Bruce Chatwin's story "The Lyman Family"

with some annotation


 
I have a friend called Jack who has been writing articles on the alternative society for the Boston Globe.

I have not been able to locate any articles in the Boston Globe written by "Jack" which mention the Fort Hill Community. These are the only ones I have found from that era:

Mel Lyman, who is, I believe, a scion of Old Boston, spent time in California as a guitarist.

Apparently Chatwin wasn't much on research, or for some reason wanted to change the facts. Mel Lyman wasn't from Boston, but from the west coast, and wasn't a guitarist, but a banjoist. (Levey's February 1, 1970 article: "Lyman was born on the West Coast and roamed the country for years before settling in Boston.")
He has returned to his native city where, in the thrall of lysergic acid, he has persuaded himself and the 'Family' that he is Christ.
"in the thrall of" means "enslaved to, under the power of", so Chatwin "knew," somehow, that Lyman was "addicted" to LSD, and so decided he was a Savior and set himself up as such for his "Family".
The Lyman Family publishes a broadsheet called Avatar.
Chatwin was British, and apparently enjoyed using words like "scion", "thrall" and "broadsheet". Webster's 3rd (unabridged) explains broadsheet as "Br: A small, wire-stitched pamphlet," which doesn't sound much like Avatar, which had ceased publication by the time of Chatwin's story (1970).
It usually contains a photo of the Saviour, with his triangular jaw and crooked grin, floating through the galaxies in the lotus position.
This is a reference to a picture accompanying an article in "American Avatar" (#3, Summer 1969), the only issue to ever carry that "photo".
Here are some specimens of his prose:
'I'm Christ. I swear to God, in person, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down.'
'I am here as the World Heart and I am not alone.'
'I am master of my own fate.' 'What they fail to realise is that the 20th-century Saviour is going to outfox them all -- yes -- he's going to crucify HIMSELF.'
These are all quoted from "American Avatar" (#3, Summer 1969), which may have been the only issue Chatwin had seen.
He has also put out an album for children: 'Puff the Magic Dragon.'
It's hard to imagine where this piece of "information" came from. This is not the title of any album by Mel Lyman (or anyone else, as far as I know), but rather the famous Peter, Paul and Mary children's folk song, lyrics by Lenny Lipton, written in 1959, when he was a Cornell student of 19. (Incidentally, both Lipton and Peter Yarrow, who wrote the music, maintain that there was no drug connection at all the to lyrics: Urban Legends, Puff the Magic Dragon.)
I was a bit apprehensive about going to the Lyman Family. The Saviour is very shy and doesn't have any teeth at present.
From this point Chatwin only refers to Lyman as "The Saviour". "doesn't have any teeth at present" is typical of the descriptions Chatwin gives of everyone he encounters on Fort Hill, emphasizing where possible, negative characteristics.
Besides, another friend who went there found his orange juice had been laced with LSD. He was taken into a 'sacrament chamber' where there was a light-show and stereophonic sound. At the end of the 'trip' the Saviour appeared in person.
Well, it's just fiction, after all, so no need to provide any "facts" to back up this type of allegation.
You can see Roxbury Hill for miles because a tall monument crowns it, built to commemorate Boston's gallant defence against the British. A hundred years ago this was a fashionable neighbourhood: now it is in the black section. The houses of the Lyman Family adjoin an area of rough ground below the monument.
It seems that wherever possible Chatwin tries to create negative imagery: "was fashionable... now... the black section... rough ground below the monument."
It was a windy winter afternoon. Smutty icicles hung from the eaves. All the doors and windows were boarded-up, and the doorbells ripped out. The garden was surrounded by a high wall, roughly built of re-used stone blocks, column bases, pilasters and fragments of decorative marble which the Family had looted from the grander houses of Roxbury Hill. The wall had the superficial appearance of an early Christian church built out of Roman ruins.
Even ignoring the "smutty icicles", almost all other descriptions of the Lyman Family's Fort Hill complex, whether favorable or otherwise, credit them with a high degree of craftsmanship and care about the appearances and quality of their workmanship.
"...which the Family had looted from the grander houses of Roxbury Hill." Apparently the family generally "recycled" building materials from condemened and abandoned structures. Describing this as "looting from grander houses" is clearly... well, anyway, it shows he's not a fan.
Jack led the way to a wooden trap-door in the garden. He hammered out a signal and it opened. We climbed down some steps, past the guard, into a subterranean passage. Arranged in a rack there was an arsenal of repeater rifles with telescopic sights.
Finally, "Jack," of the opening sentence, reappears... in the context of "trapdoor... signal... guard... subterranean passage... arsenal of repeater rifles..." I've never been to Fort Hill, and maybe that was the case, but if so, Jack's easy entrance and passage through the guards makes his later "harrassment" seem oddly out of place.
The passage took us into the nursery. It was a warm and comfortable room, and small children were playing despondently on the floor. There were no toys. A mother-to-be in a cotton house-coat had spread herself on the stairs. She didn't move.
Needless to say, the juxtaposition of the "repeater rifles" and the adjacent "warm and comfortable nursery" is not accidental. At least "children playing despondently" is in keeping with Chatwin's usual tone, and an immobile pregnant woman "spread on the stairs" is the kind of imagery we're getting used to.
Jack showed me into the kitchen. 'Burgeoning domesticity,' he said. 'They do all their own woodwork.'
"Jack" certainly seems to know his way around. This seemingly snide reference - "budding domesticity" - is in contrast with almost all other published descriptions of Fort Hill life, which emphasize their belief in traditional domestic values.
A small boy, about four or five, rushed in from another room and hugged my knees.
'Daddy,' he shouted, 'Daddee ...'
I unclasped his arms and knelt down.
'I'm not Daddy,' I said.
'Oh!' He walked away in silence.
'That child's drugged,' I said to Jack.
'Sure he's drugged,' he said.
I think Chatwin's playing dirty here. This is probably the only published accusation of drugging Family children. More often are published the family's growing intolerance toward drug use. But... it's fiction.
On the wall there hung a poster of Charles Manson, in brilliant day-glo pink, with a lighted candle beneath it.
There are other published references to sympathy for Manson in the Family. (There are also many references to admiration for Lincoln and Emerson, but they hardly fit the tone of this story.)
It was a Saturday, and on Saturdays the Lyman Family watches the ball game on television.
Actually, as we will soon see, it was Sunday. Super Bowl (IV) Sunday, January 11, 1970, when most of America probably watched the ball game on television. (But as Chatwin was British, he may not have realized that.)
'They're all in Number 6,' volunteered the mother-to-be, and still she didn't move.
Jack and I, following the arrows as bidden, threaded our way along another underground passage and came up under the Viewing Room. We had arrived just in time for the opening of the Super Bowl game in the Tulane Stadium, New Orleans. On the screen the drum-majorettes were marching; the band played 'America, America', and the Lyman Family -- thirty or more of them -- sitting on a tier of benches - were bawling their heads off: 'America! America!'
When not used for viewing, the room converts into a school for children. Two charts plotted the axis of American History. The Stars and Stripes hung from the ceiling. The Third Coming was for white Anglo-Saxons only.
There were three televisions, one in colour. We sat on one of the benches.
'Who are you?' asked the boy on my left. He was in his late twenties, fair-haired with watery eyes and pimples.
This is probably already enough commentary to show what Chatwin is doing. To continue to point out "bawling their heads off" "white Anglo-Saxons only" "watery eyes and pimples" only gets tiresome.
Take the rest with a giant dose of salt. It describes events that supposedly happened in January of 1970, but was "written" in 1988, almost 20 years later. Chatwin clearly had a bone to pick with the Lyman Family or with what he felt they stood for, or something, or just wanted to write something juicy. No matter how much salt I add, I can't find it palatable... or believable.

'I'm from England,' I said. 'I've come with Jack here.' 'Who's Jack?' he said, disagreeably.
'He's a friend of Wayne.'
'Well, that's all right then.' He continued to munch his popcorn.
'Oh! I'm glad you're here right now,' he burst out abruptly. 'You've certainly picked the best time to be here. It's so beautiful when we're all together watching the ball game. You really get an idea how beautiful it is to live in a commune. I came back from Wisconsin for the ball game. I couldn't miss it. Man, I'm glad to be back. I am certainly glad to be back.'
The Saviour was sprawled over the biggest, plushest armchair like a movie mogul. An angular girl nestled her curls in his lap. From time to time he flicked himself into the lotus position on the wing of the chair. He operated the three TV sets with remote-control switches. He had scraped his hair forward to conceal the beginning of baldness.
A member of the Family complained he couldn't see the screen because the Saviour's reading-lamp was in the way.
'Too bad,' said the Saviour. 'I have to see to write. How about a beer everybody? How many beers in the fridge?' 'Zero beers,' a voice called from the back.
'Zero beers! Somebody's going to be sorry. Very sorry!' On the Saviour's left there was a table cluttered with almanacs, note pads and a chart pinned to a board. Now and then he picked up the board and jotted down a few quick notes.
The Kansas City Chiefs were in red. The Family cheered wildly as they ran onto the field. The Minnesota Vikings were in white with rainbow stripes down the sides of their trousers. The Family cheered again.
The Saviour frantically scribbled notes and consulted the almanac. I noticed that the Family were focused on Him rather than on the ball game. It then dawned on me that this was some kind of divinatory exercise. He had consulted the horoscopes of all the players and would predict the result of the game. There seemed to be some significance as to who passed the ball to whom.
The Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs rambled about the field, which had been dyed mauve and yellow.
'I've had a wild conviction,' the Saviour screamed with prophetic fury. 'It just came to me. Minnesota will lead Kansas 13-10 in the first half.'
It soon became apparent that the wild conviction was misguided. The Minnesota Vikings failed to score but the Kansas City Chiefs scored with convincing regularity.
'It's that rule,' he shrieked. 'That damn rule! I've been hating that rule all season. I hate that rule. I HATE THAT RULE! Why doesn't someone do something about it? It stops me getting through.' Half-time was called: the Saviour was thoroughly depressed. Jack and I followed the Family members as they dispersed through the house. On the door of the community living room there was a notice. TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF. DON'T DIRTY THE CARPET.
The carpet was new and bright red. The walls were dark red, and the furniture dark, late nineteenth-century and art nouveau. The curly-headed blonde was scraping at the varnish of the dining-room table.
'What did I tell you?' Jack said. 'Home handicrafts.' The Saviour and his bodyguard bore down on us and asked Jack, unpleasantly, why the hell he'd come back. He acknowledged the explanation and turned to me.
'Who's that?'
'An English friend of mine,' said Jack.
'What's his name?'
'Bruce.'
'What's your sign, Bruce?'
'Taurus.'
'Taurus? D'ya mean Taurus?' 'Yes. May 13 .'
'You're a liar, Bruce.'
'I was born on May 13.'
'Look at him.'
The bodyguard, in a black sweat-shirt, flexed his biceps. 'He's Taurus. Now look at yourself You're a wimp!' I was very relieved when a big-breasted girl interrupted the interview.
'Where am I going to sit for my neck massage?' the Saviour asked.
'Here on the chaise-longue,' she answered sullenly and began the work.
In another room Jack and I talked to another of the girls. She said the Family were saving up to buy Him a new set of teeth:
'He lost his own set when he went on speed.'
'A trip with Him', she droned on, 'is a very moving and beautiful experience. If you've never been on acid before, it would be that much more beautiful ... and the most beautiful moment of all is when he rescues you ... you then know he's the Saviour. And I used to think he was mad!' 'Let's get out of here,' I said to Jack.
I overheard three young men discussing guard duty against the blacks.
One of them escorted us down the passage, opened the trap-door, and we were out in the cold.
The sun had left an afterglow and the buildings of downtown Boston were turning from ultramarine to black.
'Whew!' I inhaled the freezing air. 'Never again!'
From the New York Times the next day:
'Kansas City was all Chiefs and no Indians in the field today as the American League Champions upset the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in the Super Bowl game at the Tulane Stadium.'
1988

Mel Lyman