Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
I must now go a long way…
I must face a fight that I have not faced before.
And I must go on a road that I do not know.
—Gilgamesh, Tablet III, 2100 B.C.
On the afternoon of January 12, 1967, James Bedford stopped breathing. As for whether he’s dead and gone or not, that’s a matter of debate. Because, thirty-nine years later, I was staring at the metal canister in which he was awaiting resurrection.
Among those searching for immortality, Bedford is somewhat of a hero: the first frozen man. A psychologist and author, Bedford tried to cheat death by having himself frozen through an experimental procedure known as cryonic suspension. Some time in the future, after a cure for his kidney cancer was found, he hoped to be thawed and emerge, the oldest man alive. Until then, he will remain at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, floating in liquid nitrogen.
I was here with Craig, who’d brought me to an open house at the facility to try to convince me to join him in cold purgatory. He didn’t want to wake up in the future alone. And though I’d come reluctantly, there was a man here who would give me the key I needed to escape America. A man I didn’t particularly care for. A man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an image of the World Trade Center in flames.
A slender woman in her midtwenties with long, dyed red hair and large, ratlike front teeth wiped some sort of yellow mucus onto her lab coat as she brought Craig and me to the operating room.
“If the patient has opted for neurosuspension,” she explained, “this is where we remove the head.”
“Instead of getting a second passport, just get frozen with me,” Craig pressed as the woman showed us a travel case containing a pump the Alcor transport team uses to replace a patient’s blood with organ preservation solution. “We’ll come back when science has solved the problem of death and people have outgrown old-fashioned ideas like nationality and religion.”
Craig clearly was not a Fliesian. Fliesians don’t believe in better times. They believe that all times are the same—only the names and faces change.
“There are too many unknowns,” I told him. “What if the company goes bankrupt and the bank sells everyone at an auction?” Now the rat-faced woman was demonstrating the process of vitrification, in which the body’s vital organs are frozen not into ice, which forms crystals that damage the cells, but into a glass-like substance. “What if your brain is stuck the whole time in some horrible nightmare? Or, even worse, if it’s actually awake inside one of those canisters?”
Craig had a well-reasoned answer for everything. Yet as much as I’d like to live forever, I don’t like the idea of dying during the in-between period. If the Mujahideen forces ever invaded, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation is probably one of the first western abominations they’d burn to the ground.
When the lab tour ended, Craig and I were ushered into a parking lot outside the building, where the Alcor staff had set up a makeshift picnic for prospective customers. Übernerds, aged hippies, and half-mad scientists sat at folding tables, eating cheeseburgers. Most were wearing silver bracelets that instructed anyone who found them dead to “rush Heparin and do CPR while cooling with ice to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. No autopsy or embalming.” They seemed like poor ambassadors to the future.
At a table in the center of the parking lot, a man with a natty beard trailing halfway down his chest was holding court. He talked rapidly, as if by squeezing twice as many words into each second, he’d double his lifespan.
His name was Aubrey de Grey, and he was a hero to these people. In much the same way scientists have found cures for anthrax and syphilis, he had been working to find a cure for a condition that kills some 100,000 people a day: aging. Just the month before, he’d received a $3 million-plus donation from Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal.
“It’s about eliminating the relationship between how old you are and how likely you are to die,” he was telling a man and a woman who looked like they could use his help. The woman had long brown hair with strands of gray and was wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt advocating hemp use. The man had shaggy brown-gray hair, a beard that rivaled de Grey’s, and a shirt with the words INSIDE JOB printed beneath a photo of the World Trade Center in flames.
“Within our lifetime,” de Grey continued, “I’m fairly certain it will be possible to live thirty extra years.”
Of course, that’s if you die of not-too-unnatural causes. If you perish in a fire or a plane crash or a bombing, no amount of life-extension therapy and cryonic preservation will save you.
“You’re wasting your time with these people,” the man in the Twin Towers shirt said, turning to face Craig and I. He scratched the side of his long, porous face with the automatic movements of a dog irritated by fleas. “They’re more worried about what they’re going to do after they die than what they’re doing with this life.”
I looked at his wrist. There was no bracelet. His wife, also braceletless, was taking twist-ties off three baggies in front of her. One contained baby carrots; the second a thick brown bar that seemed barely digestible; and the third a stick of some sort of butter substitute. In her lap was a canvas carrier containing a small, nervous dog.
“There are more important things to worry about,” the man continued, scratching again. “I’m wearing this shirt to send a message: 9/11 was absolutely controlled demolition.” His wife nodded in agreement as she pulled a baby carrot out of a baggie and began spreading congealed buttery substance on it. De Grey wisely slipped away, leaving us alone at the table with the couple. “One hundred percent. Let me explain why. The press said the second tower pancaked down in eight point five seconds. That would be impossible.”
I watched his wife continue coating her carrot obsessively. “Bush’s younger brother and his cousin had the contract for the World Trade Center… World Trade Center Seven was not hit by a plane… Four hours later it collapses on its own.” Craig escaped to buy cryonics life insurance. (To pay the cost of his preservation and storage, all he had to do was sign his life policy over to Alcor.) I was alone now. “Osama bin Laden was employed by the CIA.”
Though I have my paranoid moments, I don’t buy into conspiracy theories as involved, risky, and unsubstantiated as the ones he was outlining. A true Fliesian knows that large groups of people don’t keep secrets that well, especially if leaking it can either bring them glory or hurt a competitor.
The person who convinced me of this was President Lyndon Johnson, who recorded hundreds of his phone calls in the White House. When I first heard him in the documentary The Fog of War discussing withdrawing from Vietnam, and basing decision after decision solely on whether it would make him look bad, I officially retired my conspiracy theory card.
As the bearded man continued his inside-job rant, I waited for a pause so I could extricate myself. But this man did not pause. He seemed willing to talk to anyone who wanted to listen—and, evidently, anyone who didn’t. As he tried to make a case for income tax being illegal, his wife grabbed a pickle chip and started spreading butter substitute on it. I found her eating habits much more fascinating than the sound of his voice—until, suddenly, I heard the word “offshore.”
My ears buzzed. My heart raced. Blood rushed to my head. Now he had my attention. “The entire fabric of the United States is dependent on a reciprocal system,” he was saying. “Should it be interrupted, or should it collapse, there would be mass chaos because the average American is incapable of doing anything for himself. Now is the time to move everything you own offshore.”
Suddenly, I felt like a man in possession of a metal detector that had just started beeping. I would never have guessed that this conspiracy nut might have the answer to the question I’d been wrestling with for the past year.
Until then, every path I’d tried to take out of the country had led to a dead end. Of the twenty-five immigration lawyers and organizations I’d contacted after Katrina, fifteen of them never returned phone calls and e-mails, and two of them said it would be months before they could offer me a consultation. A Japanese lawyer, Yoshio Shimoda, told me I’d need to live in Japan for five years and give up my U.S. nationality in order to be a citizen there. And Camila Tsu, a Brazilian lawyer, told me her country required four years of residency, fluency in Portuguese, and relinquishing my U.S. citizenship.
Not only were these time commitments too long, but I wasn’t about to give up my U.S. citizenship. Despite its faults, I still love America. My friends are here, my family is here, and so is Manhattan, Hollywood, Chicago, Austin, most of New Orleans, the national parks of Utah, Kauai, the dry-rub ribs of Memphis, the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Carlsbad Caverns, Clint Eastwood, and the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, where you can actually turn the launch key in a deactivated nuclear bunker.
An attorney in Rome told me that Italy wouldn’t require me to give up my U.S. citizenship, but I’d need to reside there ten years to get a passport. And a lawyer at Lang and Associates informed me that Costa Rica—one of the few countries without a military—has a seven-year residency requirement.
My favorite response, however, came from Dan Hirsch of Hirsch & Associates. “We require a $3,000 retainer fee and a signed retainer agreement,” he wrote in an e-mail. “You do not really need my help, but if you want to use it, send me the retainer and the check.”
The only glimmer of hope came from three companies, which each suggested trying Guyana. One of them, P&L Group, claimed there were hundreds of thousands of American citizens already living there.
So I did a little research: On the Atlantic coast of South America. Semidemocratic republic. Former British colony. English-speaking inhabitants. Former site of the Jonestown massacre. Sounded nice.
The only problem was that Guyanese passports were among the world’s least-credible travel documents because there were too many counterfeits and altered ones floating around. So I was right back where I started.
“Do you know,” I asked the man in the World Trade Center shirt, my voice shaking, “the quickest way someone like myself could get citizenship in another country?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I imagined black vans full of dark-suited Homeland Security agents pulling up and arresting me for sedition. I watched carefully for his reaction, hoping he wouldn’t ask too many questions.
“You should check out the Sovereign Society,” he said slowly, after some thought.
“What’s the Sovereign Society?” I asked greedily.
“They teach people how to be independent of their government.”
I didn’t like the way he spoke. I didn’t like the way he looked. I didn’t like the way he smelled. But I would be forever in his debt. For he had just given me the clue I’d been looking for.
Perhaps this man who I disliked so much—this conspiracy theorist in the socially unacceptable shirt—and I were not so far apart. Perhaps I didn’t like him because, in him, I saw a part of myself that I didn’t like. Perhaps that was the part pursuing this escape plan.
We make fun of those we’re most scared of becoming.