Saturday, February 10, 2007

MEMOIR: Cracking up under pressure

The tragic, much-publicized case of Lisa Nowak, the female astronaut charged this past week with attempted murder, is a classic example of how some one struggling with enormous personal pressures can suffer an emotional crackup. Her story reminds me that I witnessed a similar case during World War II while serving in the Army in India.

Capt. Nowak, who flew in the Discovery shuttle mission last July, is accused of intending to kidnap or kill a female rival for the affection of another astronaut. In view of the high-powered, exceptional demands of an astronaut's job, her bizarre behavior was so extraordinary that it is evident that she suffered a nervous breakdown.

The victim whose crackup I observed 63 years ago was exposed to a far lesser type of personal pressure. But his irrational symptoms were similar, and the outcome even more tragic. The victim shared a tent with me and three other GIs. While I can recall the details of what happened to him,I do not remember his name. For purposes of this story, I will call him Arnold.

He was only about 20 years old, my age then, but he had already graduated from college before his induction into the Army. I remember him as an intellectually brilliant and shy young man with an odd personality. He worked as a cryptographer in the regional Air Corps message center that our outfit operated. Arnold had no friends, and I rarely saw him without a book in his hands during his off-duty hours. The men in our outfit regarded him as an eccentric, and he became a victim of teasing and bullying.

Looking back at the pattern of his behavior,I believe he might now be considered a victim of Asperger's Symptom, a neurobiological disorder and a form of autism that was not recognized until recent years. People diagnosed with Asperger's have normal or even superior intelligence, but they suffer a marked deficiency in social or communications skills.

One afternoon I walked into my tent and was shocked by what I saw. Wearing only his underpants, Arnold was standing on a stool with an electric light bulb in his mouth. His right arm was stretched up so that he could thrust his hand into the electric outlet installed in the tent's ceiling.

If this had been some one else other than Arnold, I would have considered his behavior a childish joke. Arnold, however, did not have a sense of humor, and the anguished expression on his face suggested that this was a serious display of abnormality.

I pulled Arnold off the stool and removed the bulb from his mouth. I was quite frightened by the weird look on his face. He was very agitated and refused to talk to me. Another one of my tent mates came in, and we quickly walked Arnold to our outfit's headquarters.

As I can recall the situation, Arnold was placed in a jeep and driven to the base dispensary. I never saw him again. Several days later, my tent mates and I were instructed to gather Arnold's possessions and deliver them to a hospital located at a nearby base.

We later learned that Arnold had been put aboard a troop ship sailing out of Calcutta and headed back to the States. After a few days at sea, we were told that he jumped overboard. His body was never recovered.


Blogger Ginnie said...

What an incredibly sad happening. There are so many degrees of madness and the "normal" people in our society seem to have little patience with it all. I have a friend who has two severely autistic children and so many of his neighbors shun them, rather than try to understand.

Saturday, February 10, 2007 7:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know,Mort, we never know what pressures those around us are experiencing and those who are the most fragile many times do not get the help they need until they have a complete break with reality as Lisa Norwalk did. The young man you remember so poignantly should never have been in the military in the first place. What a shame.


Saturday, February 10, 2007 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

Hi again...I was fascinated by your comment on my blog, re: IBM CEO Thomas Watson, Jr. That's what I love about blogging ... the connections that we make. I recall my friends who worked there as saying that he often showed up, unannounced, at the Poughkeepsie facility and would check to see that they were all in white shirts and ties.

Sunday, February 11, 2007 4:10:00 AM  
Blogger joared said...

What a tragic story as is this astronaut situation. There is little tolerance and understanding for anyone outside so-called norm limits, or who reaches a breaking point. We all may be closer to that imaginary line at times in our lives than we recognize or are willing to admit.
What we don't understand we fear and often condemn. At least some come forward, as you did, to help as best you could.

Monday, February 12, 2007 3:45:00 AM  
Anonymous claude said...

A very sad story. And it's true that it's very difficult to understand what puts other people under pressure.

Monday, February 12, 2007 6:53:00 AM  
Blogger Treifalicious said...

It's hard to read such a story let alone witness it. However, I wonder to what extent there may also have been some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at work here. It was a war zone after all. He had probably seen people maimed and killed in front of him. This would affect anyone. The fact that he might have had Asperger's syndrome just made it worse. As an earlier poster said, he should never have been in the military in the first place.

Good G-d, I hope I never have to see anything like that.

Monday, February 19, 2007 12:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Able Mart said...

I think there will be more of that in the military now that the standards are lowered and you can come in with a criminal record.

Monday, February 19, 2007 1:24:00 PM  

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