Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Staple Gun Control - A scary moment

Turning the corner toward my office one morning, I was caught off guard by a disheveled middle-aged man glowering at me from a chair in our waiting area.  Each of his white-knuckled hands gripped an opposite end of a thick, white three-ring binder with a multitude of colored tabs sticking out at odd angles from dog-eared pages.  He was of medium stature and build, but his eyes were dark. I checked my mental calendar - it was Wednesday, one of the days Noam works at home, and Morris Halle was on vacation with his wife, Roz.  It was also Glenn’s day off, so I wasn't expecting anyone else to be in the office today.

“Can I help you?” I asked, trying to conceal a rising feeling of discomfort, as a lesson I learned in the late ‘90’s during an African safari flashed through my head -- never turn and run from a predator, because it will smell your fear and chase you down. 

“I’ve been sitting here for two hours,” he hissed. 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, “but our office doesn’t open until 10 am on Wednesdays.”  I was wondering how he had managed to navigate MIT's maze of building to find our office, which is tucked away down the side passageway at the end of a long corridor on the 8th floor of the Stata Center.  I figured I shouldn't underestimate this guy.  If nothing else, he was resourceful.

“I used my disability check to travel over fifteen hundred miles to have a talk with Professor Chomsky about my situation, which has become extremely urgent.”

I nodded my head while I tried to decide whether to open the office door and let myself in – which would mean letting him in – or to stand there holding my backpack, a bag of books for the library, and my keys.  I was simultaneously wondering why this building wasn’t more secure.  
 “I slept outside for a few hours last night, and I’m hoping that your boss will be able to help me,” he said, looking almost through me with unblinking eyes.  “I have proof of my dire situation.  It’s all here in my notebook.  I’ve been writing it all down for years.”
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated.  I really did feel sad for this poor soul, but I was equally afraid of pissing him off. “But Professor Chomsky won’t be in for the rest of the week.”

“Are you his secretary?” he asked me in an eerily even tone. 

“I’m his assistant.  We have a part time assistant, but he’s not in today.”  I knew immediately that I had said too much. I do that when I'm nervous.  It would have been wiser to tell this guy that my assistant would be right back.  My big, tall, muscular assistant.  It didn’t matter that Glenn, though very athletic, and certainly tall, is neither big nor visually muscular, because he wasn’t going to show up.  That was my second mistake.  My first mistake had been to ignore my gut instinct to flee – after all, my office is not the African Serengeti. My third mistake was unlocking the door and letting him in. I pocketed my keys and laid everything down on the floor next to my work table. I wanted to get this visit over with. Despite everything, and this is probably my downfall, there was something gentle and soft in his manner, and I felt the kind thing to do before showing him the door was to let him inside and listen to him for a minute, and promise to get his message to Noam.  I felt it was in my best interest not to get on this guy’s bad side, though looking back with a clear mind, it would have been best to ask for help right away, and have him escorted out of the building.

For the next six or seven minutes we sat side by side at my table as he showed me his notebook filled with colored lines, words, and arrows, with smudged notations of varied sizes in pen, pencil and marker.  As he opened it to one page and then another, he said things like, “This proves that a government agency is following me and using mind control to get me to aid in their criminal acts.  This group of criminals – and they themselves are the criminals - are inflicting relentless pain and torture on me.” 

When he said, “There are children outside my apartment who stare at me with their strange eyes, sucking on lollipops, taunting me and teasing me,”  I stood up, trying not to be too abrupt, and said I was sorry he had to endure all of this, but it was time for him to go.  He pushed his chair back from the table and stood a foot from me, eye to eye, and asked, “Do you think I’m a dangerous person, Bev?  I have never in my life committed a crime.”  I hated the way he said my name.

Working all these years as Chomsky’s gatekeeper, I am not a stranger to strange behavior or mental illness.  We had questionable mail sent to us during the reign of the Unabomber, and in fact were questioned by the FBI when Ted Kaczynski was arrested, because he had cut out some of Noam’s statements and pasted them on the walls of his cabin.  Another guy taped large anti-government thought bubbles on our Bertrand Russell poster when nobody was in the outer office, and then went next door to Au Bon Pain and heaved himself through a plate glass window.  One woman harassed me for years saying, “If the good Professor Chomsky is such a humanitarian, why won’t he let a homeless woman sleep on his couch until she finds a place to live?” I usually feel relatively safe at my office, but once in a while, despite my efforts at self-protection, the shiny scales of an uninvited visitor with a dark agenda slithers under my door and settles at my feet.  I had handled these folks, many of whom seem more dangerous than they are in reality, so I thought I could handle this guy.  But part of me knew I might  be dealing with something darker here.  

He was standing between me and the door. “So, Bev, I asked you a question.  Do you or do you not think I am a dangerous person?” This might have been a trick question, but I took my best guess.
“No, of course not,” I lied.  “But I have a lot of work to catch up on, and I have to...”

He cut me off and reached down and picked up a heavy-duty gray metal stapler from the work table and waved it in the air. “If I were a dangerous person, Bev, I would take this staple gun and smash it over your head.  And that would be a crime.”

I had officially escalated from ‘very concerned’ to ‘scared shitless.’  I suppressed the urge to scream, and I must have stopped breathing because the room began to sway.  I took in a deep breath to steady myself so that he wouldn't smell my fear. The possibility that I could be hurt made my mind both sharper and more disconnected. “And I assume you are not going to do that," I heard myself say.

“Of course not,” he said, looking at me sarcastically, as if I were some kind of idiot to suggest it.  “In fact, I feel that I’ve wasted my time and what little money I had coming here.” 

My throat was dry. I was too stressed to deliver more than a standard line. “I’m sorry to hear that, but most people call months ahead for an appointment with Professor Chomsky.”  What was I expecting him to do? Did I expect him to stand back and apologize for inconveniencing me, promise to contact me through the proper channels, and then waltz out the door with his multi-colored notebook and my now-it-looks-like-a-weapon-to-me heavy gray stapler in hand?

“Lady, this is a matter of extreme urgency," he said, shedding all pretense of politeness.  I don’t have time to listen to you talk down to me. There are things going on in the world that are not right, and Professor Chomsky, I thought…”  His voice cracked, and he paused for a few seconds, and then his speech slowed, “…I thought was someone who could help me figure this out. But obviously this office is no different than any other useless place,” he said.  He was crying.

“I’ll get you some water,” I said, feeling a weakness in my legs as I sidled over to the cooler, which was conveniently stationed next to my exit.  I filled a plastic cup with water from the cooler, putting my back to the door, pressing the lever handle with my left hand while offering him the water with my right.  If I learned anything that morning, it was that I should under no circumstances hand this guy a big ceramic mug.

“It hurts so much,” he said.  “The voices are constant, and they won’t stop haunting me.”
I pulled a tissue from a box on the shelf next to the cooler and handed it to him, keeping silent as he blew his nose. “The pain is unbearable.  I can’t find a way to stop it.”

When he took his last sip of water, I said, “I’ll walk you to the elevator.”  By some miracle, he followed me out, and as I glanced in his direction, I could see the lifeless, impenetrable darkness still clouding his eyes.  I watched with great relief as he entered the elevator and disappeared behind the large silver sliding doors.

I had been shaken, but felt more in control as I walked back toward my office. I pulled on the door, and found it was locked.  Since I had never unlocked it from the inside a half hour before, even if I had screamed for help, nobody would have gotten in without a key. I looked behind me down the hallway. The coast was clear.  I unlocked the door again and took a deep breath as I sat down at my desk and called Noam to tell him what had just happened.

“You can’t take this sort of thing lightly,” he told me.  “I’m totally serious, Bev.  I want you to arrange for an escort out of the building tonight.  You can’t take any chances.  Get someone, maybe the MIT police, to walk you to your car at the end of the day.”

I never saw the man again that day, although I did end up getting an escort from one of our strong tall male faculty.  

I don't fully understand how the paranoid people I’ve come in contact with share the idea that the government is listening in on their lives, whether via covert spies or through devices implanted in their fillings by agents posing as dentists. I think they see Noam as a strong and humane individual with a lot of knowledge about how the system works, who can save them by confronting their evil torturers.

My partner Laura, a nurse psychotherapist, later explained to me that this delusion is a common experience for people who hear voices in their heads.  She suggested that they have to find a way to reconcile these voices, so through their paranoia they come to believe that thoughts are being forced on them.  The man with the colored notebook was a perfect example of this.  Poor guy.  I hope he has found some peace.


  1. Unfortunately I am learning that paranoia and delusions are also symptoms and common behaviors of people with Alzheimer's disease...The brain is a very mysterious organ! And you are a wonderful writer. I totally felt your fear and discomfort.

    1. Dear Anon - thank you for my first anonymous comment - and for your thoughtful input. Life is serious and scary and uncomfortable a lot of the time, and this is why I like to add a little humor. Thank you thank you.

  2. Bev, I enjoyed your telling of this story - a mix of reasonable fear and compassion for this man. I'm glad it ended safely for you and that he has found peace by now too.

  3. Hey my first day was dealing with those FBI agents and their larger than life suits.

    You really are in a special category with the number of people coming in off the street who are delusional/angry/desperate and the lack, really, of any security other than your disarming personality.

    1. Hey Sheiler - Awesome...that was happening on your first day working for us? And where is your blog? Your writing is phenomenal - you are no pipsqueak...