Daniel Keyes was an American author of science fiction and non-fiction, best-known for his 1958 short story and subsequent novel Flowers For Algernon.
Written as a series of first-person “Progress Reports”, Flowers For Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man with severe learning difficulties and low IQ who undergoes an experimental operation transforming him into a genius.
The reader follows him from the preliminary psychiatric tests, described in clumsy, ungrammatical sentences - “I think I faled it and I think mabye now they wont use me [sic]” - to his attempts to re-enter the outside world. Before long, Algernon – a mouse, and Charlie’s forerunner in the experimental process – begins to show ill effects, and Charlie must confront the dawning realisation that the gift bestowed upon him by the scientific community may be neither wholly beneficial, nor permanent.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the short story won a Hugo Award in 1960, and a retrospective Nebula Award in 1964 - two of the highest accolades in science fiction and fantasy writing.
The expanded novel won a Nebula Award in 1966, and has never been out of print. It has since been adapted as a television drama, feature film, stage play and contemporary dance work. The film adaptation, Charly (1968), won an Oscar for Cliff Robertson’s lead performance. A 1979 musical production ran in the West End and starred Michael Crawford, and there have been stage and screen versions in Australia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Japan.
Over the next five decades Keyes published another five novels, a volume of collected short stories and several works of non-fiction. But none of them matched the early and sustained success of Algernon. “Charlie is haunting me,” Keyes wrote in his partial autobiography, Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey (1999). “I try to put him out of my mind, but he won’t let me.”
Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York City, on August 9, 1927. His father, Willie, ran a junk shop selling books, scrap metal and old clothing, his mother, Betty, was a self-trained beautician. From an early age he was extremely nearsighted, and a pervading fear that he would one day go blind drove him to read voraciously. His vision did not deteriorate, however, and after serving in the Sea Scouts at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn he was able to pass the medical examinations for the US Maritime Service, becoming a ship’s purser.
Stationed on board a T-2 tanker to Aruba and Caracas, he was appointed ship’s doctor after an administrative error left the crew without a qualified medic, and attended to a man who had imbibed a quarter-pint of stolen lemon extract. Despite Keyes administering artificial respiration for an hour and a half, the man died, and Keyes signed off the tanker after her second voyage, eventually ending his naval career in December 1946 after 18 months of sea duty.
He read psychology at Brooklyn College and, after a stint selling encyclopedias door-to-door, became associate editor for Marvel Science Stories, part of a chain of pulp fiction magazines. His first published short story, Robot Unwanted, appeared in Other Worlds in 1952.
But the pulp fiction industry was already in decline, and Marvel Science Stories ceased publication that same year. Keyes switched track into comic books, writing synopses for the horror, fantasy, suspense, and science fiction genres. One of the ideas he drafted for his editor, but never submitted, gave an early hint of the thought process behind Flowers for Algernon: “The first guy in the test to raise the IQ from a low normal 90 to genius level ... goes through the experience and then is thrown back to what was.”
The final inspiration for Charlie Gordon, however, was to come four years later. Keyes was married and living in a one-bedroom house at Seagate, a community at the far western end of Coney Island, where he taught two classes of Special Modified English - a course for students struggling with basic literacy. There he was confronted by a boy unhappy with his place in “the dummy class for stupid people”, who pleaded with Keyes: “I want to be smart.”
After the novelised version of Flowers For Algernon was finally released (five publishers rejected it in the space of a year ), Keyes continued to write and teach, becoming an English and creative writing professor at Ohio University in 1966. His next novel, The Touch (1968), dealt with the aftermath of a radiation leak, while The Fifth Sally (1980) drew on Keyes’s grounding in psychology, centring on a protagonist with multiple-personality disorder.
Keyes developed his interest further the following year, in The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981), his most successful non-fiction work. A biography of William Stanley Milligan, the first man in US legal history to use multiple-personality disorder in his insanity plea against charges of rape and felony, the book was based on a series of interviews that Keyes conducted with Milligan from 1979.
After extensive treatment at the Athens Mental Health Centre in Ohio, Milligan’s 24 distinct personalities appeared to have fused into one, named “The Teacher”, who was able to give an account of himself. Keyes judged the “fused” Billy “one of the most brilliant, most talented, most caring people I ever met”, and his biography gave voice to each personality in turn, detailing Milligan’s abusive upbringing at the hands of his stepfather and his subsequent descent into a cycle of criminal behaviour and psychiatric hospitalisation, which culminated in 1977 in the sexual assault of three women in the Ohio State University area. Though the book made the bestseller list, Keyes’s handling of the material also attracted criticism, particularly from those who considered Milligan’s recovery too miraculous to be true, and his personalities evidence of exceptional acting talent rather than deep-rooted mental illness.
The story continued long after publication, and Keyes followed developments closely, adding numerous revisions to his book and gathering material for a sequel, The Milligan Wars. After being transferred to Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Milligan’s condition deteriorated. He considered the hospital, in Keyes’s words, to be “a chamber of horrors”, and spent the next few years being shuttled between numerous institutions.
In 1986 he escaped from Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital and telephoned Keyes long-distance, telling him that he felt it unsafe to remain in the institution. Keyes advised him to turn himself in to the authorities, in the event, he was detained by police after four and a half months on the run, and eventually released from all supervision in 1991. The Milligan Wars was published in Japan (where all Keyes’s work has been in print continuously) in 1994.
In addition to his 1999 memoir, Keyes wrote Unveiling Claudia (1984), billed as “a true crime story with a fascinating psychic twist”, and two further novels, Until Death (1998) and The Asylum Prophecies (2009). Unveiling Claudia was nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best True Crime category.
Daniel Keyes was a professor emeritus at Ohio university from 2000.
He married, in 1952, Aurea Vazquez.