The Sadness of a Life Swept Away

Ever watched “CSI” and wondered, “Why would anyone choose to become a pathologist?” Well, I used to feel the same way about crime scene cleaners (and proctologists, but let’s not go there…)

Isn’t it a creepy job, cleaning up the mess left behind when someone has been murdered, or committed suicide or just been left to die because no one knows they’re there? You’d have to be some sort of morbid freak to want to do a job like that, wouldn’t you?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is “no”. And it took the testimony of two people to help me understand why.

The first was a young Californian guy who pretty much “invented” the profession of crime scene cleaning. I met him a few years ago when I was researching his world for a screenplay I was writing. This guy intrigued me by saying that he had identified this unfilled niche in the “clean-up crew” marketplace because he had been looking for a job that fitted his personality. Initially he had thought about being a mortician…

“Ah-ha!” I hear you say. “He was a ghoul, a death-freak, some sort of whacked out necrophiliac…” In fact, he was none of these things: just a clean-cut guy in a sparkling white polo shirt (complete with corporate logo) and neatly-pressed chinos, with a charming smile and a dry wit… not the least bit what I was expecting. He was – by his own admission – a “neat-freak”: he didn’t like mess, he saw a gap in the market, and voila – an industry was born.

My second revelation came while I was watching a documentary about another crime scene cleaning pioneer. Her story was very different… and much more moving. Her brother-in-law had committed suicide, messily, and after the cops and the coroner had done their work and the body had been removed, she was horrified to discover that the mess and body fluids were left behind for her to clean up.

And it was while she was scrubbing her brother’s blood from the living room carpet and cleaning bits of his brain from the walls, that she had her own moment of truth: nobody should have to do this for a loved one. The next day, she started her own crime-scene cleaning business.

And that’s the thing that astonished me, that I’d never thought of: she was doing this job because she cared… cared that those left behind shouldn’t be further traumatized by the aftermath of a violent death. Cared enough, in fact, to dedicate her life to providing a service that would help ease the pain of those recently bereaved and return their world to some semblance of normality.

But what affected me most of all was when she revealed that, as the years passed, it wasn’t the murders or the suicides that really upset her: it was the “undiscovered deaths”.

It’s the work of the crime scene cleaner to sweep that life away, to not only scrub away the “decomp” left behind when someone dies unnoticed and unmissed, but also to shovel the detritus of their lives into so many bin liners and take it to the incinerator, their possessions unwanted, their passing unmourned by anyone.

And that’s what haunts Erdogan, a crime scene cleaner and the lonely hero of my thriller “Implicated”, a man who embodies the very reason why you might pick this seemingly grotesque profession: not because you care too little for your fellow human beings, but because you care too much.

A Dream Goes On Forever…

I became interested in my dreams – and the phenomenon of lucid dreaming in particular – when, as a much younger man, I lost someone very close to me. At first, I was just looking for a way to escape the pain of being awake and remembering; but as I started to pay more attention to my subconscious, I became fascinated by the possibility of something more.

And then, by chance (or higher design?) I happened upon a documentary about lucid dreaming. Has it ever happened to you? You suddenly become aware that you are dreaming while you’re still inside your dream and find that you can control what happens? Lucid dreamers have this down to a fine art. In this documentary, however, the researcher – who came across as a very down-to-earth woman – clearly believed that there was more to lucid dreaming than met the eye, and that dreams were more than merely a way for the mind to process the information from your waking day.

The possibility of escape to another world.

The researcher was not especially interested in Freud’s obsession with dreaming as an outlet for the machinations of one’s repressed sexual desires, and she went beyond Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, to suggest that dreamer’s may be inventing world’s that in some strange way actually exist.

“Wow!”, was my first thought. “How?” was my second. However, it was with my third thought: “Why?” that my life changed, albeit for a short time. It happened like this.

At the crux of the lucid dreaming documentary was an experiment with three “guinea pigs” – men who all claimed they were all able to control their dreams and did so on a regular basis. Prior to the experiment, they had never met. And this is where it got weird…

The researcher introduced them to one another, then separated them and kept them in isolation in three individual bedrooms. She then gave the same task to each man. That night, while they slept, they were to meet up with one another. That was it. No further information was given, and the men were not allowed to have any further contact.

That night while they slept their brain activities were monitored and the periods of rapid eye movement (indicative of dreaming) recorded.

In the morning, the researcher interviewed each man individually and asked each to recall his dream. Man A had dreamt that he was walking through a huge, lush forest that seemed to go on without end. He wandered along aimlessly for some time before he remembered that he had to meet the two other men. Eventually he came to a large oak tree in a clearing and thought it a good meeting place, so he stopped walking and waited beneath the tree. After a while, man B appeared and came to stand beside him. They chatted and waited for man C to arrive, but man C did not appear. That was all.

Man B too had dreamt he was walking through a huge forest. He walked for a long time without meeting either of the other two men, and was just about to give up when he spied a large oak tree in a clearing in the distance. He walked towards it and there he found man A waiting peacefully. He joined man A and they talked for a while. They waited, he said, for man C to appear, but man C didn’t arrive.

Man C’s story was much simpler. He had found himself walking in a huge forest. He walked for hours and hours, but never saw another soul.

By this time the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. But it was nothing to what happened next…

The researcher interviewed a pleasant middle-aged Englishman who had dropped out on the hippie trail in the late sixties and eventually wound up in Tibet, where he spent the next twenty years living with an arcane Buddhist sect. These particular Buddhists – some esoteric offshoot of Lamaism, a branch of the Mahayana stream of Buddhist thought – placed great emphasis on the importance of dreams. In fact, long periods were given over to teaching initiates how to dream properly, that is, how to take control of one’s dreams and fashion them.

This particular novice had spent half his life in a world where dreams were accorded equal status with waking experiences.In particular, the Lamas taught initiates how to return to a dream, how to re-enter it and how to pick up where they had left off. After fifteen years of training, most members of the sect had mastered this and experienced and enjoyed serial dreams which were internally consistent and in which they participated not as puppets, guided and moved by external forces, but as individuals, fully in charge of their thoughts, actions and movements.

By the time the disciple left Tibet, he no longer knew which of his two worlds – his dream world or his waking world – was the ‘real’ world: they were equally authentic.

For a long time, I agonised about whether I should follow in this man’s footsteps, but, in the end, what saved me from my intolerable pain was writing a novel which incorporated all of these ideas. I did create a new world from my waking dreams and, for a while, I was able to escape to it. And in so doing, I created my fourth novel, “Daniel’s Dream”…

PS The title of this post relates to the song of the same name, written and performed by the inimitable Todd Rundgren. If you’ve never heard it, search it out, for it is surely one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded.