Don DeLillo’s Libra presents the somewhat obscure historical figure David Ferrie as an odd man fascinated with mysticism and hypnosis, and as a central conspirator in priming Lee Harvey Oswald during the plot to assassinate JFK. David Ferrie’s personality may appear to be fantastical, or the work of fictional hyperbole, but DeLillo’s portrayal turns out to be more fact than fiction.
DeLillo tells the reader very early in the story that David Ferrie “was interested in hypnotism and could put people into trances.” (DeLillo 29) The evidence that this is the case is so overwhelming it would have been a mistake for DeLillo to leave out such a detail. Jack Martin, associate of Guy Banister and David Ferrie, told the FBI after the assassination that Ferrie may have hypnotized Oswald (“FBI Debrueys Report”). Another associate of Ferrie, Perry Russo claimed that he had been hypnotized by Ferrie, and that Ferrie did hypnosis demonstrations, often targeting members of the Civil Air Patrol “when he was making aggressions” (“Transcript of interview of Perry Russo”). Even the House Select Committee on Assassinations Acknowledged that “Ferrie spent considerable time studying medicine and psychology, especially the techniques of hypnosis”, and that despite his off-putting appearance and personality “he was able to exert tremendous influence of his close associates, including many young men in his Civil Air Patrol squadron” (“HSCA Appendix to Hearings”).
Could Ferrie have actually hypnotized Lee Harvey Oswald? Evidence seems to suggest so, paricularly because Ferrie had developed great rapport with Oswald beforehand. A CIA document addressing the question of whether or not hypnosis is a useful tool for interrogation cites three examples where hypnosis “played a role in criminal behavior”, and concluded that “These three cases have a common element: in each a dissatisfied person found gratification through the individual who later became his seducing hypnotist” (“Hypnosis in Interrogation”). Lee Harvey Oswald as the disaffected young man, and David Ferrie as the hypnotic, sexually aggressive, older mentor fit these criteria perfectly.
In Libra, DeLillo weaves this background information into the narrative from the very first influential encounter that Ferrie has with Oswald in his home. Oswald and his friend Robert Sproul arrive at Ferrie’s home to look at a rifle they are interested in purchasing. After discovering that the rifle is not in working order, Sproul is ready to leave but Oswald is not. After an odd exchange between the three of them Sproul asks Oswald if he is coming:
“Lee, are you coming?”
Lee wanted to leave but found himself just standing there grinning stupidly at Robert, who made a dumb face back at him and walked out, sort of tiptoed out. Maybe Lee thought it wasn’t nice to leave abruptly. But in that case Robert was the one who should have stayed. He was the honor student, well brought up, who lived in a house with a closed porch amid azaleas, oaks and palms. (DeLillo 44)
Much later in the story, after Oswald has mysteriously shown up and gotten a job at Guy Banister’s office, Banister’s secretary inquires about Oswald and his pro-Castro material to which Banister’s replies that Oswald is a “David Ferrie project” (DeLillo 142). Later Libra takes the reader to a flashback of Oswald returning to Banister’s office to drop off his application where Ferrie conveniently happens to be waiting outside for him as if “expecting him” (DeLillo 313). Ferrie always happens to be wherever Oswald is as just the right times. One is tempted to see an implication of post-hypnotic suggestion at work here. As time presses on Ferrie works on Oswald little by little while DeLillo leaves the reader to wonder how much of what Ferrie says to Oswald is truth, and how much is manipulation.
As assassination day draws ever closer, one of the most significant interactions between Oswald and Ferrie take place in Ferrie’s Rambler with a prostitute. A strange hypnotic and ritualistic experience that includes marijuana, sex acts, and more cryptic suggestions from Ferrie:
Then Ferrie recited the history of hashish, lighting up another stick, which took forever. Everything moved through time. The heat in the car was getting hard to take and the smoke seared Lee’s throat. Linda dipped her tongue in tequila and softly licked his ear. They were in a place where a heartbeat took time. (DeLillo 332)
They’ve been watching you a long time, Leon. Think about them. Who are they? What do they want? I’m with them but I’m also with you. There are things they aren’t telling us. This is always the case. There’s always more to it. Something we don’t know about. Truth isn’t what we know or feel. It’s the thing that waits just beyond. We share a consciousness, like tonight. The hashish makes us Turks. We share a homeland and a spirit. What Linda says is true. You’re at home, in bed now, remembering. (DeLillo 333)
One can surely make the case that Oswald may have been a “David Ferrie project”, and many of the bizarre encounters simply seem random or incomprehensible unless the reader takes David Ferrie’s history with hypnotism and the occult (another post unto itself) into account. For some it is a rabbit trail readers may wish to avoid for fear of being labeled silly even by some conspiracy theorists, nevertheless DeLillo certainly finds it an important historical detail to mold Ferrie’s entire character around. Ferrie’s history with hypnotism deserves a little more attention than it is often given; but where danger lurks in Tiny Minutiae, stones will remain left unturned (or at least that is what we tell people). In a world where dangerous facts are often obscured, sometimes the only way to tell the truth is through “fiction”.