October 12, 2020
Dear Dr. Irvine,
Please forgive me for not reading your mind on that cold morning in March, 1971, when the head dolphin trainer at Floridaland, Robert Corbin, introduced us. I’m really, really sorry I said something that upset you so much, but only dolphins and a few other “lower” animals have given me the privilege of mental telepathy with them, and you just weren’t on my short list that morning. What can I say, at this late date, to make it right with you?
I’m sure you have long since forgotten the incident, but I haven’t, not only because you treated me like a non-person, but because you implied I was also very stupid, even though you had only met me for about 2 minutes. Let me jog your memory. You had run out of fish for Simo, the poor dolphin trapped in your worthless circular tank shark experiments. (More on that, and why your reputation is undeserved, later.) So you came down to Floridaland, where I was pursuing a independent study project at New College photographing the dolphins for a proposed book about them. And our paths chanced to cross outside the freezer shack, where Robert kept the fish.
Robert introduced us. I had, of course, heard of the experiment you were conducting for the US Navy at Mote Labs; everybody in town had heard about it, following your efforts to tag dolphins by burning holes in their dorsal fins and affixing plastic plaques, a rather crude and ineffective technique. Robert mentioned that I was a student who was very interested in dolphins. I told you a little bit about my project, and you seemed very enthusiastic about it at first. I remember you — oddly, in view of what happened — actually smiling, but it might just have been indigestion making you wince. A long time has passed, hasn’t it? Far too long for anybody except a real weirdo, like me, to still resent it, but I do.
Those first impressions, they are a bitch, aren’t they? It works both ways, Dr. Irvine. Both ways.
And then you asked the fateful question: “What books have you read?” If I had been able to read your mind then, I would not have given the answer that I did. Please believe me on this, is was the lack of clear, decipherable telepathy with you that ultimately let me down. I failed nobody but myself, there.
The answer I gave you was unfortunately honest, forthright and sincere. “Well, all of John Lilly’s stuff…” I started to say, preparing to explain how New College had a lousy library and it was difficult to get research papers there. But I never got a chance, because, as cold as it was that morning, the air between us froze, and you, in an instant, on a dime, in a New York minute, turned from a friendly, somewhat fatherly researcher with an interest in my work (admittedly a liberal arts approach to dolphins) into a lethal polar bear, moving in for the kill. The smile on your face disappeared, to be replaced in an instant with an expression of profound disgust, as if you had just stepped in dogshit — Great Dane dogshit. Something I’d said had obviously triggered you, and this was decades before pop psychologists began abusing that term. What could it be?
Could the mere mention of Dr. John C. Lilly’s name…? Could it? Really? How misfortunate for me, to mention the ONE NAME that would trigger you that morning! And how doubly misfortunate not to have read your fucking mind before hand, so that I’d be forewarned and not make the one mistake that would send you plunging off the end of the dock, dragging me with you! It was there, in the air over your head, clearly flashing red letters that said WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T MENTION JOHN C. LILLY’S NAME TO THIS MAN, HE’LL FREAK OUT — and I chose to ignore it. Or I just didn’t see it. I certainly didn’t mean to provoke you, we’d only just met!
When you spoke, even your voice was different. There was an edge of threat or menace in it when you said “That man is either 50 years ahead of his time, or crazy, and most of us think he’s crazy! Good day!” By “us” I took it that you mean marine mammalogists at large — speaking for the community as a whole, I guess you were — and there may also have been something in there about you having worked with him, and that’s how you knew. Then you pivoted on your heel, got in your truck and drove away, and I never even had a chance to finish my sentence.
I will not describe how I felt as you drove away; instead, here are some of the things I thought about you:
• Rude, inconsiderate
• Abusive, abrupt
• Talks down at me, thinks he’s superior
• Explosive intermittent disorder (this is the modern diagnosis, I suffer from it too)
• Must be hard to work with, being around a person so critical with a hair-trigger temper
• Doesn’t want to listen, close-minded
• Sociopath, only likes people who can help him out• No empathy with others… and so on. This is an incomplete list, but I’m sure you get the general drift.
As a result of that unfortunate meeting, I THOUGHT YOU WERE A REALLY FUCKED-UP PERSON, PERSONALLY, AND THE WAY YOU TREATED ME CAUSED ME TO HATE YOU. And I don’t like to hate things, it’s a waste of energy. But I do hate you, and I find I’ve hated you for 50 fucking years now. That probably says more about me than about you, and I admit I have anger management problems. But since then I’ve learned something important, and puzzling.
Somebody else gave you the same information, and you reacted differently to him than you did to me. So I think I’m justified in asking “What did he do right that I did wrong?” or, “What was the difference in Dr. Blair Irvine’s approach to me and this other person?”
Dr. Randall Wells, as I’m sure you’ve heard, has been an acquaintance of mine since we met in a marine biology class at Riverview High School in Sarasota in 1968 or ’69. I had a lot of social problems in high school, but Randy wasn’t one of them; he was just a nice, affable, intelligent guy, and he didn’t seem to get picked on much, so we talked a bit. Over the years, my esteem for him has only grown, and I now donate monthly a small amount, all I can afford in my current circumstances, to the SDRP, because I know that 90% of that money will go to benefit the dolphins of Sarasota Bay, and the other 10% to buy beer for the boat crew worn-out from chasing, netting, examining and logging them all day. (Just kidding!) So it is Randy’s compassion for the dolphins, and the excellence of his research, his personal friendliness toward me over time and a belief in acting locally, that make me want to donate to the splendid organization that you and Randy created together.
Now, here’s my problem, Dr. Irvine, and it consists of two words you may have heard before: COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.
You see, Randy is an exceptional person, and I do not see him mentoring, or collaborating, or getting papers published, with somebody who was rude to him, browbeat him, talked down to him, insulted his intelligence, and dismissed him with a wave of your hand, all of which you did to me that frosty March morning. When Randy came to you with John C. Lilly’s name on his lips — he proudly displayed a copy of Mind of the Dolphin on the SDRP podcast last week as his first dolphin book — you reacted differently, very differently, to him than you did to me.
Was it the fact that you were renting your house from his folks that made you feel indebted to them and caused you to moderate your self-righteous anger with the lad, or did I see a side of you you don’t show to others in your profession? The sociopathic side, the side that steps on unsung grad students to get research published, the side that curses the dolphins for struggling when you burn holes in their dorsal fins to tag them? The side that decided I WAS A NON-PERSON SO YOU COULD TREAT ME LIKE SHIT THAT MORNING BECAUSE I DIDN’T READ YOUR MIND AND REALIZE, SOMEHOW, BEFORE THE WORDS LEFT MY MOUTH, THAT ME SAYING DR. JOHN C. LILLY’S NAME WOULD TRIGGER YOU INTO A RAGE OF BARELY-CONTROLLED ANGER?
What was it, Dr. Irvine, that made you react differently to Randy than to me? A short-term circumstance, I hope, something like “Sorry, I hadn’t had breakfast that morning,” or “Sorry, I didn’t get laid the night before.” Those would be comprehensible, if not excuses. Something like “My mother died the day before,” that would be an excuse. I don’t know, and for 50 fucking years your behavior toward me that morning has been like a big grub, festering in my brain, and it doesn’t go away, and if it does, I always come back to it eventually.
What you did, I should point out, was also bad news from a scientific point of view. With Randy you were apparently able to hold a polite discussion and explain to him what was wrong with Lilly’s work. He listened, learned, and grew from it. Me, you told to fuck off, and I hate you for it.
So there’s my cognitive dissociation, Dr. Irvine: which human are you? I cannot make the two images align, or even overlap: are you a kind, nuturing scientist that gets along with his colleagues or the rude, abusive (yes, ABUSIVE, when did you stop beating your wife abusive), short-tempered person I encountered that morning? And more importantly, for reasons that apparently have nothing to do with you, WHY ME? When open scientific discussions such as I presumed we were having get SHUT DOWN because someone dropped a name he wasn’t supposed to, that’s not science, that’s prejudice and bigotry. Let me remind you, you never got a chance to explain your POV to me either, and if that wasn’t your fault, it sure as hell wasn’t mine.
So all in all, Dr. Irvine, I don’t think very well of you, but I allow that I might be mistaken, because Dr. Wells likes you, I mean, you are his mentor and everything, and I don’t think, as I have said, Randy would work for very long with somebody who abused him. I am quite confused as to who you really are, and I hope you see fit to clarify the situation for me, as I find it very difficult to go forward with my own work like this, unable to rectify two polar-opposite views of you. So please tell me, if you will, why I saw the unpleasant side of the distinguished scientist that morning, and why Randy did not.
I’ve decided not to critique the famous experiments with Simo that Randy filmed for you, although I will say, in passing, that dolphins do not in nature swim in 6′ deep donut-shaped pools, and any evidence acquired thereby can only be applied to the behavior of dolphins in the wild by a rather thinly stretched interpolation.
In closing, Dr. Irvine, I hope I have expressed myself clearly, and that you now know the reason for my impertinence in mentioning Dr. Lilly’s unspeakable name to you on that sorry morning. It WAS totally my fault that I failed to read your mind, and for that I can only offer sincere, if abject, apologies. Let me finally say to you the words that I have been wanting to say for 50 long, sad years: EAT SHIT AND DIE, YOU WORTHLESS WASTE OF PROTOPLASM! FUCK YOU AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON. I THINK YOU’RE A BUNKO SCIENTIST, AND IF YOU WERE CRUEL TO ME, WHO ELSE WERE YOU CRUEL TO? WHAT OTHER NON-PERSONS DID YOU STEP ON TO GET WHERE YOU ARE? I am sure they remember the encounters, even if you don’t.
Thank you for reading this letter. I will continue to donate to the SDRP because I believe in and trust Randy, not you. I hope I have made myself clear, and have a really fucked-up day.
Most sincerely, Malcolm J. Brenner, author of Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover and other books.