Purchase Issue 7

Purchase Issue 7


Alessandro Baricco

The Boodman Syndrome

Translated from THE Italian by Stiliana Milkova

"Give me another minute, darling … I just need to finish this."

Judge Boodman pronounced these words with a certain sweetness, but without ever lifting his eyes from his desk. Stoic and loyal, his wife Anne—born in Princeton and therefore a Wonder Woman of sorts—left the room and went back to entertaining their guests. The judge's office turned silent again. 

It was fourteen years, three months, and eleven days since Judge Boodman, a distinguished gentleman respected throughout the county, had decided to indulge in a habitual game of solitaire every evening before dinner. In all this time he had never skipped this delightful activity. In fact, it may have happened that he skipped dinner because of it. But never his solitaire. On that occasion the judge had chosen Empress, and this particular choice, as Doctor Benedikt would remark later, was not to be deemed inconsequential in the tragedy which from that evening onward would mark his sad decline. Indeed,  Empress is not a simple solitaire—it is a monstrous card game. It is played with four decks, and just the initial layout of the cards (73 cards arranged in a prescribed order) requires substantial time. If solitaire is a private duel with chance, then Empress is a duel all its own, more complex and somehow more solemn. 

All of the above could partially explain why on that evening in August 1945, Judge Boodman was leaning over his desk with a concentration that could easily be described as extreme. Before his eyes, the cards painted a picture any competent player would not hesitate to judge promising. Everything seemed to predict the rare outcome of a successful Empress. Therefore, it was with motivated optimism that Judge Boodman took a card from the deck and flipped it over—seven of clubs. Had it been the five of diamonds or jack of spades or ten of hearts his life would have glided peacefully toward a serene old age. But it was the seven of clubs, and his life veered imperceptibly toward tragedy. For a long time the judge turned the card over in his hands, his eyes scanning the enormous arrangement on his desk. But it was useless—there was not a single place where this unfortunate seven of clubs could do any good. He meticulously studied every possibility and searched for any potential oversight on his part. Nothing. Once again—and this time so cunningly—Empress had won. 

Judge Boodman was a man of ironclad principles and unshakable moral character. Any judge in the state could have confirmed that fact. It should not be astounding therefore that in all these fourteen years, three months, and eleven days, it had not dawned on him even once that he could cheat. It should be astounding, however, that namely that evening, an evening like any other, he was destined to consider for the first time that disgraceful possibility. Cheating in solitaire is nothing. Technically and ethically, it's a blatantly simple and insignificant action. But the orderly contents of the judge's mind did not foresee such an action. It appeared unexpectedly, out of nowhere, brought on by a mysterious epiphany. And what was meant to happen, happened indeed. The judge raised his eyes, lazily checked the time on the grandfather clock (a quarter after six), noted that there was nobody in the room, and then without any explanation other than human weakness, he put the seven of clubs back in the deck, hesitated for a moment and withdrew another card—jack, jack of spades. 

Ten minutes or so later Judge Boodman joined his guests, interlacing his warm greetings with his most humble excuses for the brief but nonetheless egregious delay. A perceptive observer would have recognized the judge's excessive cheerfulness as that of a husband who, having cheated on his wife, ascertains that he's gotten away with it. 

Only a few days later Judge Boodman began to harbor the suspicion that in some indirect and bizarre way he hadn't really gotten away with cheating. It all started with some unrelated news in the papers: the Americans had dropped a bomb of enormous force on a Japanese city. It took a while before Judge Boodman gathered all the elements necessary to identify in that piece of news the beginning of his end: the Japanese city was called Hiroshima, the bomb was an atomic bomb, the airplane which had dropped it was a B-29 named "Enola Gay" (after the pilot's mother), and above all, the bomb had exploded, inaugurating a new age of terror, on August 6 at 8:16 a.m. Tokyo time. Thousands of miles away, at that precise moment, Judge Boodman had inserted the seven of clubs back into the deck and then immediately extracted the jack of spades. For most people this occurrence would not have meant anything more than a curious coincidence. But Judge Boodman was a strange man and, as already emphasized, of unshakable moral character. He had no doubt—the bomb would not have been dropped had he not cheated in solitaire. The bomb was the punishment for a crime that was his and his only. 

It is not easy being the man who caused the first nuclear catastrophe, and indeed Judge Boodman began suffering from insomnia and experiencing periodical lapses into mental confusion. The added burden of a heart attack and the long process of recovery brought him to a complete physical and psychological breakdown which even the affections of his wife Anne and his sons Simon and Peter were powerless to alleviate. Despite all their efforts, the judge appeared indifferent to everything. The only thing that stirred him from his inertia was an intermittent and perplexing curiosity about anything regarding the Hiroshima bomb. The family, who didn't know his innermost drama, supported his obsession without understanding it. For a while the judge was entrusted to the care of his personal physician, Doctor Wright, and to that of several antidepressants. Then, when he showed clear signs of a mental disorder, it became clear that they had to seek the help of an eminent psychiatrist. The judge was taken to a respected clinic in the area. He put up no resistance. He only asked that a photo he had torn from a popular illustrated magazine be hung by the side of his bed. The photo showed the atomic mushroom. It had been taken from who knows which atoll in the Pacific, and it was in color. 

The doctor who treated him was called Benedict Benedikt. "The last name is spelled with a k," he had learned to repeat since childhood. His father, Aulo Benedikt, had tried for a long time to make money by building player pianos using a unique patent that took him years to develop and which he finally perfected around 1940, exactly when the demand for mechanical pianos plummeted for good in all of Europe and subsequently, in the whole world. He didn't have an easy life, and that in itself can help explain the subtle duplicity which compelled him, on August 4, 1913, in a gray office of the city registry, to choose, out of a thousand possibilities, the wrong name for his son. The son retaliated by becoming a psychiatrist. 

And in this capacity, as already mentioned, he treated Judge Boodman from 1946 to 1951. From the very start he realized this was a case of extraordinary scientific interest. Boodman—contrary to what his grandchildren Dick, Till, Polt, Mariane, and Louise Anne Adelaide thought—was not crazy. Not in the clinical sense, anyhow. The guilt complex which haunted his mind did not so much originate in an event as in the post-factum interpretation of that event. It was not the insignificant act of cheating in solitaire that had jumbled the judge's brain, but rather the conviction that there was a secret yet objective connection between his action and the catastrophic event. In this particular logical operation Doctor Benedikt discerned something that was not caused by the contingent singularity of a brilliant mind, but was recognizable as the unconscious and common tendency to believe that behind the network of chance occurrences, the world is regulated by invisible connections linking trifles to great events, the particular to the general, the ordinary to the extraordinary. The origins of such "beliefs" were mysterious enough and their clinical consequences sufficiently frightening to persuade Doctor Benedikt that he was dealing with a syndrome worthy of study and analysis—the syndrome which, at his behest, is still known today as "the Boodman syndrome." 

Doctor Benedikt dedicated his whole life to it, with such devotion and determination as to secure for him the following: a tenured position at the University of Oregon, the respect of the international scientific community, a sizable amount in his bank account, a divorce, occasional intestinal problems which never developed into a proper ulcer, and more recently, a curious tick which caused three fingers on his right hand to suddenly bend inward, leaving his index finger and his pinky fully extended. The curious similarity of the resulting configuration to a vulgar gesture of unequivocal meaning made it, understandably, quite embarrassing. 

Doctor Benedikt began (as magnificently recounted by Joseph Adelgrass in his praiseworthy Doktor Benedikt: Das Leben, Das Werk) by taking care to accumulate enough cases to justify the definition of a proper syndrome. He knew that Judge Boodman was not a negligible exception, but rather the tip of a massive clinical iceberg. He had one case, and he had to find all the others. He sent questionnaires to colleagues with whom he had cultivated a professional relationship and he himself embarked on a demanding investigation. The six notebooks in which he recorded the results of his work (notebooks meritoriously brought to light by the already mentioned Professor Adelgrass) exemplify the challenges presented in this first phase of his undertaking. 

March 14

Mr. Burt Malone

"Have you ever observed any curious coincidences between events in your life and significant historical events?"

"My private life is indeed a historical event."

"Excuse me?"

April 21

Mrs. Aurelia Croft

"Have you happened to notice that a certain behavior of yours has indirectly caused a large-scale catastrophe?”

"Listen, honey, I am paid to get fucked. If you feel like talking, say so and tip me nicely, ok?”

The first important evidence surfaced soon enough. A blacksmith from Ohio wrote to confess that he couldn't hit his wife without a Burton Railways train getting derailed at that very moment: he even attached documentation—newspaper clippings and photos of his wife covered with bruises. A mathematics professor in Stuttgart couldn't masturbate without provoking strong earthquakes in southern Italy. A certain gentleman whose name is best kept secret committed suicide after failing to overcome his belief that he had caused the sinking of the Titanic: the same day, at the same time he had left Hotel Titanic in Bristol, taking with him a whole set of hotel towels. A pharmacist from Essex caused an epidemic in the Third World every time he stepped on a specific manhole (he was then leading a solitary life in the Irish countryside). The wife of a famous French surgeon unleashed devastating typhoons in the Far East every time she fried eggplants. A Russian pianist stopped performing Chopin's Ballade Op. 23 after confirming that it had caused, with disarming precision, the death of a movie star. 

Over the next couple of years, Doctor Benedikt managed to collect 218 cases of bona fide Boodman syndrome. And on the basis of such non-inconsequential findings in March 1954, he published the first official study on the subject in the prestigious International Psychiatric Review. The response was lukewarm. The same Professor Adelgrass admitted in the already-cited monograph that in its initial and preliminary form Benedikt's theory betrayed an unreliable structure and the occasional hasty conclusion. On the basis of the cases examined, the text identified two principles explicating the genesis of the disorder and indicating the course of its potential treatment:

  1. A large number of individuals afflicted with the syndrome nurtured a more or less secret obsession with order. In ascertaining a correlation between insignificant incidents and newsworthy phenomena they revealed their necessity to "control" reality through the assertion of chance as an objective process. That this assertion resulted in precise and painful assumptions of responsibility was believed to guarantee the authenticity of the process. The pain and the guilt complex these individuals felt after the event's disastrous consequences were unconsciously interpreted as the price they had to pay to be liberated from the anguish of living in an unintelligible and uncontrollable chaos.

  2. In a significant majority of the cases studied (181 out of 218), the trigger of the syndrome was either a guilty act or one experienced as such by the afflicted subject. The fact that it had public and dramatic consequences was the mechanism for unmasking the subject's guilt and punishing him for it. The disproportion of guilt to punishment (as evidenced by Judge Boodman's case) also suggested a secret form of megalomania or the presence of major existential frustrations. A good number of the subjects believed themselves to be God or had considered the possibility.

Even if unreliable and to some extent obvious, these two principles motivated Doctor Benedikt's research throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Substantially developed and updated, they appeared in all his subsequent publications to the growing interest of the scientific community. While his studies were being recognized officially for the first time, Doctor Benedikt devoted his work to experimenting with various therapies on subjects who had volunteered to be treated by him. This was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his work. The success garnered over a short period of time led him to entertain seriously the hypothesis that he could consider himself a successful psychiatrist. The most unusual patients from all over the world sought him out, all of them affected in some way by the Boodman syndrome. Doctor Benedikt screened the requests and committed to treating the most interesting cases. It was in the summer of 1961 that an antiquarian from Seattle turned to him. His name was Providence Providence. Doctor Benedikt agreed to treat him out of a childhood complicity. This decision seemed of no importance. As it turns out, it was not.

Providence Providence was 51 years old, had a Catholic wife six years younger than him and two sons—Arthur (in the military) and Anne (a physical education teacher at a college in Maine). A happy family. Everything portended a serene old age for Providence Providence. But as we wish to stick to the facts, we cannot omit recording that on July 12, 1960, the antiquarian from Seattle happened to follow a young man, whose name he would never find out, inside a Stars Cinema theater, and after a few but meaningful preambles, to consummate his first homosexual intercourse on the wooden chairs of said locale. It was five in the afternoon. At the same time, no more than five hundred yards from the theater, a bullet was crushing the spine of Wallace Riddle, the owner of a hotel chain and a state senator. There was no reason to connect the unthinkable and deplorable incident at the Stars theater to the brutal murder. And indeed, as much as he was disturbed by what had happened to him, he did not connect them. But that strange coincidence came back to him when a month and a half later the chief of the local police was discovered hanged under the Jefferson bridge. The death had occurred on the evening of August 22: at that time Providence was in a garage consummating with surprising gratification his second homosexual intercourse with a twenty-six-year-old insurance agent from New York. Providence Providence began to neglect his work, he was unusually distant with his friends and inexplicably taciturn with his family. In the following month he struggled secretly with his own unsuspected inclinations, imposing on himself a severe discipline. But, as has been proven many times, the flesh is weak, and he found himself falling a good three times into what he would otherwise call without hesitation a despicable sin. With disarming precision the injured parties were the following: Jeff Cosman, lawyer and candidate for the Senate, killed in a car accident whose cause was never determined; Bill Wright, acting mayor of Seattle, the victim of a mafia assassination; and Kurten Callemberg, colonel in the army and the president's military adviser, fished out of Lake Blatt with a 90-pound anvil tied to his ankles. Providence Providence registered the three coincidences with scientific indifference. He had just enough time to notice that the misfortunes seemed to strike people of increasingly higher status. Then he lost his mind. 

Doctor Benedikt took him under his care in February 1962. Loyal to his own principles, he began to battle the patient’s phobia of disorderliness which he discovered Providence had had since childhood. Then he aimed at the heart of the problem, and in just fourteen months of therapy he persuaded his patient to accept his own homosexuality and to stop hiding it. His family reacted with a calm dismay. Providence went back to work and regained a certain psychological equilibrium. Only one more fundamental step was needed for his recovery to be complete—the process defined in Doctor Benedikt's jargon as a "reappropriation of the shock."

"Doctor, do you mean to say that I should get into trouble again at the movie theater with one of those young men God bless them? 

"The sauna might work just as well."

Providence Providence kept putting it off for months. A faint terror slithered in his soul, stopping him every time in the middle of his resolve. But with his scientist's cynicism Doctor Benedikt continued to pressure him implacably. Finally he overruled his patient's fear. On November 22, 1963, Providence Providence happened to exit the restrooms of the Lincoln Center in Seattle with his face flushed, his shirt untucked, and in his heart the sensation of having come back to life. It was 12:30 p.m. At that precise moment a bullet was pulverizing the cranium of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States of America. 

With a polite but firm resolve Doctor Benedikt always refused to comment on the remarkable epilogue of the "Providence case." It is well-known, however, that a few months after the facts recounted above, he suddenly abandoned both his patients and his university commitments and retreated to a private life at his summer residence in Corfe. He worked there for years and years on the study which he intended to become the definitive text on the Boodman syndrome. The few people who succeeded in visiting him during that time testify to his progressive physical and mental decline. Their statements all agree that he was the victim of violent anxiety attacks and prolonged depressions. In particular, he developed a pronounced phobia of the act of writing. He was literally terrified by possibly making a spelling mistake, to which he attributed enormous and destructive evil powers. He became physically incapable of writing anything: he stood horrified in front of a typewriter and couldn't bear to look at a pen or pencil. He was forced to engage the services of a typist who wrote from dictation. Professor Adelgrass's already-cited book dedicates a whole chapter—the penultimate—to this circumstance. He advances the hypothesis, supported by evidence, that Doctor Benedikt was not exempt from certain symptoms of the Boodman syndrome, for he claimed he stopped writing the day in which a simple spelling mistake caused a London bus to overturn and thus brought about the demise of six people. This hypothesis has been radically revised, however, in an essay by Goddark published two years ago in England. The polemics it precipitated have resounded sufficiently in those circles so as to render their rehashing here quite unnecessary. The fact remains that the book Doctor Benedikt worked on in his last years reached us in the format of 613 typewritten clinical records and without the aid of any introductory or explanatory notes. As scientists have concurred unanimously, it is a text largely in draft form, incomplete and fragmentary. The few coherent passages have in fact turned out to be incomprehensible or insignificant. And there are numerous pages clearly devoid of any sense. 

Despite all of this, the Boodman syndrome is now officially accepted by the scientific community and appears in all major textbooks on the history of psychiatry. After partial and secondary revisions, Doctor Benedikt's theories continue to provide to date the best instrument to study and treat the Boodman syndrome. Many psychiatrists whose training was based on those theories are now engaged in active therapeutic practice all over the world, achieving encouraging results. Four years ago the Benedikt Award was inaugurated in Copenhagen to recognize the most brilliant therapeutic successes. It is curious to note that this year the award was conferred to Doctor Grammy, nephew on his mother's side of the oft-cited Judge Boodman. 

As to Doctor Benedikt, he killed himself with rat poison on April 26, 1986 (the remarkable coincidence with the disaster that happened on the same day at a Soviet nuclear power plant near Chernobyl was duly noted). Before taking his own life, Doctor Benedikt wrote a brief note in his own hand and with a meticulous slowness easily intuited from the almost infantile neatness of his script. We publish here for the first time its full text: "The garage key is in the kitchen, in the second drawer to the right. Give my best to Mrs. Podder and thank her for the gardenias. My telephone number is 4423-8781. My first name is Benedict. Chim chiminey chim chiminey chim chim cheree. You can all kiss my ass. Kiss my ass, kiss my ass, kiss my ass. Living is chaotic. Dying will be as easy as drinking a glass of water." 

Read Alessandro Baricco’s “The Boodman Syndrome” translated by Stiliana Milkova in the print edition of The Arkansas International 7.

“The Boodman Syndrome” by Alessandro Baricco. Copyright © 1997 by Alessandro Baricco, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.



Alessandro Baricco is one of Italy's bestselling and most critically acclaimed authors. His works translated into English include Silk (1997, 2007), Ocean Sea (1999), City (2002), Without Blood (2004), An Iliad (2006), Emmaus (2012), Mr. Gwyn (2014), and The Young Bride (2016). His most recent publication is The Game (2018). He lives in his native Turin. 

Stiliana Milkova is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College. She has published extensively on contemporary Italian writer Elena Ferrante, on Russian and Bulgarian literatures, and on literature and the visual arts. Her translations from Italian include works by Anita Raja, Antonio Tabucchi, Dario Voltolini, and Andrea Raos. She is the editor of Reading in Translation (readingintranslation.com), an online journal dedicated to reviewing translated literature.