The right to be heard

Chapter 11 (from a work in progress)

If you are a humanistic person, you probably believe that every child is born with the right to be heard. It is one of those unalienable rights Thomas Jefferson enumerated in the Declaration of Independence (omitted from our Constitution for the practical, profit-driven reason that many men – and all women – were not created equal to their owners, nor endowed with jack shit). A child is born with a right to be heard.

Much of what the child has to say, granted, can be annoying as hell. First it’s crying and screaming about things the parents can only guess about, and unless they guess right, it will never stop. Hungry? Load in the diaper? Feeling neglected? Wet? Cold? Wanting a hug? Who the hell can tell? For some parents, this irrationally complaining baby’s incoherent crankiness will set the tone for the subsequent relationship.

You were belly-aching from the time you were born,” a father will tell his needy son, once the boy is old enough. “I didn’t know what you were screaming about then and I don’t know what you’re upset about now. You have a room of your own, in a nice house, with heat, hot water, all the food you can eat, clothes, sneakers, toys, games – and you know how hard I work to give you all those things. And yet you complain. I have no idea what it is you think you’re somehow owed and not getting… (etc.)”

This may all be true, from the father’s point of view, but none of it is any help to the child, who still wants to be heard.

What is your fucking problem, son? Use your words.”

You don’t listen to me,” says the boy.

“What are you talking about? I’m listening to you right now, son. All I ever hear from you is complaints, if it’s not something you can explain to me, it’s some gripe you can’t put into words.”

You’re not hearing me, dad. When I talk I can see what I’m saying does not go into your head. You never hear what I say.”

That’s insane,” says the father, “I heard what you said just now, right now, five seconds ago. You said I’m not hearing you, that your words don’t get into my head, that I never hear what you say. I heard all that. How can you say I never hear you?”

The son is no match for this adult and his implacable logic and soon gives up, still feeling he is never heard. Why does he feel this way? When he says he’s scared, his mother tells him he has nothing to be scared about. When he tells his father he’s cold, the father tells him the temperature in the house and explains why it’s impossible to feel cold at that temperature. The adults always unite to insist that they have heard everything reasonable he has to say.

You have the right to be heard. If someone claims to love you, and will not listen to what you have to say, take the brutal hint, stop talking and call someone who can listen. If there is nobody around, sit in a quiet place and put your words down on a page. You have the right to be heard, no matter what people who claim to be better than you might have to say about it.

When being conciliatory becomes a problem

A friendly readiness to compromise, be agreeable and conciliatory becomes a handicap only when you find yourself in a conflict with someone who has to win, no matter what.

This type quickly makes a deadly weapon of the benefit of the doubt that you keep extending to them. In this moment, it is very important to listen to what that unsettled feeling in your stomach, in your lungs, your muscles is telling you.

You learn agreeable behavior as a baby, as a matter of survival. You must be easy to get along with, easy to love. It is good to be easy to get along with, until you find yourself locked in a struggle with someone who sees the world only as domination or submission.

These motherfuckers play a game where only one person walks away alive at the end. Learn to see the deadly game as early as you can, learn to get away from them as soon as you can. If necessary, learn not to feel bad if you have to kick them hard or punch them in the face to get away from them. They will do much worse to you if you stick around and keep trying to reason with them.

Bad moves 101

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.  

Impossible letter #2 background (conclusion)

So you’re a smart, good looking young woman who has modeled herself after her dominant father, but living in a world of aggressively sexist assholes.  You can’t walk down the street in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s, without these assholes making wolfish comments, giving you the entitled, liplicking asshole looks that make your blood boil.   What you need is a strong, loyal man by your side to kick anyone’s ass who tries this shit with you.

That much is not hard to understand.  The requirements for this guy, aside from size and imposing physical strength, are similar to our father’s requirements for his mate:  good looking, charming, smart, good sense of humor, devoted and ready to do whatever I say.

Then we face the law of unintended consequences.  She found this man, a handsome, athletic giant, who told her he was separated from his wife when their whirlwind romance began.  He would do anything for her, wanted to sweep her away to Arizona, start a new life in Tucson.  She was a New Yorker with friends and a good job, not ready for this radical new start.   He eventually got divorced and they eventually got married.  He was good looking, smart, strong and devoted to making her happy.  The unintended part, unseen, and once seen, rationalized: the guy was sometimes a bit of a compulsive liar and probably a gambling addict.

What did he lie about?  His academic degrees, his former employment, money, why he lost his job, why he needed to borrow more money, why he couldn’t pay back the money he’d borrowed, why he came home with his clothes sliced to rags and his wallet and keys gone, why he lied about a previous lie, why taking that merchandise from his boss and selling it under the table wasn’t actually stealing, why shoplifting really isn’t stealing, why pretending to go to work every day for a year while taking cash advances on your dead father’s credit cards and handing them to your wife every week as your pay is really a victimless crime and so on.

Bottom line, he was bad with money.  At one point he made an excellent living, selling a lucrative yet legal product, but he also spent lavishly, extravagant orders and generous tips at restaurants, many expensive gifts and then, bad news, after a couple of years of living large, a few years scraping by, he finally had to declare bankruptcy.   

He did this a few days after borrowing ten thousand dollars from his father-in-law, the DU, for last minute expenses related to the upcoming closing on the dream house he and his wife were about to buy.  A lovely home with a beautiful back yard, where their soon-to-be born son would grow up playing with his big sister.  The guy was a practiced liar with the gift of looking disarmingly sincere, and vulnerable, when he lied.  He borrowed the ten grand from the DU on Monday, waited for the check to clear.  On Friday he told everyone he couldn’t repay the loan or buy the house, he’d declared bankruptcy earlier that week.

All of these details are humiliating to have set out in front of you, granted.  The only other option is to dummy up about all of it, as he always pressured me to do, about things like his refusal to pay me back money I’d loaned him, back when I still spoke to him. 

The vow of silence on sore subjects required to maintain a sociable relationship includes a big IXNAY on any mention of the death threat when his wife finally called him out about his psychopathic untruthfulness.  

To be fair, the death threat was a one off.  The wife flew into a long overdue rage that had been building for years, after the surprise bankruptcy that ended the charade of closing on the never to be attained dream home.  He angrily shot back that he was going to lock her and the kids in the house (I think a bicycle lock and a piece of heavy machinery came into play in this threat to seal them inside– my nephew had been born by then, was a young baby) get in his car, drive the mile to his in-laws, murder both of them with their biggest kitchen knife, come home, kill the children and set the house on fire, burning himself and his wife to death. 

In fairness to him, he never did any of this, although the graphically detailed threat got everybody’s attention for a while. 

The little family was also teetering on the edge of bankruptcy number two and I offered to look over the family budget, see where they could make cuts to save money.  

There was no family budget, no accounts or receipts except for ones showing the interest rates paid by poor people who buy luxury items, like a giant flat screen TV, on the predatory terms imposed in payment plans.  I reacted badly to the obscene interest rates that doubled the price of the giant flat screen they were still paying for, years after buying it. I see now, thinking about it again, that it had to have been humiliating to be made to feel bad for just trying to live a decent life.

“You have to explain to your kids why you’re so angry at your husband, otherwise all they see is an irrationally angry mother always grim and stressed out, for no apparent reason,” I told my sister.   She wasn’t ready to reveal any of this, assured me her kids had no idea that she was so angry at their father.  I assured her that they were well aware of it.  

For one thing, she’d been sleeping with her young son, in his bed, for several years, until the kid threw her out one night, old enough to point out the obvious and say “this is weird, mom.”   

“They do know,” she told me one day, not long afterwards.   She’d been at the kitchen sink and heard the kids out front talking to the neighbors’ kids.  She’d heard them describe how much their dad loves their mom, but that their mom doesn’t love their dad.

I offered to be in the room when her husband explained to the kids why mommy had a right to be mad at daddy sometimes, as he’d promised her he’d do, at my urging.  Daddy, it should be pointed out, was always playful, gentle and affectionate with the kids, their best friend.  Mommy could be demanding, grim and dreaded if crossed, but daddy was a giant, humorous, always a loving pussy cat.  He loved to cuddle

I was in Florida for two weeks and offered to help my sister inform the kids of some of the reasons she’d been angry at their loving dad.   She agreed, but kept putting me off, in the end assuring me that he’d promised to talk to the kids with her, as soon as I left Florida.  No warning I could have given her would have made any difference.

A week after I got back to New York my mother called me.  “You’d better call your sister, I just heard from her, today was the day that R____ was going to tell the kids about his sordid past, it didn’t go well.  She’s driving a hundred miles an hour on 95, I’m afraid she’s going to crash her car.”

My sister, who was indeed very upset, told me the story.  Her husband started his mea culpa to the children by putting things in context for them.  “You know how your mother has a hard time forgiving people sometimes?  Well, years ago I made a little mistake…” and, as if proving his point about what an unforgiving monster their mother was, she exploded, raced out the door, gunned the engine and started speeding on the highway.

There are things in life you cannot fix, irreparably broken things you had no hand in breaking.  No amount of nuance you can provide will change a black and white world view into a gradient where everyone strives for the best, with needed compromise along the way.  In the world of someone who must win, and always be in control, everything must be viewed in terms of victory or defeat.  

Defeat is the most humiliating thing in the win/lose world and the fierce competitor will do anything necessary to avoid the shame of losing.  You can continue to love people, you can be willing to compromise, do your best to be supportive, understanding, accepting — bear in mind, none of this shit will help you when you are trying it with someone in conflict who can never be on the losing end of anything.

Mistakes.  These wrong things you accuse me of doing are simple human mistakes, when I make them.  When you do bad things, you evil fuck, well, you are completely in the wrong.  But my mistakes are merely the mistakes of an imperfect person with no hurtful intention behind them, you merciless, hypocrite fuck.

Get into a wrestling match with an alligator and you get what you get, sucka.

After my mother’s funeral in 2010 we were standing on Mott Street in Chinatown, on a sweltering, humid NYC evening.  Me, Sekhnet, my sister and my niece, sucking on cold bubble teas in the elbow of Mott Street.  My niece was about twenty at the time.  We were exchanging stories about this high strung woman, the older sister of the high school friend at whose house my sister and niece were staying.  The woman, a doctor, really was a bit of a cartoon character, a female Yosemite Sam.  I listened to a few funny stories and told about the one time I met her.   

Her brother and I had arranged to meet at a Queens restaurant he’d been raving about, his brother and sister would be there with him.  I sent him an email saying I was unlikely to be done with work in time to join them at the appointed hour, but that they should have appetizers and I’d hop on a train and be there as soon as I could.   I got there about thirty minutes after the appointed time.  They were sitting in a car in front of the restaurant, which was closed.   This was before the age when everyone had a smart phone in their pocket, and besides, I’d been on the subway for the previous half hour.   A woman stuck her head out of the front passenger seat and angrily told me that I was an inconsiderate fucking asshole.  I said “nice to meet you, Ellen”.

“But if you really want to hear stories about her, ask your father,” I said to my beautiful, smiling niece  “he knows her best of all, they were married.”

My sister made a desperate throat slash/ixnay IXNAY!!! gesture behind her confused daughter’s back.  I had no idea the father’s previous marriage and divorce was a deeply guarded family secret.  My niece opened her eyes wide and looked from me to her mother, back to me, back to her mother, totally confused.

“Mom, what?!   Was dad really married to her?”

My sister assured her that dad had never been married to anyone but her.  I stood in the street, at a loss for words.  I should have not been at a loss for words, and I rarely am, I must not have been ready for nuclear war with my sister at that moment.   She’d already nuked one of my major cities, true, by insisting that Uncle Elie was either crazy or a liar, or both, but I stood in the street, not ready to launch my counterattack.  I don’t operate that way, blasting first and cleaning up afterwards, for all of my skill at disemboweling desperate enemies with my sharp tongue.

As soon as I was alone with my sister I told her she had to straighten things out with my niece.  She had hammered an intolerable wedge between me and the niece I loved.  My niece now had to consider if her uncle was insane or just a compulsive liar who couldn’t help himself from spewing whatever gibberish came into his head.  My sister told me she understood, and she’d talk to her daughter, explain everything.   

Of course, there were a lot of conditions placed on that talk — both kids had to be informed at the same time (what this had to do with my nephew, who wasn’t there, was never explained) and they had to be informed at a time when their father wasn’t there, which he always was.  It would be tricky, she told me, but she’d do it as soon as possible.

I know what you must be thinking, dear reader, now that I’ve set out this story for you with the full illumination of hindsight.  “You know how your uncle is sometimes really angry and unable to forgive people who didn’t actually do anything to him?”

A year later, the next time we saw each other, my sister told me that she’d tried to keep her promise, but that the time had never been right to tell the kids what she’d promised to tell them, without their father there.  Seriously, though, looking at it in the context of the rest of this, how did I not yet understand the world my sister lived in?  I wasn’t ready to let her and her children go, couldn’t admit to myself that they were probably already gone.

When our father was dying, during the last night of his life, I asked him to record a little message for his daughter, in the event that they didn’t get a chance to speak before the end.   He hesitated for a long time, and everything he said afterwards applied to himself as much as to his daughter.  

Except that, naturally, he started off by saying he could never understand how she could stay with that colossal asshole after all the times he’d betrayed and lied to her.  I told him that his views on the subject were well known to everyone, but that perhaps he had something of a more helpful nature he wanted to say to her, before time ran out.  He had a very hard time formulating anything I could play for her.  

“No matter how much you praise her, it makes no difference, her need for affirmation is a bottomless pit,” said the brilliant man who’d insisted, moments earlier, that he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill — “by far!”. 

I must I must have told her a hundred times what a phenomenally talented teacher she was, but it never made the slightest impression on her. It’s like a bottomless hole that can’t be filled.” said my father, a bottomless hole that couldn’t be filled, on the last night of his life.

“A hundred times?,” I said, not able to let that bit of dishonest hyperbole go, not in our last conversation. 

“Easily a hundred,”  he said. It was probably once, perhaps it was even twice, whatever it was it wasn’t a hundred fucking times. I let it go, aware that I was in his temple, the room he was dying in.

“His life was shame-based,” my sister said after he died.  “His whole life was an attempt to avoid feeling unbearable shame.”

Set and match, if you pattern yourself after someone you admire, in spite of the tremendous damage he did.

I went into a fury when my sister told me she hadn’t had a chance to set her daughter straight, claiming that since it was already a year ago that the kid probably had no memory of it anyway. When I blew up,  my sister burst into tears.  She sobbed like a little kid, I’ve never seen an adult cry that way.  She stood on the street, bawling and shuddering for a long time.  Then she promised again that she’d tell her kids that she’d lied, that their uncle hadn’t been crazy or lying when he casually mentioned an objective, taboo fact.

“Hi, Uncle Elie,” my niece said over the phone a week or two later.  “My mom wanted me to call to tell you that she told us that our dad was married and divorced before my parents got married.”

“Did she tell you why I needed her to tell you this?”

“No, we were both kind of confused about why it was so important to you…” she said.

“A hundred million people have been divorced, people get divorced all the time.  Why would I give a shit about you knowing that your father had been divorced?” I said.

“We were wondering the same thing,” she said.

I told her the story.  She’d forgotten all about it, just as her mom had predicted.  When I finished the story she said “now I understand why you were so upset.”

That may have been the last time I spoke on the phone with my smart, beautiful niece.  Ten years later, after periodic texts exchanged, with many heart emojis, I finally set out to write the impossible letter, to her and her brother.

Impossible letter #2 — background

The impossible letter, I understand now, is any letter written to influence somebody who has unquestioning, unreasoning belief.  The greatest letter you can conceive will not change deeply held beliefs, unless the heart of the recipient is already inclined toward what you have to say.  It’s natural to suspect a nefarious motive when you receive an attempt to persuade you of something you’re not inclined to accept, coming from someone you’ve been warned against.   A charming, personal letter from Hitler, no matter how beautifully written, would have little chance of changing my mind about anything.

Impossible letter number two was written to my only two living blood relatives, my niece and nephew.   I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to have no response from either of them.   The back story is long and complicated, though also simple and straightforward.

The roots of this insoluble impasse to-the-death, like most things of a deadly emotional nature, are in long-ago childhood.  I have avoided writing directly about this particular tangled emotional web but at this point my need to set things out is greater than my need to be senselessly discreet.   When you’re forbidden to talk about things, and they continue to bother you, the most obvious option, for those who sit down every day to write, is to write them out.   To me clarity is a much better option than blind emotional commitment to a strong, unreasoning feeling.   If you’re like me, the impossible letter eventually begins to take shape in your head, you imagine the clear telling that will set everything straight, in a perfect world.

In the home my sister and I grew up in, our father dominated our mother.   Dad “won”, mom “lost” — she always compromised, he almost never did.  Our mother was smart, quick on her feet, funny, competent, sociable, a better driver than our father, adroit at solving mysteries, but she always deferred to her strong-willed husband during the hollering matches we had with our dinner almost every night.   She bent to whatever he needed, always took his side, out of love, loyalty, sympathy, knowing how badly he needed to be right, fear, weakness, conditioning, lack of confidence, variable self-esteem, a housewife’s expected fealty to her husband in the 1960s, some combination of all of the above.  Our father was upset almost every evening, exhausted by working two jobs and the monstrous ingratitude of his two spoiled, mean-spirited children.  He flew into a rage easily and in his rage was never without righteousness on his side.  He was rightfully known as the DU, The Dreaded Unit, my sister’s perfect name for him.

My sister paid me a great compliment once, when we were young adults.  We were sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts in south Florida.  She asked me why I wasn’t like either one of our parents.  I told her that if those were the only two options in life, to become one of our deeply damaged parents, I’d have long ago snuffed myself.  I asked her why she thought those were the only two choices.  I had no understanding then of how inexorably our childhood had marked my sister’s life, limiting her choices to modeling herself after a winner or a loser, righteous dominance or humiliating submission.

“I’m the DU,” she told me somberly, shortly after her second child was born.   She fixed me with a terribly poignant look that shook me as much as her statement.

“No, wait, that can’t be, you can’t… you have to do something about that.  You need to talk to somebody, you need to do some work, you can’t replicate what was done to us.  You don’t want to inflict that kind of damage on your children.  You can’t do that to them, come on, they’re totally innocent.   What are you going to do?  You’ve got to nip this shit in the bud.”

“Being the DU means you can’t do anything about it,” she said. 

Decades later I understand that if you are damaged enough to see the world as black and white, win or lose, pride or crushing shame, with nothing in between (compromise is weakness) you believe, in your core, that there is nothing you can do about it but get up every day and fight anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself.  My father always argued that people cannot change on any fundamental level.  

I understand now, only very recently, that it was a true statement for him.  Being the DU means you feel utterly powerless against your dreaded nature.  If you acknowledge that others can work and change some of the worst things about themselves, how humiliating that would be.   It’s almost like you’re choosing to be too weak to face whatever makes you live in a black and white world.

(part 2 to follow)

Writing draft two of my father’s story

My father, a brilliant man with a quick wit and a dark sense of humor, did severe damage to my sister and me.  Our childhood was a minefield, a war zone, we grew up in a home of constantly shifting alliances where accusations and angry screaming accompanied dinner almost every night.   

Irv always presented a puzzle that was impossible for me to solve: a man with so many admirable qualities, capable of being such a great friend, so funny and enlightened about so many things, who was, at the same time, so maniacally determined to never be wrong that he waged total war against his own children.  He was hellbent on never losing an argument, no matter how shaky its foundation.  He insisted to the end of his life, for example, that I’d had it in for him since I came home from the hospital, a newborn with a clear rage against his father from day one.  I stared at him as a two day-old, in his account, with big, black, accusing eyes.

The last night of his life, April 28, 2005, he expressed many regrets, but until then, and I was close to fifty that night, he always fought like the devil.  His rapidly approaching death seemingly relieved him of the need to fight to the death.  He was able to be candid about the demons that pursued him, for the first time in his life.  Looming death helped him gain clarity, but there were other forces also in play, as I will describe in the pages to follow.

I sat down, daily, in 2015 and 2016, and spent a few hours writing down everything I could think of about my old man, from every angle I could imagine.  It was like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with a hundred missing pieces, in a darkened room.   At the same time, the process of remembering and reconstructing his life was fascinating.  Most amazingly, writing it all out got me closer and closer to truly understanding his uncompromising point of view when it came to conflict.   I didn’t agree with him much of the time, and understood his deep regrets about having been that way, but by the end of writing that first draft, and thinking about it, I felt that I truly understood how and why he came to see things the way he did.

Early on in writing that first draft the skeleton of my father piped up one day, and figuring I could always go back and delete the adorable device, I let him speak up regularly.  Much of that first draft is a back and forth with my father’s skeleton.  Over the course of writing I had many sessions with the skeleton, a close version of my father, whose voice I could hear very clearly as the skeleton made his opinions known, only much more capable of honest self-reflection since his death.   

I found myself greatly looking forward to our almost daily conversations, which seemed to me only partly imaginary though I was transcribing both sides and had no illusions that my father’s bones were actually sitting up in his grave, as I described, speaking at length and sometimes commenting drily on the raptors flying over the Westchester graveyard where he’s buried.  In the end, 1,200 pages, and many sessions with my father’s bones later, I was able to see things through my dead father’s eyes.  It was an outcome I never imagined.

That sprawling first draft was nothing close to a book and there are many reasons for it.  For one, the conceit of an extended conversation with my father’s sardonic, philosophical skeleton struck me as a bit precious and contrived (though the skeleton would have a good argument against my hesitation.)  Two big reasons for its incompleteness I am just understanding now, and they are connected.

The first is that I only recently put together that the personality type who cannot be wrong no matter what, the kind, like my old man, who is hypersensitive to criticism, quick to insult and anger, harshly blames everyone else for all hurt and never yields in any way, is not only a tortured soul, but a narcissist.   How did I not understand, until very recently, that my dear father was a narcissist?  

A narcissist, whenever there is conflict, is the quintessential black and white thinker.   They see themselves as either superior to everyone, or as utterly, humiliatingly worthless and undeserving of love or respect.  There is no grey area, no ability to compromise between these two stark choices.  In case of conflict, no matter how minor, for the narcissist it is always an existential war that can end only in domination or unthinkably painful submission.  They must use every weapon to maintain the narcissistic identity of perfect mastery or face the horror of their crushing unworthiness to be loved.

It doesn’t mean my father wasn’t also funny, sentimental, sometimes affectionate, very smart, with good impulses toward the world and an admirable identification with the oppressed (his paranoid tyranny over wife and children aside).  It just means his desperate childhood had damaged him to the point that he could not tolerate being wrong.  His fear of the humiliation of being wrong in any way was too painful for him.  He could not forgive, he could not apologize, there was no making amends with him.  My sister named him the DU, the Dreaded Unit, and not for nothing, the name fit him like a skin.

His narcissistic solution to the terror of ever being humiliated was to create a persona that was smart, well-read, informed, authoritative, adroit in argument, disarmingly funny, moralistic, admirably idealistic and formidable.   He had a real talent for debate and was without peer in constantly and effortlessly turning the disagreement from whatever conflict his opponent needed to resolve to a moral high ground of his choosing where he was in complete control at all times. Control, recent experience has taught me, is the cardinal need of the narcissist.  If the narcissist is not in control — devils and darkness!

Seeing the whole of my father’s life in terms of narcissism helps me understand it a little better. The first draft was written in the dark, in terms of the general insights about narcissistic incapacities available to me now.  In light of his personality having been without a doubt narcissistic, there is now a small lamp in the corner, shedding more light on the whole portrait.   Even as I realize that my father may not have presented as the classic narcissist because he was very skilled in making his manipulation seem entirely reasonable, even altruistic. 

The second major reason that draft one was a missed attempt to tell my father’s tragic, triumphant story is a limitation I put on myself in writing it.   The relationship that was the greatest illustration of my father’s character, his style and his limitations, was off limits to me. It involved a family member in our immediate family of five and I decided at the outset to exclude any mention of that important supporting character, indispensable supporting character, really, in an attempt to keep the peace with my remaining  blood relatives.  Taking this imagined high road did not prevent my estrangement from that little cult anyway, so, understanding what I now do about the worldview of narcissists, I am no longer bound by that high-minded impulse to avoid a painful part of the truth. No story worth hearing omits necessary truth.

Truth was a huge thing with my father.  There was some truth he was incapable of grappling with, true, but he was a big believer in the power of honesty.   He always stressed how crucial honesty is to any relationship and I took his guidance in that matter to heart.  In battles with other narcissists you will often encounter desperate lying, the constant shuffling of a shifting set of convenient facts that can be changed on the fly.   My father, because of his skills, never needed to do that.  I am not aware of any lie ever told by my father. He didn’t need to bend the truth, he simply reframed anything he didn’t want to talk about right out of existence.  

And yet, as clear as truthfulness is, as clear as an outright lie is, there is, in our world of imperfect humans, a vast field of gradation there in the middle.  

Part of that gradation is the way we treat people who we don’t trust but still need something from.  My father gave me the example, toward the end of his life, of a compulsively lying person he despised (and he pronounced the word with almost spitting contempt) but was able to pleasantly shoot the shit with, in order to have unfettered access to other people he loved.  The guy knew my father hated him, and he’d lost every argument he’d ever had with him, been handled as easily as a foolish child, but they talked sports, and the weather, and a little politics sometimes (they had roughly similar views), and for his part the guy played along, smiling, making wisecracks.  Anyone passing the two of them chatting would have assumed they were on good terms.  Unless one was able to observe their micro-expressions, those tell tale little flashes of true feeling that constantly play across the human face.

So this guy has to be a character in the final draft of my father’s story, he’s indispensable.  I forbade myself from including perhaps the most important supporting character in the story.  Can’t tell the story without including this motherfucker and everyone in his circle.  Sorry, but finishing this long delayed book is more important to me than a little group, damaged just as I was, who no longer speak to me anyway.  Let’s give ’em something to read about, shall we?

To change or not to change

This dawned on me out of the blue yesterday, as my mind intermittently tries to work out another puzzle that has never made sense to me.   I realized that someone who lives in terrifying anticipation of unbearably painful shame and humiliation lives in a different, scarier, much more threatening world than most people.   In their world, someone they love, someone their children trust, can become an implacable Adolf Hitler clone in an instant.   Think of how terrifying that world would be to live in.

I had a long running debate with my father about whether people can change or not.  I believe that people can change, particularly if repeated, reflexive  behaviors keep causing you the same pain.  My mother confirmed the best of these changes in me over the years, but I myself know how much better I handle things like frustration, anger and depression than I used to.  

Change is certainly hard, it takes a lot of work and concentration, but it is possible.  When you can finally sit with your pain without crying out, you begin to see its causes more and more clearly.  If you see how your behavior, responding to a perceived threat,  makes the problem worse, you can little by little improve how you respond.   You will see cause and effect, understand the steps in behavior that lead to the bad result, and most importantly, learn to catch yourself before you react badly.  You will do a little better over time, if you are serious enough about changing things that torment you.   To believe otherwise is to accept that we’re doomed to a life of enduring constantly repeating misery.

My father believed that people cannot, on any fundamental level, change.   His position was that if you are born with a reflex to react with anger, that’s all she wrote about your ability to ever have significantly better control of your temper.  He told me, the night before he died, that his life had been basically over by the time he was two.   

He was referring to what had happened to him in those formative pre-verbal years before he could develop any memories at all, years that were all fear and pain.  This was a subject he never spoke of, but that I discovered a few years before he died when his older cousin Eli sadly revealed it to me. 

He angrily denied everything when I began to bring it up, denounced Eli as a fucking liar, but he acknowledged it the last night of his life. 

“Whatever Eli told you,” he said, referring to the beloved older cousin he denounced as an unreliable narrator and an idiot, “he spared you the worst of it.  Nobody could ever describe the true horror of the home I grew up in.”

What was this horror?  That he grew up in soul-killing poverty and that his mother was a tiny, religious woman with a Hitler-like temper and no threshold for frustration.   Whenever she got frustrated she took it out on the giant baby who had caused her such pain coming into the world, grabbing the nearest whip and lashing him across the face.

“In the face?” I asked my cousin Eli when he told me the story of watching his beloved aunt mercilessly whipping her toddler son.  He nodded with the saddest possible expression.

To my father, we are doomed when we start, however we’re born, whatever our predispositions, genetic tendencies and earliest experiences are, that’s essentially how we will always be.  What happens, according to my father’s view, is you put together a certain social veneer, you develop a talent for making jokes, have intelligent conversations, enjoy things like college sports, you can be fascinated by history, a one-time idealist and a keen student of politics, a philosopher, even, but all that is a social construct you make to cover whatever demons are churning inside yourself that you cannot change or influence in any meaningful way.  We are doomed, as the victims of whatever trauma befell us before we could defend ourselves, and there’s nothing any of us can do about, my father believed, until the last night of his life.

Fuck that”, was always my position.  If you suffer from a terrible temper, would it not help to understand why you get so fucking mad?  If, say, your mother had repeatedly whipped you in the face with the coarse cord of her steam iron, when you were less than two, wouldn’t that be a good reason to be a bit touchy later in life?   Or, let’s say, you first went to kindergarten with 20/400 vision, legally blind, and no adult discovered this until you were about 9, when FDR mandated that poor kids should have free eyeglasses as part of the New Deal (legislation that also outlawed child labor in the US, when my dad was already 8, working age).  Up until that time you’d been regularly mocked as a big moron for not being able to tell an A from an F on the blackboard.  Got your first pair of glasses in third grade, and went on the honor roll from fourth grade on.   These details are important to consider before condemning yourself as doomed to having an explosive temper and having been a big dummy when you were a young kid, no?

My father might have said “maybe for a novel, or some kind of rumination on human nature, but for the average person trying to get through life, support a family, work two jobs to give his children a good life after the grinding poverty of his own life, all that is more than enough to have on your plate.  Besides, no matter how many of the hideous details you relive, the pain involved in putting that puzzle together to the extent that you would be able to change anything meaningful about your life, which you know I believe one can’t, is unimaginably terrifying.   Why feel that nightmare again when we can do nothing to change our lives, in any fundamental way?”

Circular logic if there ever was an example of it.  Logic, of course, is not the right word to apply to that analysis.  Though my father was capable of sophisticated logic, and was a skilled debater capable of arguing either side of any position, this loop was not an example of any of that.  In formal debating, debaters learn to strategically deploy logos (intellectual argument based on facts and logic), ethos (moral argument) and pathos (appeals to emotion).  The inner world people like my father cannot escape from is ruled by pathos.   Have enough unbearable emotion in your soul and the greatest logical and moral arguments fall off you like rain off the proverbial duck’s back.  

I understand now that for someone like my father, wounded in his heart as deeply as he was, change was impossibly painful to even consider possible.  He simply could not imagine putting himself through the unnerving pain that would have been necessary before he could try to change.  To acknowledge that anyone else could change, but that he couldn’t, would only have added to his shame and humiliation.  His position that people cannot actually change was psychologically necessary for him because, for him, it was true.  

Logos, ethos and pathos, the only one operating full tilt, in many lives right now, is pathos.   Strong emotions rule the world in this age of Alternative Reason.  His will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Fucking hell.

Life’s unfair

Whenever I complained about anything being unfair, my parents’ actions or anything else, my father had a stock answer.  

“President Kennedy said ‘life’s unfair’,” my father would say.

I have no doubt that John Kennedy said that, just as I have no doubt he was shot in the head one morning in Dallas, proving his point.   

Life is unfair, it is also immensely complicated.   Sometimes it’s hard to navigate.   I react badly, unfairly, and I hurt you.  You react with hurt.  I think you are reacting with way too much hurt.  Fuck, I didn’t hurt you that badly!  Now who’s the victim of unfairness?

“Wait, you just admitted you hurt me.  Isn’t it unfair to tell me exactly how much I’m entitled to be hurt?   Do you know what I’m going through at this moment, what makes me more vulnerable than usual to suffering from unfair treatment by someone I trust?  Did I ever treat you that way?”

Now the back goes up, which happens automatically as the body is poised for fight or flight.

“You want fair, asshole?”  and the game is on.

If you are philosophical it may seem possible to arrive at a reasonable  understanding of virtually anything.  Once you have some data and a framework to understand something you have the way to make otherwise incomprehensible things comprehensible to yourself.   Of course, life being unfair, having a coherent framework to talk about something does not always lead to a mutually helpful conversation.

I can try to look at the conflict through the lens of your pain, understanding, for example, why it is so hard for you to compromise or make amends, but that view may cut a little too close to your nerve endings for your comfort.  You’ll feel judged, moreso if the view comes close to a painful truth.  Much easier to continue fighting over who has the right to feel more hurt by the other.  On a bad day you will hear things like “you have to understand that I’m too upset by what you did to listen to why you’re upset.”

Life’s unfair, and part of its unfairness is rooted in its often incoherent nature.  In spite of all the theories, and of science, and the role of the marvelous human mind in fathoming things that are difficult, a good part of life simply defies sense, logic, discussion.  Unfair, if you ask me.

Gentlemen’s agreement — no lies

My father hated liars.  Lying was a line he wouldn’t cross himself (partly because he didn’t need to, as I will explain in a moment) and something he didn’t forgive in others.  I saw very early on that if you made up a false, childish story to hide something from him, he’d see through the lie and label you a lying piece of shit forever. 

I understand that a lie can make a lasting impression of lack of character, or sometimes no impression (if the lie is minor and doesn’t really affect you).  The trouble is, before you lie you never know which way it will go.

The obvious problem with a lie is that the person you are lying to  can be holding the proof of your lie in his hand.  “Did you ever write a letter denouncing me to Child Protective Services as a ‘vicious monster unfit to raise children’?” my father could ask.  If you said it never happened, and he was able to pull out your childishly pencilled letter to Child Protective Services, point to the verbatim quote right there on the lined paper, that would be it, for the rest of your life, the verdict: fucking liar.

I actually did lie to him once, about having taken mescaline as a teenager.  “Did you ever take mescaline?” he asked the sixteen year-old version of me pointedly.   I denied it, weakly, and he pulled out a letter I’d written to a girlfriend, written in mercurochrome, which might as well have been blood.  The bloody looking scrawling, with plenty of ghoulish drips and glops, was a raving love letter to psychedelics and included a vow to take a lot more of it in the coming days.   

“Shit,” I thought, when he disgustedly pulled out the letter “I never mailed that letter to Barbara, must have fallen behind my parents’ bed when I was sleeping in there for the AC when they were out of town…”   My lie was a one-off, my father recognized, and no big referendum on my character resulted from it.

Not so for other people we knew who lied to my father, even once.  My sister, when she was maybe seven, hatched a caper with her seven year-old accomplice, Jefferey Seigel, to break into my little cash register-shaped piggy bank and use the illicit proceeds to buy candy.  The plan went perfectly, until I came home and found the little cash register pried open and empty of its perhaps 80 cents in coins (this would have been 1965 money, probably $5 or $10 in today’s candy buying coin, shit, maybe more — a Milky Way cost maybe a dime in those days, I think) and the list of culprits was quickly narrowed down to my little sister.  She rolled on her henchman, after a series of the seven year old’s best attempts at lies was brushed aside by my prosecutor father. 

He never let her forget this childish act of piracy on the high seas, made a hundred times worse by the lies about not being a childish brigand.  Anytime he got angry at her, the first salvo would be about how she lacked character, stole from her own brother to buy candy, AND LIED ABOUT IT.  A little thief, AND a liar.

A lie can be maddening, it’s true, and I’ll never know the roots of my father’s hatred of lying, but the reason people lie is also usually understandable.  People don’t often lie without a reason.   The reason is most of the time to avoid feeling bad, to avoid having to take responsibility for a mistake, to avoid punishment. 

This makes the whole exercise kind of ironic: you lie to avoid telling the truth, to make yourself feel less vulnerable, and this places you in the category of ordinary, very vulnerable, fucking liars.  If the lie can be shown to be a lie, you’re a proven liar, and often, in the eyes of many, mostly honest, people, a weak and contemptible person.

My father was an angry brute whenever he felt he needed to be, in the privacy of his own home.  He’d never confront people in the street, or at work, but around the dinner table, with just the four of us there, he was fearless and fierce in protecting his turf and asserting his dominance and superiority.   In this way he was like many other narcissistic people with terribly painful wounds doing his best to feel like a whole person, in the face of unbearable early life humiliation.   I don’t even hold it against him any more.   The thing I’m thinking about now is his basic honesty, the way I almost never knew him to lie.  As I said, he didn’t need to.  Check this out:

If you can control the conversation at every stage, you can change the subject to whatever you want to talk about, before there is any reason to lie.  A lie is told when the liar finds himself in a corner, nowhere to go.  The truth leads to an electric shock, a lie might get you off without the voltage going through you.  The trapped rat chooses option two, sometimes avoids the sting of electricity.  My father mastered the art of never finding himself in a corner.  No corner trap, no real urgency to lie.  He was very good at reframing every argument to quickly turn it back on the person he was trying to cow.

You can say, big man, reframing and gaslighting his own kids!, and sure, when my sister was seven and I was nine, it looked pitiful enough to see this brilliant adult using sophisticated tools to argue his children into submission.  He did the same when we were twenty, thirty and forty.   I eventually went to law school, in a misguided attempt to do something to please the unpleasable old man, and only after graduating and passing the bar did I fairly easily beat him into silence during our last argument, about two years before he died.

But, check this out, if you lack the adroit mind of my father, and find yourself in a heated no-holds-barred argument with someone in command of the facts, with a clear memory of events, who cuts through your rationales quickly and decisively, you will likely feel cornered.   The first line of defense might be just reflexive defensiveness:  no, you say I hurt you, but you hurt me, that’s why I did it, because you hurt me, you merciless fuck!    A second line, change the subject, to anything.  Why are you still talking about this when I’m now talking about that?   See, you won’t talk about what I want to talk about, what I need.   HOW ABOUT WHAT I need?!!!!  You selfish fuck.

If the relentless argument continues, and the attempts at reframing, misdirection, gaslighting and everything else are not working, you find yourself in a corner and there is only one card left: lying.  What you said I said I never said and even if I had said it it was only because of what you said, but you are lying, I never said that!   In fact, I remember exactly why I said it and I was completely right to say it, even though I never said it!

In the end, one party can shake its head sadly, regarding the liar with a shaming expression on its face.  “Dude, at least I never fucking lied to you…”

The person who lied, if humiliated enough to lie and then be caught in the lie, and, the ultimate shame, being name-called a liar?   They’re not going to be arguing with you ever again.   Neither are they going to do you any more favors, or laugh at your jokes, or invite you to dinner or take any chance of a repeat of the horrific shit that just happened, even though you were completely wrong and they never lied, and, even if they did, it was your fault for backing them into that corner of the cage and putting the electrodes on them, and what trapped rat wouldn’t lie under those merciless conditions, you sick fuck?

My father never found himself in this position, never had to bend the truth at all, because he was a master at his craft.  He never found himself cornered.   To him, lying during a conflict was contemptible, it showed you had no fucking game. 

So, during our long, senseless war, I accepted his perverse gentlemen’s agreement:  we fight to the death, and that’s the way it has to be, but we will not consciously lie to each other during our fight to the death.   I shook on that deal, for better or worse.

The Age of Narcissism

I read a fascinating book, at my sister’s recommendation, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.  It is an exploration of the Mormon faith, framed by a grisly murder two devout, fringe Mormons committed after one of them got a revelation from God that the two victims (his wife and daughter) had to be “removed.”   The book explores the hazy boundary between true religious inspiration and justicially cognizable insanity. 

At one point the lawyers for the murderer are making an argument to keep him from the death penalty.  The lawyer tells the court that someone who has suffered severe early life injury to their self-esteem sometimes compensates by becoming grandiose.  When this happens the person has an overriding need to believe that they are superior, special, perfect, beautiful — on pain of feeling humiliatingly inferior, worthless, fatally flawed and ugly —  and constructs a black and white world view accordingly.  The condition the lawyer claimed had disabled his client is called Narcissism.

It was an illuminating insight to me, since I’d long struggled against my father’s black and white worldview (a severely limiting view he lamented greatly as he was dying) but never made the connection to what I knew about narcissism.  In order to feel superior, you must subordinate others, blame them for your incapacities. 

A person who has not suffered enough shame to become a narcissist can admit a mistake, take blame for a thoughtless and hurtful thing they’ve done, sincerely apologize.  For a narcissist, these things are almost impossible, since it makes them feel terrifyingly worthless, vulnerable and deserving of not being loved.

What I realized recently, having had an otherwise exemplary father (another recent realization that surprised me, how much valuable parenting my father also did, how much better he did than was done to him) who was narcissistic, is that many of my oldest friends were also narcissists.

I knew I’d been attracted to very smart, sardonic, darkly funny, damaged people (as I myself am), knew that they resembled my father in key ways, knew I was trying to work out problems with him through surrogates.

Having the frame “narcissist” suddenly made a lifetime of conflicts with this same type understandable to me.  The end of each of these friendships was inevitable once conflict began to escalate, I see now. 

The connection I had with my father was far deeper than with anyone I met and became longtime friends with, a final split with Irv was always unthinkable to me, and in the end, my painful work in therapy paid off in us being able to have an important, candid chat, finally, hours before he died.   The mutually blessed talk that last night of his life came about because I understood the awful hand he’d been dealt and realized he’d truly done the best he could, as I kept reassuring him as he whipped himself over having been “a horse’s ass” for his whole life. 

We’re living in the Age of Narcissism, it seems to me.  A zero-sum game composed of only absolute winners and contemptible losers, where one side plays for keeps and the moral qualms of the other side are easily weaponized for use against them.   My new personal stake in it, how it shaped my life now that I see my father was largely this way (though, of course, with a capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism missing from most narcissists, plus a great sense of humor) and being vilified by people who profess to love me, has made me grapple with the larger issue of autocracy/democracy on a visceral level.   

It’s easy to recognize in someone like Donald Trump the malignant narcissist, someone so obviously and deeply damaged that their only survival mechanism is belief in an absurdly comical superiority.  When this claimed superiority is treated as the grotesque comedy it truly is, these folks, seeing the world as zero-sum and kill or be killed, have no hesitation to do whatever they feel they need to do to prove they are not worthless, weak, pathetic victims. 

They all want to be “strongmen.”  A psychiatrist who worked with violent felons in prison wrote “every act of violence is an attempt to replace humiliation with self-esteem.”  We all know what these types are capable of, and will do if given the chance (look at Putin, destroying the archive that commemorated WWII war crimes on all sides and unleashing legions of raping mercenaries to execute civilians).

Anyway, not to go down the dark, apocalyptic fascism-on-the-global rise rabbit hole.  Just to say that I feel my personal learnings, coming sharply into focus during this last hellish year with my old friends, help shine a light for me on the larger forces, the narcissistic, arrogant, mediocre, insanely influential sons and grandsons of wealthy sociopaths:  D. Trump, C. Koch, E. Musk, J. Kushner et al.