Like a whole generation of bright, over privileged kids, Mark Vonnegut used his college degree (Swarthmore 1969) as a ticket to the rites of expiation. He, his girl and his dog, Zeke, set off into the sunset (in a dilapidated VW, of course) to live as humbly and hippily as a modest inheritance and a famous surname would allow. His father is the best-selling novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
A de rigueur subsistence-level farm was duly homesteaded in the wilds of British Columbia with a bunch of fellow-travelers. There were drugs and cosmic sex—no matter that his girlfriend took off with another man. The mountain provided higher fidelity and echoed young Vonnegut’s solos on the saxophone. Vonnegut was crazy about the whole setup. After a while, he was just plain crazy.
True to the creed of the counterculture, his friends first read his growing eccentricities as signs of escape from conformity. Eventually, Kurt Vonnegut flew in from New York and helped one of those friends take Mark, jabbering and hallucinating, to Hollywood Psychiatric Hospital in Vancouver on Valentine’s Day, 1971.
Remarkably, Kurt Vonnegut’s oldest child not only recovered after two years of treatment, but has written a book—The Eden Express—which recreates vividly his passage through psychic purgatory. This “personal account of schizophrenia” has been published by Praeger, and ends with a call for acceptance of the controversial orthomolecular regime—a treatment characterized by megadoses of vitamins—which Vonnegut holds responsible for his cure.
Something worked, surely. Last spring Vonnegut married a schoolteacher named Patricia O’Shea at his family’s place in Barnstable, Mass. He has just begun his first term at Harvard Medical School, interested in pediatrics. Though he occasionally addresses psychiatric meetings as “living proof” of the efficacy of orthomolecular therapy, Vonnegut admits that his cure was also the result of “blind luck—the right hospital, the right friends. It wasn’t a feat of self-knowledge or anything like that,” he argues modestly. “I have a bag of tricks—diet, sleep, meditation—and I’ve learned how they work.” These days Mark is adamant about avoiding drugs. “I got a lifetime supply of that frame of mind,” he says. Interestingly, though Vonnegut believes drug-taking acted as the trigger to his breakdown, he says that his experiences with hallucinatory drugs probably made it easier for him to cope with the psychotic episode itself.
At the time of his breakdown, Mark was disenchanted with the way his father was accommodating himself to fame and fortune generated by Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and other best-selling novels. Today, though his father has left Mark’s mother, the son visits regularly with both parents. “I guess I see more of my father than most 28-year-olds,” he says. Mark and his wife regularly leave their tidy apartment on Boston’s Beacon Hill to weekend with Mrs. Vonnegut in Barnstable, where they keep a vegetable garden and an 18-foot catboat “barely big enough to sleep two.”
Mark supposes that with a novelist for a father, he learned a lot about writing by osmosis, but The Eden Express is no father-son collaboration. “He finds it hard to give advice and I find it hard to take it,” says Vonnegut. But he did welcome his then-fiancée Pat’s opinions. Though Mark supported himself as a magazine journalist for two years before resuming his schooling, he has no plans for another book. “I don’t think I’ll have that good a story again,” he says with a trace of relief. “I’m really glad to be in medical school because I don’t have to think of an encore.”