“Retreat Syndrome” was originally published in Worlds of Tomorrow in January 1965. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 67–85.
Caleb Myers, a police officer, stops a vehicle operating at 160 miles per hour, due to a tampered speech governor. The driver, John Cupertino, claims that he is sick and needed to get somewhere “solid.” He showed a card revealing that he is under medical care. He also excuses himself by saying that is how they drive on Ganymede. Myers realizes that he is being delusion and actually thinks that he is still on Ganymede. They make an emergency call to Cupertino’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hagopian. Cupertino blames what is happening to him on the death of his wife, Carol.
Cupertino is seeing his psychiatrist in his office, later a night. He talks about how he killed his wife and how much it has been troubling him. He wants to seek out legal counsel. Hagopian tells him once again that Carol is alive and well. He tells his patient that he needs to take moral responsibility for firing the laser beam, but that he should see for himself that Carol is alive. Cupertino “killed” his wife to prevent her from running a story in the homeopapes, showing that Six-planet Educational Enterprises was going to be involved in an uprising to free Ganymede. Hagopian tells him that if he sees Carol he might find out the origin of the false memory that he killed her.
The very next morning Cupertino visits his wife Carol, who he has not seen since he acquired the memory that he killed her three years ago. Carol tells Cupertino what happened that night. He threatened her with the laser pistol to accept divorcer terms more favorable to him. He missed when he fired at Carol and fled. That night he was forced by the police into mental health care. She suggests that the doctor he saw, Dr. Edgar Green, implanted the memory. His guilt led him to try to kill himself as he was being sent to Earth. Cupertino begins to believe that everything around him is fake and that he is in prison for murdering Carol. He contacts Hagopian with his realization, threatening to end his treatment to expose the truth. Hagopian explains that while his theory is plausible, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto all broke away from Earth in the revolt that his old company, Six-Planets, helped fund. For some reason, he is suppressing this basic historical fact. In any case, he is on Earth and subject to psychiatric treatment for the attempted murder.
Cupertino calls Dr. Edgar Green, demanding to see his patient files from Green’s treatment. He confirms that the techniques exist for implanting a false memory. Green agrees to send it, but Cupertino knows that Six-Planet might easily manipulate the records in order to protect the revolt, the same reason they gave him false memories.
When the records from Six-Planet, Cupertino begins his analysis. He starts with an order for an analysis of the writing by a university philologist. He knows that he feels most in touch with reality when with Dr. Hagopian, so he assume that this must be real. He considers that the delusion is being maintained by regular doses of a drug from Ganymede called Frohedadrine. Hagopian mentions the records Cupertino received from Green. From this he suspects Hagopian’s role in the delusion and says he will test his theory by shooting Carol. Since she is already dead, she cannot be killed again.
After killing Carol, Cupertino looks through the newspaper for a report on the crime. There is nothing Hagopian arrives and tells him that he will never find such a report because he was never allowed to see Carol. His second murder of his wife was a false memory. He is actually reading a Ganymedean newspaper. Carol is being imprisoned and will remain in prison until the war with Earth ends. He is allowed to call Carol and confirms that she is alive. Cupertino, still unsure of the reality, drives away toward Los Angeles to try again to kill his wife.
“Retreat Syndrome” stands nicely next to “Precious Artifact.” They were written and published around the same time and both deal with the political uses of false realities. “Precious Artifact” gives us a clear truth at the end and shows the false reality to be systemic. “Retreat Syndrome” is a cleverer story, but less satisfying politically. We are not really clear where the delusion begins or ends. The delusion is also more deeply personal in this story. Yes “Precious Artifact” has a personal component. Each person’s acceptance of the horrible reality is due to the survival of a single object, but it is applied to everyone subject to the false reality. In this story, as far as we can tell, only one person is be deceived, and even the purpose is not entirely clear and it may just be a mental illness or a drug-induced psychosis. To my mind it makes is a less satisfying story, but it is a sign of the bleakness that will overwhelm much of Dick’s later works.
The three major theories for why Cupertino is experience a false memory of killing his wife lead to very different conclusions. The first is a nervous breakdown caused by his either attempted or real murder of his wife. His attempt to kill himself after the act suggests the personal trauma is caused. It leads him on an endless quest to find out if she is alive or not. The only way he can prove to himself that she is really dead is by trying to kill her again. This is the theory given to him at the end my Dr. Hagopian. There is no conspiracy, just a mind slowly detached from reality. A second theory is that his memory was changed by the forces leading the Ganymede revolution (Cupertino’s employer). After his arrest he was sent to see a shrink that worked to give him false memories. This is the theory dreamed up in Cupertino and given weight by “Carol,” but it does not seem to have a clear purpose. The final theory is that a drug from Ganymede is causing the delusion. Since the police at the beginning suspect this, there may be many people who have such false memories.
Now here is my problem with this. What can we do with ambiguity about truth? What is the next step? This is not clear to me and it is not clear to Cupertino. He can only madly search for something solid. This solid thing becomes the murder of his wife.
The images of the psychiatrists in “Retreat Syndrome” are important. Both seem to work for the system and see their primary loyalty to their employer or society. Hagopian lies to Cupertino in order to protect the truth about Carol’s imprisonment. Green seems to openly dislike his former patient and is indifferent to his needs and interests, and only complies with his requests because it is not technically illegal. One thinks that if the authorities on Ganymede wanted to implant false memories into people, Green and Hagopian would do it to sustain their system, which gives them their professional authority. It is an important, but chilling critique of professionalization.