Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Beth Ann and Microbioticism

One afternoon last February, Charlie Simon and his wife, Beth Ann, were walking in Washington Square Park. The Simons did not get out often, but when they did, people noticed them. Charlie, lean and dark, wore a bushy beard and shoulder-length hair, striking even in the Village. Beth Ann, small in the bust and full in the hip, with shimmering black hair and a wide-eyed olive-skinned face, was more than striking--she was beautiful.

Beth Ann and Charlie were feeling high. They were high on the weather, which was clear and mild. They were also high on marijuana, which was nothing new. They had been high on marijuana very often ever since returning from Mexico at the end of 1963. During that time they had also been high on hashish, cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, LSD and DMT (Di-Methyl-Tryptamine) not to mention sex, food, art and the infinite reaches of the human spirit.

Unfortunately, they had also been wretched on precisely the same things, and the wretchedness seemed to be taking over. The sexual freedom of their marriage was turning a little scary. They were thinking of becoming vegetarians without knowing exactly why. They produced art objects in a compulsive stream, though they suspected that art was only an ego defense, a fortification erected by the self against the self's larger possibilities. And yet it was these larger possibilities, illuminated by drugs, which made them most wretched of all, for they had discovered that the religious experience induced by hallucinogens had its diabolic side, and the Devil had been taking them on trips they didn't really want to make.

The Simons were in deep, and they knew it could get deeper. Physical addiction was not the problem; the addiction was psychological and social. Kicking drugs would mean kicking a whole way of life. Yet, though it seemed impossible, they were trying. They managed to give up coffee and cigarettes and dreamed of moving to the country and having the baby they had almost had two years before, when Beth Ann miscarried. It is likely that as they tasted a bit of Nature in the park, with the sun beaming down among the bare trees, they were dreaming just that dream--the two of them off on a farm, away from all the ugliness and complexity of the urban drug scene, with time to meditate, to work, to grow. Then Nature turned around and kicked Charlie in the head.

For the wretchedness wasn't just spiritual--it manifested itself physically. Beth Ann suffered from intermittent leg pains, Charlie from migraine headaches. The migraines had struck almost daily for years, as often as four or five times a day. A two-hour headache was not uncommon, and one siege had lasted two days. Doctors could do nothing; psychoanalysts were helpless. Once in a while there was a respite--LSD had provided relief for almost a month--but they always came back. And so, inevitably, on that lovely day in Washington Square, a bolt of pain seared through Charlie Simon's head.

The Simons lived at 246 Grand Street, between Chrystie and the Bowery, where they rented the two floors over a luncheonette for $100. But Charlie, Fiorinal and Cafergot pills in his pocket, decided to seek relief at the home of a friend on Bedford Street in the West Village, and when he got there, the friend had something new for him to try.

His wife had been fooling around with the macrobiotic diet, a largely vegetarian regime based on organically grown whole grain and the avoidance of sugar, which is expounded in a book called Zen Macrobiotics by self-described philosopher-scientist Georges Ohsawa. The book contains a lengthy section in which cures for virtually every human ailment from dandruff to leprosy are prescribed, as: "MIGRAINE: Diet No. 7 with a little gomasio. You will be cured in a few days."

Charlie was skeptical. He had eaten at the macrobiotic restaurant, the Paradox, about six months before, and had not been impressed with food or clientele. But he consented to a spoonful of gomasio, a mixture of sea salt and sesame seeds, which is the staple condiment of the macrobiotic diet. He swallowed. The headache vanished. It was the end of the old life for Charlie. For Beth Ann, it was the end of a lot more.

Charlie and Beth Ann--friends invariably speak of them as a unit--were something special on the scene. Both 23, they lived largely on the weekly check from Charlie's father, a prosperous but by no means opulent Clifton, N. J., dentist. Although the run-of-the-mill coffee-house gabbler might pine for such an arrangement, it is rarely considered cool among working artists to live off your parents. Yet the working artists in the Simons' circle never asked questions. The mystical tenor of the Simons' involvement with drugs was also unusual. For most of their older friends, marijuana was a giggle, not a way of life, and the other stuff was to be handled with extreme caution.

But Charlie and Beth Ann were not cautious people, and it was that, more than their considerable artistic and intellectual gifts, which made them charismatically attractive to a good number of serious and moderately successful young artists. Charlie and Beth Ann were the enthusiasts, the extremists, the evangelists. If there was something to be tried--be it jazz or Morgan automobiles or psychedelics (consciousness-expanding drugs) or a new recipe for meat loaf--they would try it to the limit. Their involvement was always complete. And they always came back to spread the word.

Suddenly, macrobiotics was the new gospel, as the Simons completely transformed their lives in a few weeks. They cut off drugs, and politely but firmly informed the itinerant hopheads who were in the habit of dropping around that they would have to turn on somewhere else. They gave up sex, not permanently, they told themselves, but until they could readjust to the new life. Beth Ann stopped taking birth-control pills. Charlie shaved his beard and cut his hair. They sold books, records and hi-fi equipment to make a little extra money and they stopped painting. Their new-found time was spent studying, discussing and contemplating the philosophy of macrobiotics.

Macrobiotics has almost nothing to do with Zen. Its central concept, yin and yang, is borrowed from Taoism. Ohsawa contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium, although there are dozens of parallels) or too much yang (sodium)--usually too much yin. Grain is the basic food because it contains the same five-to-one potassium-sodium balance which is found in healthy blood. Dieters increase their intake of (yang) salt and drink as little (yin) liquid as possible.

Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as "unnatural") and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. Adhered to in religious faith and humility, it is also the path to spiritual health and enlightenment. And significantly for the Simons, whose psychedelic journeys had turned into nightmares, the source of health is placed not in the depths of the self, but in "the absolute justice and infinite wisdom of the Order of the Universe."

Most nutritionists regard the diet as dangerously unsound. Even in its most liberal form it provides virtually no calcium or Vitamin C, and the version which the Simons followed, Diet No. 7, was anything but liberal, consisting entirely of grain and tea. The reason they chose No. 7, of course, was that it wasn'tliberal; Ohsawa proclaims it as the most extreme, most direct way to health. As usual, Charlie jumped on first, but Beth Ann, after some initial skepticism, soon overtook him in enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm was necessary, for Diet No. 7 was difficult. The worst trial was Charlie's third day, when he went through a period of "sugar withdrawal," which he claims was every bit as violent as a previous withdrawal from heroin. After that it was just a little rigorous for a while, and then it became a way of life. Although Ohsawa places no limit on quantity, the Simons ate relatively little--it's hard to gorge yourself when you're required to chew every mouthful 50 times--and each lost 20 pounds in a month, with Beth Ann's weight settling at about 110 and Charlie's at 120. But the loss didn't bother them; in fact, they took it as a sigh of health.

And why not? They felt better than they ever had in their lives. Not only were the migraines and leg pains gone, but all of the minor fatigues and aches, the physical annoyances that everyone lives with, seemed to have disappeared. They slept less than six hours a night. They even felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. Always domestic, Beth Ann became an excellent macrobiotic cook. She and Charlie spent most of their time outdoors, together, although they were seeing their old friends occasionally and converting many of them to modified versions of the diet. One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator--a beautiful $250 Gibson Double-Door Deluxe--into a piece of pop sculpture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

But at least one person was totally unimpressed--Sess Wiener, Beth Ann's father. A vigorous pragmatist who had fought off both poverty and tuberculosis in his youth to become a prominent Paterson lawyer, all Sess knew was that his beautiful daughter was much too skinny. Unlike the drugs, which had been more or less out of his ken, the diet ran directly contrary to his own experience, and he opposed it vehemently. It was one more false step on the road to nowhere which his daughter had been traveling ever since she had insisted on marrying one of the most conspicuous young bums in the state of New Jersey four years before. The salubrious effects of the diet he regarded as a combination of self-hypnosis and folk medicine. He certainly didn't think they had anything to do with the absolute justice and infinite wisdom of the Order of the Universe.

Charlie himself experienced similar suspicions occasionally, but Beth Ann's faith in the diet was always strong. Her only doubts were about herself. She felt she was dangerously sanpaku, which is to say (in Japanese) that the whites of her eyes showed underneath the iris, which is to say (in Macrobiotic) that she was gravely ill and destined for a tragic end. She was ashamed of the yang-ness of her upper legs, which were still muscular (strength is male, yang) and covered with downy hair. ("If a Japanese man discovers hair on the legs of a woman," Ohsawa writes, "it makes his flesh crawl.") The yang troubles in her legs she attributed to meat, a food she had always eaten but never relished, and she assumed the complete cure for both herself and her husband would be a long, long process because of the poisonous drugs their systems had accumulated. Their sin had been deep. She did not feel ready to start sex again.

But after a few months, the Simons did feel ready for art. Before the diet, they had balanced their pastoral impulse with a pop sensibility which delighted in the trivia of an affluent culture. That sensibility slowly atrophied. Beth Ann's work, in which the romantic mood had always been tempered by a hard-edge quality, became softer and vaguer. But she was happy with it--all of its "diabolic aspects," she said, had disappeared.

In the ensuing months, the Simons studied Oriental philosophy, theories of reincarnation, hara, breathing exercises, astrology, alchemy, spiritualism and hermeticism, and became more and more impatient with Western thought. They went for rides in the country, or swimming with Irma Paule, head of the Ohsawa Foundation on Second Avenue, where most macrobiotic people in New York buy their food. At Irma's request they provided lodging for a Zen monk named Oki. Beth Ann suspected he was a fraud--in a month they saw him consume nothing but tea and beer, and he laughed at macrobiotics. Early in August, they took Oki to visit Paradox Lost, a macrobiotic camp in New Jersey. The Wiener summer home was near by, so the Simons decided to drop in. It was a mistake.

Sess Wiener had not seen his daughter in three weeks, and what he saw now appalled him. She had begun to lose weight again. There were red spots on her skin. She was complaining of pains in her hips and back and having some difficulty walking. Charlie was troubled with what he said were kidney stones, and sometimes his kidney attacks were accompanied by migraine. The Simons took a quick swim, then looked at each other. The vibrations from Sess were very bad. They left.

But Beth Ann was sick, and she kept on getting sicker. Her legs began to swell, and when she took the macrobiotic specific for swelling, a third of a pint of radish drink for three successive days, nothing happened. (Later, when Charlie's legs began to swell, he followed his instincts instead of the book and took a full pint of the drink every day, a most unmacrobiotic quantity. He got better.) Irma Paule, who claims to have been cured of paralytic arthritis on macrobiotics five years ago, told Beth Ann she had been through a similar period. She could have told Beth Ann some other things. She could have told her about Monty Scheier, who had died at her side in Union City on April 18, 1961. Or she could have told the story of Rose Cohen, who died in Knickerbocker hospital early in October, 1961, of salt poisoning and malnutrition, after having gone on macrobiotics a few months before. Or she might have told Beth Ann she was showing all the symptoms of scurvy. Instead, she told Beth Ann to vary Diet No. 7 with some raw vegetables.

As far as it went, this was good advice. In his books in English, Ohsawa's endorsement of No. 7 is somewhat ambiguous--while he prescribes it for almost every ill, he also implies that it is not a lifetime regimen. Beth Ann's sister Wendy and her brother-in-law Paul Klein, both on a more liberal macrobiotic diet, tried to tell her this, and so did Charlie. But Beth Ann was unmoved.* Irma, she said, a little self-righteously, was a coward--afraid to "encounter the deep change" which continued adherence to Diet No. 7 entailed. Instead of widening her diet, she fasted altogether--four times for a total of about fourteen days in September. During each fast she would seem to improve, then tail off when it was over. The same thing would happen in the aftermath of any especially painful period of suffering. By the end of September she was bedridden, and Charlie was doing all the cooking and housework. He never really tried to convince Beth Ann that she should get off the diet, or even that she should see a doctor, although he did broach the subject a few times. Sometimes his will to stick with it was even stronger than hers. He was not feeling too well either. Sex had ceased to be a possibility.

On the evening of October 13, Sess and Min Wiener came to visit their daughter in New York. When Sess glimpsed her lying on a mattress in a corner, he gasped and visibly turned color. Beth Ann was a living skeleton. Her legs were no longer yang, they were skin and bones. Her eyes, still sanpaku, were sunken in their sockets. She could barely sit up. She could not have weighed more than 80 pounds.

"Beth Ann," Sess said, "You are going to die. Do you want to die?"

Slowly, Beth Ann explained it once again. "Daddy, I am not going to die. I am going to get well, and when I get rid of all these poisons in my body I will be well for the rest of my life."

For the next two hours, Sess Wiener used every iota of his hortatory power to get Beth Ann to see a doctor, but it was useless. For Beth Ann, this was just another version of the argument she and her father had been having ever since her marriage, and before. Now she could show him once and for all that it was possible to do things differently and still be right. She had never understood her father's values, grounded in the everyday world he had overcome with such difficulty. The everyday world had never been a problem for her, and now she felt herself on the verge of conquering a much greater world, the world within. She had arrived at the perfect antithesis. What better way to set yourself against materialism than to destroy the very substance of your own body? As her father's vehemence grew, she became more and more immovable. It was very bad, and before it was over Min Wiener had threatened to kill Charlie if he let her daughter die, and Charlie had threatened to call the police because Min threatened to kill him, and Sess had dared Charlie to do just that, and Beth Ann had decided she never wanted to see her parents again. The vibrations were just too much.

But Sess Wiener could not desert his daughter. The next day he enlisted the aid of Paul Klein, who together with Charlie, convinced Beth Ann to move in with Charlie's parents in Clifton. She had two conditions: that under no circumstances would a doctor be summoned, and that under no circumstances would her parents be permitted to see her.

Charlie was relieved. He had felt for a long time that it would do Beth Ann good to get away from the city, and especially Grand Street, which had so many bad connotations for both of them. And although Beth Ann carped and complained for the entire ambulance ride to Clifton, she cheered up when she got there, and did some watercolors--from a prone position, for she could not longer sit up--of the garden outside her window. Her parents tried to see her after she arrived, but the Simons stuck to their promise.

Beth Ann was still on Diet No. 7, with extra salt to counteract what she now believed was an excess of yin. She had written to Ohsawa describing her case and asking his advice. A few days after she got to Clifton she got her reply: You are a brave girl; stay on No. 7. Charlie, meanwhile, made an alarming discovery: in one of Ohsawa's innumerable books in French, he warns specifically that no one is to stay on Diet No. 7 for more than two months except under his personal care.

But Beth Ann stayed on No. 7. She got no better. She spoke to one of her parents on the phone almost every day, but she claimed their negative waves were making it harder for her to get well. And she could feel negative waves from Dorothy Simon all the way across the house. She wrote Ohsawa again.

About two weeks after the move to Clifton, Charlie got a telegram from Oki asking for a lift from Kennedy Airport. As he drove out, Charlie had a sudden premonition that Beth Ann wasn't going to make it. He had never felt that way before, but at the airport he asked Oki, who was famous as a healer, to come and take a look at Beth Ann. Oki said he'd try to find the time. He didn't.

Two days later, Beth Ann sat up--not by herself, but with the aid of Dorothy Simon. Charlie, too weak to assist, watched as she agonized. It was awful. There had always been something people couldn't quite get hold of in Beth Ann, and as she had advanced on the diet this ethereal side had become more prominent. Even Charlie no longer felt in complete touch. But now he looked into his wife's face and was sure of what he saw: horror, horror at the extent of her own weakness and at the outpouring of will it would take to overcome it. Then the horror changed to resignation, and Charlie's premonition returned. For the next five days his temperature ranged between 102 and 104 degrees.

On the morning of November 9, he woke at six in a high fever. Across the room, Dr. and Mrs. Simon were sitting with Beth Ann. He could not understand what was wrong and drifted off. When he got up again, his parents were gone, but Beth Ann told him what she believed was wrong--she had poisoned herself with too much salt.

Despite Irma Paule's reluctance to discuss such matters, almost every macrobiotic person has heard the story of the 24-year-old macrobiotic in Boston who died with carrot juice being poured down his throat after an overdose of salt. Charlie called Paul Klein, then set about fixing his wife some carrots. Paul arrived. They decided Irma must be summoned. Paul went back to New York for Irma.

Charlie sat at the head of his wife's bed. In the mail that morning there had been another letter from Ohsawa, telling Beth Ann she had misunderstood the diet completely and advising her to start all over again. He advised her especially to avoid salt. But all Charlie could do now was give her carrots. He lifted her head and fed her a spoonful. An orange dribble remained on her mouth.

"That's good," she said. Then her head rolled back in his hands, her eyes became very sanpaku, and she died. Charlie was still giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when the police arrived half an hour later.

*She may very well have been suffering from anorexia neurosa, a compulsive inability to eat.

New York Herald Tribune, Jan 23, 1966