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10/14/02: the Day I Became an Expatriate

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Vietnam , Watergate and My First Attempt to Emigrate

When I finally left the US in October 2002, I had been thinking of emigrating for many years. I had even made a prior attempt to live overseas. In June 1973, I shipped all my belongings to England , intending to start a new life there. Many Americans of my generation left the US in the early seventies, for Canada , Europe and more remote parts of the world. Most were draft-age men afraid of being sent to Vietnam . A few were women involved in illegal abortion clinics that sprang up before the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision officially legalized pregnancy termination. Many were artists and intellectuals like me, disillusioned by the extreme political corruption that was exposed by the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post coverage of Watergate, CIA domestic spying and Nixon's apparent use of US intelligence for his own political purposes.

In 1973, I myself was totally apolitical, and my decision to leave the US had very little to do with Vietnam or Watergate. My disillusionment stemmed more from watching rampant consumerism overtake the humanist values I had grown up with -- the strong family ties, deep friendships and involvement in neighborhood and community life that were so important to my parents' and grandparents' generation.

During my eighteen month stay in England, it was deeply gratifying to meet people in London and Birmingham who could care less about owning "stuff" they saw advertised on TV. People who still placed much higher value on extended family, close friendships and the sense of belonging they derived from their local pub, their church or union, or neighborhood sports clubs, hobby groups, and community halls -- which had all virtually disappeared in the US.

The Murder that Turned My Life Upside Down

A downturn in the British economy in late 1974 forced me to return to the US to complete my psychiatric training. While I never abandoned my dream of living overseas, my time in Europe had politicized me. I still scanned still scanned the back pages of medical journals for foreign psychiatric vacancies. However in my spare time, I also joined grassroots community organizations seeking to improve political and social conditions in the US .

For many years, believing Nixon was an aberration, I was naively optimistic about the ability of community organizing to thwart the corrupting influence of powerful corporations over federal, state and local government. It never occurred to me the institutions of power themselves were deeply corrupt and had been for many years.

As I in write in The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee, the truth came crashing down on me in 1987, when I became part of a movement to create a Seattle African American museum. Owing to my financial and social standing as a physician, this struck a raw nerve somewhere in the power elite. Suddenly I was barraged with prank and threatening calls at all hours of the day and night, while unsavory looking strangers stalked me and tried to run me down with their vehicles.

Despite the extreme turmoil this systematic harassment and intimidation caused my family, it was the 1989 murder of one of my patients, an African American postal worker and union activist, that turned my world upside down. The brutal murder -- the autopsy photos revealing that Oscar Manassa was beaten before he was thrown from the fifth floor of the Seattle YMCA -- was upsetting enough. However the event that opened my eyes to the total breakdown of the rule of law in the US was the seizure of the police by a little known branch of US intelligence known as the Postal Inspectors -- effectively preventing a homicide investigation.

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Also of special significance was that Oscar experienced the same vicious harassment I did for four years before he was killed. In fact this is why his legal team brought him to see me. He, too, complained of relentless prank calls, stalking, and anonymous calls to his wife that ultimately broke up his marriage. He developed classic acute stress disorder symptoms as a result of the harassment -- severe insomnia, anxiety attacks, loss of motivation, memory problems and difficulty focusing. Which made it impossible for him to participate effectively in grievance hearings or his workers compensation appeal.

Unfortunately Oscar's problems weren't psychiatric, and my (pro-bono) professional services weren't of much use to him. His symptoms were a natural response to genuine, life threatening stress. What ultimately helped Oscar conquer his fear and anxiety was a six month stay with his family in Alabama . The turning point, as he described shortly before his murder, was when his also mother began receiving prank calls. It was the phone calls from two anonymous males urging her to put Oscar in a mental institution that ultimately convinced his family that he wasn't paranoid -- that real strangers were threatening him with genuine harm. Yet his as commonly happens, his family has to fully accept the reality basis of his complaints before they could provide the emotional support he needed.

Oscar returned to Seattle in March 1989 to reopen his workers compensation claim and file for reinstatement at the post office. I saw him once, to help him apply for temporary welfare benefits for the deposit on a new apartment. He was a totally different person -- positive, confident and optimistic about his future. He had already seen his attorney to reopen his workers compensation claim and was doing casual labor through the Millionaire's Club.

Oscar's Recovery Cost Him His Life

Oscar ultimately won his workers compensation claim. His attorney received notification from the Department of Labor several weeks after his death. A clear signal for his supporters that his recovery had cost him his life. The link between his return to Seattle to resume his legal battles and his murder was undeniable. If he had remained terrified and depressed, I have no doubt the higher-ups responsible for his assassination would have left him alone.

It would be several years before I learned why postal workers were being systematically harassed -- and in some cases murdered -- for filing workers compensation claims. In the end, the complex political motives behind Oscar's murder didn't really matter. What would change my life forever was the glimpse it gave me into an invisible intelligence-security operation that, like Hitler's Brownshirts, could carry out extrajudicial murders of political opponents (Oscar, as it turned out, was merely politically inconvenient) with no fear whatsoever of legal consequences.

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
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