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

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

“Sleep acts … more like an emotion than a bodily function. As with desire, it resists pursuit. Sleep must come find you.”

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



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