I’m reminded, by a recent chat with a woman I’ve known since I was eight, of how destructive following bad advice from experts can sometimes be. The cliché that the craziest people often go into psychology is borne out by the experiences of my close childhood friend whose family and mine grew close as well. I think of the damage done to them by following three pieces of catastrophic psychological advice they were given by professionals over the years.
I had a call yesterday, out of the blue, from Caroline, the soon to be 93 year-old mother of a longtime friend I haven’t been in contact with in a few years. She told me she’s going stir-crazy during lockdown, was tired of reading (she can’t bear to watch TV these days) saw my name in her phone book, decided to call and see how I was doing. I was glad to hear from her.
My mother and Caroline were good friends for many years, until my father eventually took a deep dislike to her, which began to come to a head when Caroline, who busily visited everybody, particularly the sick and elderly, apparently never once stopped by to see my mother when she was recuperating from cancer surgery. “She lived five fucking blocks away,” my father pointed out. He later added other charges, to finalize the break with longtime friends Caroline and her husband.
I’ve always liked talking to Caroline. She’s bright and sharp and a good listener, as well as a character with an interesting take on things and the occasional cool turn of phrase (Trump, if he loses, will remain a media force and “make borsht” out of Biden). Like all of us, she has her faults, but they never bother me when we’re chatting, as we did for a long stretch yesterday. At one point, after she told me of her son’s soon to be finalized divorce, I summed up the monumentally bad advice her family had followed, in desperate moments, and she immediately agreed.
Mid-1960s: Her daughter was always a very dramatic and often unhappy girl. At some point dad began taking her into the city regularly for father-daughter nights on the town. They’d go to dinner and a Broadway show. Though she seemed to enjoy the nights out, they didn’t make the miserable girl any happier. Her unhappiness led to a threat of suicide, maybe even an attempt. Her alarmed parents brought her to a psychiatrist. The shrink told them to take her threats of suicide very seriously– basically to give her whatever she asked for, because if they didn’t, they could lose her.
Second opinion, anyone? No need. Instead they gave the teenager a credit card. She instantly developed a lifelong taste for the finer things in life. The bills came, the parents paid. What could they do? When she needed a car, she got one. Rent? They paid. The young woman did not become much happier, but she was able to live well without working, at least. In the end, she acquired disabling drug and alcohol addictions. Caroline agrees, in hindsight, that it was stupid, fifty years ago, to take the advice of that psychiatrist. At ninety-two she is still subsidizing her daughter’s lifestyle.
My childhood best friend had a series of Christian girlfriends during his college and post-college years. The relationships would fray when he informed each one he could never marry a Christian. At thirty, feeling desperate, he went to a shrink who told him he needed to stabilize his life by finding and marrying a Jewish girl.
He took this advice to heart, finding a Jewish girl to date (the younger sister of a guy we knew from Hebrew School), becoming engaged to her, in spite of several brightly flashing caution signs, (including vicious fights) and marrying her soon after, in a wedding notable for its openly simmering tensions. I didn’t understand the urgency of any of this, and told him so as he reported the latest fight while rushing toward his wedding day, but the shrink had told him it was imperative to his sanity to do it, so it was full speed ahead.
“I knew it was a terrible mistake,” said Caroline, “everybody did.”
The decision to marry was followed by thirty years of uninterrupted warfare between the spouses. A common early war theme involved my friend’s commitment to what he hoped would be a professional songwriting career. For some reason these activities (working with a singer, a guy, mind you) had to be carried out in secret. The secrecy led to occasional white lies, some of which were discovered. There was distrust, accusations of the husband being a fucking liar, screaming matches in the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom. An active war zone it horrified my friend to know he was raising his two sons in. He couldn’t imagine the damage he was doing to them by subjecting them to these regular explosions of violence between their parents.
“Sheesh,” said Caroline “yeah, that was some bad advice. Well, at least that long nightmare is over. The divorce will be finalized next week.”
This piece of bad advice led directly to me, the guy’s oldest friend, and it was also something of a doozy. I was on good terms with both my friend and his wife, felt like I performed a kind of peacemaking function when I hung out with them. They always seemed relatively fine when I was there. I always liked her, though I could also see she was troubled and subject to rages. I was only once on the business end of her anger, but it passed quickly. Later, I found out, she weaponized something I’d casually told her to beat her husband bloody with at a marriage counseling session toward the end of their marriage of a thousand atrocities.
Her husband had told me a quick story he regretted telling midway through. The little tale was truncated, it involved his wife and a third party I didn’t care much about it, he told me to forget it, I pretty much did. A few weeks later, his wife called to tell me the same story, which she laid out in great detail. For the first time the odd little anecdote seemed to make sense.
“Ah,” I said, unwittingly slipping my head into the noose.
” ‘Ah’ what?” she asked.
Here I made my fatal mistake, being unguardedly candid.
” Ah, I get it. Now it makes sense, when he told me about it I didn’t really understand why you stormed out at the end.”
“Oh,” she said, “what did he tell you?”
Looking back, I suppose I could have tried to sidestep the question, which would have been the discreet, if tricky, thing to do. Instead I spoke what I thought was a bland, harmless truth. I recounted what I recalled of the first version of the story and stressed that he’d told me the whole anecdote in about a minute and that I hadn’t asked him any follow-up questions, so he’d had no chance to clarify what I hadn’t understood about the little story.
She probably made some comment about what a fucking liar he was. If she did, I would have pointed out that it clearly wasn’t a case of lying, it was a quick story I didn’t much care about so I hadn’t bothered getting clarification of what was incomplete about it.
A few weeks later I had a text from my friend. He had to see me, immediately. I called to find out what was wrong, his voicemail picked up. He immediately texted me that he couldn’t talk on the phone, he had to see me in person. The texting went on for a few days until we arranged a time to meet in my neighborhood. When he arrived in his car he texted me, I texted back what corner I was standing on. He wrote back “got it” and, a minute later, drove right past me and turned right on to Broadway. I hobbled after his car and caught him at a red light a block away.
He was cheerful, but I noticed his eyelid was ticking. After a few minutes of small-talk I asked him what he needed to talk to me about. He came to the point: he was confronting me because I had deliberately tried to destroy his marriage.
“What?” said Caroline, as though I hadn’t also told her the story in detail at the time.
His wife told their marriage counselor that her fucking husband’s oldest friend confirmed that the guy was a fucking liar. She weaponized my remark about her husband’s “false” account of a story involving her. The marriage counselor and the wife told my hapless friend that he was not a man who could be respected, nor any kind of husband, if he let his oldest friend sabotage their marriage this way without confronting him. So he arrived to confront me.
“Oh, my God,” said Caroline.
I told her the funny thing was, in spite of the tensions between us by then, I really wasn’t that upset about the accusation. Seeing him in such turmoil, I tried my best to help him out of this impossible jam with his impossible wife in his impossible marriage. I gave him a reasonable account to bring back to his marriage counseling session, for whatever that might have been worth.
“Well, he’s a different person now,” Caroline said “he’s happier than he’s been in a long time.”
I told her to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit.
At the end of a very pleasant ninety minute chat she asked me if she should tell her son we’d talked. I told her she certainly should. I told her again to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit.
I made a note of the date of her upcoming 93rd birthday and hope to check in with her then.