A gas chamber looks better by gaslight

I offer this anecdote to illustrate how even a very smart person, perhaps especially a very smart person, can create a world of shit simply by selectively using their intellectual gifts. You can turn anything into anything else, with the will and the skill. We see this all the time in public life now, not even done skillfully much of the time, but it is also sadly prevalent in personal life.

The common phrase for somebody pissing on your leg and dismissively insisting it’s raining is gaslighting. That term is based on an old movie where a guy, to drive his wife insane, makes the gaslight dimmer and dimmer and, when the wife keeps commenting on the increasing dimness in the house, insists the light is the same as it always was, and that the wife is insane, which eventually breaks her, I think.

I once worked for a brilliant man who had a very smart assistant and an armed guard in the room where he presided. He had a good sense of humor, and of the absurd, but he was also used to being listened to, respected and having the final word.

He had a theory about why so many people act out in our society, and a term for it: Honor Anemia. In this country we are not listened to, given even the minimal respect or recognition that every human being needs, so we are constantly seeking it, sometimes by acting out, even becoming criminals. The theory made a certain amount of sense to me.

We were having lunch one day, in the crowded outside area of a restaurant near the meatpacking district. He asked me if I had any theory about why child molesters, of all criminals, are so universally despised, even by rapists and murderers. I said it was probably because they prey on the most vulnerable of victims and pretty much destroy their young lives. This answer didn’t satisfy the philosophical man, who continued to probe.

Wasn’t it possible, he asked, if the adult truly loved the child he was sexually involved with, and always gentle to and considerate of, that the relationship wouldn’t harm the child? I told him that could theoretically be true, but even if it was true in 50% of cases, it didn’t account for the terrible wound it inflicted on the other 50%. Putting the traumatic damage to the kid on a coin toss, for the sake of sexual gratification for the adult seemed a very callous bet, to me.

I pointed out that the likelihood of lifelong harm to the child was probably closer to 99% than my hypothetical coin flip. I also said that if the adult truly loved the child he wouldn’t risk destroying the kid’s life to have sex with the child, he would wait until the kid was an adult to begin a romance. He chewed on this and we continued to talk.

It became less and less clear to me what he was talking about. Whenever I’d ask for clarification, he would nimbly digress to some other point I couldn’t grasp. I finally told him “look, I’m happy to talk about whatever you want, and I’m not squeamish about this subject, or any subject, it’s just that I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about at this point.” He thanked me, for being willing to talk about the taboo subject, telling me that nobody else had ever let him discuss it so frankly. I told him he was welcome, but that, really, I hadn’t gotten the point he was trying to make.

As we left the restaurant, walking over to meet his wife, he asked me what I thought of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, two whistleblowers who had been much in the news. I offered a tepid defense of both of them, pointing out that whatever their criminal exposure, both of their revelations, which had required great personal courage to disclose, had been of immense public importance. He immediately began to snarl that they both had committed textbook treason, then raised his voice, denouncing me as an idiot, as someone obviously unaware of the findings of a series of great sociologists and political scientists of yesteryear that I’d never heard of, let alone read.

He raged at me so long that his wife, an intolerable termagant, a harping harridan, told him to let me get a word in. He did not. We were in his car, crossing the bridge back to Queens, then on the highway, I was a sitting duck.

I was no longer working for him and had no reason to forgive or forget his merciless tongue lashing. He called to apologize, then asked me to do him a favor, procure a bit more of something for him that was then still illegal in New York State. For reasons I can’t understand now, I did him this one last favor. When he came to pick up his contraband I foolishly accepted a ride to Sekhnet’s with him. Now he wanted to take me to dinner. I only wanted to not interact with him anymore, already regretting the favor I’d done. I declined his invitation, he insisted.

It was important that we had a good meal and talk everything over, he told me, we were friends. Friends, I pointed out, don’t mercilessly bully their friends over a difference in opinion. No, he said, we have to talk this out, over dinner. He pulled up in front of his favorite restaurant. I started heading for the nearest subway, but he grabbed me in a bear hug. “Please,” the large man said, “let me treat you to dinner.”

I was in my fifties at the time, he was in his early seventies. If you wound the clock back a few decades, he would have been in his thirties, I would have been around ten. None of this escaped me as I disentangled from his embrace without shoving or striking him. For reasons I also don’t understand, I went into the restaurant, ate a meal, and we had a talk I recall not a word of. It was like talking to a mummy, I suppose.

The next time I ran into the purveyor of contraband he asked me about my former boss, who’d been a good customer of his. I told him the story; the incomprehensible shift from thanking me for listening to his odd rambling meditation on child molestation to his rage that we disagreed about the nature of what Snowden and Manning had done.

“Psychology 101,” he said “he revealed that he was probably a child molester, and you’d been understanding in some way, and he hated himself for that and had to immediately make you hate him too.”

Though my neighbor is not generally known for his psychological astuteness, I thought he put things in a very insightful nutshell. If I had any doubt about my former boss’s intention in the odd discussion of child molestation, it was removed when he bodily intervened to prevent me from leaving him at the restaurant. It was a distinctly rapey move. Another kind of man would have roughly shoved him away, told him to fuck himself, slapped him hard if he persisted, knocked him to the ground, if necessary. I ate a plate of linguine and watched his mouth move without hearing anything he said, then it was all over.

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