After years of hiding his prosthetic arm, Don Becker rolled up his sleeves, literally and figuratively. He had a radio talk show for a while. He later wrote poetry and hosted poetry-slam competitions. He did not fully explore the "accident" and his so-called "madness" until he wrote and starred in Back on a Limb, a brutally honest piece of theatrical catharsis.
In 1996, Becker placed his relationship with tragedy on a metaphorical level with Lucifer Tonight, a one-man show in which he portrayed the devil. The show's emotional peak happens when Lucifer kneels before God. In a gut-wrenching scene, Becker takes off his prosthetic arm, exposing his limb and bodily scars to the audience, looking to God for redemption.
The highly personal sequence was difficult for Becker. During rehearsals he was frequently overwhelmed by the material. The role was so demanding that he says he likely will not play it in future performances. But a new production of the show (with a different lead taking Becker's place) opens the last week of February at the Bug Theater. There are also hopes to translate and produce the show in Germany in 2005.
Many think the one-man show is Becker at his very best. "Lucifer Tonight was treated pretty well by the critics, and it deserved every bit of it," says Denver actress Mary Gay Coit. Becker chalks that up to the range of emotions he can portray in theater, something he could never try in stand-up comedy. Perhaps Becker had reached a point where he had control of his emtions, rather than the other way around. "It doesn't have to be setup, punch line, setup, punch line," he says. "You can stretch out with concepts and ideas." There's still a glimmer of the youthful comic in his performances. "I thought he was way too funny to wind up being a performance artist," observes comic Dennis Miller, who has hired Becker as a freelance joke writer. "He was a very funny comic. I'm glad he found another permutation for his art."
Dark humor has dominated Becker's later work. Absence Makes the Peter Fonda contains 10 short erotic plays, including White Knuckles, which Becker describes as a "pornographic opera." Kurt Cobain Was Right, a political farce, sees a Reaganesque president putting a positive spin on mass suicide. Subgenius Police, Becker's favorite, imagines punks in an ultracyber society of the near future.
Becker's edgy subject matter and iconoclasm are not for everyone, leading some audience members to walk out before intermission. "Sometimes, I think neuroses can manifest themselves as self-indulgence," says Becker's friend Coit, "and he is certainly no stranger to that."
Don Becker fights a continuing battle with mental illness and receives federal disability payments for his extreme bipolar condition. He also battles public perceptions. "There's a great book called Madness in Civilization," he says. "They used to warehouse the mentally ill with convicts, and the convicts would complain and say, 'We don't want to be in here with these crazy people.' Crazy people were viewed lower than convicts. There is still a stigma."
The creative process has been instrumental to Becker's long road to recovery. While there is no proven link between mental illness and artistic inclinations, psychiatric experts don't dismiss a connection out of hand, especially as it relates to therapeutic benefits. "We probably don't hear about the people who aren't creative, but there is quite an association between creativity and bipolar disorder," says Dr. Sylvia Simpson, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "Sticking to the medication is a big part of it. I don't think Don Becker's case is that unusual. I would see this as the kind of excellent outcome you can have if you stick with the prescribed treatment."
Since the late 1980s, Becker has been hospitalized 10 times. All but one were during periods when he decided to go off his medication to find God. "I ran down the street naked twice," he says. "I tried to gouge my eyes out with a screwdriver. I tried to climb Mt. Evans in the middle of winter. Finally, I had a friend of mine say, 'Do you think God is all powerful?' And I said, 'Yeah.' 'Then why don't you just stay on your medication and let God come to you?'"
Becker has remained on Haldol ever since. He has yet to find God, but he has made new friends, most of whom have not experienced the pits of his psychosis and never knew the brash young comic with two arms. "In the past, I couldn't deal with anybody that was the least bit troubled or upset," he says. "Now, I'm everybody's dry shoulder."
Becker also persists in his ever-evolving spiritual quest. "The one thing I learned from cutting off my arm," he says, "is that I am able to cut off my arm. That takes tremendous will. Imagine how fucking scary it is to put your arms on a train track. What that proves for me is that with my creator, if I'm Abraham and God asks me to sacrifice my son, I can do it. What's scary about it is, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm nuts."
Peter Jones is a Denver-based freelance writer, a broadcaster, and a lousy comic.