Deceased December 18, 2005
George Sleeth was afflicted with pneumonia in December 2004 and hospitalized thereafter, on a ventilator.Friends could write to him, but he could write no response.He died alone in a New York City medical facility last Oct. 13, of cardiac arrest.
George spent only freshman and sophomore years at Amherst, but those two years might have been the best of his life.He was fully committed to the protests he engaged in during those turbulent times of America’s war in Vietnam.Unassuming and self-effacing, he never boasted about his accomplishments in being among the first in the town to demonstrate openly against the war.He also supported the Fourth World Movement’s struggle to end extreme poverty.
George’s brilliant mind was afflicted by a severe psychiatric disorder that tormented him mercilessly and kept him from realizing the great achievements of which he was otherwise capable. His studies in astronomy and anthropology were cut short by the pitiless blows of mental illness.Unless we encounter it first hand, most of us remain largely unaware of how such illness destroys people’s lives.It is really unfair that this disease robbed him of so much.And somehow the present, the hic et nunc to be enjoyed in all its infinite richness, also seemed to slip through George’s grasp, like grains of sand through open fingers.
George’s condition was probably hereditary; his sister suffered from it as well and, like George, was institutionalized for much of her early adult life.Once, he related how she died in such an institution, choking to death on a peanut butter sandwich. Apparently, due to neglect, she had lost all her teeth and could not chew.His father was a professor of medieval English at Brooklyn College, a quiet and highly intelligent man who bore with courageous stoicism a life-threatening illness the family faced as courageously as possible, one day at a time.
Our knowledge and treatment of mental disorders, still primitive today, was practically medieval in the 1970’s when George was institutionalized, especially in the state hospitals, which were all that was available to him. He phoned frequently from the hospitals in the dazed early stages of recovery from electric shock treatment, rambling on ceaselessly for hours in stream of consciousness.He teetered on the fringe of society, sparingly supported by state disability payments, never free from his debilitating illness save for brief periods of lucidity when the mix and dosage of drugs just happened to be able to suppress the metabolic imbalance in his brain.It was a life of frustrated and tormented genius lived out anonymously, except for his family, now all but one of whom is gone, and remembered only by those few friends who remain.
Despite the cruel affliction that dominated his life, George maintained a wonderful sense of humor that surfaced when his psychiatric symptoms were quiescent.An example recalled by Roy:
“George and I were both pipe-smokers, and our preferences for different brands of tobacco (George smoked a brand named Three Nuns) was always a source of mock contention between us. On one occasion George purchased a large can of tobacco and opened it to find a small tin inside containing a sample of one pipeful with the instruction that he was to pass this on to a friend.He chose me as the beneficiary, in part to convince me of the superiority of his brand. I opened the sample and found a note advising me that I was ‘about to enjoy the pleasures of Three Nuns.’We found this declaration hilarious and joked about it frequently long afterward.”
George loved remembering the past, the memory of that which has been but will never be again, especially his childhood, and he had the memory of an elephant.He could always remind me [Charles] exactly how and when I had teased our sister, “Libet.”He could sing by heart the words of almost any rock-and-roll song popular in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, until begged to stop.
Despite great turmoil in his life, George always remained faithful, to people and ideas he trusted.Somehow, he found the strength and the time to defend all the just causes he believed in so passionately.He remembered us all, and were he given the chance, he would tell each of us how—our names, how we looked back then, our mannerisms and stories.To recall his story here seems to be not an emotional indulgence but an invitation to reflect on our own lives, and to think of his as something that needs to be felt and understood.
At the funeral service on Oct. 22, Charles began his final goodbye to George with these thoughts:
“When I think of George, he reminds me of a Roman God, Janus, the God of the passage of time, and not just because my brother was born in January, the month to which Janus gave his name.Two-headed guardian, he sits at the gates through which time passes, watching the past, with the head of an old man and looking toward the future with the head of an infant.”
And he concluded with “a parting thought our father often said to us when it was time for us to go to bed: Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
Roy Chaleff ’68
Steve Sumida ’68