Monday, November 28, 2011

Seeing Red: The first and only reported case of Blood-Spatter Psychosis


The beauty was unsettling but unmistakable.
    (11/28/14) On the day when Mitch Vasile lost his outward vision, his "inner eye" saw nothing but an infinite expanse of red. It seemed to be breathing or undulating. After a few days, the vastness began to differentiate into patterns: forceful sprays of red, glistening dribbles of red, smeared arcs of red, Rorschach patterns of red that resembled uteruses, poppies, crabs, galloping camels, emaciated refugees, a trellis of roses. He was in a universe in which there was no center, no foothold, no respite. It wasn't a silent universe, though. There were muffled sound effects: nonstop explosions, moans and screams. He blinked and blinked to blink it all away. He washed his eyes. He closed them,  but the images seemed to move in on him all the more. He trembled at the thought that this might never end.
    As I walked with the doctor through Bellevue, to the psychiatric ward, he warned me to set aside my investigative instincts and merely act as a friend to Mitch. "Don't ply him with questions. Don't press him for details. We're taking care of that," he said. "Just comfort him, if you can. He's devastated."
    The tentative diagnosis, he added, was "hysterical blindness," also known as conversion disorder. Patients experiencing some type of emotional or psychological trauma can lose some or all of their sight. Hysterical blindness is thus "a neurological abnormality with apparently psychogenic cause," he elaborated. Recovery is often very slow and uncertain.


Just imagine how this blood stain came to be. Or maybe you shouldn't.
    When I entered Mitch's room, his rugged face was haunted, his mouth was open and his eyes were clearly fixated on something internal. I had a very silly, vain fantasy that my presence -- my affection and familiarity -- would spontaneously cure him. I didn't consciously realize that I'd had this presumptuous notion until my presence had no impact on him whatsoever. He remained oblivious to me.
    "Mitch," I said. "Are you feeling better?"
    He didn't look at me. "Don't come closer," he warned. "You don't want to get trapped in this world."
    I said, "Do you remember who I am?"
    He responded flatly, "It doesn't matter. I'm gone."
    We had met a couple of years ago, the day I submitted my first article to the Village Voice, which was the country's best known alternative newspaper. He had been hired that same morning to provide a sort of color commentary about particularly notorious courtroom dramas. 
    The Voice wasn't interested in covering anything in a conventional way. The freedom to let loose your inner Hunter Thompson was thrilling. But Mitch soon became so intrigued by the science of blood-spatter analysis, as demonstrated in the grotesquely brutal mob trials he covered, that it had inspired him to change professions and become certified as a blood-splatter analyst, working with the NYPD's CSI team. And now he was suffering what we would today probably regard as PTSD, as well as "conversion disorder." His job had been "bloody murder" on his tender subconscious.

    Mitch was from Romania. His attractiveness was in part due to his serious, contemplative nature, and his Old World manner of deference and respect. I loved his slight Eastern European accent. I especially was drawn to the fact that he treated men and women alike. No flirting, or even the usual compliments. I would have dated him if he'd asked, but he chose to keep me as a friend, and in retrospect, I'm glad. Our relationship lasted for almost 25 years, until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1999.
    Both journalism and blood-spatter analysis seemed to be unlikely career choices for this debonair, 35-year-old man --- who smoked Gauloises and drank cognac and wore tweedy woolens -- but when he left Romania in 1968, he was ready to abandon his life as a Classics professor and plunge into the real world. He got a MA in Journalism from Columbia in 1971, the year I arrived in New York.
    He wanted to write about jazz, but Nat Hentoff was the Voice's guy for that, and he was arguably the finest jazz critic and analyst in the country. So Mitch settled for the courtroom-drama gig, and when they asked for color commentary, he didn't disappoint. His articles were like old-time crime fiction: masculine and worldly -- like Dashiell Hammett's. He was a master stylist. He became so highly regarded that he was asked to teach a course in "the new journalism," which transformed factual material into spellbinding literature. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe were his role models.

     It wasn't long before Mitch became entranced by blood-spatter testimony. The large visual depictions presented as evidence combined a powerful display of violence with startling beauty. The incongruity was compelling. He longed to be qualified to "read" these portraits of ferocious human interaction. To him, each was a short story.
    After less than a year with the Voice (and after declining a book deal with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), Mitch left journalism to study with the Bloodstain Pattern Analysis Certification Board, a Fayetteville, N.C., outfit that claims to be "The world's oldest and largest forensic science identification association." He took a 40-hour training course, and then spent six months in the field with CSI investigators, before taking the exam. 

It's a gory job, but somebody's got to do it.
    His studies seemed fascinating, even to me, and I spent time reading his highlighted portions of the textbook. Some of the jargon had a poetic quality, as jargon tends to do. Mitch believed he had found a calling that would use his existing talents, while also developing new insights and depth. He was also, in his Old World way, macho enough to enjoy being a respected adjunct to the gritty world of law enforcement, with its swagger and gear. He loved SWAT teams. I must admit that they give me a bit of a tingle as well, although I don't feel quite right about it.
Suit up! (Guilty tingle)
    He was learning about the flight characteristics and stain patterns of blood; the physical activity of blood droplets, illustrating blood as fluid being acted upon by motion or force; spot size related to distance fallen and blood volume variations; impact-angle determinations (study of spot size, shape and spatter characteristics related to distance fallen, speed of travel, direction of travel);  dripped vs. splashed; flow patterns; arc of the swing, number of swings or patterns; weapon variations; impact patterns (blunt force, explosive velocity, size, shape and distribution of spots related to degree of force and distance traveled); secondary targets; intermediate or intervening objects; images and impressions; wipe and swipe patterns (hair, skin, cloth, etc.);  and chemical- and light-source absorption and enhancement.

    Whew! It was quite a curriculum: mind boggling and blood curdling! But it was a science and a trigonometric discipline  that obviously had artistic and even literary appeal -- at least that's how I romanticized it, and so did Mitch.

   Oingo Bongo had it right: "Just flesh and blood/ I do not know./ Magic and technology / Something like a recipe / Bits and pieces."/ 
     I could easily see how Mitch had become so spellbound, but I couldn't understand making a career out of it. Why didn't he just write an article, like I'm doing right now, and move on to something new? Like brain research or urban planning or the economics of inequality, or quantum whatever, etc? He was fixated.
    One night after we'd had dinner, he invited me to his apartment for the first time, "to see my etchings," he said jokingly. Like me, he lived on the Upper West Side. Since he had a trust fund from his bigwig Daddy, he had one of those vast old apartments with stunning views of the Hudson River, and actual rooms and hallways, which my studio lacked.
    Mitch had chosen to reside in a realm of stunning violence. His walls were covered with blown up blood spatters, mounted on canvas, each with the victim's name and date of death on it. If you hadn't known what they were, you might assume they were iconic "drip paintings" by Jackson Pollock, or one of his legions of imitators.
Is the brush mightier than the meat cleaver?
Pollock was a sexy, vain, volatile dude, almost as handsome as Mitch.
Couldn't this be a crime scene that involved egg yolk and ink?

One man's drips are another man's forensic mystery.
    Or you might think you were among paintings by the famed inventor of the pointillist style, Georges Seurat. 
A detail from Seurat's "The Parade."

 But Mitch's "exhibit" was far more compelling than any by Pollock or Seurat, I felt, because you were seeing wonderful human lives blown to bits. These were people, and they were stories. If you looked at it from that perspective, they really were gripping
     Pollock had the substantial advantage that he was obtaining a climax, or catharsis, as he engaged his body and mind in the taut athleticism of splatter creation. He was waging battle and venting his innermost aggressions.

    Mitch's role was in a sense the opposite: His role was to deconstruct the rash, rowdy, explosive blood splatters, and in so doing he was forced to visualize and internalize, rather than to enact (Pollock-style) the violence that had created them. This resulted in the opposite of Pollock's catharsis, I theorized. Mitch was being contaminated -- even damaged -- rather than achieving a release.
    When Mitch developed his "blindness," I came up with an immediate theory -- probably a stupid one -- about how these images had taken over Mitch's brain. 
    My mother has some geometric-patterned wallpaper in her modern bathroom, which, if you stare at it long enough, makes you feel overwhelmed and distorted visually. You can almost forget that you're on the toilet. It seems to move in on you and become three-dimensional, and undulate, and actually "blind" you to everything else. It's like a vortex. 

    Op Art has the same effect -- it's almost psychedelic without the drugs. Blood spatters would have a somewhat different dynamic, but I think when you focus on any pattern long enough, it can warp your perceptions and skew your visual competence.  Can you imagine how this might happen to you, if you spent hours staring at the images Mitch intensely scrutinized in his darkroom?

    Mitch's visual impairment brought to mind a black-and-white TV movie I saw when I was about 14 years old. An elegant socialite, played by Sylvia Sidney, sits in front of her mirror, looking for any signs of aging that will signal her imminent decline as a "raving beauty." She is terrified of the aging process, and fears becoming a hideous old lady. This movie hit me especially hard  because my mother suffered from this same terror (in fact, she had it until she was 95 -- even though she was still beautiful. Then, at last, she decided she didn't care anymore.  Her beauty persists.)

I bet Sylvia Sidney was beautiful to the end. 
    In the movie, Sidney shuts herself away from the outside world, and becomes quite psychotic as she walks through her large apartment, scrutinizing herself in one mirror after the next. What reminded me of Mitch is that her whole living space had black and white linoleum tile flooring. This fractal pattern began to colonize her vision until it was all she could see: It blended and expanded and was reconfigured, rendering her blind and helpless. She felt as if she were living inside a chessboard that she couldn't escape.


    I could readily see the beauty and dyamism of Mitch's odd wall hangings, but why had he filled every wall with them? Wasn't he going overboard?
    "I couldn't bring myself to throw them away," Mitch told me. "It seemed disrespectful, like tossing a body into a dumpster rather than honoring it. These represent the equivalent of a 'decent burial' to me, for the people who were torn asunder by crimes of passion, or just plain crime. This is like a cemetery."
    "I agree," I said. "But do you really want to live in a cemetery? You have enough money to rent a warehouse. Why not turn it into a public gallery, and make your living space more about life?"

    "This is my life now," he said. "I want them with me. I know these people. I know the details of their lives as well as their deaths. Each picture is a human being whose essence I deeply feel. I am their caretaker. I commune with them. I commiserate. I grieve." 
    Compassion is a beautiful thing, but it does exact a cost on our psyches. Mitch had gone off the edge. Like me, he had obsessive tendencies. Would he ever make his way out?


    Bloodstain pattern analysis has been used informally for centuries, but the first modern study of  was in 1895, according to my tirelessly accommodating friends at Wikipedia.
    Herbert Leon MacDonell of Corning, New York, was the pioneer. His research resulted in his publication of the first modern treatise on bloodstain analysis, entitled Flight Characterisics and Stain Patterns of Human Blood.   
    In 1983, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts was founded by a group of blood stain analysts to help develop the emerging field of bloodstain pattern analysis.
    I can see that the discipline has elements of precision and subjective interpretation that make it very rewarding.
    Quoting further from Wikipedia: 
  • Gravity acts on blood (without the body's influence) as soon as it exits the body. Given the right circumstances blood can act according to ballistic theory.
  • Viscosity is the amount of internal friction in the fluid. It describes the resistance of a liquid to flow.
  • Surface tension is the force that maintains the shape of a drop of liquid, such as blood. When two fluids are in contact with each other (blood and air) there are forces attracting all molecules to each otheR.

    "Experiments with blood have shown that a drop of blood tends to form into a sphere in flight rather than the artistic teardrop shape. This is what one would expect of a fluid in freefall. The formation of the sphere is a result of surface tension that binds the molecules together.
   "This spherical shape of blood in flight is important for the calculation of the angle of impact (incidence) of blood spatter when it hits a surface. That angle will be used to determine the point from which the blood originated which is called the Point of Origin or more appropriately the Area of Origin.   
My least favorite of Mitch's "artworks."
    "Because of the three-dimensional aspect of trajectories there are three angles of impact:
  • alpha (α), the impact angle of the bloodstain path moving out from the surface.
  • beta (β), the angle of the bloodstain path pivoting about the vertical (z) axis.
  • gamma (γ), the angle of the bloodstain path measured from the true vertical (plumb) of the surface.
All three angles are related through the following trigonometric equations:
\sin \alpha = \left( \frac{w}{l} \right)
\tan \beta = \frac {\tan \alpha}{\sin \gamma}
\mathbf{l} = length of ellipse (major axis)
\mathbf{w} = width of ellipse (minor axis)
    Is this putting you to sleep? I like it, but if it bores you, just skip on down to the rest of the story.

    A well-formed stain is in the shape of an ellipse. Dr. Victor Balthazard, and later Dr. Herbert Leon MacDonell, realized that the width-length ratio of the ellipse is the 'sine' of the impact angle. Accurate measurement of the stain thus allows easy calculation of the impact angle. 

    (What is a "sine"? Damned if I knew, until I looked it up, and I still don't get it, which I rather enjoy: "The sine of an angle is defined in the context of a right triangle: for the specified angle, it is the ratio of the length of the side that is opposite that angle to (divided by) the length of the longest side of the triangle.")   

      As one might imagine, technology has -- since Mitch's time -- both made splatter analysis more refined and less rewarding for the analyst.
    The aptly named HemoSpat is bloodstain pattern analysis software created by FORident Software in 2006. Using photos from a bloodshed incident at a crime scene, a bloodstain pattern analyst can use HemoSpat to calculate the area-of-origin of impact patterns. 
I guess it's more reliable, but it doesn't do much for your pride in your work.
     "This information may be useful for determining position an posture of suspects and victims, sequencing of events, corroborating or refuting testimony, and for crime scene reconstruction. The results of the analyses may be viewed in 2D within the software as top-down, side, and front views, or exported to several 3D formats for integration with other software," HemoSplat's website explains.


SIN< = width / length
< = invsin (width / length)
e.g. < = invsin(1.5 / 3.0)
< = invsin(0.5)
< = 30 degrees
Therefore, "the droplet originated from a source that was approximately 30 degrees 'out' from the plane of the target surface." Impact stains result from blood projecting through the air
and  are  usually  seen  as  spatter,  but  may  also  include  gushes, splashes  and  arterial spray.
    In 2012, a study was conducted in which  patients with  hysterical blindness were asked to perform a simple visual exercise over a period of days to weeks in order to recover their sight. It was an promising therapy, a researcher from the Perelman School of Medicine said.   
    All eight patients diagnosed with the condition, who were prescribed a regimen in which they read a "tumbling E" optotype card at progressively increasing distances, recovered sight in periods ranging from 3 days to 6 months, reported Matthew Fischer, a medical student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria. This was such a small sample, with no control group, that its findings have largely been ignored.
    And back when Mitch was "blind," in the mid-1970s, nobody had any idea what to do.
     I hesitantly suggested to the doctors that we play some of Mitch's favorite jazz, and serve him a big plate of vegetarian  lasagne (ironic, given his 'meaty' profession), and read aloud some of the classic literature he taught in Romania. They were not enthusiastic, but their "watchful waiting" approach was yielding no results, even after three months.

    The doctors skeptically but indulgently let me try out my little party in Mitch's room. I bought along my boombox  -- with tapes of Coltrane, Getz and Oscar Peterson. I made some veggie lasagna. I took a copy of "Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann, which Mitch had given to me for my 24th birthday.
    I can't claim that there was a magical breakthrough, in which Mitch declared ecstatically, "I can see! Oh Sylvia, you are a total genius and my hero for life!" No, no, that's not how it went down, even though I had dared dream that I could be his savior.
    What did happen is that he ate ravenously, having lost 20 pounds by refusing to consume anything but applesauce and oatmeal for months. He bopped his head to the music, and pretended to play the saxophone. His eyes were still blind, it seemed, until I began reading a particularly lovely, idyllic, intellectual passage from Mann's book. He interrupted me after about 10 minutes and said quietly, "Sylvia, I can see you in your cornflower blue suit." Then, apparently, he plunged back into his blindness.

    But the doctors regarded it as a critical moment, and Mitch did regain his sight -- with his doctors using sensory methods, as I had, -- within about six weeks.
    For at least a couple of years, though, he was what must be characterized as disabled. That's where my diagnosis of PTSD comes in. He was tentative and hypervigilant. He needed a cheerful, secure environment. He was placed in a progressive rehab facility, where I often found him sketching idyllic, verdant scenes from the Romanian countryside or abstract charcoal renditions of jazz quartets, doing their thing. He had taken up yoga and Transcendental Meditation. He was getting much better, even though his fire was gone.
    His fire never returned, but his fundamental character of gentlemanly intellect and compassion did. He returned at last to the teaching of the Classics in Burlington, Vermont.
    A beautiful man was blown apart by his fixated immersion in a field that unleashed too much pathos in him. But when he finally came out the other end, he was still my dear friend Mitch.

Can you feel the horror and desperation?