In the closing days of August 1965, Jill Johnston went into orbit. During those same days of summer, two American astronauts were also aloft, circling Earth in Gemini V. Jill Johnston was right up there with them, flying high -- but without a spacecraft. The astronauts splashed down in the middle of the ocean; Johnston's celestial journey ended in the wards of Bellevue Hospital.
In New York City in the 1960s, Johnston was a celebrity of sorts: she was a critic of avant-garde art and dance, a reviewer and sometimes participant in experimental theater -- "happenings" they were called then. She was a dweller of lofts before loft-living was fashionable; rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol and his crowd; befriended aspiring and successful artists, dancers, members of the elite and eccentric art world; partied loudly; made love bisexually; drank excessively; and wrote wildly untraditional reviews about the New York dance world for The Village Voice. It was quite a life, even for the '60s -- and even for New York.
As even the most naive of observers might have suspected from Johnston's high-pitched, high-flying existence, Jill Johnston was Looking for Something. And it was when she landed in the wards of Bellevue, diagnosed as having "chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia," that the obsession driving her made itself crazily known: Jill Johnston was looking for her father, a relentlessly cerebral, self-revealing search that has been emotionally conveyed and sometimes loonily documented in her two-volume "Autobiography in Search of a Father."
Volume I, "Mother Bound," while fiercely self-analytic, had an eerie resemblance to other women's autobiographies: a tale of a fatherless young girl shuffled among relatives and boarding schools, a domineering mother, confused parentage, a repressed grandmother, all illustrated by black-and-white pictures of graduation days and summer vacations, it could almost have been the story of a middle-class, lower-income Gloria Vanderbilt. But in Volume II, "Paper Daughter," the voice that begins the narration is the voice of Johnston veering toward her first of three breakdowns. "Paper Daughter," as they used to say in the '60s, is a head trip.
Jill was raised to believe that her father, an Englishman her mother had married while abroad, had died when Jill was an infant. But in college, Jill discovers that her father has just died and that her mother had never married him -- but not for want of trying. When Jill's craziness explodes, the Father Problem makes itself manifest. In her 1965 breakdown, Jill imagines herself a savior of sorts and fantasizes a virgin birth. A year later, in the midst of her second breakdown, the delusions lead her to believe that she is the daughter of a great man; specifically, one Guillaume Apollinaire, a dead French poet. A child with no father, the crazed daughter becomes obsessed with constructing a genealogy.
This is just the starting point of a craziness that causes Johnston compulsively to construct charts, create lunatic lineages, remember obscure names and dates, find clues everywhere, all to buttress her case for Apollinaire. Wild intermarriages are fantasized, as are cross-continental, time-warped incestuous relationships that resulted in Apollinaire's fathering of Jill. Freud would have had a field day. But, in fact, Johnston herself has the field day, constantly jumping out of her own skin and analyzing -- or overanalyzing -- her life:
"Obviously, I secretly thought my mother was culpable, and it was my job to pay for us both. The displacement of my mother's 'fault' onto myself could only happen through my mother's failure or inability to take responsibility for herself . . . In the deeper recesses of thought I had contrived to obtain a father in some manner akin to the way I perceived my mother had. I was her dream child, the product of a man who existed in imagination only. She would have fit very well into Freud's seduction theory, post-1896."
Johnston spends much of "Paper Daughter" suffering through and documenting breakdowns as if they were postgraduate degrees: the '65 breakdown is followed by the '66, which is then followed by the '69; all are preceded by the feeling of airborne flight, the need to escape the city (usually at high speeds in someone else's car) and withdrawal from cigarettes (smokers, be warned). There are victories for Johnston in these years, and some rich anecdotes about the New York City hip scene. But there are also lots of long, depressing coma-like months, or frenetic, fast-paced, self-destructive binges.
Any reader who takes this trip with Jill Johnston had better have his engines finely tuned -- and seat belts fastened. The woman who tells the tale of her own breakdowns is the woman who has been certifiably around the emotional bend. Has she come back?
Those who toe the line between reality and fantasy may find a little too much propulsion on these pages. "Paper Daughter" is not a fun or easy read; but then Jill Johnston's was not an easy ride.