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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Quitting the Nairobi Trio: A Memoir
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2063-2063. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2063
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Columbus, Miss.

By Jim Knipfel. New York, J.P. Tarcher (Penguin Putnam), 2000, 285 pp., $23.95.

The central image in Quitting the Nairobi Trio is a famous sketch by Ernie Kovacs. Knipfel was accused of being one of the monkey men in the sketch; the accusation came from his fellow inmates in a locked psychiatric ward. Kovacs’s monkey men came back every week, unchanged; quitting the trio might mean getting out of the "bug house," or escaping by suicide, or graduating out of suicidal impulses. Knipfel’s memoir of his hospitalization has a detached comic touch that is sad and funny simultaneously, but the funny always gets the upper hand.

Knipfel, a graduate student in philosophy when he was hospitalized, advises, "Four years of philosophy might make you want to kill yourself, but it’s not nearly enough to help you go through with it." His bungled attempts at suicide are morbidly hilarious, from his inability to stab himself in the back to the gagging that came from trying to swallow a goo of sleeping pills mixed with scotch. The potion made him lose consciousness, but he stumbled outside his apartment and the police were called.

In the hospital, after a delirium of dramatic hallucinations, he was eventually placed in a locked psychiatric ward. "Got a new one for ya," announced the nurse wheeling him onto the unit. He recognized the ward because it was like those in the books and movies he knew, and it is worth saying that Quitting the Nairobi Trio ought to take its place with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1) as an unforgettable depiction of a region unknown to most people.

Knipfel decided he would view the adventure as an anthropologist would, and he found himself having affection for his fellow patients. Gus pedaled all day on the exercise bike, exclaiming things like, "Doctors, dentists! All the time they check on us, our backs are turned! Like Minnesota!" Edna wore a clown’s portion of lipstick and mascara, which smeared down her face as she cried for no acknowledged reason. Eddie the paranoid had special theories about socks, theories that took hours to explain. Chaim ended sentences with large numbers: "Isn’t it a great day, four thousand two hundred and sixty-seven?" Fitting into his environment, Knipfel made misstatements and exaggerations that were hard to explain to the staff. He knew he wasn’t crazy, but he wondered at times whether he was really very different from the rest of the patients, and he wondered if the patients were very different from the staff.

It didn’t matter that he said the wrong things to the staff; they didn’t pay attention. For 10 minutes every week, he saw his psychiatrist, Dr. Spellman, who had a voice that "sounded as if he worked hard on it, practicing for hours at home every night." Spellman’s sessions did nothing to instruct, advise, or help his patient. All the staff seemed interested only in finding out who was keeping the contraband pieces of mirror shattered by a patient when Knipfel first got there, and they remained intent on that throughout his stay. For Knipfel, it was a vacation from real life; it gave him plenty of odd, funny stories, but it effected no change. When regulations showed he had spent enough weeks on the ward, he was sprung; Spellman said it was because he had made such progress, but Knipfel writes, "I was locked away in that ward in Minneapolis because I was a self-destructive young man. Months later, I left the ward a self-destructive young man." We can be thankful he has harnessed his impulses to be able to produce a book that is lacerating and funny, but no thanks are owed to those who were entrusted with his care. Any quitting of the trio he can credit to himself.

Kesey K: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. London, Methuen, 1962


Kesey K: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. London, Methuen, 1962

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