I Saw a Dream

Monday, July 15, 2013

I saw a dream
which made me afraid,
and the thoughts upon my bed
and the visions of my head
troubled me
(Daniel 4:5)



October 15, 2022
Daniel Vanick
Advisor: Professor Emma Nguyen


Advisor Signature: ___________________


I. Project Overview

This outline provides the department with an overview of my research into American narratives of death in the years following the Idiopathic Dream Deficiency (IDD) and Idiopathic Dream Deficiency Related Suicide (IDDRS) epidemic. For the past year, I have sought to understand questions of agency in death—I have been drawn to the fact that both academic research and popular media have labeled these deaths suicides. My interviews with survivors and the bereaved draw into question the intentionality of these deaths.

My research, conducted between September 2021 and August 2022, is affiliated with the joint UC Berkeley-Library of Congress Oral History of Tragedy Project (OHTP). All oral interviews were conducted at OHTP sites.[1]


II. A History of Tragedy, 2013–2018: Historical Background

The first recorded cluster of cases can be traced to the small suburban community of Alamo, located in the eastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area.[2] In December 2013, primary care physicians affiliated with the John Muir Medical Network began to receive complaints from patients of “sleep without dreams” that consisted of “visions of complete darkness” or “emptiness.”

[1] OHTP sites are housed in community centers (houses of worship, town halls, etc.) in 765 urban and suburban locations around the United States (a full list of community centers can be found at http://www.ohtp.org/locate.html). Subjects who wish to speak with an OHTP volunteer may book a twenty-minute appointment in advance, although each site makes an effort to accommodate walk-ins. Upon arrival, subjects speak with a trained volunteer about their experiences during and after the epidemic. Each interview is freeform—there are no prepared questions for subjects to answer. Subjects were notified of my status as an affiliated researcher and were made aware that my interviews, while remaining freeform, would focus on experiences with death and suicide. Interviews were recorded with the subject’s consent. The Oral History of Tragedy Project, which is still in progress, features approximately 2,500 interviews available to researchers at http://www.ohtp.org/.
[2] World Health Organization, A Retrospective Analysis of the Epidemic with Statistical Appendixes(Geneva: WHO Press, 2020), p. 12.


Many patients described their sleep as “feeling like a headache without the pain.”[3] These first cases were treated as manifestations of depression—patients were either treated with an SSRI antidepressant or referred to psychotherapy.[4] It should be noted that the “visions of complete darkness” were not similar to the common experience of simply forgetting one’s dreams upon waking. Victims would report being “very aware of dreaming of nothing” and that such visions made sleep both unpleasant and uncomfortable.[5] These symptoms displayed little variability throughout the epidemic.

Isolated cases of IDD appeared in metropolitan areas of West Africa (Lagos and Accra), South Asia (Mumbai and Bangalore), and the midwestern United States (St. Louis and Minneapolis) at or around the same time as the Alamo appearance.[6] The next confirmed cluster appeared in February 2014 amongst Bangladeshi immigrants in London’s East End. Between February and May, cases began to appear worldwide (symptoms were even reported amongst research scientists and support staff in Antarctic research bases).

[3] Ibid., p. 14. Other descriptions include “a migraine without any pain,” “passing out while being asleep,” and, more succinctly, “oblivion.”
[4] David Sulock, Harish Chandra, Elaine McMartin, and Marine Hwang, “Early Approaches to Treatment during the Epidemic,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 70 (July 5, 2021), p. 42.
[5] WHO, Retrospective Analysis, p. 20. A major study of electroencephalogram (EEG), electromyogram (EMG), and electro-oculogram (EOG) measurements of IDD and “normal” subjects found no discernible difference between the two groups. See George W. Braun, Samantha Golovin, and Daud Khan, “Towards an Understanding of Sleep Patterns in IDD Patients,” Nature 496, no. 7582 (January 14, 2016), pp. 365–70.
[6] WHO, Retrospective Analysis, p. 26. Epidemiologists have attempted to draw connections between these early cases. Initial studies claimed that these instances were concentrated amongst middle- to upper-income individuals. However, it is now well known that these studies did not take into account those without adequate access to health care facilities. For more, see James Arthur, “A Rebuttal to a Theory of Affluence,” Prescription: A Journal of Public Health 7, no. 3 (Fall 2017), pp. 601–32.


The rapid worldwide spread of IDD has yet to be satisfactorily explained. Studies conducted by the WHO, the CDC, and the ad hoc UN Research Team (UN-RT) have determined that the “contagion” was not bacterial, viral, or parasitic. Further studies ruled out radiological or chemical origins. As of the writing of this document, explanations for the spread of the epidemic remain hypothetical.[7]

The fact that even eight years after the emergence of IDD, few clues exist few as to how or why it developed and how it has spread has left many in a state of terror.

“For the bereaved, the most common thing I see is PTSD,” Dr. James Wood, an OHTP-affiliated psychologist based at the Denver site, remarked in an interview. “They are terrified of going to bed every night. In their minds, every time they go to sleep is a chance to develop symptoms. Spouses of those who perished as a result of IDDRS think that because they shared a bed, it must lie dormant in their bodies. Family members typically think that there’s a genetic component and they’re next.”[8]

Dr. Erin Stevens of the Centers for Disease Control commented, “We just had a conference about IDD’s emergence a few months ago. Statistical analyses, epidemiological surveys, genetic tests, geographical pinpointing, family histories of mental illness, and even blood tests and fMRIs have shown us little about why IDD emerged.

[7] There have, however, been novel and theoretical interpretations. For example, Ramendra Chandra has posited that the contagion was spread digitally—a virus spread from computer to ear. Anticipating criticism that his digital thesis could not account for the epidemic’s presence in rural areas lacking widespread computer use, Chandra theorized that the virus may have originated in mobile phone operating systems. He concluded his work by noting that his idea was merely a thought experiment. Little research has followed up the publication of his book. See Ramendra Chandra, IDD: A Digital Disease? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
[8] Interview, James Wood, Denver, CO, June 15, 2022.


We can chart its emergence, but we have nothing on why or how it has developed. This is a mental health catastrophe. What if someone else figures it out before us? What if they weaponize it?”[9]

With little scientific data, some have turned to religion for comfort. Jacob Marvis of Cedar Rapids: “You know what it says in Job right? It says that ‘affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground.’ You know what that means? It means that there’s a reason to all this. And there’s gonna be a reason when it finally all goes away.”[10]

The first recorded IDD “suicide” occurred on June 1, 2014, in New York City. The victim, Jason C. Davidson, jumped in front of an oncoming uptown Q train at 3:47 a.m. As he jumped onto the tracks, he threw thirty-two copies of his suicide note toward the platform. In it, he wrote:

I am dead even as I write this Im tired of going to bed every night and seeing [strikethrough in original] feeling nothing. I lost my job a year ago and Ive sent out 87 resumes since and when I wasnt submitting resumes, I liked to sleep and dream of something else. What do I have now? I havent slept in four days thats how much I hate sleeping.[11]

He ended his letter with a declaration: “dreams dead lets go with ill see you there.”

The following day, the New York Post published a front-page article titled “Dying Dead Dreamer” and reproduced Davidson’s note in its entirety.[12] Before the publication of the Post’s article, however, the letter was seen to have spread via social media.

[9] Interview, Erin Stevens, Atlanta, GA, January 7, 2022.
[10] Interview, Jacob Marvis, Cedar Rapids, IA, May 4, 2022.
[11] “Davidson,” in A Documentary Archive of Early IDDRS, Columbia University, http://library.columbia.edu/indiv/ccoh/dreamarchive.html.
[12] “Dying Dead Dreamer,” New York Post, June 2, 2014, p. A1.


Its first posting was reported to have occurred on the now defunct social-networking site Facebook.[13] Alexander Siegalman, a twenty-seven-year-old accountant in New York City, first posted the letter at 6:01 a.m. on June 1. He accompanied his post with a caption: “I can’t sleep, neither could he.” Siegalman was found hanged in his apartment one week later.[14]

It should be recognized that many have taken issue with a timeline of the epidemic that features Davidson as Patient Zero. The anthropologist J. N. Iyer has argued that incidents of farmer suicide in central India increased by nearly 40 percent between January and July of 2014.[15] His analysis found an absence of any correlating economic indicators, leading him to conclude that “all roads point to (dream) death, so to speak.”[16] In an article for the New Yorker, the journalist Ali Qureshi wrote, “If you ask any public health official in any country, any city, or any municipality, you will find that they have definitive proof that Case Zero was theirs to claim.”[17] In deference to this debate, we may perhaps infer a middle ground: whatever the nationality of patient zero, IDDRS began to appear in early summer 2014—nearly seven months after the first appearance of IDD.

By the declared end of the epidemic on February 1, 2018, the WHO estimated that nearly 1 in 31 individuals worldwide (ca. 225,000,000) were suffering the effects of the epidemic. Of these, approximately 75 million individuals had perished, with 98.2 percent of cases considered to be suicides. Following ten million deaths, the WHO labeled IDDRS a catastrophic epidemic and urged all governments to declare a state of emergency (they had already declared IDD to be an “epidemic of concern”).

[13] As an archive, Facebook remains valuable in its transformation from social networking to a site of public memorial and mourning.
[14] See Michelle Derby, “A Chronology of Death,” Harper’s, August 2016, pp. 43–50.
[15] J. N. Iyer, “Case 0: A Study in Central India,” Public Culture 27, no. 3 (Fall 2019), pp. 655–679.
[16] Ibid., p. 677.
[17] Ali Qureshi, “A Plurality of Zeroes,” New Yorker, December 16, 2019, p. 36.


In response, in 2015 the United Nations convened a meeting of public health officials from member nations in order to create a joint plan of action.[18] Current CDC research has shown infection rates declining to 5 cases per 1,000 individuals with a suicide rate of 5 percent.[19]

“Just as we know little about the emergence of IDD, we know equally little about its decline,” Dr. Stevens stated. “We do know it hasn’t entirely disappeared. Local governments want to dismantle their PT systems to save money, but we need to be prepared for the next time. Think about the flu: you see the majority of the cases between October and May, but cases don’t disappear completely in the summer months. For all we know, we could be in a trough for now. It could come back. But this disease is anything but traditional. We have no idea.”[20]

Those in the religious community have seen its inexplicable rise and decline as divine: “The Bible tells us that ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.’ The Lord is punishing us. The Lord is tired of us violating His law. We’ve sinned more than Sodom and deserve a punishment worse than Gomorrah. He is judging us—one by one.”[21]

In the face of an epidemic akin in devastation to HIV/AIDS or the 1918 Spanish flu, but lacking any known cause, nihilism is perhaps our only comfort. One need only think of the medieval images of the Dance of Death that circulated on Twitter nearly every day during 2016. Four skeletons, varying in height, flailed their limbs in all directions, cranked open their jaws in ecstasy, and danced around an open grave. Though each was marked by the accoutrements of its previous life—sword, plow, cross—all were united in death. 

[18] For a summary of actions taken by the UN, see United Nations Commission on Emergency Medical Action, Compilation of Recommendations for Localized Action, New York, 9–13 February 2015 (New York, 2015).
[19] Jane Kim and Philip Stevens, “Current Infection Rates of IDD and IDDRS,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 71 (July 22, 2022), p. 65.
[20] Interview, Erin Stevens, Atlanta, GA, January 7, 2022.
[21] Interview, Reverend Ezekiel Frederickson, Selma, AL, February 10, 2022.


III. Speaking Death: Interviews [Selections]

The following are samples of oral interviews I conducted at OHTP sites. My research began in New York City on August 1, 2021, and concluded in San Francisco on September 15, 2022. These sample interviews are divided along two axes: sleep deprivation and Dreaming after Death. While I did encounter other discourses of suffering, my dissertation will most likely examine these two concepts, as they provide the clearest indication that the concepts of death and suicide may not be coterminous in analyses of the epidemic. I will discuss my possible theoretical incursions in the final section of this document.

A. Sleep Deprivation[22]

September 6, 2021. Wappingers Falls, NY.
Subject: Allison Boyle (F), age 53

Phil said that he couldn’t take it anymore. When I asked what he couldn’t take, he said that he would wake up every night with wet bedclothes and wet sheets. He said he would sweat through the night when he dreamed of nothing. He caught it two years before, but I didn’t. I don’t know why.

He’d wake up every hour every night. He kept telling me, I haven’t slept in two years, I haven’t slept in two years. I think he really stopped sleeping about a week before [Pause, coughing]

I loved my husband. I knew from what we had heard on the news that this was a bad sign. That Sunday, a day before he passed, I talked to our pastor. He [the pastor] said that I should call the PT [Psychological Triage] people at Saint Francis Hospital. They were quick. They sent someone to our home that evening.

[22] “Sleep deprivation” refers to a self-induced insomnia. Recall Jason Davidson’s suicide note wherein he wrote, “I havent slept in four days thats how much I hate sleeping.” Siegalman in his Facebook post wrote, “I can’t sleep, neither could he.”

Before he came, my husband pointed a finger in my face and yelled that I had done this behind his back. He said that he couldn’t trust these people who were running around trying to save everyone. He said that some people just didn’t want to be saved. Before, he would say that he didn’t want government trying to fuss with people’s lives—he would get political about it. But that day, he was saying that some people just wanted to die. I should have known. [pause]

The social worker’s name was John, I think. He looked to be six foot two and wore khakis and tucked in his white polo shirt. I remember that he had a mole next to his left eyebrow and thin black hair four fingernails long combed to the right. He must have been no more than thirty-five. He talked in a voice quiet and low—a voice in normal times you might have only heard at a wake.

People were saying that PT was a good thing for people on the fence. I knew a couple people in our congregation who were saved. John talked to Phil in the kitchen for maybe an hour.

Back then they were giving people really strong sleeping pills to keep them from waking throughout the night. Before he left, John gave them to me and said that I should keep them somewhere safe, just in case.

When you’re married long enough, it’s hard to hide things. [pause]

I found him the next morning.

August 28, 2022. Los Angeles, CA.
Subject: David Freeman (M), age 29

Everyone was saying to check in on your family, your friends, and to give them a call or visit them to make sure they’re sleeping. I called my brother, uh, he was living up in San Francisco at the time. We talked for maybe fifteen minutes? He kept clicking his tongue and coughing. It was like someone had slit open a cricket’s throat or something and piped the sound into the cell phone. I knew we talked about something, but I only can remember him whispering, “I’m fine, I’m fine, don’t worry.”

At that point, I knew. I mean, we all knew what people sounded like if they weren’t sleeping. He had all the signs: he drew out his words and he could barely remember things from five minutes ago. [pause]

I called his boyfriend after that. He said he was worried about James [David’s brother], that he hadn’t seen him in two days, and that he wasn’t picking up his phone or opening his door. I got in the car right after that conversation.

I kept getting texts from Jorge [James’s partner] that something wasn’t right. I pulled over somewhere on I-5 and called SFPD’s PT unit and reported him.

They couldn’t find him in his apartment. [pause, coughing]

They found his body near the Bay Bridge a week later.

January 6, 2022. Atlanta, GA.
Subject: Amanda Chou (F), age 34

My cousin left a note. All she wrote was “Four days. No sleep.”


B. Dreaming after Death[23]

I encountered a second social phenomenon: Dreaming after Death. Dreaming after Death has been well reported in mainstream journalism; most of these accounts, however, have relied on scant evidence due to the group’s stringent secrecy.[24]

[23] Commonly known in media accounts as “the Cult of Death.” “Dreaming after Death” refers to a turn of phrase found in many of my oral interviews: an idea that only death can bring back one’s dreams. Dreaming after Death refers to the belief that the epidemic was a punishment from God against the sins of mankind. The belief is that one must “greet death.” Typical forms of mass suicide involved ingesting household poisons mixed with a heavily sweetened iced tea. As will be discussed in my dissertation, adherents did not see this act as suicide (a sin), but rather as a method whereby one could release and cleanse the soul of sin. The reward for this cleansing would be a life after death. Here, one would live again with the ability to sleep and dream. This second life was not seen as the eternal life of salvation, but rather as a second chance at “normalcy”—salvation would occur following one’s death in his or her second life.
[24] See, for example, Andrei Kovrin, “Second Life,” New Yorker, February 16, 2016, pp. 32–40.


The following sample interviews are from ex-members and the bereaved. The OHTP and my research represent the only archive of what has been called a “cult of death.”

April 6, 2022. TN (city redacted for privacy concerns).
Subject: D.T.R (F)

We were a part of a born-again congregation for fifteen years, but these two, they came to us after church on Sunday, dressed in blue jeans and white tucked-in collared shirts. They stood across the lot in front of our church, two of them. We were going to our car when the one on the left flashed a toothy grin and asked us, “Will you be born again?”

I eyed them up and down. Who were these boys with faces clean and smiles so bright— they must have been no more than twenty-two—standing in the parking lot of a Baptist church and asking us if we would be born again? We said that we were, but then the one of the left, the one holding a stack of papers folded in three, looked me in the eye and asked me, “Will you be born again in the Blood of Christ?”

They gave us a pamphlet. We read over it when we got home. It said there was a new church. Services were gonna be held in the living room of someone’s house. The next day, I asked my pastor about it and he said not to trust these men. He said they were going to distract us from the true word of God. He kept pulling on his hair and jiggling his head. He looked like he had heard this before. He asked me to give him the pamphlet.

I should have known something was wrong when the next Sunday we saw them again. The toothy one gave us a new pamphlet with a new address for their meetings.

I didn’t know that my husband began to attend. He kept the whole thing a secret from me for months. Sunday afternoons. He said he was just watching football at a friend’s. He left sometime when I was asleep. His note said that he was going to be born again in the Blood of Christ. October 27 [2016]—that was the last time I saw him.

May 21, 2022. AZ.
Subject: A.B.S. (M)

What they told us we were doing was never described as suicide. It was always about being born again. Being born again in the Blood. They never mentioned death until a few days before we were gonna greet it. That’s when they started talking about Dreaming after Death. I didn’t show up to drink the Kool-Aid. I didn’t die.

May 4, 2022. TX.
Subject: S.H. (M)

Being born again in the Blood is a load of shit. But you know what, you’ll believe anything when you’re the one in thirty-one and you can’t sleep and Jesus doesn’t feel all that close to you anymore. I wish I could say I didn’t drink whatever they gave us, but I did. I passed out and vomited it all up and woke up in a hospital a couple days later. This disease changes you.


IV. Possible Theoretical Incursions and Write-Up Timeline

Some might say that it would be most productive to research the “state of mind” of the dying prior to her or his death. They believe that this approach caches possible answers to questions of agency and intentionality. In response, I must ask: to what extent was the dying subject aware of his or her condition? Let us return to deaths as a result of sleep deprivation. Were these deaths “suicides,” or were they the result of an insomnia-related psychosis? Neurological research has determined that even short periods of sleep deprivation can mimic severe psychiatric and neurological disorders.[25] More importantly, this fact became well known as the epidemic spread. Is agency to be located in the initial decision to avoid sleep?

[25] See David Yoo, Neeral Pandey, John Wang, Istvan Kocel’ovce, and Peter H. Quinn, “The Emotional Response of the Human Brain in Periods of Sleep Deprivation: Amygdala disconnection,” Neurological Research 28, no. 2 (April 2018), pp. 422–32.


We must also realize that IDD and IDDRS are not simply “diseases.” What is destroyed may have been what we once thought was unimportant, vestigial. When Shala Marshee talked about the death of her partner of twenty-five years, she mentioned that “she never remembered her dreams, ever. I’d talk to her about my dreams—bad, good, weird—and she’d always say she didn’t dream, something like that. . . . And then, little by little, she leaves me. She stopped dreaming. Then she stopped sleeping. And then.”[26]

IDD and IDDRS have stolen from us something that has made us fundamentally human, and in that loss of self, we perish. In my interviews, it has become clear that what we have lost is not like a limb—no prosthesis may make us feel whole again. This epidemic has erased what was once thought indelible and has made useless the basic metaphor we have for thinking of future hopes—our dreams. What does it mean to not be able to close one’s eyes and find rest?

Health officials have talked of suicide prevention since the February 2015 UN meeting, but can one truly prevent death when something so constitutive of our humanity disappears? I must make clear that I am not justifying suicide. More accurately, however, I do not believe that these deaths constitute suicides. In making such an assumption, I recommend that we move away from the terminology of self-inflicted death and instead talk of death as a terminal symptom of IDD. In doing so, we may remove the differentiation between IDD and IDDRS—the two now occupy a spectrum of symptomatic affliction.

This may seem to be a minor conclusion, but we should not diminish the importance of how we frame IDD. By no longer speaking of suicide, I do what historians have long avoided: I downplay agency. In doing so, I hope we may move from speaking of death as a decision (for suicide-as-death rests upon making an active decision to end one’s life) to opening a space for histories of victimhood. How did IDD transform—and continue to transform—the lives of our kith and kin?

[26] Interview, Shala Marshee, Oakland, CA, August 15, 2022.


As of October 14, 2022, I have completed transcription of the 300 interviews I conducted during my fieldwork. The historical background and final section featured in this fieldwork summary constitute a condensed version of the first chapter of my dissertation. This chapter has been given to Professor Nguyen for review and revisions. A full draft of will be completed by the end of this academic year. Per departmental regulations, a copy of this draft will be sent to the graduate liaison by May 12.



Daniel Vanick             __________________                        __________________

                                    Signature                                             Date

Monday, July 1, 2013