I Killed Hemingway
True, he had not killed him on his own. It’s not like he shot him or anything, but he had helped. He had been there, and he could have done something. Instead he did nothing and so, by omission, helped kill a legend, lent a hand in silencing an icon.
This is the confession of the psychiatric nurse that helped administer the last fatal electric shocks to Ernest Hemingway. More
July 6, 1961
What I dislike the most about electric shock is the smell. That, and the little sound it makes which I didn’t hear at first. What with the humming of the machine, the doctors talking, and the patient moaning and even screaming sometimes, it was hard to hear, but once I did, once I did hear this sound, distinct from all the other sounds in the room, now I hear it all the time, I can’t stop hearing it.
What this sound is, is a tiny sizzle—as if you were frying a very small egg in not much butter, or in hardly any oil, in a small pan—that’s the little sizzle the electrodes make where they meet the skin. Of course, it’s usually just the jelly frying, but sometimes, if the patient needs a lot of juice, or if the helmet slips a bit, the skin fries too and then it leaves little marks that stay a while before they go away, sometimes quite some time, and some I’ve seen are there to stay.
When the skin fries it makes a drier sound, a bit like lean bacon but not as loud of course, and not the same smell. Bacon in the pan smells just fine, but the electric smell, the smell of the electrodes sizzling the jelly or the skin, smells of burning—of tiny deaths.
They say it doesn’t smell, but that’s not true, it does. It smells of electricity searing through the skin, then through bone and into the brain. It smells of voltage. And of many little deaths, rushing in, anxious to get to him. And that is what I dislike the most, that smell of tiny deaths.
You can tell them, the little deaths. You can tell them by his face, by the arch of his spine and by the way he bites down on the bit. They’re in his grimace, those little deaths. They hurt him badly. It’s written all over him, and I don’t mean that as a pun or anything.
My name is John, and I work at Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s is part of the Mayo clinic here in Rochester. That’s in Minnesota, of course.
Let me tell you about the equipment, and how I fit in.
The machine itself looks a little like a modern radio. Something you might buy at Sears if you could afford it. It has a white metal front and white metal sides too. The back of it is black. It stands on four small, black, round rubber feet which are screwed into the bottom, at the corners, and it has an oak top. I know it is oak, for I asked. They showed me the manual, or maybe it was the brochure that came before they bought it, and not the manual, I don’t remember. It’s darker than oak though, the top, looks more like mahogany, I think, or teak even. But no, that’s what it said, it’s oak. An arrow pointing to it in the manual, or the brochure, said “oak top.”
One of my jobs is to clean it every day and to polish the oak top twice a week, which I do on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The front of the machine has a big dial which you turn clockwise, but not to find a good station, like a radio, it’s to increase the voltage. It starts at 100 volts at the lower left and goes all the way around to 500 volts at the lower right, almost full circle. We usually gave him 440, which is kind of high.
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