Lady Chatterly Stoned by Robert Burruss

Breakthroughs in cognitive abilities are frequently reported. Here, we discover on a lonely winter’s night the skill to transport one’s self to an English garden, all the delights that await therein, and the blessed portal to all of literature. Read on.

I learned word processing the fast and easy way, by harnessing terror and moderating it with ethanol. In 1987 I spent one whole night with a computer, two joints, a glass of vodka, and an instruction manual for WordPerfect 4.7, and by morning WordPerfect was hard-wired into whichever ganglia integrate the actions of fingers and eyes and brain in a way that made it possible to operate the function keys rapidly, reflexively and without thinking.

I say “without thinking” because were someone to have asked which keys did what I could not have said. Terrors lessons seem to bypass ordinary reason-based learning processes; no “thinking” is involved is such learning. The resultant learning is similar to that of knowing how to ride a bicycle: were a novice to ask how to maintain balance, what can be said?

My discovery of terror as a catalyst for rapid learning cannot possibly be unique to me. It was a chance discovery that happened on a cold January night in 1974 when, at the age of 31, I learned to read – i.e., to comprehend whole sentences for the first time in my life. Till then I was effectively illiterate.

The first “energy crisis” was upon the land, and I was staying in an empty house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The only furnishings were a rug, a blanket, and a lamp. My “rent” was to paint the interior of the house – which meant I would be homeless as soon as I finished the job.

About two weeks into not starting the paint job, a particularly cold night set in. Snow that had been around for weeks was hard and crunchy as I had stepped outside to look at my car, a 1960 Chevrolet Impala with a huge engine and a huge empty gas tank. I was cold and I was lonely. I went back inside where there wasn’t even a phone to relieve the loneliness. I was completely isolated and alone, which might be important to what followed, though my experience since suggests being isolated is not essential to using terror as a way to learn – i.e., to imprint “body knowledge” directly into muscles and ganglia, bypassing the usual rational processes used in learning.

My furnishings at the house included the rug, blanket and lamp, plus a change of clothes, a toolbox, paint brush, some money to buy paint, and a paperback copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And on that cold night when I discovered the use of terror in the process of learning … well, there was one other thing I’d brought to that lonely site, only I didn’t know I had it till that night when I stepped outside. It was a tiny thing, buried for months at the bottom of a pocket in my down-filled coat. I found it when I put my hands in the coat’s pockets while I was outside looking at my car. That tiny little thing, and Lady Chatterley, changed everything, for the rest of my life, because on that night, at the age of 31, I learned to read.

The Challenge of Law School

Georgetown Law School was my final and most devastating defeat due to my nonliteracy. I didn’t know I couldn’t read. I assumed, without thinking about it, that everyone “read” as I did; a phrase here, a word there, with gradually an interpretation emerging – or more likely, a misinterpretation.

I entered law school in the fall of 1967. Everyone I knew was going to law school, so I applied too. I got accepted on the basis of an LSAT score that was in the upper third for that class that year. Clearly (in retrospect), one didn’t have to be a strong reader to do well on the Law School Admissions Test. The written instructions were irrelevant to doing what obviously was needed in the test.

In those days I could read single words okay and recognize their relationships to their spoken-word counterparts. I could even grasp whole phrases here and there. But the written instructions for class registration at the Georgetown Law School could as well have been quantum mechanical waste-function equations as far as I was concerned. In college, at Maryland University, I had simply to follow the crowd to get through registration for my classes in engineering.

Vietnam was looming in 1962, my second year in engineering school. And whereas other students who dropped out of engineering because of the math tended to end up studying business or history or English as a way to avoid Vietnam, I was able to stay in engineering because of its relentlessly logical basis. Ohm’s Law, for instance, and Snell’s Law, and Newton’s three laws of motion, in particular the second one, F=ma – which, incidentally, is a complete sentence (having subject, verb and object) that I understood so thoroughly as to feel its universal applicability – made engineering much easier for me than anything involving actual reading of written sentences.

Writing Before Reading

Then came that cold and lonely winter night in 1974. Interesting, though, learning to read that night did not immediately make me aware that I had not previously been effectively illiterate – illiterate, that is, with respect to reading, as opposed to writing. I could write well enough to get through high school and college, and I could read my own writings; but all other written language, beyond that of road signs, was out of reach. The condition was equivalent to knowing how to talk but not to listen.

I lasted a week at law school. I should have quit after the first day, when I couldn’t make any sense at all out of the first sentence of the first case in the case book. I was lost.

Six years later when I learned to read, my whole world changed. How it all came to happen in one night – actually within a period of several minutes – that’s half the interesting part. The other half is the awareness that came to me of the dramatic differences between spoken language and written languages, what Thoreau calls respectively in chapter 3 of Walden “the mother tongue which we learn like brutes at the knees of our mothers, while the other is the maturity of these, the durable language,” became so profoundly obvious. Written English and spoken English are both called English, but in fact each is a separate linguistic form or kind.

I lived for 31 years as a nonparticipant within a literate culture, even though I thought I was a participant. When I finally became a participant in literate culture, the transition was both shocking and valuable, the latter in that my life represents something of the best of both the literate and non-literate aspects of being human.

I had written a short essay either a few months before or after the night I learned to read. The topic was trends in human energy usage over the past half million years. I mailed the essay to Harper’s, which published it in February 1974. Many years later a grade-school teacher told me that learning to write comes before the learning-to-read part of literacy. In my case, that seems to have been so, and it was good to be reminded that literacy has those two parts, reading and writing.

Learning to Read

Around 8 pm on the night I learned to read, I put on my coat and stepped out onto the front lawn, which was covered with crunchy snow. The sky was icy clear. I looked at my white Impala, which was big and – had there been gas – powerful. After a few moments, the cold made me put my hands in my coat pockets where, in the bottom of one of them, I found a joint which someone had given me many months before.

The significance of that joint was unknowable to me at then. I had no particular joy in finding it; my response was something like: “Hmmm, a joint. It’s cold out here. Guess I’ll go in.”

Among the several items I had brought with me to the empty house was the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then still new in this country. My intent with the book, silly as this might sound, was to look for dirty words. Even though I couldn’t read books – or paragraphs or even sentences – I could read dirty words, and what I hoped to find that night, and to see sanctified by having been written in a book no less, were the kinds of printed words I’d seen previously only on the walls of public restrooms. Cleary that desire was nonrational, so it must have been powered by some instinct, something inborn but useful to some practical, probably biological, end, such as keeping my sex urge and glands in good operating order.

I went to the bedroom where my rug and blanket and lamp were arranged in the middle of the room. Then I lit the lamp and flopped out on the blanket. Then I lit the joint, took maybe two puffs, and picked up Lady Chatterley and began hunting for the relatives of that most potent of English holy words, fuck.

I have no memory of the intervening moments. before I learned to read. Perhaps only a few seconds passed. Maybe minutes. I don’t know. All I recall is opening the book at a random place, or perhaps at multiple random places, and the next thing I know is that I’m walking up a stone path with flowers beside it, to the gardener’s cottage, which has a thatched roof. The sky in the mental scene which the written words were creating is grayish, and the air is comfortably warm and slightly humid.

The sort of teleportation which the book and the joint provoked that night . . . that was the first time in my life that mental images had been created by printed words. Until that night I had been unable to comprehend phrases longer than about three words. Until that night I had thought that everyone read that way, by looking at words and phrases and then fabricating an interpretation – highly personal, of course, though I didn’t know it then – of the writer’s intent. The seeing of mental images – and from printed words no less! – was the second great revelation of my life. (The first was my personal discovery of time, which happened shortly after I learned to handle spoken language.)

In subsequent evenings, over about half a dozen years or so, I used marijuana as an aid to reading and catching up with the written and literal collective memory of Western and world culture. Eventually I learned to read without having to use marijuana. Perhaps I would eventually have learned to read even without marijuana being involved. Perhaps. The point is, though, that on that night in question, marijuana seemed to loosen up the syllable-by-syllable style of word interpretation that had impeded my comprehension of whole sentences. “Automaticity” is the technical term for what I lacked prior to that night with dope and Lady Chatterley; the word automaticity, when used in regard to reading, refers to the automatic decoding of words, i.e., doing it unconsciously and automatically. Automaticity with respect to reading came to me that night in 1974.

Other Personal Uses of Marijuana

In the summer of 1964 I rode a motorcycle across Mexico while I had dysentery. The resultant bowel damage was permanent and, though medical efforts were made, it could not be treated. Around 1968, which was when I first used marijuana, I discovered that the gut cramping and chronic abdominal pains that made my 8-hour workday nearly exhausting could be managed by a small dose of marijuana.

The feelings of apprehension and terror that, however, accompanied my use of marijuana discouraged me initially from using it regularly to manage my gut discomfort. By the mid Seventies, however, I was using marijuana regularly as a way to control my gut cramps whenever I entered non-work-related social situations. I still use it that way.

One Response to “Lady Chatterly Stoned by Robert Burruss”

  1. Pen Sheridan says:

    Bob…. you literary genius, you. On a par with the literary giants I’ve heard about. God knows, I’ve not read them… Had to read Crime and Punishment in college and hated every moment… well, almost every moment. Your description of that memorable, chilly evening in the company of a bit of smoke and your good friend, DHL, is fun, informative and a pleasure to read. If I could just pick up a book and get into it as fast as I got “into” your essay here, I’d be a “reader.” Thanks!!!

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