The Closet of Horrors
A mystical experience about the nature of suffering from
The Fourth Quill by Toby Johnson
Jon gradually regained consciousness. The first
thing he was aware of was a terrible chemical taste in his mouth. His
head was pounding like crazy and the headache hurt deep into his eyes.
He didn’t want to open them. But finally did. He was startled to
discover he couldn’t see anything, even with his eyes wide open. Oh my
God, they’ve blinded me. Was that ether or nerve gas they knocked me
The truth quickly dawned on him as he thrashed his
arms about and found himself in a very narrow space. I’m locked in a
closet or something. He managed to smile at the irony of ending up in a
He slowly got to his feet and felt the space
around him. One side felt rough like woodgrain. The door. The handle
turned but didn’t release the latch. There was no light coming under
the crack. It must be dark outside as well. The other side seemed to be
full of things wrapped with paper. Jon reached around trying to see if
he could get a grip on something he could use as a weapon or, at least,
help him understand where he was. These are reams of paper, aren’t
they? I must be in a storage closet for the office. How am I going to
ever get out of here?
What’s going to happen to me if I don’t get out?
he thought morosely and leaned his back against the door and slowly let
himself slide down into a crouching position. His head was still
pounding. For a moment he thought about Mark and was comforted by the
thought that if he were killed as Buchanan threatened maybe he would
reunite with Mark. But the comfort quickly evaporated into fear of
dying and gnawing doubts about the reality of afterlife.
His thoughts of Mark brought up for him the grief
he’d been holding at bay with his anger. He struck with both fists at
the wood of the door he was leaning against. “No,” he shouted. The blow
made a great noise that sent reverberations through his spine, but all
it did was hurt the heels of his hands. Suddenly from down inside him a
torrent of tears and grief welled up. He couldn’t get out of his mind
the thought—the gruesome thought—of Mark burning to death.
The image that haunted him, he realized, was right
out of Edward Buchanan’s collection of horrors. And with a start he
remembered he was going to have to answer Buchanan’s question about the
nature of evil. Oh my God, what time is it? He struggled to press the
stud on his watch to turn on the back-light. “9:34” the display read.
Still early. He didn’t want to release the stud and turn off the light.
It was one piece of his past he could cling to. That he could still
perceive anything at all was a lifeline. But as he watched the seconds
slip slowly by on the watch display, he realized he shouldn’t be
wasting what time he had left.
Jon focused his thoughts on the material Buchanan
had showed him. Maybe there was a clue in what he showed me. Maybe this
is a word game, a riddle. He remembered the story of Oedipus and the
Riddle of the Sphinx. Is that what this is about? What if I answer
‘Man’? Does that make any sense? Man is the measure. No, Buchanan would
only answer man is the source of evil. He discarded that thought. What
about the order of the things he showed me? The Holocaust, war
atrocities, animal mutilation, nuclear weapons, anti-personnel devices,
chemical and biological weapons, abortions—it seems random.
He tried to recall individual photos. Maybe there
was a clue in one of them. As the images came back to him, he felt more
and more revulsion: emaciated bodies, torn flesh, blood and gore,
flames, explosions—horror after horror. No wonder Buchanan drove
himself crazy with a hobby like that, he managed to crack a joke to
And then suddenly, uncontrollably, he began to
cry. He cried for the suffering of humanity. He cried for all the
victims. He cried for Mark, for Pat Stratford, for Ted. He cried for
himself. He began to shake violently as his mind, now getting out of
his control, reeled the scenes of suffering across his visual field—but
now he was the victim. It was his flesh that was torn, his body that
was riddled with bullets or ripped apart by explosions or subjected to
“You are going to die,” a voice spoke inside his
head. “Buchanan is going to kill you… and probably gruesomely.” No, no,
Jon tried to answer the voice, trying to push away the unacceptable
reality his internal voice was announcing. “Don’t you think Charlie
will love gouging out your eyes and crushing your balls in his fist… ”
Stop it. “… maybe he’ll burn your cock off with his BIC lighter. Sure.
He’ll flick your bic,” the voice joked sardonically.
“Or maybe they’ll tie your arms and legs to
different cars and pull you apart out in the parking lot.” Jon
remembered a medieval woodprint in Buchanan’s collection of a heretic
being drawn and quartered.
“Maybe they’ll shoot you up with AIDS,” the voice
suggested almost gleefully. “How’d you like that? Wouldn’t that be
ironic?” Jon shuddered at the awful suggestion that kept coming back to
haunt him. “Probably got a fast-acting version right there in one of
those steel cannisters. Maybe they’ve got the rabies version. Lock you
in the closet here and leave you to beat yourself to death against a
wall. Maybe they’ve already injected you with the virus… ”
Jon realized how possible that was. He clutched at
his arms to see if he could feel any tenderness that might have
remained from an injection. The voice laughed, “Don’t you think he’d
shoot it up your ass?” Shut up, shut up. But even as he tried to stop
the crazy thoughts he felt his body quivering. He couldn’t help feeling
infected, dirty, as though something hideous were growing inside him.
He was getting more and more hysterical. His heart
was racing. He was hyperventilating; his fingers were starting to
tingle. His head was spinning, his recollections and emotions running
away with him. He began to fear he’d been drugged—or poisoned, that his
mind was being stolen from him. He remembered the psychiatrist’s
machine in The Lathe of Heaven, the Dream Augmentor. Maybe he’d been
hooked up to something like that. Terrified, he grabbed at his scalp,
trying to pull away the electrodes that were feeding him this
nightmare. But there was nothing attached to his head. This whole
thing, being in this closet and everything—it could all be an
He tried to calm himself, to slow his breathing,
to remember to be without resentment, without hate, to remain utterly
unaffected by evil, to follow the way that cannot be followed…
He realized there was yet another self in him,
separate from his ego and separate from the hysterical voice that had
been taunting him. There came over him a calm, almost serene
consciousness—“the Witness,” he remembered a term from Hindu meditation
for the abstracting self that is able to view human life from a
detached, almost divine viewpoint.
“Remember your study of religion,” the Witness
self offered peaceably. “This is, after all, a religious question
you’re supposed to be considering.”
And again Jon remembered abruptly that he was
going to have to answer Buchanan’s riddle. In his fear he’d forgotten
to think about that.
Now isn’t the time for riddles. No matter what I say I’m going to die.
“Then die,” the Witness answered matter-of-factly.
But I don’t want to die.
“That’s okay too,” the Witness replied as though it didn’t see what difference that made.
Fuck you! he hurled the epithet at the abstracting self. What good is all that crazy spiritual thinking now? I need help.
“You’re feeling hatred. Balance it with love.”
Love—the word burned through Jon’s consciousness.
“Love is letting go of fear,” he remembered the name of Jerry
Jampolsky’s book. But he felt so bereft, lonely, lost. He felt himself
swept with memories of pleading for love and finding none. His heart
ached. He couldn’t manage to remember the good times, the times when
Ted and Mark and countless others held him and told him how they loved
him. Those memories seemed to linger at the edge of consciousness but
he could not grasp them. He could only recall the pain and emptiness.
“You’ve been a stupid shit,” the taunting voice
resurfaced, “a worthless homosexual, a pervert. Of course nobody loved
you. You’re ugly. You’re abnormal. You’re a freak.” Recollections
poured into him of his childhood, of the kids in school teasing him
with shouts of “sissy” and “queer.” He felt all over again the pain of
longing for love but feeling it unnatural, feeling himself dirty and
unlovable, scorned even by other queers. His whole life seemed like a
torment of homophobia.
“God is life, God is love,” the Witness rejoined.
“To love God means to love life.” Jon struggled to find such love in
his heart. He tried to love his life, but right now his life seemed
anything but lovable. It had all just been too much. I just can’t take
anymore, he complained bitterly. Where is God? He was swept with
emptiness and hopelessness.
“Jon, remember,” the abstracting voice called out to him. “What did you think it was that needed to be loved?”
He thought about that epigrammatic question, then
about The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment, the little book he’d looked at on the airplane, about the
conversation over breakfast with Jeff Kettner, about the advice he’d
given so many of his clients. What does need to be loved? he asked
The answer was obvious: This.
Again he remembered the ironic suggestion of the
taunting self. He was going to be infected with AIDS. Images rushed
through his mind of friends and lovers, clients and patients—all of
them dead. A phantom memory suddenly assaulted him, a dread event that
had never happened but that, in spite of reason, he’d kept waiting for:
the discovery of KS lesions on his legs. He cringed in abject terror.
Now it seemed as though the unthinkable had happened. He clawed at his
ankles and calves trying to feel the sores he feared were forming. I am
going to die.
Well, death is an escape. Better to die than to
suffer the agony of this disease. But it is not a disease I’d be
escaping, he reminded himself, but the responsibility for confronting
and beating Buchanan’s plague. No, I don’t choose death, not now, not
while I can still fight. I’ve got to come up with the answer to his
In his delirium Jon felt AIDS wasting his body,
draining his life force away as he’d seen it drain so many. He
remembered what he’d told the guys in the group: to accept reality,
just as it is, with equanimity.
The philosophical attitude burned in his mind,
bitter like vinegar, no consolation at all. But he urged himself to
fight the temptation to anger and despair and to go on, to grieve for
what was being lost, but not to resist its inevitable passing, to “love
it the way it is.”
“Jon, the possibility of final enlightenment
stands open to you at this very moment,” the abstracting self announced
peremptorily. “Don’t fail now.”
What do I do? the vestige of Jon pleaded.
“Remember who you are. Remember to feel compassion.”
Jon remembered his Catholic upbringing, the
teaching to live like Jesus, to become one with Christ, “so that no
longer I, but Christ lives in me.” The Pauline quotation then merged
with a recollection of Jesus’s prediction of the Judgment: “Whatsoever
you did to the least of these, that you did to Me.”
Suddenly he was racked with pain and guilt. He was
ravenously hungry and burning with thirst. “When I was hungry, you did
not feed me. When I was thirsty, you did not give me to drink.”
He heard the definitive words of Jesus proclaiming damnation.
Have I failed to recognize You? Am I being damned?
He writhed with fear of hell. In his imagination flames burned at his
soul. And then he realized the hell that had tormented him and his kind
had not been imposed by God, but by other men, by homophobic bigots.
The epithets of “queer” and “faggot,” the rejection by parents, the
beatings by fag-bashing teenagers, the persecution by police, the loss
of jobs and homes, the indignities of secret, guilt-ridden sex, and
AIDS, overriding everything, the unconscionable way that people with
AIDS were being treated—all these were the hell that the self-righteous
had imposed on “the least of these.”
Who I really am is Christ, Jon realized dramatically.
The symbolic flames of that hell unexpectedly
brought back to Jon the real flames of the fiery crash that killed Mark
Hartman. And the memory seemed to pull him up out of the hellfire. He
thought lovingly of Mark and of the young man’s innocence and insight.
Then, just as he was starting to grieve, his gentle joke with
Mark—“Avalo - be - walla - walla”—came back to him, and he thought of
the bodhisattva who discovered that the world’s suffering was the
greatest treasure of all. He recalled the story Jeff Kettner had told
at the Jung Institute. What does this mean? he thought and reluctantly
imagined in his own hand the treasure-seekers’ fourth quill.
“The treasure of the ages,” the Witness announced excitedly.
Jon was perplexed, then felt a pang of
realization. Recognizing suffering as treasure turns upside down all
the self-serving desires that inadvertently become intentions for other
people’s misfortune, he answered his own question, and felt the quill
drop from his fingers.
Okay, okay. I embrace the whole of human
experience, Jon shouted to himself, to share the burden of the sins of
the world with Jesus and with Avalokiteshvara.
Jon felt himself part of the ocean of
consciousness, “… a drop of water in an endless sea,” he observed
blissfully, once again letting the Witness self absorb his awareness.
“Jon,” the Witness spoke intimately, “you’ve seen the path through suffering.”
“When you learn to love hell, you will be in heaven,” Jon remembered the words of The Lazy Man’s Guide.
Suddenly God was all around him. A little voice in
Jon’s consciousness asked quizzically, “What’s happening? Something’s
really strange. This is the most wonderful experience of my whole
life.” A feeling of wordless joy permeated his being.
In his mind’s eye, he looked up to see dawn upon
him the glowing light of what he knew could only be the Beatific Vision
of God’s face. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were open or closed. Indeed
the brilliant light seemed to shine right into the depths of his soul.
He had the odd sense that this spiritual light was
actually illuminating the closet. Though his vision was dazzled by the
streaming brilliance, out of the corner of his eye he thought he could
see reams of paper piled neatly on shelves; he thought maybe he could
read the names of the colors of paper on the ends of the reams, so many
different colors. He thought about peripheral vision hallucinations and
remembered they were often a side effect of psychoactive drugs. He
wondered again what Buchanan might have done to his brain.
“It is said no man can look upon the Face of God and live,” a voice announced—the taunting voice, Jon surmised.
“Do you mean I’m dying right now?” Jon asked with equanimity.
“The Face of Glory and the Face of Anguish are one
and the same.” A Voice spoke in stentorian tones from out of the light
burning before him. “To live on you must let go, Jonathan Stiers. You
must let go.”
“Unless a man die, he shall not have life in him,”
the abstracting voice added, providing a proper Scriptural footnote to
“Have I been judged and found victorious?” Jon asked, feeling more strength and self-confidence now. “Was Buchanan wrong?”
“I know no right and wrong,” the Voice spoke. “Edward Buchanan was no more wrong than right.”
“How can you say that?” Jon objected, daring to challenge God. “He allowed thousands to die because of his bigotry and error.”
“Edward Buchanan is an incarnation of the bodhisattva, too.”
Jon felt a pang of joy for having known Mark
Hartman. Avalo-Bu-chanan-chanan. He too had noticed Buchanan’s
repetition quirk. He’d have laughed if this all hadn’t been so serious.
“If you judge him and make him wrong, you only repeat the error you accuse him of,” the Voice spoke.
“You mean I must forgive him for what he’s done?”
“You may forgive,” the Voice said matter-of-factly.
“Maybe this is the answer to the riddle,” said an eager voice in Jon’s consciousness. “He wants you to let him off.”
“How can I forgive genocide?” Jon bellowed in
rage, “Forgive that bastard for killing my people and risking the
extermination of all human life?”
“This outrage is just your self-importance, Jon,”
the Voice spoke. “I have forgiven the universe without end because I
have never known sin.” Jon recognized those words as something he’d
read by modern American mystic Thomas Merton. He remembered Robyn
McCullough saying, “Forgiveness means realizing the sin I thought my
brother committed against me never really happened at all.”
Jon began to weep. “But I must tell the story. I
must reveal Buchanan and the Liberty Bell Foundation. I must expose
them. How else can I save my people?”
“Would you believe your forgiveness might be the
source of the antidote? It might be the means to change the universe,”
Jon said to himself, beginning to lose the distinction between the
Voice of God, that of the Witness Self, and that of himself.
“How can I believe that?” he begged, and realized
that once again suffering surrounded him. This was perhaps the greatest
pain of all, he realized: to forgive your enemies.
“Oh God, oh God,” he wailed. “How can I do this?”
“Evil arises from ill-wishing. Good people will
evil into existence when they measure their own good by judging it
against what they perceive as others’ evil,” the Voice explained. “You
end the evil by forgiveness.”
“You mean the disease will disappear if I forgive Buchanan?”
“Edward Buchanan promised to release the antidote if you answered correctly.”
“He never really admitted there was an antidote,” Jon objected.
“Does that matter? What matters right now is healing your attitude.”
“Do you mean that ‘answering correctly’ means absolving him?”
“You must make that choice yourself, Jon Stiers,”
the Voice said. “The ultimate human suffering is, after all, the
freedom to make choices.”
“What difference will it make anyway?” Jon
objected. “Buchanan’s still going to kill me to keep his secret.
Forgiving him isn’t going to change anything.”
“All minds are joined,” the Voice answered. “You are not alone in experiencing the effects of your seeing.”
Jon recognized that idea as one of the principles of the Course in Miracles Robyn talked about.
“You mean my thoughts now can affect Buchanan?” he
quizzed the Voice, but there was no answer. “Well, if my death can
affect Buchanan’s plan, of course, I’d die willingly.” He shuddered as
he made his declaration. “But how can I believe that?”
Spiritual anguish burned in Jon as he had never
known it before. “How can I forgive the suffering he’s caused? How
about Ted?” he begged pitifully. “How can I forgive Mark’s death? How
can I bear that humiliation?”
“Love as much as you can from wherever you are,” the Witness reminded.
“Will I remember what I’ve done?” Jon asked the
question as an aside, almost as though inquiring of a parliamentarian a
point of procedure.
“I fear I cannot live with that memory. I fear I cannot live without the memory. How can I keep Buchanan’s plot a secret?”
“Your announcement would just change the villain
from one to another. But the treachery of wrong-making and ill-wishing
would go on.”
“But people must know the truth. They can’t live in illusions.”
“No one is ever free of illusion. Not God even,” the Voice answered.
“I’d rather Buchanan were the villain and not me and not the people with AIDS.”
“Then nothing changes. If you give up
self-importance and forgive—it will be as though none of this has
happened,” the Voice said kindly.
“You mean AIDS will have disappeared?” Jon asked excitedly.
“I do not promise that. The Face of Glory and the
Face of Anguish are one and the same,” the Voice thundered, flashing
again with blinding Light. “You cannot have one without the other.
That’s the way it is and you must take things the way they are.”
“Then it is You I must forgive, isn’t it?” Jon asked humbly but courageously.
“You have answered correctly, Jon Stiers. Now you need only say the words.”
“ ‘I forgive you’ and it’s over?” Jon asked quizzically.
“And forgive yourself,” the Voice said gently. “Remember, Jon, I’m you; you’re me. Forgive me… ”
Is this going to satisfy Buchanan? He looked at
his watch. “1:30.” My God, he could be here any minute. Jon felt the
press of time—the last of the human sufferings, he realized.
And how easy to forgive. How easy. “Oh God, I forgive you, yes, I forgive You.”
Jon felt very, very tired. His fear was gone. It
didn’t matter what Buchanan would do anymore. He slumped back against
the door and let himself relax. Er’ perrehnne, he thought and smiled. He slept.
To read The Buddhist Tale of The Fourth Quill
To read about Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven and the meaning of Er’ perrehnne.