I was thinking idly the other day, as I so often do, when an obvious theory presented itself to me as I walked. What makes a man a power-crazed, misogynistic, narcissist? How does a person become a rigid, sadistic asshole? As George Grosz famously said, to know this we have to study the humiliations the person underwent.
I had a friend who was the youngest of three boys. He never felt he got enough attention. His father seemed indifferent to him and his mother, a charming woman, apparently did not give him quite enough undivided attention when he was young. I’m not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I could eventually see by the way he lived his life — intent on adoration, constantly disappointed and betrayed, rigid in any conflict, incapable of useful self-knowledge, needing to get the very best out of any and every deal– that he was a deeply damaged person. He could not avoid conflict, no matter how gently he tried to control the situation.
In the end these traits made him insufferable. It was his lack of insight into how extreme his personality was, as much as his quirks themselves, that finally tipped the balance. I later learned, from his oldest brother, that he has been unable to keep any friends. SAD!, yes, but not that big a surprise.
This poor devil had unrealizable expectations of life. He expected to be recognized for his musical genius (he was quite talented) and it burned him that even those closest to him did not give him the props he deserved. His father, for example, was unable to sit still for a long recital of recent piano works. Father and adult son sat together in a cousin’s apartment where the concert was played for an audience of one. As the composer played, his father, seated behind him, began flipping through the CDs on the rack next to him. He reported how his blood ran cold as the cases clacked, how his spine stiffened as he bitterly forced himself to play the remainder of the new opus for a father still totally unable to focus on his youngest son. I couldn’t help identifying a bit with the man forced to sit for as long as it took for him to finally recognize his son’s undeniable brilliance.
We, many of us, have unrealizable expectations of life. Others manage to realize these unrealizable things, which can serve to stoke our own unrealistic dreams. At times, it appears, these fabulous accomplishments lead one to sourly ponder the old “be careful what you wish for.” A terminally unhappy person, dreaming that climbing a certain mountain will make them happy, often finds empty bitterness at that peak as they stand there in what should be blissful triumph. Certain holes in the soul cannot be filled by accomplishments, no matter how lofty.
I was thinking of the most powerful man in the world. The first man in his job who is constantly attacking people from his phone. “The president attacked…” is a common daily lede for current news stories. He is an innovator, of a certain type. He has made himself part of history. From my point of view, my opinion only, he is not making himself a very inspiring part of history. He is, from all appearances, a bully unconstrained by anything but his own need to dominate others. How does a person get this way? Walking uptown last night I had a theory.
His father was known as something of a tyrant. He had inherited a small fortune, from a truly entrepreneurial father, and, from an early age (the father died when he was a young teenager) began single-mindedly building that small fortune into a huge fortune. His methods were sometimes unscrupulous, he cultivated political favors, took advantage of government programs for grants and tax breaks, but he built a huge fortune on his real estate empire. He had a beloved oldest son who had too much of a conscience, from what I can glean, to take the family fortune to the next level. They had a falling out, the heir apparent quit (and eventually drank himself to death) and the father had to go to his second choice, a younger son who was a discipline problem.
Much has been made of the relationship between the overbearing mentor father and his tiny million dollar loan and the boy sent to military academy to get some discipline, to become a man. The kid had crossed a line in his bullying when he bought a batch of switchblades, the better to rule his private school schoolyard, I suppose. After military academy the grooming of this young mogul-to-be began in earnest. I had a sudden thought last night– what role did the boy’s mother play in all this?
The man’s father was born to some wealth, and soon acquired fantastic wealth of his own. The mother had been born poor, was an immigrant. It is reported that she went personally to the laundromats they owned in her mink coat, driven by a chauffeur, to collect, and then count, the quarters from the washing machines. Nothing particularly unnatural about this, I think. I then thought of the effect on her children of this kind of grasping, coin-counting desperation to feel wealthy and important. The effect on the young son, seeing his dynamic mother trying to act like an aristocrat. What values could she have instilled in the boy? We can only judge these by the man’s behavior.
This very public man has made virtually no mention of his mother, outside of canned comments he repeated over the years about her being beautiful and brilliant. “An amazing woman,” he will say, using the same adjective he used to describe his Healthcare for All plan, the Wall to keep Mexican rapists out, the record size of the adoring campaign crowds who cheer him and every other product he offers for sale. I can only imagine, by his overt contempt for women (one only has to picture him lurking menacingly behind his hated rival Crooked Hillary during a debate) that his mother, in some fundamental way, gave him only conditional love and support. The kind of thing that plants lifelong bitterness deep in the heart. If love depends on being a certain way… well, what the fucking fuck? I’ll fucking be that way in fucking spades, bitch. I’ll show you that certain way! Goddamn it, you want a certain fucking way? Here you fucking go, you amazing woman.
(Amazing as my long inability to excavate this desk… find an agent, get to the top of that little mountain of dung I sometimes find myself daydreaming about.)