The supremacy of a story

As illustrated by the NY Times framing of the rash of Omicron in Puerto Rico (see previous two posts) the way you tell a story makes all the difference in what the people who hear your story believe and what they take away from it.

One frame on the spike in covid cases in PR might focus on the poverty and lack of humane and efficient health care for millions of American citizens, including, conspicuously, natives of Puerto Rico. One frame might, as my doctor friend does, stress that Omicron is rarely a serious health threat to vaccinated people and that breakthrough infections are to be expected with a strain so infectious. There are multiple ways to tell the same story. Which version of the story you believe will determine how you feel about the things described by the storyteller.

Nothing humans do is done without a convincing story behind it. We have a strong need to believe in our good intentions, pure motives, righteousness, that we are doing things for a good and sometimes even noble reason. Only a sociopath acts without the need to justify himself. For the rest of us, a story we believe in is necessary for any action or inaction we take. Some stories speak to our best impulses, others to our worst, but any story we truly believe can motivate us, for better or worse.

People who storm the Capitol, battle the police, chant about hanging the Vice President, shooting the Speaker of the House in the head, defecate in the halls of Congress, do it because they truly believe the intolerable story that they’ve had their legitimate presidential choice stolen from them. The supremely infuriating story of a stolen election, a rigged system in state after state riddled with widespread systemic fraud, massively fraudulent results — a stolen landslide victory — hidden even by corrupt, smelly, traitorous RINOs, is told to them over and over by everyone they trust.

It is not even a matter for them of suspending disbelief, or asking how so many Republicans won in 2020 on the same ballots Joe Biden and his co-conspirators rigged to steal only the presidency from the rightful winner. They will never ask why Republican state officials and federal officials appointed by Trump confirmed that the election with the largest turnout in American history was also one of the most secure, that the incidence of voter fraud was, as always, infinitesimal.

The story you believe as you gather with fellow faithful patriots, watching a blood curdling betrayal video on a giant screen and getting fired up to storm the Capitol and Stop the Steal, covers all of that. The lack of actual evidence for your point of view, or that it may appear illogical in light of the facts, is only the final proof of how cunning and vicious the evil, inhuman, traitorous enemy is!!!

We humans are simply this way, and we are probably the only creatures who act based on a story that tells us how to see things and what our duties are. Few other species march off in long columns to kill and die based on a fervent belief in the story that Jesus died on the cross to cleanse the world of sin and violence.

I’m reading a fascinating book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, by a psychiatrist of mysterious origins who wrote as Alice Miller. It is in part about the stories told to justify all sorts of harmful things done to children, often by generally well-meaning parents. Depending on who’s point of view you look at things from, you will emerge with very different stories about a family dynamic. This framing inevitably reminds me of my father’s story about me. Here’s a snapshot, told to me from my father’s pre-deathbed point of view:

You are a very angry person with an explosive fucking temper and a mouth like a fucking toilet bowl. You’ve always been troubled and challenging and had an irrational hatred of authority. From the time you came home from the hospital as a newborn you stared at me with those big, unblinking, black, accusing eyes, you judged me harshly from the very beginning. Nothing I ever did was right, no sacrifice I made was ever appreciated, you always just angrily attacked me. You were “born with a hard-on against the world”, and since people can’t change their essential nature, no matter how much they delude themselves that they can, it was preordained that you and I should have been lifelong adversaries engaged in an existential war that could never end.

A hard story to swallow for me. It always was and always will be. It leaves out many important parts of my character and personality, any progress I’ve made in my life, any valuable lesson I’ve ever learned, reduces me to one intolerable trait justifying an angry reaction in turn. More ridiculous still is the self-prophecy aspect of this story, the more forcefully the story is told the more it comes true. Anger is predictable for a child insistently told that even as a newborn baby he was simply an angry, challenging little bastard and will always be treated as such.

Telling me variations on this story over and over did nothing to help my father, outside of making him always feel justified in fighting me on everything. The simplistic story did nothing to help me. It only hurt us both, and it hurt my mother and my sister. But there it was, preferable, by a million miles, to the awful story my father finally told me as he was dying:

My life was basically over by the time I was two. I never experienced love as a child, only brutal punishment for things I didn’t do and fear. I grew up in terror, hungry all the time, for food and for things I didn’t even know what they were. I finally exceeded the low expectations placed on me as a stupid boy and started a family of my own. The anger I expressed toward you, you have to understand, it was really nothing personal. I’d have done the same to any child of mine. Nothing you could have done would have changed the story I believed, and I am so sorry to have put that burden on you and your sister, the burden of having an immature, angry horse’s ass as a father.

Imagine how painful and threatening that would have been for any father to feel and try to work through prior to having a few final days to consider his life as he was dying.

On the other hand, and contradicting my father’s undisturbed fifty year story about me, I was a peaceful and supportive listener as my father was speaking his last few hours of thoughts. As he catalogued his regrets I told him that he should have no regrets, that he’d done the best he could, that if he could have done better he would have.

My calmness was possible only because I’d gone through a course of sometimes excruciating psychoanalysis that left me at times feeling like all my skin had been peeled off and I was only nerve endings. The only memorable benefit of this painful process was that, at a certain point, only months before my father discovered his death was less than a week away, I was able to concretely grasp that my father’s unyielding story about me had been told because he needed to tell it. He told it for his benefit, needed to believe it in order to live, that he could not change it and that if he was capable of doing any better he surely would have. This understanding allowed me to take a step away from my anger at my father, since I finally understood he couldn’t figure out how to do any better, pitiful as that also is, and that my understandable anger toward him was most painful to myself. I was able to let some of it go, and not a moment too soon.

I sometimes think of this calm ending of the long war with my father as a kind of mutual blessing. I thought so more at the time than I do now, fifteen years later. His admission, hours before he died, that he felt me reaching out many times over the years to try to make peace (I had), but that his emotional immaturity had prevented him from taking a step toward me, gave me valuable validation that I had not been the belligerent cartoon he always insisted I was. He saw his inability to ever compromise or admit fault as the mark of an unforgivable asshole, but he hoped for forgiveness anyway. Easing his suffering however I could, short of lying, helping make his death as gentle as possible, was my main thought as I listened, so it was easy to make him feel forgiven, for whatever help that might have been to him at the end.

Knowing all this about myself, and having lived how an insane story can be pressed quite rationally and reasonably, stated as fact and embraced by others with cult-like fealty, I accept my own strong, uncomfortable feelings when someone unfairly blames me entirely for something that is only, in small part, my fault.

Here’s my story now: I take the burden of things I do wrong and do my best to make amends, but I don’t carry the burden of a story that paints me as the entire problem, to make someone else feel better about their story. That shit, you understand, is for the birds. I simply can’t do it. Neither should anyone else.

Parent and child 2

How does a child recover from repeated violent betrayal by its mother? That is a question I don’t have an answer to. The harm this brutal mistreatment would do to a person is very easy to see, the science and art of brain and soul plasticity, and the ability to heal from trauma is a much more complicated story. I think of my father, from his earliest memory, experiencing the violent hatred of his mother. His father was afraid of his tiny wife’s rage and powerless to protect his young son, who found out early that he was on his own in a very cruel world. How does that kid ever trust anybody after that start in life?

That’s why my father told me, in the middle of the last night of his life, in that wavering dying man’s voice, that his life was basically over by the time he was two. He doesn’t remember being shaken, left cold, roughly changed, harshly wiped, ignored and the rest of what a helpless young baby must simply take. The first things he can consciously remember is the mother who gave him life, glaring at him with open hatred and slashing him in the face with a thick, rough length of cord.

It’s hard to imagine this kid growing up to have a sense of humor, and a certain charisma, and being an idealist and a friend of the underdog. He was also sometimes subject to spells of uncontrollable laughter, spells I am also subject to, every ten years or so. Or maybe that’s all predictable, I don’t know. These things lend themselves to discussion, not pronouncements. We don’t, any of us, know what would become of us if we had the start in life that someone like my father had. Any echo of that shit in our own lives is enough to stop us in our tracks.

My father’s droll advice one evening at dinner

When I was eleven I came back from the first day of Hebrew School and told my family that my new teacher was an Israeli woman named Miss Lipschitz. My family found her name as funny as I had. These unexpected moments of levity always came as a welcome relief from our ongoing wars at the dinner table. We all loved to laugh.

My father regarded me with a merry look for a second and said:

“Tell her, ‘if you’re lip shits, my ass chews gum.'”

This off-color deadpanned one-liner drew howls from my sister and me. My mother, though not managing to completely hide her amusement, made a show of reprimanding him for being such a bad example to his children.

If I’d repeated his crude army gag at Hebrew School (these off-color bits would usually be prefaced with ” a guy in the army would say…”), and got in trouble, of course, it would have been completely my problem, another illustration of my lack of common sense, in spite of my high intelligence. Both of my parents would have been on me without any mercy or sense of irony.

Which is funny too, in a way, looking back on it now.

Parent and child

I recently spent two years, every day, writing about my troubled, troubling father. Many of the sessions were spent in a kind of dialogue with the skeleton of my dead father. We had some excellent and revealing chats, picking up where he left off the last night of his life. Most days our talk seemed genuinely like an actual conversation with a wiser version of the droll, insightful person I’d been raised by, reflecting the realizations he’d had right before his death. The skeleton was humbled by his death, and looking for reconciliation.

I did this every day for two solid years, thinking about the project when I was not writing, imagining my father’s earlier life, trying to get to the bottom of how damaged my father was and the often subtle, but in many ways disabling, harm he inflicted on my sister and me. It was a great project and I actually learned a lot, whether or not I eventually rewrite the pages into a marketable book. The most amazing and unexpected outcome is that now I can see everything from his point of view, though I still disagree with most of the harmful things he did.

The other day I suddenly realized that some of the best men I’ve ever known have struggled (though much more successfully than my father) to be good fathers, some of the best women struggle with being unfailingly good mothers. Children who have wonderful parents and enviable childhoods sometimes grow up to be tormented, anxious, selfish, insecure, vain, perplexed. This point likely seems too obvious to make, perhaps, to anyone who has raised a child, who lives as a parent, but to me, having no children, it was a long time dawning on me what difficult, sometimes thankless work it is to always strive to be generous, to do one’s best, and still experience that sharper than a serpent’s tooth-inflicted pain that comes from an ungrateful, angry or oblivious child. We all have better days and worse days, and there is no real training on how to be a parent or how to be a child.

I knew a young mother, who’d been raised by difficult, immature parents, who decided to be the opposite of the way she saw her own mother. During her pregnancy she fell under the influence of a group of women called the La Leche League. According to her, their theory is that babies never manipulate a parent, they only ask for what they truly need. A child who is breast fed whenever they ask, and given every bit of affection and attention they seek, will grow up to be strong, confident and self-motivated. She breast fed her first child until the baby was three or so, then weaned her when the little brother arrived. He nursed until he was able to say things like “mom, I need to nurse now, if that’s OK with you.” It was a great bonding experience for the mother, and I have read that the oxytosin released during breast feeding can be quite addictive. What’s not to love about perfect love?

This young mother was fond of pointing to how wonderful her children were, the proof that she had learned mighty lessons from her own childhood and become the kind of 100% nurturing mother she never felt she’d had. “The proof is in the pudding,” she would say with a proud smile, pointing at her perfect children, who had never wanted for unconditional love and were clearly both amazing children as a result. I lost track of the family after a while, but the last I heard, the daughter is, according to the mother, a fearless genius and the son, also a genius, is a very insightful young man and something of a saint.

This young mother once spent the day with her husband and two year-old daughter, visiting old friends of mine. The next time I saw my friends I asked how they’d gotten along (I’d introduced them). They told me it had been an extremely long couple of hours, that they’d found the young parents’ zealous belief that they’d created the perfect child hard to bear. “Parents are one factor, one factor in dozens, as to how your child turns out, parenting doesn’t have that kind of one-on-one correlation with how the kid turns out in the end,” my friend told me. “To think otherwise is a kind of madness bordering on megalomania,” the other friend added.

I think of this now in connection to my own father, and his often problematic parenting. He was one factor among many in how I turned out, though he always loomed as a supremely difficult one. A parent who is often angry, and takes out their frustrations on their child, tends to be a large factor in how the kid grows up to see the world. Just as I am sometimes unable to disentangle myself from the abuse I suffered at his hands, in his life, and the reason he often lashed out at his own children like an injured two year-old, is that he had actually been a deeply injured two year-old.

One of the first things he told me when I returned to his hospital room around 1 a.m. that last night of his life, in that weak, croaking voice dying men often seem to have, was “my life was basically over by the time I was two.” I knew the bones of his story. I had learned them from a witness, an older first cousin, my father’s references to his harrowing childhood were always oblique, opaque.

His mother, a tiny, bitter, deeply religious woman with an unquenchable temper, living in a viscerally unhappy arranged marriage to a very poor man, used to whip her tiny son across the face, from the time he could stand. Picture that, and how much worse it is for a baby than verbal abuse, neglect, icy silence in the face of expressed concerns, or sarcastic dismissal.

Each of my father’s techniques for keeping his children, and his own demons, at bay were less atrocious than taking the rough, heavy cord of an old fashioned steam iron, and whipping your tender young child in the face, from his earliest memory. I finally concluded he did better than he’d experienced, though he admitted late in his life that verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse.

Over the years I sometimes thought beatings would have been preferable, since at age fifteen or so, skinny as I was, I would have started fighting back (he already showed fear of me by that age) and soon been able to kick the shit out of him if he lifted a hand against my sister or me. But that is a surmise I rarely think about.

What I think about more and more is how to take the lessons of my troubling childhood and lay them out clearly for others, in the name of becoming more forgiving, of oneself and the people you love who have hurt you. To explain simply, for the possible benefit of any reader who has been struck by the sharper than a serpent’s tooth cruelty of an unfairly angry parent, how I went from hardening my heart against an asshole father, to learning about and understanding the humiliating abuse he’d suffered in a truly hellish childhood, to opening myself, as he was dying, to simply listen to his deep regrets, and encourage him to say the things he felt it so important to say that he used his last breaths to say them.

NO Debate!

My father, who had his soul broken as a very young child, always insisted that we can do nothing to change our innate, fundamental natures. Some people are born angry, for example, and if you are, my father argued, you will always have the reflex to rage (even if you succeed in controlling its expression) that people born with milder dispositions will never have. They may get angry, everyone does, but they will never have the innate readiness and the quickness to respond with anger that someone born with the anger tic does. As far as that simple proposition goes, I can make an argument for it, if pressed.

My father’s firm, conclusory argument, which melded nature and nurture and foreclosed the idea of ever learning from our mistakes, ever changing to experience less pain, to cause others less pain, had a larger purpose which just occurred to me. It cut off painful debate. You think you can change, I can change, but you are wrong, a sadly deluded fool, as you will learn more and more deeply, the older you get.

Framed in this narrow way, the conversation would never veer into the difficult (but crucial) subjects of what harm was done to you that you can work to fix, how you can react with less anger and violence — particularly when confronted with unfairness, the biological damage abuse does to the brain and the body, the elasticity of the human brain, the resilience of the human spirit, our powers of regeneration, how we physically and emotionally recover from our wounds, how we can learn to treat others with more care and tenderness, etc.

My father could usually argue his positions well, lay out both sides of the argument, or even several sides, in detail. It was part of his skill set, and perhaps it is part of a particularly Jewish skill set, to be able to turn an issue from several angles and make the case, with all the strengths (and admitted weaknesses), that an honest debater seeing it from each perspective would. In the matter of whether we can change ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of those we love he resorted to NO debate.

I woke up today thinking that when you fear the way a debate will turn out, or the pain the discussion will bring up (and my father was terrified of the painful can of worms this conversation would open), when you know that laying out the entire argument leaves you on the short end, an end so fragile you can crush it with a finger, you resort to NO debate. My father always filibustered to prevent discussing issues that were so difficult for him to talk about, so painful for him to consider. In the end, as he was dying, during his last night on earth, he expressed deep regrets about this kind of zero-sum thinking and behavior.

Picture any problem you can imagine. In every case I can think of now, sharing it with a thoughtful friend or family member, who knows how to listen, is helpful. Speaking aloud to another person allows you to sum up and describe a problem in a way that is difficult to do with yourself (outside of writing it out, another helpful practice, I’ve found) and often your friend or family member will have a memory, a story, an insight that will ease your mind a bit, sometimes actually help you out of your trouble.

Of course, this NO debate jazz goes for politics, as we see every day. The filibuster is not only a way to torpedo a policy your party doesn’t like, it’s a way to prevent any and all meaningful public discussion about how to solve a vexing problem we all face. Say the problem is that in some parts of the country violent mobs regularly kidnap, torture and kill people to intimidate their ethnic or racial group and keep them powerless over their lives. The solution is a national law designed to deter this murderous behavior by surely trying and strictly punishing those who take part in lynch mobs, pogroms, massacres. There is not, strictly speaking, a good argument against making the law, except that it would exact a political price for the side that has long used terror and violence to maintain political control in many areas. It is not a winning argument (except to a select few) to honestly point out that lynching helps your political party stay in power. The solution when the anti-lynching bill reaches the Senate? NO debate. Filibuster.

A conservative public-private policy to allow millions of uninsured Americans to have health insurance becomes wildly popular among the millions who were never able to afford decent healthcare. The actual argument for stopping the policy is weak, but when you see the policy about to be introduced into law there is one thing you can do– stop debate. Filibuster! NO debate. There will be no pros and cons laid out for people to consider, no back and forth on this issue, no winning the argument on the merits, you bitches don’t have the votes to stop us so we are using a legitimate parliamentary tool to insist on our right for you to have NO debate.

This was exactly what my father did whenever I tried to talk about the breaking of our souls and our hopes of doing better. There are millions of us walking around with broken souls, in various states of repair. It is very easy to break off part of someone’s soul, particularly if the victim is young. At that tender stage breaking a soul is as simple as hurting a young plant, just calmly withhold adequate water and sunlight.

Had I known the extent of the cruel abuse my father suffered from long before he could talk, I’d have had a good clue how to proceed in this difficult conversation about change, healing, doing better. Sadly for us both, I was born without this innate emotional wisdom about how to proceed with a difficult, broken person. My emotional intelligence lagged far behind what I could grasp intellectually. This is true for many of us, and I don’t raise even the tiniest whip over myself for seeing this trait in myself.

It is easier to understand facts when they are separated from strong emotions. Many of us reach higher levels of book learning than we do life learning. That second kind of knowledge comes from no book, it comes from the faces of the people we hold dear. Back to my father’s innate idea, some people are born with a better grasp of how to correctly read the people around them, and adjust appropriately, than others.

This subject of change/no change is like peeling an infinitely regrowing onion. What is “appropriate” adjustment? Your parents are angry, childish, ill-equipped to provide the water and sunshine you need to grow and thrive. Is an appropriate adjustment to try to make sure they have no reason to be angry, no cause to act childishly? Give it up, kid, they will be the way they are no matter what you try to do. I spoke to a cousin who is moving gracefully toward ninety, she is still tightly gripped by anger at her long-dead tyrannical father, her mother who passively sat by, with a frozen smile, letting the intolerable horrors of my cousin’s long ago childhood proceed.

So we can’t change our lives in any meaningful way, Dad, is that still your position?

“No, Elie, now that I’m dead, and have had sixteen long years — and they go by in a flash, as I’m sure you’ve noticed — I’ve had time to calmly consider the matter and evolve in my thinking. I think you were closer to the truth. If you regularly exhibit a behavior that harms others, and causes pain, and you examine it, and find out what causes you to act that way, you can take steps to, as you say, do better. It’s hard work, though, and painful as hell and there are good reasons many people avoid getting into the whole fucking thing.”

That was the voice of my father’s highly evolved skeleton.

“A tiresome device, Elie, seriously. I mean, that’s one thing you really have to wrestle with as you, hopefully, write a second draft of my story,” the skeleton craned his neck to watch some birds riding the thermals in the perfect blue sky over the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill graveyard.

It’s all tiresome, Dad. Watching the way the world is, exhausting. Arguing things that seem so self-evident, like weighing the right to have a voice in your own affairs vs. another person’s right to make you shut the fuck up — phew… The newspaper leads you down a dark path, if you take a wrong step, like reading the headlines. It is all Devils vs. Angels, insane shit, as the world literally burns.

“I’m afraid I have no answer to any of that. The smartest among us, as you suggest, may also be the most destructively ignorant about the larger truths in life. Is anything more important than the ability to truly love and be loved? I offer that to your giants of the Senate and your various lifetime appointees. This world of violently shifting moods is a frustrating mess, as your friend Hendrix sang, and, in a way, I’m glad to be done with it. For you, though, I urge you to keep struggling as long as you can. Keep working on my story. My story is not important because of me, I’m not personally important at all, except maybe to you and your sister. My story should be told for the light it can shed on the human ability to change, the powerful role emotional understanding plays in forgiveness, the real change for the better even the most broken of us is capable of, all the rest of that infinitely succulent jive.”

Ain’t that an ironic mouthful, coming from you?

“Yeah, ain’t dassum shit?” said the skeleton, grinning his manic eternal grin and making a puckish two-fingered hand gesture that conjured a gang sign.

My father and the Jewish Babe Ruth

My father, once a skinny Jewish kid growing up in Peekskill, NY, was a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan. That’s because when he was a boy the Tigers had a big, slugging first baseman named Hank Greenberg. Greenberg was a large, powerful Jew who hit home runs like Babe Ruth, one season almost breaking Ruth’s record. Jews reportedly went into shock when the 6’3″ athlete ducked into Yom Kippur services in Detroit — nobody had ever seen a Jew that big. I was surprised to see, after my father died, that his 1941 Peekskill High School yearbook, under a picture of my father’s thin, bespectacled face, had printed his name as Irving “Hank” Widem. I always knew he’d idolized Greenberg, I never knew he’d gone by that name in High School.

Babe Ruth was by far the greatest Major League baseball player ever. As a pitcher he was among the best to ever play the game, though he is famous for his batting. Before switching to full-time right fielder and setter of mind boggling home run records (he famously hit more home runs by himself, a couple of seasons, than other full teams hit), he also set pitching records that stood for decades.

As a home run hitter, there was really nobody to compare to him. If he’d been up as many times as Hank Aaron, who decades later broke Ruth’s career home run record in four thousand more at bats than Ruth had, he’d have hit hundreds more home runs. The current record holder, asterisk Barry Bonds, batted 1,448 more times (about three seasons for the Babe) and hit 48 more home runs. Plus, Babe Ruth hit .342 for his career (tied for sixth highest lifetime batting average among modern players).

When my father was fourteen, a decade after Ruth set the 60 home runs in a season record that would last 34 years, Hank Greenberg hit 58 in a season. I suspect anti-semitism probably played a role in Greenberg getting nothing to hit the last few weeks of that season, when he could have hit home runs 59 and 60, but, if so, that is not something that should be taught in American classrooms (as it would only serve to undermine American Exceptionalism and make beleaguered white Christian patriots feel bad…).

Maybe the most impressive number Babe Ruth left behind was his lifetime slugging percentage of .690. Slugging percentage measures how well a player hits for power, how many extra base hits (doubles, triples and home runs) he gets. Ruth averaged that gaudy number, over his long career. For comparison, superstars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, two great Hall of Fame sluggers, 20 and 21 on the all-time list, had career slugging percentages of .5575 and .5568.

When a current player is red hot, hitting home runs in bunches, his slugging percentage may soar to approach Ruth’s lifetime average for a short time, but by the end of the season it will almost always be below .600. Many modern-day sluggers in the Hall of Fame never approached Ruth’s .690 average slugging percentage in even a single season.

Here is the top of the all-time slugging percentage list. Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles and Oscar Charleston, belated (posthumous) Hall of Famers, superstars of the Negro Leagues and victims of the racial segregation of baseball until after their careers were over, have recently been added to the list, as I learned last night after a few minutes of computer querying [1]. Check out where Hank Greenberg winds up on the very short list of baseball power hitters who have slugged at least .600 for their careers. And what company he is in!

To put that in perspective, five “white” major league Hall of Famers, Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg have had lifetime slugging percentages of .600 or more. (Eight, if you include the other three Hall of Famers, which you should, it’s an American sin that they were forbidden play with the other greatest players of their time by a hallowed racist tradition, see FN 1; nine if you include Barry Bonds, who is creeping toward induction into the Hall of Fame after an amazing career).

* Barry Bonds, is the sixth major league player to slug over .600 for his major league career, and he had some out of the world slugging percentages in his older years .863 when he was 36 (higher than Ruth’s best one season slugging percentage), .799 when he was 37, .749 at 38 and .812 at 39, after he went on his special, controversial asterisk fitness regime. Without those final few superhuman seasons, including the 73 home run season, at an age when most baseball players are slowing down, he would havie been under .600 for his career. For those who like eye-popping stats, here are the remarkable numbers Bonds put up for his career.

[1]

Suttles, Stearnes and Charleston were three superstars of the Negro Leagues, from the openly racist decades before Major League Baseball became racially integrated. All three are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted decades after each of their deaths, posthumously honored among baseball’s immortals, as they say.

Mule Suttles was a power-hitting first baseman in the Negro Leagues from 1923-1944.

Turkey Stearnes was a five-tool centerfielder who played in the Negro Leagues from 1923-40.

Oscar Charleston, another slugging centerfielder from the Negro Leagues played from 1915-1941.

The hidden effects of trauma

My father, a survivor of brutal abuse during his childhood (merciless physical and psychological beatings which started in infancy), was not one to examine his own pain, beyond an occasional reference to the personal demons we all must fight. He took positions I now see were predictable for someone holding in so much pain from the unspeakable trauma he’d endured. People can’t change, shrinks are the craziest people in society, therapy is a waste of time, since people can’t really change, and since we can’t change, talking about it is a big waste of time and energy.

“Look at my brother,” he would say, by way of resting his case about the futility of therapy. His brother, who had been in psychoanalysis for years, was arguably even crazier than he was. My father would never concede that he needed help, because people couldn’t be helped, goddamn it! You take people as you find them, with their faults, warts, tics as well as their good points — we are all in each other’s lives on a take it or leave it basis. I am what I am, I’m not going to change, if you have a problem with that, I’m sorry you have a problem.

It was useless to point out that we make accommodations to people we are care about all the time, important changes if you will. I love my dog and you’re terrified of dogs, I don’t let my dog happily greet you by leaping to lick your face when you come to visit. You find yourself trapped in a situation you don’t want to talk about, no matter what — we don’t need to talk about it. You are offended by coarse language, I don’t need to argue that you are being a needlessly squeamish fuck — “exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated” (in my favorite dictionary phrase of all-time). There are countless examples of things we adjust in ourselves to get along with people.

But that we can all sometimes exert ourselves to get along with others is not really the point. We are traumatized in various ways, and the trauma we’ve experienced colors our world, influences how we see things and how we react. If the trauma is experienced early in life, and repeated consistently, it exerts ongoing influence on our personalities, our choices in life. It is painful to address and difficult to try to resolve.

Trauma is a subtle thing sometimes — it can be something as deniably neutral as remaining stoically silent when someone is pouring their heart out to us. No matter how you try to move me, I will simply not be moved, waiting for you to make the next move, doing nothing you can really blame me for, unless you’re just trying to blame me for your own pathetic problems. The consistent withholding of sympathy is a great way to traumatize a young person and it has the additional advantage of making it seem like the little bastard’s own fault, it will cause the kid to question everything about herself.

I can see the sometimes crippling effects of my father’s often abusive behavior on others in the family more easily than I can see them in myself. Still, I realize that I’ve had to overcome senseless pain that more fortunate people, people whose parents weren’t themselves traumatized, did not have to experience. I think of that great lyric from Albert King “I can’t read, I can hardly write, my whole life’s been one long fight.” I spent decades fighting, for reasons I could barely understand. I understand those reasons much better now, though the reactions I had to struggle against cost me virtually every job I’ve ever had. There came a time when a boss would tell me “this is not a discussion, you do not get a say” and I’d be compelled to be witty.

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

You can take every mass shooter, like the several in recent days, any police officer who shoots a seventh grader with his hands up, complying with his orders, Derek Chauvin, hands in pockets as he slowly chokes a man to death, or the now indicted officer who trained other officers in the use of force who yelled “taser! taser!” as she shot a man to death after they found out he had an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor arrest. Take any of these folks and examine their life, and I’d pretty much guarantee they were survivors of some kind of life-altering trauma. It doesn’t excuse their depraved indifference to human life, of course, but it explains how they could act so callously toward others.

I’ve spent time in therapy at various points in my life. I believe it helped me more than it helped my uncle (though, of course, it could hardly have helped less). One breakthrough I had was letting go of much of my anger toward my father when I understood he had done the best he could, based on how he was shaped by his own trauma.

I was far from being able to forgive him, of course, for being such a relentlessly destructive dick, but I came to an emotional understanding that was very important to my belated growth as a person. Once I realized it hadn’t strictly been his choice to be such an abusive parent, once I learned of his abuse and grasped how the whippings he’d taken as a two year-old had warped his world, I was able to let go of a certain amount of anger. If he’d apologized, I could actually have forgiven him, but his position remained as un-nuanced as it always had been — take it or leave it, I am what I am, you got a problem with that it’s your problem.

When I got the sudden news that he was dying, of end-stage liver cancer that had not been diagnosed until he had six days to live, I got on a plane and went to his Florida hospital room. I was in a position that nobody else in the family was in — I’d had important understandings about my father’s life and how it affected my own. I was present in a way nobody else there could be. My father told me, moments after I arrived, “you’re the only one who knows what’s going on.”

I understood that this was about my father’s rapidly approaching death, not about my fear of losing my father, settling a score with him or anything else. He was the one who was dying, not me. I don’t know that I’d have grasped this so clearly if I’d still held so much anger against him, if I hadn’t achieved a level of empathy for the abuse he’d survived.

It is easy enough to scoff at what I’m going to tell next, and, of course, you’re free to. Because I was not standing in judgment of my difficult father, or in denial about his rapidly approaching death (his brother buttonholed his doctor in the hall and asked about a liver transplant for his 80 year-old older brother), or still trying to prosecute my grievances, my father and I were finally able to have a real conversation. I mostly listened.

When I arrived at his deathbed at one a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of his life, he was waiting for me, his thoughts all in order, as he’d promised they would be. He began by alluding to the demon he’d been avoiding his whole life, the childhood abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his violent little mother. “Everything Eli told you about my childhood was true,” he said, referring to the many discussions I’d had with his seventeen years older first cousin, “but he probably spared you the worst of it.”

This was a striking way to begin, it got my attention and summarized hours of discussion into a few words. He’d always insisted that Eli was full of shit, an unreliable historian who distorted everything to his own crazy ends. Now, in a few words, Eli had been truthful, and thoughtful too, in not painting the horrific picture as brutally as it had actually occurred. It got my attention, and required no response from me.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” my father said.

Again, this was something I knew to be the case. I’d often thought of him as emotionally trapped as a two year-old. Though he was brilliant in many areas, his emotional reactions, within the family, particularly his wildly uncontrolled temper, were those of a two-year old. There was no reason to say anything about this either.

He went on to acknowledge how wrong he’d been to place obstacles in front of my sister and me, life being hard enough without a father making it harder still by being a “horse’s ass”. I’d never heard him use this phrase, but he described himself as a horse’s ass at least twice in the course of apologizing for having behaved badly, in a misguided attempt to feel “in control” that placed gratuitous burdens on my sister and me. It was the only time I can ever remember my father apologizing for anything. I had only one comment, as he berated himself.

“You can’t kick yourself now, you did the best you could do, at the time.” I believed this was true, I understood why he’d acted the way he did, recognized that he could also have done worse — nothing but some kind of innate restraint kept him from beating me and my sister as he’d been beaten.

The point of this little piece is how brutally the hidden effects of unaddressed trauma can act upon us, as individuals and as a society. The 87,000 desperate American souls who killed themselves with drug overdoses last year, every single one of them, was wrestling with traumas that they felt they could only deal with by numbing themselves to death. As a society we ignore trauma — we are not an empathetic society, we spend a million times more on state violence than on addressing the causes of violence. As a culture we extoll the mythical rugged individual, the largely imaginary hero who, without any help or advantage, overcomes all adversity and defeats every challenge to “win.” In a falsely black and white world of winners and losers, it is not necessary to address the pressing problems of “losers.”

Our society is an over-boiling caldron of trauma. Is the constant danger of death from an invisible air-borne virus not traumatic? Is the very real prospect of irreversible destruction of our biosphere not traumatic? Are the fears of millions, probably billions worldwide, that cause masses to cling to insane, often violent, beliefs not born in trauma? People react as they must.

When Robert Evans called Naziism “at its heart a conspiracist theology” he was putting his finger on something very deep and horrifying.

You can look at a conspiracist religion as a predictable reaction to trauma, terror, humiliation. What are the tenets of this kind of religion? You are hurt, and absolutely right to feel hurt, you’re a victim, and the people who hurt you are going to fucking suffer and die.

Here’s what you have to do — sign up to this theory, this theology. Now you can join us in painting the world in good and evil, ascribe all good to your fight for revenge against the evil ones, and all evil to … duh! The evil ones! The godless inner-city thugs who want to rape your wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, grandmothers. Etc. And best of all, no personal pain need be felt when you externalize it onto a hated enemy who is completely to blame while you are totally innocent.

A religion of conspiracy, a faith that explains everything you cannot understand and provides a simple, clear answer, to the burning question of why you feel so traumatized, why you are in so much pain. If you subscribe to our muscular, proactive theology, and march with the rest of us, you will soon be joyously trampling the evil enemies who brought all this hurt on you. And we will love you for it, and all live happily ever after, amen.

The End.

Worldview and World (part 2)

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of an early morning drug raid in Kentucky, using a warrant based on outdated intel, that resulted in the killing of an innocent 26 year-old EMT named Breonna Taylor in her own home. The police who broke down her door and began wildly firing into the apartment were not charged in her death, though they left her bleeding with 8 bullet wounds for twenty minutes before any medical efforts were taken to save her (depraved indifference?). As she lay dying they were busy arresting her boyfriend, who fired once at men who broke down the door — men all but one witness said never identified themselves as police. The boyfriend recently had felony charges against him dismissed, after only a year. Remember, this deadly military style assault was to enforce Prohibition, Louisville police were there to intercept illegal drugs, though none were found. Although no police were charged in Taylor’s killing, scores of protesters calling for accountability for the officers and an end to “no knock” warrants, were arrested for, essentially, felony protest. Fair is fair.

Hard as it is to believe, your worldview will determine how you see the facts of this awful case. A good percentage of the country sees this killing simply as an unavoidable tragedy, something that couldn’t have been helped. Some will argue that Taylor’s boyfriend should not have pulled out his licensed gun when he was abruptly woken by the sound of men breaking down the door. Once he fired into the leg of one of the men, whatever happened after that was coming to him. The same people will defend the Stand Your Ground laws that extend the Castle Doctrine (you may defend yourself with deadly force against a deadly threat in your home) to anywhere and anyone you fear might use deadly force against you. A black kid walking down a suburban Florida street is fair game to shoot, as we have learned, if you can prove he scared the shit out of you.

It sounds simplistic, I know, to insist on a premise like all communal hatred resulting in violence flows from the same source. Or making the obvious point about the central role early life experiences play in shaping how we see the world, for that matter. It is beyond dispute that how we see the world, our worldview, not only influences what we believe and how we act, it creates the world we live in, to a great extent. All simplistic and self-evident sounding, I know. but I hope my rambling here will shed some light for us, somehow.

Take every situation where an enraged mob goes after a certain group of people simply based on the other group’s ethnic, religious, racial or political identity and rains living hell down on them. Lately it’s angry American fools bashing elderly Asians, shoving them to the ground, slashing them with knives, because they blame all Asians for the “Wuhan Flu”, as our former president, a big fan of tough talk and violence of every kind, dubbed it. How about that Nobel Peace Prize winner, former political prisoner turned prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi silent on the mass killings and forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in her country? Two million Tutsis, slaughtered by hand, in a short, bloody span of time, by machete wielding Hutus, another tribal group. Every “ethnic” massacre is a variation on the same theme. The names change, the victims and perpetrators wear different hats, the methods of killing change, but it’s the same thing, every time. Ever hear of “necklacing?” Hell of a technique, Brownie:

Necklacing is the practice of extrajudicial summary execution and torture carried out by forcing a rubber tire filled with petrol around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process.[1]

source

How can one human “necklace” another human? Easy, apparently, given the right set of circumstances. For whatever reason, the mass killing of despised “others” is a regular feature of our common history anytime masses of desperate people get really enraged, particularly when they are encouraged in this violent group mania by their leaders. It’s always a very similar horror story, a few details changed.

I don’t know why the commonality of every instance of mass violence seems so hard to grasp, or why it doesn’t act as a kind of brake on these recurring slaughters. Every time I hear the next atrocity story it reminds me of the grappling in the media with the “question” of exactly why the insane guy with the automatic weapon went nuts and killed a bunch of strangers before blowing his own head off. It’s as if, perhaps this time, the insane “gunman” who went crazy and started massacring before he “turned the gun on himself” will be the first to have a brilliant, totally valid theory for his insanely violent act.

Seeing that horrific black and white clip of the guy in the cap dumping a load of jiggly, rubber human skeletons down a chute in the early 1940s did not instantly convince me of the commonality of all such massacres, (and we’ll stipulate that the Nazi death machine was unique in its scope, size and efficiency) but it had an effect on my thinking about the subject, my view of the world.

You see something like that as a child and it stays with you, changes the way you think about “solutions” that involve the mass torture and murder of our fellow homo sapiens. I think I would have felt the same way if the clip had been of charging Turks on horseback whipping wailing Armenian women, children and old people into a raging river to drown. How are those things different? How is either fundamentally different than a man with a gun and a badge nonchalantly kneeling on another man’s neck until the pleading, handcuffed man stops moving and then keeps his knee there until the man is dead? Each of these things is characterized by what the law, in an excellent phrase, calls “depraved indifference to human life.”

On a certain fundamental level, we are all taught to accept that war, and mass killing, are simply an unfortunate, but sometimes necessary, inevitable part of politics. A particularly muscular form of diplomacy, practiced at the behest of God’s imperfect but powerful vessels. The way we have been helping the Saudi royal family starve the people of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, or our devastating blockade of Venezuela — a nation we are crippling economically during a deadly pandemic — just other, more coercive forms of diplomacy. Tally ho! These inferior people, given to a tyrannical form of government, or political beliefs we find repugnant, have simply got to learn to get with the program, we’ll gently starve them ’til they wise up!

Back to the personal, the place where “political” and “religious” beliefs, and “morality” are instilled. If your parent was humiliated as a child, as mine were, they will tend to see the world in a zero sum way. They can’t risk being humiliated any more, the possibility is too traumatic, and so they phrase every disagreement or conflict as a war that must be fought to the death. My father, as he was dying, said he always felt we could never have a real discussion of anything, he thought a fight was inevitable. He said that it had been his fault, because he lacked insight and saw everything in blazing black and white — a win-lose battle to the death. He felt every disagreement with his children inevitably led to a fight since he had never learned any other way, in spite of his education, sensitivity and group dynamic training, vast professional experience and highly developed mind.

In the end, as he was dying, it became important to him, as he reviewed his suddenly-ending life, to confront, out loud, for the first time, how crabbed and destructive his view of the world had been. It should have been as simple as “if you’re in pain, and come to me perplexed, let me listen patiently and try to help you instead of fighting you because I’m angry and afraid.” He realized that simple truth of being a decent human too late, as he apologized to me for the only time in his life. “I was wrong,” he said, also for the first time. Why did it take rapidly approaching death to bring these basic human realizations to him? Beats me. Tragic, truly. On the other hand, what a slippery gift he handed me right before he shuffled off and left me to close his dead eyelids with two fingers of my right hand.

There is really no risk to listening quietly to someone else’s pain, if you care about the person. It is often the only useful thing you can do for someone you care about when they are hurt, understanding how they feel. But to many people, the realm of feelings is always fraught and ready to burst into war. A war over who has the right to feel pain, how much pain is reasonable to feel, to express, how outrageous it is to pour out your troubles as though the person you are crying to doesn’t have even worse troubles! If you tell me I hurt you I am no friend if I say “that’s your problem, asshole.” There is a productive conversation, that starts with yielding to the other person’s right to be hurt, without fighting over how contemptible a worm he or she is to feel that way.

In the wake of my projectile vomiting after that searing Nazi footage from Let My People Go, my father was implacable. It was going to be a hard lesson to me. You see– you disobeyed good parental advice, your mother and I both begged you and advised you not to see what you can now never unsee, strictly for your own good, and now you want my pity because what I warned you about came sickeningly true? It’s good for you to remember next time, you contumacious little prick (yeah, look that up in that dictionary you like so much). And, by the way, seven is not too young to start acting like a man, particularly since you are so smart you don’t need anybody’s advice… (etc.)”

An understandable reaction, I understood it, even at the time. Still, not the reaction a child wants or needs. Understandable from a tit for tat perspective, but not from any other, really.

It is also tempting to repeat the treatment you experienced. This is a familiar tic of the victimized, do it to somebody else, as if abusing another victim will make you feel powerful enough to take your shame and hurt away. The way the more violent of the Ukrainians, recently starved en masse by an inhuman enemy, took it out on their own long-time, powerless, enemies when the opportunity to do so without repercussions presented itself.

I recall the vivid TED talk given by likeable neuroscientist Jim Fallon. He was a funny, mild-mannered expert in the configuration of the psychopath’s brain. He had his family tested at one point, and reviewing the brain scans, found one that was a classic psychopath’s brain. It was his own. He shrugged about it, even when his family and friends unanimously confirmed that he showed many traits of the psychopath. The fact that he didn’t flinch at the diagnosis proved that he had that moral nonchalance characteristic of the psychopath. He didn’t pretend to be upset. His point was that if someone with his brain configuration did not have their violence activated by experiencing or witnessing traumatic physical and psychological abuse during a certain early developmental window, they’d grow up to be people who lacked empathy, but who could also joke, be mild mannered, lead productive lives and never commit violence against anyone else.

Fascinating, if sometimes terribly dark, the way our views of the world are often formed by events early in life, before we know very much. I’ll hope to be on to cheerier subjects soon, boys and girls.

Your Mother’s Anger

My mother, who as a girl, and even as an adult, had been brutalized by her domineering mother, was prone to flashes of anger. I learned to avoid provoking my mother’s outrage toward the end of her life. I was generally quite successful, but there were a few slip ups.

One happened not long before she died, in the narrow hallway outside the bathroom of her apartment in Florida, where the short hallway from her bedroom met the rest of the place. She had mentioned her anger at her daughter, and said she felt guilty about it, since her daughter had been taking such excellent care of her in recent years. She loved her, and depended on her, but there were certain issues that just made her furious.

I knew these issues well, from her point of view and from her daughter’s, both sometimes called me to vent. The stories were remarkably consistent, the major issue that drove each other crazy was constant. A good mediator could have helped a lot, their most common area of conflict was straightforward and seemingly easy to fix, but each was absolutely convinced the other would never go for mediation.

In an effort to reassure my mother about the anger she felt guilty about, I said that many mothers and daughters have such issues. It was fairly classic, it seemed to me, and I rattled off a number of these troubled mother-daughter relationships among people we knew. Believing that personal insight is the only key to interpersonal problem-solving, as I do, I misguidedly I pointed out that she had had ongoing conflicts with her own mother, in childhood and throughout the years I saw them together. My mother instantly flew into a rage.

“I had a wonderful relationship with my mother!” she snarled. We were standing very close to each other in that narrow space, her face turned red, her teeth were bared, she could have reached out and started choking me, if she’d been the violent type. I turned on a fucking dime.

“What do you feel like tonight, Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked, pivoting as nonchalantly as Fred Astaire.

“Ooh, let’s have Thai,” she said, smiling in anticipation, and in great relief that I was immediately shutting the hell up about her difficult childhood.

That was the graceful end of my last attempt to shine any kind of light anywhere my mother didn’t want light shined.

It makes a cute anecdote, like a fortune cookie. Adroit son distracts angry mom with delicious bauble. It’s a little funny. On the other hand, it’s serious as the cancer that was eating at my mother in those final days.

Your mother’s anger?

She may never tell you the reasons for it, even those she knows well, preferring the painful, unpredictably rippling repercussions of repressing painful feelings, especially shameful, humiliating ones (who wants to feel that shit?) to laying out the many reasons she has to feel rightfully angry, especially laying this out to her children. It is the mother’s prerogative whether or not to give any insight into why she is sometimes short-tempered, or flies into a rage. She may know something about it, she may not.

I keep thinking of two of the luckiest breaks I’ve had in my life, both involving gifts of difficult honesty from people who loved my parents and cared deeply for me. The first one came from my parents’ best friend Arlene, when I was in my twenties. There was no doubt of their love for each other, there was never more spirited conversation, laughter and fun than when Arlene and her husband Russ were in the house. She took the trouble, during a long sunset walk across a beautiful hill, when I visited her after Russ died, to make me understand that my parents’ were basically unhappy people and that their unhappiness had nothing to do with me, though I undoubtedly, and understandably, blamed myself, since my parents always did. It was like Arlene had reached up and pulled a string to turn on a light in the darkness. It was the first inkling I had of a mature and beneficial understanding of my life up to that point.

The second lucky break, which I have written about many times, was my father’s first cousin Eli, who, toward the end of his long life, after many, many visits and long discussions deep into the night, finally revealing something that explained a deeply buried mystery about my father’s implacability. Eli and my parents loved each other as much as Arlene and my parents did. There was no motive on Eli’s part, as there had been none on Arlene’s, to in any way hurt or disparage my parents. These things were told to me strictly to help me understand a perplexing mystery they saw me wrestling with.

Eli told me, with limitless sorrow, that Chava, my father’s mother and Eli’s favorite aunt, a woman who loved Eli to death and who had always pampered him, had whipped my infant father in the face from the time he could stand. He’d witnessed it many times.

“How old was he when she started?” I asked Eli.

However old you are when you can first stand on your two legs, I don’t know, one and a half, two?” he said with infinite sadness.

If those two revelations had never come to me, I have no idea how my life would be today, after the rocky start I had. Arlene’s insight made me begin to realize that trying to please people who could never be pleased, who would always blame me for their frustrations no matter what, was a fool’s errand. Eli’s flooded me with sudden sympathy for my poor bastard of a father. It made me understand how hard he must have struggled not to do the same to my little sister and me, even as he used other means to senselessly punish us. I had to give the man a certain amount of credit, after learning about his own senselessly destructive whippings, for limiting his destructiveness to words and rage. He could have easily started beating the hell out of me when I defied him as an adversarial, highly skilled baby.

Eli’s terrible revelation let directly to me, a few years later, being able to fully understand that my father, a victim of unthinkable abuse, had done his best with the very fucked up hand he’d been dealt. He had to fight to the death, it was that or face the horror of his own mother shamelessly humiliating him from the time he could stand, simply for the crime of being alive. That was how he saw the world, anyway, a bleak place of constant war and unreliable alliances. Fuck. Think about how that kind of treatment from your mother would warp your sense of yourself, your place in the world, your role as a parent. Knowing about my father’s traumatic childhood was essential, it allowed me to finally let go of a lot of anger I’d been carrying around.

I know there are many people, though I’ve met relatively few, who had a wonderful relationship with both parents. To you I say– you are truly blessed, and surely grateful, as you would have learned to be from people who were also grateful for the blessings in their lives, including their children.

For virtually everybody I’ve met, usually one or the other parent was better, sometimes just by virtue of being less monstrous than the other. We are lucky to get love and admiration from one parent, or if not a parent, another adult we meet early on. Even in the worst of situations, we humans always look to rationalize a bad situation, especially when we are young, inexperienced, and at the mercy of things and people we have little hope of understanding. We need to develop this ability to rationalize pain or be destroyed. If it was your father who was more openly at war with you, welcome to the club, there’s half a world full of members. To those whose mother was the more ruthless caregiver, and there are many millions there with you, you have my sympathy.

My point here, as I struggle to clarify and fully understand the quicksand I am gently splashing in, is that, if my troubled life is any indication of what’s good or bad for anyone else’s, the more we understand, the more insight we have into troubling things that happened to our parents, the better our chances of resolving conflicts within ourselves that are utterly hopeless when everything remains resolutely hidden and all personal life is a matter of pretending that the shame behind anger and self-loathing is nothing. The formulation of those who hide this way is intolerable, but I will reduce it to a footnote, so as not to ruin an otherwise reasonable piece with a tell-tale snarl of my own at the end [1].

[1] The formulation of the abusive insister on secrecy, the provider and hider of shame, goes something like this:

“Nothing at all to see here, history is overrated. Shit happens, life looks forward, not backwards. The past is prologue to nothing. Trust me, just be happy, don’t be a judgmental, angry, vindictive person like your insane uncle. Don’t worry about your mother’s pain, your father’s. It helps nobody. I already told you, for the thousandth time, the check’s in the mail and I won’t come in your mouth, so stop struggling so much, would you?”

Irv’s deathbed dilemma

This is becoming a terrible irony I can’t seem to overcome. I didn’t agree with my father about certain things, but this indigestible thing that he found so maddening I can’t seem to get past either. On his deathbed, when the subject of a family member came up, my father, Irv Widaen, was fixated on an insoluble vexation.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to lead him past it. This single issue seemed to blot out everything else about that family member. My father simply could not get over this one thing, he returned to it over and over. After a more than twenty year wrestling match with the issue, I find myself stopped by the same thing that confounded Irv.

It’s unfair, perhaps, to write anything about this here, but it is burning me daily so I’ll do a delicate dance to set out the dilemma in the abstract. I must describe it without revealing any of the many details that would cause shame. Try that one on sometime, it is a good workout.

This is the larger problem– when you are forbidden to speak of a dark thing there is no way toward the light. You might be totally reasonable seeking to put a troubling issue on the table, but those who feel their very souls will be jeopardized by disclosure will fight you, literally, to the death. Many find it infinitely better to pretend than to face a painful thing, especially if they believe people can’t change anyway.

My father was pessimistic in this regard, always arguing that while people might make superficial changes to their behavior, their innate, fundamental natures could never be changed. If you make strides in controlling a temper that has gotten you in trouble many times, you are only pretending you are not angry, each time you restrain yourself, but you are still prone to it in a way that others, born less angry, are not.

To me that position made little sense, since learning to control your temper is a great stride forward in life. Either you can work to improve something important or not. But many are as pessimistic as my father was about our emotional elasticity, our ability to learn from our painful mistakes and do better. That pessimism itself prevents growth, since the pessimist feels that growth is an illusion.

So, I cannot mention the thing that is eating at me, not here, certainly not with the people involved, not anywhere really. It’s like the “disappearance” of the bulk of my family, on my mother’s side, in August, 1943, all led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town for a bullet in the back of the head in that sloping mass grave. On my father’s side, there is no clue how they were all murdered or what happened to their corpses, all we know is that every one of them was killed. It was always a subject too terrible to discuss. What would have been the point?

My grandfather, the sole survivor of his large family (recently I discovered a younger brother or a nephew who had an amazing, harrowing adventure escaping death over and over as a draftee in the Soviet Army– the reason he was not in town when its Jewish population was liquidated) liked violent movies, “shooting pictures” he called them, and lived a quiet life of fear and prejudice. My grandmother swung between great cheerfulness and despair, drinking sizable quantities of vodka along the way. She lost all six of her siblings, her parents, all but one aunt and uncle, everybody she’d ever loved back home, but never said a word about it.

Again, thinking about it now, what can anyone really have said about such an atrocity, the hideous details of which I only confirmed recently? Maybe they should have been in therapy or something, but I can understand how they never discussed this indigestible horror with their grandson. I get why my parents kept their silence.

The thing that tormented my father as he was dying, the thing that torments me now, is an ongoing situation that nobody is allowed to talk about. Since nobody is allowed to talk about this individual’s long pattern of shameful deception and abuse, done and hidden year after year after year, unrepentantly, the only alternative is to pretend none of it ever happened. We do this for the sake of a loved one, I suppose, not that this pretend really helps anyone.

The price we pay for doing this is participating in a lie — pretending these awful things, real betrayals that have changed lives, never actually happened. The price we pay for continuing to be perplexed by this is that we make ourselves dangerous enemies of those who want to leave others in the dark, out of shame.

I remember sighing when my father kept bringing this situation up as he was dying. I was hoping he had another message I could play back to our family member, who’d had a troubling relationship with Irv — as we all did. I hoped in vain, I could never play the little digital recording to the family member — it would not have helped anyone. Now, almost sixteen years later, I find myself behind the same immovable rock my father was pinned by as he lay dying.

I can say only a few more things about it. My father, by his harmful behavior and his outright emotional abuse, kind of made this outcome inevitable. There’s a fucking irony for you, one I couldn’t go into when I was trying to comfort the complicated man as he was dying. I could have made an irrefutable case of direct cause and effect, but what would have been the point when the guy was trying so hard to make amends, to go in peace, when that was truly all I wanted for him?

We have all met people so damaged that they insist on things that make absolutely no sense. We see national figures making such ridiculous, lying pronouncements in the media every day. Someone I knew told me a few years back that she loved me, and her family loved me, that they considered me part of the family, but that if I didn’t immediately forgive someone who would not yield in his insistence that his many provocations were figments of my easily angered imagination, that there would not be a second chance. Love us now or you’re dead to us all, she told me. And so I was dead, because people who loved me now saw that I was a totally unforgiving fucking asshole, no matter about any actual apology or show of contrition that would have allowed me to do the thing I wanted to do, forgive a childhood friend.

This is a very important piece, often overlooked in the widespread belief that all forgiveness is good and any failure to forgive is a fault– true forgiveness can only happen when the person who has done the damage is contrite, expresses an understanding of the hurtfulness of their acts, promises to try to do better. Without contrition and seeking forgiveness reconciliation is a brittle sham, waiting for the next offense to shatter it. Some are able to empathize and make amends, others reflexively vilify the unforgiving person they were unable to apologize to. I don’t understand this, but it always strikes me as an indication of severe damage when someone tells me they love me, but that they’ll kill me if I don’t let go of all hurt instantly.

These things go back to our upbringing. Some people are raised by emotionally mature parents and they get the benefit of a parent who is able to keep the child’s best interest front and center and not confuse their own needs with the need to show their child the right way to deal with life’s challenges. In my case, sadly, both of my parents, although very intelligent, decent, with good senses of humor, had survived brutal childhoods that left them emotionally unable to not react with frustration and rage at times when a much better reaction would have been silence, more thought, and a reasonable response that actually dealt with the issue in a way that taught the right lesson. It did not help me greatly when I first realized this about my parents, but it helps me now.

Again, pain and fear will stop us in our tracks. “Why didn’t my mother love me?” is a painful question. The answer is bad too: she did, as best she could, in her fucked up, damaged, damaging way. This is hard to understand, hard to make any good use of. The only thing that can lead to any kind of useful insight is understanding how they became this way, what happened to make them monsters. In the case of this family member, that kind of inquiry is strictly forbidden. To even pose the question makes you an enemy, since it presupposes that this person should change, should be able to make amends to the people he hurts. The false image of this person as emotionally whole, and good, and always loving, needs to be fostered at all costs. And maintaining that false image requires lying.

As I was writing the draft of my intended book about my father, I was careful to make no mention of this person, or the dramatic dynamic that illustrated a side of my father so clearly. I did not want to lose any members of my small family by divulging what I knew they kept secret (those who even knew of it) at all costs. We agree to disagree (an odious concept), simply don’t talk about it, everybody knows where everybody stands, it’s fucked up, possibly emotionally indefensible, intellectually dishonest, but it is what it is and no philosophical wiseass fuck insisting on the abstraction of “truth” and its great value in understanding our place in the world is going to make any difference. Forgive and love or, at least pretend to do those things, simply play along with the long con, or else you are the fucking problem, Jack.

I am the fucking problem, no doubt about it. Which leaves me in the same untenable position I often found myself in as a boy– you may be absolutely correct, you may be righteous, your position might even be mature and the most helpful one around– but you are the fucking problem, you sick bastard. In the case of my troubled, damaged parents, I was able to finally come to a helpful understanding. This one, man, it’s just sodomizing me around the clock and trying to make me swear it’s doing nothing of the fucking kind, a demand such things typically make of us.