Who Killed Thomas M. Disch?
By Sam J. Miller
22 September 2008
Thomas M. Disch shot himself on the Fourth of July. The man whom The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction called "perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers" had lost his partner of more than thirty years after a long and expensive and painful illness, and was fighting a losing battle to remain in their rent-controlled apartment—all while crippled by sciatica, diabetes, and severe depression.
Suicide is always a speculative matter. Even in a case like Tom's, where a number of negative factors clearly contributed, the survivors are left to wonder. What was really going on? Where do we put the blame? What do we do with our grief? With our guilt? Murder and disease and acts of God give us something concrete on which to focus our rage and grief, but suicide thumps us over the head with the ugly truth about human mortality.
Grieving the death of a favorite writer is not so different from mourning the death of a friend: there's the same sense of frustration and impotence, of loss and loneliness. Literature is a kind of intercourse, and we crave a closer communion with the writers who send those shivers up our spines. So I wonder: who killed Thomas Disch?
Searching for clues, I turn to Endzone, the blog that Disch kept for the last three years of his life. In the days following his death I read every inch of it. His musings were often melancholy or pessimistic, obsessing over religious intolerance, his own insomnia, "the immanent [sic] end of the polar ice caps, of glaciers everywhere, and the extinction of polar bears." In the blog's last post, two days before his death, he points to rising global food prices as an ominous sign of coming catastrophe.
But otherwise, Endzone dealt in very conventional blog fodder, complete with sloppy spelling and haphazard punctuation. Tom talked about the television show Lost, news stories that outraged or amused him, the economic agony of a shopping trip to the Union Square Whole Foods, his own crusty political opinions—which made many, such as Patrick Nielsen Hayden, stop reading—and occasional flashes of total brilliance (the Catholic Church will never amend its stance on homosexuality because "extreme repression of an irrepressible force is part of the machinery of oppression"). He answered questions from readers (Was there ever any fallout from Philip K. Dick's letters denouncing Disch to the FBI? "If there was, I wasn't notified. I imagine the FBI thought he was a nutcase") and engaged in spirited debates about politics and literature. He posted dozens of new poems, some quite good, and joined in the debate as readers picked them apart in the "Comments" field. Upon the death of a critic who reviewed his books spitefully, he wrote "Ding-Dong! the witch is dead! . . . He was a mean, envious, fat old diabetic," Tom said, "but there are those whe might say the same of me."
Asked "What killed Thomas M. Disch?" his friend, editor Alice K. Turner, told me "First, Charlie's death in 2005, and the profound loneliness that followed. Second, the thought that he had not achieved the popular success that at some level he craved (while fighting against it, clearly). Third, his crippling illness: sciatica, arthritis, diabetes caused by obesity. Fourth, the landlord's harassment, and his fear that he might be evicted."
Taking this into consideration, and after reading his blog, revisiting his books, speaking with Tom's friends, and interviewing members of the SF literary community, I saw a total of five suspects emerge.
Suspect #1: The Fear of Eviction
New York City's beleaguered and inadequate rent-control laws have led to a situation where landlords can be getting five thousand dollars a month in rent for one apartment, while a tenant across the hall with an identical apartment is paying five hundred a month. With that kind of incentive, many landlords have adopted a "by any means necessary" approach to kicking out long-term tenants so as to raise the rent significantly—means including serving eviction papers to a surviving tenant before the corpse of the leaseholder is cold.
Tom and his partner, Charles Naylor, lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Union Square West. The lease was in Naylor's name, and upon his death the landlord began eviction proceedings. Tom's legal battles to hold on to his apartment were epic, and costly, and significant enough to merit discussion on the New York City Real Estate Lawyers' Blog (complete with a link to all the court papers, and a contentious "Comments" field argument between Disch fans and real estate lawyers). And things were not looking good: a few months before his death, the landlord won a reversal on an appeal of an earlier judgment in Tom's favor. Tom was so pessimistic about the prospect of holding onto his apartment that, according to one friend, he refused to buy a new air conditioner when the old one broke in the middle of a June heat wave.
According to another friend I spoke with, Tom said, "If I lost the apartment, I'd have to shoot myself."
Moneymaking, like a shark's eating, can become a banally singleminded pursuit. Maybe it would be absurd to expect a real estate developer to exercise mercy, over and above the metrics of dollars and cents.
Without wanting to let Tom's landlord off the hook, I gauge that if Tom's sales record had been in any way commensurate with his talent, he would not have had to worry about paying market-rate rent, not even on Union Square West.
Suspect #2: The Loneliness
Disch and Naylor had been together for more than thirty years. In 1981, they collaborated on an eccentric historical novel called Neighboring Lives. Reviewing it in the New York Times, novelist Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange), had mostly positive things to say—but complained that "Messrs. Disch and Naylor, concerned with giving us a kind of painless history lesson, emphasize unity of place at the expense of plot. Some of us prefer to get our history straight." Which might or might not be a homophobic crack; certainly, it wouldn't be the only crude innuendo in Burgess's nonfiction.
Of Disch's relationship with Charlie, Alice Turner said: "They quarreled a lot, I believe, but their relationship was very deep, and it pisses me off no end to think that if they'd been able to marry the landlord would never have been able to harass Tom the way he did.
"Once Charlie died, Tom's bitterness seemed to take a firmer hold. He read me his response to the editor who turned down his introduction to a volume of poetry by a prominent poet. After a few quick looks, I stopped reading [Tom's blog] for the most part because I found too much of it full of sputtering unfunny bile."
Nor was Naylor's death the limit of his isolation. Frozen pipes in his upstate New York home exploded, causing a mold infestation that rendered the house unlivable. Trapped in a newly-empty apartment, his mobility severely impaired by his weight and sciatica, Disch's loneliness must have been overwhelming.
Yet he kept writing. At the time of his death, a staggering six new books were in the process of being published. His blog gave him an easy way to get his thoughts and opinions and poetry to his audience, and it gave him an avenue for easy dialogue with readers that must have helped to assuage his loneliness.
Suspect #3: The Homophobic Milieu
Much is made of the speculative fiction writer's freedom to tackle issues that are too polarizing in literary fiction or other mainstream narrative art. Battlestar Galactica can address suicide bombings and the immorality of occupation, while Disch's Camp Concentration can give us a new perspective on the role of the medical profession in abetting oppressive government practices. But for whatever reason, gay, lesbian, and transgendered SF fans and writers do not always feel comfortable delving into the complicated channels of human sexuality in the discourse that surrounds the genre.
"Growing up reading science fiction and fantasy—and by reading I mean devouring, literally tons—I never encountered a gay character," says Tom Cardamone, a gay SF fan and the author of the gay horror novel The Werewolves of Central Park. "For a genre to define itself by being ahead of the curve and imaginative and inclusive, you have to understand that that's what we are talking about: a complete failure to address, mention, include a portion of the population visibly struggling for their rights."
Writers such as Nicola Griffith have hypothesized that speculative fiction holds a special draw for queer readers, who identify with the outsider characters (robots, aliens, telepaths, etc.), whose claim to humanity is denied by society at large. And SF insiders are skeptical about the extent of anti-gay perspectives among science fiction fans and writers. "Homophobia? Just the opposite as far as I can tell," editor Ellen Datlow, a friend of Tom's, told me. "The attitude is 'live and let live.' I don't expect to talk to anyone about my sexuality with regard to my work any more than I expect others to talk about theirs."
Tom enlisted in the army at the age of eighteen, only to be swiftly committed to "psychiatric incarceration"—for what, it's not clear, though this was at a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, and could be used as grounds for forced hospitalization. While the world's attitude to queerness has changed dramatically since 1958, Tom learned the hard way that there were severe penalties to be paid for being too open. "Live and let live," to a gay person, can often feel like "I don't want to hear about it," so it would be hard to say how much the supposedly liberal silence on queerness in SF circles actually made Tom feel isolated and uncomfortable.
Whether or not Tom would have liked more recognition from the gay community, or more receptive appreciation of the queerer aspects of his work within the SF community, it seems unlikely that either factor would be significant in leading him to suicide.
Suspect #4: The Perceived Lack of Critical and Popular Appreciation
In addition to science fiction, Disch wrote a series of horror novels, as well a few volumes of period Victorian fiction and two books of poetry criticism. His children's book, The Brave Little Toaster, was made into a Disney film. He wrote a text-based video game called Amnesia back in 1987. He had been the theater critic for The Nation, and wrote reviews of books and operas. Disch also had a successful career as a poet, with poems published in all of the most prestigious literary journals, from The Paris Review on down.
Disch was one of the most important writers of the "New Wave." Together with writers like Philip K. Dick and Samuel Delany, Disch helped science fiction steer away from the Golden Age's blind faith in technology and science, towards a darker and more introspective focus on people and their problematic relationship to the technology they have created. In novels like 334, The Genocides, and the superlative Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch took science fiction in new and challenging directions. So why, if he was "perhaps the most respected . . . most envied" of modern science fiction writers, did Thomas Disch not occupy the same privileged position in the SF food pyramid that other New Wave icons like Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, and Harlan Ellison enjoy?
Matt Staggs, of Deep Eight Book Publicity, had been doing PR for Tom's forthcoming The Word of God when Tom died. "Many of the editors that I contacted in reference to reviewing Tom's book—or even interviewing Tom himself—simply didn't respond to my query," Matt told me. "One publication in particular steadfastly ignored three repeated offers for an interview with Tom, yet ran a tear-jerking post about his death on their website. The same publication had interviewed Harlan Ellison just weeks before, so I don't think that it was a matter of Tom not being a good fit for their readers.
"I can't tell you why more publications weren't interested in his work," Matt said, "except to say that Tom never wavered or compromised in the things that he believed, and, unfortunately, some people consider that an undesirable quality."
Disch had always spoken his mind, and there were often repercussions. On his blog, he mentioned, "In my youth I greatly offended Heinlein true-believers and probably the great man himself with an essay outing [Starship] Troopers as a gay porn fantasy." This pivotal and inflammatory 1975 essay was "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction," in which Disch said, "The hero is a homosexual of a very identifiable breed. By his own self-caressing descriptions one recognizes the swaggering leather boy in his most flamboyant form."
Disch trashed friends, allies, and enemies alike. He heaped praise on Philip Dick, in spite of those letters to the FBI, but also chortled (in a blog post), "May he rot in hell, and may his royalties corrupt his heirs to the seventh generation." In the same forum, he gleefully published an account of how—and why—he successfully blocked the re-publication of Samuel Delany's The American Shore. "Chip [Delany's nickname] once pursued me all about a Boston hotel whining to be understood. I can understand his distress. It's his most ambitious work of criticism. And it will never be reprinted in his lifetime." He wrote a scathing review of a Ray Bradbury book in the New York Times—"Which more or less amounts to crucifying Jesus," said Alice Turner. After this review, he never received another assignment from the Times.
Yet being a cranky, nasty player in the game of literary politics is rarely enough to earn someone pariah status. Lots of writers, especially the ones who stick around long enough to earn the title "elder statesman/woman," are irascible and prone to diva outbursts. In my hunger to find out what led Disch to commit suicide, I need to look beyond his misanthropy.
Tom's place in the SF canon is secure, but how "important" is he? How influential? How successful? Ellen Datlow said that "Tom was very prominent in the community during the New Wave, and his work of that period is remembered and respected. But by the '80s he was writing only the occasional short story (several for me at OMNI) and they were pretty lightweight. He made a big splash with The Brave Little Toaster and his criticism (particularly of Whitley Strieber's Communion) but for the past twenty years has not been considered a part of the community. Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely that many writers coming into science fiction or fantasy in the past ten years have read any Tom Disch—or if they have, it would have been Camp Concentration and 334. And that's it. I'm afraid that although I very much admire the stories in Getting into Death and Fundamental Disch I don't know if they were influential."
Jacob Weisman, editor and publisher of Tachyon Publications, was working closely with Tom on his final novel, The Word of God, which Tachyon published three days before Tom's suicide. "One of the reasons why Tom isn't up there with some of the other science fiction writers is because he left the genre for a long time," Jacob said. "He wrote his gothic novels, a couple of which were either on the New York Times Best Sellers list or just below it. So for the past twenty years, Tom's work has been invisible to the SF community. To a lot of people, it's like he hasn't written anything in a long time."
And, in fact, Tom's final works represent a "coming home" to the genre. "The stuff that we're publishing now is much more like his old work than the work of the past twenty years or so. The Word of God is very unusual, and yet immediately recognizable as the work of the author of Camp Concentration."
But Weisman believes that Tom's failure to reach SF superstar status is connected to some of the broader ways in which the "New Wave" failed to transform the genre.
"The New Wave brought up the rear in terms of the basic level of literacy in science fiction. The sentences are cleaner. On the whole, SF is much better written. And there are probably a few writers who might still be working some of that territory. But in terms of whether or not the practitioners are writing literature that will hold up with the rest of 'literature,' I'm not so sure.
"It's not just that Tom wrote science fiction that aspired to the same ideals as mainstream literature. Tom was writing literature. He made no apologies for that, or the literary references throughout his work."
Alice K. Turner felt that Tom's prose style and attitude were never calculated for broad popular appeal. "I think that Tom's writing is always distant, a bit cold (not counting the children's books). What he really was at heart, I think, was an eighteenth-century satirist—erudite, droll, and somewhat cruel—commenting acerbically on modern society. And the SF world wants simpler, plot-driven adventure stories, something that they get even from intelligent writers like Gibson and Le Guin who describe society in warmer terms."
In addition, Turner said, "He was not at all a conventional genre writer, and the commercial houses (the last of which, I believe, was Knopf, a very prestigious house) found him a midlist author who simply wasn't making enough money. Did it impact his energy? I don't know; he wrote almost compulsively. I know it did hurt his feelings, but surely he knew that he wasn't writing to the popular taste, even when he was writing his so-called horror series. I often felt that he was sometimes trying to hoodwink his audience into accepting something that they simply weren't attuned to."
The Brave Little Toaster notwithstanding, Disch failed to deliver true blockbuster material, or to pander to what he felt were the worst aspects of genre fiction. In a New York Times review of Disch's horror novel The MD, Gahan Wilson complained of the predominance of "Adolf Eichmann types." Disch was obsessed with Eichmann—the name crops up a couple dozen times in Camp Concentration—a type that is far more prevalent, and arguably more dangerous, than the Adolf Hitler types that conventional fiction depends on.
Suspect #5: Thomas M. Disch
As I search for the culprit in the case of "who killed Thomas Disch?" I think the work itself is the best evidence.
Camp Concentration opens with its narrator, held prisoner for dodging the draft, meditating on his humorless Mormon guard. "Why do all the Mormons I have known have that same constipated smile? Is their toilet training exceptionally severe?" Having been in prison for three months with no access to writing materials, the narrator is celebrating because this Mormon guard has finally brought him a pen and a supply of paper. He is only mildly perturbed that he owes this paper to the President's decision to use thermonuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, which has put the militaristic Mormon into an uncharacteristically good mood.
This is Kafka, if Kafka could stop being so morbidly serious all the time and acknowledge that laughter and contempt are the best defenses against the modern world's violence and loneliness. Yes, Disch says, we're helpless cogs in a fundamentally oppressive and illogical machine, but see how ridiculous we all look! Of all of Kafka's literary heirs, Disch might have done the best job of translating the Czech Jew's lessons into a language everyone can understand. Towards the end of that same book, he asks, "What is more horrible—or more human—than this terror of feeling oneself no longer a part of the species?" Kafka died twenty years before the Holocaust would show just how violent the machinery of oppression could become (his sisters were not so lucky, and died in concentration camps), but Disch was five years old when the first photographs of Auschwitz corpse heaps were published. Faced with evil that extreme—and that mindless or "banal," in the Hannah Arendt sense of the word—science fiction must have seemed like the only appropriate response.
And this, more than anything, might be the key to Tom's marginalization. He was a little too successful in piercing through the armor that modern man uses to shield himself from the existential void. In an obituary in the Independent, John Clute asserted that "the central theme that could be discerned throughout this work was a passionate conviction that the desolateness of the human condition could only be 'figured' through art."
Disch was so diligent in exploring "the desolateness of the human condition" because that's what obsessed him—what drove him. Many readers would prefer to ignore that desolateness altogether. Jacob Weisman feels that Disch was not only too deep and dark for science fiction fans; he was also too deep for the literary establishment.
"When mainstream critics assess science fiction, in their own minds they're slumming," Jacob said. "They're looking for those raw, powerful ideas that people in science fiction might be working with. They're not looking for writers who are doing the same thing they're doing—and might be doing it better. Disch's work has all those deep ideas and literary aspirations. You have to work to keep up. So in a sense, he was too literary for both sides of the fence."
Even among Tom's friends and fans, it's difficult to assess his importance or predict his long-term popularity and influence. Will he make a Philip K. Dick transition, from respected midlister to SF icon and Hollywood darling?
"I haven't adapted to thinking in those terms," said Jacob Weisman. "We were in the process of revitalizing his career. He had been writing a lot and we were really moving forward. It's hard to summarize his career, because it's hard to think of his career as 'over.'"
While I'd love to turn Disch's death into one more argument in favor of expanded rent-control laws, or better tenant protections, or gay marriage (the surviving half of a married straight couple, in Disch's situation, would be far better situated to fend off eviction attempts), there's something creepy about reducing a human being to a weapon in the service of a political agenda. My need to find a scapegoat for his death does Disch a disservice. Disch's life, like his work, was defiantly resistant to outside influence. From the very start of his writing career we see someone willing to slaughter sacred cows and name names and subvert all expectations, and it's selfish to wish he'd given us a happy ending.
 As part of a series of conspiracy-theory letters Dick wrote to the FBI, he claimed that Disch's novel Camp Concentration contained coded messages on behalf of "a covert organization involving politics, illegal weapons, etc."
 Arendt, a German Jewish political theorist, coined the phrase "the banality of evil" during her reporting on Eichmann's 1961-1962 trial, and she elaborated on her meaning in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her interpretation of Eichmann and the Holocaust emphasized the role of dull obedience rather than ideology or psychopathy, and she argued that Eichmann's evil was "banal" because it was so deeply rooted in the everyday attitude of dutiful employees everywhere. "The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together."
Thomas M. Disch. Camp Concentration. Rupert Hart-Davis Books, 1968.
Thomas M. Disch. Endzone. LiveJournal Blog. http://tomsdisch.livejournal.com/.
Thomas M. Disch. "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction," reprinted in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of. Free Press, July 2000.
John Clute and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Alice K. Turner. Original interview with author.
Jacob Weisman. Original interview with author.
Ellen Datlow. Original interview with author.
Matt Staggs. Original interview with author.
Tom Cardamone. Original interview with author.
Lucas A. Ferrara, Esq. "What's the Disch on Estates?" in The New York Real Estate Blog. February 19, 2008. http://www.nyrealestatelawblog.com/2008/02/whats_the_disch_on_estates.html.
Anthony Burgess. "Carlyle and Friends;" Review of Neighboring Lives by Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor. New York Times, March 21 1981. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E03E0D61239F931A15750C0A967948260.
Gahan Wilson. "Paging Dr. Faust;" Review of The MD, by Thomas M. Disch. New York Times, April 28 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/09/specials/disch-md.html.
John Clute. "Thomas M. Disch: Poet and writer of death-haunted science fiction who won plaudits for 'Camp Concentration;'" Obituary in The Independent, July 10 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/thomas-m-disch-poet-and-writer-of-deathhaunted-science-fiction-who-won-plaudits-for-camp-concentration-863874.html.
Philip K. Dick. Letters to FBI. 1972-1975. http://www.alphane.com/moon/PalmTree/fbi.htm.
Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books, 1963.