Excerpts From "The Man Who Married His Hat Tree (and Other Cases of Extreme Mental Disorder)," by Dr. Oscar Spivack, Ph.D., Chief Supervising Physician, New York Hospital for the Extremely Mentally Disordered
Case History #506: The Man Who Married His Hat Tree
(In my many years of observing the unusual and the extreme in the human condition, surely one of the strangest cases was that of "Arnold," a 54-year-old man who, for most of his adult life, believed he was married to a hat tree. A successful stock broker, Arnold lived with his "wife" Louise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He had friends, a close-knit family, and by most measures lived a perfectly normal life. He had no children, of course.)
I first met Arnold at the hospital. He was accompanying his wife, Louise, whom he hoped would be admitted for some tests—she was complaining of headaches and acting strangely, he said. He wanted to know if it was a neurological problem. A typical situation, one we see quite often, except for the simple fact that his "wife" was a six-foot tall hat tree.
Arnold brought Louise into the examining room. I removed the hat, and then proceeded to examine it, or her, as I would any non-wooden patient. (Note: It is of paramount importance in cases of this kind to do as little as possible to alter the patient's expectations.)
"Her heart rate is normal."
"That's a relief," he sighed.
"Blood pressure...good. Let's check her reflexes." While I tapped Louise at the approximate location of where her knees would be, Arnold watched anxiously. He was genuinely concerned with how the exam was going. I was only continuing the charade because any change from what was a typical examination might frighten him and lead to confusion.
"Check her eyes," he requested, and I did. I did everything I would normally do with any of my human patients. "Say 'ahh'... hmm..." I pretended to notice something.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. I thought I saw something but no, your wife is fine. Just keep a lot of hats hanging on her."
"What?" Arnold suddenly became very perturbed. By trying to say something witty that alluded to his wife's condition I had broken an unspoken pact between us, threatening his trust. I realized my mistake and recovered quickly.
"Keep her out of the sun. Have her avoid sunlight for a few days. That should help with the headaches."
"Oh, of course. Thank you, Doctor." Arnold then grabbed his "wife" and left.
The next time I saw Arnold was at a glittery fundraising affair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many celebrities were in attendance, so when Arnold entered, with Louise, he didn't create much of a stir. One of the ushers even took Louise's hat and, nonchalantly, hung it on another hat tree!
Arnold floated about the party, Louise in tow, a big smile on his face. He showed an unabashed enthusiasm for "schmoozing" with the rich and powerful. He was comfortable in this milieu, and he seemed to be having a genuinely good time.
I said hello to Arnold, but he didn't recognize me at first, so I reminded him. "Dr. Spivack, from New York Hospital for the Extremely Mentally Disordered."
"Oh, yes. Hello, Doctor. Louise, this is Dr. Spivack—remember him?"
He waited patiently as Louise, lacking vocal cords—let alone life—chose to remain silent. I was reminded of the play "Harvey," where the lovable lush Elwood P. Dowd's imaginary friend was a large rabbit. But Arnold didn't drink. And the hat tree wasn't imaginary.
"You know, Doctor," he jumped in, to save what he perceived as an awkward moment, "Louise must not remember our visit to you. I apologize. No disrespect."
"None taken," I responded, marveling at his social grace and thoughtfulness. He was then shanghaied by the Deputy Mayor and a well-known actor and escorted to a gathering of notables involved in a discussion of the movie industry in the city. I was impressed, if not somewhat baffled, by Arnold's ready acceptance in this high-powered world, given his obvious eccentricity.
I decided to talk to some of the guests at the party to gauge their reactions to Arnold. A few of them looked at me as if I were the strange one when I asked about "the man in the other room with the hat tree." But one gentleman, a real estate developer and a major figure in New York financial circles, told me he had no bias against Arnold, that whatever he did was "his business, not ours." Another guest, the always-effervescent Kitty Carlisle, a fixture at New York society events for decades, said she believed in a tolerant, "don't ask, don't tell" philosophy. That seemed to be the prevailing attitude.
In my last book, "The Woman Who Spoke in Knock-Knock Jokes," one of my essays described an Ohio girl afflicted with Anti-Delusional Parallelitosis, or ADP. A person with ADP lives in a hallucinatory state that seems absolutely real. The girl in question believed her reality was Disneyland, that she lived in Disneyland, and as such she related to everyone around her as if they were Disney characters. Her ADP was so acute that, when she was eleven, her parents tried to shake her out of her parallel universe by actually moving her to Disneyland, putting her in an apartment especially built for her in the Fantasyland section of the park. She lives there still, with no improvement in her condition.
Arnold, while not suffering from ADP, manifested symptoms of several related extreme mentally disordered conditions, among them RPM (Ruminative Psychotic Mentalnoma), ETC (Extra-Terrestrial Complex), and LSMFT (Lucky Strike Mindless Fetish Temperament). There may be more, but due to the current acronym shortage, everything's on hold.
Amazingly, in spite of his obvious handicap, Arnold was able to float through the rarefied atmosphere of New York society without even a wink. Realize, of course, that were he not white, and well-to-do, things would be very different. I thought about how difficult it is to even get a cab in New York if you happen to be of a color other than white, and how unfair life is to the millions and millions of people who, for no reason other than the color of their skin or the condition of their body, or their mind, or their pocketbook, are unable to share in the great wealth and opportunity the world affords the rest of us who do have the right skin color and the right bank account and the right connections. Oh, the irony.
I hadn't seen or heard from Arnold in months when the phone rang. It was a woman. She was terribly upset. I asked her what was wrong and why she was calling me. It was then that Arnold's case took a bizarre twist. The woman identified herself.
"This is Louise."
"Louise?" The name didn't register at first.
"Louise. I came to see you recently. You examined me. My husband and I ran into you at that party. At the museum. Remember?"
I was stuck for a response. Who was I speaking to? A hat tree? Logic dictated I was not. Arnold? Arnold was full of surprises, but changing his voice to that of a woman seemed well beyond his capabilities. Was it one of those voice-altering devices used by spies and teenage boys? No, this was too convincing. This was a living, breathing woman, and a good actress to boot. Or so I thought.
"Doctor? Are you there?" I had to think of something to say.
"Yes, I am. Tell me—where are you?"
"At home. The lights are off. I'm alone. I'm scared."
I had to think for a moment. If this wasn't Arnold on the phone, and I was convinced it was not, then it was someone very familiar with him, someone very familiar with his problem.
"Yes, tell you what—why don't you give me your number and I'll call you right back. You caught me at a very bad time."
"Yes. Your phone number. You do have one, don't you?" There was silence at the other end for a few seconds, indicating "Louise" was having difficulty answering what should have been a very easy question.
"Oh my God!" she shrieked. "Here he comes—I have to hang up!"
"Here who comes?" I asked. In the background I heard a door shut, followed by the sound of a man's voice. Arnold!
"I have to get off the phone," she whispered. "Stay on," I urged her. "Don't hang up."
"Who are you talking to?" he shouted in the background. "Give me that!" There was a struggle, the phone dropped to the floor, and then—dial tone.
The last time I saw Arnold was about a year later, at another fundraising gala. He was not with Louise, but a very tall (about six feet), skinny, supermodel type who he introduced as "Veronica." He seemed happy, exceedingly so. When I had a chance to get him alone I asked him about Louise. I casually "wondered" whatever happened to her, inasmuch as I was her physician, however briefly. I was not prepared for his answer.
"Doctor," he began, "when Louise and I first came to see you a couple of years ago, we were seeking help. Louise was having problems. You examined her, you found nothing wrong, and we left on a cordial note. However, I must tell you that ever since that day, ever since you made those insulting, humiliating remarks to her, treating her as if she were a—hat tree—ever since then I have pointed to that one moment as the beginning of the end of our marriage. She was extremely sensitive about her appearance. When we ran into you at that benefit she was still suffering from the traumatic effects of loss of self-esteem and self-image, and that's why she didn't say anything. Believe me, she had plenty to say. Let's just hope you don't make the same kind of crude and insensitive remarks to Veronica, whom I hope to marry some day." And with that, Arnold walked away and rejoined the party.
In the weeks that followed I was forced to reassess my evaluation of Arnold. Going over his history, his symtoms, and the progression of his condition from when I first observed him to this last encounter, I concluded that Arnold was perfectly normal. There was nothing wrong with him.