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.

Understanding is only the first step

You finally understand the painful difficulty you are up against, from an unforgiving narcissistic parent to a global movement marching violently toward international authoritarianism.  It’s a great step, to understand, at last, the nature of the actual monster you are up against. 

You feel a certain relief mixed in with your horror, to know finally what you are actually at war with, and that you did the best you could have done against an unreasoning force that is pure will.   It is important for your mental health, and future prospects, to confirm that it is not only your fevered imagination at work, these things are actually out there, acting against you with every stinking breath.  They will not be fixed by even unlimited goodwill, compromise and extension of endless benefit of the doubt.  That understanding is huge, though it is the first step on a much longer journey.

It’s hard to believe in the existence of evil until you see a willingness to actually kill you up close.  It is easy enough to see disturbed, angry people as suffering from weakness, deformed by damage done to them by others that takes these nasty, deadly shapes in the world. 

It is not important whether you see it as evil, it’s crucial to grasp how it works, why it works that way, how to get out of its clutches, how to neutralize the threat to others.  Understanding the nature of a thing intent on subordinating you, even killing you, if necessary, is not an easy thing, since the force is constantly crushing you, attacking, vilifying, accusing you of cruelly victimizing them.  

To take a recent political example — look how the Covid-deniers scream, they are the victims, US health officials, not corrupt and incompetent hacks working for a malignant narcissist, are responsible for the disproportionate US deaths from Covid, 1,099,866 souls, when the number was last updated by lying Deep State cucktards at the CDC.  The supremely spineless Kevin McCarthy just appointed Trump’s former doctor, now in Congress, to head the investigation into how Anthony Fauci murdered more than a million Americans with his constant lies about the Chinese hoax that put Biden into office illegally.  Justice won’t be served until the retired government doctor is publicly nailed to a cross and mocked by the survivors of his treachery.   

A coherent, evidence-based case can be made that Fauci, at every step, followed the best evolving scientific understanding of a highly infectious, unpredictable deadly worldwide plague.  Coherence and so-called evidence, of course, can go fuck themselves when Marjorie Taylor Green blows her hot opinions into a microphone, next to the compromised Speaker of the House, nodding grim agreement to anything she spouts.    The incoherent message will be hammered home to believers a hundred times a day, until it makes sense that the antiChrist, Fauci, must meet the same gruesome fate as the Prince of Peace, but, obviously, for much different reasons.   

In your personal life zero-sum battle lines may be even harder to see.  Love, long history and faith in lifelong ties will blind you sometimes, to another’s willingness to shove things down your throat until you suffocate.   “How did I not fucking see this before?”  you will wonder, and raise the whip over yourself when you realize you’ve waded deep into an unsurvivable swamp.  Understanding will come slowly, if you are fortunate and persistent in looking for it, and honest with yourself and everyone else.  

Honesty and a willingness to discuss things, it turns out, is only one response to conflict.  A more common reflex is to become incoherent, constantly change the subject, lie, attack, become defensive, blame the other for your defensiveness, admit nothing, fuck you, I’ll kill you, grrrr grrrr grrrrr!   The contest, you understand too late, is zero-sum, only one will live, the other must die.  I will do anything to be the last one standing, so fuck you!

Alien to your way of thinking?  It is also alien to mine, but this mode of kill or be killed survival is in operation all over the place.    Understanding it, seeing it clearly for what it actually is, is crucial, but, depressingly, only the beginning.  How to counter the damage it has done and prevent repeats going forward is a much deeper, gnarlier question.   It is also the most pressing question at this perilous moment in history.

Any ideas?

Call and Response

If you really experience all of that for another (concern and care for, and the value of, another person) then it follows that you act in accordance… just look at the reality of how people treat each other. Is it well-natured? Generous? When there’s love, you know it. You don’t scrounge up a case for it.

Well put.  Often we find ourselves scrounging up a case, trying hard to believe in a mutuality that may have once been there but is no more.  I always think of friendship/intimacy as, above all, a desire not to hurt the other person.  First, do no harm, seems very basic, if you care about the person. 

Some people can’t help the harmful behavior, they can’t even see they’re behaving that way, can’t understand why it hurts the other person, they may get defensive and angry when you bring up that you are hurt. 

This all makes it impossible for them to take responsibility for their hurtful actions and change their reflexive behavior in any helpful way.  Conflict freaks them out, they can’t fix what’s chafing, what’s looming, what has become intolerable, and once you see this, hope for anything better disappears and it’s time to walk away.  Very fucking sad. 

Are you a masochist, you little sadist?

It’s almost funny, if it wasn’t so tragic, the amount of anger my 66 year-old friend still has toward his mother who is making her way toward ninety.

When his mother walks into a room he begins to seethe. Afterwards he would ask me if I noticed how she stood, with that look on her face, the little cutting comment she immediately made. He will do his duty to make sure she is not publicly humiliated or wanting for medical care, but as for love, fuck her.

Fair enough, those are his strong feelings from early childhood through the time he finally left his unhappy family home. The problem is that fifty years later he is just as angry as he was back then. So he can’t forgive his mother, and worse, he can’t forgive himself for his anger and the beat goes on.

He winds up married to a woman who’s in some key ways very much like his mother. He punishes her regularly with his harshly judgmental attitude and the strict demands he places on her in order for her to receive his love. His wife, rightfully angry about this mistreatment, gives it back to him from time to time with both barrels. They live in a balance of terror, while to the outside world they appear to be fine, upstanding, admirable citizens, neighbors and friends. Periodically they have to replenish their pool of closest friends, but they’re socially adept and charming, so it’s no problem.

If you don’t forgive yourself, you are a masochist. I never knew that masochists could also be sadists, but of course they can.

Duing a protracted, insoluble conflict with these two my old friend would frequently become indignant, stand up and announce that he wasn’t going to take this. He wasn’t going to talk about things like making amends, talking about hurt during the ten days of repentance. He wasn’t going to be lectured about the moral values of his religion, values he knew very well being a religious man. How dare I presume to tell him that he had acted badly!

Each time this happened, and it was not just once or twice, it was fairly regular in our conversations trying to make peace, I spoke to him calmly, the way I’d like to be addressed when I’m upset. I patiently told him that I was his friend, that I was not trying to attack him or make him feel bad but that they were things I needed to talk about. We walked away each time with our friendship intact, but it came at a great price and, though I couldn’t acknowledge it for a painfully long time, it was a stinking zombie friendship at that point.

A friend who knew him well laughed when I described this constant need to patiently calm him whenever he got upset. “You gave him exactly what he’s been looking for his entire life, why would he stop doing it when every time you gave him exactly what he has never had from anybody?” So goddamn true that I had to laugh also.

And my long refusal to understand that these two were in a fight to the death, that I had to accept all fault or be killed after what I witnessed of their mutually sadistic, mutually masochistic, relationship, struck me finally as masochism on my part. I don’t consider myself a sadist, I never recall taking pleasure at twisting the knife into somebody else’s suffering, outside of the ordinary schadenfreude that most people feel when somebody gets what’s coming to them, but these repeated hopeless attempts to placate someone who can’t be placated finally did appear to me as masochism on my part.

And at that point I realized it was a matter of my health, and Sekhnet’s health, which I value more highly than anything else I can think of, to stop inflicting pain on myself (and her) by fretting over and hoping for something that can never be. I also immediately forgave myself for this bit of masochism, seeing as I did what I did in the service of saving a long, precious friendship. Some things can’t be saved, unbearable as that truth may also be, and when you see you can’t save them it is time to save yourself.

Isn’t that right, you masochistic little sadist you?

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.

Taking sides/cognitive dissonance

Humans are pulled by a need to do the right thing.  It is not always easy to know what the right thing to do is.  We will often be influenced by those around us, it feels good to agree with people we like.  We have seen over and over lately how strong the pull of loyalty to your perceived tribe is to most people.  That force can make otherwise sluggish citizens throw themselves into battle against police, grunting in unison as they crush a cop in a doorway in their attempt to break into a locked building. It makes you turn your back forever on somebody you were once close to.

I had a friend whose marriage was daily trial by combat.  It was that way from before the wedding and there was no let up in the decades of the marriage.  My friend told me that he was tortured by the damage he was doing to his young sons by raising them in a brutal war zone.  

I was raised in a brutal war zone, though the war was not mainly between my parents but against me, and my sister, so he didn’t need to explain about the damage.  The damage of witnessing violent anger in loved ones goes straight to the soul of an impressionable young person.  How are they to make sense of the world, have faith in the healing power of love, when their earliest memories are of explosions of rage from their caregivers and protecters?

As a young person you are sometimes fortunate to meet people in life who may offer you a helpful perspective.  Sometimes they make you laugh, affirm something important in yourself.  You can learn useful things from them, like when to remain silent, when to add your part.  You feel great affection for this kind of person, a relative or friend of the family who understands something about your life that your immediate family may often not seem to.  There’s no tension, as there often is within a nuclear family. We are lucky to run into these sympathetic souls.  

Then one day you learn that the funny person you recently laughed with has struck a deadly blow to the heart of your family.  Your parents’ love is too tied up with rage to accept, says this judgmental longtime family friend/relative.   “FUCK HIM!” snarl the parents in unison.  There is no greater feeling of unity than righteous anger at an external enemy.   

The strong feeling of unity lasts until the regular war resumes, a moment later.  A war that neither side has the slightest ability to resolve.  Whatever you want to say about the two combatants, they are not skilled in any kind of conflict resolution.  They only know how to fight to the death, no matter what.

If on Monday we had a relaxed friendly conversation at a party, on Friday you will get the memo: our old “friend” is a vicious, demanding, angry, judgmental, unforgiving, unapologetic, unloving, wrong, sick, irredeemable asshole.  He’s a Nazi, a fucking self-righteous Nazi, who needs to be right even if it involves mass murder.

You may take this assessment as tinged with hyperbole, but the point will be clear enough.  This person, not good.  This person, bad, dangerous.  Hurt your parents very deeply.

In the case of parents who lie to their children, the most pressing danger is the story on the other side of the lie coming to light.   That is the most dangerous story in the world, the shameful one they are determined to keep secret.  Look how the adorable, skillful fucking sadist feints and bobs as he works the conversation closer and closer to the “lie”, to his own self-righteous, pernicious version of “truth” because he is the only one who knows the “truth,” this sick, damaged, judgmental fuck with his fucked up lying loser life.

You now have two irreconcilable images of this person you always liked, pulling hard in opposite directions.  Cognitive dissonance is hard to sit with.  How can this funny, intelligent, sensitive person who always treated you well suddenly be such a colossal, irredeemable monster, the metaphorical killer of  your mom and dad?   He’s got to be one or the other, or some grotesque combination of both, or a great psychopath and actor, both. 

The natural fall back is loyalty to your clan, because, really, when the other choice is to be irked by the thought that no matter how bad, and wrong this person is, no matter how much your parents tell you how he tortured them, you have experienced a completely different, well-loved person for years.  

Oh, well.   At least you didn’t really have an independent friendship with the person, you saw them only at family gatherings.  That won’t happen any more.  Whew, that’s kind of a relief, no? 

Dead Man Walking

Sometimes the pain we experience can stop us dead in our tracks.  Feel a powerful enough jolt of pain and you may find yourself unable to move in any direction.  I know it happens to me, anyway.  Look across the gravestones and see people who once comforted you, strangers now, so intent on avoiding eye contact it can bore a hole in your heart as long as you still care, still cling to counterfactual hope. 

In a sense we are all dead people walking, and one day our walking becomes only sitting, then lying down, then less than that.  The dead can’t do anything about it and death is a final refuge from shame, anger, pettiness and every other terrible thing we must sometimes tolerate in life.  Death is a very high price to pay for that kind of relief.

I have to reschedule a cancer biopsy that was cancelled yesterday, can’t lift the phone.   Need to find a surgeon to replace my left knee, but I also need to buy additional insurance to supplement the generous Medicare that will pay 4/5 of the $80,000 operation.  I need to get the Medigap insurance ASAP, since it takes six months to become effective for treatment of a preexisting condition, like bone on bone osteoarthritis.  Meanwhile, paralyzed, as I continue the painful knee exercises.  The guy who is supposed to be making the Don Joy medial compartmented unloader brace hasn’t called me back and I haven’t been able to call him.

What I can do at the moment is sit and type.  Writing is an indispensable part of my day.  I do this now to try to move some of the awful feelings out of the way, to understand, and then compartmentalize, things that are otherwise unthinkable.  My hope is to make a few phone calls once I tap here a bit. 

My niece and nephew, irretrievably lost to me, because of their mother’s unspeakable humiliation at her untruthful husband’s shame.  Kool-aid was served up any time my name came up, it would appear, a more bitter flavor than any I know.  It has turned me into a monster and enemy to two kids I used to play with.  That this has been accomplished by lies is little consolation to me, after all, I know myself to be a truthful person of good character. 

Two of my longtime closest friends are now shambling zombies, avoiding eye contact with me in a graveyard.  I don’t blame them for feeling that way, actually.  If I had treated them the way they treated me, explicitly and undeniably for the last year and a half, I’d probably do anything I could to cover my shame.

What do we do with this kind of pain, these unwanted tastes of our own death, the death of loved ones, while we are alive and, theoretically, able to talk things out, apply love and understanding to fix things so tragically broken?   Tragedy is when a beautiful thing that should be able to be mended is instead destroyed, out of anger and humiliation.   The feeling’s now mutual, pal, you are dead to me.  Not very satisfying, really, but a necessary step in healing — the discarding of people who insist they love you while demanding that only their feelings matter.   They have very strong feelings about this, understand.   Strong as death itself, it turns out. 

Learning lessons you do not want to know

With New Year’s Eve approaching on roller skates my mind naturally goes, not to all the great New things of the flipping of the flipping calendar year, but to mortality.  The day after New Year’s Day I’ll be waking before dawn to go to a funeral.  The woman who died was 94, sharp until her last few days, and she went peacefully in her sleep surrounded by her loved ones.  A blessed end to a long life, going the way we’d all like to go, the way we’d wish to anyone we love.  Still, her death causes lacerating pain to her daughter, a grandmother.  There is never a good time to lose your mother.  The permanence of a loved one’s death is always unbearable.

As my life goes along I more and more connect sudden professions of love with a demand, with deadly consequences.   The last three old friends I lost all told me, totally out of character, as things were winding toward their fatal end, that they loved me.  Love, I was meant to understand, means that even if I hurt you, even if I hurt you over and over in exactly the same way, even if I am deaf to your pleas to stop doing it, I DID IT OUT OF LOVE, you heartless, unforgiving fuck! 

It’s not a lesson that I’m happy to learn, that the last card an angry asshole will play before they metaphorically kill you is “I love you!”.  Any wisdom this lesson provides is no comfort to me.   We are all looking for connection in a lonely world, in a life that inevitably ends in death.  Love, like forgiveness, is a steady attitude, a desire not to cause pain to someone we love.  Not everyone lives to experience love this way, it generally has many conditions and strings attached to it.  

“If you really love me you will cut the heads off those people who hurt me by making me feel bad about myself,” is a deadly serious string, and the dutiful partner will go on the quest, decapitate the enemies, and there’s a version of love, I suppose.  Some people, for example, cannot love a fat person — put on one too many pounds and you break the deal.   Some demand total obedience, and if you disobey, you can expect a terrible punishment.  Others require telling a lie and sticking to it doggedly whenever something uncomfortable comes up.

For many, that’s as close to love as they will ever come.  It’s better than no love, I suppose, but not for everyone.