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Yesterday was the one year anniversary of an early morning drug raid in Kentucky, using a warrant based on outdated intel, that resulted in the killing of an innocent 26 year-old EMT named Breonna Taylor in her own home.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.

Irv – a complicated man

My father would go with that description. Fine, he was a complicated man. He would occasionally refer to the demons we all battle. The highly personal battle with one’s personalized demons is… complicated. In his case, gaining any useful insight into his demons was not an option. He believed that no amount of insight into the nature of one’s troubles could allow a person to make significant changes in their lives, the demons always got the last word. I never bought that pessimistic view of our lives here.

If you were impressed by Irv, as many were, you admired his nimble intellect, his command of language, his irreverence and his wit. He could be very funny. He had charisma of a certain kind. He could be self-effacing in a charming way, as when he joked about often being mistaken for Rock Hudson. He was persuasive. argued convincingly, often in the cause of social justice and basic decency, raising good point after good point based on irrefutable common sense seasoned with insights from his wide reading. He had an excellent memory. He could be a good friend and an excellent mentor. He was loved by many.

Those more attuned to intellectual bullying could observe in Irv the flexing that such types use to keep adversaries off balance, to put them down. The wit, dark, sharp and quick, would be used to parry, skewer, belittle, ridicule, deflate, humiliate. His style in arguments was to quickly prove that any intelligent person, armed with the facts, had to agree with him. He’d often do this by presenting the opposing argument in detail, then dismantling it methodically. He had little patience for anyone who seemed to be on to what he was up to in these displays of intellectual dominance.

We are none of us always our best self. The gifts Irv brought to friendship, teaching and mentoring, were not always at his disposal when dealing with his own little family in the house he’d bought to shelter them, as they ate the food he paid for. He’d grown up in grinding poverty and it had been his life’s mission to never know deprivation again. He succeeded, working two jobs, and his thanks, night after night, were two ungrateful little middle class pricks who had no idea of the despair and humiliation of poverty their father had saved them from.

The complication of this generally fine man arose when his talents were pressed into service by his demons. At the dinner table, after the litany of his wife’s complaints about their unruly kids, the rebellious boy, the sneaky girl, before he got ready to leave for his second job each evening, he’d explode in rage. He’d deploy his entire intellectual arsenal to verbally bludgeon his children, who returned fire according to their personalities.

Why am I writing about my father, a man who has been dead now going on sixteen years? I’m struggling to finally put this story in a clear frame, to tell it in a way that makes sense (we also note my reluctance to wade through the 1,200 page first draft I produced a few years ago– though that seems necessary at some point). I believe my father’s story contains a universal lesson, certainly something to ponder for anyone who was raised by an angry parent who was often impossible to placate. A parent like this puts a kid in an emotional bind that can last a lifetime.

The bones of this story will be familiar to many, the conclusion of the story contains a redemptive surprise, though the value of that gift is sometimes hard to see.

In a nutshell, someone who is prone to anger after childhood humiliation (as Irv was humiliated by the double monster of extreme poverty and an angry, religious mother who whipped him in the face from the time he could stand) will behave toward their offspring with certain emotional disabilities. In the case of a parent with severe emotional disabilities, since none of us want to see ourselves as wrong, they will actively construct, and become unyielding advocates of, a worldview where their fucking children are the real problem.

Now follow me here — if the child is to be made the real problem, you need to lay out, and reinforce, the reasons why, so everybody understands the terrain. So when the kid is an infant, several days old, accuse him of challenging you from his crib.

“You were born with a hard-on against the world. You had it in for me from the day I picked you up at the hospital, staring at me with those big, black accusing eyes, always glaring at me through the bars of the crib by my side of the bed.” The crib had to be moved to the other side of the bed, to mom’s side. Sheesh. You started this fucking war when you were a few days old and have not taken a minute off since then, you merciless little bastard.”

If you believe this remarkable story, and why wouldn’t you, at five, at eight, you are in for a lifelong wrestling match with your own demons, some of whom will insist, not unreasonably, “what the fuck?” You will grow up with cognitive dissonance, the things ascribed to you will not feel like a fit with what you actually learn about your own life. You will be subject to nightmares, dark thoughts, to fear and displays of anger, which you may come to regret, or, alternatively, cringing submission, a shameful surrender which you can later take out on yourself. There are few healthy ways to react to a parent intent on proving that you have the problem, not them, especially when you are a child.

Healing from this kind of upbringing is a hard, complicated process. It requires a certain optimism about our capacity to heal. It also takes learning to be the parent you never had, replacing the harsh internalized voice with a more merciful one. Your odds of success will also depend on the severity of what you were forced to suffer.

Irv was verbally abusive, something he admitted was as damaging as physical abuse — he rarely hit us. I eventually found a way to understand my father’s brutality, and depersonalize it, though if Irv had punched me in face every day of my childhood, I wonder if my path to recovery would have been the same. If he’d sexually assaulted my sister and me? The horrors humans do to each other are varied, I can only speak sensibly about the ones I experienced.

I had the luck, after striking up a friendship with my father’s seventeen years’ older first cousin Eli, a complicated character of infinite charm and equally deep hostility, to have someone turn on a light in a dark room. After talking around my father’s situation week after week, the sad adversarial relationship between us, my father’s arguable streak of madness, Eli revealed a terrible truth to me one day. Coming from him, who gave me the horrific detail one day with great sadness, it had the ring of absolute truth.

His favorite aunt, his father’s beautiful red-haired little sister who loved him to death, was Tante Chavah. He had many stories about Tante Chavah and her fierce love for him. Tante Chava was my father’s mother, the grandmother I never met (she died before my time). I knew she had a terrible temper, I knew she was very religious, I knew that although she was the poorest of the poor, she gave money to charity every week, I knew she had been barely five feet tall and a great cook. Eli confirmed all these things, telling me stories about each of them. One day he took a deep breath and told me how she treated my father as a baby, and throughout his childhood, the abuse she heaped on her oldest boy, who she always called “Sonny”.

This unspeakable tale of severe child abuse, told with infinite sorrow by my father’s much loved first cousin, suddenly made me see my father in a different light. He instantly became sympathetic. His irrational behavior as an adult suddenly made a kind of sense to me.

I count this revelation as maybe the greatest single gift I ever received. How do you understand a man who could ruthlessly bully his six year-old grand-daughter on the eve of her birthday, making her so understandably upset she’d vomit moments after he left the house, without understanding the abuse he’d suffered? Impossible, I think.

I count my unaccountable optimism about our capacity to take deliberate steps toward a healthier life as another great blessing. Both of my parents were confirmed pessimists. I don’t know where I got the feeling that our brains are elastic, our life experiences subject to improvement, our interactions with others improvable. No idea.

I will skip to the end of the story here, in the interest of a spoiler. Or, on second thought, nah. Back at you another time.

Reservoir of Rage — and Silence

Rage is a famously difficult subject, which is why I’m trying to take some ways of expressing it one at a time. Reframing, for example, is an essential technique for angrily dominating someone in an argument. Silence, in the face of a friend or family member’s expressed concern, or in answer to a direct request for a conversation, is one of the most potent weapons in the war of rage. It has the virtues of being subtle and deniable (there are MANY reasons for silence), but it is also highly effective, dramatic and deadly, in my experience.

Silence can be a great blessing, of course, like when an overbearingly loud noise finally stops. When quiet descends we feel our breathing calm, we can focus and concentrate. Silence (as opposed to blurting something) can often be very useful when confronted with vexation, it gives you time to gather yourself, deliberate and react more productively. Silence is golden, as those prone to uttering cliches will sometimes say in a quiet moment.

Silence can also be used as the ultimate, uninterruptible, elegant last word in a spasm of rage. One obvious beauty of using deathly silence this way, (to the practitioner), is that it’s the anger expression technique that keeps giving, the silence will continue to irk the other person until they can forget about it and the meaning of the silence itself can always be debated, ill will denied vehemently.

Silence is just silence, the practitioner will insist if confronted, though it might feel like the “silent treatment” to an oversensitive eternal victim type. “… and, you know, though it might well be possible that my silence actually does express my utter contempt for you, you overweening baby, you will always get an unwinnable argument from me about why you are totally wrong to construe it that way. It’s just silence… no meaning to it whatsoever, it’s all inside your messed up head… and typical of you to blame me for the outpourings of your corroded imagination.”

The genius part of this defense is that it’s often true — people fail to respond for many reasons, including being busy, distracted, overwhelmed, truly not knowing what to say. I used to be offended when I heard nothing back from friends I’d send random bits of gratuitous creativity to. Now I understand there is no intention to be hurtful — most people have no experience with a need to feel creative and simply don’t know what to say when someone sends them a thirty second bit of original music. Musicians know that “nice” is a perfectly satisfying reply if they like the thing, but, most people feel overmatched to respond to a drawing sent out of the blue, an incoherent bit of calligraphy, a poem, or whatever the fucking thing is. “Nice” seems mechanical, I guess, something original probably seems in order, and what to actually say to someone who insists on “sharing”– I have no idea.

For our purposes here I am talking about the silence that is a refusal to speak, after being asked to. If you ever experienced this kind of bruising silence, you know what I’m struggling to bring out here.

It is an integral part of the game of rage to always have an argument ready to justify your anger and the actions it caused you to take. (The passive voice, we note, is always good in this case: righteous anger caused me to do this, it was clearly not my choice to be so provoked by you, asshole!)

The argument an angry person makes doesn’t need to be sound or have any chance of prevailing based on what actually took place, the only point is to contest the other person’s right to their feelings. Anger is a zero-sum game — one winner (innocent, 100% right), one loser (infuriating asshole, 100% wrong.) It’s an angry fool’s reductive way of looking at life, but there it is.

This readiness to fight, and the devilish quickness to justify any harsh action, are hallmarks of the perpetually angry person. That raging reflex to deny, no matter what, is what is so infuriating about people addicted to that intoxicating surge of righteousness anger provides. Compulsive Contrarians will fight you angrily, out of an insatiable need to fight, no matter what the cost, to the death and beyond.

To be clear about the kind of anger I’m talking about, it is an unyielding reflex to remain angry and to win the fight. We all experience anger, it is an inevitable part of our condition here as humans. Unfairness, disappointment, bad luck all make us mad. A mark of maturity is being able to keep these things in perspective, to learn to fix what we can and not dwell forever on everything that makes us angry.

The kind of anger that demands the regular harsh punishment of others is an attitude toward life. It hardens into a stance of eternal grievance, a much different, more destructive force than what is released when we sometimes get pissed off at the ordinary frustrations we all have to deal with.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.We need to be ready to forgive, when the time is right, we have to stay receptive to another person trying to make amends — hence, the permanent attitude. Being ready to accept an apology is a philosophical stance. The same goes for letting go of, or holding on to, anger. We can stay focused on a grievance forever, and act accordingly, or learn to repair what we can and coexist with things that enrage us but that we can do little about, without being mad and ready to fight all the time.

Back to the angry use of silence in situations where dialogue is needed. Political examples of this, the brazen refusal to honestly answer a straight question, for example, are ubiquitous. No point to cite specific cases, there are too many every day, every hour, to start naming. Besides, our current political idiocy is too sickening and bringing it into the discussion is a distraction that will take us off course. I’ll stick to the personal here, keep it clean and straightforward, in hopes of making a point worth making.

The epoch we’re living in now is a worldwide Age of Anger, (or Age of Rage, if ya like a rhyme on yer page) to an extent not seen on this scale in almost a century. Since we’re all forced into offense so much of the time, by news designed to make us angry (and watch the ads [1]), it is best to see anger as the personal thing it always is. Anger is personal, totally, for every person who feels it.

Working to understand our own relationship to our personal anger, and what specifically makes us mad, is probably the best we can do, and a first step toward making our own lives, and the lives of those around us, less contentious. It’s also one of the hardest things to do, especially if you’re prone to getting pissed off. We live in a world of constant provocation at a historical moment when the dial is turned up to 10 all day long (and all through the night).

Here are a couple of examples of angry uses of silence from my life, as succinctly as I can lay them out (I’ve written about each of these vexing kerfuffles here when they happened.)

Let’s recognize first that silence can have different meanings, depending on how we were raised. These meanings determine our feelings about silence and our sensitivity to it. In some households silence may be a proper initial response to a perplexing question. It can indicate respect, the person is thinking deeply about your question and will give a considered opinion after they have thought things through. In another home you’ll be taught that silence as a reply means “never,” the silence about your expressed concern will go on until the next time you bring it up, when it will be answered by an identical pointed silence and so forth, ad infinitum.

Nobody who expresses a concern likes to be ignored (nobody that I’ve ever met, anyway). It is a cruel thing to do to a child (or a person of any age, actually). It amounts to neglecting them emotionally by ignoring their fears, desires, questions and concerns. Is it as cruel as daily beatings, making the child go to bed hungry, humiliating the kid publicly? That depends on how diligently silence by way of response is wielded.

In my own life I’ve come to understand, as a fairly old man, that what I thought of as my father’s relentless cruelty (he made very effective use of strategic silence as a weapon) was in large part his relentless inability to do any better than he did. He was the victim of unspeakable abuse in a home ravaged by poverty, ignorance and rage. He did the best he could, I understood finally, though his best did a good deal of damage. This understanding of my father’s helplessness against his pain and anger came only after a lot of pain and conflict in my own life. My eventual understanding of his limitations erased virtually none of it, but it makes the world make much more sense to me.

As he was dying my father made a seemingly incomprehensible request, asking me to understand that, in a real sense, our long war was “nothing personal”. I thought about this Zen koan for a long time before its meaning emerged. His mistreatment of me had nothing to do with me personally — he would have done the same thing to any child of his, no matter who he or she had been. He was reiterating what he’d said earlier that last night of his life: it had been him, not me, who created most of the intractable problems between us. Our endless war had little to do with me personally.

If I was traumatized, as a young kid, to suddenly learn about the Nazi death machine, by seeing black and white film clips of a guy wheeling a wheelbarrow of jiggling skeletons and dumping them into a pit of corpses (an image that caused me to vomit), and agitatedly asked my father about it, what did I really expect him to say? He was not emotionally equipped to say what he probably wished he had:

“You saw some of the most horrible images in human history and you’re asking a terrible question that the greatest minds in the world can’t really answer. You’ll learn about racism, scapegoating, the terrible violence angry mobs are capable of when whipped up by hate-filled maniacs. You’re right to be upset, especially at age eight when you have no way to put any of this into context. I’m sorry you saw those clips that I tried to spare you from seeing, I know you can’t unsee them, but believe me, a lot of the horror you’re feeling right now will start to fade pretty soon. We humans are very adaptable, you’ll feel much better tomorrow, I guarantee. I understand why you vomited, you were right to vomit. You’re safe now, and we can talk more about this later. As you have questions, just ask and I’ll do my best to explain what I can.”

Instead, frustrated and overwhelmed, my father snapped that he’d warned me not to see that goddamned movie, forbade me, in fact, but I never fucking listen to him, that I’m a drama queen always trying to claim a special right to feel like a victim. He told me angrily that just because many members of our family died (people he referred to as “mere abstractions!”) at the hands of Nazis and their helpers, it gave me no special right to feel in any way like a holocaust survivor, and so on.

He was overwhelmed, upset, not at his best, would have felt shame if I played a recording of what he had said to “console” his young son. Obviously he’d much rather have said something along the lines of the more humane response I set out above. On the bright side for him, it was years before I asked again about the slaughter of at least 15 great aunts and uncles and their entire extended families.

You grow up, reach an understanding of things that hurt you and hope to do much better yourself treating other people well. As Hillel said: what is hateful to you, don’t do to others. As you also learn — it is best to avoid people who can’t do this.

If you send a professional writer friend a piece you talked about, something you hope to publish, pages he said he’d be happy to read and comment on, and you never hear back? Shades of that hurtful silence, especially after two or three follow-ups when you still don’t hear back from him. In the end, if the guy claims you’re the asshole for being upset after only three or four tries for feedback, that anyone but a schmuck would have persisted, that, in fact, he probably did read the piece, likely even replied at the time (it made no impression on him either way, understand) you know the story with him. It’s not personal, in a true sense.

If an old friend offers legal help with a painful legal situation you find yourself entangled in and winds up playing devil’s advocate throughout the aggravating weeks and months, then loses his temper a few times that you keep getting upset, then apologizes, but later feels compelled to tell you he only apologized because you are such an irrationally angry person that groveling was the only way he could get you to calm down — you have learned who your old friend is, on a primal level. He operates within a very narrow empathetic bandwidth, to put it charitably. When he claims to have carefully considered every point you raised about the sad pass things have come to, while responding to none of them (and insisting he’s still been given no clue), his hurt silence is predictable, and finally welcome.

On down the line, I have other examples from my own life but I think the point is made. Again, as the sage Hillel told the man challenging him to put his Jewish faith into a single sentence: what is hateful to you don’t do to someone else. We all know what is hateful to us. It’s a good principle to try our best not do it to others. When we know we’ve failed, we should be quick to express our genuine regret.

When you know your personal kryptonite (in my case silence wielded as a final response to an expressed concern) all you can do is tell the people in your life, when you feel them doing that, YOW! THAT SHIT IS MY KRYPTONITE, please don’t wave it near my face! When they know what hurts you most, they have the final choice about whether they will deploy it against you or not. They will decide what the silence at the end means.

Almost never is that silence the blessed kind that restores calm, unless they are silently figuring out how to take care of another person’s hurt feelings and are going to get back to you.

At the same time, with deathlike silence there is something healthy and refreshing about the way the ugly noise finally stops. In fact, there are few things better, when things have already turned ugly, than the peace that comes when somebody who sincerely doesn’t know how to treat people finally shuts the fuck up.

[1]

Thought for a future post:

The mass media has long known that “if it bleeds, it leads”– all the research has shown executives that a larger audience will tune in to breaking news about violence, murder, mayhem, teased loudly in an alarming headline. The more recent refinement to this theory was among Mark Zuckerberg’s great innovations in monetizing the universal human desire for connection: rage is contagious, spreads like wildfire and there’s fucking GOLD IN THEM THAR FUCKING HILLS!!!

Speaking of rage and gratuitous best-selling violence, I would love to punch that particular noxious piece of shit in his smug, grotesquely monetized face. I’m pretty sure Mark would like it, too. And if not, it will be nothing personal, I assure you.

Searching for the Truth

“I’m searching for truth,” I admitted.

“You poor bastard, I did that to you,” said the skeleton of my father.

Things that make no sense to us can sometimes be explained after enough research and pondering. When you can lay out and understand the reasons behind something perplexing it becomes a little easier to deal with. That’s my belief, anyway. In my experience, there often seems to be a certain relief in understanding how a terrible thing actually works.

I feel like the recent years I spent, hours each day, considering and sorting through every aspect of my father’s troubling life that I could, finally gave me useful insights into his life, into my own. Many of my waking hours, during this present shit-storm of propaganda-directed anger, are spent gathering as many verifiable facts as I can. I use this information to try to construct some kind of reasonable meaning for truly awful things that otherwise make little or no sense.

History, my own and our common human heritage, is indispensable to me in this project. Our lives here are fleeting and often seem meaningless, millions of lives are regularly written off as disposable, but there is a long human history to learn from, as well as our own personal histories. Learning history can lead to the desire to try to do better, become better humans. Which is something, a considerable thing, it seems to me.

I’m aware that my long habit of “study” and pontificating may make me insufferable at times, because not only am I as opinionated in my certainty as my mother was, I feel that keeping myself closely informed (as my father always did) gives my opinions a certain weight. It also creates impatience in me for opinions based on less, or false, information. It’s hard to have a productive discussion, or influence anyone’s thinking, if your own thinking betrays any kind of feeling of superiority. “I know more than you about this so I’m definitely right” is a very weak, invariably maddening, line of persuasion.

A real search for truth requires challenging yourself from time to time, placing your own ideas into the uncomfortable position that they may be wrong. It requires, most difficult for me, considerable humility. A sense that the deeper mystery may never be revealed, no matter how much you come to understand the layers above those deepest ones.

We homo sapiens are fundamentally irrational beings, it would appear, geniuses though we are at self-justification and self-deception. Our lives here are not, as much as we may want to believe it, based mainly on rational considerations taken for reasons we fully understand. To test the proof of this — look at the passionate American fight over the use of personal protective gear during a pandemic.

As for strong opinions based on hard fact — on some level these are not fundamentally all that different from strong opinions based on faith alone. The person of deep religious faith will cite the deep benefits of spiritual faith while the believer in a world ruled by empirical fact will cite the undeniable clarity science and Reason provide. Both human opinion systems, in the end, are matters of faith, on one level. (To be clear, on another level, they are not remotely the same thing)

Do I know, for example, based on logic, with examples for proof of my argument, that there is a workable large-scale economic system better and more humane than the eternal growth model of the “Free Market” system of capitalism that rules the world today? It is not hard to find a dozen contemporary books making excellent, detailed cases for how inhumane this problematic concept of economic freedom really is in practice, how barbarous it is in many of its demonstrable outcomes.

But as I spout my fact-based outrage at a deeply flawed, unsustainable, extractive system that leaves hundreds of millions in desperate poverty so that others can be unimaginably wealthy, do I have a better idea that is actually possible? Our lives here, on many levels, are a mystery. As for someone who will challenge my dissection of the so-called Free Market and demand my better idea (one that comports with human nature, a crucial caveat in any such discussion) — I cannot point to a large scale system that works in the world today that is not based on this idea, on this transactional assessment of human nature and what motivates our behavior. My actual alternative?

“You don’t really have one, do you? Outside of your fond dream of greater justice and a more ‘fair’ distribution of resources and wealth, elimination of poverty and so on, which is a very high-minded idea, and for which I salute you– the world you dream of living in is superior to this one, I’ll grant you,” a kindly neoliberal will counter, when I am done reciting my facts. “But, sadly for us, time is money and both are short at the moment, so, back to your books, genius, back to your idealistic echo chamber with you. Unfortunately for me, I’ve got to go make some money now, so you’ll have to continue enlightening me some other time.”

I can see clearly, in my own case, that a world that made no sense to me — my family life during childhood and beyond — was my initial motivation to seek what was behind a rigid insistence on the demonstrably insane. My sister and I were frequently warned by our angry father that however much we thought we might be winning certain battles, we would inevitably lose the war.

“The war, father? Don’t you always tell us that family is the most important thing in life, the place where we are always safe, the only love we have that we will never lose? How can we four be in permanent war, around the family dinner table, father? Please explain, I’m only a boy, but I truly don’t understand.”

Sadly for my younger sister and me, I somehow did not have this enlightened dispassion within me as a seven year-old. Few of us do. People experience constant, irrational anger from demanding parents all the time. Many convert it into self-doubt, self-hatred and, in some notable cases, a driving ambition to succeed. If a brutal parent doesn’t crush you, you can sometimes convert the restless energy they’ve instilled in you into a billion dollar enterprise, as history shows. Particularly if you have limitless financial help from the tyrant parent that insisted you become a killer instead of the piece of shit you already are.

This search for “truth” is increasingly lonely work for me. Destructive things that are easily seen in others can be impossible to see in ourselves. I lost an old friendship a few years ago because a friend since fourth grade was unable to stop provoking me. He believed I was wrong to feel provoked by his actions, which he always could justify as motivated by his love for me. He believed that as sincerely as I found it intolerable to be constantly provoked.

Each of us eventually took our hurt, and our belief that we had acted with integrity, and went our own ways in the end. There is not that much solace in that kind of “resolution”, but it is better than being pissed on by someone who angrily insists you’re whining about the rain. As I say, we are all masters at self-justification, with a strong bias toward seeing ourselves as right.

I can clearly see the pathology of my recently deceased former longtime friend Mark’s life. I mention it from time to time as the clearest example I know the Repetition Compulsion-– the endless reflexive replaying of an unresolved primal battle. In Mark’s case the form was the identical three act tragedy each time, though superficial details varied. Act one: idealizing an object of love, Act two: mounting disappointment as imperfections are revealed, Act three: an unforgivable betrayal by the one time object of perfect love.

Mark was unable to recognize this inevitable story arc of every relationship he ever had. He relived it over and over, with the same hurt and anger every time. It was painfully frustrating to me that he couldn’t see it, even as we played out a years-long Act two, as my imperfections as a friend became more apparent, more galling, my betrayals more and more inevitable.

“Is this slimy?” Mark’s ex asked me, drawing back slightly, as my heart pounded against her chest. This was several months after he’d rejected her, along with the rest of his small circle of neurotic New York City loser friends, and moved across the country in search of the superior people he dreamed of meeting. The first time she’d stayed over at my place she sent me into my own bed to deal with my youthful passion on my own timetable. The second time, for some reason, she showed up in a clingy, transparent shirt, with no bra.

When she asked if what we were about to do was wrong, what choice did I really have but to reassure her with an immediate, definitive, only slightly quivering “no-o-o-o…”? Few choices I have ever made in life have been so unequivocally right. Still, you know, this was an unmistakable step into act three of Mark’s eternal play.

In each case of a long, close friendship that is no more, I can tell you exactly, step by step, how we came to the impasse that ended it. Most people simply mutually lose touch with people from the distant past they have grown apart from, I kept quite a few in my life. With predictable results, it seems. If you have a circle of fond acquaintances, updated periodically, it is easier not to fall into the illusion that you are intimate friends with somebody just because you’ve known them for decades. True lifelong friends are rare for most of us.

In every case of a friendship that is no more, I can give you a sixty second overview of why I was right to write them off, why they behaved with an unconscionable lack of self-knowledge and empathy. Does this certainty about right and wrong, and what is tolerable and what intolerable, enrich my life in any way? Is it different than Mark’s hideously repeated three act tragedy?

Clearly, I am not the ultimate judge of that — as you wouldn’t be based strictly on my account. On the other hand, nobody else is the ultimate judge, either. We can only do what we believe is right, and almost always will.

If I was writing these kinds of pieces for a sizable book or magazine-buying audience, perhaps reading this to you in a bookstore (all of us wearing masks, and keeping our distance), this daily work of mine would be rational and completely understandable. I’d be a writer, after all, perhaps even some kind of thinker as well, and a reader here or there might be moved or even awakened by some of the ideas I present. On the other hand, a guy with a blahg, who refines a piece for a couple of hours and then hits “publish” … well, you know, literally anybody could do that.

On the other hand, to me, I’m not just anybody, you understand.

Dying for Principle

It has been said that the mark of a life worth living is being willing to die for your most deeply held beliefs, your principles. This sounds like a profound formulation, but the jury, as far as I can see, is still out on this one. If someone is coming to kill you or someone you love, and you have the means to fight back, by all means, defend yourself and your loved ones, to the death. But it is rarely this simple.

Usually, in matters of principle, there are no lives directly in the balance, but, equally important principles, larger than any individual life, at stake. You can see the problem right away of willingness to die for your beliefs as the mark of a life worth living: the nineteen Al Q’aeda suicide bombers forced those planes into buildings for their deeply held principles, their most fervent beliefs. Does it make them admirable in any way?

My father considered himself a man of principle, and in many ways he was — in the best sense of the word. As he was dying, he exerted himself to take one last principled stand. It was important to him, before he breathed his last, to apologize, at least to his son, for being such a relentlessly combative father. Everything in life was a matter of principle for him, though sometimes the principle was that he was simply emotionally unequipped to do what he knew deep down he should have done.

As a father he believed he was always acting out of love, and duty to his children’s best interests, but he realized, as death came for him quickly, that his black and white view of the world was not only stupid (he lamented missing the nuanced palette of gradations that would have enriched his life), but had exacted a terrible price on those he loved.

“Life is hard enough,” he said, in a dying man’s voice, “and instead of helping you, like a father should, I put even more obstacles in front of you and your sister, made your lives so much harder…” He then apologized for the only time in memory.

The forces of our personality that we can’t see are the ones that bite us the hardest, this also goes for the hidden obstacles in our path, the things that infallibly trip us up. They are truly the most destructive demons we must battle in our effort to learn from our mistakes, to become better people.

In the last few years I’ve made a close study of my father’s life, looking for lessons for my own. I may have stumbled on an important one recently that had been impossible for me to see until the other day. It was a painful thing to realize, for the first time, at 64, and it hit me with some force. It also gives rise to a great irony of my long, solitary attempt to create a meaningful public memorial for my parents and their erased ancestors, as I will try to explain.

My father was an intelligent, well-read man with a grasp of history and a good sense of humor who fought like the devil his entire unhappy life. He believed people cannot change, because he could never change, never hope to heal from or overcome the deeply instilled pain of a childhood of abuse. In the end he had to acknowledge, in the face of my mildness as I listened to his final confession, as I did my best to reassure him, that he’d been wrong to reject the idea of working to change himself in any way.

He resisted the idea that people can work to change themselves as as a matter of principle, mind you. He was honestly looking life in the face, as he saw it, while weak people who indulged in endless therapy were deluding themselves, and the victims of pathetic quacks working in a field where even the supposed experts wildly disagreed about the fundamentals of what worked. His unshakable belief that our inborn traits and traumas mark us for life was always argued as a matter of principle.

It was insane, he insisted, to think that we can meaningfully change our natures, natures unknowable to ourselves that are largely innate and then baked in before our consciousness is even fully formed. It was no doubt sobering to him to see his lifelong adversary standing by his deathbed without any trace of anger or judgment, without recriminations.

We have too many examples of this kind of mad belief in “principle” to need more than a reminder. Look around, everything in public and private life has been reduced to inarguable zero-sum matters of black and white, non-negotiable “principle”. The principle, for example, that liberty itself depends on defense of the personal right to infect whoever you want during a raging pandemic. To insist that everyone take simple, easy to follow, proven effective precautions to slow the spread of a deadly disease, supposedly for the common good, is AN ACT OF INTOLERABLE TYRANNY that must be resisted!

If you are acting on deeply held moral principle there is little room for discussion with unprincipled people, compromise is certainly out of the question. In my father’s case he saw the world, as billions now do, as a raging, merciless war zone; perhaps not an unreasonable view in many ways.

The harder to defend part was his view that the family dinner table, too, was an eternal battlefield, bloody and savage, where in the end, he warned his young children angrily, no matter how many battles they might think they’d won, they would “lose the war”. In the end he would prevail. It was a matter of principle. An insane principle, perhaps, but a principle nonetheless. Also, of course, the bit about losing the war was a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways.

Fighting in this senseless war of principle every night shaped me in ways I can see and ways I can’t see. I am like a former child soldier, in some deep recess of my soul I was shaped and scarred by the brutality that was a regular feature of my life at the dinner table war zone, night after night. My sister considers that I suffered more than she did, because while she often kept her head down and endured the attacks, I always fought back. I have the opposite view, though both sides of the argument have merit.

I learned how to use my intelligence to cooly inflict maximum harm on the old man when the fighting got ugly. I learned how to provoke him to rage with a slight shift of my mouth, the look in my eyes, a half turn of my torso, an inhalation of breath.

These skills did not serve me well in the world. Confronted by a bully at any point in my now long life, I was helpless, I could not avoid a confrontation in the end. Once I recognized an unreasonable person craving some kind of violent domination I’d eventually smirk and say the very worst possible thing “you’re an unreasonable person, craving some kind of violent domination, you know you’re a weak, contemptible bully, don’t you, asshole?”

It was not in my skill set to smoothly back away from someone who made it clear they wanted to fight for no discernible reason. It is still hard for me to do when suddenly confronted with this behavior, as much as I strive to avoid confrontation with unreasonable people these days.

It turns out a lot of change is possible with hard work, self-acceptance and the blessing of supportive friends, while other, deeper changes are very, very difficult to make.

You can learn to recognize when you are getting angry, what is about to make you angry. You can take steps to resist getting angry, to allow your breathing to calm you a bit, to control your reaction, to not blurt out the regrettable words that can’t be taken back. There are many things you can learn to do to have a less angry, less violent life.

My father may have been right about one thing – you may never be able, once the hateful game is afoot, to lose that provocative set of your mouth, the look on your face, the exaggerated intake of breath that makes someone want to slug you – it’s baked in, it’s yours to keep forever, no matter how hard you might try to disown it.

Once you do any of those angry moves, it instantly proves the point of the person who insists you’re a ruthless killer, no matter how hard you try to deny it, no matter how patient you’ve already been, no matter how much better you might be doing at self-restraint than before.

I can’t help thinking of political oppressors in the same way. Provoke a hurt response and then punish the person for that response. Keep a knee on somebody’s neck for years. When the person gets up, and is angry about the mistreatment, it proves the oppressor’s point. “That’s why I had to keep my knee on your neck. Look how fucking angry you are!” Bill Barr is a master of this particular despicable trick.

Of course, the beauty — and horror — of being human is that anyone can convince themselves that they are only acting for highly principled reasons. It’s the other side – you know, that is doing all the hating, cheating, obstructing, killing, drinking the blood of murdered child sex slaves. We are only doing these things because THE OTHER SIDE IS DOING IT ALREADY! It’s a matter of principle – and survival.

Here’s what hit me hard the other day. I decided at a certain point a few decades back that I will not tolerate abuse in my personal life. I try hard not to abuse anyone’s feelings, and if I do something that I learn hurt somebody, I am quick to try to make amends, first by apologizing. I’d will this to be a universal principle. I saw the other day that this is only a first step, that it really prevents no part of your lowest nature from coming out if the provocation is sufficient. You can read these posts over the years for several examples of fatal fallings out I’ve had with longtime friends and acquaintances. Here are three off the top of my head. Bear in mind that each of these characters has their own version of these dramas that make me as much the irredeemable villain as these may make them appear to be.

I had an acquaintance I used to see once or twice a year. A writer by profession, a great storyteller with a merry aspect, always good for several hours of spinning interesting tales back and forth and having some knowing laughs. We weren’t friends beyond that, but we liked each other. When I was first working on the book about my father we discussed it over dinner and he seemed intrigued. He told me to send him some pages, he’d give me his two cents. I sent him some pages, didn’t hear back, sent a few more, didn’t hear back, asked him about it, didn’t hear back.

Was it unreasonable of me to feel hurt? Probably not. Was it unreasonable of me to expect a working craftsman of a writer who had never published anything of a personal nature to have any meaningful input on my first draft of a highly personal memoir? Maybe yes, maybe no. Writing is writing, you could say.

In my mind, his year-later defensive email that I was being an asshole to hold it against him that he may or may not have ever commented on pages he doesn’t even remember if he ever read, and that if he had read them he’d almost certainly have written back about, was abusive. Perhaps not everybody would interpret this response, or the ones that followed, as abusive. I did. The gloves I’d carefully kept on came off, I ripped him into several bleeding pieces and walked away [1]. Proving to him, as well as to his ex-wife, that I was indeed a vicious, unreasonable asshole. Case closed, end of story.

Many people might have had a different reaction than mine. OK, they might reason, he was the wrong person to ask for this feedback, even if he offered it. OK, we were never really friends, just acquaintances, it was unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to react to these deeply personal pages. OK, he admitted, toward the end, that he was raised to be insanely competitive, maybe these intensely personal pages were something he felt overwhelmed by, that he felt he could not compete against. I don’t know. I do understand now, that only someone raised in a war zone would calmly slash the guy five times with a sharp sword over it, making sure he knew why he was good and dead, before walking away [again– 1].

Same with the longtime musician friend who offered to do me a favor, then changed his mind, then insisted I had no right to ask why he’d changed his mind, then admitted he did it because he’s been harboring a lot of anger and resentment against me and this was his way of telling me “fuck you.” Many people might file this somewhere, lower their expectations, no longer think of the guy as a friend – maybe even write the guy off. Not everybody would feel compelled to cooly and methodically remove each of his limbs and pile them in front of his head and torso in order to ensure he’d be hurt enough to shut the fuck up [2].

One last, most recent one. A very good friend, since late childhood, and I came to (figurative) blows a few months back. He’s a very smart guy with a dark sense of humor and we’d known each other since Junior High School. In hindsight, most of our intimate conversations were about my troubles. He told me once that he doesn’t like to complain about his life. He always seemed to have a good appetite for my troubles, though. In the latest round his efforts to help wound up antagonizing me, several times in a row. The more I tried to explain why, the more he told me I was wrong, not making sense, that he still didn’t understand. The clearer my explanations became, the more he asked me to please explain further, more clearly, since he was finding it impossible to understand what I was talking about.

A game for suckers, no doubt, and by then I should have recognized it and gracefully written him off, reduced my expectations to near zero, preserved what I could of our long friendship, if only for the sake of our mates. Something was rotten here, clearly, but I kept trying to explain what he kept telling me he still couldn’t understand. I kept believing in this mutual good faith effort we were not managing to make.

He got angry a few times, snarled and even hung up on me during a tense conversation after gruffly apologizing, although he really wasn’t sure what I needed an apology for or why the hell I insisted on shoving him into a corner when he’d done nothing any other good friend wouldn’t have done in his situation.

It is what happened last that lingers for me. I eventually saw that this was an emotional impasse I could not get him to understand with his fine and subtle mind. Emotionally, he was unable to recognize or take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his actions. He waited weeks to apologize for his little temper tantrum, and the follow up text that he was done being “reamed” by me, even as he wrote me several long emails attempting to be conciliatory and expressing a desire to do everything possible to save our friendship.

In the end he once again insisted he didn’t understand why or how I could have been so hurt by anything he might have done, though he apologized again, for whatever it might have been. He made an unusual complaint: since my communications had been so mild mannered he’d had a very hard time realizing how much I’d been hurt by his inadvertent acts. If he accidentally stepped on my toe and I didn’t cry out, how could he possibly be expected to know how much it had hurt me? When in the end I did cry out, he was inconsolable.

Again, why bother crying out at that point? It was clear, over and over, that my old friend did not have the emotional bandwidth to understand what was missing in our friendship. He insisted I was his dearest friend ever, that he loved me and would fight to remain friends. It was equally clear that he had much different expectations of a lifelong friendship than I did. My crying out, upon request, by going through several emails and pointing out the seamless folly of our back and forth, struck a fatal blow in the guy. It was unkind and hurtful of me to make it so clear that there was nothing further to discuss, he wrote. In the end, he couldn’t fathom my unprovoked viciousness.

In each of the above cases, an argument could be made that, after all my attempts to be reasonable, I did nothing to regret in writing a suitable ending to each of these dramas. In one, an acquaintance set me up for a cruel disappointment he then blamed me for. The musician friend had a long list of unspoken reasons to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck myself. My old friend’s limitations only finally overwhelmed me when I was in a tight spot and his inability to empathize kept making it tighter. In each case, not much to salvage, whether or not I insisted on having an unkind last word.

In each case, yes, in the end I was categorical in stating the obvious. I seemingly could not stop myself. The other party felt brutalized by me. All unfortunate, in a better world than this one.

The insight for me is how hard it is to root out this final urge to kill someone who insists on their right to hurt you. Perhaps I am setting an impossibly high bar for myself, but this reminder that I am still helpless against certain specific emotional circumstances, was an unwelcome one.

If someone accuses you of being angry, and you remain mild, and they keep insisting you are irrationally angry, and you start to become frustrated but hold yourself back, and they redouble their efforts to prove you are an implacably angry bastard – well, a wiser person would manage to get out of the loop before he explodes in anger. This trap is one of the obstacles my father apologized for putting in my path. How I never saw it before a few days ago is a mystery to me.

The irony I mentioned about the seeming impossibility of completing the public personal memorial to my parents and their erased ancestors: it seems impossible to me for the very reasons I’ve discussed above. A sense of futility was instilled in my sister and me, from a young age, seeing there was nothing we could do to avoid eternal war with the father who always blamed us as the aggressors.

“I can hear you whining to the fucking shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” our father would predict from time to time. A pretty judgmental way to put it, perhaps, though not unreasonable, given the hard work he was putting in to make it so.

So, granted, my father had many great qualities, along with a few tragic failings, that would make him an excellent protagonist for a memoir. I’ve written at least 1,300 pages of an unwieldy first draft of his story. Granted, the vast majority of my family, on both sides, were lost in the cold fog of history, mere statistics, victims of Hitlerism without names, their mass graves and even the godforsaken hellholes they came from erased from human memory. I’d like to write and leave a living memorial to them, before I fold up my tents here and cash in my chips. The irony?

The obstacles my father unwittingly placed in the way keep me from feeling able to complete this gigantic task I have set myself, a task I have probably already come more than 80% toward completing. So those obstacles will prevent my father, his life, the world he came from, from being memorialized in a book strangers can read, to ponder the difficult, important lessons I’ve been grappling with since I was a young child.

Ironic, eh wot?

[1] to be clear, this bloody act came in the form of a blahg post methodically dissecting and dismissing his maddening if-pology, phrase by phrase

[2] This gruesome dismemberment took the form of three stinging paragraphs, responding to his “personality conflict” conclusion. I corrected it to a worldview conflict — the first paragraph savaged his vanity and materialism, the second disclaimed responsibility for his inferiority complex — the third I don’t recall at the moment, but it was apparently as hurtful as intended.

Echoes of Disturbing Issues from Childhood

My father, pursued to his deathbed by what he referred to as his demons, suffered unimaginable abuse as an infant that he was never able to heal from. He told me as much as he was dying. “My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” he said, by way of opening our last conversation, on the last night of his life.

At that point I knew exactly what the man whose fluids were draining into a bag on the side of his hospital bed was talking about, but only because I’d spent literally decades puzzling out the painful secret he guarded to his death. His mother had been a violent, enraged, religious fanatic who literally whipped him in the face from the time he could stand. A light suddenly went on in a dark room when I learned this.

I can hear his voice now, saying what he couldn’t when he was alive and frantic to stay just ahead of the demons that drove him to act in ways he’d regret while dying. “You don’t recover from that kind of betrayal, Elie. How do you come back from a mother who treats you as a despicable enemy from your earliest memory, from before you could even talk to her?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, though it is worth pondering.

Whenever I raise my voice to Sekhnet, or otherwise show frustration (something I am sadly prone to), she immediately reacts with pain. She feels unfairly under attack like she did as a girl, and I understand this.

My nastiness immediately triggers painful childhood feelings from a childhood that was harsh in certain ways. All I can do is try to always be aware of this trigger and not react in a way that hits it, a great challenge in a matter of reflex. Making matters harder, my facial expression alone will pull the trigger, even if I manage to keep my mouth mostly shut. I can only apologize when I provoke this pain in her and try better to not do it the next time. My apologies, no matter how instant or sincere, only offer so much consolation, I have learned.

I don’t mean to sound like a sniveler, but disturbing issues from childhood remain for many of us, most of us, I suspect, to the end of our lives. We do our best to be aware of and overcome them for the sake of those we love, it’s the best we can do.

The subject of childhood pain is either tedious or fascinating, to be avoided or delved into, depending on your tolerance for a certain kind of discomfort and your need for a certain kind of clarity. It is tricky, emotionally fraught terrain dotted with patches of quicksand.

There is a term for constant self-punishing brooding on painful feelings from the past, rumination. There is even a psychological disorder for those addicted to this form of self-flagellation, Obsessive Rumination Disorder:

Rumination is focused on past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, opportunities forever lost. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and envy.

(two second google search: what is obsessive rumination disorder?)

Here’s a short piece on the dangers of rumination and tips on how to overcome the worst of it, and lift ourselves out of it, by a guy with the incomparable name of Guy Winch.

The harm of repeatedly chewing over and reliving past hurt, churning pain you can do nothing about, is not hard to see. The difference between torturing oneself with guilt, regret, anger and envy and thinking about and learning from past pain, moving toward healthier reactions, not remaining stuck in negative cycles for reasons you can’t see or grasp, becoming a more self-aware and kind person, is not as easy to see sometimes.

Our past experience, of course, is the lens through which we view everything. More crucially, it is the filter through which we feel everything. I see this paragraph from today’s news and am struck (by the part I’ve put in bold) by an immediate painful feeling straight out of my own childhood, beyond my adult horror at the larger meaning of this news item:

Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be Trump’s third appointee to the Supreme Court and the sixth conservative justice on the bench. During her Senate hearing, she refused to state her position on abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, climate change, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and presidential powers in relation to the elections.

source

Not answering specific, troubling questions by authoritatively turning the conversation away from reasonable, concerns, was a specific technique my adversarial father deployed frequently. I found myself on the short end of this technique over and over during my childhood and well into my adult life.

This move is the complete negation of the rights of the other, a calm, unappealable pronouncement that the thing you are so concerned about is of no legitimate concern whatsoever. It dismisses your concern as the unreasonable product of your own shortcomings.

It seems clear that a Supreme Court nominee should be able to state, without hesitation, that armed people at the polls intimidating voters is against the law, is, in fact, a felony in many, if not most, states. There is no political point of view expressed in stating the black letter law in answer to a direct legal question — this behavior, though endorsed by the incumbent president, violates rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as federal statute. It is a crime to interfere with a fellow citizen’s right to vote, by intimidating them or in any other way (not authorized by a superseding state law.)

This carefully vetted zealot nominee, about to become a sixth unappealable vote in the 6-3 majority to suppress anti-Trump votes (with or without legal justification [1]), refused to state her position even on this simple, important matter of voter intimidation on behalf of a president who exhorts violent resistance to “Democrat tyrrany” and vows to protect his followers from legal consequences. Instead of a straightforward answer to an uncomplicated legal question, Coney Barrett reserves all judicial options by standing on the absurd claim that she’d need, in a fact-specific situation, to consult with her interns and fellow legal scholars before deciding how to answer. She adds, in the politest possible tone, that the people asking such questions are simply partisans intent on “borking” her perfectly legal and proper nomination.

There are many reasons to be disturbed by the powerlessness many of us, a large majority of Americans, feel at the brazen and unstoppable bit of cynicism of appointing another extremist justice to cement a 6-3 right wing majority just days before an election she’ll have a vote on deciding, on behalf of democracy-averse corporations and reactionary billionaires. Add to this disturbance, in my case, a painful personal reminder of an ongoing childhood torment.

Here is the important distinction between what I always try to do and being stuck in the self-harming cycle of reliving pain from the past that psychologists call rumination. I recognize that there is a painful, personal echo in this news item for me. I can put my finger on it. I understand its harmfulness precisely. It does not send me into a spiral of negative thoughts from the past.

There is plenty negative and abusive about McConnell and company’s ugly, unprincipled move (several prominent votes in the 51-49 majority to rush Coney Barrett on to the bench took a “principled” stand, in 2016, against the very thing they are rushing to do now), days before a highly contested election, without this particular feature that strikes me so hard.

This refusal to address important concerns is one particularly personal component of this outrage for me, one I feel in my body and I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s as they say: the personal is political. It reminds me again how crucial it is for me not to do this hateful thing to people I care about.

It’s all we have when the going gets tough — the understanding of what hurts us the most, the desire not to inflict it on others and the knowledge that our concerns will not be brushed aside by the people closest to us.

We are living through historically tough times now, with the active message delivered over and over by our own government that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and untold deprivation, fear, hunger and other suffering, is the appropriate price of liberty, for certain powerful, unaccountable forces in our nation.

You can only look at the calculated ugliness of this and countless related daily outrages for so long, before you begin to lose hope, feeling, desire to even fight it. That is part of the deliberate design of overwhelming government-sponsored brutality like this– to emotionally dominate its victims beyond their power to resist. Resist we must, of course.

It is understandable that few, if any of us, are at our best in this disorienting moment of multi-faced crisis. It is plain that there are different styles of coping with the present horrors as they continue to unfold with such mind-numbing monotony. We all find our own ways to remain sane and hopeful, to balance the need for information and the need for relief from the assault of deliberate misinformation.

Tolerance for our differences is more important than ever. Only by hearing and understanding each other’s concerns is there any chance of emerging from this awful moment with our full humanity intact. Patience for the foibles of others is much harder under these worst of circumstances, when we are on each others’ nerves, locked up in small, isolated groups during these fearful days, granted. For that reason patience is even more needed. The reward for patience and fortitude is proportionately greater in scary, disorienting times like these.

[1]

The emergency ruling Kavanaugh authored in April, overturning two lower courts to prevent the expansion of voting in Wisconsin during the pandemic (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s short, sparkling, crystal clear dissent), was one of many recent un-argued eleventh emergency rulings by the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly:

The Trump administration has been a major contributor to the trend, Professor Vladeck wrote, having filed 36 emergency applications in its first three and a half years. By contrast, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama filed just eight such applications over 16 years.

source

white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?