Evil needs darkness to thrive

Evil plans generally require a careful hiding of true motives, calculated lying about the reasons something is done, aggressive justification at every step. These things become much easier to do when inconvenient information, so-called “facts”, are simply hidden. Evil hates any sort of transparency, particularly regarding compromising information of any kind, for reasons that are easy to understand.

Trying “leakers” (sometimes called “whistle-blowers”) under a draconian 1917 Espionage law (made to squash all dissent and anti-war sentiment as the US entered The World War) that does not allow the intent of the leaker to be part of their defense, is a dramatic example of a law designed to ensure a lack of transparency for the public, on pain of death. Literally.

Mary Trump’s book about her divisive uncle Donald apparently begins with an epigraph from Victor Hugo. The truth of it is worth pondering, in civic life and personal life, both:

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

As Amy Goodman added, in her long talk with Mary Trump today, “the epigraph is clearly a reference to what Fred Trump, your grandfather, you say, did to Donald Trump”

I think of terrible secrets in my own small family and the destructive effect they had on many lives. I think of the gnawing regrets my father expressed the last night of his life, wishing he’d had the courage to face some of them, the ability to see beyond his understandable shame.

I am sometimes forced to live in the menacing shadows of this family darkness, and it is not a comfortable place to be, I can tell you from my own soul. In that darkness is the root of all depression, desperation and hopelessness.

The Glue Trap of The Daily Horror

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.   Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

                                                             ― Martin Luther King Jr. [1]


A friend told me the other day that he’d had a realistic anxiety dream that woke him in horror after a few hours of sleep.   A true nightmare that left him sitting bolt upright, breathing hard.  I empathized.  Shit, even in sleep, when you’re supposed to be relaxed, getting rest from all this, letting your body regenerate itself and regathering your strength, the daily horror all around us intrudes to rob you of that needed relief.  We talked about the dream for a moment then I expressed thankfulness that I rarely have such dreams (inviting Murphy, of course, to invoke his law).

Naturally, this morning, after maybe four hours of sleep, I woke up from a disturbing dream, not a nightmare, exactly, but disturbing enough to keep me from falling back asleep.   In the dream I’d been urged by an old friend to stop being such a hermit, to become friends with neighbors, people he’d met, who he touted as very nice people.   

These neighbors seemed friendly enough, until they began expressing their great admiration for Mr. Hitler, which was active and ongoing.   They considered Mr. Hitler a genius philosopher and benefactor of mankind and enthusiastically believed in the ideals of Nazism.   We eventually got into a violent confrontation over Mr. Hitler’s arguably one-sided view of human history.   It was several of them against me, and the facts we were disputing made no difference at all.

“Motherfuckers,” I thought as I sat up and realized that was going to be the end of my night’s sleep, “they got me too.”   

I checked my phone.   Herman Cain, wealthy black Trump supporter and former contestant for the Republican presidential nomination, had died of covid-19, contracted a month ago at Trump’s mask-free Tulsa rally.   

Louie Gohmert, vocal Representative from Texas, who proposed recently in Congress that the “Democrat” party be banned from the House of Representatives because they are the party of the KKK, a fiercely defiant “anti-Masker,” tested positive for covid-19 yesterday.   Gohmert does not allow his staff to work from home, social distance or wear masks in the office.  They were not wearing masks when he addressed them all personally in his office today, not wearing a mask himself (why would he?) to tell them he had covid-19.   They already knew, from this article on Politico.com.

Louie Gohmert said today that he probably got the disease from his mask, which he wears Texas-style, off his face around his neck, as he did at the recent Bill Barr hearing.  Some virus must have gotten on the mask, he said, and he must have breathed it in.   See, masks can kill you!  He said he’s taking the hydroxy now, like Mr. Trump claimed he was, like the dictatorial former military junta member leading Brazil to disaster, and the world’s second highest covid-19 infection and death rates, claimed he was when he became infected.

It’s a death cult, this science-denying, reasonable precaution-defying, mouth-breathing pandemic spreaders.   SO?  They love freedom and hate tyranny!   You got a fucking problem with that, puny earthling?

I’ve been trying to reassure worried friends that this idiotic death cult will not sweep all the same heedless criminals back into office in 2020.   I tell them that, after being pushed to accept increasingly unacceptable government by force, we have actually reached a national moment of conscience, a moral tipping point, that the margin of victory by the forces of ordinary human decency will be too big to rig.   

I point out that the military has not gone along with the would-be authoritarian’s command to forcefully clamp down on peaceful protesters.  Defense department leaders have distanced themselves from their Commander-in-Chief on this issue.   The courts still regularly uphold the laws that the president and his loyalists routinely violate.  They violate these laws still, true, (think of countless little Hispanic kids still in cages) and every norm of democracy, and the courts are now stacked with ideological rightwing zealots chosen for their loyalty, but still — we are a nation of laws. 

I emphasize to them that this is not a replay of 2016.  I point out that Biden, doddering, shit, sell-out, compromise candidate that he is, is not nearly as hated, or as awkward a politician, as Hillary “Benghazi” Clinton was — there won’t be the same reluctance by tens of millions to vote for him (as there was among millions who could not bring themselves to vote for Ms. Clinton) if it means getting rid of Mr. Trump, who has now proven what he is capable of, over and over.  And over.  And then doubled down on his bad bets, his cruel, divisive strategies. 

Then, in my dream, I find myself fighting with friendly Nazis who insist they would be my friends, if only I’d accept Mr. Hitler’s worldview.   I am suddenly stuck to the glue trap that is this present, perilous moment of human history.   With no clear way to band together in realtime with the millions of my countrymen and countrywomen who feel exactly as I do, I sit sweatily in front of a fan blowing hot air on me, fearing the worst again as the corporate Democrats continue to run the show, as they always do in the land where money talks and power walks. 

I think of the power of the irrational in human affairs, how every atrocity in history was committed by mobs whose blood was violently stirred by their masters.  I start recalling past Democratic presidential campaigns, particularly ones running weak, compromise candidates, where huge projected leads were squandered, and I begin to shudder too.  The fear in our United States of Fear is palpable and pervasive.

I found myself thinking about epigenetics again, the messages of despair deep in my DNA, or at least on approximately the same genetic level as my DNA.  After all, when my mother was a fifteen year-old girl, any of her twelve aunts and uncles who were sill alive, along with their families, and any of my mother’s surviving grandparents (and several were alive and corresponding with my young mother, until the letters stopped one day) were marched to a ravine on the northwestern edge of their Ukrainian town, shot and buried in layers in the soft dirt.   Shoot, that August, 1943 massacre was only of a few thousand souls, it’s not even recorded anywhere in the books, there were so many similar slaughters in those dark days of 1943.

My grandmother, by then an American citizen twenty years in the Bronx, was the only survivor from her large family.  My grandfather was the only survivor from his large family.   My mother was an only child.   When she was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, was a word mentioned about all of these murdered relatives who suddenly stopped writing back to her?   I don’t know, but I’d wager not.   I myself rarely heard so much as a mention of any of them, even when I was old enough to start asking about them.

My grandmother drank more and more vodka as the years went by.   She was generally cheerful when she’d had enough vodka, with only flashes of weepiness and other wild emotions.  I never knew my grandfather drank vodka, but I once saw him down a good quantity like he was drinking cold water on a hot day.  It seems likely he did it more than that one time.   They were both silent about their painful losses, except for the fear they conveyed to me about the world.   Their fear was not passed on in any conscious way, but it wound up in how my genes allow me to organize myself to fight.

I assemble as many facts as I can.   I approach a position I find hateful and oppose it with arguments based on all the facts I can use.  I organize my thoughts, try to comb out excess emotion and express my ideas as clearly as possible.  I have achieved a reasonable degree of clarity in my writing.

I do this in a world that has no use for this kind of argument, this kind of unpaid, involuntary writing.  Sure, everybody I respect pretty much operates somewhat this way, you know, show me convincing evidence that I’m wrong, I’ll change my behavior.  The fear creeps in looking around at the world beyond my close circle, a world not ruled this way.  A world where irrationality is King.  

The graph of coronavirus infection is shaped like a pyramid in most countries.   Infections spread, authorities started to act, figured out what worked and what didn’t, as rates continued to climb, at the peak the “curve” was eventually flattened and began to decline.   The US graph, like Brazil’s, like Russia’s, is shaped like a ski jump.   It goes up, levels off, goes up again and continues to climb.   It is the highest ski jump in the world right now, like jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon into the end of the natural world.

Sure, the president is a very nasty man, his few remaining loyal henchmen/sycophants are likeminded, unprincipled men on a mission.   Their mission is power and domination, on behalf of a tiny percentage of citizens, our few greatest citizens, people who increasingly enjoy most of the country’s vast wealth and a more merciful system of justice and health care than the rest of us.  Their mission is aided on the ground by millions of angry white men with grievances and guns, men willing to believe anything but what is actually coughed into their faces.   

The president and his very fine people care as much about these common, angry, fearful men as the wealthy Planters of the antebellum south who formed the Confederacy cared about the so-called White Trash they sent to fight their own country in a bloody war to preserve their privileged way of life. 

A way of life, based on proud, open and often grotesque inequality they call “liberty,” a thing worth dying for, the thing that most of the very wealthiest among us are still fighting like the Devil to preserve.




[1]  this was quoted by a commenter on this beautiful video of Bill Frisell’s  recent performance of a great Burt Bacharach tune.  Heck, this one:

1924 (5)

All this focus on the year 1924, a time when there was still no federal law limiting child labor, before any kind of governmental social safety net existed, when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was at its all time peak in membership, and organized xenophobia, following a senseless World War, a massive slaughter the exact cause of which nobody has ever rationally explained, was at fever pitch… why?

It was the boiling world my father was born into. Add to it that young Irving was a tiny, impoverished member of those teeming, sweating immigrant masses that so alarmed the descendants of the original Anglo-Saxon Americans. Add to it that fear of drunken foreigners was one of the driving forces of the Temperance movement that led to the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “the manufacture, sale or transporting of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” 1924 was year five of the failed fourteen year experiment in banning alcohol.

Eliyahu, my father’s father, a man who never drank alcohol, died young of liver disease. My father was a lifelong “teetotaler,” as he would say from time to time explaining why he almost never lifted an alcoholic beverage to his lips. He’d have a sip of sweet red wine, on ceremonial occasions, but outside of that, I don’t believe he ever drank so much as a beer. He certainly never tasted whisky. By sheer coincidence, Irv died of liver cancer.

My teetotaler father was a lifelong student of history. When I used to have a “current events” assignment in grade school my father stressed the importance of making sure I clipped the date of the article I was reporting on. He instilled this habit in me, the historian’s instinct to place events into a sequence that could be followed later, to note, to the extent possible, cause and effect in historical progressions.

Finally, unable to restrain himself, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave outside of Peekskill, in Cortlandt, New York. “OK, look, Elie, I know the thought of going through those 1,200 pages of your first draft is exhausting to you– but don’t you think it’s time? Are you seriously trying to write draft two completely from scratch, with this clunky chronological time line? Telling instead of showing, since you know so little about my early life, outside of a few stories from Eli.”

“Well, I do see your point, dad, but I can’t very well skip to the drama of the misshapen blue pants I was so reluctant to wear for the visit to NYU hospital when you were hospitalized with bleeding psoriasis, the round of temper tantrums my refusal to put on those hideous pants caused…”

“Sure, go right there, that’s the way to do it…” the skeleton rotated his head, for effect. “Obviously, I’m in no position to tell you how to write this, or do anything. I’m just saying, it makes a certain amount of sense to review that huge draft you’ve already written and start organizing the best of it into draft two, where you act like you knew what you were doing all along.”

It does make sense, a lot of sense.

For example, I could include something like this (I Just Want You To Be Happy, Nov. 18, 2017):

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel. When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound. “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect. He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida. I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood). I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking. My father was driving me home this particular night. It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car. On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me.

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him. It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy. “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings? Is there anything? Would law school do it for you?” I asked. “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx. My father paused. Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing. My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him. I managed not to say anything snide.

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door. You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life. I just want you to be happy. If you were happy, I’d be satisfied.”

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist. An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics. None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that. I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth. “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me. You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.”

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into. I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager. I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said. “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out. I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests. I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to. I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much. I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar. What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune. Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did. He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law. I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker.

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

1924 (part 4)

Back to that baby, my father, born on June 1, 1924.   It was a hard birth after a no doubt stressful pregnancy, the tiny mother struggled to give birth to a very large baby.   The mother had lost her previous child shortly after birth and must have been undergoing tremendous emotional turmoil.  The family was very poor, the horse that pulled the herring wagon may have already died, for all we know, and, if so, the breadwinner was winning no bread.  Crime was rampant on the crowded Lower East Side where they lived, violent criminals were organizing into a national syndicate to profit from Prohibition which was already proving to have been a massive mistake.

The second time was the charm for my grandparents, the big baby survived.   It was three of them now in the tiny, hot slum apartment during the airless summer of 1924.   What could go wrong?

My grandmother’s older brother Uncle Aren intervened, packed up the family’s belongings in his truck and they made the then long trek up to Peekskill, where Aren lived.  When this happened exactly is unknown.  My uncle, who was fifteen months younger than my father, may have also been a tiny passenger on that trip up the Hudson River, past Sing Sing prison.  Aren’s son Eli, freshly expelled from DeWitt Clinton high school shortly before graduation, helped the little family pack up and move.

Aren installed the little family on the second floor of a three story house he owned in Peekskill.  Little comes down to us about those first years in Peekskill, except that when Eli moved there around that time he had an altercation with the three Ku Klux Klan member sons of the guy who ran the local hardware store. 

“So you’re the new kyke from New York City,” Eli said they greeted him, blocking his way on the sidewalk in front of their store.  “I dropped the biggest one, stepped over him and said ‘Eli Gleiberman, nice to meet you guys’.  They didn’t bother me after that.” 

“Eli’s full of shit!  He’s a completely unreliable narrator and a notorious reviser of history” my father always insisted, particularly after I began visiting Eli regularly.   Maybe so, but many of his stories had the ring of truth.   Eli was menacing and physically formidable even at 85.

What we can establish, with simple arithmetic, is that my father started school just as the Depression was kicking off.   In September 1929 the boy was five.  His school career didn’t start off well since he didn’t speak any English and he was legally blind.  Outside of that, he probably had a pretty normal adjustment to school.  Here is a picture of him, one of very few from his childhood, that was taken during his early school years.   That’s dad in the middle.


“Who’s that kid on the left?” I asked my uncle, sometime after my father’s funeral.

“That’s Henry,” he said immediately.   Henry moved away from Peekskill shortly after the picture was taken, my uncle said, and does not figure further in my father’s story.

We note that young Irv is still not wearing glasses.  He’s smiling, looking at the camera, seemingly everything is fine.   He’s affectionately draping his arms over his friend and his little brother.   All appears right in the world at that moment, during that literal snapshot of time.   It’s probably fine.

I Am SO Judgmental

It’s hard for me not to be, especially living through this deadly public denial of an out of control pandemic.  As the disease rages, and new infection records are set almost daily, we are barraged by constant public denials of the proven best ways to control the spread of this killer disease, by many of those in power here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  If only I could stop being so darned judgmental…

I look at our floridly insane president, an incoherent man living in his own, demon-infested, world.   He cannot answer a simple question posed to him, he rambles about unrelated matters he thinks will make him look good.   He lives the life of the tormented rich man from old Yiddish curse, racing from room to room of his mansion, the Devil in hot pursuit.   

We can pretend he’s not insane, as we do, even when confronted with the latest proof of his madness, but it changes nothing.   “We must not let science stand in the way of the fact that the president wants the schools open,” says his most recent press secretary yesterday, sealing the deal, in case there was any doubt.

Donald Trump’s revered grandfather, Frederick, by the way, died of influenza in the 1918 Pandemic.   You can’t make this shit up.

What has me so judgmental today in particular?   I’m thinking about the under-reported story of how much richer the richest Americans have grown during this time of suffering and plague and judgmentally wondering why this story is not on the front pages. 

During this pandemic, between March 18 and June 17, our 614 American billionaires increased their wealth by $584,000,000,000.00.   

These are people who each already had over ONE THOUSAND million dollars, becoming richer by an average of another almost THOUSAND MILLION dollars, during a time of historically disorienting fear and mass suffering.  Take this little factoid, from the above article (which originally appeared at Common Dreams. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely):

Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison—the five wealthiest billionaires in the U.S.—saw their collective riches grow by $101.7 billion between March 18 and June 17, according to the new report. A dozen other American billionaires saw their wealth more than double during that same period.

By now, a month after these figures were published, we are pushing closer to an additional trillion (A MILLION MILLION) dollars in wealth for the wealthiest and most deserving among us.  And why not?

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.15.02 PM.png

It’s not as if it would be fair to take that money, earned fair and square, and use it for the public good.   Do not wonder how many PPEs, incomprehensibly still in short supply in Jared’s America, could be immediately manufactured and distributed with a fraction of that kind of money.  Unthinkable!   That would be Marxism!  Unconscionable, sick, unAmerican!

It’s not as if a trillion dollars would be more than a drop in the bucket anyway, once you divide it by the 100,000,000 or more Americans already in increasingly desperate need.   Let’s do the math, shall we, based on last month’s $584B total.   

Shoot, that’s only $5,840 a person (or a shade under $13,000 each if we gave it only to the 45,000,000 recently unemployed Americans), how much good could that pittance actually do for anyone?   How long would that really prevent a foreclosure or eviction, anyway?  Is delaying the inevitable a good use of the hard-earned money of our most valuable, precious and productive citizens?

I keep wondering why I am so fucking judgmental.   Why does it make me so angry that someone who already has a THOUSAND million dollars has an indisputable right to have infinitely more than that?   Why does the eternal well-funded argument by the finest Americans about their right to pay as little tax as possible piss me off so much?   

Maybe it’s because I come from a once poor family and I am repelled by greed and contests of heedless vanity.   Maybe it’s because my grandmother, Yetta, living in a land of pogroms sanctioned by local aristocrats, found hope and courage in the message of international brotherhood preached by the Marxist emissaries who arrived in her hellhole part of the world, holding out a better vision for the future than endless poverty, oppression and violence.

On a louder and more immediate note:  I don’t know why the hell I am so fucking judgmental.



About Your Uncle

“What’s the single most important thing you think the country needs to know about your uncle?” George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump on national TV the other day.

Mary Trump, daughter of the president’s older brother Fred Jr., has recently been unmuzzled by the court.   Her tell-all book is out, she’s free to talk about the sordid life of the children and grandchildren of the famously sociopathic Frederick Christ Trump, Donald’s ruthless and demanding father [1].

“My father was a wonderful man, we were very close, he was my mentor and best friend,” our compulsively lying president has insisted, as anyone would of a man who gifted him $400,000,000 in today’s money [2].  It would be hard for Donald to say that his father was brutal, unfair, incapable of love, a sadist, a man who used the law to abuse others, a “winner” who demanded that his sons be “killers.”

But I’m not thinking of that family of psychos.  I’m thinking of my own.   If my niece or nephew was asked about me, what would they be able to honestly say?

“My uncle is smart, but very fucked up.  He’s a judgmental person who holds a grudge to the grave for no reason.   He’s a weird guy, frankly.   We haven’t seen him in years, though once in a while he reaches out with some awkwardly heartfelt letters, or sends us books, or something like that.   He’s an uncomfortable subject, really, so we don’t really talk about him.   It’s weird that he keeps trying to contact us, even when we don’t get back to him.   I guess he can’t take a hint, part of his stubbornly overbearing nature.  But we love him, I guess.  He’s the only family we have, outside of our parents.”

What other view could they have after almost a decade of not seeing them?   Never having been told any of the reasons, they see no reason for this estrangement.   It’s not as if one of their parents made detailed death threats, committed multiple crimes, defaulted on multiple promises, lied over and over, raged unrepentantly, bullied, manipulated.   And, anyway, those things are all so SUBJECTIVE. 

“What if he or she was morally justified in making the detailed death threats?  What if the “crimes” were acts of necessity?   What if the promises he defaulted on were things they were unfairly forced to promise to?   What if their lies were to protect us?  How about if they were raging against someone who deserved it?  Bullying and manipulating are such vague, subjective things, we’d need proof of each one, and we’ve never seen any examples of it in our lives.

“So who is nuts here?  Our uncle’s father was a brutal and unhappy man.   It makes sense that our uncle would be a chip off the old block.   We are not the jury or the judges.   In fact, we don’t really have a strong opinion one way or another — we haven’t even seen our uncle in a decade.   There is just something off about the guy, creepy, though it’s hard to put our finger on it directly.   And, yes, he’s our uncle and we love him, so you can take that into account and picture what we might say about him if he wasn’t related to us.” 

This, to me, is a snapshot of a central tragedy of the world.  Shameful and common things that, if addressed, are part of a nuanced understanding of life; unaddressed and kept secret, compelling (but unknowable) reasons for permanent estrangement and eventually warfare.



[1]  Check out what the president’s grandfather died of!   You can’t make this shit up:

Frederick Trump – Wikipedia

en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Frederick_Trump

Frederick Trump was a German–American businessman and the patriarch of the Trump family. … Trump and Christ married on August 26, 1902, and moved to New York City. :95. In New York, Trump found work as a barber and a restaurant …

Died‎: ‎30 May 1918 (aged 49); ‎Woodhaven, Qu…

Cause of death‎: ‎1918 influenza pandemic

Born‎: ‎Friedrich Trump; 14 March 1869; ‎Kallstadt‎, …
Parent(s)‎: ‎Christian Johannes Trump; Katharina …


[2]  lede paragraph from Town & Country article (April 5, 2017):

President Donald Trump has referred to his father Fred as his hero, role model, and best friend.  He followed in his dad’s footsteps in many respects, joining his real-estate management company right after college and expanding on Fred’s developments in New York City.   His beloved father didn’t live to see Donald’s very successful first foray into politics; Fred passed away in 1999 at the age of 93.   “I don’t think I wanted to outdo him, but maybe psychologically I did,” Donald has said. “You’re always looking to do a little better than your parents… deep down inside, maybe I did.”

Three Pieces of Terrible Psychiatric Advice and their fallout

I’m reminded, by a recent chat with a woman I’ve known since I was eight, of how destructive following bad advice from experts can sometimes be.  The cliché that the craziest people often go into psychology is borne out by the experiences of my close childhood friend whose family and mine grew close as well.   I think of the damage done to them by following three pieces of catastrophic psychological advice they were given by professionals over the years.

I had a call yesterday, out of the blue, from Caroline, the soon to be 93 year-old mother of a longtime friend I haven’t been in contact with in a few years.  She told me she’s going stir-crazy during lockdown, was tired of reading (she can’t bear to watch TV these days) saw my name in her phone book, decided to call and see how I was doing.  I was glad to hear from her.

My mother and Caroline were good friends for many years, until my father eventually took a deep dislike to her, which began to come to a head when Caroline, who busily visited everybody, particularly the sick and elderly, apparently never once stopped by to see my mother when she was recuperating from cancer surgery.  “She lived five fucking blocks away,” my father pointed out.  He later added other charges, to finalize the break with longtime friends Caroline and her husband.

I’ve always liked talking to Caroline.  She’s bright and sharp and a good listener, as well as a character with an interesting take on things and the occasional cool turn of phrase (Trump, if he loses, will remain a media force and “make borsht” out of Biden).  Like all of us, she has her faults, but they never bother me when we’re chatting, as we did for a long stretch yesterday.   At one point, after she told me of her son’s soon to be finalized divorce,  I summed up the monumentally bad advice her family had followed, in desperate moments, and she immediately agreed.


Mid-1960s:  Her daughter was always a very dramatic and often unhappy girl.  At some point dad began taking her into the city regularly for father-daughter nights on the town.  They’d go to dinner and a Broadway show.  Though she seemed to enjoy the nights out, they didn’t make the miserable girl any happier.  Her unhappiness led to a threat of suicide, maybe even an attempt.  Her alarmed parents brought her to a psychiatrist.  The shrink told them to take her threats of suicide very seriously– basically to give her whatever she asked for, because if they didn’t, they could lose her.

Second opinion, anyone?  No need.  Instead they gave the teenager a credit card.   She instantly developed a lifelong taste for the finer things in life.  The bills came, the parents paid.  What could they do?  When she needed a car, she got one.  Rent?  They paid.  The young woman did not become much happier, but she was able to live well without working, at least.   In the end, she acquired  disabling drug and alcohol addictions.  Caroline agrees, in hindsight, that it was stupid, fifty years ago, to take the advice of that psychiatrist.  At ninety-two she is still subsidizing her daughter’s lifestyle.


My childhood best friend had a series of Christian girlfriends during his college and post-college years.  The relationships would fray when he informed each one he could never marry a Christian.  At thirty, feeling desperate, he went to a shrink who told him he needed to stabilize his life by finding and marrying a Jewish girl. 

He took this advice to heart, finding a Jewish girl to date (the younger sister of a guy we knew from Hebrew School), becoming engaged to her, in spite of several brightly flashing caution signs, (including vicious fights) and marrying her soon after, in a wedding notable for its openly simmering tensions.  I didn’t understand the urgency of any of this, and told him so as he reported the latest fight while rushing toward his wedding day, but the shrink had told him it was imperative to his sanity to do it, so it was full speed ahead. 

“I knew it was a terrible mistake,” said Caroline, “everybody did.”

The decision to marry was followed by thirty years of uninterrupted warfare between the spouses.   A common early war theme involved my friend’s commitment to what he hoped would be a professional songwriting career.   For some reason these activities (working with a singer, a guy, mind you) had to be carried out in secret.  The secrecy led to occasional white lies, some of which were discovered.  There was distrust, accusations of the husband being a fucking liar, screaming matches in the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom.  An active war zone it horrified my friend to know he was raising his two sons in.  He couldn’t imagine the damage he was doing to them by subjecting them to these regular explosions of violence between their parents.

“Sheesh,” said Caroline “yeah, that was some bad advice.  Well, at least that long nightmare is over.  The divorce will be finalized next week.”


This piece of bad advice led directly to me, the guy’s oldest friend, and it was also something of a doozy.   I was on good terms with both my friend and his wife, felt like I performed a kind of peacemaking function when I hung out with them.  They always seemed relatively fine when I was there.   I always liked her, though I could also see she was troubled and subject to rages.  I was only once on the business end of her anger, but it passed quickly.  Later, I found out, she weaponized something I’d casually told her to beat her husband bloody with at a marriage counseling session toward the end of their marriage of a thousand atrocities.

Her husband had told me a quick story he regretted telling midway through.  The little tale was truncated, it involved his wife and a third party I didn’t care much about it, he told me to forget it, I pretty much did.  A few weeks later, his wife called to tell me the same story, which she laid out in great detail.   For the first time the odd little anecdote seemed to make sense.  

“Ah,” I said, unwittingly slipping my head into the noose.

” ‘Ah’ what?” she asked.

Here I made my fatal mistake, being unguardedly candid.

” Ah, I get it.   Now it makes sense, when he told me about it I didn’t really understand why you stormed out at the end.”

“Oh,” she said, “what did he tell you?”   

Looking back, I suppose I could have tried to sidestep the question, which would have been the discreet, if tricky, thing to do.   Instead I spoke what I thought was a bland, harmless truth.  I recounted what I recalled of the first version of the story and stressed that he’d told me the whole anecdote in about a minute and that I hadn’t asked him any follow-up questions, so he’d had no chance to clarify what I hadn’t understood about the little story.

She probably made some comment about what a fucking liar he was.  If she did, I would have pointed out that it clearly wasn’t a case of lying, it was a quick story I didn’t much care about so I hadn’t bothered getting clarification of what was incomplete about it.

A few weeks later I had a text from my friend.  He had to see me, immediately.  I called to find out what was wrong, his voicemail picked up.   He immediately texted me that he couldn’t talk on the phone, he had to see me in person.   The texting went on for a few days until we arranged a time to meet in my neighborhood.   When he arrived in his car he texted me, I texted back what corner I was standing on.  He wrote back “got it” and, a minute later, drove right past me and turned right on to Broadway.  I hobbled after his car and caught him at a red light a block away.

He was cheerful, but I noticed his eyelid was ticking.  After a few minutes of small-talk I asked him what he needed to talk to me about.  He came to the point:  he was confronting me because I had deliberately tried to destroy his marriage.

“What?” said Caroline, as though I hadn’t also told her the story in detail at the time.

His wife told their marriage counselor that her fucking husband’s oldest friend confirmed that the guy was a fucking liar.   She weaponized my remark about her husband’s “false” account of a story involving her.   The marriage counselor and the wife told my hapless friend that he was not a man who could be respected, nor any kind of husband, if he let his oldest friend sabotage their marriage this way without confronting him.   So he arrived to confront me.   

“Oh, my God,” said Caroline.

I told her the funny thing was, in spite of the tensions between us by then, I really wasn’t that upset about the accusation.   Seeing him in such turmoil, I tried my best to help him out of this impossible jam with his impossible wife in his impossible marriage.   I gave him a reasonable account to bring back to his marriage counseling session, for whatever that might have been worth. 

“Well, he’s a different person now,” Caroline said “he’s happier than he’s been in a long time.”

I told her to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit. 

At the end of a very pleasant ninety minute chat she asked me if she should tell her son we’d talked.   I told her she certainly should.  I told her again to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit.     

I made a note of the date of her upcoming 93rd birthday and hope to check in with her then.



1924 (part 3)

My grandfather, Eliyahu/Harry, was, I’m told, a tall, strong man.   On the Lower East Side, in the early 1920s, around the time my father was born, he had a job delivering barrels of herring to the shops.   He drove a horse drawn cart through the cobblestone streets, the horse would stop, Eliyahu would wrestle a barrel of herring off the flatbed and hump it into the store.  He’d collect the money for his boss, get back on the cart and he and the horse would go to the next stop.  He did this for some time and all went fine.  Until, one day, the horse died and they hooked up a new horse to the wagon.

Eliyahu had no idea of the route, had never paid the slightest attention, the experienced old horse had known all the stops.  Eliyahu rolled aimlessly through the streets of Lower Manhattan behind the new horse, not recognizing any landmarks, unable to read the street signs or the addresses on the invoices his boss had given him.  At the end of the day he returned to the warehouse, cart still loaded with barrels of herring.   That was his last day of work. 

I learned this tale about fifty years after my grandfather died, from my father’s first cousin Eli, who told me most of what I know about my father’s childhood.   Eli was seventeen years older than my father, and so was a young adult during my father’s early years in Peekskill.  To the end of his days my father loved and feared Eli, a rough but loving customer (if he loved you), and Eli loved and was proud of my father.  In the end, he exerted himself to try to help me understand my father.  Eli turned out to be an indispensable source of family knowledge I’d otherwise have only guesses about.  

In the last years of his long life I visited Eli regularly, in his subsidized retirement cottage in Mount Kisco.  We spent hours talking about the long ago past, many times long into the night.  He was a great storyteller and a wonderful host (if he liked you — if he didn’t, all bets were off).   He was somewhat estranged from his three adult children, kids he’d famously ruled with an iron hand.  His tyrannical child-rearing was something he told me he didn’t regret, by the way, considering the fine people they grew up to be.  In fact, he gave a speech to that effect at a family gathering, where he allowed that his treatment may have amounted to abuse, if you will, but still, he felt vindicated by how well everything turned out.   He handed me the speech he delivered to look over.   

“Not one of them accepted my fucking apology,” Eli told me indignantly.  I read him back his words, pointed out that it was hardly an apology, the way he’d phrased it, the complete lack of remorse, and we proceeded to fight it out, the way he and my mother always fought.  He was fierce when angry, short and powerful, built like a sinewy bullfrog, he jumped to his feet, his face immediately magenta, veins popping, the white hairs on his head quivered, foam formed on his lips.  He had the menacing aspect of a panther when he was angry.  After the fight, like at the end of every one of the many fights between Eli and my mother, there were no hard feelings, we hugged goodbye and I headed down the dark, twisting Sawmill River Parkway to my apartment.

I wanted to learn more about my grandparents who’d died before I was born, people my father said virtually nothing about.   I wanted to know about my grandmother, Eli’s beloved Tante Chava, who Eli loved above everyone else and, even more so, my grandfather, a mysterious, silent character whose wry smile I’d seen in the two photographs of him that exist.   In one he is in a dark interior space, probably the synagogue, with his wife and younger son, my Uncle Paul,  at that time about sixteen.   Eliyahu is in a dark suit, wearing a fedora with a wide, downturned brim, smiling a wry and utterly incomprehensible smile.

While Eli had many stories about beautiful, hot-tempered Chava, my grandmother, he struggled to describe my grandfather to me.  He used a Yiddish word, fayik, I’ve never met anybody who could translate (or had even heard of), in explaining how hard it was to describe him.  Google Translate translates fayik as “fayik”.  I have only found one reference to the word on the internet, this frustratingly short fragment:  “The root, fayikmeans. creative, skilled or …” summarizing a link that leads nowhere. 

“People say he wasn’t fayik, but it wasn’t so, he was just very quiet, very withdrawn … he had a sense of humor, he was very funny, I may have been the only person who realized how funny he was, because it was so subtle and always done with a completely deadpan face…  no expression at all… He always called me ‘big shot’ ” he struggled to describe the man’s face.  Then he came up with a kind of beautiful haiku. 

“His face was just two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” and he imitated the face, staring straight ahead, like a mask, making a zipping  motion over the straight line of his mouth, to indicate how rarely Eliyahu spoke.

I quickly got the sense that he’d kept his mouth shut to avoid getting socked in the head.  I’d always wondered how my grandfather’s English name was Harry and his brother, one of my father’s uncles on his father’s side, was also named Harry.  The two sons named Harry was like a Polish joke until Eli gave me the obvious explanation.   My grandfather’s mother died and his father remarried.  The woman he married had sons named Peter and Harry.   This evil step-mother did not tolerate the second Harry, hitting him hard in the head with whatever came to hand, including sturdy pieces of wood.   

“So, I guess he just checked out after a while, his whole life seemed to be devoted to not getting cracked in the skull, and Chava could be tough too,” Eli told me.

While many apparently considered my grandfather mentally deficient, Eli saw his dry, deadpan sense of humor, his wit — his hidden fayik nature.   He finally dug up an example.  Eli’s father, my great-uncle Aren, ran a garage in Peekskill.   He hired Eliyahu to work in the garage, he fixed cars and provided parking for others, but because Eliyahu couldn’t drive he was limited to releasing the brake and manually moving the cars around.   Eli took him out one day to teach him to drive, it had become clear it was senseless to keep him at the garage if he couldn’t drive.   

“Peekskill is hilly country,” he said, “and we’re going up a hill and the car starts losing power, and your grandfather is just looking ahead with that face and I say ‘Uncle Harry, give it gas!  Give it gas!” and a second before we start sliding backwards he turns to me and says ‘gas costs money’ and we start going backwards down the steep hill, we’re about to get killed.  I managed to get my foot in there and downshifted and pulled the car over and told him to get the hell out and that was the end of his driving lessons.”

It appears Uncle Aren (who ran my father’s little family) made the right call sending his little sister to explain to the school authorities why her son spoke no English when he started school.

1924 (part 2)

On the first day of June, 1924, Israel Irving Widaen was born in a crowded slum on the lower east side of Manhattan Island.  He was named after his mother’s father, Azrael.  According to Jewish tradition, which frowns on naming a child for someone still alive, this means that my great-grandfather Azrael was already gone by June 1924.  The baby’s last name, at birth, was Widem, shortened a few years earlier, likely by a harried attendant on Ellis Island, from Widemlansky.  It was rendered on his birth certificate as “Widaen”, a spelling my grandmother, who didn’t read English, apparently signed off on.  My father’s father also didn’t read English, and so the mistake stood when my father, who until the age of eighteen was known as Irv Widem, was drafted into the US Army as Israel Irving Widaen.

Here is a key, basic, highly determinative, never considered detail of my father’s early life that didn’t dawn on me until years after my father’s death: he was born legally blind.  For most of his life, up to a few years before he died, when laser eye surgery became common and effective, he had 20/400 vision, vision he said qualified him as legally blind without his glasses.   20/400 means that what the average person can see clearly at twenty feet looked four hundred feet away to the newborn Israel/Azrael.

His mother’s face, for example, after the tremendous exertions this tiny woman endured to give birth to a huge baby (by a husband in an arranged marriage, a man she hated), would have appeared hazy to the uncomprehending infant.   That she may have come to treat the baby as unresponsive, stubbornly, aggravatingly retarded because he was basically blind, never seems to have occurred to anyone.   The effect of this unknown blindness certainly didn’t occur to me until weeks or months into writing every day about my father.   Think of the effect on your life, on your self-image, if nobody caring for you realizes you are legally blind until you are six or seven years old.

I have a picture of my father reading on the couch before dinner, after his day job, before his night job, his thick black-rimmed glasses up on his forehead, or on a nearby surface, the New York Times held a few inches from his face.  He was nearsighted, like the famous Mr. Magoo, but unlike Magoo, he wore powerful corrective lenses that allowed him to drive on the right side of the road, serve in the U.S. military, lead a fairly standard life.   If he wanted to read something he could easily read without glasses, as long as the print was very close to his face.  He eventually settled on bifocals, which allowed him to read through his glasses, holding a book or paper like anyone else.

As he was dying he insisted he’d been the “dumbest Jewish kid” in Peekskill.  This was incomprehensible to me.  Whatever critiques could be made of this often contentious man, it is impossible to argue that he wasn’t highly intelligent, well-informed, quick witted.  In the hospital room that last night of his life I questioned his assertion that he was the dumbest Jewish kid in the small town he grew up in.  “It’s impossible for me to believe you could have possibly been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill,” I said.

“By far!” he insisted, with a “humph!” hours before the end of a long life as a well-read, highly articulate intellectual.

Picture now being born in 1924, a year when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its high-water mark in registered members, with 2.4 million nationwide. It was early in the ill-fated experiment in Prohibition, when murderous gangsters ran neighborhoods like the one where my father was born.  There were no federal child labor laws on the books.  A president sympathetic to the Klan and other xenophobes had signed a restrictive immigration bill into law, imposing strict quotas which effectively meant that the rest of the family in Europe was doomed to whatever Fate had in store for them.   Your little family is bitterly poor, and, try as you may, you can’t make out the details of anything in the world around you.

Infantile blindness and its lifelong effects would have been an interesting subject to follow up with the baby who grew up to be my father, an old man who still believed he’d been dumb because everyone around him, teachers and classmates whose faces he couldn’t make out, laughed at him and called him a big dummy. Another subject I never got to talk about with the man who belatedly apologized for senselessly fighting with me my whole life.

There was a glancing reference to my father’s early struggles in school in the very limited family lore about his childhood.  Like most of the details I know of my father’s difficult early life, this was humorously recounted by that great story-teller Eli Gleiberman, my father’s first cousin, Uncle Aren’s first born son. Aren had saved money and sent for his youngest sister right around the time World War One started.   Eli reported that his tiny, red-haired Tante Chava (many years younger than Aren) was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and that she and young Eli had experienced mutual love at first sight when he and his father went to pick her up from the boat.  Eli was a good-looking kid and, according to him, his aunt’s lifelong favorite.

The story goes that my grandmother Chava was called to school after my father, the oldest, biggest kid in his class, (in addition to being odd in his expressions, presumably) showed up for school without a word of English in his head.   The school sent for her to find out how it was possible for a child born in America to grow up to the age of five or six without learning English.  The answer was that they only spoke Yiddish at home, but that answer really answered nothing.  Eli, by then in his early twenties, probably taught Chava the line she delivered in response to the school authorities.  In a heavy Yiddish accent, when confronted by the school authorities about her son’s lack of English, she said “hee’l loin.”  Eli’s face would light up in his devilish grin when he told that story.

The boy would indeed learn, and become a voracious reader with a vast English vocabulary.  He would go on to graduate from Syracuse University and later get a Master’s Degree in American History at Columbia, one unfinished dissertation short of his Ph D. That would only happen, as it turns out, once someone at the Peekskill elementary school discovered that it was not mental deficiency, but legal blindness that made it impossible for this odd boy to learn his letters.

A related question arises, when I think things over now in the cool light of all of my detective work over the years. My father’s father, Harry, (for whom I’m named– his Hebrew name, Eliyahu, is my name) the “illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world,” I learned not long before Eli died, spoke English with no trace of a foreign accent.  He’d come over from Europe as a baby and picked up unaccented American English, somehow.  Go figure.  Why didn’t he go to school to talk to the authorities? Because he was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world, I suppose.  His sphinx-like presence, and his mysteriously unaccented English, would have no doubt made things even worse, Aren, the small family’s patriarch, must have reasoned.  He was probably right.

Book of Friedman (8)

Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.

Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.

After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:

A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..

X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.   

The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around.  Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react.   Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.   

Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type.   Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up. 

The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now.  I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself.  X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.  

The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow.   I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude)  game I am up against better than I know almost anything.  In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.  

I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc.   Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer.   When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.   

I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson.   It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned.   Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker,  she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.   

I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding.  I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part).   Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.

Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life.  I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.

How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc?   Act one: great excitement!  amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing!   Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs.   Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.   

It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years.  Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out.   In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.

Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:

People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying.   A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war).  I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.   

The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky.  I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way.  He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter.   What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of. 

That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.  I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person.  As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better.  It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.   

That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal.   A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason  — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets.   I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier.   It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.   

Here they are again, for your consideration:

12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

13: People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:

There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation.  The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”