This Writer's Life

Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis, and Letters from a Dead Grandmother


One day during our most recent family vacation, my son pulled The Exegesis, by Philip K. Dick, off the shelf of a bookstore in Santa Cruz. This strange and visionary book became the unlikely diving board for my latest project, a book based on letters my maternal grandmother wrote in Germany during World War II.

The Exegesis dominated our conversations for much of our vacation. Curiosity about Dick led me to a biography of him, written by his third wife Anne. In the book, Anne mentions Philip working on his novel, The Man in the High Castle, a story that speculates what the world would be like if the Allies had lost World War II.

This took place during the first weeks of July. By coincidence, in the middle of the month, my mother sent me a package containing letters her German mother had written to a friend during World War II, from 1940-1944. My mother’s accompanying note said: “I feel there is enough material to write a book.”

In early August, I got back to the letters after teaching summer camp at Media Poetry Studio. Copies of copies, the letters, written in German, were blurry and hard to read. I puzzled over them, trying to make out a word or two amid the unfamiliar handwriting. In frustration I turned the pages until a sentence leaped out at me: “Aber das schlimmste von allem war das Alleinsein des Nachts während der Fliegerangriffe“ (“But worst of all was being alone at night during air raids”). Into my head popped the stories my mother had told me, stories of night after night in cellars and bomb shelters, of the terrifying events that took place before she was eight years old, of a childhood disrupted by war.

I made a decision then. What had started with an accidental encounter with The Exegesis was now a book project, one that will no doubt absorb me for the next few years. My mother was right: there is enough in her mother’s letters for a book. There are stories of ordinary heroism and extraordinary luck in my grandmother’s slightly sloppy handwriting. It’s up to me to put it together.

Were the events that started in the Santa Cruz bookstore and ended with my grandmother’s letters a coincidence? Or were they the guidance of some unseen hand? I’m not sure, but I have felt guided, as I gain more understanding of the letters, from slow gleanings to sudden insights. Another sentence that appeared, fully formed, from the faded pages: “Hast Du noch Hemdchen und Jäckchen, die Du mir für einige Monate leihen kannst?“ (“Do you still have little shirts and jackets to lend me for a few months?”)

The Exegesis lends itself well to bibliomancy, the opening of a (usually sacred) book to a random page and choosing a line for divination. Right now, I opened the book to page 321 and landed on:

[14:22] It is almost as if the individual human has acted as an amplifying instrument for an initially very faint signal.

I’ll let you know how I progress in making the signals stronger.

2 replies »

  1. That’s wonderful, Erica. You inspire me. There’s been times I’ve come upon interesting ideas, but have never quite been able to follow up because of something else tugging at my time. One thing, however, about opening a page at random was familiar to me since I had often done that as a child, to see how my day would go. My Dad had this great little book on his shelf, and I brought it with me when I came to the States. I’ve written a poem about that, and I guess I’ll be hunting it down come daybreak. I’ll be looking forward to your project, Erica. Best!

    • Hey Pushpa, thanks so much for your encouragement and for sharing your story. Philip K. Dick used the I Ching for daily guidance. I’ll be mining The Exegesis for more inspiration as the project unfolds. Stay tuned!

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