Tessa Dick is the fifth and last wife of Philip K. Dick, living with him during the 2/3/74 “VALIS” experiences. Her recent writings include a memoir of PKD, Remembering Firebright, the novel, The Owl in the Daylight, and Conversations with Philip K. Dick.
This interview originally appeared in The Gnostic 2 and is an excellent companion to the recent audio interview with Tessa on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio.
MC: You were married to Phil between 1973 and 1977, through the time he had his infamous visionary experience on 2/3/74. What was it like living with him during this period?
TD: Phil was Phil was Phil, and his habits didn’t change much. Also, his Exegesis was voluminous but his experiences were scant. He spent more time trying to figure out the experience than he did actually having it. The strangest thing was when Phil began to say that there were entities in our apartment, people but not humans, lurking in the corners and trying to camouflage themselves to remain unseen, and that they were terribly shocked when they realized that he could see them.
I couldn’t see them, but he did describe them, and he said they were small and thin, with long fingers and their heads were shaped like that famous bust of Nefertiti, Akhenaton’s queen, with this sloping forehead and very large cranium, but that they had just slits for a mouth, very tiny noses and large almond-shaped eyes. It’s eerie when I hear people describe grey aliens, but these were not grey aliens, and they eventually told him that they were time travelers from our future and their experiments with genetic engineering had pretty much destroyed their DNA. They couldn’t reproduce and they kept trying to change the past in order to improve their future, but everything they tried went terribly wrong and it just got worse and worse.
MC: What other experiences did Philip have while you two were married? Paranormal, extraordinary, supernatural revelations…?
TD: Most of them happened while he was napping or meditating. He did that a lot and he would often break promises, miss appointments or send houseguests away, and people thought that he was being mean, that it was psychological and he would say that he had the flu, but actually quite recently I discovered that he had a birth defect in his gall bladder that caused periodic attacks of pancreatitis. The first one nearly killed him, and that was several years before I met him, from the symptoms, which I won’t describe because they’re yucky. I know that’s what it was because our son has it too. He naps quite frequently and 24/7. He would sleep for two or three hours, maybe get up, potter around in the kitchen and then sit at the typewriter and after a while he would go back and nap some more. That was how he wrote.
MC: Was he being influenced by Valis? Did he ever mention that or he just didn’t know?
TD: He kept changing the name of the entity. Basically, here was the pink light, and people have glommed on to his descriptions in novels as if they were literally true. They’re close, but not quite… novels are fiction after all. But he had a bumper sticker that we put on our living room window. It was a fish sign and we knew perfectly well what it was when this lady from the pharmacy came to the door and she had a little goldfish sign on her necklace. And I’m convinced that Phil was really trying to look down her blouse, and he used the fish sign as an excuse.
But in any case, after she left and he turned to go down the hall, either to the bathroom to swallow his medication or the bed to nap some more, as he turned the setting sun hit that bumper sticker on our window and it had quite a bit of silver in the image, silver or chrome, so that it reflected the setting sun into his eyes and briefly blinded him and then when he looked away he saw pink light because that’s the phosphine activity, the after image, and when you’ve been blinded by a bright light you’ll see this glowing image for a while afterward.
And since the sticker was a fish sign, he saw a pink fish sign in front of his eyes and he went and lay down and had the first of the really undeniably mystical experiences, although some other things had led up to that. Sometimes he called the pink light Firebright, and sometimes he called it Valis, though Valis usually referred to this satellite in earth orbit that he thought was communicating with him, whereas Firebright was the pink light, and they’ve become melded and confused over the years.
MC: And that’s when he believed himself to be the apostle Thomas and realized that we were still living in Roman times? Or was that just an idea he toyed with?
TD: During this period of time, at first he thought someone named Thomas was communicating with him from the first century AD, and then as it progressed, he came to believe that this was one of his past lives, and then he came to the conclusion that he had had multiple lives that seemed to be in different timelines but they were happening simultaneously because time is not what we think it is. We think that we are trapped on a line when we look back on the past and forward to the future, and only this moment is real, but Phil saw it more like a stack of dominoes that can be rearranged. You can set them out in a line and life one up and put in a different domino.
I’d like to think of it more as a game of cards. It’s too bad that Phil was not a card player, he could have explained it more simply, that when you sit down to play a game of bridge, you know what all 52 cards are, so in that sense you’re like God, you’re omniscient, you know everything, but when you shuffle them and deal them out, you’re allowing free will and random chance to take over. You have this shuffling which randomizes the deck, and then the individual decisions of the players to guide how the game is played and how it ends. People in the first century playing bridge might be the same people playing bridge in the twenty-first century and not realizing it.
MC: And were you skeptical about all his visions and everything else? What was your attitude during that time, Tessa?
TD: At the time I believed that they were literally real and true, but I did get tired of hearing about it. I had a little baby to take care of and a house to clean and straighten up and cats to serve — cats are slavemaster you know. They own our houses and just let us live with them if we behave. So it got to the point that I could not do the dishes without Phil deciding that he would talk to me so, as he would not leave his favorite chair I had to shut off the water and go sit in the living room and listen. And you know when people came to visit, they never said, gee, Phil’s a lousy housekeeper. I was getting aggravated and I finally started telling him that I was sick and tired of hearing about his visions. Because by 1975 they had nearly stopped and he was simply rehashing the same ones over and over. That was part of his writing process, he would talk things out, for hours and days and weeks before he ever sat down to write, and it was driving me crazy. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t believe in his visions, I just got tired of it.
MC: Surely there was some vindication with him predicting your son’s hernia, right?
TD: Well, that happened early on and it was not the way he said, but …
MC: Oh, really?
TD: Yeah, he pulled that out of the air without knowing anything. I knew something was wrong because I was the diaper changer. Phil would watch his son all day long, but the diaper wouldn’t get changed till I got home. And I had asked the doctor about it and gotten a nonanswer, but Phil knew nothing about it because it had only been a couple of days and I hadn’t talked to him about it. One day he just got up from a nap, walked into the living room where I was and said, ‘Chris has an internal hernia, call the doctor.’ And that’s all he said. The rest of it was his misinterpretation of the diagnosis that we got from a specialist. For example, nothing popped the hydrus heel. A hydrus heel is a water-filled or a liquid-filled cyst that doesn’t belong in there. They removed two of those, and the point was that because our baby was too young for the surgery, we had to stop him from screaming for two or three months before the surgery could correct his hernia. They said that if he screamed, and we let it go, the hernia could strangulate and kill him. Before that we hadn’t let him scream much, partly because we had neighbors in the apartment building, we shared a common wall them, and partly because we just had a feeling that this baby should not be allowed to cry even though common sense would tell you if you let the kid cry, he’ll give up and go to sleep. There was something urgent in his crying that just made us suspect that we shouldn’t let him cry or scream and he screamed loud. Usually at 2 am.
MC: Oh, of course! Of course!
TD: Sometimes at 3 am, yeah!
MC: Did you take notes or help him out with his Exegesis at the time?
TD: Well, I did not take notes. He wouldn’t let me even keep a journal because he had this idea that I might be a mind-controlled spy reporting on him, or some other mind-controlled spy might steal my journal. It sounds a little paranoid but considering his experience in San Rafael before I met him, it wasn’t that far out. So, no, I never took notes, I just had to remember until 1982, write about him I started writing everything I could remember and talking to him and finally taking notes.
MC: Yes, Tessa, his experiences, visions and writings were certainly Gnostic in nature, we can agree on that, far before the translation in English of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1977. Had Phil studied any Gnosticism at all, or do you see him as truly having Gnosis, that timeless wisdom?
TD: Probably a little bit of both. He did read translations and commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and he had a close personal relationship with Bishop Pike, the Episcopal Bishop of California who was tried for heresy, and Pike won but resigned from the church because of the doctrinal differences between Pike and the church authorities. He’s the one who went to the Middle East to try and prove that Jesus did not die on the cross, and was not the son of God, and died in the desert and never came back. He also wrote a book called — I can’t remember the title — he wrote one called If This Be Heresy, about his heresy trial, and another one about his attempts to contact his dead son through mediums, I’m blank on the title [The Other Side] but in the foreword he acknowledges the help of Phil and Nancy Dick because they attended one of the seances, where Pike attempted to contact his son who had committed suicide, and Phil said that the medium did contact something but he didn’t think it was him and he thought it was evil.
MC: But you would say that Philip did have some knowledge of the ancient Gnostics, maybe as much as Carl Jung might have had, basically.
TD: Well, as much as he could get from the library at the University of Berkeley and other libraries. He was an avid reader. Plus, I think Pike was in some ways a Gnostic and Phil really studied, but he also just had some knowledge that I don’t know where he got it. I find it in the Nag Hammadi texts that are available now, but remember, we didn’t have Internet and most libraries didn’t have the Nag Hammadi texts anyway during his lifetime, he just knew things.
MC: And Tessa, what are your views on Gnosticism? Has it influenced your spirituality?
TD: Oh, definitely. I find Gnosticism very attractive, also hazardous because as I said before, knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. However, knowledge is a gift of the spirit, as is wisdom, and there’s a few others, but those are my two favorites, and I do want to know things. On the other hand, I’ve come to believe in the divinity of Christ, of Jesus, at least as an idea, if not exactly as it’s portrayed in the scriptures, and I don’t want to lose that. I keep this Bible around. Sometimes I actually read it! I pulled out one of Phil’s favorite parts of the New Testament, which is 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 13, about gifts of the spirit and about… here we go… this is where he got the title of A Scanner Darkly, from chapter 13 verse 12, we see as through a glass darkly, a glass being a mirror. I don’t want to see darkly and I don’t want to die till I see clearly, so that’s the attraction of Gnosticism for me. And I write about it, to further my own attempts to understand, what is reality, and according to Phil reality is love or charity, agape in New Testament terms, unselfish love, for this fallen world, for the creatures in it, and for ourselves and God. By the way, I’m not a churchgoer, I’m what you call a Baptist backslider. I got baptized and quit going. I just can’t find a church.
MC: Why is that?
TD: They’re all about the organization, the hierarchy. I don’t know … I’m reminded every time I go that I’m a heretic.
MC: So you would say that your way of finding Gnosis is through the expression of your art.
TD: Yeah. As much as I value the community of an organization like the church, I just can’t fit in. So I joined the Lionists, it’s part of Lions International, a service organization, that’s where I find community. We support each other while helping those who aren’t as well off as we are.
MC: And one question I guess a lot of readers have is was Phil just heavy on drugs during all this time, or while you were with him, or have those rumors been blown out of proportion?
TD: I think they are highly exaggerated. Although one of his step-daughters has said that he had all kinds of bottles of pills, around 1960, I suspect that most of them were vitamin supplements and the rest were prescription medications. Phil had trouble with high blood pressure and a heart problem all his life, and he often got prescriptions from his psychiatrist because the medication for his blood pressure made him depressed. From the time he wrote The Man in the High Castle, legend has it that he wrote six novels in six weeks, and he did, but not the way you think. He had a prescription for amphetamines from the psychiatrist, but that was not nearly enough to swallow handfuls every few hours.
The main thing was Phil had these rough drafts that he could rework and some short stories that he could expand, so that after winning the Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle, he could sell things that hadn’t sold before and make plenty of money because of the Hugo award. So he did. And he didn’t just sit down with blank paper and start punching, he used things he had already written.
MC: And what do you think his reaction would be today now that he’s being considered not just as a hack sci-fi writer but as somebody to be taken seriously in the literary world?
TD: I think Phil would like to be considered mainstream, but he was always proud of his science fiction. It was the cutting edge in the 1970s, I think the late sixties into the seventies, it was the cutting-edge literature at the time, and the established literary circles just hadn’t caught on yet, but readers had, and science fiction was actually selling better than other forms except perhaps for the romance novel, which always sells like hot cakes.
MC: And lastly, Tessa, how would you describe him as a man, a husband, and a friend?
TD: Aw, he was wonderful, and I miss him and there’s nobody like him. Even when we were fighting, well, arguing, and throwing things across the room, he was just so special and so wonderful that I wouldn’t want to be with anybody else. I’m glad I met him.
MC: And we’re certainly glad for his legacy and everything he’s left behind for generations to come. I think that’s all the time we have today. I’d like to thank you very much, Tessa, for coming on Aeon Byte.
TD: Thank you for having me.
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