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 you‘re 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.