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On Barbara O’Brien’s OPERATORS AND THINGS

In the early ’60s, Ace Books, a publisher known primarily for science fiction, released a small paperbound edition of a 1958 book called Operators and Things by a woman writing under the name Barbara O’Brien. Although ostensibly a work of non-fiction, it reads a bit like a missing Philip K. Dick novel; its subtitle “The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic,” while no doubt enticing to some readers, does no justice to this mystifying, true-life initiatory tale.

Operators and Things Barbara O'Brien

The author starts out by describing her experiences in the competitive, male-dominated business world of 1950s New York, detailing the various “hook operating” methods by which her aggressive coworkers would ascend the corporate ladder: vicious techniques redolent of Cold War paranoia that ranged from simple slander to complex, backstabbing daisychains of Machiavellian proportions. The institutional sociopathy she details hinges on adroit, covert manipulation and control, whereby victims are made to appear as the cause of their own downfall. A quiet, unassuming young worker, O’Brien felt herself immune to these ruthless intrigues, until she nearly lost her job sidestepping a “friendly” interrogation by the workplace water cooler.

Then one Kafkaesque morning, she awoke to find three strange male figures standing at the foot of her bed. They introduced themselves as her “Operators,” calmly adding that nobody else can see them (so she shouldn’t try talking to them in public), and proceeded to describe for her the world of Operators and Things.

According to these Operators, their class is telepathic and able to control other people’s minds, usually from a distance of about a block and a half (unless they possess special equipment which expands their field of operation by up to a mile). In the Operators’ world, no amount of manipulation, connivance, or coercion is objectionable — as long as you obey certain laws, it’s all just business as usual. Things, on the other hand, make up the greater portion of the human race and have no idea their thoughts are being manipulated: “A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind.” (Basically, Things are us.)

As she learns, each of the various types of Operators has a specialized task and they function a bit like a city council; if one of them exceeds the limits of its authority, an Adjudicator may sentence the Operator to various punishments. But Operators work for organizations that broker “charters” on Things, giving them exclusive rights to operate or manipulate certain Things in order to win “points.” One especially ruthless method of accruing points is called The Game, wherein a group of Operators take turns implanting troublesome thoughts into the mind of an unwitting Thing; whichever Operator causes the worst emotional distress wins the pot of points. Points are to Operators as money and power are to Things. An Operator explains to her:

“A Thing can be influenced chiefly because of its desire for money and power. An Operator’s security and self-esteem revolve around points just as a Thing’s revolves around money. With sufficient points, an Operator can do anything in an Operator’s world. He can be a great power. He can own an organization and buy the charters of hundreds of Things. He can be safe from other Operators. How does that make him more despicable than a Thing? The hell of it is, Operators and Things are motivated by similar desires. We’re both in the soup, Operators and Things alike.”

The three interlopers explain to the narrator that she has been chosen as the subject of a controversial experiment, whereby a Thing will be temporarily permitted to observe the normally occulted activities of her Operators; but her new knowledge becomes a source of consternation among various factions of Operators, which puts her life in jeopardy: “Information which no Thing should ever have was being divulged to a Thing; the Thing might give the information to other Things, thereby creating a hazardous situation.” Although she has no say in the matter, her three “allies” announce that they will remain with her for a while, guiding her and looking out for her best interests.

The Operators instruct her to board a series of Greyhound buses, considered the safest bet for her since one can ride a bus in a daze, acting slightly odd, without attracting the attention of fellow passengers — but the real reason is that the majority of Greyhound bus drivers happen to be impartial “Operator cops.” She leaves behind her “mess of reality with which [she] was totally incapable of coping,” but it soon becomes evident that the problem presented by the Operators is the same problem she had left behind.

Her trip takes her to San Francisco, and after several failed attempts to get away from the Operators, she retreats to an apartment building. There, her solitude is constantly invaded by literally dozens of Operators, a steady flow of colorful personalities who inhabit her mind at various times from neighboring apartments: Grandma offers sound medical advice, and warns her about a nefarious figure referred to as The Spider, until a group of Operators called the Western Boys eventually “scallop her latticework” and leave her “dummetized” — i.e. remove her mental habit patterns, allowing Operators greater influence to reprogram her.

The five-page glossary of terms used by Operators — dictated to her by one — can help the reader from getting lost in the complex world the author claims to have inhabited for a total of six months. Scalloping is described as “a process by which most of a Thing’s latticework is removed and new mental habits are allowed to grow in … Once latticework is removed, a new latticework will grow in quickly, but it may be a very different kind of growth. The kind of habits you’ll develop will depend on the Operators working on you while it’s growing in.” Because the minds of Things are almost exclusively made up of automatic habits and ingrained patterns, their capacity to think freely and spontaneously is limited or non-existent. Once a Thing’s latticework is removed, its mental state is one of extreme pliability, easily controlled by any Operator.

During her harrowing journey of self-discovery, O’Brien rarely loses her ability to cope with the outer world, though never once doubting that the Operators actually exist. It is explained to her that the Operators she sees are actually projected images, and that the real Operators are flesh and blood people located nearby, many of them active in the corporate environment she left behind (presumably the ordinary hook operators she described early on, or people like them). While there is no arguing she had one foot outside what’s often termed consensual reality, what makes the book so compelling is that she seems to have remained lucid throughout her experiences, which are described in minute detail with a clarity and inner consistency that beggar any simplistic diagnosis of mental derangement.

* * *

In researching this rare and unusual book, every single review or analysis I read interprets O’Brien’s experiences as pure delusion, resulting from a descent into madness, and uniformly dismisses the wide cast of characters as mere figments in the mind of a temporary psycho. Indeed, viewed from the conventional psychiatric standpoint (which the author herself ultimately accepts), a Thing would correspond to the normally conscious part of a person being manipulated, without its awareness, by unconscious processes (Operators); thus Operators and Things refers to the sum of conscious and unconscious motivations, laid bare for us by a “crazy” person who became privy to the workings of both aspects of her mind during a schizophrenic fugue. This reductive diagnosis is not without its merits (and, in a perverse way, such a psychic split could be seen as an auspicious adaptation to corporate life), but I don’t buy it.

Although the author of Operators and Things herself seems to buy into the schizophrenia hypothesis and its materialistic notions in order to explain her experience (referring repeatedly to her own “mental machinery”), taken at face value, the extended period of expanded awareness described by O’Brien resembles nothing less than a genuine shamanic initiation, and makes a powerful literary and phenomenological case for the objective existence of supersensible beings.

Shamans are said to have the ability to see things not visible to those who are trapped in a limited or rigid belief system, and they can help us orient ourselves meaningfully. Although Barbara O’Brien may not have been privy to the brilliant Romanian philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade’s seminal texts on the subject (e.g. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy and Myths, Dreams and Mysteries), his image of the shaman as a “healed madman” who returns to society with special abilities that can guide the culture to a proper relationship with the divine is reflected in her story. As her beliefs and worldview are torn apart and put back together again in a different configuration, O’Brien undergoes the familiar psychic dismemberment and resurrection in which the initiate gains access to “sacred time” and thereby transcends the rules of the profane world.

As members of a society that tacitly agrees on the non-existence of ghosts, angels, demons, tulpas, egregores, or any supersensible entities (excluding atoms, germs, nanobots, and other microscopic things only visible to senses extended by technological apparatus), we are de facto required to reject the possibility that the complex drama described in Operators and Things may have a basis in a hidden, authentic reality. Is it possible that the multitude of highly individuated Operators she encountered could have an existence independent of her “hallucinations”? Entertaining this idea doesn’t mean we must accept the Operator’s standpoint — that the totality of our thoughts and actions are under the strict control of such conniving, predatory entities; one could just as easily conclude that the decidedly harrowing scenario suggested by O’Brien’s vision reflected the specific dimensional bailiwick of a particular class of elemental beings — those invisible, often mischievous entities described throughout the centuries in folktales and esoteric lore.

We can read about people working in nature who encounter elves and sprites, while those practicing diabolism are said to conjure imps and demons; that being so, should one be surprised if the brutal, claustrophobic work environment she inhabited at the time of her personal revelation influenced or determined which particular class of beings occupied her inner vision? While certain Operators she describes seemed to be having a bit of cruel fun at her expense, unnervingly occluding her view of the larger reality (easily persuading her of their paramount influence over everyday life throughout the world), others were clearly intent on assisting her illuminated re-entry into the world.

And she really did return enriched! Having traveled clear across the country to California, O’Brien managed to evade both electroshock therapy and the inevitable social and professional stigmas she would likely have suffered if such a breakdown had occurred in her home city of New York. When the Operators abruptly disappeared, she slowly made her way back to a stable condition. But while her conscious mind was completely leveled by the experience, her unconscious mind began aiding her in ordinary situations and also conferring some extraordinary powers. First, she wrote an entire novel with no input from her conscious mind:

“I would sit at the typewriter, put my hands on the keys, and start in. I had almost no comprehension of what I was writing and no memory whatever of what I had written, once I had closed the typewriter. My fingers seemed to know which keys to hit and that’s all there was to it.”

Next, she underwent a four day period of “knowing before people spoke what they would say; knowing, before they turned corners and appeared, that they were coming.” When something compels her to go to Los Vegas, she is kept rooted at one roulette wheel, “urged violently to play a certain number at a certain time …” winning six times and leaving “with a purse full of money.” Disregarding whether or not we accept her claim of enhanced psychic power, how do we reconcile her own disenchanted (medical model) interpretation of the profound inner experiences that brought it about? Was this apparent betrayal of her own lived experience merely a subsequent editorial intrusion to make the story palatable to a modern readership? Or an inner need to rationalize or palliate an otherworldly intervention?

With relatively little help from a feckless, stumped psychoanalyst, she emerges perfectly sane after half a year, having acquired renewed mental processes, aggressive traits, and abilities for coping in the business world that she never had before. Despite her adoption of typical diagnostic conclusions, the book actually depicts a strong-willed female protagonist who achieves a state of personal revelation and healing, reclaiming her self-determination without the aid or interference of men — unless you count the male Operators.

* * *

In 1974, Zebra Books, a division of Grove Press, released a non-fiction paperback attributed to Barbara O’Brien, called Martinis, Manhattans or Me? Written from the perspective of a longtime female bartender who claims, among other things, she can determine a man’s intentions by what kind of cocktail he offers to buy you, the book alternates lighthearted trashy sex scenes with insightful commentary on American society and alcohol consumption, mostly hovering in a middle ground of amusing anecdotes about various bar customers and owners, mobsters, clip joint scams, and other booze related phenomena. I have no idea if it’s the same Barbara O’Brien — the narrator’s purported age, background, and timeline don’t jibe with Operators and Things — but I could easily imagine the author abandoning the toxic corporate environment described in Operators, to take on a job where her insights into predatory behavior could be put to practical use, and then writing something like this, perhaps urged by editors to spice it up with a few titillating segments. Aside from a similarly congenial, calm-amid-chaos tone of voice, the main element connecting the two books is a brief section about halfway into Martinis, in which she describes her encounter with a paunchy, middle-aged customer — “a real weirdo” — who drinks heavily to quiet the voices in his head, specifically those of “the twelve members of The Masters of the Lost Legion,” whom he claims started whispering to him one morning and soon began constantly pressuring him to commit distasteful sexual acts; if he disobeys them, they create a headache in his brain. “It takes them about five minutes to get a headache started. If I drink enough scotch quick enough, they can’t fight all that alcohol rushing to my brain. I can drink them out of my mind for a few hours.“ Before leaving the bar, the man explains to her what advantages these voices confer, which include occasional, unfailing tips on horse races and the stock exchange; although the narrator of Martinis never sees or mentions him again, it’s hard not to conflate these passages with the sixth sense O’Brien described near the end of Operators. On the other hand, could this “real weirdo” be a self-reflexive depiction of O’Brien herself nearly two decades later, a hapless Thing unable to function without the fortification readily available to her in her new line of work?

–Neil Martinson


Reviews

2 thoughts on “On Barbara O’Brien’s OPERATORS AND THINGS

  1. Really quite an excellent review rho maybe i feel that way because the reviewer went where I quickly felt lead to myself

  2. Wow, I haven’t read the book. It seems confusing but has relevant ideas about our shared reality. I’ve been around paranoid scizophrenics and it’s dangerous. Reading their writings just don’t thrill me like it may have at an earlier time in my life. Their eyes look like a creative artist, a demented soul or just someone you don’t want to be around. Fascinating review.

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