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Sleep Demons: Bill Hayes on REM, the Poetics of Yawns, and Maurice Sendak’s Antidote to Insomnia

Sleep Demons: Bill Hayes on REM, the Poetics of Yawns, and Maurice Sendak’s Antidote to Insomnia

We spend — or are biologically supposed to spend — a third of our lives in sleep, yet it remains a state we neither fully understand nor can bend to our will. A central cog in the machinery of our complex internal clocks, it regulates our negative emotions and affects our every waking moment. “Something nameless / Hums us into sleep,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams, “Withdraws, and leaves us in / A place that seems / Always vaguely familiar.” But what if the hum never comes, if the place in which night ought to leave us is a terra incognita at best unfamiliar, at worst entirely unreachable?

That’s what writer and photographer Bill Hayes explores in his magnificent 2001 book Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir (public library) — part reflection on his own lifelong turmoil in the nocturne, part sweeping inquiry into the sometimes converging, sometimes colliding worlds of sleep research, psychology, medicine, mythology, aging, and mental health. (It is hardly any wonder, though perhaps a most delightful miracle, that Hayes’s writing — philosophical, rigorously researched, immensely poetic — became a channel of love for the late, great Oliver Sacks; it was through writing that he met Hayes, who became the Billy in his memoir and the love of his life.)

Bill Hayes (Photograph: Katy Raddatz)

Hayes writes:

I grew up in a family where the question “How’d you sleep?” was a topic of genuine reflection at the breakfast table. My five sisters and I each rated the last night’s particular qualities — when we fell asleep, how often we woke, what we dreamed, if we dreamed. My father’s response influenced the family’s mood for the day: if “lousy,” the rest of us felt lousy, too. If there’s such a thing as an insomnia gene, Dad passed it on to me, along with green eyes and Irish melancholy.

I lay awake as a young boy, my mind racing like the spell-check function on a computer, scanning all data, lighting on images, moments, fragments of conversation, impossible to turn off. As a sleeping aid, I would try to recall my entire life — a straight narrative from first to last incident — thereby imposing order on the inventory of desire and memory.

For two years of Hayes’s childhood, his particular flavor of nocturnal torment was sleepwalking — all unconscious desire, no conscious memory. He would crawl out of bed, wander into the family living room as if looking for something, but not respond to his mother’s voice. He paints a poetic, if sorrowful, portrait of the sleepless mind trapped in a restless body:

If the insomniac is a shadow of his daylight self, existing nightlong on nothing but the fumes of consciousness, then the somnambulist is like an animal whose back leg drags a steel trap — the mind is fleeing and the body is inextricably attached.

Where did I want to go? Out of that house, I imagine. Away from the person I saw myself becoming. Toward a dreamed-up boy, with a new story, a different version of myself.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

In this lacuna between body and mind, Hayes locates the most elusive essence of sleep:

Sleeping pills can force the body into unconsciousness, it’s true. I’ve slept many times on those delicious, light-blue pillows. But the body is never really tricked. The difference between drugged and natural sleep eventually reveals itself, like the difference between an affair and true romance. It shows up in your eyes. Sleep acts, in this regard, more like an emotion than a bodily function. As with desire, it resists pursuit. Sleep must come find you.

And the compass by which sleep finds us appears to be magnetized by our biology and the fundamental nature of reality itself. With an eye to the legacy of pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, who kept himself awake in a cave for fifty days in the 1920s at the outset of a career that would revolutionize our understanding of the non-wakeful consciousness, Hayes argues that sleep unlatches its own singular cosmogony:

Our entire lives are shaped by circadian rhythms, gravitational forces, and seasonal cycles (day and night, ebb and flow, growth and decay), all of which, in my view, may be echoed in grander schemes throughout the cosmos. None of which can truly be resisted, only tested and studied, in Kleitman’s cave as in Plato’s. Daylight to darkness, the body mimics the behavior of the earth itself. Perhaps this is why vexing sleep questions (Why do humans dream? Why do we wake up?) sound like great metaphysical questions about the meaning of life; excerpts from a timeless dialogue on truth and illusion, awareness and unconsciousness.

Perhaps it was the inevitable metaphysical nature of these questions that led Nietzsche to believe that dreams are an evolutionary time machine for the human mind, Dostoyevsky to discover the meaning of life in a dream, Margaret Mead to find in one the perfect existential metaphor, and Neil Gaiman to dream his way to a philosophical parable of identity.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

But dreams, for the insomniac, are a taunting promised land. “It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else,” Graham Greene wrote in his dream diary. How discomfiting, then, to be chronically exiled from that world — the mere apparitions and almosts of sleep must suffice the sleepless. Hayes offers a lyrical taste of one such almost:

On some nights, a good long yawn is as close as I come to a good night’s sleep, so I savor each of its four to seven seconds… In the heart of a yawn is a moment of suspension — not unlike the pause immediately before orgasm — when it feels as if the outside sound is muffled. It’s a moment you’d like to go on and on, but trying to freeze a yawn is like trying to seek haven in a hiccup.

Integral to the dream state is REM sleep, which plays a key role in depression — the stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement, discovered semi-accidentally in 1953 by a University of Chicago student named Eugene Aserinsky, whose faculty advisor was the same Nathaniel Kleitman who had pioneered sleep research three decades earlier. In a study observing the sleep patterns of newborn babies, Aserinsky detected a stage of unusual rapid eye movements corresponding to active brain waves, lasting about twenty minutes. The discovery was announced in a modest journal article on September 4, 1953. Hayes writes:

Although it attracted little attention at the time, the REM sleep discovery was historic for two reasons. It proved that sleep was not a single, unvarying state, as had been thought. It also suggested that dreaming did not occur by chance, but at regular intervals.

Healthy adults have sleep cycles of about ninety minutes, each cycle propelling the sleeper along a circuit of five stages — a few minutes spent between sleep and wakefulness, about twenty-five minutes of light sleep, a brief period of heavy sleep, thirty to forty minutes of the night’s heaviest sleep, during which the sleeper is practically insensible, concluding with a period of abrupt body movement, often accompanied by a slight awakening, which leads to the fifth and final stage: REM. The cycle repeats throughout the night, until the hour of awakening, a good night’s sleep requiring five such cycles, each ending in REM.

Hayes highlights one particularly curious aspect of REM:

While adults wade through several stages before reaching REM, infants plunge right into it. Their neurological circuitry is not yet properly wired, and they’re better able to process information while dreaming than while awake. Babies have just two sleep stages, split evenly: REM sleep and “Quiet Sleep,” a stage in which they hardly seem to move or breathe.

As he often does throughout his writing, Hayes waltzes from the scientific to the poetic:

I was born dreaming. Deep in REM sleep, I was taken from the womb, my closed eyes furiously scanning for images that could never be retrieved, redreamed, or remembered. In this regard, I was identical to every baby. With a slap to the ass, it was over. Birth jolted me from a state of sublime unconsciousness to which I’ve spent the rest of my life struggling to return.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

He captures the texture of that struggle:

A new night with the same old problem: I leave our bed and creep into my office. Pulling the blinds up, I move a chair to the window, then rest my bare feet on the sill, watching for movement down below. Not a soul is out nor a sound made. All appears peaceful at three in the morning.

Sensitivity to pain is said to be highest at this hour. If you’re awake, distractions fall away, I suppose, leaving nerves inflamed, wounds throbbing. Amazingly, dreaming offers a genuine escape from physical pain, a fact that comforted me in the past and will again, I’m sure, as [my partner] and I grow older. Even people with chronic, severe pain during the day are numb to it in REM — this is the most persuasive argument that dreaming represents a separate biological state, one that can be explosively visual yet is free of physical suffering.

It sounds like heaven. And in a way, it is. Dreaming led early humans to conceive of a spirit that leaves the body during sleep and travels to fantastic places, which in turn inspired notions of a soul and an afterlife. As it was then, heaven is still widely envisioned as an eternal good dream. Hell’s both a nightmare and, as Dante imagined the Inferno, a never-ending state of sleeplessness.


It’s coming up on four o’clock, the very worst time to get a phone call — death occurs most frequently from 4 to 6 A.M. It’s as if the old, injured, or ill body, sustained by sunlight, runs out of juice just before dawn. The circadian clock unplugs itself. Lungs collapse. The heart stops. But it’s also when most people are sound asleep, so if you were to cry out for help, others would be less likely to hear you. Babies are most liable to die from sudden infant death syndrome right about now.

Given that humans, statistically, tend to die when we tend to be born — at night — do we also die, I wonder, as we are born — dreaming? Maybe the white light seen by people who die but “come back” is like the leader film in home movies — the bright, clear frames before the familiar pictures begin. Life ends in a final, glorious REM surge.

If so, I hope it’s a damn good dream when I go, one of those extremely rare ones in which all five senses are employed at once: a dream of swimming, say, at the beach on Kauai — a faint taste of briny water, scent of fresh air, waves crashing.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are

At four-thirty on his sleepless San Francisco night, Hayes decides to call his fellow insomniac friend Maurice on the East Coast — that’s Wild Things imagineer Maurice Sendak, of course, whose stunning drawing of Hayes, reminiscent of his rare and sensual illustrations for Melville’s Pierre, graces the cover of the book. Hayes shares Sendak’s strategy for combating insomnia:

When Maurice last visited, he gave me a good piece of advice, though he didn’t realize it at the time. “You know what I do when I can’t sleep?” he explained. “I sit up in bed, push the curtains back, and pull up the window shade.” Maurice, who’d had a run of serious illnesses, including a major heart attack, said he used to feel frightened and anxious when he couldn’t sleep, but now appreciates an aspect of it. “The night air makes me feel safe. Real.” He inhaled slowly, as though savoring a whiff he’d brought with him. “I’m not afraid to die. The one thing I will miss most, though, is air at night — life coming through the window.”

Sleep Demons is a stunning read in its entirety, itself the kind of book that enters the psyche like life coming through an open window. Complement it with the science of what actually happens while you sleep, this visual analysis of great writers’ sleep habits against their literary productivity, and young Maurice Sendak’s picture-book debut — a dream-driven philosophical story about love, loneliness, and knowing what you really want.

Published January 9, 2017




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