The real injury of abuse

Abuse is a specific kind of cruel behavior that leaves painful wounds that can come back and bite hard many years later.  The abuser always reserves the right to keep doing whatever it is the abused person is hurt by — which, in the case of a child in particular, makes the pain traumatic and permanent.  Trauma is ready to be reawakened at any time, it springs up with full fury when the same nerve is roughly touched.   The hurt of being traumatized is compounded by self-recrimination — why do I always make people treat me like that?

The real injury of abuse is the abuser’s implacable reaction to the hurt person’s pain, the complete abandonment of the person the abuser hurt.  Incapable of yielding, listening, understanding, reassuring, acknowledging that they caused the pain, the abuser tries to force the other person to accept the fault for whatever happened and to shut up about it, forever, often with a threat of much worse to come if they continue looking for sympathy that only a needy weakling would ask for in the first place.

We all hurt other people sometimes, because we human beings are an imperfect breed.  We don’t always treat others the way we’d like to be treated.  If we behave in a way that hurts somebody close to us we can often fix it by listening, understanding, reassuring, letting the other person know that we’re sorry and will do our best in the future to treat their feelings with more care.

None of that basic decency and conflict resolution has anything to do with abuse.  When an abusive person angrily hurts somebody and the hurt person reacts with pain, the abuser reflexively goes to work.   The ongoing “I’ll give you something to cry about, you little bitch,” is much more traumatic, in the long run, than the original slap, kick, punch or cruel words.  It is the complete withdrawal of all sympathy afterwards, making the injury purely the problem of the one who suffered it, that leaves the deepest cut.

Abusers are famous for elegant displays of faux regret, flowers, lavish gifts, praise, assurances that they’ll never do the bad thing again. Every victim of domestic abuse, every consumer of popular culture, is familiar with this kind of false charm campaign.  The charm and ostentatious shows of tenderness serve to overcome the defenses of the beaten spouse, reassure them of a love they long for, a love that is, at best, problematic.  “If only you hadn’t done that,” someone like OJ will say, after the beating, gently stroking the lover’s face, “I wouldn’t have had to do that to you.  You know how much it hurts me when you make me act like that, my love.”

A horror story as familiar as any ever told.  You made me do it, asshole.  What happens after the little explosion of rage is the truly injurious part of abuse, it makes you doubt yourself in a way that guarantees more of the same.  “You want some more?” the bully will say, trying to make you flinch.  Flinch and you lose.  Treating the bully to a hard kick in the nuts is always in good taste, but not always practical.   Getting away from people who abuse you, as soon as you can, is a better, safer way to avoid more abuse.

Impossible Letter #1 Big Surprise…

Impossible letter, indeed.

A few days ago (a mere 70 hours) I sent a short email to the daughter of longtime close friends, asking for her address so I can print out and mail a letter to her.  I told her I thought the letter might be useful to her. I wanted to mail it, rather than send it electronically, to give her a few moments of privacy with it before forwarding an electronic version of it to the family board of refutation.  (Here is a slightly redacted version of that letter.)


Her father had told me over and over, before withdrawing his friendship forever, that no matter what I said about our conflict, he wasn’t going to change his mind about anything.   He’d told me that he’s walked away from friendships for less than what I’d done to him (whatever that may have been — he never elaborated).  He told me I’d never seen him really angry, and that, trust him, I didn’t want to. As for anger, it was unfair, and totally wrong, to call his wife’s rage at me “rage”, it was just ordinary anger and she had apologized for allowing herself to be so provoked by my threatening aggressiveness.  He reserved the right to get indignant, over and over, as we ‘worked out’ our differences (I was hurt — no you weren’t!).   He spun every hurtful encounter, no matter how destructive to our friendship, into “progress”.  When I presented him with stark facts, he went silent, for a month, then called to see if I had learned my fucking lesson.  He concluded I hadn’t and that’s that.

I told my physical therapist that the adult daughter’s solution to having grown up in this kind of home was to openly declare her parents gods.  At every New York performance she would take a moment to salute her parents, her idols, and announce that her mother is a goddess.

“That’s creepy,” the therapist said, stretching my leg.  I nodded.

“Creepy, but smart,” she said, and I chuckled at how astute that was.

Big surprise that my final offer to tell the young woman what I thought would be helpful to her — not to blame herself because her parents had forced her into musical regimentation at a critical time in the young prodigy’s development out of ignorance, they didn’t know musical geniuses like Paul Simon couldn’t read music — fell again on deaf ears.  I thought I could help, relieve the kid of the burden of blaming herself for everything painful between her and her difficult parents, but apparently I can only hurt, now that I’ve brutally, gratuitously tortured and decapitated both of her godlike parents.

So the thing she learned from her upbringing in a house of absolute right and absolute wrong is the thing she does by reflex.  I get it.   As long as she remains sober, she’s ahead of the game, I suppose.  Like Eric Clapton.

The political is also gruellingly personal

It is not novel to observe that the personal and the political are closely related.  In my case, the present political situation is also a grim, constant magnification of my personal experience. For those of us who are personally susceptible, who find constant hideous echoes of our personal experience in the political landscape, following the news produces a form of PTSD.  

Gabor Maté made an interesting point about PTSD.  Apparently of 100 soldiers sent into a hellish war zone, like house to house fighting in cities in Iraq where it is impossible to even know who the enemy is, only a certain percentage will emerge with PTSD (I think it was something like 15%).  Every one of the soldiers who wind up with PTSD have childhood trauma that makes them susceptible to it.  Not to say that the other soldiers are happy about the hell they’ve been sent to, or don’t have the occasional nightmare about it, but the exact re-experiencing of the original pain and terror happens only to a select few.  So it is with the news.

The personal is political:  there is a progressive personality type and a repressive personality type, an authoritarian personality type (that can go either way politically) and a type that embraces differences.  There are inquisitive, talkative, collaborative types and close-minded, taciturn, competitive types. It’s easy enough to observe that some types are prone, by personality and life experience, to be liberal, others lean conservative.  Some believe in harsh punishment, support the death penalty and others abhor the thought of a possibly innocent, usually poor, person being executed (as happens frequently) and embrace policies like restorative justice initiatives.  

We have seen a deliberate, massively well-funded project (to be fair, engineered by the far right, guys like Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, and their highly effective network of morbidly wealthy fellow traveler influencers) to divide these types into uncompromising partisan camps that must fight the other side’s evil to the death.  Who does this simplistic, eternal, total war benefit?  The people who already enjoy every benefit.  It comes at the expense of everyone else.

On a grand scale we see the triumph of selfishness, greed, heartlessness, corruption and flagrant lawlessness among the powerful and the hypocritical application of harsh law, even spontaneous death sentences for powerless citizens suspected of minor crimes.  It can all be explained in an anodyne, New York Times style way that makes the status quo look less grotesque.  

For example, economists of capitalism have a neutral term for the human cost to making vast profits — like babies born deformed and clusters of cancer near runoff from a chemical plant — externalities.  You have to pay these poor people a certain amount in legal settlements, so your profit is slightly offset by the expense, but in the name of raising stock value to shareholders, externalities are an acceptable and unavoidable part of doing business, if the profit is otherwise high enough.   Some would say that decision makers who factor such “externalities” into the cost of doing business belong out of business and in prison, but that’s a political view, incompatible with the “freedom” we all enjoy here in the free market.

When millions marched, during a pandemic, to protest the intolerable injustice of ongoing police killing of unarmed civilians for minor offenses — or none — they were met with teargas, tanks, helicopters, horseback charges by police, batons, handcuffs.  The protesters were treated like an insurgent army, a force the right-wing administration claimed were a deadly, terroristic threat to national security that had to be neutralized with superior force.   What’s up with that?

“If you are angry about something you claim gives you the right to be angry, then FUCK YOU! You want to protest so-called state violence?  We’ll give you some violence you can take back home with you, when you get out of jail, asshole.”

This is the predictable reaction of a narcissistic psychopath.  They will unleash the full force of whatever they’ve got to defeat anyone who has a problem with how they need to do things.

I learned, only very recently, at 66 years-old, that I’ve been shaped by and fighting narcissists my entire life.   A few months ago I described the gruesome parade of many of my closest longtime friends as highly intelligent, darkly funny, prone to anger/angrily denying anger, deeply damaged, unable to compromise, determined to win no matter what the cost, etc.  I did not yet know that this constellation of traits also describes the narcissist.  I guess what made me finally understand what I was actually up against was suddenly being confronted by a series of outright lies, desperately, brazenly spat into my face in an attempt to make me submit.

Narcissism can be very subtle, as I also learned.  The fact that my narcissistic father never needed to outright lie to “win” our arguments early on hid the cardinal trait of all narcissists from me: falseness.  Without that lying piece I could see my father as disturbed, a jerk, an asshole, a tragic man, etc. but his overarching personality type, narcissist, was until very recently hidden from me.   

Now it is all I can see, when I doom-scroll the news, hear George Santos angrily rebut the true charges that he’s a lying sack of shit, the passionate calls to impeach Biden, (details of charges to follow), a strutting donkey of less than average donkey intelligence calling for a national divorce, a spineless political worm’s defense of the “transparent” move of handing all January 6th security footage to a propagandist for autocracy and on down the list.

Narcissists rule, yo, as they were born to do.  They always have the same answer to every concern you might raise “FUCK YOU.”  They may say this harshly, or politely as can be, but the answer will always be a close variation on that staunch proposition.   “You want to know why I have nothing but contempt for you, asshole? How about FUCK YOU, that fix the boo-boo?”

“And have a very nice day.”   

One nice irony of a long life

My father died almost eighteen years ago.  Not long after he died, I was finally able to disentangle myself from a long, unhappy friendship with a smart, tormented guy who’d stood in as a sparring partner for my difficult father since we were teenagers.  You can get all the details about this interesting, perplexing fellow at Book of Friedman.

When I finally admitted defeat and declared our friendship beyond saving — I’d finally reduced the eternally cavilling MF to petulant silence, in a Florida coffee shop, during a biblical deluge that turned the parking lot into a raging river — I called his mother, to explain.  To my surprise, she was not in the least bit surprised.  

She immediately relieved me of the burden of explaining, beyond a few basics of the last straw, and thanked me for hanging in there far longer than anyone ever had with her relentless demanding, endlessly negotiating son.   She understood and asked only one thing: leave the door open, if he comes to make peace with you.  I told her I would.  She also asked what I thought she could do for him.  My only idea was a serious course of therapy, something I reminded her he was very unlikely ever to do, since he believed no unhappiness in his life had anything to do with his highly idiosyncratic personality or his demands on others.

There were some frustrating email exchanges every couple of years, when he’d reach out a pseudopod in an email.   His endless paragraphs filled screen after screen, very similar to the tiny, crabbed hand-written letters I used to get from him, many pages long, inscribed margin to margin, with no breaks in the block of words, endlessly expounding, at tortuous length, amid a million caveats and troubled asides.  His brother Neal, I learned after his death, used to delete these emails as soon as he got them. I would answer each one, because I’d promised his mother and because, until very recently, I never liked silence to be my final answer.   I always hated the old silent treatment and so almost never did it to anyone else.  

One year on my birthday I got an audio CD in the mail.  The CD case was decorated with strings, at the end of each string was a tiny card, taped meticulously to the string, a plea for mercy, for common sense, for an open heart.  I don’t have the odd package in front of me now to quote them, in fact, I’m a bit tormented not to be able to lay my hand on it at the moment, have been searching the heaps around this dusty apartment I need to clean.  It was in the same place since I got it maybe 15 years back, I’d seen it countless times, close to my broken down copy of my most precious book, the Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, Walter Morrison translation (long out of print, its paperback spine long ago disintegrated).  Mark loved that book as well and one of his notes was a reference to it.   Among its peppy, oddly dangling notes “don’t be a cossack!,” an exhortation to relax my so-called principles.  

Everything always had to happen on his terms, one of the most annoying things about him, this insistence that things be done his way, which was often a perverse way.  This musical offering struck me as one more outlandish illustration of this intolerable tic.  My promise to his mother be damned, I wasn’t going to listen to the musical masterpiece he’d composed to magically solve all the issues in everyone’s life.

I never listened to the CD.  At the same time, I didn’t toss it in the trash.

I saw it dozens of times over the years, including in the days after I heard of his death of a broken heart a few years back.  I thought briefly about taking the CD out of its case and giving it a spin, but never did.  The last time I saw it, I moved it someplace, with the intention of finally listening to it.  Now it is nowhere to be seen.

“Good,” says Sekhnet.  “Now you have to clean.”

Or, dear Sekhnet, I can sit down and write this instead.  Now that it’s written, I’m going to go digging for it again, though I suspect I may have taken it to the farm… yes, that’s most likely where it is.

Talent without creativity

Here’s a mystifying thing, having a talent without any desire to be creative.

I had a friend who had an amazing ability to remember a melody that he had heard once and sing it back perfectly. I don’t have this ability, and often have to struggle to learn even parts of a melody that I love, singing and playing the phrase over and over until it’s in there. This guy could hear it once, a tune he’d never heard, and sing it back. Plus he has a good voice.

I mentioned this ability to a professional singer I met, and he said “oh yeah, I can do that.”

Which led me to think, if I could do that, I would be a much, much better guitar player, a better piano player, a better ukulele player. I’d be a better singer too.

But this guy had no desire to do anything special or creative with his talent. Which is mystifying to me, since creativity is one of the great joys of life.

This man’s wife had a beautiful singing voice too, and a good sense of pitch. But she was very self-effacing the one time I pointed this out to her. She would never dream of picking up an instrument, singing a song as she accompanied herself. Neither would her husband. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Facts are dry and don’t go down easy

Facts, no matter how persuasive and well marshaled, do not convince most people of anything.  Only compelling stories do that, and even the most artfully told story has an uphill climb against deeply held beliefs.  

A lie is a compelling, if crude, story that ignores what is actually happening to implant a false counter narrative.  It will always be good enough if it supports what you already want to believe.    A lie famously makes its way around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.  The way of the world.  Lies have led to every war, every slaughter, every atrocity, every oppression of everyone ever oppressed.  Still, the lie serves the liar far better than the dry,  unsexy so-called facts of the matter ever will.   

Nowadays we call the successful tellers of self-serving lies “transactional” — everything is a business deal, a negotiation to extract maximum advantage and profit from.  Every fact may be countered by an alternative fact.  Truth, in our culture, is now as malleable as “morality” when it comes to winning and losing.

When I arrived at the Florida hospital where my father was dying, an ugly liquid draining from his body into a bag attached to the side of his deathbed, I asked him if he was in pain.   “Only psychic pain,” he said.  

Psychic pain will kick your ass, I’ve noticed.  As I wait to see a surgeon in a few weeks, about replacing my painful, worn out left knee, my right knee has started wavering in its step, giving me more pain.  I have to postpone an appointment for the following day with the urologist who is pressing me to have an operation that will almost certainly cause my remaining sexual pleasure to be minimized, if not extinguished.   He urges me to have this procedure ASAP, doesn’t seem to know why the likelihood of diminished sexual function would cause me any hesitation.  

Those two unrelated medical matters are a source of psychic pain, as is my need to postpone the appointment with the eager urologist, hindered by my inability to call his office.   Add the return call from the Medicare resolution unit to straighten out a $510 overpayment I was strong-armed into making, scheduled for any day between 1 pm and 7 pm, that arrived this morning at 8:30 a.m.  The message invited me to call back if my issue hadn’t been resolved.   Here we go loop de loo.  Meanwhile, other psychic aches add their kvetching voices to the chorus that stirs the acid in my stomach.

A symposium: do the facts actually matter?

Did I do everything possible to save a doomed longtime friendship?   I can describe everything I did, the many examples of friendship and forgiveness I continued to extend to old, once dear friends who got furious that I needed to speak of things they refused to talk about.  

No, they will tell anyone I know (and they have), that’s not true.  Your longtime friend has always been a weird misfit, angry at the world, thinking he is too talented to have to compete for recognition, he refuses to do what we all must do and demands an absurd and unquestioning respect for his poor life choices.  He is lying, he’s gone off the deep end, he’s insane and possibly demented, not us.  We extended constant friendship to him.  We were eternally patient, waiting for him to stop making his antagonistic demand “to be heard”, pressing his ruthless emotional blackmail, trying to blame us for his rage at the world.       

The panel discusses.  Yes, there appear to be facts.  So what?  What is your fucking point?

Ladies and gentle worms of the panel, it’s like jazz.  If you got to ask, daddy-O, you ain’t never gonna know.

My father’s psychic pain was related to agonizing regrets, things he was now powerless to address, absent a miracle of some kind.  The minor miracle was that the son he felt suddenly guilty for having abused for decades was ready to hear his regrets, apparently without judgment, without anger.   To his relief the son kept telling him to forgive himself, that he’d done the best he could.  “No point whipping yourself about it now, dad.  If you could have done better, you would have” the son told him, whenever he lifted the whip over himself.

That psychic pain could have been relieved years before if he’d put in the work his kid had finally done with a therapist.  He’d have been able to acknowledge, before the last night of his life, the many attempts his son had made over the years to make peace with him.  He could have reached back any one of the times he felt his son reaching out to him.  He wouldn’t be lying in a hospital room with a toxic soup of dark body fluids draining into a bag hanging off his bed, trying to make amends, fighting shame, trying to explain why he hadn’t been able to act like the kind of person he wished he could have been.

There are days that start off with the weight of the indecent world sitting squarely on your chest.  That weight can’t be wished away. Just the facts, dry and unsatisfying as that.

People who are hurt hurt people

  • What is hateful to you, do not unto others. 

If I need to be heard, and when you need to talk I cover my ears and hum loudly, what am I?

Certainly no better than Marjorie Taylor Greene, the day her divorce from Perry Greene was finalized last December, absent from Congress, voting by proxy, after introducing a bill to ban proxy voting.

Hurt people hurt people.  

Marjorie, in a muscular fundraising tweet, is now calling for the Trump states to secede, a national divorce, presumably with generous alimony from the “blue states” that subsidize the former Confederacy.   If you ask her she’ll probably tell you that the Northern War of Aggression was never actually won by the bellicose Union, that the victorious Confederacy was stabbed in the back by traitorous you know whats, like the victorious German army was at the end of the World War.   No conflict is ever settled in a hurt heart.

I can write all the impossible letters I want.  The more persuasive, the more impossible.  Heck of a job, Brownie.

Still, if we do to others what we hate done to us, we are wrong.  Simple enough for even a Q-Anon believer to grasp, no?

Nothing is simple to a hurt heart that can’t find peace, except by hurting others.   After he lost the 2020 election Trumpie mashed the accelerator to make sure his killing spree of federal death row inmates went full speed ahead.  Barr was right there with him, executing more federal prisoners than the previous ten administrations combined, until he was among the first rabid rats to jump the sinking ship.  Now MAGA-man is promising to execute everyone he possibly can in his next term as president.  Why not kill them by firing squad, by public hanging?  Why stop there, the Elizabethans drew out the spectacle by eviscerating, hanging, but not until dead, reviving, dismembering, hanging again, and so on.  The master showman of MAGA knows how electrifying this kind of chilling spectacle, even just the titillating promise of it, is to people smarting from their own agonizing pain.  Plus, it’s great for fundraising!

Is everybody who loves this kind of thing stupid?  No, sad to say.   Is everybody who loves this kind of thing filled with hurt, fear and rage?   I don’t know, but I’d bet most of them are.    How much easier is it to get a legal assault weapon and take it out on a bunch of strangers than to sit with unbearable pain in your heart?   Apparently much easier for all mass shooters.  I love the mass media’s eternal search for the “gunman’s” motive.   So American.

In the corporate media there are two sides to every story, as long as there’s monetary profit in the conflict.  One side might be barking mad, but, now that the quaint “Fairness Doctrine” is a footnote in our history, both sides are given the same weight in public discussion by biased media companies catering to their “base”.  In one set of reports Anthony Fauci did everything possible to help curb deadly Covid-19 in a country that set world records for infections and deaths per capita.  To millions of others, who will never watch that kind of lying crap, Fauci is a fucking liar who deserves crucifixion, this Easter, nobody in the US died of the China flu!  Both sides make a legitimate point, you know, here in the land where fairness and justice reign, alongside equally compelling, always maddening, unfairness and injustice.  Get over it, asshole.

It is all in the way the story is told.  I can convince you, if you are inclined to believe me, that I’ve been the innocent victim of people who brutally hurt me every time I tried to make peace.  I can’t convince you, if you are inclined to believe others, who say that they are the innocent victims of my brutality and unforgiving heartlessness as I constantly spin the real facts like a scripture quoting Beelzebub.  

Hurt people hurt people, and the only way out of the cycle of hurt is through a certain kind of honesty and courage, which can also be construed as despicable dishonesty and cowardice, depending on who’s telling the story. 

To say that love is the only solution to conflict is a bit simplistic.  There are many versions of love and endless variations on each version, with a hundred conditions.  Hate, on the other hand, we know at once what we hate.  How much easier it is not to inflict hateful things on others than to be like Jesus, constantly turning the other cheek whenever struck, repaying scorn and cruelty with love and compassion?  I know what I hate, I try not to do it to other people.  Pretty straightforward, no?

Oh, well.  Time to get back to writing some more impossible letters. 

Impossible Letter # 1

Dear T:

This note will have to stand in for the conversation I’d hoped to have with you for the last fifteen years or so.  Writing to an excellent writer makes me a little more hopeful that you will take in the message I am trying to convey.

The summary version: you need to let yourself completely off the hook for harmful childhood conflicts that were not mostly your fault.   Forgiveness is a great gift to give yourself, I can’t recommend it highly enough and I hope to convince you how indispensable it is.  It comes, in part, from looking clearly at the past and drawing honest, merciful conclusions about life.  It comes from an understanding that is often impossible to come to on our own.

My need to tell you this was kicked into high gear a few years back when a concerned C referred me to your final piece on that website you worked for.  In that emotional essay you painted the picture of yourself as a problem child who had inflicted great harm on your family by being an asshole. Why you felt that way is understandable.  For one thing, your parents, as I have now seen up close, are pros at presenting a united and unyielding front, no matter how strong the merits of the position they are opposing are.

Making this letter a bit more ticklish to write is the indigestibly tragic fact that your parents have judged me a person unworthy of their love (I know, in their version I did that to them).  A year or two ago this letter, making a simple point about self-mercy, would have come from a beloved family friend.  Not the case today. The short history (which omits occasional thoughtless treatment over the years that I never made an issue about) is that after a few days of an increasingly stressful Yom Kippur holiday in Woodstock, your mother lost her temper at me.   

In her mind she was being considerate to me and my arthritic knees by giving me the choice of two hikes that would begin at 10 a.m. the next morning.  To me, she was micromanaging the ‘vacation’ in a maddening way that was wearing me out.  In addition to the unacknowledged, escalating tension in that beautiful rented house, I’d been doing everything on short sleep as is my custom when hanging out with others, ignoring my circadian clock for a few days for the sake of spending more time with friends.  Feeling that I was resisting her at one point, she glared at me with a laser beam of hostility I have only seen on one other face: my abusive father’s.

Note how easily the entire “conflict” could have been avoided had I made it clear that everyone was free to do whatever they wanted in the morning, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt by not being there, I’d be glad to sleep until rested and see everyone when they got back.  Sadly, I hadn’t made this clear and, of course, that ship has now sailed forever.

A few hours after she stormed off to go to bed, insisting we had to leave at 10 a.m. and not 11 (your father had offered that compromise), I found myself retraumatized.  I was a 65 year-old adult, treated to a rage I saw frequently in my deeply damaged father, an unreasoning reflex to rage that he was bereft about as he was dying.  The sharp pain I felt in my lungs was identical to the familiar emotional punch in the chest from my childhood.  How was it possible to be treated this way, as an adult, by a dear friend I loved, who loved me, who I’d never had a cross word with in 50 years?  I’d been unable to close my eyes when I finally went to bed.  I didn’t want to wake Michele, I paced the house, unable to go outside because it was raining all night.  Of course it was.

In the morning, around dawn, your dad came into the living room to daven.  I was sitting in a chair, we nodded at each other and I turned aside to give him privacy to pray to HaShem.  He went back to his bedroom, came out shortly afterwards with your mom, who looked haggard and beaten.  I could hardly recognize her.  She told me she needed to talk. I told her I hadn’t slept, needed to sleep, was too upset to be sure I wouldn’t say something hurtful, something I wouldn’t be able to take back.  She insisted that she needed to talk right away.  I didn’t argue with her.

Her apology was painful to her, clearly, maybe even humiliating, but crabbed as it was, her desire to make peace felt sincere to me.  I told her I accepted her apology.  When she said at the end, uncharacteristically, “I need a hug” I hugged her and kissed her and went to get some sleep.

During her problematic apology (she made it clear she was apologizing not because she’d done anything wrong, but only because my aggressive, threatening manner had caused her to fear me, hence her bad reaction) she mentioned that I had made her feel the way you used to during your many fights.  And, BINGO.

Like you, I was the “genius” of my tormented little family, and also, the eternal adversary of a prosecutorial parent who needed to “win” every conflict, in my case my father.   On the last night of his life my father was filled with regret and was finally vulnerable enough to acknowledge that he’d been aware of the many times I’d tried to make peace with him over the years.  He beat himself for being too fucked up to reciprocate.  I did my best to reassure him that he’d done the best he could, that if he could have done better he would have. 

I think he was grateful for my merciful attitude, and I was grateful to hear him apologize for the first and only time in his life.  But what a tragic fucking “healing” it was, I closed his dead eyelids as the sun was setting the following day.

In the aftermath of our mutual trauma in Woodstock, two days later, your mother did something thoughtless, suddenly walking out while I was preparing the lunch she’d just brought me the ingredients for (she’d unilaterally decided she wanted something else, was taking Michele into town to go shopping).  After nervous peacemaker Michele kept anxiously asking me what was wrong with me, why I was so upset and so forth I finally exploded for a moment, uttered the dreaded fucking f-word, and the rest is history.   

Directing the word “fuck” to your loved one, in your parents’ eyes, I learned, is as unforgivable as beating her with a stick and repeatedly kicking her in the stomach.  My immediate apologies were weak tea coming from an abusive wife-beater, they weren’t sure they could ever really forgive me for that.  They remained upset for some time over my brutality, likely they still are today.

All of this should have been relatively easy to untangle.  Old loving friends, a couple of misunderstandings that could have been easily avoided (in hindsight), tensions nobody could talk about (I still don’t know what exactly is going on between your folks, they didn’t trust us enough to share anything specific) erupting into little outbursts of understandable frustration.  

It only becomes impossible to resolve when the need to feel justified, perfect, beyond criticism comes into the picture, becomes the entire picture.  As you sagely said at the second seder “never disagree with M.”

This letter has taken a slight detour from what I’d intended to convey to you, so let’s shift the focus back to your childhood and what I set out to tell you.  You were a musical prodigy.  Your parents didn’t want you to have the miserable, high-pressure life of a child star, they wanted to prevent you from becoming a monster and having an unhappy adulthood.  Their solution, classical piano lessons, was not a particularly good one, but it was done with good intentions.  

I’m sure your parents were unaware that Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney (and the other Beatles), Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Taylor Swift, Aretha Franklin, Django, Jimi and other musical giants (I suspect Joni, too, but couldn’t confirm it) can’t read music. Reading music, to your parents, was essential to being a competent, professional musician and songwriter.  Therefore, classical piano lessons and a succession of frustrating, frustrated, piano teachers.   Sadly, your parents didn’t understand that love of music, and playing and inventing it purely out of love, is the best way to develop a talent like yours.

I was at the dinner table at 181st Street when you sat on your dad’s lap.  V was there too, and recalls this also. You were a curly haired two or three year-old.  Your eyes twinkled as you got my attention across the table.  It was like you were saying “watch this, are you ready?” Then, a moment later, almost with a wink to me, you instantly sent your father into a spasm of anger.

Soon thereafter he went into therapy to learn how to avoid becoming the kind of angry, destructive parent his mother had been.  When he was satisfied he wouldn’t traumatize you the same way, he stopped therapy.

I’ll try to give you the schematic view now: whatever happened to H [T’s grandmother] to make her H (the dark side of her) led to her short temper with your father, her lack of control as she slapped him hard in the face whenever she got angry.   All very bad shit, no question, terrible and inexcusable.  

I’ve told your father the story of my eventual breakthrough in therapy (aided by my father’s first cousin who gave me the heartbreaking image of my father, as a toddler, whipped in the face repeatedly by his psycho mother) that allowed me to, not exactly forgive, but come to a useful understanding.  

I saw that my anger at my father was only hurting me (and certainly not helping him, though fuck him).  Bad as it was, he’d done the best he could.  I was still pissed, but, fortunately, I had enough emotional distance and understanding to be present and compassionate when my father was suddenly on his deathbed.  I was no longer going to reduce him to the sum of his inadequacies as a parent.  I had no axe to grind, only sorrow.  Luckily for both of us, we had one great, decades-overdue, honest conversation the last night of his life, and then he was gone. 

I kept urging your father to work toward this point in his feelings about his mother, while there is time.  It is a fucking tragedy to have this kind of deathbed reconciliation and to be left thinking of all the wasted years of senseless warfare that could have been avoided by mutual forgiveness, all the love foolishly lost.  

So much for a schematic view, here’s another shot: Your father can’t forgive his mother.  As a partial result, he can’t forgive himself.  Even as he understands it comes from his mother’s irrational demands, he feels he needs to be perfect, anything less is a torment to him.  None of us are perfect. 

When we hurt people all we can do is apologize and try to make amends.  It is the same with ourselves.  When you’ve done everything possible to fix a broken relationship, for example, and nothing is helping, in the end you have to let yourself off the hook or you go mad, turning the anger on yourself.  The only thing to do when someone you love is truly sorry about something they did to you is to accept their apology, forgive them, as you forgive yourself.  Can’t forgive yourself?  Can’t really forgive anyone else, or really love them. 

Would you have been a more prolific, protean composer if you hadn’t had those years in the straitjacket of involuntary classical piano?  Who knows.  We are all responsible for our own lives and our actions.  That’s not the same as taking the blame for things that are beyond our, or possibly anyone’s, responsibility and ability to fix or make right. 

I was tortured for more than a year trying to make peace with your parents.  The days before the following Yom Kippur, it turned out, were not right for the honest conversation we needed to have, your father got angry that I pressed for it, stormed out of the restaurant.   I kept thinking there was something more I could do, some big life lesson I still needed to learn.  More patience, more kindness, more goodwill, more benefit of the doubt, more dispassion, more love. 

One day I read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, an excellent, thought-provoking book about Mormonism and the hazy boundary between genuine religious inspiration and psychopathy.   At the sentencing phase of the trial for a Mormon who claimed he’d killed his wife and daughter because God commanded him to, the guy’s lawyer made the case that he was mentally ill and shouldn’t be executed.  Krakauer quotes the defense attorney:

When narcissists are confronted by people who disparage their extravagant claims they tend to react badly.  They may plunge into depression or become infuriated.  When narcissists are belittled or denigrated they feel horrible.  They have this sense that they’re either grandiose, perfect and beautiful people, or absolutely worthless.  So, if you challenge their grandiosity “they respond with humiliation or rage” (DSM IV).

Fuck me, I thought.  That’s where the ongoing, defensive displays of indignation and anger come from, a desperate fear of humiliation.  To your mother, who seemed freshly enraged that her humiliating apology was seemingly ignored when I got upset at the next thing she supposedly did, and your father, neither of whom I’d ever imagined might be narcissists, there is no middle ground.  They are either good, perfectly admirable people, or they seem to feel utterly worthless and humiliated.  No wonder they kept getting angry whenever I tried to talk painful things out with them.  In their zero-sum world our falling out HAD to be my fault, 100%. If I didn’t accept that, I was leaving the door open to a terrifying nightmare for them, that they had done something wrong that deeply hurt someone they loved and that therefore they were unworthy of love themselves.  That was not going to happen, and they’d do everything necessary to make sure it didn’t, including killing our long, deep friendship.  Hell of a price to pay, no?

Maybe my estrangement from them, and the insight that finally made me stop flailing against it, adds a compelling dimension to this letter.  Something that should be fairly straightforward for old best friends to fix “Eliot, we understand why you were upset, why you lost it for a second, why it was so hurtful to you when we couldn’t accept your apology, why you needed to say what we would never let you say, it was wrong of us to angrily shout you down, not to mention not showing any appreciation for you reacting in friendship instead of anger each time one of us snarled at or threatened you…” proved impossible for them.  Now that I had that framework from Krakauer I had a way to understand the life or death stakes that made it impossible for either of them to say anything like that.

Enough about me, (although my recent experience with your folks might resonate with your own) this letter is about you.  You recall that powerful moment from Goodwill Hunting when Robin Williams, as the psychiatrist, keeps repeating to Will “it’s not your fault.”?  It’s not your fault, T. 

We all sometimes, in some ways, act like assholes.  The assholes who can calm down, do their best to make amends and can truly forgive themselves, without conditions, love themselves (and others) the best.   I don’t mean forgive yourself no matter what and fuck trying to do better and everybody else. I mean, ultimately, when all the thinking and analyzing are done, and every demonstration of good will is exhausted, realizing you did the best you could, if you did, or, if not the best you could, maybe the best you could have done under those bad circumstances, is key. 

Years ago my parents’ best friend, Arlene, took me for a walk at sunset, on a beautiful hill overlooking a verdant river valley soon to be “developed” by “developers”.  She lit up a tiny pipe, we each took a couple of hits, and she laid something heavy on me that turned on a light in the universe for me. She told me to put what she was telling me in my pocket, think about it, that it might take a while to sink in.  

“You know your parents are my best friends,” she said.  I did, there was never more laughter in our house than when she and Russ visited.  The laughter would come up the stairs to our bedrooms when we were children, along with the smell of smoke from Arlene’s chain smoking.

“I know you carry the burden of feeling like you are a disappointment to your parents, that you feel like youre the cause of their unhappiness and have to do something remarkable with your life to make them happy.  You need to know that your parents are very unhappy people, having nothing to do with you.  You don’t need to carry the heavy weight of their unhappiness.  You should put that burden down, it’s not your fault and it’s not yours to carry.”

No need to put that one in my pocket.   It was like she’d reached up and pulled a string to turn on the light.  We need to see what is our’s to own, and try to fix, and what is not.  The simple truth of it, obvious as it also was, almost immediately illuminated the start of a long path out of a particular misery that had always been completely unnavigable.  

I have wanted to pay that blessing forward for forty years.  Whether I have done so now is up to you.  

If you get back to me, remind me that there is one more piece of this puzzling turn with your parents that I want to run by you and your brothers.  While it is almost certainly impossible to resume our friendship (the breezy social version I offered at D’s wedding apparently infuriated them), for the reasons I’ve set out above, I still care about them and have a specific concern about your father’s health, which doesn’t belong in this letter.   Not that there’s anything I can do about it, except bounce it off his kids.

My best to J.



context for Impossible Letter # 1, The Genius

My two dear friends had a daughter with remarkable talents.  The first she displayed was an amazing ability to provoke her father to rage.  She angered her mother too, but her father was so worried about inflicting harm on his provocative little daughter that he went to therapy to learn how not to become the destructively angry, violent parent his mother had been to him.  

His mother’s readiness to fly into a rage and her angry slaps stung him decades later, sting him to this day.  He was determined not to do that to his daughter.  He made good progress in therapy and left once he felt he’d learned to keep his temper under control.

As a young girl she revealed a remarkable gift for playing the piano by ear.  Her grandmother’s upright piano was soon moved to her house where she quickly developed an amazing independence of hands, her left hand and right hand moved as if they belonged to two different musicians playing in perfect time.  She could play entire classical pieces by ear, a remarkable thing, particularly in a child so young.  She was a prodigy. 

I recall her, at perhaps six, demonstrating her discovery that you can play different classical melodies over the same left hand accompaniment.  Her left hand never stopped playing, a steady heartbeat, even as she looked over her shoulder to talk to me as she went excitedly from one melody to the next.  

She also loved to sing, and once a teacher of her’s praised her for it, she began singing everywhere.  I had a message on my answering machine once, from her, at maybe seven, telling me excitedly that she was going to be on the radio at a certain time.  I tuned in and heard a remarkable a cappella vocal and then an interview with a supremely poised kid, who turned out to be her.

Her parents feared that becoming a child star would turn their already difficult daughter into a monster and mark her for the troubled life so many child stars seem to experience when they grow up.  They decided that instead of letting her perform (outside of school plays) that she would study music.   This, they reasoned, would have the collateral benefit of using her love of music to instill a sense of discipline in her.  They hired a series of classical piano teachers to instruct her, teach her to read music, hone her talent the traditional way. 

They did this with the best of intentions, neither understood that many great musicians and composers can’t read music. The long list includes Paul McCartney (and the rest of the Beatles), Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Stevie Wonder (obviously…), Django Reinhardt, Taylor Swift, Aretha Franklin and many others.  They also didn’t get that pure love of making music, the joy of invention, is what made these folks such great musicians.

The piano lessons were a constant source of stress and the succession of teachers was a testament both to the girl’s resistance and her parents’ insistence.   She didn’t need to practice, quickly mastered reading music and every new assignment, reversed hands as she played, without missing a beat, (out of boredom and contempt) and drove each teacher to distraction.  She did well in school and taught herself to play the flute, in her spare time. 

The fights with her mother continued, and as she got older, she got the better of every argument, with her excellent memory and ability to marshal the facts, and logic, to support her case.  Her overmatched mother was very frustrated with her opinionated, challenging little bitch of a daughter.

I watched her musical abilities change over the course of the classical piano lesson years. Eventually she could not play along to anything without counting in, knowing where each beat was supposed to go.  The regimentation of classical piano lessons had taken much of the joy and spontaneity out of music for her and she spent years afterwards recovering some of her unselfconscious excitement and native creativity.  Meanwhile, she turned to alcohol and a succession of mind-altering drugs.

Unsurprisingly, she turned out to be an excellent writer.  She got a job writing a column for an on-line magazine.  Her column was remarkable.  It explored her inner world in a compelling way.  After a few excellent posts she was somehow let go.  Her final piece was powerfully emotional and shocking, filled with harsh self-recrimination.  She wrote that she had been an asshole as a girl and adolescent and caused her parents and her brothers a great deal of pain.  She gave a public account of her drug addiction that included the excruciating detail of waking up on a bus from another city, groggy from ketamine, without her panties or any recollection of how she got there.

Knowing her since she was a fetus, and being one of her parents’ closest friends, I had watched the entire course of her life up until that point.  I had a perspective her parents couldn’t give her, and one it might take her decades, if ever, to come to on her own.  A friend of my parents, with a relatively simple observation about them, had accelerated my understanding of my life by many years when I was around her age.  I intended to pay this gift forward by providing the tormented young woman with some very good reasons to let herself off the hook. I made the offer several times over the years, and she was always initially enthusiastic, but she seemed to grow wary and the conversation never happened.

This wariness is a characteristic of people who have experienced childhood trauma.  I don’t know why I am not wary this way, since I experienced prolonged childhood trauma (perhaps it was my mother’s unerring sympathy for my point of view, in the end), but I recognize that many traumatized people are filled with distrust, even of people they love.  Anyone, we learn as young children, can inflict terrible pain, even without meaning to, and pain inflicted by those we love and trust hurts worst of all. 

I thought I’d put all this in a letter to her, but she never texted me her new address, as she’d cheerfully promised to do the last time I saw her.   Making the letter even more impossible than it was a few years ago, it will no longer be coming from a dear, cherished old family friend.  After an unforeseeable, brutal falling out with her folks,  the letter will now be coming from a vicious, angry, unforgiving, aggressive, sadistic, threatening, stubborn, lawyerly, satanically smart, twisted, unloving betrayer of love, which is how my old friends now see and portray me.   

Try that one on for size, impossible letter writer!

(impossible letter to follow)