets,” Simon says. “We’ve unlocked the last frontier where secrets can be kept–within the human mind.”
“What’s the vocabulary range?” Paulo asks.
“One hundred thousand words in English. But we’ve programmed in many more languages than that. The best part of this for you is that once you’ve read her mind, you can respond with the microwave hearing device, and she’ll hear you the same way she’s been hearing you for weeks.”
“So, it’s like she’s holding a conversation with herself,” Hallum says.
This mind-reading, thought implanting device drives Naylor to a psychiatrist, who ends up being bullied by the stalking crew and believes Naylor’s tale of persecution. I wish he had come forward to back up her story but then again, perhaps the psychiatrist is as speculative as the idea that Eunice Simon has a brother in the NSA willing to do all of this because someone killed his sister’s cat and is claimed to have uttered an anti-Jewish slur.
And from there, Naylor uses the worst sort of evidence gathering to prove her case that her mind is being read. She cites the case of John St. Clair Akwei, a former NSA employee who claims that in 1990-1991 he was harassed electronically with the same devices Naylor claims were used on her. He sued and his claims were entered into evidence and this “evidence” has been used by those who need it to prove a vast conspiracy on the part of the government to stalk its citizens and read their minds.
When Naylor continues on in her evidence, using the name Barbara Hartwell as a source, I almost quit reading in despair. She is one of the most desperately mentally unsound people I have stumbled across online. And of course, Eleanor White, she of the site I mention above, is given as a source that there is such a thing as synthetic telepathy. And Cheryl Welsh… I can’t even go into detail here about why these sources are so questionable. It’s just too sad. Again, in the interest of self-preservation, I will not link to these people because I take seriously the comments I get here, and if I link to them, I will be over-run with comments and forced to respond to True Believers who think the government is reading their mind, putting dirt on their floors while they are out and drinking their milk straight from the carton. You can’t argue with a True Believer. You shouldn’t even try. Google these names if you like if it helps to put all of this into perspective.
Naylor herself recognizes the terrible problem involved in all of this “proof.”
Their problem was the same as mine and other victims of mind control technology: how do you get people to believe? Unfortunately, information on mind control is sandwiched between reports of underground tunnels where gray aliens work for the U.S. government and sightings of UFOs. Quack stuff… Most people who love their country don’t trust their government. Even if you got them to concede that the government has such technology, their next question would be, “How do you know that it’s happening to you?” Your only response would be, “I know it’s happening to me because it’s happening to me.”
And that’s a whole lot of problem, isn’t it? Because given that believers in mind control think this technology is being kept in neighbors’ homes, being used by arrogant college students recruited to stalk them, and is so available that it can be dredged up in order to be used against the innocuous likes of Gloria Naylor, Eleanor White, and Cheryl Welsh, then it is not too much to ask for someone somewhere to get one of these machines and demonstrate online to the world how it works, take it to sympathetic authorities like the psychiatrist that Naylor says believes her, and show the world instead of relying on speculation.
Let me pose my own question, and this is the hardest question to pose to those who believe they are victims of excessive government probes that include stalking, mind reading and similar: what makes you so special that the government or any person in the government wants you dead or wants to spend millions of dollars tormenting you? There is a damnably sad level of narcissism that permits a person to think they are the focus of such negative energy, expense and pointless aggravation. There is an even more damnable randomness to this – Eleanor White and Gloria Naylor have been subject to mind control but John Gotti and my third grade teacher have not. Why Naylor and not J.D. Salinger, Ingrid Newkirk, Spike Lee, or, frankly, me? The randomness to which citizens get selected for this sort of abuse is baffling.
Naylor herself knows that discussing this is almost futile and her pleas for understanding and almost bitter reconstructions of how she thinks people will react are heartbreaking. She is talking through Dick Simon in the following passage, wherein he speculates about how they will be doing Naylor a favor if they finally drive her to suicide rather than face the humiliation that will come from publishing a book about her ordeal:
They will be saving her from the public humiliation of having this book trashed in every review medium in the country. That is, if she even finds a publisher. They’ll shake their heads sadly over the fact that a writer of her caliber has gone bonkers. She’s seeing Jews coming out of the woodwork, government agents tapping her phone and hacking into her computer, cars mysteriously driving past her when she’s out in the street. Was she planning on fiction or science-fiction? Either way it would be doomed. In the best-case scenario for her, she would find a publisher to print her nonsense and it sells more than fifty copies, but there she would be the queen of the weirdoes (sic), crowned by the same people who brought you UFOs at Roswell, time travel and invisible CIA agents.
It is a mistake to think that because Naylor is an intelligent woman whose writing shows a deep integrity on her part that she cannot go insane. Just because she has the self-awareness to understand how unbelievable her story is, it does not mean she is not suffering from paranoid delusions. Many think that such delusions would render her a gibbering mess who could no longer write or have a normal life outside of the scope of her delusions and that is not the case. This happens to people and while it absorbs most of their life, it does not mean they cannot pay rent, buy groceries and otherwise seem normal. We just don’t expect it to happen to a woman whose first attempt at writing garnered her high accolades, a woman who has had fame outside the literary ghetto because Oprah liked her book. As Naylor says herself in 1996:
Paranoia is a slow poison, and a lethal one. It usually starts with small things and then grows to color almost everything in your life.
She is right and yet I hope she is wrong in the long run because Naylor is a talented novelist whose place in literary history does not need to be tainted or her words dismissed because she had a break with reality and wrote a book about it. I hope one day she leaves behind these delusions – she may have and we don’t know. But in a way, Dick Simon was right – the best case scenario has played out – few people know about this book and hopefully this cancerous paranoia will not be Naylor’s legacy.