So here's the missing story from last weekend's Philip K. Dick Festival.
For just before the catered dinner on Saturday evening, the schedule listed a "Special Secret Guest." This turned out to be a woman who had written to the conference organizer with an e-mail introducing herself with the words, "I am a dark-haired girl."
This is a phrase instantly meaningful to anyone versed in PKD studies. The dark-haired girl was an archetype in Phil's mind, the ideal lover and soulmate whom no real woman ever lived up to, though he kept thinking that he'd found her.
As a writer, Phil was a disciplined professional, but his personal relations could be fraught, especially his romantic ones. Over his life, he married five different women (and had five divorces, too), with God knows how many between, as Tom Lehrer would put it. This Linda, who appears in most of Phil's writings on the subject, was one of the inbetweeners. She was a student in the SF class of the professor who'd welcomed Phil, then at loose ends (to put it mildly), to move to the area, to Orange County.1 This was 1972. Linda was 18 and had just discovered SF; Phil was 43 with four wives behind him already.
Linda, now in her late 50s, came on stage and explained her background and then told her story. Phil had focused his intense attention on her. They dated for a while; he took her to social gatherings with other famous SF writers; and he proposed marriage to her in a letter, which she didn't know whether to take for real. It was not, she thought, a serious relationship - they did not have sex - so she made what she later realized was the mistake of letting him learn that she was also dating other men, including one of the writers she'd met through Phil.
Phil grabbed the wheel of the car she was driving at the time and tried to steer them into oncoming traffic. When she wrestled the car to the curb and ordered him out, he started punching her in the face.
After that she kept her distance from him, though interestingly they remained friends by letter and phone. Once when she ran into him at an SF con, he introduced her to his fifth wife as the woman who'd beat him up. Was he reshaping reality or just making a joke? She didn't know.
A shocked silence filled the hall as Linda finished her story. The organizer jumped up on stage and started babbling something about how we didn't have to hate PKD or disavow his work just because of this.
The thing was, though, that for me - and surely for anyone there more knowledgeable in PKD than I, which must have been most of them - what was moving or disturbing in this tale was hearing it from Linda herself. It wasn't that there was anything revelatory in the story. It was all recounted, in not much less detail than we heard it on Saturday, in the standard biography of PKD over 20 years ago.2
Anyone minded to dismiss Dick because of his treatment of women could find plenty of ammunition in that biography. The top story would surely be the time he concluded an argument with his third wife by having her committed for psychiatric observation. Sutin remarks dryly that the author whose work is all about the indeterminacy of reality "had made a rather definite decision as to what was real."
Unsurprisingly, this led to their divorce. What's interesting, though, is that she remains even today devoted to his memory, and she researched and wrote her own biography of him; it's not a hatchet job. And you also get reactions like this from Linda and most of the other women, dark-haired girls and otherwise, he was involved with: "he could be very cruel at times," writes his fifth wife, "but he loved me more than Dante loved Beatrice." Like LBJ, author of both Vietnam and Medicare, PKD is somebody you just have to accept as both very very horrid and very very good, and you can't integrate their extremes or seek a balanced verdict. You just have to admire the good and acknowledge the horrid, and that's what I've tried to do in these posts.
1. Also in the class was a young man named Tim Powers who became a lasting friend of Phil's, a character in Valis, and later a noted author himself.
2. Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin, probably the best biography of a genre SF author before Julie Phillips on Tiptree. I had a chance to speak to Linda at the conference dinner afterwards, and said that though of course I knew the story, I appreciated her coming and telling it to us herself.