Life’s unfair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentlemen’s agreement — no lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Age of Narcissism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sometimes subtle nature of psychological harm

My father, I learned late in his life, was whipped in the face by his mother, regularly, from the time he could stand.  The last night he was alive he told me that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   Grow up whipped by your mother, who also whips your father, in dire poverty, with undiagnosed 20/400 vision that makes you appear moronic, unteachable, once you get to school — unable to speak English when you start kindergarten — it leaves a humiliating mark.   Best to hide all that shit as best you can, collapsing it all into “grinding poverty,” spoken like a seething Clint Eastwood.   

Grow up in a comfortable middle class home, never knowing want of any kind, raised by a mother and father who are both smart, funny and well-educated, and emerge with lifelong disabilities and, you know… kind of pathetic, no?

Unlike physical beatings, which are easily understood as violent and scarring, psychological beatings can be devilishly subtle, and just as destructive.

How do you describe the pain inflicted by silence, maintained eternally, starting at the exact moment you ask for an answer?  An implacable glare can have the force of a hard punch in the solar plexus.   Sarcasm, arguably innocent humor, can be used to great effect, if deployed at just the right moment, and in front of the right people.  These techniques have the virtue of perfect deniability, turning any objection to them into the viciously unfair whine of a sniveler.  

“Now you say I hurt you by keeping my mouth shut?  I can’t win, can I?  I held my tongue, but that’s not enough for you.  You can say whatever you want, make any accusations you like against me, but I can’t even remain quiet without being attacked?  You have a real problem there, you know that?  The whole world is against you, even silence hurts your delicate feelings.  You need help.”

The worst of this kind of untender treatment is that you begin to blame yourself, question your right to feel hurt at all.  Maybe I was being kind of unfair, asking a question that was so difficult to answer.  Maybe my timing was thoughtless, I put them on the spot at the worst possible moment.  Why do I keep making people feel so defensive, so angry?  What is wrong with me that I keep upsetting people like this?

You can sometimes cross a barrier, deep into the unseen private wounds of people you have known and loved for years.  There is no coming back from this, as far as I know.   Mutuality can be destroyed in a moment, though it can take much longer to understand that mutuality has been destroyed.  “I hurt you?  You fucking hurt me, you merciless fucking fuck!”  An argument like that cannot be won.   How did friendship suddenly turn into war?  “You humiliated me by making me feel like a terrible person… you are a terrible person.”

The wife was only trying to make everything perfect for her quietly angry, stressed out husband.  He may be impossible to please in certain ways, but that only makes her try harder.  Then she’s faulted for micromanaging a vacation, as if everything being out of control is better than methodically organizing everything.  Her husband likes order.  How is that her fault?  Then you overreacted to her frustration, which was caused 100% by you resisting her perfectly understandable, laudable desire to please her husband. You insist her sudden “anger” hurt you, but you’re not looking at the full picture, just focusing on what you absurdly claim was a glare of rage and an angry refusal to discuss options or compromise in any way.  How can you not see that you are the angry asshole who caused all of the bad feelings, the one who unilaterally ended our long friendship? 

You understand too late the depths of your old friends’ damage.  See how tricky well-covered up psychological wounds can be?   

In these situations I often think of the four temperaments from Pirkey Avot.  Quick to anger, quick to be placated — loss offset by gain.   Slow to anger, slow to be placated — gain offset by loss.   Slow to anger, quick to be placated — a righteous soul.  Quick to anger, slow to be placated — evil.

Sounds a bit judgmental, perhaps, to frame the ability to forgive as good or evil, but, truly, once you have apologized to the best of your ability, expressed understanding of why what you did hurt the other person, vowed to do better going forward — the reason a dear friend would not forgive you is a deep need to feel superior, to hold the weapon of unforgiveness against your head.  Or, evil.  The pain they experienced is so deep and abiding, and the current hurt brings on the unbearable sting of former abuse so acutely, that the jury will be out forever on whether you deserve to be forgiven.  You will live on probation, with strict rules governing what may be mentioned again.  If you want forgiveness you must earn it, by long penitence.  Even then, the jury will remain out, because you’ve already shown you are the hurting type, the kind who deserves punishment.

We are drawn, perhaps, to people who have suffered similar things to what we have suffered.  It gives us an instant unconscious basis for understanding each other’s vulnerabilities, and fosters a feeling of comradeship, having survived similar mistreatment.  At the same time, it puts us close to an explosive force, one that can easily go off when the stress is turned up.

“What stress?  You claim there was stress, there was no goddamned stress, until you caused it.  Everything was fine until you reverted to despicable form and started resisting every reasonable thing I proposed.  How dare you blame us for your uncontrollable stress?!   The world is endlessly unfair to you, poor little misunderstood genius.  You feel superior to everybody while demonstrating your inferiority every day.  That’s the real problem.  You think you’re great, and you’re angry all the time, and we did nothing to you — you are the one who caused all the bad feelings.”

In an unguarded moment she will tell you that you made her feel like her daughter, an actual  genius, often made her feel.  Challenged and overmatched.  “So good with words, and such command of memory, you both are, that I have to fight to defeat you by any means necessary.  You make me fight you to the death, how does it feel to try to kill me, you murderous black hearted bastard?”

It is impossible to measure the depth and breadth of these wounds.  And futile.

parent and child

When I was a boy my father’s colleague at the NYC Board of Education’s Human Relations Unit, Evelyn, became a regular visitor to our family.  My mother, also named Evelyn, was fond of her.  My sister and I loved her.   She was funny, irreverent, a good athlete, a folk guitar player with a beautiful voice, had a “retarded” dog, a black cocker spaniel named Twosie, and she seemed to love hanging out with us.  My sister had prominent, slightly bucked teeth (as they called it in those days) and so did Evelyn (picture a young Joni Mitchell).  Evelyn taught my sister to stick out her teeth and hold her hands up like paws whenever she called “Beaver Patrol Report!”  The two of them would do the Beaver Patrol salute and we’d all laugh.

It turns out Evelyn had survived a horrific childhood.  In hanging out with her smart, irreverent, darkly funny colleague and his family she got to experience what seemed to her (before her eternal falling out with her friend and colleague) a healthier version of family life and childhood.   She was as much an older sister to my sister and me as an adult.  

After my own troubling childhood I often found myself in the position Evelyn was in, hanging out with the children of my friends.  I was paid a great compliment by one of my friend’s children when he was about five:  Eliot’s not a grownup, he’s more like us.  I was.  I am.   I am never far from the most life-affirming feelings of my early life, when it comes to imagination, creativity, having fun, drawing, playing music.  I love to play, and why should I not?

Because, the adult will say, work is far more important than play.  Work is what gives meaning and value to life, a sense of self-worth, productivity, respectability.  Play is for vacation, maybe.  I honestly pity the average workaday motherfucker, too tired out by grim responsibility to be playful.

There is a certain point to the adult view, of course.  If I had ever tried to sell any of my writing, had any literary success, had sold several books, I’d be a published author and that would be my career, turning my daily practice into a monetizable, recognizable job.  When people asked me what I do I’d just say “I’m a writer” and it would be true, since I made a living by my words.  Instead, I play at writing, which is more fun, but far less lucrative and practical.  In the eyes of the world I’m just one of a hundred million would-be writers, “publishing” my work, gratuitously, in cyberspace.

I think of my father, hours before he died, telling me his life had been basically over by the time he was two.  A very sad thing to hear your father say the last night of his life.  It explained why he acted like an inconsolable two year-old so often, but, damn, it was hard to hear.

I have the two haunted photo portraits of his maternal grandparents.  I can hardly look at them, in their beautiful convex oval frames.  One or both of these long dead ancestors created of their youngest daughter a savagely angry religious fanatic who whipped her first born across the face from the time he could stand.  No doubt, it had happened to one or both of them, with their parents.  And before that, the parents of their parents and so on down the endless tragedy of history.

I think of this whenever I think of parents and children.  It is easy enough to blame the parent, or the child, but that’s a game for suckers.  To me, the real action is getting some goddamned insight and making some positive changes in your life, before you sorrowfully confess to your oldest son, right before you die, that your life was basically over before your great-grandfather was two.

Answer to a lifelong riddle

An old friend suddenly shows you an implacable face, as hurt turns into disagreement, which turns into a conflict, a standoff and finally an all out war.   

No compromise, no more of your fucking feelings, I won’t even hear what you’re upset about, how dare you challenge me, I’m the one who’s been wronged here!   

You protest, call to mind past compromises, a long mutual friendship, a history of two way empathy, honest conversation.  

“No!” you will hear, the jaw set, eyes boring into you to chill your blood, to cow you.   

“When did my old friend become a terrible two year-old?” you wonder to yourself, as you reel yourself back from telling the enraged person to go fuck off.   What is clear is that someone you cared deeply about is now treating you with cold contempt.

This has happened to me a few times over the years, and I am somehow never prepared for it.  It was always a mystery that I knew was somehow related to my troubled father, but I had little grasp of what the connection was exactly.  I had no concept to understand where this sudden implacable anger comes from, this need to blame you for making them feel bad, no matter what actually took place between you. 

The riddle of this confounding rigidity, this angry refusal to bend, has been mindfucking to me for many years.  It was only very recently that I grasped a concept that explained this bad behavior and made the unfortunate pattern sensible to me.

The context of the era we are living in offered me a giant clue I was slow to put to good use in my personal life.  The recent hostile attitude of dear friends was sickeningly familiar, and horrifically Trumpian.  The incoherent story constantly changed, all in a mighty effort to avoid talking about any feelings but their’s and why they were so brutally hurt by me!  My longtime closest friend, someone whose friendship and integrity I never had reason to doubt, seconded every aspect of the shifting story, no matter how implausible the blame narrative became.  The runaround, the noise and fury in response to an expressed need, was familiar as any headline I’d doom scrolled recently.

We Americans have endured years, seemingly a century, of a malignant, compulsively lying narcissist whipping up hatred and division.  Right or wrong, he’s always right.  Facts are bullshit!  What does he do when confronted with his wrongdoing?  Double down, in that now despicably common phrase.  Blame his enemies, attack investigators, judges, diplomats, his intelligence agencies, his military leadership, the sick and dangerous child blood drinking cannibal fucks who traffic and molest children — while running the deep state — the celebrity who insulted him twenty years earlier.   He does this, of course, because he’s a narcissist.

We are living in the age of narcissism.  I just didn’t understand it until very recently, though the number of celebrated current day public narcissists, admired by millions, is huge.  You see them literally everywhere, our greatest, most important citizen influencers.

What is the narcissist’s driving dilemma?  How to preserve the all-important feeling of being in the right when confronted by someone important to them they’ve hurt, or by any mistake they’ve made.  It can’t be their fault, it’s obviously the fault of the thin-skinned, needy prick who’s making them feel bad — on purpose!

I was reading a book by Jon Krakauer a couple of months back and came across this, which was like a light going on, in terms of explaining something I was at a loss to comprehend.

That is exactly what happens with anyone who has survived deep childhood injuries by becoming a narcissist.  They live in a world of agitated semi-recovery where theyre either perfect, beautiful, and admired, better than almost anybody else, or they’re plunged into the unbearable pain of feeling utterly worthless, humiliated, contemptible.  

There is no middle ground for a narcissist, no grasp of the human condition — we all fuck up sometimes, it’s perfectly human to be imperfect.  One of the things the non-narcissistic learn to do is accept responsibility, make amends, do their best to set things right when misunderstanding or conflict arises.

The world, to narcissists, is an instrument to protect them from feeling the agony that bears down whenever they feel vulnerable.  The world is full of souls of infinite worth, each unique, exotic, with a mischievous expiration date.  The narcissist doesn’t buy this pie in the sky bullshit, the world is about never being hurt.  If you don’t make yourself vulnerable, it’s harder to be hurt, though a narcissist’s invulnerability comes at a high price.  If youre hurt, hurt back twice as hard to make them back the fuck down.

This zero-sum worldview is the essence of narcissism.  The narcissist’s world is a demented see-saw.  There is only victory and defeat, nothing else.  I win, you lose.  If you win, somehow, I must lose, and that is intolerable to me.  So no matter what, you must lose.  If I have to assassinate your good name, and throw aside our long, close friendship, it’s a very small price to pay to defeat somebody who will not capitulate to my need to be perfect and beyond criticism of any kind. 

Though they seem strong, nobody is weaker than the narcissist.  The tension they live under is tremendous, the pressure they put on everyone around them is relentless. 

All you need to do is admit that I’m right and you’re wrong, no matter what.  How hard is that to do?

Mary Trump said that her uncle Donald is the weakest man she’s ever met.  His genius, she notes, is finding people even weaker than him, to do his bidding, to take the fall whenever needed.

Narcissism is a zero-sum game.  My father was a narcissist, it’s painfully obvious to me now.  He saw the world as black and white and, I realize now, from his point of view, he actually could not change, which was the tragedy of his life as he lamented at the end.  My little sister followed in dad’s footsteps.  He was her role model for strength in the face of terrible pain.  I’m sad to say, but like with her father, cross her and you’re fucking dead, though she might not tell you that for a few decades.   

The willingness to kill does not make you tough, or strong, it just shows a desperation never to feel like an utterly worthless piece of shit.  No amount of belated love can save you from that terrible fate, if you can’t somehow see your own way out of there.

The terror of irrationality, redux

The only way forward in a conflict or problem, any troubling situation that requires thought, planning and an actual solution, is imagining, reasoning, talking and agreement. Some kind of agreement always has to come before the problem can be solved. The really scary part about human conflict is that it is often not amenable to thought, reasonable discussion or compromise. The more willful party, the one who refuses to agree to anything, will insist it has prevailed, to the harm of everyone involved.

I think of the frequent rages of my father. He couldn’t explain exactly why he was raging at any given time, but anger filled him and he needed to vomit it out regularly.

His temper was fierce and he never really forgave. He spoke and reasoned very well, so that amid his terrible curses he was able to mount an argument that was sometimes hard to overcome. Very hard to overcome, because he was adept at constantly shifting what you were actually talking about while he was angry and afterwards. Try talking something out, or calming somebody, when you can’t even agree what you’re talking about in any given moment.

We had an ongoing philosophical dispute over whether someone can change anything significant about themselves. My position was, if you are in enough pain, and motivated to be in less pain, you can change certain things that lead inevitably to more pain. For example, you can learn how to take a breath and be more patient when you are about to lose your temper. In my mind this is kind of a game changer, if your weakness is a proneness to respond to frustration with anger.

My father’s position, understandably, was that my belief in a human’s ability to change anything fundamental about himself was completely idiotic. No matter how much I may have thought that I changed he would always be able to provoke me until he proved that he was right about my fucking uncontrollably violent temper. Even after I proved to him that he couldn’t make me angry anymore, he dismissed any change in me as delusional, a superficial acting job.

It occurred to me recently, after stumbling on some literature about narcissism, and the narcissist’s need to be in control and be right no matter what the facts or the situation, that my father, speaking as a narcissist, was truly unable to change. The whole ball game for a narcissist is about winning the stark black and white conflict that is life, at any cost, no matter how small the issue causing friction. The world is either white, and everything you do is commendable and perfect, or black, and everything you do is despicable, contemptible, shameful. If those are your only two choices, you’re going to pick perfect and commendable and death to all humiliating naysayers. End of story.

What does that leave for everybody else in the narcissist’s orbit? Basically my way or the highway, asshole, you know the fucking rules of this one way road, you contemptible pile of dreck!

Look at any source of media drama and you will see narcissists, like the richest men in the world, our most powerful and greatest genius citizens, acting like petty children to assert their superiority over all of the losers in the world. Facts don’t matter when you’re a wealthy compulsive liar and there is no penalty for lying and calling everybody else a fucking liar. Would you expect a more humane rule in a world run by entitled narcissists?

Interesting how seeing this now through the eyes of narcissism, which is so prevalent in our world today, makes me finally understand that my father, for all his talents and excellent traits, actually was unable to change. The conviction that people cannot change was a core belief that went into making him what he was, because his wounds made change impossible for him. A tragedy, yes, but also very easy to understand, through the right lens.

To me, the terror of irrationality is that nothing can be agreed upon, nothing can be discussed, nothing can be resolved, no conflict can be peaceably ended, except on the terms of the more willful party. This is because all of the tools that humans have to make peace have been taken off the table in the service of one party insisting on their right to do whatever they need to do to the other party in order to control and prevail over their own helplessness in the face of their unbearable pain. So those who can’t solve their own terrible problems inflict their pain on everybody else, fair enough.

Talk about some fucked up shit, Larry...

Repetition Compulsion and me

A longtime friend, Mark Friedman, was the most dramatic example I ever met of someone with a repetition compulsion. Psychologists tell us that the compulsion to repeat the same painful pattern over and over is an attempt to resolve some injurious conflict that tormented us in our childhood.

In Mark’s case, as near as I could figure it, it had to do with feeling that his father never respected him, and that his mother could not love him enough to compensate for this. The primal wound he suffered is somewhat subjective and I don’t want to sound judgmental, but that he was compelled to repeat the same three act play throughout his tormented life is something I saw up close for many years.

The shape of the story was always the same, the three act tragedy identical each time.

Act one was great admiration, enthusiasm and pure enjoyment of a person who was finally able to provide everything he’d been looking for. This person was cool, smart, funny, ingenious, talented, charismatic and a great friend, the very best person he’d ever met.

During Act two cracks would predictably appear in this exaggeratedly perfect facade, which would become increasingly worrying to Mark.

Act three was the final, unforgivable betrayal of Mark, which happened every time as regularly as the sun rises and sets each day.

I don’t know of another case of repetition compulsion as dramatic as Mark’s. It was so clear to see, and so frustrating to me that as otherwise smart as he was he simply couldn’t see it. He’d get furious, in fact, if you pointed out any similarity in his crashed relationships. That, as much as anything else, was the cause of our final estrangement. Which, of course, fit the pattern, betrayal by his trusty longtime best friend was dictated by the three act structure.

While Mark’s self-destructive pattern was easy for me to see, the compulsion is much harder to recognize in oneself. Why was it that I was always attracted to smart, tormented, bitter, angry, darkly — sometimes sadistically — funny people throughout my life?

It was an attempt to work out with them what I could not work out with my own smart, tormented, bitter, angry, darkly — sometimes sadistically —  funny father. In the end each of these relationships ended in a bitter falling out that I tried, sometimes for years, to prevent.

The lesson that was so hard for me to learn was that these people I cared about so much were literally poison to me because they could never give me what I was looking for, what I tried so hard to give to them — the benefit of the doubt, empathy and friendship.

Without empathy or the benefit of the doubt we don’t really have friendship. If somebody is incapable of these crucial things, out of their own injuries, we often won’t notice it until conflict arises. They say conflict reveals character, and it’s true. Under pressure things you can’t see when everything is fine will squeeze you to death. While everyone is laughing together it’s easy to feel like great friends.

And it was this laughter, this often dark, cruel humor, that bonded my father and me in between our long sessions of brutal combat. These moments of shared laughter were a great release, a relief, as well as providing the giddy hope of finding any kind of understanding with my supremely difficult father.

So these sardonic characters who were my closest friends for many years shared this bond of black humor with me and made me feel I’d found indispensable friends and was not doomed to interminable, senseless mortal combat.

It has taken decades for me to finally learn this sadly simple lesson: just because somebody smiles wickedly and laughs at your sense of humor doesn’t mean that they are your soulmate. Funny as it may seem reading these dry, serious pages I post here, I am a very funny motherfucker and make many people smile wickedly and laugh. It has taken me half a century to untangle reactions to my sense of humor from the deadly limitations of some of my onetime closest friends. Droll, eh?

Senseless enmity

My father’s mother, a diminutive red haired religious woman with a brutal temper, used to snarl whenever my father and his little brother fought.  “Seenas Cheenam!” she would say, Yiddish for “senseless enmity!”   They lived in poverty impressive even by the desperate standards of the Depression, their mother openly hated their father, the larger older brother was regularly whipped in the face by his mother, the sickly younger brother was always pampered by that same mother.   Add it up and you get “Seenas Cheenam!”   

My father spoke very little of his deeply scarring childhood, except to point out from time to time that he grew up in “grinding poverty.”  That was the phrase he always used when comparing his lot to my sister’s and mine.  We also heard the phrase “Seenas Cheenam” often enough growing up that it sticks in my head.  I later learned Hebrew and the word cheenam means “free,” or “gratuitous,” if you will,  seenas being the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew seenat, hatred.   

Psychological insight into human behavior is not necessarily a widespread human characteristic.  Certainty, of course, is.  We like to be sure before we whip somebody that we are doing the right thing.  And so it was with my grandmother, an uneducated woman from a family soon to be murdered en masse, prone to fits of righteous rage, a woman who died young, of cancer, a few years before I was born.  The irony of her dismissing any reason the boys might be at each other’s throats in that sadistic experiment they grew up in is not lost on me.  Blaming her boys for being at each other’s throats for no reason was her way of being certain that she was always doing what was best, exactly what God wanted her to do.  Certainty is the human genius.

Before my uncle died (in a rehab center) he told his son and me that he had framed photos of our great grandparents in the house his son was selling.   We looked everywhere, didn’t find them, and, on a last pass through, before locking up the house for the last time after it was sold, I walked into the sun room.   There behind the wicker couch my demented aunt had secreted the almost life-sized portrait heads of my grandmother’s parents, in beautiful oval frames.  I could barely stand looking at them.   These two had created a monster of their youngest child, my father’s violently unlucky mother.  

I can only imagine the household that raises their youngest to whip her infant son in the face over and over.  I look at the face of her mother, in a photo taken before 1914 when my grandmother arrived here in the US.  I shudder.   The father looks a bit more human, though as I look a moment longer I start to cringe.  People who were being photographed for the only time in their lives tend to look stiff, and rigid, and perhaps not at their most natural in the photographer’s studio, but there is something about these two that gives me the creeps.  

It is the knowledge that they raised a girl who grew up to viciously take out her misery on her first born son, a toddler who grew up to be my father.  My father, though he did much better than his mother, also was unable to resist taking out his misery and his unslakable anger on his children.  He was not one to hit, but his brutal words, as he eventually admitted, were as harmful as any regime of slaps, punches or kicks could have been.

We don’t want insight, we want to be right.  Keep it fucking simple, you merciless asshole!  I am right, as my gut is telling me, as my muscular tension tells me, as the surge of fight/flight/freeze chemicals urge me, as my every justification fucking tells me!

My sister and I had a terrible fight almost thirty years ago when my niece was a toddler.  Frustrations from years of conflict flared up and I lost my temper.  So did my sister who began screaming for me to get out of her fucking house.  My niece said, from her highchair, “mom, stop screaming at Uncle Elie!”   Sides clearly had to be drawn more decisively, as they were over the years, until my niece and nephew were convinced not to communicate with their crazy uncle any more.  Right is right when it comes to seenas cheenam, you understand. 

Irv’s dilemma

My father was a friend of the underdog, ally of the oppressed and broken-hearted idealist turned bitter cynic in the latter years of his life.   He truly wanted to instill in me a love of independence, unwavering honesty, fearlessness in advocating for what was right, and resoluteness opposing tyranny in all forms. 

His dilemma was that his own trauma compelled him to behave tyrannically whenever he felt confronted.  He was unable to control this impulse to dominate, by any means necessary, and so he constantly offered himself as the model of the tyranny I must reject, according to the principles he taught me, while wanting more than anything my respect for his authority and my independence from it.  Damn!  Talk about a no win dilemma.

He instilled in me a lifelong quest for justice, even as he insisted on the most unjust proposition imaginable — the child who is being made to suffer is the cause of everyone’s suffering.   

This intolerable proposition had been forced down his throat, from the time he could stand.  His mother, a diminutive redhead prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, used to whip him in the face.   How does a mother whip her toddler in the face?  She truly believes the kid is viciously defying her.  She has to beat this devil out of him.

The kid, in turn, grows up to hate a bully more than anything in the world.   The only problem is that nobody is more prone to bullying others than someone who has been bullied.  The anger toward the bully is there, along with a determination never to be bullied again.  If the only way to avoid being bullied by a challenging, defiant new born baby is to bully them, how is that anybody’s fault?

So my poor devil father had a dilemma that could only be solved by difficult work that was too painful for him to do, too excruciating to even consider doingPoor bastard!