I was raised by an angry, narcissistic father and an angry, but non-narcissistic mother. While my father could never admit being wrong or doing anything that hurt you, my mother could eventually see things from the victim’s point of view, at least in my case.
Her love is what saved my life, I realize now, in that constant war zone where my father fought my sister and me every night over our steak, salad and rice-a-roni. My sureness in her love is what sustained me in an endless, senseless war with my father that I didn’t start and that lasted until the last three days of my father’s life.
In the end, he saw he’d been mistaken and we finally came to a tragically too-late, but blessed, understanding, the last night of his life. Before that time, like all narcissists, the idea of being imperfect was humiliating to him. He could not bear to “lose” and would do any number of ruthless things to ensure his ongoing “victory”.
Twenty years earlier, as I was turning thirty, I began to realize that my dream of becoming a famous artist was actually my ambitious grandmother’s dream for me. I had talent, but not the “vision” and drive that marks the great immortal artists whose work graces the world’s museums and the walls of those who can afford $20,000,000 for a picture to hang in their home.
It turns out I was always more of a philosopher than an “artist,” another rarefied calling with a very secure career path. I was always more interested in discovering deeper truths about this perplexing shitstorm we live in than creating work that the wealthy tastemakers, those who decided who were real artists and who were just regular people with a passionate hobby, traded in. The difference between an artist and someone who simply loved to create, I was beginning to realize, was that very rich people bought and sold artist’s work to decorate their lavish homes, while the hobbyist was just a poor bastard with delusions of grandeur.
I was too critical and angry at the injustice of vast wealth and vast poverty to be an interior decorator for those entitled fucks but I had a hard time abandoning the dream of living like Picasso. I became depressed.
I had a minor accident while making deliveries on my bike. Cutting diagonally across West 57th Street in a reckless, illegal move, ironically right in front of some prestigious art galleries I used to haunt, the handlebars of my bike were sideswiped by a young driver. Many months later I was awarded about $7,000 when some shysters won a lawsuit suing the driver. The accident had actually been my fault, but what the fuck, the kid’s father’s insurance paid. I took the money.
With that money I was going to finance my fourth film and then travel to Israel and then east, up to Nepal. For whatever reason, both of those ideas became too daunting for me. I’d already put the movie idea on hold and promised to sublet my apartment to a friend but found myself increasingly unable to make decisions. Soon no decision was too small to cause me agony, in a short time I was paralyzed.
I remember spending hours in a shoe store, trying on shoes, and in the end leaving with none. The salesman was furious. I felt like shit.
The day for the sublet was rapidly approaching, and my father, disgusted by what was happening to me, made the decision for me. “You made a promise to Brendan,” he said, “you can’t screw up his life because you are having trouble making decisions. You can move in here until you go to Israel.”
I took the worst advice I’ve ever followed and moved back into my childhood home. It was like a miracle, I woke up in my old room crushed with depression. Things got worse and worse.
One aspect, looking back, is that it seemed my father had won. It turned out I was a weak, self-pitying, egotistical, grandiose, lazy, unrealistically dreaming young man filled with idiotically self-serving ideas about some imagined glorious life that had led me directly, and deservedly, into the dark abyss I found myself in. There was no escape.
I don’t remember my mother’s love in those days, though she was clearly heartbroken. What I remember is my father’s scorn and that, although he was ashamed of what I’d become, he also had an odd sense of vindication. My sudden inability to do anything, in spite of my talents, proved to my father that he’d been right about me all along, and look how wrong I’d been about it all.
One day he asked me to type a letter for him. I was not a particularly good typist (it was only years later, getting a degree in creative writing, and typing hours a day, that I really began to type well — later, in law school I discovered, to my great surprise that I could touch type with no need to look at the keys) but my hunting and pecking was much faster than my father’s. We had no correction tape or white out in the house, no way to fix a typo.
My father stood beside me and dictated the short business letter. I sat at the kitchen table typing carefully. Amazingly, I typed the whole thing without a mistake. Until the world “sincerely” which somehow contained a typo. My father exploded in frustration, which was his way of dealing with things not being the way he needed them to be.
A friend called to check in on me and was alarmed by how despondent I sounded. I told him the story of typing the letter. He told me “you have to get out of there. Today. I have a spare bedroom in the apartment, you can stay there. Whatever you do, get out of there. You will die if you stay there.”
A few days later I was living in his spare bedroom, playing the guitar and recording melancholy songs I was coming up with on his four track reel to reel tape recorder. I still dreaded every day light hour and was seeing a therapist twice a week. It was a long, dark road back, but one day, shortly after moving back into my own apartment, I met and began having sex with a very cute young woman, and shortly thereafter a second one. After a few weeks of this I chose the one I liked better, said goodbye to the other one, and took with me the lessons I’d learned during that long season of depression.
Lesson number one, do not kick, whip or beat yourself, for any reason, and get the destructive voice of the internalized victimizer (in my case my father) out of your head. It was a long project, over many years, but I no longer kick myself, and my father’s voice has changed to the humanistic one he displayed the last night of his life. It has since evolved into the clever, insightful, merciful one that I’ve been in dialogue with ever since.