Operators and Things: Barbara O’Brien’s classic memoir of schizophrenia–now in print AND online

Cover of first US edition of 'Operators and Things'The always-alert Robert Nedelkoff just tipped me off on the release of one of the most memorable and–until now–rarest neglected books discussed on this site: Barbara O’Brien’s 1958 memoir of schizophrenia, Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic. First published by an obscure press, Arlington Books, then reissued as an Avon paperback with a cover that probably led more than stores and buyers to consider it a pulp SF novel, O’Brien’s book remains unique in its depiction of schizophrenia as experienced from the inside out.

In the book, O’Brien describes waking up one morning to find herself living in a world populated by “Operators,” who are the ultimate embodiment of the paranoic’s concept of the people in control, the ones working according to a secret plan, the ones pulling the strings of power and influence–and by “Things,” the puppets manipulated and exploited by the Operators. She, of course, is a Thing, and she spends the next six months travelling around the country by Greyhound bus, following (but also trying to resist) the instructions of the Operators.

Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic was reissued back in the mid-1970s as a mass-market paperback in both the US and the UK, but it’s been out of print since then, commanding prices ranging between $25 and $250 in the last decade. Now, however, it’s available in trade paperback from Silver Birch Press with an introduction by Michael Macoby, who’s better known for his books on leadership in the business world, a preface by scriptwriter Melanie Villines, and an afterwood by Colleen Delegan. Villines and Delegan have written an unproduced screenplay based on the boook.

However, I also found that, over a year ago, someone published Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic as an eBook on Smashwords.com. You can read it online or download a copy in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and other formats–with Macoby’s introduction but sans Villines’ and Delegan’s pieces.

Either way, I recommend discovering this remarkable book–which moved 14 different people to post 5-star reviews on Amazon despite its being out of print and virtually unheard-of in the last decade.


After posting this, I received an email from Melanie Villines with some additional information about the new release:

The Silver Birch Press edition of Operators and Things includes a NEW (!) interview with Michael Maccoby (conducted in Sept. 2010) that offers some fascinating insights into the book. Our edition also includes beautiful period photos by iconic photographers Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, and John Vachon. My foreword also offers an overview of how the book has been received by the public and press since its publication and includes info about my personal interactions with some of the original players (agent, publishers, and others connected with the book). Thanks for your kind consideration and thoughtful attention.

Bubley, Lee, and Vachon were all members of Roy Stryker’s remarkable team of Farm Security Administration photographers, by the way, which created one of the greatest photographic records of American life during the 1930s and 1940s.

5 thoughts on “Operators and Things: Barbara O’Brien’s classic memoir of schizophrenia–now in print AND online

  1. Quick correction: The short-lived firm Arlington Books first published this title in hardcover (Elek Books did it in the UK as such) and the two American paperbacks were by Ace in the ’60s and Signet in 1976. (The Signet one has a new afterword by O’Brien, which is not in the current reissue. I’ve read it and it’s fairly interesting but not especially essential to appreciating the book.)

    The late Alex Jackinson was the agent who placed the book with Arlington. He says in his autobiography that he first took the book to Criterion, a literary imprint of the time, then took it to the late Thomas A. Bledsoe who was editor at Beacon Press; when Bledsoe left Beacon to start Arlington with William R. Polk (later a well-known academic and author) he took Operators with him. Had the book been first published by a company as prominent as Beacon, it might have become much better known than has been the case to date.

  2. Well, it’s quite a book, so thanks for the tip. By the way, judging from the ads in the back, it was marketed in the “strange but true” genre, alongside such titles as “Stranger Than Science,” “The Strangest Things In the World,” and “Impossible — Yet It Happened!” It didn’t really fit into that niche, so that may partially explain why it became neglected…

  3. I am pretty sure that Barabar O”Brien was interviewed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show after the book was re-released during the mid 70’s. Does anyone have a copy of that footage?

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