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CLIFTON

From Chris Wayan's journal 1997/9/6

MARK CLIFTON was a science fiction author who wrote about gifted children and conformity. He was a strange, fascinating man--from childhood on, he was empathic, sensing the emotions and even physical sensations of others--he called it 'somming.' At first he assumed others did it too but just denied it; he learned otherwise.

Clifton studied parapsychology a lot, for obvious reasons. He worked as an industrial psychologist; he conducted some two hundred thousand personnel interviews during his career. He finally retired and became a recluse, got sick whenever he went out. "Overdosed on people."

I feel validated by his view of Cold War conformity, the need for the gifted and psychic to hide their gifts (or explain them away as something else)--and his faith that freaks like me are the cutting edge of evolution. He quite consciously wrote and marketed his ideas as science fiction tales so they'd reach and help that occasional misfit genius. That's exactly how I reacted to the few stories of his that I found as a kid, especially "Star Bright"; like a schizophrenic finding out that the messages on the radio that seem to be aimed at him personally, really ARE.

Clifton's stories all conclude that the deeply different must hide or flee--the majority just won't tolerate them. Yet his letters to Judith Merril say "I am accustomed to hearing editors and publishers talk about the low mass level of intelligence, and how writing must be slanted to that level; saying nothing because it will either be misunderstood or not understood at all. I am accustomed to hearing this, but I do not believe it. For more than twenty years I have been intensively interviewing people.... I have had over 200,000 such interviews, almost all of them off the record and man to man. During all this time I looked for this stupid mass level. I never found it. With only a small percentage as exception, I found each man was open for thought, hungry for thought."

Yet in the next letter he recalls:

"When I was 13, I got a job teaching school in the swamp country of Arkansas... I was fired for teaching that the world was round [ca. 1920] There was a sort of schoolboard made up of farmers, the justice of the peace, the preacher-moonshiner... Individually these men might possibly have admitted privately that there might be something to this round world business, but collectively--

"I have traveled over most of the world. I have been lucky in knowing some of its great people... I have never met a group, as such, who were, in any respect, different from that swamp country schoolboard..."

His judgment of us as individually thoughtful and collectively dumb flatly contradicts that overquoted epigram from Peanuts: "I love mankind, it's PEOPLE I can't stand!" I think I agree with Clifton--I love people, it's MANKIND I can't stand.

Yet I'm not sure that Clifton lived his own judgment. He hid his ESP from groups, yes, but from individuals too--even his friends. For good reason! "Have been overly timid, but perhaps it was because of a recent experience... I mentioned a bit of my ESP to Horace [Horace Gold, editor of GALAXY, one of the premier science fiction magazines of the day] in a letter. He blasted back with expletives of disgust which shocked me into realization that I had broken one of the strict rules which has governed me all through adulthood: that I, never under any circumstances, reveal myself. Painful as all hell even to tell you this much."

These days I live in San Francisco, where describing psychic experiences may earn you at worst some condescending remarks. But in childhood, at my most vulnerable, I lived through the savagely conformist era Clifton describes. It left scars. I had a secret sense of superiority about being a child prodigy and psychic. My inner judge has always called this egotism, a personal moral failing... but Clifton makes it clear just how much ideas of mass and elite were in the air. Inspired by Clifton, I went through my early school scrapbook. I found a clipping about the first gifted class I attended, in 5th grade (the first in my school district--30,000 kids, and no program at all for the gifted before this one class). The headline in the local paper read: "We're not out to raise a super-smart elite." The whole article has that defensive tone--it's full of promises they won't let the little eggheads feel too good about their brains--get too uppity. It's no wonder my first thought is to hide my differences. I was taught to.

And this carefully fostered secrecy and shame about intelligence is nothing compared to the stigma about ESP--you're delusional or a fraud or (at best) a credulous New Age twit.

I suspect Clifton's secrecy--my secrecy--will seem familiar to a lot of psychics in America--a materialist culture obsessed with equality and wary of elitism.

My point? Just... we don't talk about this. We'll dress it up in generalities, or call it New Age mysticism, hiding under the skirts of religious freedom... but to openly admit that we pick up other people's secrets, and body-energies, and illnesses... we deny it, even to ourselves. And if we secretly admit it, we assume everyone does these things, that the others just aren't aware of it. But what if Clifton's right, and we're a minority, wired differently, like left-handers? Fundamentally "sinister"? Only far more threatening.

And you know how the righteous treated the sinister.

What if Clifton's right?

2016 NOTE

Clifton, it turns out, had a lot of company. Jeffrey Kripal's lively academic study Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal shows that many fantasy & sf writers based their "fiction" on real experiences, and meant to validate readers' similar experiences. Shades of X-Men!

It still happens. Diana Wynne Jones spoke of The Magic of Writing--and she didn't mean it metaphorically.



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