At sixteen, Abdias had already established himself as Walkerville’s most sought after psychologist. Of course, he couldn’t legally call himself one. His embittered rivals preferred terms like “witch doctor,” “charlatan,” and “fraud” among others that were more hateful.
One afternoon, a balding overweight man of forty paced in Abdias’ garage which served as a waiting room. Scott was oblivious to how he alarmed the other people by pacing and making angry faces.
An old black man (Abdias’ dad) eventually led Scott to the dining room inside the house. Abdias was sitting at the table wearing a T shirt and jeans. Scott had expected to see a very thin bookish kid. Instead, the young man before him was very large and muscular.
“Have a seat Scott,” said Abdias as if they had already met.
Scott’s parents had forced him into this appointment by threatening to kick him out of the house. If that was not humiliating enough, he was now face to face with a teenage “success” (and a son of Haitian refugees no less) while he, a forty year old white guy with a degree in economics, was a “failure”.
“Look, no offence,” said Scott as he took a seat “but unless you have a job for me this is a complete waste of time and money.”
“I don’t charge for this,” corrected Abdias. “People just pay what they think is fair and can afford.”
Scott looked pleasantly surprised for a moment but then sighed wearily and explained his problem.
Since finishing university, Scott had constantly been working hard yet moving backwards rather than forwards. His greatest workplace success was with an insurance company where he held on to an entry level clerical job for several years. Employers and co-workers found him weird and unpleasant. The way he talked to himself and made angry faces for no apparent reason was often described as “creepy”. The quality of his work, despite his effort, was not exceptional. He had trouble concentrating, so he was always the first targeted for dismissal. As he got older, he was treated even more ruthlessly. He was now working part time as a janitor in a factory.
He was too beaten down to feel humiliated by the work. In fact, he found it somewhat therapeutic. It was clear what was expected of him, and there were hardly ever people around to notice or care about his eccentricities. Unfortunately, Scott had just been threatened with dismissal again. The problem was that he had been asked to fill out a checklist at the end of his shift and he couldn’t do it. He had lost the ability to write.
“I can read just fine but I can’t write,” he explained to Abdias. “I noticed the first time I tried to fill out that goddamn checklist. I have a degree in economics but I can’t write. I can’t even write my name anymore.”
Scott had been seeing counselors and psychologists for years and found them totally useless. He could not have been more surprised by what Abdias was about to tell him:
“Your immediate problem is very easy to solve.”
“Quit before they fire me?” Scott replied.
“No. I want you to say ‘Mackandal saved!'”
Scott laughed very hard for the first time in years. He felt like the sanest person alive compared to Abdias.
Clearly unoffended, Abdias handed Scott some tissues so he could dry his eyes. He then insisted that Scott do as he had asked.
“Go on, say the words, Scott….’Mackandal saved!’”
“Mackandal saved” chuckled Scott. He felt good saying it but assumed that laughter had eased his sadness.
Abdias handed Scott a pen and paper. Scott proceeded to write down his own name. Trembling with astonishment, he wrote down random things on the paper delighting in the ability to write. He thanked Abdias warmly before leaving and, ignoring Abdias’ objections, paid more money than he could really afford.
Two weeks later, Scott was back in Abdias’s dining room explaining that the cure was wearing off at a very alarming rate. At first, uttering one “Mackandal saved” in the morning was all Scott needed to be able to write all day long. Then he required one in the morning and one at night. Now he had to mumble it constantly.
“Did you try screaming it?” Abdias asked.
Without a moment’s hesitation Scott screamed “Mackandal saved” at the top of his lungs. Abdias’ dad poked his head in the room to make sure everything was okay. His son calmly waved him away.
Screaming worked. Scott was relieved for a moment but then an obvious concern arose.
“What if that wears off too?” he asked ”I can’t be screaming all the time. I’ll lose my job and get put away.”
“Good point,” said Abdias.
“So what do I do?”
“Scott, you’ve never asked who Mackandal was.”
“Well, if that was important why didn’t you tell me?”
Abdias said nothing in response.
“Fine. Who was he?” Scott asked testily.
Abdias insisted that Scott use the computer in the living room to find out on his own. Scott poked around on the Internet then waited for Abdias to finish with another patient.
“How’d you make out?” Abdias asked Scott a while later.
Reading from some notes he had jotted down, Scott answered:
“Okay, Francois Mackandal, born in Africa sometime in the 1700s, burned alive in 1758 for leading a slave rebellion in Haiti, poisoned about 6000 people before he got caught….”
Abdias probed for more details but Scott’s knowledge was very sketchy. Abdias then pulled out a beaten up paperback book and handed it to Scott.
“The Black Jacobins – C.L.R. James” read Scott from the front cover.
“I’ve done all I can for you,” Abdias abruptly announced. “I can’t see you anymore.”
“What! That’s it? I thought you were different than the other shrinks.”
“I’m not a shrink.”
“You’re just sending me off with a book.”
“Everything you need is in there – and inside you. Good luck.”
Scott stormed out of the house without saying good-bye or leaving any money. However, he did take the book. In fact, he took it with him everywhere as if it were a talisman. He read the passages that mentioned Mackandal until he had them almost memorized word for word. Then he resolved to read and take detailed notes on the whole book. It felt like force feeding himself sawdust, but fear of losing his ability to write kept him motivated.
However, one day, near the end of the book, he read some words that seemed to jump off the page and attack him:
“How to make these future slaves accept slavery? Another gentleman proposed that they should be taught to read but not to write.”
Reflexively, Scott yelled “Mackandal saved” after he read that.
A spell that had been cast on him for most of his life, he realized, was irrevocably broken. He reread The Black Jacobins from start to finish – now savoring every word as he made connections from his life to the Haitian slave revolution. He read many other books about that revolution and much else.
He learned that “Mackandal saved” were the words exclaimed by Mackandal’s fellow slaves when he was executed. They believed that he had magically evaded death at the last moment and fooled his executioners.
Scott got fired from his job as a janitor – not for failing to fill out the checklist (he knew he would never lose the ability to write again) – but for trying to organize a union. His parents did not hold it that against him. They saw a very positive change in him though they still despaired at his inability to hold down a job. Scott no longer despaired. He helped his parents. When he didn’t have a job he cleaned houses or did yard work for cash under the table. When he did land work he immediately tried to unionize his workplace, so those jobs didn’t last very long.
One evening he was shocked to receive a phone call from Abdias. As soon as he heard his voice, Scott felt ashamed recalling how he had left without paying the last time they spoke, but Abdias didn’t want money. He wanted Scott to drop by his high school the next day to talk to a group of students.