By David Stringer '64
When I first learned of John’s withdrawal to the Psi U basement, it seemed to be a sign of the withdrawal associated with schizophrenia. The world is overwhelming because of the mind’s inability to sort and process the “voices” and delusions, so the natural response is a retreat into isolation. But this image does not square with what people who knew John at Amherst said about him.
John’s basement “cave” became a social center, and he continued in his role as charismatic entertainer. He was actively seeking interactions—the more, the better. I didn’t know my brother then. I was in Michigan, starting my family and launching my career as a high school teacher. I missed out on the magic of his life. And magic it was.
“John rarely criticized anyone or tried to make someone feel low,” Chris Torem ’72 wrote to me. “He preferred to look for the good side, to find the sunny day. Once the spring hit, John was the first to be outside playing Frisbee or rowing, often in bare feet. It was John who would crank up the rock music, open the windows to our common living room and drag us out of our separate study rooms into the fresh air. ‘C’mon,’ he would say, ‘just five minutes!’”
I think John was genuinely—even ecstatically—happy at Amherst. Was this happiness a sign of mental illness? If the answer to that is yes, what does that say about the human condition?
John had a famous Volkswagen Beetle, which he named the “Phantom Phart” in letters painted on its doors. “John was always going on runs for pizza, or over to Smith or Mount Holyoke, or just to the dining hall,” Torem recalled. “There was always room in the Phart for anyone who wanted to go somewhere or just keep him company.” In an e-mail to me, Chip Johnson ’73 described being a passenger in the Phart when the odometer reached the 200,000-mile mark: John had everyone get out of the car and push it the last tenth of a mile. John would drive anyone anywhere in that car.
John’s car was my car—my college graduation present. The fact that my car had been reincarnated as John’s in the spirit of freedom and mock-defiance gives me pleasure to this day.
Adapted from What’s My ZIP Code?, David Stringer’s manuscript about the life and death of his brother John ’73.