Schizophrenia and Genius - TempleOS and The Strange, Sad Case of Terry A Davis
Sometime over the past couple of days I stumbled across a story about schizophrenic programmer Terry Davis. It's absolutely fascinated me.
Have you heard of him? Apparently he already has a substantial "following," and I feel like I'm late to this strange party.
In brief, his story is this:
He was a talented computer programmer. He'd worked for some large companies, including Ticketmaster, until he had a psychotic break. One day, he became convinced people were following him. He got into his car and started driving. He realized God was talking to him through the radio. The radio convinced him he had to drive south, to Texas. Once there, he dismantled his car looking for tracking devices, then abandoned it and walked into the desert. He was picked up by a helpful police officer, but then jumped out of the moving car and fractured his collarbone...
Anyway, it goes on, and it's kind-of dismal stuff. This article on Motherboard gives a complete history of his breakdown, so there's no reason to reiterate the rest here. This Youtube video provides a humorous but respectful (kind-of) portrait as well.
What's more interesting to me is what Davis did once he returned home.
Fortunately, he had parents willing and able to take him in. He seems to have gotten some support with living expenses from the state. This left him free to pursue his own interests in his parents' home.
Sp he decided to do exactly what God was telling him to do next: to create a computer operating system, from scratch, to be a portal that would allow its users to communicate directly with god.
The project took him ten years, and he worked on it with complete dedication and focus. The result was Temple OS.
As far as operating systems go, this looks rather primitive. But let's consider the scale of what Davis achieved here. Starting from nothing, he created his own programming language, a variant of C (which he dubbed HolyC! - see what he did there?). He created the boot-loader, the graphic desktop interface, the code for sound, everything, and then wrote dozens of applications, from games, to the religious oracle which provides bible verses, to a program called "After Egypt" which seems to encapsulate the purpose of the project.
He did this all by himself!
As far as I know, no one else has ever created an entire operating system, in complete isolation, before. Bill Gates bought the code that became DOS from Seattle Computer Products, Wozniak/Jobs hijacked Unix code that had been around for ages, and even Linus Torvalds built up Linux with the support of a global network of fellow enthusiasts and hackers.
TempleOS is the product of the religious mania of one man!
Davis believes he speaks to God directly, and God instructed him on all the details: the proper screen resolution (640 by 480 is a holy covenant) and the sound driver (single-voice only!) and the proper color for the background (God's favorite color is cyan).
I find these revelations in equal parts hilarious and horrifying. He speaks with the certainty of Moses coming back to the people from Mount Sinai.
His experience reminds me of that of Philip K Dick, who beleived he was contacted by a pink laser in 1974 that loaded his brain with all kinds of divine revelations. He turned some of these into the novel Valis. But more significantly, he spent the next eight years (until his death in 1982) unpacking the experience in his Exegesis: a sort of diary and rumination. It went on for 8000 pages, and only ended with his death.
Dick believed that the pink laser had revealed the true nature of things. He suddenly had personal recollections of Jesus, and he was, in reality, living simultaneously in 1970s California and Ancient Rome. Reality was an illusion he referred to as the "Black Iron Prison." Everything that happened to him after that was part of a cosmic struggle that centered around him. Forces of evil were trying to obscure the truth, and the agents of VALIS (it stood for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System") were trying to reveal the truth and free the people.
The parallels to Davis's mental illness are striking. And this is as good a time as any to bring up the abrasive side of Terry's psychosis, which is mixed with a heavy dose of Tourette's. Rather than the agents of Rome and the Black Iron Prison, Davis sees his oppressors everywhere. He calls them "CIA niggers." It's a term that combines a fear of the government with what seems to be a raving, virulent racism. And he absolutly loves saying it.
One might wonder if he was raised by racist parents in a racist family. He was not. One of the most heartbreaking videos on Youtube shows him arguing with his parents (and in it, you see just how old and frail they are, and what a burden they have taken on in caring for their adult son). His father is dismayed and disgusted by Terry's emergent racism, asking him, "If God talks to you, then what do you have against his creatures?"
It doesn't take long for the viewer to realize that Davis has latched on to the term "CIA nigger" to refer to anything that makes him feel paranoid or oppressed. And in true paranoid fashion, he sees plots everywhere. If someone cuts him off in traffic, it's a CIA nigger trying to distract him and assassinate him in an auto accident. If someone asks him a stupid question about his operating system, he'll tell them to stop being a "nigger faggot," and program their computer "like a white man." CIA agents rearrange the shelves in the grocery store to confuse him, and the CIA even has pre-teen kids tailing him around the DMV to tempt him into pedophilia!
This is when you realize the depth of his madness, and it becomes impossible to ascribe genuine racist (or homophobic) intent to it. During moments of clarity, he is not so abrasive. In another video, his father gives him a haircut, and they carry on a perfectly normal conversation. They discuss the city council elections, and Terry tells his father how happy he is that more people are downloading his operating system. (It would have been the most boring video of all time, if it hadn't been nested among all the others. Instead it provides a contrast that is completely fascinating.)
I'm not entirely sure why I'm so fascinated by this character.
Maybe it's because my own father suffered from schizophrenia. He left behind some dramatically paranoid writings. He was convinced his father-in-law was buzzing the house with a small plane, and that my mother had hired an assassin to kill him. He warned guests not to stand in front of the windows.
My father killed himself in 1983. I never knew him. And yet his notebooks reveal a man of uncommon sensitivity and genius, full of poems and stories that crawled with intimations that something was going on behind the curtains of the world of which the common man was not aware. If my father's madness had taken a different form, could it have driven him to leave behind stories like Dick's, or a project like Davis's, or maybe even illuminated verses like William Blake's? In my own more desperate moments I've wondered how much of that madness I carry in my own genes.
But back to Terry Davis. There's the whold genius-programmer angle to consider. Sure, from a practical point of view, his work of the last decade is fairly useless. Nobody's going to build a company around TempleOS, and I'd be amazed if more than one or two people use it for its intended purpose - communicating with God. It's a pretty fair guess that the folks who download it are just doing so out of curiousity. And maybe, amazement.
Isn't that what's fascinating about all kinds of "outsider art?" Works created in such isolation from the usual systems of feedback and response turn out to be so alien to contemporary experience that we can't help but marvel at them with awe and admiration. Again, the works of Blake come to mind, and the hallucinatory stories and paintings of Henry Darger come to mind.
A trailer for a film about outsider artist Henry Darger. The full movie can be watched here
(Again, all these figures - Philip Dick, William Blake, Henry Darger, Terry Davis, and my father - were driven by religious impulses to produce the work they did, and their works all carried the images and themes of religious inspiration and struggle. Just what is it about mental illness that triggers this sort of messiannic production?)
Maybe, honestly, the lion's share of the fascination with Terry Davis is the outright, absurd humor of it.
Hearing someone speak as Terry does, without any filter, is just so damned funny. We're so tied up by political correctness and standards of conduct that are constricting. Seeing someone toss them aside so thoroughly is downright cathartic.
Unfortunately for Terry, though, tragedy is cathartic as well. And I don't think anyone watching his videos is under any illusions that there is going to be a happy ending to this story.
His parents are not going to be around forever. As it is, he is often too aggressive to remain at home, and he's already spent some time on the streets, and in a van, and in prison.
In another country or another time, perhaps, he would receive proper care for his condition, but the America of the early 21st century is not kind to the mentally ill.
I kind of want to stop watching before the end comes to this story. But I'm not sure that I can.