“Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the question of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. And comparative neuroanatomy is only part of the problem. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to any one’s or any thing’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that other people experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hardcore philosophy-metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish. and finally invertebrates like lobster.” — David Foster Wallace, “Consider The Lobster”
“We measure things by what we are. To the maggots in the cheese, the cheese is the universe. To the worms in the corpse, the corpse is the cosmos. How then can we be so cock-sure about our world? Just because of our telescopes, our microscopes, and the splitting of the atom? Nope!
“Science is but an organized system of ignorance. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy! What do we know of the Beyond? Do we know what’s behind the Beyond?
“I’m afraid some of us hardly know what is beyond the Behind.
“Creatures of twilight and delusion, we drift toward our unknown ends. And that is why I feel the best thing is not to be born.
“But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one out of millions and millions of people!” — Brother Theodore
An email exchange with Jeff Sumerel, writer and director of To My Great Chagrin, a biographical documentary on the life and work of Theodore Gottleib, also known as “Brother Theodore.”
It was a pleasure to speak with you, and a great help in ways not anticipated.
This piece on Theodore is the most difficult I’ve ever attempted to write, for reasons that only became clear to me as I spoke with you.
I’ve made a dozen false starts on the piece, one of which turned into a lengthy digression about Edgar Allan Poe, which I now expect to rewrite as a standalone piece.
While speaking with you, I managed to convey to you what I need to say about Theodore, and why, in just a few words.
When I told you about that one transformational moment between myself and Theodore, you immediately understood, because you knew him.
The readers of this piece will only know Theodore by what they have viewed or read, most of it mediated by people who held him in high regard. If I can’t convey something of the intimate truth of Theodore that made our acquaintance meaningful, there is no reason to
I also need to address the reason that the two of us bonded so fully and immediately, which has to do with my own severely depressed state at the time we met, some 28 years ago.
I can’t, in good conscience, be intimately revealing of Theodore while being less than honest about myself.
I’ve been thinking of this as a tricky task, but I’m increasingly convinced that the only way to deal with it is straightforwardly — letting chips fall as they may, breaking some eggs and making some omelets.
I’ve taken another go at it today, and the piece is much longer than I intended, more concerned with my own difficult life than I ever intended, and painful reading in parts (for me, anyway, and I expect for the reader), but I think it’s on its way.
They are giving me a very free hand in creating this blog, as this piece will clearly demonstrate to the readers. The piece will not be what anyone is expecting, but I’d like to believe that those who know my work know that I hate few things more than I hate the task of fulfilling people’s expectations. Those who hired me should therefore expect the unexpected!
Meanwhile, the expected matter — the easily-written, bare facts of Theodore’s life — are likely to be presented in the above sidebar, “Theodore for the Uninitiated.”
I appreciate your forthcoming thoughts and insights.
For what it’s worth, I say go with your instincts.
There have been many articles written about Theodore. So perhaps it is time – and fitting – to have an article written through Theodore; one that allows his impact to extract personal discoveries that address universal themes.
After all, I believe that may have been Theodore’s primary intent as a performer and as your friend. In other words, I think he would approve of what you are doing.
Again – for what it’s worth.
I look forward to seeing and reading the outcome.
Part One: Me
During all of my life, so far as I can remember, I’ve had to deal with severe bouts of depression and anxiety. Like a fish that never questions the water that surrounds it, as a child I never thought of my chronic melancholia as anything unusual, nor did I, as a young adult, view my sadness as a syndrome calling for psychiatric intervention. I didn’t believe that there was anything unusual to my turn of mind – I just figured that my life sucked more than other people’s did.
Through my early childhood, I never attended a school for more than two years running. My father, a merchandise manager for Sears, had grown with the company – taking a transfer to a new store every couple of years to whip the new crew into shape, and this work as point man led to his upward corporate mobility, that he might better provide for his wife, two daughters, and son.
When I was 12, we learned that my father had a brain tumor, years in development, which, undetected, had affected his mental clarity enough that he allowed his insurance policy to lapse just weeks before he was hospitalized.
During the last six months of his life, my mother had to battle to get him a V.A. Hospital bed, had to negotiate with her sisters and in-laws to assure food and shelter for her three kids, and struggled to re-enter the work-force for the first time since her teens.
As I became a teenager, my mother entered an unromantic but practical second marriage, and we moved to New York. While living in Elmhurst, Queens, I attended the same school for three years running for the first time in my life.
Amid this sequence of events, I enjoyed the customary teenaged hormonal disruptions, social distress, pimples, geekish bibliophilia and sucking-at-sports that generally add up to a life that seems, to a youngster living it, the worst of all possible worlds. Then, at the age of 16, my nights began to be disrupted by an inner dialog of worry and despair that refused to shut up for a single moment, weaving obsessive fantasies about each social misstep I’d made, every snub I’d experienced, the girls I wanted desperately though I was convinced that they all outclassed me and hated me.
Typically teenaged problems, certainly … but the inner dialog that kept me awake all night was the sort of stuff they use in badly written serial killer movies, including a detailed fantasy of mass murder and suicide which became the first poem I ever composed
Aboard the M-1 bus on Collins Avenue
On a day of record heat
They will be surprised by my outburst.
These opening lines are all that I recall exactly, but it went on in graphic detail. if this poem were found in the locker of some poor disaffected child today, he would quickly be in the hands of the authorities.
The insomnia made it impossible for me to rise for school, and my mother was too preoccupied with her daily struggles – and her own depression and insomnia – to act as my wake-up service.
At any rate, despite an attendance rate that descended as low as 20% during my senior year, my grades squeaked by – and my results on standardized state exams even earned a small college scholarship.
Like every self-respecting disaffected teen, I was at war with my family, ready to blame them, individually and collectively, for everything that wasn’t right about my life. Of course I understood the tremendous sacrifices my mother had made for myself and my two sisters; but “tremendous sacrifice” just means a tremendous burden of guilt for the bitter teen.
Writing this now, none of it seems as horrible as it did while it was lived; but I was experiencing life through a lens I wouldn’t know was there for a few decades, the lens of depression. I left home abruptly, in May of 1966, three months short of completing my high school education. The details of my departure, the specifics of why I left and where I went, are of little relevance here, but can be read in an essay I maintain on Facebook — just offer friendship to “UncleBob Martin” for access.
My next years were spent in the pursuit of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, with the vague idea that if I just did whatever I felt like doing, I would find my place in the universe (it was the 60s, after all). Like many of my generation, I followed the path of least resistance.
I’m not going into all this to make a confession, so we’ll skip all the messed-up activities of the next couple of years. The next thing you know, it is 1968, and I’m in Creedmore General Hospital for 30 days of “observation” (my second such stay that year); my teenaged girlfriend is also institutionalized, in a Catholic residence for unwed mothers. I am as miserable as ever — in fact, more miserable than ever, and would soon be married to a young girl I barely knew.
Part Two: Theodore:
“Only this morning it looked like we might be together again after all. Now that this cannot be, I want so much for you to know all that I have come to know. Unfortunately, I may write only a few simple words; the rest your own lives must teach you, even as mine taught me.” — The last prison letter from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their sons.
Fourteen years later, I was doing better than I could have expected, better than anyone had ever expected of me.
Though I had never completed high school, I had become editor of a nationally-distributed magazine, which, despite a catastrophic first few issues, was edging toward success as the publishers gave me a free hand in revising its editorial policies. The money was god-awful — a friend who was assistant manager at a Food Lion made more than I did (a lot more), but, money aside, editing Fangoria was a dream job.
My marriage had lasted 5 years, all of them very difficult for me, and it had ended in pain for myself, for my ex-wife Susan, and for my son Kris. But I was past that, and had become engaged to Laura, a lovely titian-haired woman, a young artist born in South Africa to British colonials. She and her mother had to flee S.A. under pressure because of their opposition to the government’s policies of apartheid.
I wasn’t even slightly aware of it, but at this moment in my life I had all that I once thought was essential to happiness. Aside from finances, I was doing well. I was no longer in despair over my future prospects. And I knew that I “had it good,” though I don’t remember being “happy.”
It began to fall apart when I learned that Laura was seeing someone. She hadn’t yet had sex with him, but, in her polite British way, she wanted to inform me of her intentions.
All at once, despair closed in around me. I was through with being a druggie, but soon I was downing at least a six-pack of beer most every night, seldom showing up in the Fangoria offices before noon, and getting the vast bulk of my work done at the last possible deadline. This was, of course, making my co-editor Dave Everitt righteously pissed. We both knew that I was screwing up, we both knew that he was angry, but we both kept a lid on it, as the pressures between us rose.
It was while I was in this heartbroken and troubled state that I chose to make contact with Brother Theodore.
I had wanted to bring Brother Theodore into the pages of Fangoria from the very beginning of the magazine, but had hesitated for a number of reasons, most particularly because he was such an intimidating personality. But I had worshiped Theodore for most of my lifetime.
Some of Brother Theodore’s voice-work
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Brother Theodore in the JAWS parody GUMS
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As a 14-year-old insomniac, I would often listen through the night to “Radio Unnamable,” a 6-hour program hosted by New York City’s Bob Fass, who, to this very day, still broadcasts on the same station, WBAI. After my father’s death, I started to view Bob Fass as my cultural Dad, and his program introduced me to scores of sounds that have remained with me for a lifetime; Bob Dylan, Bukka White, Dave Van Ronk, Spider Koerner, Peter Stampfel, Annie Ross, Judy Henske, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker, Lenny Bruce, Ken Nordine, Lord Buckley … and the mononymic “Theodore.” The quasi-religious title “Brother,” an invention of talk show host Merv Griffin, had not yet been attached.
Theodore had only two LP recordings — one hard to find even in those days, which I owned, and the other impossible for me to locate. Fass would play something of Theodore’s almost every night; frequently it would be his rant demanding that the human race abandon the practice of walking upright, and return to the quadrupedal bliss that will only be known when we join him, as he thundered at us: “down, down down — ON ALL FOURS!”
Or another favorite, his lecture denouncing “foodism,” which would begin with its preposterous scientific basis:
“According to Pittsner and Buchenofsky, four distinct races preceded man on this planet: the fire-mist people, the potato-bug people, the yokel people and the kissable chitterlings. They all had corporeal bodies, they all propagated by means of propagation, and they all ate food.”
[ominous pause] ”
Where are they now?”
He would proceed to condemn his audience for their disgusting need to “polish off nutrition” on a regular basis, consuming the cadavers of our fellow creatures. Working himself into a lather, he would fully unleash his rage: “You eat death! How can you expect to live?”
“Animals and vegetals are as much creatures of creation as are you, the humanals. God is nobody’s fool! Do you think for even a moment that He created the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom, every flora and each fauna, just so that you could feast upon them?”
“Do you really think that you are a higher form of life? You, with your dripping jaws and your bloodshot eyes? With your varicosities and your vermiform appendix? With your hemorrhoids and your assteroids?”
“The gore of the tomato drips from your lips” was my favorite among the word-images that this madman placed in my youthful brain, long before dozens of zombie movies exploited the image of red-dripping maws.
Remarkably, Theodore’s claim that he lived on sunlight and on the scent of daffodils is based on an actual movement that’s been propagated by quack nutritionists for decades, and by religious frauds for centuries. The cult known as Breatharians continues to load the Internet with laughable material, with Wiley Brooks its best-known proponent. His Breatharian website instructs that would-be Breatharians should start by loading up on Macdonald’s Quarter-Pounders With Cheese, washed down with the 20-ounce Diet Coke before they begin living on light. These are the most nearly perfect foods, he contends.
Whether Brooks is sincere, or some sort of stealth comedian, has not been reliably demonstrated.
And many are certainly confused on first encountering Theodore as to what he really is, though most can agree that he worked at being a pretend madman whose first task was to get laughs from his audience, but that was certainly not the whole of it. He took his madman role as seriously as any thespian has ever taken a role; he would rail at the audience for their “hyena laughter,” threatening to end the performance if sufficient respect was not shown for the heavy intellectual content he sought to impart — all of it, of course, insane.
My Fangoria interview with Theodore, while a great opportunity to introduce him to a younger generation, broke no new ground, and the net is full of facts and near-facts about the life of Theodore Gottleib, which I will not re-hash here. Perhaps the best way to grasp the outline of his life and the parameters of his art is to locate a copy of the Brother Theodore documentary, To My Great Chagrin. The online press kit for Jeff Sumerel’s film is itself a tribute to Theodore, that outlines his life and art as well as I could here.
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More remarkable, for my purposes, is the way in which the two of us immediately bonded. While I had previously formed friendships with my interview subjects — most notably, with Frank Henenlotter — most such friendships grew slowly over time and repeated contact.
Theodore and I met for our interview, and for subsequent social engagements, at the same nondescript, generically American diner (like dozens of NYC diners, indistinguishable from the diner in Seinfeld reruns) on the upper west side, within a few blocks of his apartment on 76th Street. On that first meeting, after quizzing him about his personal life and the development of his art, I clicked off the tape recorder, and Theodore began to ask about my life.
Theodore had a son from whom he was separated for some forty years. His son eventually did contact him, and the two had a renewed relationship, but I believe, at the time, this was still in his future. I think our bond began when he asked about my love life, and I told him about my devastating breakup with Laura.
Laura, you see, was anxious to marry and have children, while I was still fixated on my broken relationship with my son Kris, and was reluctant to make family commitments to Laura, who in turn seemed disinterested in my lost son — in fact, Laura felt I was at fault for losing contact with him, though it was his mother who had banished me from his life, because I was, as she would often say, “crazy.” So Laura waited for years for me to fulfill the promise of our engagement, while, for me, doing so would seem another, and final, abandonment of my son.
I’m not sure whether all of this poured out of me at that first meeting, but our engagements at the diner became regular weekly events at which we would mingle our miseries. After a few weeks, when he finally trusted me not to be judgmental of the small, sparsely-furnished, even monkish, quarters where he resided, we would sometimes repair to his apartment for more after-dinner discussion.
The Theodore I came to know in these meetings, though known to many people, including many gifted writers, is never written about. This Theodore was not so very far from the public Theodore you may have read about in interviews, or even that frightening madman, stage Theodore.
The rage, fear, and panic that suffused his stage performances were native to him; this is generally well-known, and attributed to the Nazi scourge that devastated Germany, and eliminated the Gottlieb family as Theodore, the wealthy young German “playboy” entered his thirties. “Overnight, we were no longer Germans, we were filthy vermin Jews, like rats to be exterminated.”
Theodore frequently expressed his disgust at the celebration of Jewish “survivors,” despite his own nightmare experience at Dachau. He was strenuously opposed to the idea that victimhood was in any way heroic.
It was also characteristic of Theodore to dismiss the notion that his wartime ordeal was closely related to his development as an artist, or even significant in the overall scheme of his life. He recalled that he was banned from the Johnny Carson Tonight show when Carson asked him about his family, and he responded, “Johnny they all went down in the crematoria ages ago, it is not worth discussion.” (Jeff Sumerel tells me that NBC archivists can find no such Carson appearance, though I recall seeing this specific appearance years before meeting Theodore.)
It was disingenuous for Theodore to dismiss the idea that Nazism was part of the crucible that made him. But, to my experience, every artist worth his salt does his utter best to frustrate glib analysis, almost as an act of self-preservation. Too often it seems that would-be scholars proclaim “Ah-HA!” at their discovery that the artist was a bed wetter, for instance, and then they use that nugget of truth as a hook on which they can hang their interpretations, bedecking the hapless artist’s work as if it were a Christmas tree, until the artist’s real intent is lost in an enveloping cloud of interpretation.
The Theodore that I came to know was, in his saddest aspect, a victim of fear. Early in the 1970s, when he was a youthful, robust sexagenarian, a stairway fall resulted in a slow-healing bone-break, one that placed him on his back for weeks, and dependent, for the first time, on the help of others. Theodore has always been surrounded by friends who would welcome the chance to be of help to him, but he hated the need to rely on any power outside of himself, be it god, devil, man or woman.
Theodore would frequently brag of his membership in The Hemlock Society, the first organization to advocate “the right to die.” The Hemlock Society has since been absorbed by a group called “Compassion & Choices,” a name that would certainly have repulsed Theodore’s anti-sentimental side. (The Hemlock Society’s founder rails against the Madison Avenue types who “cleaned up” his club here) He claimed expertise in the techniques of suicide, which he promised to call upon if ever he was unable to live independently.
The last time that I saw Theodore, he said something to me that will certainly be remembered exactly as he said it, up to the day I am swallowed by the grave.
“Robert,” he said to me, “you and I, we do not have the gift for happiness.”
My God! I felt a thrill even as he spoke — it was as if the Devil himself, in full Sulphuric Regalia, had appeared to punch my ticket on the express train to Hell.
But then a second emotion, accompanied by a slight vertiginous nausea, waved over me. It was identical to the feeling I had when, as a teenager, I saw Todd Browning’s Freaks for the first time, and the character Cleopatra was, quite literally, “freaked out” as the sideshow cast chanted, “One of us! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!”
I had always initiated our contacts, and after this moment, I retreated. I did not call Theodore the next week, or the next, and our weekly meetings did not take place. After a month, or perhaps 5 weeks, I called him. For absolutely no good reason, I felt guilty for neglecting him, to the point where I feared calling. But the alternative was for us to fade quickly from each other’s lives, so I finally found the nerve to call.
Theodore was dismissive. “Robert,” he told me, “at this point in my life I haven’t the time or the energy to spare for anyone who is not in a position to help me with my career. Nothing personal, of course, I am sure you understand.”
Such cold words! Of course, it seemed to me that he was repaying me for a month’s neglect — though perhaps I only tell myself this to lessen the hurt of Theodore’s rejection. So I imagined that my failure to call nagged at him like a sore tooth, and that he ended our relationship to protect himself from such vexation repeating itself in a life that was already so overburdened with torment.
For myself, the end of the relationship was, in some sense, a release.
Theodore’s preoccupation with the inevitable sapping of his powers, and his love affair with the grave, made difficult company already. A grizzled, hardy hunk of meat like Theodore, I felt sure, was doomed to linger on this planet that he pretended to hate for decades more. Already, I knew him better than I had known my own grandfather, and felt an undeniable affection for the old shit. Did I really wish to hold his hand for twenty years while he every day wrestled with the death that he both feared and longed for?
“With such a hell in my heart…how can I live?
“With such a hell in my heart…how dare I die?”
With time I came to realize that, whatever love I felt for Theodore, the best that I learned from him was not to emulate him in my old age; not to make myself miserable for a broken bone that may never happen, or to nurse a suicide plan that I may never find the need to implement. I can still, even today, as my son approaches the age of forty still knowing nothing of his father, conjure tears over that loss. But every life is a tragedy, and all that is ever gained, is someday lost. All the more reason to savor the good of it, because all of it, good and bad, is fleeting.
The last conversation I had with my son went like this:
“Are you a bad daddy?” Kris asked.
“Someone said I was?” I asked.
Kris went to a day school where my wife Susan worked. Susan was well-liked by all the parents, who mostly knew me only as the rat that abandoned Susan and our son. It was inevitable that my “bad guy” reputation would reach Kris. I half-expected this moment, and wasn’t unprepared.
“Kris,” I told him, “If you want to make other people happy, you can always do what they want you to do, right?”
“But to make yourself happy, you have to do what you want to do. Do you understand?”
Kris told me then that he did, and ever since I have prayed that this understanding stayed with him — not just so he could understand me, but so he would have the bravery that every person needs to make their own happiness. When I had left Susan and our son, it was the most difficult choice I’d ever made.
I wanted to show Kris that he did not have to accept being enslaved by circumstance; that you can, and must, change a sad life to a happier one.
My wife, Susan, blossomed after our marriage dissolved. Like me, a high school dropout, she became a celebrated poet and photographer, and was working toward a graduate degree when she learned she had ovarian cancer in 1998. She died three years later, in April, 2001, just a couple of weeks after the death of Theodore.
I mourn them both, as I miss my son, but, for the sake of all of them, and for all of their pain, and in defiance of every earthly moment wasted in a state of misery by each and every soul, today I am brave enough to be happy.
“A documentary, you know, is not totally ‘real.’ When one is in front of the camera, one cannot help being conscious of the camera. Even when people are not in front of the camera, in normal life, people act.” — Kazuo Hara
Unlike any feature documentary I’ve ever seen, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” [Yuki Yukite Shingun] concerns Kenzo Okuzaki, a Japanese WW2 vet who has pretty much wasted his entire post-war life attempting to avenge inhuman crimes, real or imagined, committed by his military superiors.
Okuzaki’s off-camera actions in the years prior to the film included distributing his own pornographic artworks featuring Emperor Hirohito, and firing pachinko balls at the Emperor by slingshot. These crimes, as well as the murkily-described killing of a military officer’s son, had put the principal behind bars for much of his post-war life preceding the making of the film in 1987.
As the camera follows him, Okuzaki badgers and physically beats a series of mild-mannered elderly Japanese men, trying to get them to acknowledge their crimes. As the camera runs, Okuzaki finally — four decades after the fact — succeeds in getting one seemingly sweet old man to confess to the most inhumane betrayal of his own men imaginable.
What’s remarkable about the film, for me, is that the protagonist’s violent methods just seem comedically insane at the start, and the documentarian’s complicity seems base and exploitive — just a shade more respectable than “bum fights” — until the moment that the specific horror that traumatized Okuzaki is finally revealed.
But not all see it that way. Vincent Canby, writing for the NY Times, gave it a generally positive review 20 years ago, when it first was released; but whoever wrote the headline that appeared over the review seemed to have his own perspective on Okuzaki. It read: “Japanese Psychotic Gets His Wish: Return to Jail.”
SPOILER TEXT FOLLOWS
The chief asset of “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” is its way of negating the viewer’s complacent moral absolutes, as Okuzaki’s outrageous behavior gains justification. The film is as out of control as Okuzaki himself –director Kazuo Hara couldn’t have known that, after 40 years of troublemaking, this guy was actually going to make his case before the camera, proving that, when food became scarce, the officer’s club was serving foot-soldiers in a human stew.
END TEXT SPOILERS
So many documentaries are made according to the “backward completion” principle — with the filmmaker well aware of the conclusion of a doc before frame one is shot — that a film like this, so utterly out of the filmmaker’s control, has a special immediacy, and falls closer to the realm of experience than of spectacle.
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Talk of Brother Theodore’s legacy in the Dread Central forums.