Toward the end of the 1960s, Luke Rhinehart worked as a psychoanalyst in New York and was bored stiff. He lived in a pretty apartment with a nice view. He practised yoga, read books on Zen, dreamed vaguely of joining a commune but did not dare. As a therapist, he was resolutely nondirective. If a patient who still had not lost his virginity was plagued by sadistic impulses and said on Rhinehart’s couch that he would like to rape and kill a little girl, his professional ethics obliged him to repeat with a calm voice: “You’d like to rape and kill a little girl?” No judgment. But what he wanted to say was: “Well, go ahead, then! If what really turns you on is raping and killing a little girl, then stop boring me with this fantasy. Do it!”
He checked himself before coming out with such monstrosities, but they obsessed him more and more. His own fantasies were nothing extreme – not enough to get him sent to prison – but like everyone else, he stopped himself going through with them. What Luke would have liked, for example, was to sleep with Arlene, the wife of his colleague Jake Ecstein, who lived across the landing. But as a faithful husband, he let the idea simmer away in the back of his mind.
So life plods on, calm and dreary, until one night after a dinner party, when he has had a little too much to drink. Rhinehart sees a dice lying on the carpet, a banal playing dice, and gets the idea of throwing it and acting on its instructions. He says to himself: “If it lands on a number from two to six, I’ll do what I would have done anyway: bring the dirty glasses back to the kitchen, brush my teeth, take a double aspirin, go to bed beside my sleeping wife, and maybe masturbate discreetly thinking of Arlene. But if I roll a one, I’ll do what I really want to do: I know Arlene’s at home alone tonight, so I’ll go across the hall, knock on her door and sleep with her.”
The dice lands on one. Rhinehart hesitates, feeling vaguely that he is standing on a threshold: if he crosses it, his life could change. But it is not his decision, it is the dice’s, so he obeys. Arlene opens the door in a negligee; she is surprised but not put out. When Rhinehart comes back home two extremely pleasant hours later, he realises that he has changed. He did something he wouldn’t normally do.
From now on, he always consults the dice. Since it has six sides, he gives it six options. The first is to do what he has always done. The five others depart more or less distinctly from this routine. Once it has been subjected to the dice, even the most anodyne choice – that of a film, a restaurant – opens a vast array of possibilities for putting your routine behind you.
His choices soon become more audacious. Going somewhere he would never go, getting to know people he would otherwise never meet. He pushes his patients to leave their families and jobs, to change their political and sexual orientations. His reputation suffers, but Rhinehart does not care. What he likes, now, is doing the exact opposite of what he would normally do: putting salt in his coffee, jogging in a tuxedo, going to work in shorts, pissing in the flowerpots, walking backward, sleeping under his bed. His wife finds him strange, but he says it is a psychological experiment, and she lets herself be lulled into believing it. Until the day he gets the idea of initiating his children.
One weekend when their mother is not there, Rhinehart gets his little boy and girl to play this apparently innocent game: you write six things you would like to do on a piece of paper, and the dice chooses one of them. It all goes well at the start: they eat ice cream, go to the zoo. Then his son becomes bolder and says that one thing he would like to do is go beat up a boy who bugs him at school. “OK, write it down,” Rhinehart says, and that is what the dice rolls. The boy thinks his father won’t make him go through with it, but his dad says: “Go ahead.” The boy goes to his friend’s place, hits him several times, and comes back to the house with his eyes shining and asks: “Where are the dice, Dad?”
That makes Rhinehart stop and think: if his son so naturally adopts this way of being, it is because he is not yet completely warped by the absurd notion that it is good for children to develop a coherent character. What if they were brought up differently, giving pride of place to contradiction, multiplicity and relentless change? Luke seriously thinks of freeing his son from the dismal tyranny of the ego and making him the first man entirely subject to chance. Then his wife returns and discovers what has been going on. Not finding it funny in the least, she leaves Rhinehart and takes the children with her.
Next, it is his profession that Rhinehart abandons, after disgracing himself (on the dice’s instructions) at an evening with the cream of New York psychoanalysts. With no family, work or personal ties, he is free to move from transgression to transgression. Eventually, the day comes when the dice pushes him to do things that he had not only never dared to do, but didn’t want to do, because they ran counter to his tastes, his desires, his whole personality. But that’s just it: the personality – the miserable, petty personality – is the enemy to be done away with, the conditioning that you have to free yourself from.
Sooner or later, he could not avoid writing “murder” on his list of options. When the dice orders him to do it, Rhinehart is forced to draw up a list of six potential victims, in which he courageously includes his two children. Luckily for him, he is spared that particular ordeal: the dice simply demands that he kill one of his former patients.
If you believe his autobiography, he went through with it, although certain commentators doubt it. What does seem certain is that having ruined his career, his family life and his reputation, Rhinehart was ready to become a prophet, and that is what he did. In these years when the most paradoxical therapies flourished from one side of the US to the other, a guru with a dice had every chance of attracting followers. So he establishes the Centers for Experiments in Totally Random Environments, where you enrol of your own free will but undertake not to leave until the experiment is over. In time, students are expected to commit to roleplays of varying durations: you list six personality types and for 10 minutes, an hour, a day, a week, a month, or a year, adopt the one that the dice decides.
Some of the followers of dice therapy went insane. Others died or ended up in prison. Some, it seems, reached a state of nirvana. During their short existence, Rhinehart’s centres became as scandalous as Timothy Leary’s communities: a school of chaos posing as serious a threat to civilisation as communism or the satanism of Charles Manson, as the conservative newspapers had it. The end of the adventure is shrouded in obscurity. It is said that Rhinehart was arrested by the FBI, that he spent 20 years in a psychiatric hospital. Or that he died. Or that he never existed at all.
Everything I have just told comes from a book, The Dice Man, published in the US in 1971 and translated into French the following year. I was 16 when I discovered it, as a terribly timid adolescent with long hair, an afghan jacket and little round glasses. For a while, I walked around with a dice in my pocket, counting on it to give me the self-confidence I lacked with girls. (Not that it worked too well.) The Dice Man is the kind of book that not only pleases readers but also gives them a set of rules for life: a manual for subversion.
It was not clear whether the book was fiction or autobiography, but its author, Luke Rhinehart, had the same name as his hero and, like him, he was a psychiatrist. According to the back cover, he lived in Majorca – seemingly the ideal refuge for a prophet at the end of his tether, who has just managed to escape from his shipwrecked community of maniacs. The years passed, The Dice Man remained the object of a minor but persistent cult, and each time I met someone who had read it (almost always a pothead, and often a follower of the I Ching), the same questions came up: what was true in the book? Who was Luke Rhinehart? What had become of him?
After The Dice Man came up in conversation a little while back, I started to wonder once again what had become of Luke Rhinehart. In an hour online, of course, I learned more about Rhinehart than I had in 30 years of idle conjecture.
His real name is George Cockcroft, and though no longer young, he is alive. He has written other books, but none as successful as The Dice Man, which almost 50 years after it came out is still a cult classic. Dozens of sites are dedicated to it, and just as many legends circulate about it. Ten times it was almost adapted for the cinema, but mysteriously the project never came about. Communities of followers of the dice still exist all over the world. As for the mythical author, he lives as a recluse on a remote farm in upstate New York. One particular photo of him makes the rounds: it shows a sarcastic, gaunt face under a stetson. I imagine Luke Rhinehart as something like Carlos Castaneda, William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon rolled into one: an icon of the most radical subversion, transformed into an invisible man. I decide that I must meet him.
One detail should have warned me that my initial ideas were not quite right: my invisible man has his own website, through which I was able to contact him. He answered my message in less than an hour, with surprising good grace for a recluse. I wanted to come from France to interview him? What a good idea! When I filled him in on the reason for my visit, he told me that he hoped he was not going to disappoint me: on my search for Luke Rhinehart I was going to meet George Cockcroft, and George Cockcroft, in his own words, was an old fart. I took this warning as false modesty.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been in contact with some followers of the dice on the internet, and on my way through New York I invite one to dinner. Ron is 30, introduces himself as a conceptual artist and urban pirate, and heads a community of dice people who meet every month for what, under all the new-age jargon, seems to be good old group sex, where the dice above all decides who will be on top, who on the bottom and so on. No such thing is planned for the days when I will be there, I learn a little to my regret, but the urban pirate appears impressed by my boldness: knocking on Luke Rhinehart’s door! Pulling on the tiger’s whiskers! That’s really venturing into the dark side of the Force. I answer that to judge by the author’s messages, he seems like a nice old guy. Ron looks at me pensively, with a touch of pity: “A nice old guy … Sure, why not? Maybe the dice ordered him to play that role for you. But don’t forget that a dice has six sides. He’s showing you one, you don’t know what’s behind the other five, or when he’ll decide to reveal them … ”
The man waiting for me when I arrive in Hudson in upstate New York is wearing the same Stetson as he is in that photograph. He has the same jagged features, the same faded blue eyes and the same slightly sardonic smile. He is tall and has a bit of a slouch; you could even find him sinister, but when I hold out my hand, he gives me a big hug, kisses me on both cheeks as if I were his son and introduces me to his wife, Ann, who is just as warm and welcoming as he is.
We all pile into their old station wagon, and as we drive past the orchards and through the woods, I realise that this landscape reminds me of one of my favourite novels: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. My hosts are enchanted: it is one of their favourites as well, and George has often taught it to his students.
To his students? He is not a psychiatrist, or a psychoanalyst?
“Psychiatrist? Psychoanalyst?” George repeats, as surprised as if I had said cosmonaut. No, he was never a psychiatrist, he has been a college English teacher all his life.
Really? But on the cover of his book …
George shrugs as if to say, editors, journalists, you know, there is almost nothing they won’t write.
From Hudson we drive for about an hour; he handles the wheel with an abruptness that contrasts with his good humour and makes his wife laugh. It is moving to see how the two love each other, and when Ann tells me in passing that they have been married for 50 years, I am not surprised.
They live in an old farmhouse with a yard that slopes down to a duck pond. They have three grown boys, two of whom live nearby. One is a carpenter and the other is a housepainter; the third still lives at home. He is schizophrenic, Ann tells me matter-of-factly; he is doing fine at the moment, but I shouldn’t worry if I hear him speaking a bit loudly in his room, which is right beside the guest room where I will be staying. (I invited myself for the weekend, but I get the feeling that if I wanted to settle in for a week or a month, it wouldn’t be a problem.)
Ann serves us tea, and George and I take our mugs out on to the terrace for the interview. He has swapped his Stetson for a baseball cap, and I ask him to tell me about his life. He starts from the beginning.
He was born in 1932 in Albany, just a few miles from where he now lives and where, in all likelihood, he will die. Semi-rural middle-class, hit hard by the Depression, in spite of which he looks back on a more or less happy childhood and youth. Good at maths, a bit of an egghead and not adventurous in the least, he reached 20 without having felt the slightest creative urge. At college he began studying psychology, but found it tedious and instead decided it was better to read novels.
While working night shifts as an intern in a hospital on Long Island, he devoured Mark Twain, Herman Melville and the great 19th-century Russian writers. He started working on a novel that took place in a psychiatric hospital. The hero is a young man who has been interned because he thinks he is Jesus, and among the hospital staff is a doctor named Luke Rhinehart, who practises dice therapy. The dice was a quirk the young George picked up in college. He and his friends used it on Saturdays to decide what they were going to do that night. Sometimes, they dared each other to do stuff: hop around the block on one leg, ring a neighbour’s doorbell, nothing too mischievous. When I ask, hopefully, whether he pushed these experiences further as an adult, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles apologetically because he can tell that I would like something a little spicier.
“No,” he admits. “All I asked the dice was, for example, if I’d had enough of working: do I stay at my desk for another hour? Or two hours? Or do I go for a walk right away?”
“What are you talking about?” says Ann, who has come on to the terrace to offer us some blueberry crumble. “Don’t you remember at least one important decision that the dice made you take?”
He laughs, so does she, and he tells me that he had noticed an attractive nurse at the hospital, but was shy and didn’t dare talk to her. The dice made him do it: he drove her home, took her to church, but the church was closed, so he invited her to play tennis. Of course, the attractive nurse was Ann.
Ten years later they had three little boys, and George, who had become an English teacher, applied for a job at the American school in Mallorca. This expatriation is the big adventure of their lives. Although Mallorca in the 1960s was associated with psychedelia and wild living, George didn’t take drugs, was faithful to his wife, and mostly just hung around with other teachers like himself. Still, he didn’t completely escape the zeitgeist. He started to read books on psychoanalysis, antipsychiatry, oriental mysticism, Zen – all aspects of 1960s counterculture, whose grand idea was that we are conditioned, and that we must free ourselves from this conditioning. Influenced by this reading, he suddenly became aware of the revolutionary potential of something he had thought of as no more than a simple game, and had more or less given up since his adolescence. Although he had also long ago given up on the idea of writing books, he got fired up about what would become The Dice Man. He spent four years writing it, supported faithfully by his wife.
Much to their surprise, an editor paid good money for the book, and the rights were sold to Paramount. Then The Dice Man started to live its erratic, unpredictable life: success in Europe but not in the US, regular new editions and, eventually, cult status. There were disappointments: for one obscure reason or another the film was never made, and none of his other books had the same success. But the rights from The Dice Man allowed them to buy this beautiful house, and to age with dignity – George writing, Ann painting, both of them caring for their son with schizophrenia.
The day I visited was Mother’s Day, and the two other boys came over to celebrate it with their parents. They are good American kids: Budweiser drinkers, trout fishers, wearers of checkered shirts. Later, their brother came out of his room for a short while. All three told Ann she was “a terrific mom”. After dinner, we finished the evening at the house of one of their sons, also in the middle of the countryside. He has an outdoor jacuzzi, in which George and I continued to drink while looking up at the stars, with the result that I don’t quite remember how I made it back to my room.
It is strange how much you can project on to a photograph. The one of Luke Rhinehart made me imagine a whole novel: a dangerous, sulphurous life filled with excesses, transgressions and ruptures. Bordellos in Mexico, communities of madmen in the Nevada desert, delirious, mind-expanding experiences. And this face, the same face with strong bones and eyes of steel, is in fact that of an adorable old man who is approaching the end of a sweet, comfortable life with his adorable wife, a man whose only departure from the norm was to have written this alarming book, and who in his old age must softly, gently explain to people who come to see him that you must not confuse it with him, and that he is simply a novelist.
Really? But what did I know about the reality? I remembered the warning of Ron, the urban pirate. What you see, the adorable old man, is just one side of the dice. It is the side that the dice ordered him to show you, but at least five others are in reserve.
At breakfast I could see that George was worried he had disappointed me. So he took me kayaking on a lake, and as our kayaks skimmed slowly over the calm water, he told me the stories of some of his disciples. What he was content merely to imagine, others did for real. Take the tycoon Richard Branson. He used to say that all of his choices in business and in life had been taken thanks to the dice, influenced by Luke Rhinehart.
Then there was the British gonzo journalist Ben Marshall who, in the 1990s, took on an assignment in which he would follow Rhinehart’s example for three months: let all of your decisions be taken by the dice and write about what happens. The journalist took the assignment seriously enough, it seems, to trash his love life and his professional life, and to disappear without a trace for several months. “A funny guy, that Ben,” George tells me. “You can see him in Diceworld, a documentary made by an English TV channel in 1999.”
I had never heard of this documentary and ask if George has a copy we can watch. All of a sudden he looks embarrassed. He says it is not great, and he is not sure he even has it. But I insist, and in no time we are sitting on the living room couch in front of the big TV and the film starts. It is true, it is not great. But it does show Marshall, who volunteered to gamble his life on the dice and who explains convincingly how he stopped before he went mad, because the dice can drive you mad.
And lo and behold, whom do we see next? His inspiration, our friend George – or rather, our friend Luke, as he was 15 years ago: the Stetson, the gaunt face, the steely eyes, handsome, but not at all like the doting grandfather I know. In a low, insinuating, hypnotic voice, he says into the camera: “You lead a dull life, a life of slavery, a life that doesn’t satisfy you, but there’s a way to get out of it. This way is the dice. Let yourself go, submit yourself to it, and you’ll see, your life will change, you’ll become someone you can’t even imagine.”
Saying this, he looks like a televangelist, the head of a sect filmed just before his followers commit mass suicide. He is frightening. I turn to look at the person beside me on the couch, the nice pensioner in slippers holding his mug of herbal tea. He gives me an embarrassed, apologetic smile and says that the Luke in this film is not him. He, George, wasn’t so keen on it, but the director insisted.
Ann, who can hear us from the kitchen, laughs gaily. “You’re watching the film where you play the spook?”
He laughs, too, beside me on the couch. Nevertheless, when I see him on the screen, I find him awfully convincing.
I met other followers of the dice over the internet: one in Salt Lake City, one in Munich, one in Madrid. All men. In Madrid, Oscar Cuadrado, who came to meet me at the airport, is young, a bit pudgy, and nice. On the way to his place in his 4×4, he made what was by now a familiar joke: “I may look nice, but you never know what the dice’s got in store for tonight: maybe I’m a serial killer and you’ll find yourself chained to my basement wall.”
He lives in a stylish house in the suburbs, together with his wife and daughter, and without further ado we sat at a lawn table and consulted the dice: do we have a drink right away, or do we wait until we have done the interview? Three sides for a drink, three against: we could just as well have tossed a coin. The answer: right away. Now, do we drink beer, table wine or the bottle that Cuadrado’s saving for his daughter’s 18th birthday? Two sides for the beer, three for the table wine, and just one for the special bottle, because although he would open it willingly – you don’t refuse the dice – still … Finally, it is over a glass of table wine that he explains to me how he uses the dice.
Like everyone, Cuadrado has heard of people who have ruined their lives by setting extreme conditions such as going halfway around the world and never coming back, having sex with animals or stabbing someone at random in a crowded train station in India. Stories like that circulate on all sites dedicated to the dice – including the one he has been managing for the past 10 years – but they don’t interest him. He recommends using it in a way that makes life more fun and surprising.
He has three rules. The first is to always obey. But obeying the dice is ultimately obeying yourself, since you set your options. Hence the second rule, concerning the decisive moment when you list the six possibilities. You have to examine yourself and try to find out what you want. It is a spiritual exercise, aimed both at getting to know yourself and getting a better grasp of the infinite possibilities that reality offers. The options you select have to be pleasant, but at least one – the third – has to be something you would not normally do. It has to make you overcome resistance and break with habit. When you throw the dice, your desire has to be tinged with fear.
Ever since he discovered the Spanish translation of The Dice Man when he was 17, this sort of small challenge has been second nature to Cuadrado. Like his father, he is a tax lawyer, but thanks to the dice he has also become a wine importer, a webmaster, a Go teacher, a fan of Iceland and the publisher of the Mauritian poet Malcolm de Chazal. How’s that? Well, first he thought it would be good to get to know a foreign country. Six continents, six options. The dice fell on Europe, then, narrowing the choices, on Iceland. Fine. Now, how should he visit it: on foot, by car, hitchhiking, by boat, by bike or on a skateboard? It landed on bike. The only problem: he had never ridden one before. So he learned, toured Iceland by bike, and even went back with the young woman who would become his wife. On this trip the dice got him to make the proposal, which was accepted.
For their honeymoon, the young couple travelled to Mauritius – a present from his parents-in-law, not the dice. But once there, Cuadrado made up for it. He looked around for something to read, an author with something to do with Mauritius. The dice chose the poet Malcolm de Chazal. Bingo: he fell completely in love with De Chazal, a creole surrealist whom the artist André Breton was crazy about. Seeing that De Chazal had not been translated into Spanish, when Cuadrado got back from his honeymoon he founded a publishing company to change that. He knew nothing about publishing, no more than he had known about bike riding. But when he pulls the books from his shelf, I can understand why he is proud: they are magnificent. He sums up: “It’s through Luke that I discovered Malcolm, and now it’s thanks to him that I’ve met you. Funny, isn’t it?”
It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead.
Luke didn’t fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life’s unknowns, like travelling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. He felt confident that death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He promised to report back as soon as he could and let us know what he had found. He was confident we would all get a good chuckle out of it. However, at this point we still haven’t heard word.
Some of you have asked about Luke’s last days. They were no different from days from any week over the last several decades. People who came to see him on the basis of his books were sometimes discouraged to discover how attached he was to his habits. Even when he threw the dice, it was always to do more or less the same things.
“It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,” he said, “but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t. They don’t like who they are. It’s with them in mind that I wrote all those things about the dice. But I’m fine as I am.”
Luke’s wife, Ann, was with him to the end.
When I received this email, I was surprised, then sad, then moved. Since I had their number, I called Ann to express my condolences. When she picked up the phone, she was as cordial as ever, but she sounded a bit hurried and said she would pass me on to George. I stuttered something about the email I had just received, and she answered like someone who was used to this sort of little misunderstanding: “Oh, the email! Of course … But don’t worry: it’s not George who died, it’s Luke.”
When he got on the line, George confirmed: “Yeah, I was getting a little tired of Luke. I’m getting older, you know. I still love life: seeing what the weather’s like when I look out the window in the morning, doing the gardening, making love, going kayaking, but I am less interested in my career, and my career was basically Luke. I wrote that letter for Ann to send it to my correspondents when I died. I kept it in a file for two years, and one day I decided to send it.”
I asked him two more questions. The first: before sending this email, did he throw the dice?
“Oh, no, that didn’t even occur to me,” said George. “The dice can be useful when you don’t know what you want. But when you know, what use is it?”
Second question: how did his correspondents take the news?
He gave his mischievous little laugh. “Well, a few thought it was in bad taste. Aside from them, some thought: ‘That’s George!’ And others: ‘That’s Luke!’
“And you, what do you think?”
This is an abridged version of “In Search of the Dice Man”, an essay from a new collection 97,196 Words by Emmanuel Carrère, published by Bodley Head on 14 November and available at guardianbookshop.com
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