By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
Excerpts from The Demon in the Freezer written by Richard Preston.
I feel like I’m hiding from responsibility. Or, more specifically, my calling. I feel stuck. Stymied. Like a deer caught in the frickin’ headlights. The more of nothing I do, the less I feel like there’s anything I can do. This hit me hard last evening while reading a chapter in Richard Preston’s book The Demon in the Freezer. Preston also wrote the best-selling book The Hot Zone, which was recently a featured mini-series on National Geographic starring Juilanna Margulies.
The Demon in the Freezer is Preston’s true account of the inside story on virus outbreaks and the history of biological weapons. [You can order a copy of the book at Amazon.com] In the chapter called “Strange Trip,” he takes us on a wild ride that begins with Dr. Lawrence Brilliant (his real name) and Wavy Gravy, who met at Woodstock, and ends with participation in the Eradication Program for smallpox started by the World Health Organization in New Delhi. As I read this chapter, I saw strange but convincing parallels to my own life. Like Dr. Brilliant did initially, I have been postponing the fulfillment of God’s call on my life. Not unlike Dr. Brilliant and Wavy Gravy, much of this hindrance has been fueled by chronic drug and alcohol use that became what the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) calls Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
I will provide a complete account of “Strange Trip” in this blog article, and will jump in here and there to describe how this tale mimics my sloth-like approach to life and to my mission. I’ll comment on the terrible danger of allowing your journey to be interrupted; explaining what it’s like to tune God out and concentrate on assuaging emotional and physical pain as if my life depended on it. I don’t intend to go easy on myself. This is an important story that will hopefully inspire someone else to get off their rump and begin the trip that God has laid out before them. Failure to do so will haunt you. A Christian friend of mine recently told me, “God wants you to know that if you don’t do what He has called you to do, He will get someone else to do it!”
LET’S GET STARTED
There is no other way to do life but to do it the right way.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1970, a twenty-six-year-old medical doctor named Lawrence Brilliant finished his internship at Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco. He had been diagnosed with a tumor of the parathyroid gland and was recovering from an operation, so he was not able to go on with this residency. He was living on Alcatraz Island in San Fransisco Bay, where he was giving medical help to a group of Native Americans who had occupied Alcatraz in a protest. He ended up doing some interviews on television from the island, and a producer from Warner Bros. saw one of them and offered him a role in a movie. The movie was Medicine Ball Caravan, about hippies who go to England and end up at a Pink Floyd concert. Larry Brilliant played a doctor… The movie also featured Wavy Gravy, one of the founders of the Hog Farm commune in Llano, New Mexico. The Hog Farm commune had recently become famous for running the food kitchen at the Woodstock festival, where they also provivded security…
Medicine Ball Caravan was shot first in San Francisco and then in England, and during the shooting Brilliant and Gravy became friends… In England, Brilliant and his wife, Girija, and Wavy and his wife, Jahanara Gravy—she’s from Minnesota and is said to have been Bob Dylan’s girlfriend and perhaps even the model for the “Girl of the North Country”—pondered what to do next in life. A terrible cyclone had hit the delta of the Ganges River in the Bay of Bengal, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and the eye of the cyclone had passed over an island named Bhota. A hundred and fifty thousand people had drowned when a tidal surge had covered the entire island. The Brilliants and the Gravys hit on the idea of buying a bus and carrying food and medicines to the devastated islanders.
“Wavy and I and our wives—who, remarkably, are still our wives—drove to Kathmandu,” Brilliant said. They started with a rotten old British Leyland bus that they bought cheap in London. They painted it in psychedelic colors and filled the bus with medicine and food and a bunch of hippie friends. They bought a second bus in Germany and equipped it similarly, and the Brilliant-Gravy bus entourage made its way slowly through Turkey and Iran. The buses wandered around Afghanistan for months, and they made it over the Khyber Pass, following the same road that Peter Los and his friends had driven a little more than a year earlier in their Volkswagen bus.
The Brilliant-Gravy expedition wound slowly through Pakistan and crossed into India. Civil war had broken out between East and West Pakistan—this was the independence war of Bangladesh—and the border of Bangladesh had been closed, so they couldn’t get their buses into the country. They turned northward into Nepal, and eventually the buses pulled into Kathmandu. “Wavy got sick and ended up going back to the U.S. weighing about eighty pounds,” Brilliant says. The Brilliants abandoned their bus in Kathmandu and went to New Delhi, India. It seems that the Brilliants were pondering what to do next in life, and nothing was coming along.
Like the Brilliants, many of us tend to get derailed from our plans by difficulties and choose indecision. For me, I’ve had plans to serve the LORD in some capacity at numerous times during my life. I remember telling my grandmother many decades ago that every time I ignore God’s call on my life I end up failing miserably at whatever I decide to do instead. Invariably, that has always led to rather troublesome developments. It’s as if God pulled back on His blessings and waited for me to return to Him ready to serve. Dr. Brilliant and his wife stumbled around India for some time not sure what to do. One day they were in an American Express office in New Delhi collecting their mail, when they met Baba Ram Dass. Baba had recently been Professor Richard Alpert of Harvard University, but he and a colleague, Professor Timothy Leary, had been kicked out of Harvard for advocating the use of LSD.
Richard Preston’s book continues.
Baba Ram Dass spoke glowingly of a holy man named Neem Karoli Baba, who was the head of an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas in a remote district in northern India where the borders of China, India, and Nepal come together. Girija Brilliant was captivated by Baba Ram Dass’s talk of the holy man, and she wanted to meet him, though Larry was not interested. Girija insisted, and so they went. They ended up living in the ashram and becoming devotees of Neem Karoli Baba… He was a famous guru in India, and the people sometimes called him Blanket Baba. The Brilliants learned Hindi, meditated, and read the Bhagavad Gita. Meanwhile, Larry ran an informal clinic in the ashram, giving out medicines that he’d taken off the bus when they’d left it in Kathmandu. One day, he was outdoors at the ashram, singing Sanskrit songs with a group of students, watching them sing. He fixed his eye on Brilliant.
Preston reports that the guru wanted to know how much money Brilliant had. When Brilliant told him he had five-hundred dollars, Blanket Baba asked how much money Brilliant had back home in America. The answer was the same—five hundred dollars. The conversation got quite interesting at this point.
Blanket Baba got a sly grin and started chanting, in Hindi, “You have no money… you are no doctor… you have no money,” and he reached forward and tugged on Brilliant’s beard. Brilliant didn’t know how to answer. Neem Karoli Baba switched to English and kept on chanting. “You are no doctor… UNO doctor… UNO doctor.” UNO can stand for United Nations Organization.
The guru was saying to his student (or so the student now thinks) that his duty and destiny—his dharma—was to become a doctor with the United Nations. “He made this funny gesture, looking up at the sky,” Brilliant recalled, “and he said in Hindi, ‘You are going to go into villages. You are going to eradicate smallpox. Because this is a terrible disease. But with God’s grace, smallpox will be unmulum.'” The guru used a formal old Sanskrit word that means “to be torn up by the roots.” Eradicated. The word “unmulum” comes from an Indo-European root that is at least ten thousand years old—the word is probably older than smallpox.
“So I said, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘Go to New Delhi. Go to the office of the World Health Organization. Go get your job. Jao, jao, jao.’ That means, ‘Go, go go.'” Brilliant packed a few things and left the ashram that night—the guru seemed to be in a rush to “unmulate” smallpox. The trip to New Delhi took seventeen hours by rickshaw and bus. When Brilliant walked into the office of the WHO, it was nearly empty. It had just been set up, and almost no one was working there. The government of India was then headed by Indira Gandhi, and she was skeptical of the Eradication Program and had not yet approved it. The first person Brilliant met was the head of the office, Dr. Nicole Grasset.
“I was wearing a white dress and sandals,” Brilliant says, “I’m five feet nine, and my beard was something like five feet eleven, and my hair was in a ponytail down my back.” Grasset had no job to offer him, so Brilliant returned to the monastery and, having not slept in at least thirty-six hours, reported back to the guru. “Did you get your job?” “No.” “Go back and get it.”
A PERSONAL MISSION
The guru was convinced Brilliant would get his job eradicating smallpox. It was, after all, his dharma—his “calling.” Brilliant returned to New Delhi. Dr. Grasset was quite shocked to see him again, but nothing had changed. There was no job. Brilliant went back and forth between New Delhi and the ashram at least a dozen times. I’m not sure if this indicated Brilliant was like a dog with a bone, determined to get his job, or that God had called him to this task, which would ultimately materialize. Each time he returned, the guru would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your job. Smallpox will be unmulum, uprooted.” Brilliant returned to the WHO in New Delhi.
“On one of my trips, there was this tall guy sitting in the lobby of the WHO office. He looked up and said, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?'” “I’ve come to work for the smallpox program,” Brilliant replied. “There isn’t much of a program here.” “My guru says it will be eradicated. Who are you?” “I’m D.A. Henderson. I’m the head of the program.”
Henderson, for his part, was a little put off by Brilliant’s white dress and his talk of a guru predicting a wipeout of smallpox. That day, Henderson wrote a note in the employment record, “Nice guy, sincere. Appears to have gone a little native…” Indira Gandhi was herself a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, and she had visited him at the monastery, where she had bowed down to him and touched his feet and asked for his advice. Blanket Baba wanted smallpox pulled up by the roots, and he was annoyed at Mrs. Gandhi for resisting the efforts of the World Health Organization to get on with the job…
Brilliant thought he’d increase his chances of getting a job if he looked more Western, so every time he returned to New Delhi he trimmed off some of his beard and shortened his ponytail, and he began to replace articles of clothing. He ended up with medium-long hair and a short beard, and he was dressed in a checkered polyester suit with extra-wide lapels, a thick polyester tie, and a lime green Dacron shirt. He had made himself unnoticeable, for the seventies. By that time, Nicole Grasset had decided to hire him, and D.A. Henderson agreed that he might have some potential as an eradicator. He started as a typist.
At this point, it is obvious Brilliant was determined to get the job he’d been called to do. He remained obstinate and did not take no for an answer. Moreover, he made the necessary changes to accomplish his goal, especially his outward appearance that was distracting people from seeing him for who he truly was: a man destined to help eradicate smallpox from the world. Interestingly, as we’ll see later, the simple decision to learn to speak Hindi allowed Brilliant to get through to the native Hindi people to get vaccinated. Had he known only English, or had to speak through an interpreter, I don’t believe he would have been as well received. Fulfilling our calling often revolves around similar commitments and changes.
I’m sure most of us can see ourselves in the example of Dr. Brilliant. When we feel compelled—indeed, called—to do something, we invariably go through stages of action and inaction, assurance and doubt, but if we believe in the call on our life we will remain tenacious. Unfortunately, on many occasions the devil throws every possible obstacle in our path to stop us from answering that call. For me, it was a number of things, ranging from materialism to pride, but the toughest hurdle has been my struggle with active addiction. In fact, the longest time I have remained at a job in my life was three years. I have a friend who’s had two jobs since high school, and both are in the same industry! Moreover, I have finally completed the first step in answering God’s call: I’ve obtained my B.S. in Psychology at age 59, and I am starting my Master’s in Theology in August.
Preston’s chapter continues.
Eventually, they sent Brilliant to a nearby district to handle smallpox outbreaks, where if he got into trouble they could pull him out quickly. He saw his first cases of variola major. “You can’t see smallpox and not be impressed,” he said. He began to organize vaccination campaigns in villages. He would go into a village where there was smallpox, rent an elephant, and ride through the village telling people in Hindi that they should get vaccinated. People didn’t want to be vaccinated. They felt that smallpox was an emanation of the goddess of smallpox, Shitala Ma, and that therefore the disease was part of the sacred order of the world; it was the dharma of the people to have visitations from the disease.
Brilliant traveled all over India with Henderson and the other leaders of the Eradication, and they came to know one another intimately. “D.A. read nothing but war novels and books about Patton and other great generals in history,” Brilliant said. “Nicole Grasset read nothing except scientific things. Bill Foege was reading philosophy and Christian literature—he’s a devout Lutheran. I was reading mystical literature.” They ran a fleet of five hundred jeeps. They had a hundred and fifty thousand people working for the program, mostly on very small salaries. For a year and a half, at the peak of the campaign, every house in India was called on once a month by a health worker to see if anyone there had smallpox. There were a hundred and twenty million houses in India, and Brilliant estimates that the program made almost two billion house calls during that year and a half.
After he helped eradicate smallpox—his “calling”—Larry Brilliant did other things. He became one of Jerry Garcia’s physicians. He became the founder and co-owner of the Well, a famous early Internet operation. He was the CEO of SoftNet, a software company that reached three billion dollars in value on the stock market during the wild years of the Internet. He and his wife had three children. He eventually obtained the position of professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, and, along with Wavy Gravy and Baba Ram Dass, he established a medical foundation called the Seva Foundation. Today, that operation has cured two million people of blindness in India and Nepal.
“I’ve done a lot of things in life,” Brilliant said, “but I’ve never encountered people as smart, as dedicated, as hardworking, as kind, or as noble as the people who worked on smallpox. Everything about them—D.A. Henderson, Nicole Grasset, Zdenek Jezek, Steve Jones, Bill Foege, Isao Arita, the other leaders—everything about them as people was secondary to the work of eradicating smallpox. We hated smallpox.”
There were numerous setbacks during the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate smallpox. In fact, there were two false conclusions that the virus had been wiped out. Each time, the eradicators implemented known procedures, creating vaccination “rings” around the outbreaks. On October 27, 1977, a hospital cook in Somalia named Ali Maow Maalin broke out with the world’s final natural case of variola. They vaccinated fifty-seven thousand people around him, and the final ring tightened, and the life cycle of the smallpox virus stopped.
God calls upon believers and non-believers alike to do His work. Although I am a theist of Christian belief, I take nothing away from the actions and the determination of Baba Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba. It is important to note, for the record, that I believe such brave and dedicated non-believers have not earned their salvation in spite of their paramount accomplishments. Salvation comes from Christ alone through faith in Christ alone. I can only hope individuals such as these brave warriors against smallpox come to know the truth during their mortal lifetime and make a conscious decision to accept the saving grace of God through the shedding of the blood of Jesus on the cross.
I will say, however, that these people we’ve read about today convicted me to stop making excuses for my long periods of inactivity, disobedience, and selfishness. I am sure the conviction I felt when reading the chapter “Strange Trip” in Preston’s book, and, moreover, while writing this blog post, came from the Holy Spirit. It is, after all, through the worldview I hold as a Christian that I receive and believe in such guidance and conviction. It is my responsibility to listen to that small voice and take steps to stop the practice of habitual sin. To cease walking in and serving the flesh and begin to walk in the Spirit of God.
Only by coming to grips with our humanity—our total lack of inability to conquer the flesh and discontinue all sinning—can we hope to stop the practice of sin. Furthermore, the flesh and its myriad distractions will drown out the voice of God. We will fail to hear Him tell us who we are in His Son, Christ Jesus. We will miss the calling on our lives. How will we know if our failure to step up and listen to God’s plans for us will result in, for example, the deaths of millions of people because we did not become the “eradicator” He needs us to be. To wipe out whatever we’re called to wipe out, whether it be smallpox, addiction, human trafficking, terrorism, violence, or mental illness?
We don’t know unless we surrender and start listening to God.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
Preston, R. (2002). The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story. New York, NY: Random House.