By Malcolm J. Brenner
“Dad, if only you’d use your super-powers for good instead of evil!” — my daughter Thea talking to me on the phone about this problem, in so many words. She always gives me the best advice!
There are some people that you meet but never get to know, or maybe only superficially. Say you eat lunch together, have some interesting chatter a couple of times and think, “Gee, what a great girl/guy, I’d really like to know him/her better.”
With these people, if they are semi-public figures in entertainment or the arts or the sciences, their reputation may precede them. They may be important people in their institutions, even leaders, and their time is precious because of (whatever-it-is) they do. You recognize this, and you appreciate every moment they spend with you.
Such was my relationship with Randall Wells, PhD., and director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. We’ve known each other since the 1968-69 school year, when we both took a marine biology elective at Riverview High School, a school where they painted a yellow line outside the cafeteria that you couldn’t cross, but the next year you could be wading through the rice paddies of ‘Nam carrying your M-16 over your head and praying it would fire when needed. That was all American high schools in the late 1960’s, by the way. And they all sucked a big wet one.
Now, Randy’s parents, a couple of pretty nice, normal people to hear him tell it, owned a couple of rental properties, and one of them they rented to a marine mammalogist named Dr. Blair Irvine. Dr. Irvine worked under a contract with the U.S. Navy to find out if he could train a bottlenose dolphin, in this case a bull named Simo (Latin for snubnose) to protect S.C.U.B.A. divers from shark attacks. Working at the old Mote Marine Laboratory at the south end of Siesta Key, he used a ring-pool, like half a donut, that had been set up by somebody else for shark research earlier.
Dr. Irvine needed somebody to stand atop a tower next to the pool and run and re-load the 16mm Bolex camera that was recording the shark-dolphin interactions, and hearing that young Randy and an interest in sharks, Irvine asked him to do it. I don’t think starry-eyed Randy needed much parental encouragement to leap at the chance!
(We skip over, here, the toil of Dr. Irvine’s experiments with Simo, which may be briefly summed up thus: In a donut-shaped 30′ diameter pool from which it cannot escape, a male bottlenose dolphin will gleefully pursue, ram and batter any non-dolphin-eating species of shark. Simo did it so vigorously, Dr. Irvine had to make him a rubber snout booty so he didn’t rub himself raw on scaly shark skin! That was only on non-dolphin-eating sharks, however.
When faced with confirmed dolphin-killing species of sharks, which are also man-eating species, Simo was so frightened he shit himself and leaped out of the donut-shaped pool! I have this on good authority. Where was P.E.T.A. back then? Or Cleveland Amory, a famous animal-rights campaigner in the 1960’s and 1970’s? And why has this film never been released? This was supposed to one of the triumphs of human dolphin training, I know lots of people who would LOVE to see that footage! Where is it, and who owns it? You, the American taxpayer paid for it, and I don’t see why it should be classified. Is it still with the SDRP or did the Navy grab it, lock stock and barrel, like they do with UFO gun-camera tapes, and make it disappear?)
JUMP CUT TO 50 YEARS LATER
Dr. Irvine has become very famous for his dolphin-in-a-donut experiment, even though the information it returned was utterly useless to the U.S. Navy. (You can only learn so much from a dolphin in a donut, after all.) In 1970 he started the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program with Randy as his apprentice, and it has become, through Dr. Irvine’s and Dr. Wells’ hard work and dedication (and a fucking lot of patience from Sarasota Bay’s dolphin population, who refrained from skewering them like shishkabobs when they were captured for testing, which is not often mentioned), the baseline standard for the health and behavior of all bottlenose dolphin populations, everywhere! And Dr. Irvine is living serenely in retirement, while Dr. Wells handles the exhaustive SDRP paperwork, fondly recalling the days when he actally got in the water with the dolphins. He enjoyed that aspect of the job!
And then… and then… along comes me. Little ol’ me, with a silly story…
… about how, one cold March morning 49 years ago, Dr. Irvine, in response to my casually mentioning Dr. John Lilly’s name in a conversation, WENT APE-SHIT ON ME, BEHAVED VERY RUDELY, TOLD ME LILLY WAS EITHER CRAZY OR 50 YEARS AHEAD OF HIS TIME, and left me colder than before I’d met him.
I now realize Dr. Irvine expected me to read his mind that morning, but I didn’t know that’s what he expected, so I didn’t. Not like I can read many human minds anyhow, I only claim to be an occasional telepath, not a goddamn side-show psychic! I didn’t telepathically import that Dr. Irvine had worked briefly with Dr. Lilly, found him personally irritating and thought his research was unscientific crap.
This from a guy who puts dolphins in donut pools with dolphin-eating sharks! Hey, Dr. Irvine, did you ever think of working in the Roman Coliseum? I hear they’re having cash-flow problems, the lions are eating up all the prophets! Yuk yuk!
You must understand, Dr. Lilly had to work very hard, for two decades, to become the most widely-hated man in the world among marine mammalogists. It’s not like it was easy for him, oh no! He was a neurophysiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) back in the 1950’s, wiring cat and monkey brains and discovering their pleasure centers. He was also spending a lot of time in a device of his own invention, the sensory isolation tank, under contract from the U.S. Air Force, who wanted to know what would happen to a weightless astronaut who was cut off from all contact with Earth. Lilly found that in such a situation — dark, zero-G, isothermal — the mind rapidly expands to fill the available space… all of it! In such a state, Lilly could apparently go anywhere, do anything, become the ultimate Astral Traveler. He began wondering what a creature who spent a lot of time in such a state would be like.
You must further understand that for about two centuries, since anybody other than a whaler bothered to look at whale guts, or whale brains, the field of marine mammalogy had been a sedate backwater of science, a veritable slough of semi-talented individuals in which a few, like Dr. Alexander Agassiz, a knowledgeable individual, stand out. Marine mammalogy was about as interesting as a bucket of warm spit, and marine mammalogists liked it that way, until the 1930’s. That’s when Marineland curator Arthur McBride began to suspect that dolphins possessed something like the faculty of man-made SO.N.A.R (SOund Navigation And Ranging). But, with WW2 looming on the horizon, McBride was smart enough to keep his suspicions under his hat. Anything he could learn about dolphin sonar, he figured, might improve the Axis Powers’ sonar! So nothing happened there. Yes, a few pods of dolphins got blown up by new, errant sonic-homing torpedos, but it takes time to work all the bugs out of these things…
… And nothing much happened until the early 1950’s… when Dr. Lilly switched subjects. And things in marine mammalogy would never be the same! And the marine mammalogy community would hate him to this day for it! Because Lilly’s musings in the sensory isolation tank had lead him to a species that was living in the same conditions — dolphins.
You see, before, when marine mammalogists looked at dolphins’ brains (and in one gruesome vivisection I read of, they sawed a poor dolphin’s skull open while it was still alive), they saw a lot of folds, or wrinkles, on the cerebral cortex. Those folds increase the surface area for the “gray matter,” or neurons, that mostly exist on the outside of our brains (it’s a better view, there). So the more folds, the more neurons, and the greater the presumed intelligence.
However, scientists everywhere assumed this only applied to Homo sapiens, because let’s face it, dolphins never really did anything useful, like chipping flint spear points, or mastering fire, or inventing alternating current, or typesetting The New York Times, or exploding The Bomb. So they couldn’t be very intelligent, could they, or our marine mammalogists would surely know of it — wouldn’t they? Those cortical folds in dolphins? Don’t mean a fucking thing, honey. Go back to bed and stop dreaming.
“The bottlenose dolphin is somewhere between a dog and a chimpanzee in intelligence. We think this is the most complimentary statement that can be made about any mammal.” — David & Melba Caldwell, famous marine mammalogists.
“Excluding you, I presume? You are both mammals, right?” — Malcolm J. Brenner, to David & Melba.
The first time Dr. John C. Lilly saw those cortical folds, he was amazed. This brain is a first-class thinking machine, he optimistically thought, and set out to prove it by killing 5 dolphins at Marineland, where Dr. Forrest Wood, a U.S. government flunkie who would later write a whitewashed memoir titled Marine Mammals and Man, which never once mentions, or even hints at, the guard dolphins who patrolled Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam for the U.S. Navy, worked as head veterinarian.
Of course, Lilly didn’t MEAN to kill any dolphins! No sir, no sirree! He was just trying to anesthetize them so he could do some brain-probing with implanted electrodes, and he found, to his horror, that as the anesthetic took effect… the dolphin stopped breathing and just died! Unlike all land animals, dolphins had no “breathing reflex” that kept air flowing into/out of their lungs if they went unconscious. FOR DOLPHINS, IT SEEMED, SURFACING TO DRAW A BREATH WAS A CONSCIOUS ACT OF WILL AND DELIBERATE FOCUS!
So he cut back on the anesthetic… no good. And back… no good. And tried different anesthetics… no good. And began to build a dolphin respirator… and by the time Dolphin #6 went under the knife, all was well, and it survived the surgery. But Dr. Forrest Wood was by now mad enough to kill Lilly, and he stayed that way for the rest of his life. You can’t claim Wood wasn’t attached to his charges!
Lilly went on to found the Communications Research Institute in the Virgin Islands, and that setup was pretty good for the dolphins, with a tide-washed pool. And it was here he began his most controversial experiment, the co-habitation of a young kindergarten teacher, Margaret Howe, with Peter Dolphin for six weeks to see if Peter couldn’t learn a little English. What happened has been the butt of countless nasty jokes and a Saturday Night Live skit. It also turned Margaret into a hermit who wouldn’t talk about her experience with Peter to anyone for the next 49 years, until the BBC persuaded her to.
The Nub: To get any work done, Margaret found that she had to manually masturbate Peter every now and then, since he was in isolation with her and had no female dolphins around to “shake hands” with. (“Dolphins have sex the way humans shake hands.” — the late Dr. Ken Norris, the godfather of open ocean marine mammalogy.) It wasn’t sexy for her, she said, but it was sensual and loving. And she didn’t realize how deep Peter Dolphin’s attachment to her was growing… and growing… and growning…
…and when the experiment ended, and Margaret, who had grown really fond of Peter even though she couldn’t teach a goldfish to swim (just listen how frustrated Peter sounds in Lilly’s tapes, released on Windham Hill Records, Sounds and Ultrasounds of the Bottlenose Dolphin), went home to catch up on some rest before coming back to continue the work… Peter committed suicide. He held his breath until he went unconscious. With nobody around to re-start his breathing, he asphyxiated. Of course, studious dolphin researchers claim a dolphin doesn’t possess sufficient self-awareness to realize it can die, but fuck them, it happens all the same. Dolphin trainers all over the world report the same phenomena: You walk away from a dolphin at its peril. The transition from a familiar trainer to a new one must be made gradually.
When she heard the news, Margaret was devastated, and blamed… John C. Lilly, of course. Of course! When he had to shut down his CRI lab, Lilly moved the surviving dolphins to a water-filled bank vault in Miami, hardly an ideal enviroment in anyone’s imagination, except, apparently, Lilly. One man who worked for Lilly in the early 60’s, Ted Nelson, describes the crowded conditions there (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONhnEmoSRfk). There, former Creature from the Black Lagoon diver-cum-monster Ricou Browning wrote me in a personal letter, he saw a dolphin in a plexiglass tank, and all the flesh around its neck looked black and rotted. But he offered no pictures to back up his observation, and here the dolphin looks fine.
OK, is it really necessary for this to go on? Is it apparent why people hated Lilly, who could also be austere, demanding, demeaning, stiff, outspoken, and severe? He was also, by this time, combining his trips in the tank with the wonder drug LSD, guaranteed to liven up any hippie Happening! A couple of sources say that that Lilly got turned on to acid by movie producer (Flipper, Namu the Killer Whale) Ivan Tors’ wife, but not Lilly, and why, I wonder, would you waste money on street blotter of questionable provenance when you, as an M.D. and scientist, can obtain the pure stuff in ampoules straight from Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland?
(Ha! Film that with your Swiss-made Bolex, Randy! Hey, did Blair buy you an electric motor for that thing, or did you just yell for the shark and dolphin to hold it while you cranked up the spring-wound motor every 35 seconds?)
Lilly finished up the work for NASA by writing a nifty little book, Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Biocomputer, which is one of the best instruction manuals for using your brain creatively I’ve ever encountered. But shooting LSD nearly did him in (he got a stroke after he accidentally injected a tiny air bubble with it), and it certainly did in his career! Dr. Joel Elkes, a prominent psychopharmacologist and my mother’s second husband, knew Lilly and had worked with him at N.I.M.H. when he still seemed relatively sane. Years later, when Lilly was deep into acid, Elkes met him again at a psychological conference. “He cried ‘JOEL!,’ threw his arms around my neck, put his head on my shoulder and cried for ten solid minutes,” Dr. Elkes later told me in personal conversation. “Then he just said ‘Bless you,’ and walked away.” ?????
Is it any wonder that such wild, unproven, radical-sounding ideas as dolphins actually talking to each other, plus the time in the float tank, plus the drugs, plus the near-fatal embolism, plus a broken marriage, turned the stolid, staid, scientifically orthodox marine mammalogy community against Lilly? Hey, research grants for anything having to do with dolphin sound production WERE SUDDENLY VERY DIFFICULT TO GET, and that pissed a lot of marine mammalogists off! They had to go and study elephant seals or vaquitas or tusk-beaked grunge whales (OK, I just made that last one up. So sue me), but “talking dolphins”? DON’T MAKE ME LAUGH! That was what that crazy egg-head Lilly was doing, and look where he is now! Down the drain! Hiding under a rock! Teaching sensory exploration classes at the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, where nobody can understand him but everybody knows he’s just so goddamn smart!
But I drift. Back to my problem… with Dr. Blair Irvine.
So, reader, now you know why every marine mammalogist on the planet, and maybe some others too, hated John C. Lilly. Here’s some of the complaints they have about him:
• “He was high on drugs all the time!”
• “He killed more dolphins than Star-Kist Tuna!”
• “He kept dolphins under terrible conditions!” (Sometimes true. You can’t always get what you want.)
• “His so-called ‘research’ was rotten science! He should have determined if dolphins have their own language before trying to teach them English!”
• “That female assistant of his, she fucked the dolphin, you know!” (NO EVIDENCE OF THIS EVER, FROM MARGARET HOWE-LOVATT OR ANYONE ELSE.)
• “He fooled around with his female assistants!” (Some reports of mild flirtation, but Lilly, AFAIK, stayed loyal to the last woman he married, Antoinette Oshman or Toni, for short, until she died of cancer.)
• “He wasn’t even a marine biologist, let alone a marine mammalogist! He had no experience in our learned field, and was out of his depth — Yuk! Yuk!”
• “He had sex with his dolphins! His dope dealer told me so! My God, what a degenerate!” (I really heard this! Not like Lilly needed a dope dealer, and why should I believe a dope dealer over Lilly himself, who never mentioned having a dolphin jones?)
• “I just didn’t like him personally. Working with him wasn’t very rewarding. He was fussy, critical, and demanding.” (By far the most common complaint against him. True, but more so in his early years. By the time the 1980’s roll around, Lilly was out of dolphins but thinking about getting back in, and a much more mellow, laid-back person than he was in 1960.)
Dr. Irvine, having worked with Lilly for only a brief time I gather, was personally familiar with some of these problems. The real ones, anyhow, which were quite enough without the gossip and slander.
And, in response to Dr. Irvine’s not-so-casual question to me on that cold March morning, “What have you read?”, I answered “All of John Lilly’s stuff…”
Let me make this clear: I can take criticism. I can take corrective instruction. What I cannot take, and will NEVER take, is being used as SOMEONE ELSE’S TOXIC WASTE DUMP, and that is what Dr. Irvine did to me that morning. He took his problems with Dr. Lilly, AND DUMPED THEM ON ME! Did this reduce his problems with Dr. Lilly? No, it didn’t discharge them, it just spread them around thinner! And it caught me horribly by surprise, like being sucker-punched by a guy wearing a 3-piece Armani suit and tie.
What it turns out is, “You cannot be the servant of two masters” means it’s very difficult to live with as much cognitive dissonance as I have about the two Dr. Blair Irvines. On is a kindly, nurturing scientist who mentored Randy Wells, the other the asshole who insulted me outside the fish freezer at Floridaland. AND I CANNOT GET THESE TWO MUTUALLY-INCOMPATIBLE IMAGES OF DR. IRVINE TO ALIGN, OR EVEN OVERLAP. HE’S EITHER A NICE GUY INSIDE OR HE’S NOT, AND I SUSPECT HE’S NOT. Why? Because it takes one to know one, and I’m really clear about my own sociopathic tendencies. They were quite apparent in my behavior when I was little. I’m much better at covering them, and imagining their frightening consequences, now.
I’m 69, I’m sick, and I’m tired of fighting the whole goddamn world. I thought I could take on Dr. Irving without harming the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, but I can’t; mind you I did think it was A VERY STUPID IDEA for Dr. Irvine to use a personal e-mail account to accept donations for the SDRP, and I didn’t suggest he do that. I mean, anybody with half a brain knows you should set up a separate account for donations, because then it’s not associated with you and isn’t hauling whatever baggage you have around for you. Which the SDRP was definitely doing, with me; every month, when I got alerted that my $10 donation came out of PayPal, there would be his name on the email address, staring at me, reminding me of his unwarranted rudeness and anger, over and over and over again…
I JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE, OKAY? I just couldn’t.
And since I can’t change Dr. Irvine, or Dr. Wells, or the SDRP (although apparently I did influence that awkward, sudden change of Dr. Irvine’s address, which I know is going to cost the SDRP a hell of a lot of trouble that it doesn’t need, and possibly some donations which it does) the only sensible, rational thing is to cut them all off, end my emotional attachments, and let them go. Which, with this message, I am.
So long, Randy, it was good knowing you, and thanks for
all the fish those great lunches we had together, that you paid for. I owe you, but I’m probably not going to be able to return the favor, ever. You never expressed any doubt or nasty opinions when I told you my improbable story about Dolly. I honestly wish you and the SDRP nothing but success, but please let me know when Dr. Irvine dies, so I can be sure to piss on his grave!!!
Adios, muchacho Randy, y via con delfines! Aiieeeee!