Gloria Naylor’s ‘fictionalized memoir’ 1996 begins with the story of how the self-named protagonist Gloria first fell in love with reading as a child, thanks to a mother who specifically moved to the North to raise her kids because she, as a black woman, was not allowed inside the public libraries where she grew up in the South. Naylor writes, “The library became, to me, a sacred place that I used like a shrine, to read, to think, and to dream.” By the end of 1996, Gloria is back in the library, beginning to write 1996, telling herself, ‘If I could manage just one sentence a day, then I wasn't alone and I wasn't worthless.’
The story that leads Gloria to that desperate state begins with a simple conflict with a neighbor involving a garden and cat feces, escalating into accusations of antisemitism, and snowballing from there. Naylor alternates telling the story from Gloria’s first-person perspective to the third-person perspective of her angry neighbor’s brother, who happens to be the Assistant Deputy Director of the NSA, and who gets dragged into his sister’s feud with Gloria. Naylor goes on to chart increasing misunderstandings and misreadings that eventually lead to a full-on surveillance effort against her. She switches perspectives repeatedly between her first-person account to third-person narratives of various other characters who get involved in the operation against her.
This proves an effective means of illustrating the horrific excesses and violations of government security agencies. Plagued by an army of gangstalkers outside her home slamming car doors on a coordinated schedule, designed to rattle and derail her as she tries to write, Gloria asks, “Didn’t any of them, as individuals, question the insanity of all this? Or were they just blindly following orders?”
Naylor goes immediately from asking this to switching to a description of one of the participants in the operation, a 72-year-old Dachau survivor. “The only thing she is told is that there is a threat, and it's the only thing she needs to be told. She knows better than anyone what can happen if a threat is allowed to flower and grow.”
Then, Naylor switches to a description of a 27-year-old NSA operative who has been put in charge of the door-slamming operation, and who thinks that he might catch the attention of his superiors and be promoted by suggesting the innovation of throwing in a car alarm every twenty cars or so.
With this one short paragraph Naylor chillingly illustrates how hierarchical organizations delegate tasks such that their fulfillment becomes detached from the full picture of their intent, so that people do what they're told and do it to the best of their ability with only the earnest hope of keeping or advancing their careers, with no knowledge of the real repercussions of their actions.
And at the top are the people who care about their reputations the most. So they too are beholden to the hierarchy. Naylor carefully charts how Dick Simon, the Assistant Deputy Director of the NSA, slowly makes Gloria into his nemesis, beginning with his paranoid sister's minor complaints about Gloria, and escalating as Gloria continues to outsmart the NSA operatives' plans to mess with her. Simon can’t stand the idea that his colleagues or superiors will find out how much work has gone into this operation against someone he knows deep down is harmless, can’t face the idea of having made a mistake himself, so he digs himself deeper into battle with her, enraged that she could not only figure out what was going on and keep a cool head about it, but also convince her confidants to believe her. “At the crux of this new mess is her credibility. Someone believes her. So you go in a little deeper and give her things to talk about that would make her seem like a lunatic.”
At this point readers will likely veer off into two camps: those who believe what happens next really happened to some degree, and those who don’t. I am going to spoil the plot, because its revelations, if taken as truth, are too incredible not to talk about. The NSA, it is revealed, has technology to not only read peoples’ thoughts, but to implant thoughts in their heads, as if the thoughts are originating in their own minds. Even though I’ve spoiled the plot, it’s not as if you, reading these words, are taking what I’m saying as a real possibility. But with 1996, Naylor tells her story with such clear-headed precision, even citing and including an appendix featuring a lawsuit filed by a former NSA employee against the NSA confirming the existence of such technologies, that personally, I was left in tears by the end, awed at her courage in telling this story. All I can say is: read this short, fast-moving, riveting book yourself before you roll your eyes.
After all, don’t you think we should take for granted, at this point in history, that the intelligence agencies of the world must certainly have weapons and technologies beyond what we have ever been made aware of? Take, for example, the ‘heart attack gun,’ rumored to be what killed Naylor herself.
In a real-life example of someone’s talents being put to evil purposes against their knowledge, CIA recruit Mary Embree, originally hired as a secretary, was eventually tasked with finding a poison that was undetectable, especially one that would mimic a heart attack. She discovered there was one: shellfish poison. The CIA then developed a gun that would shoot the poison at a high speed into a person and melt, inducing a heart attack with no trace save for a tiny little red dot on their body. At a 1975 senate hearing, the gun itself was present. You can watch an interview with Embree and footage of the hearing here. “I think all of us became addicted to the danger, to the intrigue. It was living a fantasy, it was actually living a fantasy, and being on the inside. And it was very hard to leave,” Embree says of her time with the CIA. This echoes the declaration of one of Gloria’s torturers: “To be inside of someone's mind has to be the sexiest thing in the world.”
I believe Gloria Naylor. But the thing about this book is that whether you believe her or not, it's still remarkable. Either she survived harassment by the government using advanced classified technology and emerged with her sanity intact, to create a work of great literature, full of empathy, fearlessness and insight, or she survived an extreme bout of schizophrenia, and then, basically cured herself of it, through writing. This is the nefarious thing about psyops: no matter how articulately a person communicates what has happened to them, whether it’s gangstalking or actual mind-control, they will sound insane. I could ask, why is 1996 hard to buy online? Why was 1996 excluded from Naylor’s Wikipedia page until recently? Why did Naylor, who was a highly respected major author, winning the National Book Award for her first book, only receive mainstream coverage for 1996 from NPR, in a skeptical interview? But I sound like a conspiracy theorist.
If nothing else, knowing about these technologies, or even just considering them, can be a weapon in our own arsenals of defense against the forces that try to control our minds, whether they be direct and literal, or subliminal, cultural viruses.
See this excerpt in which Naylor describes the first attack against her mind, which I personally found relatable:
“I remember I was watching Mel Gibson's ‘Braveheart’ for the fifthteenth time when the first thought came to me: I am a bitch. It seemed to have just floated up from the bottom of my mind. It had nothing to do with what I was thinking because at that moment I wasn't thinking anything at all. I had been watching a particularly gory battle scene. I am the worst bitch in the world. I want to kill myself.”
Eventually, she goes to a psychiatrist to get medication to stop the thoughts. “A chemical imbalance. It was some sort of chemical imbalance in my brain that was bringing these thoughts,” she thinks. But in her case, of course, nothing works. Which also seems to be the case for many people with real mental health issues. 1996 made me wonder: what if we approached our mental problems like Gloria does, as outside invaders we have the power to fight, by seeing our inner demons as just that: demons, and not a part of us, demons who could be talked to, who could be written through? Because after all, who can say for sure that the voice telling you you’re a worthless shithead isn’t an NSA agent on the other side of the wall? 1996 should be required reading for all kids in schools. Imagine hearing a voice telling you to bring a gun to school and kill everyone, having read Naylor’s story. Imagine you believed in God and the voice told you it was God. If you were aware of these technologies, you might question whose voice it really was.
When the thought comes to my mind—which it doesn’t so much anymore, but still I expect it will—Maybe I should kill myself, I’m going to say out loud: “Fuck you CIA.” Because there’s really no way of knowing where the thought came from.