Authoritative authoritarianism

This concise definition of “authoritarian” is not as delightful as my all-time favorite definition — squeamish: exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated — but it’s pretty good:

favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.

Synonyms are autocratic, despotic, tyrannical, totalitarian, rigid, oppressive, inflexible, and things like that.

I had a friend who was raised by a father who was openly autocratic, the mother fawningly loyal and obedient to her husband’s every firm opinion and summary dictate. The boy never had a chance, he obeyed his father resentfully, feeling helpless to do otherwise. Anger at the way his life had been dominated by his never wrong father drove him to be very much the same way in his own adult life.

I think it’s a fairly typical scenario, which is why you see graphics like this in your internet search results:

Stereotyping, Prejudice & Discrimination - ppt download

The authoritarian personality, in the crudest sense the “bully,” is described this way (as per exhaustive five second internet search):

The authoritarian personality is a personality type characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a person external to the self, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people.

Mod 3 authoritarian personality

One of history’s most infamous infallible authoritarians was Germany’s Mr. Hitler, whose word was German law (Fuhrer worte haben Gesetzeskraft!) during the twelve years of his Thousand Year Reich. As a boy he’d been famously abused by his father, a vicious, drunken, petty bureaucrat authoritarian who beat young Adolf regularly, and without mercy, for sport. The same goes for the current leader of the radical right in the USA, our golden-haired poster boy for authoritarian infallibility. He was raised by a certified piece of shit, and it doesn’t appear he got much love from his gold digger mother, either. No severe beatings that we know of, in fact, he seems to have been spoiled as a child, except for the endless psychological torment of being judged harshly as unqualified by the demanding, driven father who groomed you, his reluctant second choice, to take over his empire.

The authoritarian depends on his subjects viewing the world as divided neatly into good and evil with no gray area in between. This black and white worldview makes things easier, and much simpler, for everybody. You can tell at a glance who is friend, and a good person, and who is foe, and a very bad person you can do whatever you want to. Obedience to the wise leader is good, defiance of the leader’s will is evil. Also, any rule the authoritarian makes, he can change at any time, with or without notice.

There are groups whose members can obey and praise the wise leader as much as they like, they will remain hated since they are members of an out-group that can never be equal to the ideal subjects of the authoritarian. The fascist worldview depends on this hated out-group being seen as an existential threat, beyond redemption, an enemy to be treated harshly and pointed to as the reason for the autocrat’s rule. Having a few token members of these despised groups march with the authoritarian is seen as a good thing, since it has the effect of making the authoritarian’s undeniable appeal seem to cross even to the hated out-group.

Not all authoritarians are on the right, by the way, though most of them seem to be. You can have rigid, inflexible, overbearing, bossy types on the right, the left or anywhere in between. They will not allow debate unless all of their rules for debate are followed. You must use certain words only, using the wrong phrases will end the possibility of debate before it begins. Tolerance of opposing views, or views expressed differently than required, is seen as a kind of moral weakness. There are Nazi types among us, as we can see on TV every day, and there are also the same rigidly self-righteous types on the extremest edge of the left.

For the ones on the left, the phrase I like is “there is a guillotine waiting” whenever they fall afoul of the newest orthodoxy. Unlike on the right, autocratic types on the left are subject to being hoisted on their own stinking petards when the political winds change.

They may not be there in the same proportions (American acceptance of autocracy is very high among those who consider themselves conservatives, it is not widely accepted on the left) but there are these intolerant motherfuckers on both sides, often dictating the terms of debate, as this type often seems to, down to the language that may be used in these debates. Some very fine intolerant motherfuckers on both sides, on both sides…

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler — note

I have a tendency to see Adolf Hitler as the explanation of, or at least the perfect illustration for, so much of what I dread in life. I tend to be judgmental about Mr. Hitler’s career and to blame the Nazi leader for many of the things I hate and fear. The arbitrary designation of enemies, who must be killed, the unappealable and irrational demand for absolute loyalty, breach of which is punishable by death. The long strings of words mobilized and deployed like Panzer divisions and formations of Luftwaffe bombers to convince the desperate that if only they obey absolutely, they will be saved and led to glorious victory over their hated enemies.

Hitler, for his part, started off claiming that he was just a drummer, the guy in front of the parade banging the drum to set the cadence for the march. A very modest self-portrait, I think, for a man who, just a few years later, would be celebrated as a national savior and worshipped by millions.

I apparently wrote up this note to myself back in September, 2019. You can read the post here, if you have a few minutes.

The quick point is this. I come from an average working class Jewish family that was wiped out, down to the infants and pregnant women, along with thousands and thousands of other families, in the aftermath of the German push into the Soviet Union. In the wake of this conquering army, Ukrainians and Belarusians often assisted the Einsatzgruppen, the special squads assigned to rid the world of the Jews and other poisonous threats to humanity.

So it was in the town my mother’s parents grew up in, in the heart of the Ukraine. Every surviving Jew marched from the little ghetto to the ravine on the northwestern edge of town, bang, dead [1]. You can’t even find this murder of several thousand, one airless night in August 1943, among the mass shootings committed by Mr. Hitler’s followers, it simply didn’t make the list. It’s only recorded one place on-line, a transcribed oral history of the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of that town, and here, from time to time, on this blahg.

A cousin and I have been trying for years to find out exactly what happened to my father’s side, back in Belarus. They, and the benighted little hamlet they lived in, were wiped from the world without a trace. There were various aktions in the area, that much we’ve learned, and they were all killed in the course of those.

So I see myself as fundamentally different from a well-born ubermensch like Jared Kushner. His family had the good fortune (and the money, presumably) to escape the slaughterhouse that was Europe in the last of the Nazi years. They came here, these two poor immigrants, Jared’s grandparents, and slowly bought and operated a small empire of New Jersey apartment houses, which made them very wealthy. Their son, Charles, took this small real estate empire and greatly expanded it, becoming a billionaire, like his son Jared, after him.

Two generations after his grandparents escaped the Nazi killing machine, Jared Kushner has the haughty bearing of a young SS officer. He speaks with the absolute certainty of someone who has never been wrong, or, if he has been wrong, has never been corrected. You simply cannot picture a man like that marched to his dignity free mass execution in a pile of freshly combed dirt.

Easier, by far, to imagine him distractedly smoking a cigarette, in a long holder, as he gives the signal for the Ukrainian auxiliary police to fire the next volley, into the back of my head, and the heads of the people on either side of me.

Fortunately, Jared’s time in power did not last long enough for this important work to be completed. It took Mr. Hitler years to accomplish all that he accomplished, it was not the work of a single four year period, it took at least twice that long to get it all into high gear.

We are all poised in the fall of 1932 here (in other countries it’s already later). Here in US of A the future of our long experiment in democracy is at the mercy of two Democrats who insist there is no problem that can’t be solved if only we all just learn to respect each other and behave differently.

[1] from that transcribed oral history:

At the beginning of Elul 1943, about 10 SS men arrived from Kremenets. They gathered a large number of armed Ukrainian policemen from the surrounding area and stationed them in the shade. One SS man stood next to the great master, Mr. Shtayger, the destroyer of Vishnevets Jewry. He stood up and gave a short speech that I heard in full and still can’t forget.

He said, “Today we’re going to liquidate all the Jews in the ghetto. Go knock on each window, open it, and tell the Jews, ‘Leave your homes, you traitors, you Jewish Communists.’ Beat the Jews who refuse to leave their homes with the butts of your guns. Pay attention: you can strike to kill, but make sure you don’t kill them inside the ghetto. Take them outside town, to the designated area, and kill them there.”

I still don’t understand why he didn’t want to exterminate us inside the ghetto.

source

I get it, they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with all the stinking corpses inside the town, during a hot summer, especially since they had a nearby mass grave ready to accommodate all the dead. You have to use common sense!

Playing soothing music for my dying mother

My mother died a long, slow, painful death from endometrial cancer. She did not want to talk about death, though she often asked, rhetorically, why she felt so awful all the time. I understood that I was not supposed to mention death, or the deadly cancer eating its way out from the lining of her womb.

My mother always gave my father a hard time about his napping. He’d fall asleep a few times a day and, when I was visiting, my mother would point at him and complain. It turns out he was dying of undiagnosed liver cancer the last few years of his life, which could well explain his more frequent naps, but that’s another story.

As my mother got closer to the end, she found herself exhausted during the day and would often fall into a nap. I asked her if she’d changed her opinion of napping.

“Oh, I LOVE to nap!” she said with a big smile.

One day toward the end of her life, when she was trying to sleep off some unbearable pain, I went quietly into her room with my guitar and began playing a soft, soothing vamp, something like this one:

Her breathing seemed to become more relaxed as I played. I played softly for a few minutes, hoping to help her to sleep. Suddenly she sputtered and opened her eyes on the pillow.

“What IS that?!” she said crossly, “it sounds like you’re tuning your guitar!”

I withdrew from her bedroom and didn’t try that shit again.

One more about my mother

Here —-> is a link to one of two pieces I was actually paid for writing. It is about solving the mystery of my mother’s longtime distaste for Stephen Colbert, a comedian she should have loved as much as Jon Stewart, who she loved to pieces.

I have to point out that the cliche-prone “editor,” in return for the $250 his company paid to contributors, reserved the right to put asshole lines like this into my mouth:

” … found one that made me feel like a regular Sherlock Holmes.”

He’s probably also the author of this immortal phrase:

“One case I was proud to crack…”

Come on, Larry, couldn’t it at least have been a “caper”?

Anyway, this piece is mostly free of his editorial flourishes, and nothing as maddeningly meaning-altering as his idiotic improvements to my first piece.

Once I he published the first two I imagined I could get paid for a few of these every month, they were easy enough for me to write. He loved the first three I sent him and instantly published the first two (well, the first was a bit of a pissing contest before I could get paid, but he loved the piece and I managed to leap easily enough through every additional hoop he set up).

A bitter aside:

This imagined source of easy income curdled, dried up and blew away as I encountered Larry’s insistence on having the very last word on everything related to paying me the $250 fee. In the end he changed his mind about publishing the third one, a piece he’d immediately emailed to tell how much he loved and that he was publishing. Then he changed his mind about publishing it, without letting me know, though he could have sworn he’d sent me an email. After that, he was nothing but quibbles and I soon lost patience with the idiotic game we were playing.

I was told he gave certain authors a lot of shit about making endless changes (as he had on my first piece which I was forced to cut from 1,500 to 1,200 to 1,000 words), especially authors who wrote better than he did (just about anyone) and those who were not his personal friends (the rules applied to them were different, 4,000 or more rambling words were not a problem for him and a few of his long-winded buddies). Oh, well!  

There is no kingdom too tiny for arbitrary tyranny, I’ve noticed.

As to the mystery of why my mother hated Colbert, here is the full story. I felt like a regular Sherlock Holmes when I proudly cracked that caper, I can tell you for sure, boys and girls!

A few more thoughts about my mother

She would be angry about Mitch McConnell’s current plan to filibuster the formation of a January 6 Commission, the 6-3 corporatist Supreme Court engineered to outlaw a woman’s right to choose — and poised to do so, the radical nihilism of a party become a violence-embracing cult steeped in insane conspiracies. Hell, she was still upset enough about the prospect of Sarah Palin in power to ask me, hours before she died (and two years after Palin ran for vice president), to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be president. When she got really angry, my mother would cry.

She’d bellow too, don’t get the wrong idea, she could snarl and yell with the best of them. She had no problem speaking her mind, even while angry, but when talking about something that unfair, and brutal, and in the face of which she felt so helpless, in the end she’d cry. Hard to blame her, really. I can imagine exactly how Kyrsten Fucking Sinema and Joe Shit-breath Manchin would sit, crosswise, in her craw, incoherently defending the bipartisan right of McConnell to use the filibuster, which, they senselessly claim, was created to foster bipartisanship, just as Mr. Trump’s decisive loss in 2020 was actually a landslide victory and the so-called riot to Stop the Steal was the fault of angry Blacks and radicals who dangerously and mistakenly believe there is institutional racism in our unimpeachably exceptional nation.

My mother liked Tom Hanks (as most people I know do, how can you not?) and would be horrified to hear he’d been singled out as one of the elite Hollywood pedophile child-blood drinkers, viciously persecuting the innocents unlikely hero Donald Trump was chosen to deliver from this monstrous evil, from Satanists. “Tom Hanks?!” I could hear her voice, incredulous, her intonation bristling with Bronx street outrage.

In that childhood in the Bronx, growing up in a first floor apartment on Eastburn Avenue, which meets the Grand Concourse on one end, a half block from her apartment (my mother always proudly claimed to have grown up on the Grand Concourse, the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx) she learned a certain amount of toughness and also, complete vulnerability.

She was vulnerable to loneliness, having grown up an only child, a “latch key” kid, as she said, someone who came home after school and let herself into the empty apartment. Both of her parents worked and she wouldn’t see them until dinner time. She was helplessly vulnerable to the giant engines of politics, as a teenager her entire large family was wiped out in Europe, when she was twenty Robert Moses cut Eastburn Avenue in half, condemning and demolishing two blocks of her neighbors homes and stores and beginning to dig the huge canyon that would accommodate the roaring Cross Bronx Expressway, and destroy a series of Bronx neighborhoods like my mother’s childhood home.

We never spoke much about any of this. Not the family taken to a ravine on the north west of town and shot in the back of their heads, not the destruction of her childhood home by hater of the working class Powerbroker Moses. I only saw the windows of her apartment toward the end of her life, when a friend and I took a bike ride in the Bronx to find Eastburn Avenue and I called her in Florida. She was very excited to describe exactly where her apartment was, lead me to the window, on the first floor, right side next to the front entrance, where she used to look out to see who was walking up the courtyard.

It was through this window that she first saw the gangly teenager who’d become my father, a countrified hick (to her way of thinking) who arrived with his tiny mother and younger brother to visit a cousin who lived in the building. She was horrified, a few years later, after her mother forcibly ended a romance between my mother and a suitor her mother hated, when her mother proposed, and later insisted, she go on a date with the bumpkin. The bumpkin turned out to be surprisingly smart, witty, tall, dark and fairly good looking, and he made her laugh — the rest, as they say…

Her mother, my grandmother Yetta, was tough as nails, in a certain way. Very strong willed and certain about what was right (like the fact that Dinche’s cousin was the perfect husband for her daughter), she took no back talk or rebellion from little Evelyn.

Odd little detail, Yetta had named her daughter Helen, my mother, as a child, somehow had that name legally changed to Evelyn. I don’t know more than that about her name. I do know that Yetta would not hesitate to break a yardstick over her daughter’s ass, whatever the girl wanted to call herself.

I know this because both of my parents nonchalantly tossed off that Yetta had broken countless yardsticks over her daughter’s ass. They usually mentioned this with a smile, for some reason. Yetta always had a yardstick handy because, since she was a girl, she’d been a talented seamstress. Her nickname among the Jews in her little town back in the Ukraine was der schneiderkeh “the little tailor”. She was apparently so good, at such a young age, and her services were so in demand in her small town, that she employed several women to help her turn out the orders.

None of this translated in New York City when she arrived in 1921, and she had to work her way up from sweatshop worker to special assistant to the designer herself– Helena Troy, the designer’s name was. Troy would send Yetta to fashion shows to steal design ideas. Yetta had an amazing visual memory, with no notes she’d go back to the office and replicate the most interesting new designs she’d seen, which Helena Troy would make a few small changes to and pass off as her own. My mother often said of her mother that if only she’d been perfectly fluent in English (she read and wrote haltingly in English, though her Yiddish was top shelf), and American born, her mother would have been the first woman president of the United States. I don’t know about that, but I later saw one of those yardsticks. Holy shit.

The yardsticks I was familiar with were flimsy 1/4″ thick slats that hardware stores gave away. We had several with “Eisner’s” printed across them (Eisner looked like Ed Asner and ran the hardware store we could walk to from our house). You could snap them in half easily, even as a young kid. So I always pictured these snapping harmlessly over my mother’s butt, little signs of my grandmother’s annoyance and nothing more.

Then I saw one of the old, stained wooden ones, the kind Yetta used. A sturdy piece of square lumber you could only break with a saw, or by swinging it with a good deal of violence at an object you didn’t care much about damaging.

Toward the end of her life, in a last futile attempt to bring a little more understanding between my mother and my sister, each locked in a struggle with the other, I mentioned that most mothers and daughters have conflict. I named a few examples, people we knew. Then I made a dangerous mistake.

“You know, mom, you had some serious conflict with your own mother…” I began, but was instantly cut off by an angry snarl.

“I had a great relationship with my mother!” she said, her nostrils flaring and her face becoming slightly red. We were standing a few feet apart in the little hallway between her bedroom and the guest room where I stayed when visiting Florida. She was close enough to lunge for my throat, her teeth were already out.

My mother had observed, a few years earlier, how much better I’d become at dealing with my anger. It was in the middle of a fight I was having with my father about whether people can meaningfully change things about themselves. My father was angrily insisting I was pathetically misguided, and just as fucking angry as I’d ever fucking been, that I was deluded, fooling myself to believe I had changed in any fundamental way, especially regarding my violent temper. My mother passed through the room where my father and I were duking it out.

“I’ve seen a big change in you,” she said, as she walked with her coffee back into the bedroom to continue reading a murder mystery.

The second my mother roared in pain when I suggested her own mother had been brutal to her I remembered my vow not to fight with her. I’d promised myself when my father died five years earlier, as I’d promised him on his deathbed I would take care of her, that I would not make her angry as she ticked off the final years of her life. In the next moment I was as nimble as a young Fred Astaire.

“Do you want to have dinner at Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked her.

“Oooh, let’s have Thai!” she said, as happily as a baby who’d been furious a second before, now flushed with wonder and joy, absorbed in the tinkling of the keys waving magically in front of her face.

For a bit more about my mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother would be 93 today, hard to believe. Seems like only yesterday she was a new mother overwhelmed by her two young children, me and my younger sister. Time has got to be one of the most mysterious forces out there — the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. We often think it flows in a straight line, from past to present to future, but there is plenty of reason to doubt the simplicity of that conception. In a blink it is fifty years ago.

My mother loved to read, appreciated good writing and was a pretty good writer herself. When she was in college she carried a notebook in which, when inspiration struck, she stopped and wrote poetry. I remember a blue, leather-bound journal that she told me contained her poems. I recall seeing it as a kid. I imagined her rushing to a bench at Hunter College, shortly after World War Two, excited to jot down a phrase or idea before it was lost, the way I will sometimes do (increasingly into my very smart phone) when I’m out for a walk.

At some point my mother stopped writing poetry, except for the occasional birthday card, and I never found the blue journal of her poems after she died. I searched every corner of the apartment as I cleaned it out, went through every box, feeling hopeful at every turn, but nada.

What happened to that poetry is probably what happens to everything else that lives and breathes. Comes a time when it fades to black. You can call it what you like, the impenetrable black is the same. It’s like what happened to that plump little solid gold heart my mother wore on a thin gold necklace when my sister and I were little. I remember it swaying over us in our beds. Now? It is nowhere.

I look over at the box where my mother’s “cremains” have sat quietly since they emerged from a Florida crematorium almost exactly eleven years ago. A religious friend called my mother’s apartment on May 20, 2010, to wish her a happy birthday. I told him she’d been taken to the hospice and had been in a coma for several hours.

“That’s a sign of righteousness,” he told me “when God really loves you he lets you die on your birthday.”

My mother, who was quite hostile to religion, had fought with this guy over and over when she was alive and kicking. She thought religion was a foolish, often destructive, lens to look at the world through and was disgusted that so many religious people were loophole surfing hypocrites.

God (and don’t get her started on that one) says you can’t eat “chumaytz” on Passover? That is, a Jew is not allowed to eat anything containing leaven during the week commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. We eat flat, unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction,” to remind us how our enslaved ancestors suffered as they fled tyranny and bondage.

Except that they’ve developed perfectly fluffy cakes and other foods to eat during this time, delicious items that taste and feel very much like the real thing, but do not contain “leavening”. They found a perfectly kosher way to observe the letter of the law while gracefully skirting its spirit. Nu, why should we have to suffer? My mother had no patience for that kind of pious hypocrisy.

And so it was that she refused to breathe her last on May 20, she waited until the following day. It was as if her last act, even in a coma, was a middle finger to orthodox Jewish religious belief.

At her memorial I told the group assembled there that it was highly ironic for us to be gathered in a synagogue, a place my mother avoided. Particularly ironic for the synagogue to be in Peekskill, a town my father immediately fled at the end of his horrific childhood there, a place he almost never visited, but where he was now buried.

The Jewish group that ran the cemetery, by the way, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill (in whose chapel we’d gathered), had decreed that no cremated ashes could be buried in the cemetery, even if the member had paid for the grave site for 50 years, as my parents had. I pointed to the bag containing the box of my mother’s ashes, seated in the front row. She had no comment, but everyone in the room could imagine it.

“There’s no Jewish law against burying ashes,” my parents’ religious friend had told me on her final birthday “which means you can go to the cemetery and quietly bury them in her grave yourself.”

I told the friends and family assembled in that synagogue that my mother admired a Florida rabbi who wrote a weekly column my mother loved. This rabbi was fiercely liberal and wrote scathing and witty denunciations of the radical Republican party under Cheney and Dubya. Reading his weekly column was a great relief to my mother, living among Floridians, many of whom believed that Dubya was working directly for Jesus Christ, and she often mentioned this rabbi to me in our daily chats, sometimes reading me bits she particularly liked.

Her neighbor told her that the rabbi would be speaking at their local temple the following Friday night. She was very excited at the prospect of hearing him speak and went to synagogue, in spite of her lifelong reluctance to attend a religious service if she could avoid it (she almost always could.) Oddly, when we spoke after the service she didn’t mention the rabbi, or the service. I asked her how it was.

“Oh, it was awful, very disappointing. He was up there on the bima the whole time, but he didn’t open his mouth, he didn’t say a word. Not one word! He just sat there. They introduced him and he sat there and waved.”

Then, reliving the worst part of the nightmare, she said “and they read every goddamn prayer in that fucking prayer book! [1]”

It was my mother in a nutshell and everyone there immediately recognized her, and her influence on me in telling this particular anecdote in the solemn sanctuary, in front of the fancy ark that held the Torah scrolls.

Anyone observing the ease between my mother and me, and how carefully I protected her during the last years of her life, would have no doubt of the love between us. I owe a great deal to her, including my love of reading and writing. When I wrote something that moved her, she smiled with the deepest possible delight. “It’s wonderful,” she would say.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that we write for an imagined audience of one reader. In his case it was his older sister he always wrote for. He’d imagine her reaction, and that was his guide for how to write, what would make her nod, or laugh, or think, what would displease her, make her demand better. I suppose my imagined audience is my mother. It certainly is right now, as I remember her on her birthday and try to conjure just a little of her spirit for others today.

The beauty of writing is the chance, every time we sit down, to make our meaning absolutely clear. With the luxury of time, which is all we really have (ask my mother), we’re able to reread and weigh every phrase we’ve written, think further, remove any word that distracts, say what we mean to say as clear and true as possible.

Through this daily practice of writing we can learn to communicate exactly what we mean to say. That is far more than we mortals can often do in real time, especially in the heat of those moments when it is almost impossible to say exactly what we mean. Writing, for those of us who love it, is a great way to clarify what we feel and what we think.

If this practice of daily writing hasn’t helped me, necessarily (no matter how clearly you write there are always those who’ll insist you haven’t made yourself clear, or, on another level, that you’re a chump for not getting paid to write, if you think your writing is worth anything), it certainly hasn’t hurt me. In fact, it has helped a great deal, I know this every time I sit down to spend time combing through my thoughts and feelings.

I once bought my mother a blank journal for her birthday. “I have nothing to write,” she said, after thanking me for the book. I reminded her that she used to love to write, and told her if she started to do it again she’d probably find it worthwhile.

“You’re the writer, not me,” she said. “You have a million ideas, I don’t have any ideas. I have nothing to say. It’s a very nice journal, but the thought of a blank page fills me with dread.”

Nothing I could say helped her recall that once familiar moment, when she thought of something she wanted to say, and set everything else aside to work out the best way to say it. It had been so many years since this bright, opinionated woman had thought to take the extra time to more elegantly express what she’d already said that she no longer had any memory of her need to do it. She must have stopped believing it mattered what she wrote, at a certain point. Which is a whole other story, now that I think of it.

Happy 93rd birthday, mom.

[1]

She may have said “every fucking prayer in that goddamned prayer book” but even someone known for an excellent memory, as I am, can never be sure.

Somaticizing your people’s trauma

I heard a very insightful discussion (between therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem and Kritsta Tippett) of the deep bodily harm racism inflicts, on a cellular level. Menakem describes how the subjects of racist attention are born inheriting, in their bodies, the stress their mothers felt while carrying them in their wombs. It made a lot of sense to me, the innate vigilant tension that must be carried in the body by those who society marks, solely by their external appearance, as inferior and threatening.

Menakem makes this profound point:

Not just that they lived through trauma, but that the angst and the anguish was decontextualized. And so for my Black body to be born into a society by which the white body is the standard is, in and of itself, traumatizing. If my mom is born as a Black woman, into a society that predicates her body as deviant, the amount of cortisol that is in her nervous system when I’m being born is teaching my nervous system something. Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.

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I immediately knew the truth of this. I thought of my advantage, as a white person raised in safety by white middle class parents [1], when an off-duty cop tried to punch my face in for a disrespectful remark I’d made to him. (In my defense, I had no idea the violent piece of shit was an off-duty cop.) When three of his colleagues finally pulled us apart, two pinned my arms. I immediately relaxed my body, signaling to them I was not resisting, that I was calm, that they could safely let me go, which I quietly asked them to do.

Had my body been programmed to tense up and resist, knowing in my ancestral memory that the next likely thing was for all four of them to start beating me, or worse, I’d never have been able to relax and free myself so easily. I’d never have had the chance to reasonably ask the guy who’d tried to punch me in the face over and over what was stopping me from doing the same to him, then doing it, in front of three witnesses, and making my exit without having the shit beaten out of me afterwards.

The trauma of growing up in a despised, feared group is somaticized, it becomes part of the body’s response system (making the body more susceptible to disease and early death, among other things [2]). Not surprising at all, once it’s put out there, but fascinating and important to consider. The inherited, instinctive fight or flight mobilization in traumatized bodies can also be described by epigenetics, which Krista Tippett also did a great show about.

The new field of epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.

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These biological expressions of stress and trauma can be worked through by survivors who receive help and support, once the traumatic events are far enough in the past. But what of those whose stress and trauma are ongoing, systemic, unending, in the news every single day?

In the context of now daily police killings of unarmed Black people, this dynamic is very important to consider. The day after Derek Chauvin was convicted, unarmed, unresisting Andrew Brown was, shot to death in a rural county in eastern North Carolina. The warrant for his arrest called him a dangerous drug dealer and the unidentified sheriff’s deputies who went to serve the warrant on him wound up killing him. According to the officers who shot him, the proof that he was resisting arrest is that once they began shooting into his car, and four shots are confirmed to have hit him, he tried to drive away, attempting to back down his driveway, which seems to have been when the fatal fifth shot was fired into the back of his head.

Ask yourself how a Black man, even if he is not a “dangerous drug dealer”, does not try to flee from police bullets coming into his car, particularly after he has complied and kept both hands on the steering wheel.

Recall the original police account of the murder of George Floyd: “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” We know now, thanks to the video shot by a courageous seventeen year-old, the testimony of several witnesses, police officials and medical experts, and the guilty verdict by a jury of twelve of Derek Chauvin’s peers, that the original police account, while strictly true (there was a “medical incident” but it was Floyd’s murder) was a grossly misleading oversimplification of what happened during those fatal final nine and a half minutes of the “police interaction” that ended George Floyd’s life.

Makes me want to holler, it really does.

I’ve been reminded that most people who become police officers, the vast majority of them “white,” grow up with a conservative mindset, conforming to the norms of our society and believing in a basic code of right and wrong based on enforcing the law, whatever it is, against lawbreakers. I believe many, if not most, are motivated to become police officers by a real desire to protect and serve. The burning, killing question is who and what, exactly, you have vowed to protect and serve.

[1]

Leaving aside my own epigenetic trauma to be the child of parents who lost all but a few family members, every single family member left in Europe, to an outbreak of murderous group madness in Ukraine and Belarus in 1942 and 1943. Every one of them murdered and disappeared without a trace, just thirteen years before I was born. Try as I might, it is something I can never get out of my head, or my body, I suppose, though my own experience never included anything like the killing crews that were the last thing my grandparents’ family members ever saw.

[2]

For a very short description, see also, HERE.

The hidden effects of trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

A Good Conversation (2)

Thinking more about a good conversation, the kind of talk we remember years later, it is the mutual readiness to listen, to really hear the other person, that makes these exchanges so memorable. In a world that famously doesn’t care about your feelings or ideas, it is a great comfort to experience tender care for those things from the person you are talking to.

“Your business is very important to us, please continue to hold…” the mantra of the modern industrialized world, reinforces our essential aloneness in an often hostile universe. Let’s face it, in a transactional culture based on material gain at any cost, we are just customers, manipulated with ever greater sophistication, who most often take what we can get, are allowed to have, if we can wrest it from others with more power. This eternal vying for advantage is the opposite of a good conversation.

In a good talk there is always mutuality. Something you raise reminds me of something I experienced. We compare and contrast, the things on one level very much the same, on another quite different. There is great nuance in our infinitely gradated world, we feel this when we are in a good conversation with someone we trust.

A bad conversation, on the other hand, is marked by caution, by obscuring certain things that would be necessary for an open exchange, by deliberately avoiding subjects, limiting the topics that can be talked about openly. These talks are exhausting. Because much is hidden, and both parties are trying their best simply to survive an uncomfortable exchange intact, there is little possibility for a beneficial exchange of ideas. At best, we “agree to disagree,” in that most odious phrase, since, in a conversation held in darkness, with light forbidden, that is often the only alternative to open hostility.

A good conversation is the opposite of a zero sum talk. In a zero sum world everything is measured by who wins and who loses, there is no middle ground. Life may not really be this way, but seeing it as zero sum makes it so. A clever construction, the zero sum machine.

If I concede to you that I was in the wrong, that diminishes me and gives you an advantage I can easily deny you by merely conceding nothing. Long friendships can be quickly killed if one friend reduces a conflict to a zero sum game. In the end, “I will prevail and you will lose, loser,” is a recipe for estrangement or consent to continue in a kind of living hell.

My aunt was a difficult woman. What I learned about her life explained a bit of why she was that way. When she became demented, toward the end of her life, she went through a Terrible Two kind of period when she was reflexively contrary. I visited her when my cousin was there, to prevent him from killing her as they organized the house to get it ready to sell.

One morning, entering the kitchen where breakfast was in progress, my cousin and my aunt silently eating, I said “good morning, Aunt Barbara”.

“No,” she said, her jaw set firmly.

My cousin and I later had laughs about this. Not good? Not morning? Not my aunt?

“No,” my aunt insisted.

Fortunately this Terrible Two phase eventually passed. As her dementia progressed my aunt became more and more docile. Sekhnet and I remember the last time we saw my aunt and her son together. He had his arm around her as they waved goodbye and turned to walk back into the nursing home where my aunt was now living. It was a tenderness we could not have imagined while my aunt was in control of her faculties.

It was a tenderness I’d experienced myself with my troubled aunt, decades earlier. Staying over at my parents’ place after some holiday meal, everyone else upstairs in bed, my aunt and I had one remarkably candid conversation in the late night living room of my parents’ house. The tenderness I felt for her during that talk, and for long after that talk, I cannot really describe.

A good conversation

My aunt, an often contrary woman my mother dreaded having to spend time with, a mother hated by the son she adored (she doted on him when he was a baby, anyway), was, to put it kindly, something of a pain in the ass. Growing up in a very small family, she was my only aunt. Her husband, my father’s brother, (the only sibling of either of my parents) was my one uncle. We saw them at holidays every year, and the gatherings were always electric with uncomfortable, crudely buried emotions.

My uncle, a smallish, slight man who looked like Stephen Colbert, often flinched around his much larger older brother. He’d laugh nervously after each flinch, remembering that they were both adults now, I suppose, but you could see his discomfort whenever my father moved or spoke in a certain way. My uncle had a corny sense of humor, a surprisingly effective disguise for a temper he kept hidden from me, somehow, until I was close to forty.

I’ll never forget his tour-de-force of raving tyranny one year when my sister and I went to visit him and our aunt. It was like watching a cute small dog suddenly lunge, teeth bared, at another dog’s throat, then another, persisting wildly until all the other dogs were bloody heaps. My mother and my first cousin, long wary of my uncle, were shocked that it took me so long to see this angry, dictatorial side of the mild-mannered fellow, but, as I said, he never showed any sign of it to me, until he did.

I am thinking of a good conversation, the remarkable meeting of the minds and hearts we don’t have very often. It is an exchange of honest reactions, where both parties are sometimes vulnerable and both are interested and open to learning something new from the other, if only how they truly feel. We always learn something in these kind of talks, if only that somebody else understands something we have only just started to be able to express. I had a couple of interesting chats with my uncle over the years, mainly about politics (we were pretty much in sync on our political views) but nothing I’d classify as a memorably good conversation. It was partly my uncle’s aversion to the personal, I suppose.

One night, in the living room of my parents house in Queens, everybody else had gone up to bed, and my aunt and I were in the living room. I was probably around thirty at the time. I’ve always been a night owl, my aunt and uncle were generally in their pajamas before ten. In fact, it was my uncle’s demand that we all get ready for bed at 10 pm, when my sister and I visited him years later as adults, that served as his first shot across the bow, the opening salvo of what the next day would erupt into full blown crazy autocratic rage.

In the living room of my parents’ house, on that quiet tree-lined street, my aunt and I had a remarkable conversation. I recall nothing specific about our long ago talk, other than the closeness I felt to my aunt as we revealed ourselves to each other. Knowing that she had the capacity for this kind of openness made me feel differently about her.

My cousin, when I mentioned this chat to him, always scoffed. To him his mother was a devious master-manipulator, certainly she’d picked up on and played off some vulnerability I’d shown her. Seeing the emotional opening, she’d sympathetically slipped in to ingratiate herself, to cunningly arm and situate herself for future harm she was already planning.

People do this kind of thing, pretend to care with their eye on some other prize, though I remain unconvinced that my aunt was doing that the night of that striking conversation we had. What I recall was how personal our talk was. My aunt told me personal details of her life as I shared details of my own inner life. We were on the same page, as they say (and for good reason).

I have an amusing, short anecdote about my demanding aunt, but it will have to wait. I am focusing on those rare, therefore precious, conversations we have with others that actually exert some change on our lives. They can be illusions, as the one with my aunt may have been (being a one-off, for one thing), but these conversations serve as reminders of what we can be, if we are honest, and open, and truly curious about another person’s inner life.

Seeking the essence of this kind of exchange, this emerging shared knowledge of something deeper, beyond the surface, every day world, is one big reason we read. It is also a gigantic reason many of us write.