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Michael Lloyd Healer (Mike)

Died: June 17, 1971

Mike was the beat poet of our class. He came to us from St. Louis Country Day School, son of Samuel Lloyd and Mary Downs Healer. He was a member of Pierson, where he participated in Pierson Players, and also Fence Club and Haunt Club. Many friends recall that as early as freshman year Michael was devoted to intellectual discussions, music, and ingestion of interesting substances. Mike loved the beat poets, and set out to be a writer, starting with his English intensive major at Yale.

Following Yale, Mike was accepted as a graduate fellow and M.A. candidate in the creative writing program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, under Richard Kim. For a couple of years everything went well. He married long-time girl friend Carol Resor when she graduated from Vassar in 1967, and they set up house in Shutesbury near Amherst. Michael was at the peak of his creative powers, working on a novel. At a Nantucket literary event in the summer of 1968, he was praised as one of the best dialog writers in the country. Both his writing and work as a TA at Amherst seemed to be going well.

Then the wheels came off the bus. Increasingly disillusioned by the war, Mike immersed himself deeper and deeper into the 60s lifestyle, including alcohol and other accompanying substances. He essentially abandoned writing and his fellowship, supposedly for new interests in music and photography. His behavior became increasingly bizarre as his substance use increased. Several efforts at psychiatric treatment failed to address what those closest to Michael at the time now see as addictive disease and chemical dependency. While now recognized as a brain disorder, addiction at the time was often seen as a character defect or a symptom of something else. In any case, Michael’s constitution was not able to sustain the lifestyle he had chosen, and for personal and cultural reasons he was never able to get effective treatment for his disorder.

By 1970 Mike and Carol were divorced. He had returned briefly to California, where his mother was living, which only intensified his lifestyle and led to some minor drug offenses and further unsuccessful psychiatric treatment. He returned east, essentially homeless, often staying for a time with friends, including Yale classmates, until they had to tell him it was time to move on. After one such episode he was “on the road” living rough and ended up in Providence. No one is quite sure why. He went to sleep in a car not his own, which, that night, was set on fire by the girlfriend of the owner, who claimed she did not know anyone was sleeping in the back. Michael succumbed to asphyxiation and died June 17, 1971. Because of some identification stolen from a classmate, there was originally some confusion about identity, but that was cleared up and the body identified. Addiction is a terrible disease that cost us, in a tragedy typical of the times, a soulful class member, and who knows what great literary works that might have been.

Robert Anderson remembers:

When I was doing research for a manuscript I was working on, THE CLASS OF ’66, I had occasion to meet with the investigating officer for Mike Healer’s death in Providence. He showed me the official file, including pictures. I later wrote:

One of the first impressions I had was that those large black-and-white photographs were like the photographs I have of Operation Medina [in the Vietnam War], only instead of a mountainous-jungle setting it was the inside of a burned-out car…and a body…and a face… In one photo I could see he was still in a kind of fetal position in the back seat; it looked as if he had died in his sleep; it was not a position that indicated struggle. Then there was a full head shot: his eyes were open a tiny bit; his mouth was open, revealing a chipped tooth in front, his teeth looking very white. What did those nearly closed eyes remind me of? They commanded my attention. I kept staring at them, trying to think, but no metaphor came to mind…

I did not show my wife the pictures of Healer nor did I intend ever to show them to her nor to Carol nor even tell Carol about them. I thought about whether it would be appropriate to include them in the book, if it ever were to be published. They were important, I knew, but it seemed to me important to me alone: those moments when I first looked at them and felt not only a pity but also a closeness to Mike, a sharing in his mortality, our common mortality, that I had not felt before: a fear. When we are taught about Greek tragedy, the concept of catharsis, our teachers tell us, is central: sharing the tragic hero’s fate in a process of identification, followed by a cleansing, a “release from tension.” The art of the anonymous police photographer who had been called to duty at that death scene had had such a cathartic effect on me but not in a public way as a member of an audience but very much in private, sitting by myself in a policeman’s office. And it was not, I thought, that I was being stingy with what I had found; rather that these pictures, these many years later, had been meant for me and me alone.

It was some time later that it came to me, what that black-and-white photograph of Mike Healer’s face had reminded me of: a mask, the kind that might have been made in Africa or the Americas or Oceania, the kind that is labeled “primitive” and has inspired certain Western artists but whose real meaning is not available to us. At that same moment I knew what I wanted to do with that photograph: include it in the book after all but not as is, rather find an artist — Native American? one who lives in Providence? — who could transform that image into another one: infuse it with meaning the way a mask-maker puts meaning into material.