Guy Hasson: Secret Thoughts
Review by Anil Menon
Since intimacy and secrecy are all but inseparable, it’s no surprise that Guy Hasson’s “Secret Thoughts,” a collection of three novellas, is also a triad if stories about intimacy. The novellas consider intimacy in three distinct contexts: the living past, the Other, and the possible future. But what distinguishes “Secret Thoughts” is neither its focus on intimacy nor the choice of its contexts. It is that the stories, all first-person accounts, ask us to imagine being a telepath, to imagine living in a world where intimacy is thrust upon you, a world where intimacy is a burden, not a gift.
The first story, “The Perfect Girl” (previously published in Dreams in Aspamia, #12) illustrates with a deft opening stroke the basic issue in telepathy. We are told that when a telepath touches someone, the telepath gains access to the other’s thoughts, their emotions (the distinction isn’t always clear) . So when the telepath Alexandra Watson wants to know if the attractive guard at the gate of Indianapolis Academy is attracted to her, she doesn’t have to guess. A furtive “accidental” touch reveals all. However, her reaction is not one of pleasure, but self-disgust. She has groped a mind, taken something she wasn’t entitled to take. Her act may be immoral, but the point is a larger one. Alexandra can control what she learns from people, but she cannot control her responses to the information.
The Indianapolis Academy is about teaching her, and others like her, that control. We are told that memories continue to persist for about seven days after death, enabling the students to practice their thought-reading skills on corpses. Alexandra touches the mind of a young suicide victim, Stephanie Reynolds. In the fading light of Stephanie’s memories, Alexandra tries to understand why this young woman, so very like her, had chosen to end her life. However, the story is not about Stephanie. It’s about Alexandra and whether reconstructing our past can set us free. The conclusion is not hard to predict . Most telepathy stories, in contrast to invisible-man stories, are about self-realization, not voyeurism.
The idea that we can’t ignore the past and that we must embrace it to become whole is of course psychotherapy’s foundation stone. However, when Freud was reproached by a worried Ernest Jones about the implicit endorsement of the occult entailed by Freud’s papers on telepathy, the great man wrote back saying: “When anyone adduces my fall into sin, just answer him calmly that conversion to telepathy is my private affair like my Jewishness, my passion for smoking and many other things and that the theme of telepathy is in essence alien to psychoanalysis.” Telepathy is alien to psychoanalysis? Why? Surely telepathic skills would result in a better therapist?
Hasson seems to sense this tension between therapeutic exploration of a mind and telepathy. Towards the end of “The Perfect Girl,” Alexandra goes to one of her professors, Dr. Parks, to gain some understanding. Dr. Parks makes her terms clear:
“I’m not going to touch you,” she says, as she slowly puts her hands down, fingers spread, a few millimeters from mine. “From this distance, with my ability, we’re safe. I only feel what you want me to feel, and you only feel what I want you to feel…” (p. 31)
Yet, the mind they examine together is Stephanie’s. Imagine going to a therapist and instead of the couch-and-inkblot routine, the good doctor has you reading Sylvia Plath? Alexandra’s session with Dr. Parks is quite similar. Stephanie’s memories are read the way we might read a book.
Perhaps what Hasson is getting at is that the telepathic skill turns bodies into text. It disembodies us. Were we all telepaths, we would become literature. Freud was right to see telepathy as completely alien to psychoanalysis because the latter is the exact opposite. Psychoanalysis embodies everything. A cigar is a penis. A box is a vagina. Nothing ever dies, especially not the past.
Alexandra learns an important truth about herself, but we may wonder, as Freud seems to have wondered with psychoanalytic transference, whether it is her own truth or a telepathic transference courtesy Dr. Parks, or even, poor dead Stephanie. All things considered, “The Perfect Girl” is a thought-provoking tale.
The second story, “The Linguist,” shifts the focus from the past to how we relate with the Other. The story is narrated by Rachel Akerman, telepath and professor of linguistics at NYU. An alum of the Indianapolis Academy, her real name is Michelle Rayburn, and she’s in hiding because the government will no longer tolerate their existence. Her quiet fake life comes to an end when CIA agent Daniel Willis shows up at her Brooklyn apartment. He’s been able to trace her because many years earlier she’d made a 911 call that had saved him, a teenager, from committing suicide. Since no such kindness goes unpunished, Willis informs Rachel he’s going to drag her to Spook Central because the country needs her help. The government has found a space alien, and they need someone who can talk with it. Only mind-melders need apply.
Now, such a story will flameout in a number of ways, and the main question is whether the fire will start in the tail, the wings or the very nose of the vehicle itself. Here, it happens in the middle; every painful interaction with the alien (as touch-unfriendly as a box jellyfish) is accompanied with Rachel’s gasps, shrieks, hallucinations, fainting spells and debriefing sessions where the men in black say tough things like “Lie to me again and bad things will happen.” (p. 85)
The story makes several dubious claims about intelligence; namely that it entails emotions, a theory of mind, a sense of personal space, intentionality, etc. In the end, making contact with the alien is not too different from figuring out whether that weird foreign neighbor is asking to borrow some sugar or your spouse.
I’m being overly hard on the story. It’s an adequate instance of Alien Contact, a defining sub-genre of 80s SF. It’s a category that has, and should always have, a special place in SF. The best ones in this sub-genre transmute mystery into wonder; this story’s main weakness is that it tries to turn mystery into a moment of personal growth. We can be happy if Narcissus learns to open-up. But wonder-struck? No.
The final story in the collection, “Most Beautiful Intimacy” is infused with wonder. In this case, it’s that of a couple who realize they are about to become parents. However, this is no ordinary couple: the soon-to-be mother’s a telepath, and the soon-to-be father’s empathic. Like all couples deliriously in love, they feel they’ve already been graced by a miracle. As the narrator, the to-be father says: “Miraculously we found each other: the telepath and the man who should have been born a telepath.” (p.119) The telepathic ability of the mother is the first complication of the story. Telepaths, we learn, are not to become pregnant. The baby’s developing mind, almost pure Id and lacking all the restraints of socialization, will quickly swamp the mother’s mind, driving both to madness.
The second complication of the story is that the government is hunting telepaths down. The couple do not have the luxury of walking into the nearest hospital, of calling 911, of alerting the authorities in any way.
The logical solution is an abortion, and yet. The couple agree it’s the logical choice, and yet. Even if everything should be fine, raising a child on the run will be incredibly complicated, and yet. The couple slowly realize that an irreversible choice entails a commitment, in this case, between intimacy and security. The couple must decide if they will entrust themselves to the future, to accept, as Rilke wrote in a letter to the young Kappus, “…that even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue.”
The story handles several fronts with panache. There’s the need to find a doctor. There’s the couple’s fracturing over the mother’s unilateral decision. But most of all, the story does a great job of imagining a telepathic pregnancy. A large part of the story reads like one of those baby- in-the-womb movies, but this is also about the baby’s ur-thoughts, the structure of its needs, the development of its personality. It’s a sustained act of the imagination.
We are aware of our thoughts, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a mother might be able to read her foetus’ thoughts or that telepathy might exist more generally. But when we find telepathy in a story, perhaps it reflects one of the deepest desires of a storyteller, namely, to see into the hearts and minds of their fellow human beings. Dorrit Cohn in Transparent Minds, a study of how consciousness gets embedded in literature, reminds us of the Greek God Momus’ criticism of Vulcan. Momus had blamed the engineer god for not installing a window in the human breast and thus making us less transparent to the Gods. Storytellers are the Vulcans of their domains, and so the presence of a telepathic character may serve to appease Momus. But does the presence of a telepathic character give us, the readers, any extra insight into other characters’ minds? Is there anything that a telepathic consciousness adds to fiction that we do not already have with the usual five narrative modes: dialogue, exposition, description, action, state-of-mind?
I doubt it. Hasson’s telepaths are able to read people’s thoughts the way we are able to read characters’ thoughts in fiction. This suggests that what his telepaths learn can only be the sort of things we, the readers, learn from regular fictional characters. However, though telepathic characters can’t provide any extra insight for readers or offer the omniscient author anything they don’t already have, the telepath is a way to embed the act of reading into the tale. A fictional telepath is a character who, like the reader, is able to see the tale’s other characters in a transparent way.
Hasson’s settings and focus don’t provide much scope for exploring this idea. Perhaps the best way to put it is that his stories are about telepaths, not telepathy. However, this triad of well-told, interesting and often moving tales should serve to encourage many more explorations into this fascinating trope. As Freud remarked in his paper on dreams and the occult: “If one accustoms oneself to the idea of telepathy, one can accomplish a great deal with it – for the time being, it is true, only in imagination.”