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Other segments from the episode on October 28, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 28, 1997: Interview with Ptolemy Tompkims; Interview with Max Aguilera-Hellweg.


Date: OCTOBER 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102801NP.217
Head: Paradise Fever
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's it like to grow up the son of a new age avatar? Ptolemy Tompkins describes it vividly in his new memoir "Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age." His father, Peter Tompkins, is best known as the co-author of the '70s bestseller "The Secret Life of Plants" which claimed that plants were conscious beings capable of communicating with humans.

Ptolemy's father also wrote about the magical power of pyramids, and he planned an underwater expedition to locate the lost continent of Atlantis. In fact, his birthday gift to Ptolemy when Ptolemy turned 13 was a scuba tank and regulator to help him practice for the expedition.

I asked Ptolemy to describe some of his father's fringey ideas.

PTOLEMY TOMPKINS, AUTHOR, "PARADISE FEVER: GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF THE NEW AGE": His big ideas were concepts that he tended to package into books -- talking to plants, the idea that plants were conscious beings that could talk back to you; the idea that the constructors of the pyramids had a knowledge of the world that was larger and kinder and just more encompassing than modern knowledge.

It was -- it was an idea of the friendliness of the universe, in a way. My father was somebody -- is somebody who doesn't really fear the world or fear the universe. And a lot of his concepts circled around this idea that there is really nothing much to worry about.

It's a basic new age idea, I guess, that the universe out there is pretty friendly and pretty soft and pretty conscious, and ready to open up and take you into it. And that the people who are worrying about negative stuff should relax.

It was a recurring message of the friendliness and the intelligence of the universe. Atlantis, which took my father over around 1973 and 1974, basically plugged into that as well, because his idea about the Atlantians was that they were a wise and infinitely sophisticated group of beings who vanished before recorded history began.

And their lost wisdom is sort of waiting out there for us to rediscover it, just as the invisible beings are sort of waiting out there for us to cotton back on to them and open up to their wisdom.

GROSS: So, what was your attitude when you were young toward all of this? Did you think: my father knows what he's talking about. He's a wise men. Or did you think: this is kind of wacky.

TOMPKINS: It was interesting to me when I started to write the memoir how little grasp I had on what I did think about my father back then. I spent a lot of time ignoring all of this stuff and, you know, not taking in the details; not paying much attention to it. My father was the guy who talked to plants. Aside from the fact that he was on TV because of this, it didn't have a lot of zing for me. The same with Alantis. Atlantis bored me to death.

When my father moved us all down to -- my stepmother and myself -- when he moved us down to Bimini in the Bahamas to look at these giant stone structures in the shallow water just off Bimini shore, when he did that in 1974, I could have cared less whether the rocks were made by Atlantians or who made them. I was interested in, oh my sort of, you know, 12-year-old concerns. "Jaws" had come out. I was interested in sharks.

I had to spend hour after hour floating around this collection of rocks and wondering why my father could possibly be so taken up with figuring out if somebody had made them if they had just, you know, shown up that way.

GROSS: How much did he enlist you in his projects?

TOMPKINS: He wanted me to know that there was something else going on in the world as far as what my teachers thought about it. He'd always say that -- I'm on the radio -- but he'd say that, well, he'd say "that damn school of yours."

And the big thing for me was for me to understand that what I was being taught in school; that what I saw on television -- that most of the information that came into me when I was not in his company was produced by a group of adults who didn't know the real deal. And he did know the real deal.

I'm making him sound a bit too much like a paranoid, which he really wasn't. He was a guy who -- and is a guy who is vigorously, constantly, and sometimes dangerously open to the idea that stuff is going on beneath the surface, and in a primarily -- a metaphysical kind of way.

And this was just driven home again and again and again. When I came home from school and made the shift from sort of school concerns to home concerns, there was a feeling of coming out of the realm of misinformation into the realm of the real deal -- of what was really going on.

I didn't really much care. I didn't really care if plants could or could not talk to me. I didn't care if the Atlantians were or weren't around thousands and thousands of years ago. It was more the flavor of the whole thing. And the flavor was one of a concealed knowledge that the rest of the world didn't know about.

GROSS: One day, your father introduce you to Betty Vreeland, the former daughter-in-law of Diana Vreeland, and your father said: "from now on, Betty is going to be an integral part of this family. We're about to embark on a unique and potentially very important adventure." What was your father's adventure?

TOMPKINS: It was, in his view, the adventure of abandoning sexual and emotional jealousy, and living in a relationship with two women in which what he thought of as the whole sort of tied up Western voltage of desire and jealousy and attachment, and all that stuff was sort of tossed out the door.

And it's a very basic idea. It was not original with him, for sure, but he jumped into it with a vengeance.

GROSS: The thing is, though, he -- you know, he wanted to break the shackles of sexual jealousy and as you put it, the whole bloody bourgeois business of slavery to the family. It's fine if he wanted to do it, but he was kind of imposing that on you and your mother.

TOMPKINS: He was way imposing it. Absolutely. The party line was: "I'm trying to set you free and you're just not letting me." Now as a child, I didn't really have, you know, all the hardware and software to be shackled by my emotional, sexual membership in Western 20th century society anyhow. So what he would be setting me free from would be, you know, open to question.

But my mother, who was used to -- you know, she had a lot of respect for my father and was used to going along with most of the funny ideas he came up with, tried her best to go along with this; tried her best to understand that she was, in fact, in unconscious subservience to the, you know, the Western code of rules about how you should live and what you should like and what you should not like.

And he very vigorously, very aggressively tried to make her, in his mind, let go of all this and live in a loving, free, all-directions, everybody's happy state of cosmic innocence.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ptolemy Tompkins, and his new memoir, Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age, is about growing up the son of Peter Tompkins, who wrote The Secret Life of Plants -- the book about talking to plants.

Your father's philosophy was basically, you know, the world is benign. There are wonderful spirits that can help watch over us. There's nothing to worry about. And yet throughout your childhood, he kept throwing curve balls at you, giving you things to worry about.


And so it must have been really confusing to figure out what to believe. You know, your father's doing all these, like, unconventional things that could be really quite disturbing -- things that would obviously upset your mother, like bringing another woman into the house. And you were supposed to think it's a benign world -- everything's fine.

TOMPKINS: Basically, I think you put your finger on it. The main question for me in my childhood was, well, first: there's something out there. And the question is for me as a child -- that something out there: is it good? Or is it bad?

My father kept saying anything that's beyond the borders of your world is sort of the big mysterious universe out there, it's benign. It's just waiting for us to run into its arms. I would look out the windows -- the darkened windows of the, you know, the bedroom where I slept and suspect that there was a lot of really sinister stuff going on.

And my suspicions in that were increased by the cacophony and confusion and tears that filled this household in which everybody was supposed to be living in a state of cosmic attunement.

GROSS: It's interesting that when you'd look out the window, you'd feel that there were sinister spirits possibly lurking out there. You became very absorbed in horror movies when you were an adolescent, particularly obsessed with the idea of the wolfman.

TOMPKINS: Part of my -- part of the benefits or the double-sided benefits I reaped from my father's beliefs about freedom was that children shouldn't be shielded from anything. And one of the things I, as his child, didn't need to be shielded from was movies. My father loved movies. He took me to the cinema at a very early age. I think I started sort of trailing along with him around age seven or eight, just as I started accompanying him to the Library of Congress and sort of watching what he did there.

And pretty soon, my father started asking me what movie I wanted to see, because he didn't care. He loved film and he was ready to watch just about anything. And it didn't take me long to realize that the films I wanted to see were the horror movies, which none of the other kids my age could go and see.

My infatuation with horror movies started out with sort of the benign variety that you see rerun on late-night local TV, like "The Wolfman" and "Frankenstein." I developed a real affection for the idea of this sort of outside animal-like presence hovering around, and somehow the idea of a creature that was half-human and half-animal -- I think it's a very common childhood infatuation, and for me it was just fed by horror movies 'cause they were what was there.

What happened with me was when we started going to the more sophisticated horror movies, this infatuation kind of curdled because I started seeing movies that I wasn't prepared for on any level, like, you know, "Night of the Living Dead" which, I don't know if it scares a 9-year-old these days. I've got a step-daughter who I'd like very much to show it to to find out, but my wife won't let me.

But when I saw Night of the Living Dead at age nine, it had this absolutely overwhelming effect on me. And what it taught me was when I look -- what it taught me was, when I looked out my darkened window at night into the sort of empty fields and trees surrounding the house I was going to sleep in, that empty field was potentially full of very scary, very malevolent, very mysterious and un-understandable beings.

And these zombies that fill Night of the Living Dead were in a funny way just the reverse image of those benevolent spirits my father was always talking about. He was always maintaining that just beyond the -- just beyond one's vision there was this, you know, this chorus of wonderful creatures who are waiting to come and, you know, introduce us to the larger world.

What Night of the Living Dead taught me was that they're out there, but they're exactly the opposite of what my father was saying they are.

GROSS: Was there anybody you could talk to about this at the time?

TOMPKINS: Well, there's a chapter in the book where I talk to my father about it a bit, and I try to make it funny because I -- my father had these high-minded ideas that, well, in his funny way he was sort of like -- it was sort of like having a therapist for a parent, I guess -- someone who's full of theory and someone who is full of optimism about the possibility of, you know, removing fear and anxiety by approaching it the right way.

And his idea of approaching it the right way was to, you know, reiterate once again the idea that the universe out there was this big wonderful place and I, in addition to living in this big wonderful universe, was really in control of the things that frightened me.

And after I started losing sleep and becoming sort of this basket case after seeing Night of the Living Dead, my father pushed this notion of, like, the fact that I was in control of my subconscious, very aggressively. He said -- I have this in the book -- but he said, you know: "what part of the movie scared you most?" I said, like probably most kids, I said: "well, the part in the basement where the girl is eating her father." That blew me away, that scene.

And he said: "fine, the girl eating -- the girl eating her father. Let's imagine the girl in another situation. Can you imagine the girl on a bicycle?"

And I said: "well, yeah."

"Put her on a bicycle then. Can you make the bicycle be going backwards uphill?"

I said: "well, yeah, I can."

"There you go. You see, you're in power over the whole thing."

And so what he was telling me in his -- in his way was that this whole problem of this, you know, gurgling pit of the subconscious that was going to, you know, reach up and grab hold of me at any moment -- all I had to do was turn around, shine the light on it, and it would turn to, you know, this thing that I had complete and total control over.

And I was, as I say in the book, he says, you know, "you're the one in charge. You're the one who can command these alien presences who frighten you so much." And then he left the room. I went to sleep and -- or tried to go to sleep, and very soon realized that I wasn't in control of anything because the black window was still there, the field outside was still there, and it was still full of creepy stuff and I didn't have one lick of control over any of it.

GROSS: My guest is Ptolemy Tompkins, author of the memoir Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Ptolemy Tompkins is my guest, and his new memoir Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age is about growing up with a father who was like a new age avatar. Ptolemy's father Peter Tompkins is best known for the bestseller The Secret Life of Plants, a book which maintained that humans and plants could communicate -- they could commune with each other.

I want to get back to when your father brought Betty home and said she's now an integral part of the family and we're going to, you know, break those chains of sexual jealousy. How did your mother react to the presence of the second woman in the house, who your father was clearly going to have, you know, an intimate relationship with?

TOMPKINS: She was devastated by it, and I became her chief ally in the course of her navigation of the next few years. And I wasn't a very useful ally because I was just a kid and I, you know, you need somebody better than that. But I was the one -- I was the person on hand and you know it was basically she and I, in a way, against my father and Betty, although I drifted back and forth and I was never really against my father.

But basically what this plan of breaking the shackles of sexual jealousy and bringing this other woman in, what it did was it established this wall between my mother and myself on one side, and my father and Betty on the other. And it wasn't always like that, but that's the way it would line up quite frequently.

And she would talk to me about Betty, and her talk about Betty was hard to figure out, because I think my mother didn't really know what she thought. She had a lot of faith in my father, and this is something I don't criticize her for. I think that, you know, she loved him and she thought he had a lot of good ideas and a lot of energy and goodness in him, which he did; which he does. And she tried to go along with it.

But you know, inside, 85 percent of her wasn't going along with it at all; that the gurgling unconscious pit that my father said everybody could have control over, well, you know, in her particular gurgling pit, there was a lot of fury at the whole situation.

And she would alternately express this and not express this with me. So, I had a hard time figuring out what she really thought about it.

GROSS: When you were growing up and a lot of your father's followers lived, you know, either lived in the house or spent a lot of time around the house during the day, they were there trying to recover their kind of childish -- their child-selves, you know, try to get in touch with a child center. While you were, as you put it, you were in the business of trying to grow up.

What was it like for you to try to -- to watching these people try to, like, recapture that beauty and innocence of childhood -- childhood innocence and all that -- while you were trying to like become a man? You're trying to like figure out what it means to be an adult, which is, you know, really hard for anybody to do under the best of circumstances.

TOMPKINS: There's something about being a child and watching adults try to recover their innocence that...

GROSS: That's just bad.


TOMPKINS: ... well, it just looks kind of pathetic after a while...

GROSS: Yeah.


TOMPKINS: ...'cause you can see what they're up to...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TOMPKINS: ... and you know, the greatest anger I would feel as a child would be when I would watch these people trying to pretend that they were totally comfortable in the universe. And this is something -- you see, I have a very funny relationship with the new age. New age people will, and I don't -- you know, I don't want to come out as an anti-new age person 'cause I'm not. There's a lot of stuff in it that I have a tremendous respect for.

But the dumb stuff, I really can't stand. And in the domain of the dumb stuff there is a typical new age thing that I've just come to loathe through the years, and that is the new age smile. There's a certain kind of new age person who will look at you and they'll give you this sort of beatific smile. And what that smile says is: "everything's OK with me; everything's OK with the universe; and if you over there have any problems at the moment, just wait long enough and you'll come around and you'll realize that everything is OK."

And I grew up watching this smile all the time. People would smile at me like this...

GROSS: This is a slightly strained smile, too, isn't it?

TOMPKINS: Well, the thing is, it wasn't strained when I -- with the people who would do it to me, they were just doing it. But I still did not trust it.

GROSS: Yeah.

TOMPKINS: You know, there's a line in the book where I -- where I say that at a certain point, I realized when -- whenever I knew somebody was talking about love, love, love, what they were really talking about is me, me, me.

And what I came to discover at a pretty early age is -- and again, I didn't, you know, verbalize this, but I discovered it nonetheless -- was that when -- when people had this super-relaxed kind of cosmic happiness thing going on, what they were really doing was kind of basking in a sense of themself.

I think that there's a certain kind of new age tranquility which is really nothing more nor less than egotism wrapping itself up as egolessness; as, you know, having attained to like real knowledge of the universe. And I think it's a very dangerous thing.

From watching it as a kid, it was something that -- it not only instilled distrust, but stronger emotions 'cause I could feel on some really deep level that there was something fundamentally wrong about pretending that you knew that everything was right with the universe when you didn't.

It's a kind of basic new age hypocrisy, and I think it leads to -- it can lead to a lot of bad things, especially if it is -- if it's a case of adults doing it around children.

GROSS: Ptolemy Tompkins' new memoir is called Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Ptolemy Tompkins. His new memoir, Paradise Fever, is about growing up with a father who was a new age guru. Ptolemy's father Peter Tompkins wrote the bestseller The Secret Life of Plants, about communicating with your plants. He wrote of the magical powers of pyramids and searched for the lost continent of Atlantis. Ptolemy's father also believed in doing away with sexual inhibitions.

Some of your father's followers, who were women, would be like half naked or completely naked around the house. Actually, some of his male followers would be around your house naked as well. So...

TOMPKINS: That was mostly a female deal.

GROSS: Mostly a female deal, OK. So while you were going through your early sexual awakenings, there were, you know, naked women around the house a good deal of the time. What was that like for you?

TOMPKINS: I know that in my situation, watching people running around nude in McLean, Virginia where nobody else was nude, the effect on me was realizing that these people are trying to act natural, but they're not really being natural at all. And it caused a great deal of anger.

And looking at it from the perspective of adulthood, one of the things that I find irritating about it is that when you pretend that sexuality is this thing that you can be totally at ease and at peace with, you're being so terribly superficial. It's like, you know, being a human being is a complex thing. Being a sexual entity is a complex thing. It's full of, like, all this different complicated stuff. It's full of fear and desire and things going this way and that.

And by embracing nudity and sexuality in the way they did, the adults around me, it seems, were cutting themselves off from an acknowledgement of the real mystery of, you know, being human beings. It was so superficial to pretend that this was it; that everything was just this sort of tapioca-flavored, you know, happy jolly run around in the sun with nothing on. I mean, that's not what being a human being it about.

GROSS: You were talking about the kind of superficiality that a lot of your father's friends had toward their spirituality and everything -- that it was a very kind of egotistical and superficial approach to it.

When your stepmother, Betty Vreeland, was dying, you say you realized that her rarefied spirituality was a veneer. What made you come to that conclusion and what impact did that have on you?

TOMPKINS: When I saw Betty get sick and actually die, it was -- I was very fond of Betty at that point, even though we were fighting. I was a traumatic, but in a way a very useful experience for me because in this childhood where I was used to listening to adults tell me what the real deal with the cosmos was, but still not quite trusting it, it was in a way very useful for me to see this very fundamental fact -- the death of somebody I knew and had known for a very long time, and was very fond of.

To see something actually happening like that was very beneficial for me. This was something that people couldn't talk their way around. This was a tremendously negative, painful, hard to deal with fact that nobody could smile in a drippy, drippy-gooey way about.

They could try, but I mean it just -- it was too big and it was a case for me of the universe, the real world -- that real world that was out there; that everybody was claiming to know so well -- sort of saying: "well, maybe you don't know me so well because, you know, what about this? What are you going to make of this?"

I mean, it sort of -- I sound nasty talking about it this way, and I don't mean it to sound that way. But it was -- the reality of it was sort of like a tonic for me. In watching the reactions of the adults around Betty in the course of her death, I started to get an idea of who I really did want to give my respect to.

My step-brother Nicky Vreeland, who was a Buddhist, and was a Buddhist at the time -- it was very interesting for me watching his reaction to her death because his was a very un-new agey reaction. He didn't sugarcoat it. He didn't, you know, give a soft new-agey smile. He dealt with it, and he dealt with it with compassion and, you know, a lot of energy. And he dealt with it as an adult, I guess is one way of putting it. He did not attempt to run from it or package it as something else.

GROSS: Right.

TOMPKINS: And that had a big effect on me, watching that.

GROSS: In your memoir, you write a little bit about how you started using a lot of drugs and alcohol, and not new-agey kind of drugs, but I mean, you even, you know, used a lot of pills and even eventually heroin. So, I'd just like to know what you found in that?

TOMPKINS: I loved alcohol and I loved pills. I really loved heroin because heroin -- it's funny that you ask this question right after the question about Betty because they're connected. For me, heroin gave a feeling of connection to something that I found very positive and very enormous and very mysterious in the universe. And it gave it to me straight. It was -- there was no beating around the bush. There was no talking about the great experience that was going to come, and then the experience didn't come.

Heroin delivered. And when you live a new age childhood, it's very exciting to find something that really does deliver. You know, that wasn't like the rebirthing sessions and the, you know, past life recalls and all this kind of stuff. And it didn't just talk the talk. It was a physical experience. When you live with a lot of talk that you don't really trust, physical experiences are, you know, you really appreciate them.

GROSS: When did you realize, though, that the drugs would turn on you, too?

TOMPKINS: Well, they started, you know, driving me crazy. They destroyed my body and my thought processes. And once again, a very concrete, very unavoidable experience. It was a -- like the good part of drugs, the bad part of drugs it's kind of, in my experience, a very honest -- a very honest thing to go through, because there's no getting around it.

You can't talk your way out of heroin withdrawal or the DTs or anything like that. Chemicals are very straightforward. They give you the good stuff and then they give you the bad stuff.

GROSS: My guest is Ptolemy Tompkins, author of the memoir Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Ptolemy Tompkins, author of the new memoir Paradise Fever, about growing up the son of a new age leader. His father wrote the bestseller The Secret Life of Plants.

You know, it's interesting, we've spoken about your father a fair amount in this interview, and his followers and his philosophy and everything. And I'm sure, in some ways, you're still going through this experience, I mean, as your memoir about growing up has just been published, Paradise Fever. Your father has a new book that's just been published, and it's called The Secret Life of Nature.

And let me just read a passage from this new book that he wrote. He says -- he's writing about clairvoyance, and he says: "In the end, I find their evidence so compelling and so rational, that even though not myself clairvoyant, I now tend to subscribe to their conviction that to resolve the evils and problems of this world, we must all learn to commune with the world of nature, spirits, and the angelic hierarchies from which they derive."

TOMPKINS: That's my father all right.


GROSS: And in the epilogue, he writes: "clearly, the cure for both the planet and our individual souls is one and the same -- initiation to clairvoyance for one and all."

Do you still have this kind of uncomfortable relationship with your father and his philosophies?

TOMPKINS: Well you know, I've been kind of giving it to my father in this interview. I feel a bit bad in a way because, you know, there's a great deal in what he has to say and who he is that I have a lot of respect and love for. And as I was saying earlier, there's a -- there's a lot in the stuff that he is interested in that I have a great deal of respect for as well.

Without going into too many details, which I won't be able to express clearly enough anyhow, I have a great deal of interest in the notion that -- well, in my father's basic notion that there is more going on in the universe and that there might, in fact, be levels of consciousness that we don't have a day to day experience of that we potentially could have an experience of.

It's a new agey idea, but it's not a new agey idea 'cause it's as old as -- it's as old as Western culture, you know, Eastern too. It's, you know, it's a -- that's a primordial idea. I think it's fascinating. I think it isn't approached and pursued with enough rigor and honesty by a lot of people.

It is by some. Rudolph Steiner (ph), who my father admires a great deal -- I think he's an example of a writer who approached and sort of unpacked this idea with a great deal of honesty, and I think his material is fascinating in its weird, quirky, sometimes maddening way.

GROSS: Now you say in your book that you're not interested in debunking your father 'cause the older you get, the more of his passions begin to interest you too.

You know, I feel in a way that we should be studying you. You know? It's like you are the...

TOMPKINS: I'm a child of the new age, man.

GROSS: Yeah -- no really, I mean, you -- everybody's always wondering what it would be like to, after you see children who grew up in a family that tried to do away with monogamy and really kind of believe that everything's beautiful and we should all run around naked and, you know, live this kind of utopian, although it might be a self-deluding utopian world. And you've lived it. You've grown up in this world and not only that, you're a great reporter on it. You have, like the language and the reporter's skills to, you know, to tell us what it was like.

Do you feel like you're doing that in a way? That you're -- you know, you're one of -- one of like the few products of this environment who've come forward and said: "this is what it was like."

TOMPKINS: Well, one of the things I learned in the course of writing this book is you can only really make fun of something that you have a secret affection for -- at least I...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

TOMPKINS: ... I shouldn't generalize. For me, it's very much the case. There's nobody I mention in my memoir who I really dislike. There's a girl called Rodka (ph), who I come down on -- it's not her real name -- I come down pretty heavy on her. I don't dislike her either.

You know, I have -- somewhere in me, I have an affection for every character in this book, and I didn't write this book as sort of a "poor me" memoir because really I had a, you know, I had a pretty fantastic childhood in a lot of ways. I got, you know, it's -- it's a mixed bag.

GROSS: And the book's very funny, I have to say, I mean.

TOMPKINS: Well, I tried to make it funny because, you know, really I don't -- I -- fundamentally, the bottom line, I don't have bad feelings toward my father at all. I feel, you know, quite satisfied that the, you know, the reincarnation department slotted me into his household 'cause I've learned a lot from him.

And I've -- he did give me the freedom, in the end. You know, he talks a lot about freedom and it's not all, you know, I'm not -- I'm not all negative on this talk of freedom, 'cause he did, in fact, provide me with a situation where I could check all kinds of stuff out. I could have access to a whole paint box full of adult experiences, and then come up with my own reactions to them.

My father is, you know, very -- he's an egotistical person and he's forceful and he, you know, without meaning to, he can sort of try to sway people into his domain of thinking. But he's really not -- for me, he was not a -- he was not...

GROSS: An evil man or...

TOMPKINS: No, right.

GROSS: ... yeah, right.

TOMPKINS: He's not -- he's not a bad guy. I remember being 17 and I was reading for my high school psychology class a book called "Walden Two" by B.F. Skinner. And I was visiting -- I was down in Florida where my father had a house at the time. And he said: "what are you reading?" And I said: "Walden Two by B.F. Skinner." And he absolutely turned red, and he said: "I can't believe I've got a Skinnerian in the house."

And watching his reaction, now -- he didn't even ask me, like, well, you know, perhaps was this an assignment for psychology class and perhaps are you getting sort of a well-rounded sampling of all these psychological options for the 20th century? He didn't -- he just said: "you're reading Skinner. You're a Skinnerian" and he just, you know, blew his top on that.

And at 17 already I could see that he's so black and white in his reactions to things that he didn't have -- you know, I was able to see around it so early that it didn't have a negative effect on me.

GROSS: Throughout this book, I get a sense that you're really struggling to find your place within the world, which is pretty baffling. Do you feel like you've found it?

TOMPKINS: I appreciate the fact that there was a memoir glut last year because I found my way into being a writer.


GROSS: And you're a very good one.

TOMPKINS: Well, thank you very much. Hope so. I hope I'm on my way toward it.

GROSS: OK. I thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.

TOMPKINS: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Ptolemy Tompkins -- his new memoir is called Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ptolemy Tompkins
High: Nonfiction writer Ptolemy Tompkins, son of New Age writer Peter Tompkins. Ptolemy has written a memoir, "Paradise Fever: Growing up in the Shadow of the New Age," about growing up the son of Peter Tompkins, the author of the cult bestseller "The Secret Life of Plants" who was also a World War II spy. Ptolemy Tompkins is the author of several other nonfiction works.
Spec: Books; Authors; Culture; Paradise Fever; The Secret Life of Plants; Family
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Paradise Fever
Date: OCTOBER 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 102802NP.217
Head: The Sacred Heart
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Few sights are more potentially disturbing to the uninitiated than the sight of the inside of the human body. Some medical students get sick the first time they attend surgery.

My guest, photojournalist Max Aguilera-Hellweg, has become obsessed with how the body is revealed during surgery and the awe it inspires. His new book is a collection of pictures he took in the operating room.

He shows us an open incision with the spinal cord peeking out; an eye being removed for transplant; and an open cranium with an electrode plate laid on top of the brain during surgery to relieve epilepsy.

Doctor and author Richard Seltzer (ph) wrote the introduction to the book. He says: "we gaze at these chilling pictures and we are led into contemplation of the fragility and the toughness of the human body."

I asked Max Aguilera-Hellweg to describe his photo of brain tumor surgery in which holes have been drilled into the skull.

MAX AGUILERA-HELLWEG, PHOTOJOURNALIST, AUTHOR, "THE SACRED HEART: AN ATLAS OF THE BODY SEEN THROUGH INVASIVE SURGERY": The photograph is of a wide-craniotomy (ph), and a drill was used to drill holes about the size of a dime or a nickel, and they made a circle of these holes about three inches -- three inches in diameter, by which they were going to take out that section of the bone of the skull and go inside for the -- to operate and remove the brain tumor.

There's little blue clips that are lying around this open section that have been used to stop the minuscule vessel bleeding from the scalp.

GROSS: I think I found this photo particularly upsetting, because the line up of these little dime-sized round holes drilled into the skull reminded me of the type of dream I used to have...


GROSS: ... a dream of, say -- this is kind of creepy -- of like a piece of the scalp falling out; that all of the follicles in the scalp were kind of enlarged so it was just like rows and rows of dots; and that sense of, you know, rows and rows of dots I used to find really upsetting, or -- in a way that looking at a rash can be really upsetting.

And so these rows of drilled holes were very disturbing, not to mention the fact that holes like that don't belong in the scalp. It's in a way surrealism is about, the juxtaposition of two things that don't really belong.

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: What I have found in people when they look at these photographs, I've not -- never heard that reaction on this particular picture necessarily, but it confirms what I've -- I have felt about people's responses to these pictures, is that the photographs are very much like a Rorschach test, and people respond to them in their own unique, individual ways -- from childhood remembrances; someone that they know who've had these procedures; or they've had them themselves; or dreams or whatever.

GROSS: The introduction to your book of surgery photographs is by the surgeon Richard Selzer, who has written several books of his own about surgery. And he says perhaps these things should remain secrets of the priesthood of surgery; perhaps it is a violation of taboo to show them; that it's not the beautiful or the sublime that is celebrated here. It is the forbidden.

Now, he obviously loves your book and that's why he wrote the introduction.


GROSS: What's your reaction to him saying this?

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: You know, I was just in surgery last week in a brain tumor operation with the chief of neurosurgery at a hospital in St. Louis. And I had my book me with me and I showed it to him in the operating room for -- prior to the operation beginning. And he said: "oh, my God. This is pure Mapplethorpe. You can't show these pictures. Oh, my God. This is pornography."

I said: "Doctor, what are you talking about? I haven't doctored the photographs. I haven't put more blood in or rearranged what's going on here. This is just a document of the photographic procedure."

And he said: "yeah, but it's like pornography. You can't show this to the world. We gotta keep it in here."

And you know, he was echoing what Richard Selzer was saying. When I showed these pictures to Selzer, he held the book -- we were at the Yale Club in Manhattan -- he held the book very close to his chest so no one could peer into it. And it was a very interesting reaction. And what -- the one thing that I found is that doctors are not any different from the general population. Even they have fear of blood.

GROSS: The lighting in your photographs is very dramatic, and I'm wondering how you can get such dramatic lighting working in an operating room where everything has to be bathed in light so that the doctors can see all the details they need to see to do the surgery.

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: It's because, in fact, the operation -- the surgical field is bathed in light that I was able to produce this kind of lighting. In the operating room, they use very bright fluorescent lights that illuminate the whole room. But those dome lamps that you see in the movies that hang over the surgical bed are so bright -- they're five times brighter than the rest of the room, so that the surgeon can see very clearly into what they're doing.

It's very hard to differentiate, for example, brain tumor cells from normal brain cells; or to differentiate between a vein or an artery. And they have to suction away blood and use gauzes to keep very clean, and use this very intense light.

And what I did on my very first operation, I discovered that there was this like five to one lighting ratio, and I exposed for that very bright light, and when you expose for that very bright light and make it the normal, the rest of the room falls out into black.

And so what I did was exploit this for the rest of the pictures so that you could see what was important for me to see, which was the surgery itself, the anatomy, the surgeon's hands.

GROSS: That worked so well because the images are surrounded by darkness, and the surgical sites are almost luminous, because they're so brightly lit and so sharply focused.

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: My -- let me say this, the pictures -- this is -- or photographs of surgical procedures, yet they're not truly medical photographs. These pictures would not help a surgeon perform an operation. And in that, I did take pictures that are more illuminative for a surgeon or a medical student, and the doctors have these in their collection for the -- of the surgeons I worked with.

But the pictures I chose were mostly of an abstract nature that would bring to bear, when you talk about that luminous and the surrealism that you talked about before -- I wanted to elicit in people with these pictures the great awe and respect that I had -- and the mystery of the body.

GROSS: My guest is Max Aguilera-Hellweg. His new collection of photographs is called "The Sacred Heart." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with photojournalist Max Aguilera-Hellweg. His new book, The Sacred Heart, is a collection of pictures he took in hospital operating rooms of the human body during invasive surgery.

I want to find out more about the process of taking photographs in the operating room. What did you have to do to make sure that you and your equipment were sterile?

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: The -- I would wear surgical garb, what they call "scrubs" -- those green and blue outfits, and little booties on my shoes, and the hat very much like everyone else in the operating room. But I didn't scrub up my hands. I didn't wear gloves because they wouldn't let me touch anything. And essentially, as long as I didn't touch anything, I was safe in the operating room. And if I did accidentally touch something, 'cause the quarters were very tight, they would put on a new drapery or new piece of equipment -- whatever it was -- and I would tell them immediately.

And when I went into the operating room, I would ask the doctors at a time what the ground rules were, and telling them very much up front that I took "no" for an answer. And I would get permission to either -- what I preferred to be was usually in the anesthesiologist position, which was out of the way of the doctors who were performing, and put me at the head of the patient. And I could have -- get up on stepladders and get way up above.

But in some cases, they asked me to sterilize my equipment by wiping everything down with alcohol and such. And that's what would -- was adequate for the procedures.

GROSS: Did you ever get in the way?

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: No, that's why I was invited back. And there were times when the case was going bad, like the patient would lose blood pressure or something like that, and they would have to call in a bunch of other people. It was like an emergency situation. And I would quickly remove my equipment and get it out of the way, or leave the room until things were back to homeostasis -- when things would be normal again.

But I worked hard at not being in their way. And you know, it's interesting now, when I look at this work, I'm amazed that I was able to do it, because these are very -- you know, they're -- by nature of being sterile, these are very private arenas, and I'm amazed that I was able to get into the positions to take these pictures because I had no creative control. And essentially, these are documentary photographs of the procedures going on.

GROSS: I'd like you to leave us with an image from your book. Maybe you could describe one of the photographs that you find to be most powerful.

AGUILERA-HELLWEG: One of my favorite pictures is the one I call the "Mona Lisa." And it's a picture in the front section of the book that starts -- the book is arranged from head to toe -- and it's a photograph of a 40-year-old, 41-year-old woman who is having cranial-facial procedure, which means the cranium and the face.

And she was born with a condition called Cruzon (ph) Syndrome, where the bones of her skull grew at an abnormal rate, and she had something of the shrunken skull that was in the shape of something like a conehead. And she hid this deformity with long hair and long bangs. But because her brain was in a smaller area and it pressed in -- into the orbits of her eyes, and so that her eyes were bulging out.

This was how she presented herself to the doctor. And in this particular photograph, they have removed -- she's lying vertically, and the picture is shot from the profile. And essentially her face is removed, and you see her ear attached, but all you see is her skull and the inside or the backside -- inside her face -- of her eyes.

And this picture is remarkable, and I told you I call it the Mona Lisa, 'cause it's to me my classic portrait in the book. 'Cause what this book -- the driving question I had in this book was: who are we? Where do we reside? Are we in our hearts? Are we in our minds? Are we in our sexual organs? Are we in the limb that was just amputated? If we're not our face, and our face is taken off of us, are we still us?

You know, some people, you know, when they ask me about this book, you know, they say, you know, do you have any answers, you know, in this book? And I say well, no. This book is a book of questions.

GROSS: Well, Max Aguilera-Hellweg, thank you very much for talking with us about your photographs.


GROSS: Max Aguilera-Hellweg is a photojournalist whose new book, taken in a hospital operating room, is called The Sacred Heart.

Hellweg's fascination with the human body has led him to return to school as a premed student.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Max Aguilera-Hellweg
High: Photojournalist Max Aguilera-Hellweg has a new collection of photographs taken in the operating room. His images capture the inside of the human body as surgeons perform procedures like removal of brain tumors, a radical mastectomy, heart surgery and more. His book is "The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery."
Spec: Books; Authors; Health and Medicine; Photography; The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Sacred Heart
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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