context for Impossible Letter # 1, The Genius

My two dear friends had a daughter with remarkable talents.  The first she displayed was an amazing ability to provoke her father to rage.  She angered her mother too, but her father was so worried about inflicting harm on his provocative little daughter that he went to therapy to learn how not to become the destructively angry, violent parent his mother had been to him.  

His mother’s readiness to fly into a rage and her angry slaps stung him decades later, sting him to this day.  He was determined not to do that to his daughter.  He made good progress in therapy and left once he felt he’d learned to keep his temper under control.

As a young girl she revealed a remarkable gift for playing the piano by ear.  Her grandmother’s upright piano was soon moved to her house where she quickly developed an amazing independence of hands, her left hand and right hand moved as if they belonged to two different musicians playing in perfect time.  She could play entire classical pieces by ear, a remarkable thing, particularly in a child so young.  She was a prodigy. 

I recall her, at perhaps six, demonstrating her discovery that you can play different classical melodies over the same left hand accompaniment.  Her left hand never stopped playing, a steady heartbeat, even as she looked over her shoulder to talk to me as she went excitedly from one melody to the next.  

She also loved to sing, and once a teacher of her’s praised her for it, she began singing everywhere.  I had a message on my answering machine once, from her, at maybe seven, telling me excitedly that she was going to be on the radio at a certain time.  I tuned in and heard a remarkable a cappella vocal and then an interview with a supremely poised kid, who turned out to be her.

Her parents feared that becoming a child star would turn their already difficult daughter into a monster and mark her for the troubled life so many child stars seem to experience when they grow up.  They decided that instead of letting her perform (outside of school plays) that she would study music.   This, they reasoned, would have the collateral benefit of using her love of music to instill a sense of discipline in her.  They hired a series of classical piano teachers to instruct her, teach her to read music, hone her talent the traditional way. 

They did this with the best of intentions, neither understood that many great musicians and composers can’t read music. The long list includes Paul McCartney (and the rest of the Beatles), Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Stevie Wonder (obviously…), Django Reinhardt, Taylor Swift, Aretha Franklin and many others.  They also didn’t get that pure love of making music, the joy of invention, is what made these folks such great musicians.

The piano lessons were a constant source of stress and the succession of teachers was a testament both to the girl’s resistance and her parents’ insistence.   She didn’t need to practice, quickly mastered reading music and every new assignment, reversed hands as she played, without missing a beat, (out of boredom and contempt) and drove each teacher to distraction.  She did well in school and taught herself to play the flute, in her spare time. 

The fights with her mother continued, and as she got older, she got the better of every argument, with her excellent memory and ability to marshal the facts, and logic, to support her case.  Her overmatched mother was very frustrated with her opinionated, challenging little bitch of a daughter.

I watched her musical abilities change over the course of the classical piano lesson years. Eventually she could not play along to anything without counting in, knowing where each beat was supposed to go.  The regimentation of classical piano lessons had taken much of the joy and spontaneity out of music for her and she spent years afterwards recovering some of her unselfconscious excitement and native creativity.  Meanwhile, she turned to alcohol and a succession of mind-altering drugs.

Unsurprisingly, she turned out to be an excellent writer.  She got a job writing a column for an on-line magazine.  Her column was remarkable.  It explored her inner world in a compelling way.  After a few excellent posts she was somehow let go.  Her final piece was powerfully emotional and shocking, filled with harsh self-recrimination.  She wrote that she had been an asshole as a girl and adolescent and caused her parents and her brothers a great deal of pain.  She gave a public account of her drug addiction that included the excruciating detail of waking up on a bus from another city, groggy from ketamine, without her panties or any recollection of how she got there.

Knowing her since she was a fetus, and being one of her parents’ closest friends, I had watched the entire course of her life up until that point.  I had a perspective her parents couldn’t give her, and one it might take her decades, if ever, to come to on her own.  A friend of my parents, with a relatively simple observation about them, had accelerated my understanding of my life by many years when I was around her age.  I intended to pay this gift forward by providing the tormented young woman with some very good reasons to let herself off the hook. I made the offer several times over the years, and she was always initially enthusiastic, but she seemed to grow wary and the conversation never happened.

This wariness is a characteristic of people who have experienced childhood trauma.  I don’t know why I am not wary this way, since I experienced prolonged childhood trauma (perhaps it was my mother’s unerring sympathy for my point of view, in the end), but I recognize that many traumatized people are filled with distrust, even of people they love.  Anyone, we learn as young children, can inflict terrible pain, even without meaning to, and pain inflicted by those we love and trust hurts worst of all. 

I thought I’d put all this in a letter to her, but she never texted me her new address, as she’d cheerfully promised to do the last time I saw her.   Making the letter even more impossible than it was a few years ago, it will no longer be coming from a dear, cherished old family friend.  After an unforeseeable, brutal falling out with her folks,  the letter will now be coming from a vicious, angry, unforgiving, aggressive, sadistic, threatening, stubborn, lawyerly, satanically smart, twisted, unloving betrayer of love, which is how my old friends now see and portray me.   

Try that one on for size, impossible letter writer!

(impossible letter to follow)

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