Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some Hope (by St. Aubyn)

-In "Some Hope," the third of the Melrose novels, Patrick Melrose is basically sober and wondering what to do with his life. He suspects he could put aside memories of having been brutalized throughout childhood--if only he could take an interest in something else. Meanwhile, he cannot help but dwell on thoughts of his father:

"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again,' about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets,' about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid old man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."

Another memorable moment, when Patrick thinks about his mother:

She had frustrated her husband by refusing to go to bed with him, but Patrick would be the last person to blame her for that. It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.

-While Patrick is having these deep thoughts, a party is taking place. Someone rich has invited Princess Margaret for dinner. A group of somewhat interchangeable rich people fawn over Princess Margaret ("PM"). Someone accidentally spills gravy on PM, and PM requires the man to dab the juice off her gauzy dress. Everyone behaves badly. Everyone simpers before the Princess--and everyone believes he is putting on a beautiful performance, worthy of congratulation. Many are cruel to the one child on the periphery, a girl named Belinda, and to her nanny. The nanny herself is quite cruel to Belinda, even when in the presence of her employers (though she imagines that the employers love her and respect the work she is doing). The nanny's employers--who are quite wealthy--feel that she, the nanny, costs "a bomb."

-St. Aubyn's themes are: power, abuse, damage, insecurity...

-It's fun for me to read this, and I'm often wondering: How did St. Aubyn make the leap from half-dead-and-addicted-to-heroin to celebrated-author-of-several-widely-acclaimed-novels? Did he always suspect that this would happen? Was the writing very serious and focused from Day One--or were there relapses, abandoned efforts, months of despair?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cameron, Outlaws

Some Things Worth Smiling About

-Today, in NYC, it was almost like spring.

-Peter Cameron's "Coral Glynn" is now available in bookstores.

-The NYTimes gave ample coverage to "Eminent Outlaws," a book that argues that gay writers were/are largely responsible for making gay people and "gay lives" major subjects of discussion in twentieth-century and twenty-first-century America. The writer of this book begins with Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, who both published seminal early-career "gay novels" (in the same year? 1948? don't quote me on these parenthetical speculations)...Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the NYT Book Review, describes a fictional gay teenager "in the hinterlands," reading these two novels and suddenly feeling tethered to life. The novels, by the way, are Vidal's "The City and the Pillar" and Capote's (far superior) "Other Voices, Other Rooms." I smile when Tanenhaus makes this observation because I was that teenager; I did indeed live in the hinterlands, and I did indeed read--and take comfort in--both "Other Voices" and "City and the Pillar" before hitting the age of twenty. I was also delighted when Tanenhaus observed that "A Separate Peace"--a staple on so many high-school reading lists--is very clearly "a gay novel." How many clueless English teachers, asks Tanenhaus, taught--and are teaching--that book without really apprehending the mysteries between the lines? Certainly, my well-meaning and semi-senile ninth-grade teacher never observed to his students that Gene had many, many unstated wishes w/r/t Phineas...There's a reason my adolescent self had a special fondness for "A Separate Peace"; there's a reason why I am maybe one in six people on the planet who have read Knowles's clunky follow-up novel, "Peace Breaks Out"...Apparently, other writers highlighted in "Eminent Outlaws" include Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, William S. Burroughs, Armistead Maupin, Edward Albee, and Edmund White. One wonders why Peter Cameron is not mentioned in the NYT Books podcast...

-Eyal Press has written a book about four good people who risked ostracism--and worse--to do the right thing. These are store-Anne-Frank-in-your-attic kinds of people. I have looked for this book in bookstores--because this is how I like to spend my free time--but haven't found it yet.

-The YouTube clip of Kristen Wiig reading from Suzanne Somers's poetry is an ideal way to wake up in the morning--any morning.

Bagel Girl

-Kristen Wiig takes notes when she is sitting next to you on a plane. This is how an "aunt" character of hers came about. The woman next to her on a plane ride was saying bizarre things about the in-flight movie she was watching; she just couldn't follow the plot of the movie, and felt the need to broadcast this fact to everyone on the plane. Wiig was enchanted, and pulled out a notebook and began to record this woman's utterances. Wiig's trademark "Target lady" came from an actual "Target lady" in Burbank, CA. Wiig was checking out of that particular Target, and she listened to her check-out lady and thought, Wow, you have a really weird voice. And so an icon was born.

-I wonder what Wiig would do with the "Bagel Delight" employee across the street from me. I'll call her Bagel Girl. She is so sullen! I sometimes think, the harder I try to be pleasant to her, the deeper she withdraws into herself. You become accustomed to the people in your neighborhood--the dry-cleaning business owner, the bodega guy, the bouncer at the bar you live above who feels the need to engage you in chit-chat as a way of apologizing for the bar's noisiness (and the chit-chat is especially effusive on very noisy nights)--but I can't get a glimmer of recognition from Bagel Girl. Sometimes, I want to say, Bagel Girl, can we drop this charade? You know who I am; you know what I am going to order. Also, I've noticed that, with Bagel Girl, the standard pleasantries earn you some icy silence. If you say, "thank you," it's as if you're saying it to a wall. So you wonder, Should I say as little as possible? ...Bagel Girl makes me so uncomfortable, I've considered buying coffee elsewhere. But Le Bagel Delight is so convenient, and so cheap!

-Kristen Wiig might also enjoy the staff of the Mexican restaurant next to my building. The restaurant is called Pequena. I love this restaurant, and I've had a relationship with it since the very first months of my tenure as an NYC resident. I remember thinking, the first time I visited Pequena, What a fun restaurant, and what a cool neighborhood! ...Little did I know that one day I would basically live on top of Pequena. Anyway, Pequena seems to be owned/managed by an extraordinarily skillful, middle-aged woman who also acts as a waitress. She is crisp and no-nonsense. You would trust her with your newborn child. She calls you "honey" and does not smile...but her refusal to smile is not off-putting. It's more of a "We know and respect each other; let's cut the small talk and get down to business" gesture. Anyway, this waitress/restaurant-owner seems to employ only young-ish women with odd haircuts. The women dart about in this tiny restaurant and generally emulate their boss's cut-to-the-chase style. Once, though, recently, chaos broke out in the restaurant. As I awaited my take-out, I observed a fracas in the kitchen. Waitress/Owner was scolding Younger Waitress 1 for not having done something important with a pail of whipped cream. (At least this is what I inferred.) Younger Waitress 1 stood up to Waitress/Owner and said, I've been busy all night! Younger Waitress 2 supported YW 1, and both laughed at Waitress/Owner. Waitress/Owner said, I need you to focus! Focus! ...And the conflict was unresolved. Waitress/Owner sat on a stool and began tensely sending text messages. YWs 1 and 2 resumed their normal schedules. I got my take-out and went home.

-That particular story doesn't really have a point, but give me a break. It's Monday. Spring vacation is around the corner. The year is beginning to wind to a close.

Friday, February 24, 2012

St. Aubyn, NYTimes

More Trivia

-At the end of "Bad News," Patrick Melrose attempts to seduce a woman he meets in a bar. He and his new consort get in a cab to go to the Pierre Hotel, but the lady announces she would like some chili from a taco stand on 11th Ave. Patrick watches in disgust as his date downs a bowl of chili and a large banana sundae. He begins to insult her. We slip into the date's perspective to learn that she has no intention of sleeping with Patrick; perhaps she will get a free night at the Pierre, and breakfast in the morning. Back at the hotel, Patrick injects himself with more drugs while his date vomits in the bathroom. The date accuses Patrick of being hostile ("hos-tel"), and both man and woman pass out on the bed.....What is remarkable here is St. Aubyn's awareness of the mechanisms of self-delusion. Both man and woman tell themselves they want things other than the things they really want--and they justify their gross behavior with a series of private rationalizations. It's all very painful and very funny, like life.

-At the beginning of the third Melrose novel, "Some Hope," our hero is around thirty, and he has kicked his bad habit:

As the drugs had worn off, a couple of years earlier, he had started to realize what it must be like to be lucid all the time, an unpunctuated stretch of consciousness, a white tunnel, hollow and dim, like a bone with the marrow sucked out. "I want to die, I want to die, I want to die," he found himself muttering in the middle of the most ordinary task, swept away by a landslide of regret as the kettle boiled or the toast popped up.

At the same time, his past lay before him like a corpse waiting to be embalmed. He was woken every night by savage nightmares; too frightened to sleep, he climbed out of his sweat-soaked sheets and smoked cigarettes until the dawn crept into the sky, pale and dirty as the gills of a poisonous mushroom. His flat in Ennismore Gardens was strewn with violent videos which were a shadowy expression of the endless reel of violence that played in his head. Constantly on the verge of hallucination, he walked on ground that undulated softly, like a swallowing throat.

Can anyone else write like this? ...St. Aubyn has been called "Evelyn Waugh with a splash of Proust." He can be as funny and dark as Waugh, but there is a moral seriousness, a searching quality, that occasionally makes you stop and re-read a page. Waugh, as I recall, was also brutalized by his father. (See "Fathers and Sons," a great book by Waugh's relative--grandson?--Alexander.)

-Anyway, here's one more paragraph, because I can't resist. I should note here that St. Aubyn makes use of a godlike, omniscient narrator; though we're usually in Patrick's head, we occasionally dip into the consciousness of random, minor characters, and this technique produces gems (no context necessary) such as:

Why had he said Banquo? Nancy wondered, in her husky inner voice which, even in the deepest intimacy of her own thoughts, was turned to address a large and fascinated audience. Could he, in some crazy way, feel responsible for his father's death? Because he had wished for it so often in fantasy? God, she had become good at this after seventeen years of analysis. After all, as Dr. Morris had said when they were talking through their affair, what was an analyst but a former patient who couldn't think of anything better to do? Sometimes she missed Jeffrey. He had let her call him Jeffrey during the "letting-go process" that had been brought to such an abrupt close by his suicide. Without even a note! Was she really meeting the challenges of life, as Jeffrey had promised? Maybe she was "incompletely analysed." It was too dreadful to contemplate.

This is almost too much. And yet it works. The husky inner voice, the throwaway reference to "their affair," the casual allusion to Jeffrey's suicide--few people can write such poisonous, funny paragraphs. (Rachel Cusk comes to mind.) ...The splendor of this passage is made all the more notable by the fact that we never see Nancy again--or, at least, not for the rest of "Bad News."

-Unrelated: One of the NYTimes "most-read" articles yesterday was about living alone. Apparently, 1 out of 2 Manhattan residents inhabits a 1-person-only apartment. Various spouse-less, roommate-less men and women are interviewed, and they cheerfully divulge the secrets of their eccentricity. Peeing without shutting the bathroom door! Eating peanut butter in the kitchen--standing up--at 2 AM! Talking to oneself regularly in French! ...And to all of this, I will add some of my own eccentricities. I am naked as I type this! There is almost a constant stream of show tunes running through my studio! There is a fair amount of reading aloud--and mumbling to oneself--within these four walls...And yes, it's nice. It's fun to live alone. But it can also be sort of tedious...

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Some Random Observations

-Three cheers for the affectionate, teasing piece about The Meryl Streep Acceptance Speech on the NYer website. The NYer observes that Streep's acceptance speeches are as layered as five-act plays--with predictable sighs, self-deprecating jokes, moments of irony, and stirring, move-me-to-tears conclusions. Take, for example, one of her "Devil Wears Prada" speeches. It begins, as the NYer rightly points out, with "an incomprehensible anecdote about a snake." It moves to standard territory: Emily Blunt is "delicious," Anne Hathaway is wonderful. (Note that Hathaway is thanked after Blunt. And notice how little effusiveness Hathaway inspires in Streep. Compare Streep's statements about Hathaway to Streep's statements about other promising co-stars, e.g. Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Does this bother Hathaway? For whatever reason, these are the things I think about.) ...Anyway, Streep surprises everyone by wrapping up with a big statement about the movie industry--and about the poor circulation of worthy films, e.g. "Volver." Can this be spur-of-the-moment? Or did Streep wake up that morning thinking, If I win, I'm going to turn my acceptance speech into a piece of advocacy for "Volver"? ...At other times, her speeches become quiet feminist statements. "Everyone wins when a woman gets a part like this..." I really enjoy Streep. I like that she speaks her mind. I also like an anecdote about her early career; she was over an hour late to an audition because of circumstances beyond her control, and she thought, "I am not going to apologize excessively for this; I'm going to apologize once and move on." ...And then she won the role.

-Surely, though, we can all agree that this year's Best Actress Oscar should go to Kristen Wiig for "Bridesmaids"? Oh, wait, she wasn't nominated? Well, then Adepero Oduye for "Pariah"? Not nominated?? Hmmm...OK, how about Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk about Kevin"? Again, not nominated?? Then Vera Farmiga for "Higher Ground"? No nomination, you say? My goodness! Those folks at the Oscars make some strange decisions!

-I enjoyed the Judy Blume interview in the NYTimes. Blume was asked to name her Oscar Picks. I don't share her enthusiasm for "The Artist," but I'm with her on "Tree of Life." Also, it's just fun to imagine pretty Judy Blume, taking breaks from her millionth novel to stroll into a Florida theater for a screening of "Bridesmaids"...

-The actor Nina Arianda is 27. She made it big almost immediately after graduating from NYU; she was cast in the off-Broadway production of "Venus in Fur." The Broadway transfer has her name before Hugh Dancy's--at least in the ads. Critics have compared her to a young Meryl Streep. I especially like this story about her: when working on "Midnight in Paris," she was handed a camera. Someone said, "Woody wants you to have this." She had to make a choice right away, so she decided to have her character taking photos exclusively of her husband, played by Michael Sheen. This is subtle and funny, and it's precisely what her character would do. I'm impressed by how alert Arianda is. Lastly, for some reason, I'm interested in her late-night routine, which, she says, involves a dose of Throat Coat, some "Downton Abbey," and then a good deal of sleep.

-Three cheers for Edward St. Aubyn, who received a glowing review from Michiko Kakutani yesterday. Some choice lines from St. Aubyn's novel: "I think my mother's death is the best thing to happen to me since...well, since my father's death." "Emily was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions." "The woman had flown in some impossible flower from Tibet which bloomed for about three minutes and cost as much as a house."

-I especially like Patrick Melrose's mother's narcissistic reply when Patrick confronts her with evidence that Daddy was a child-rapist: "Well, he abused me, too." Nice one, Mom! ...And, lastly, I enjoy this passage (w/r/t Melrose's father) from "Bad News":

"When Dad was around," said Patrick, "people were always falling off rocks, or nearly drowning, or bursting into tears. His life consisted of acquiring more and more victims for his malevolence and then losing them again."

"He must have been charming as well," said Nancy.

"He was a kitten," said Patrick.

"But wouldn't we now say that he was just very disturbed?" asked Eddy.

"So what if we did? When the effect somebody has is destructive enough the cause becomes a theoretical curiosity. There are some very nasty people in the world and it is a pity if one of them is your father."

"I don't think that people knew so much about how to bring up kids in those days. A lot of parents in your father's generation just didn't know how to express their love."

"Cruelty is the opposite of love," said Patrick, "not just some inarticulate version of it."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bad News (by Edward St. Aubyn)

-As Patrick mourns (or doesn't mourn?) the loss of his father, he searches for heroin:

The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? 'Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third.' What woman would not be proud to be 'among the medals' in such a contest?

-It's tricky to write about addiction because addicts are boring. They have sold their souls for one thing--one uninteresting thing--and that's the end of the story.

-Reading "Bad News," I am reminded of "Cost," by Roxana Robinson. That's maybe the most memorable heroin novel I've ever read. Robinson dips into her addict's consciousness only occasionally; for most of the novel, we're reading about the addict's relatives. One of the things that is so admirable about "Cost" is that Robinson lets her "golden boy" die: We imagine that this kid's life will be saved, but in fact he is killed off before the end of the novel. And this, apparently, is a standard fate for heroin addicts. (When I say "standard," I'm not sure what the numbers are. It's possible more addicts die than survive. But it's clear that you can become addicted to heroin and make it out alive. This seems to have happened to James Taylor, and to Edward St. Aubyn.)

-I have been frustrated by parts of "Bad News" simply because I can't get very interested in the inner life of a heroin addict. St. Aubyn drags us through pages and pages of hallucinatory dialogue happening within the addict's head; this seems self-indulgent. I would rather know what is happening to some of the witty, damaged people St. Aubyn introduced to the reader in "Never Mind."

-On the other hand, there are so many impressive sentences, e.g.

He closed his eyes and the taste rippled over him like an hallucination. Cheaper wine would have buried him in fruit, but the grapes he imagined now were mercifully artificial, like earrings of swollen yellow pearls. He pictured the long sinewy shoots of the vine, dragging him down into the heavy reddish soil. Traces of iron and stone and earth and rain flashed across his palate and tantalized him like shooting stars. Sensations long wrapped in a bottle now unfurled like a stolen canvas...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Never Mind (by Edward St. Aubyn)

Thoughts on the First of the "Patrick Melrose" Novels

-Edward St. Aubyn has been called by Alan Hollinghurst the greatest British prose stylist of his generation. Picador is trying to launch St. Aubyn in the U.S. by packaging all of St. Aubyn's early "Patrick Melrose" novels ("Never Mind," "Bad News," "Some Hope," and "Mother's Milk") in one volume. The release of this volume coincides with the hardcover publication of the last of the Melrose novels, "At Last."

-Having heard of St. Aubyn via Francine Prose's recent contribution to the NYT Books podcast, I was delighted to see the early Melrose novels on a list of book-review candidates that circulates among reviewers for PopMatters. I haven't written for PopMatters in a while, and I'm fascinated by St. Aubyn, so I've signed on to review the first four Melrose novels.

-It's weird to have reading as your "job." What makes someone a skilled reader? In "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Sherman Alexie observes that you have to read a novel at least three times--once to notice the plot, once to notice the themes, and once to notice the language. This observation was like a visit from a savior for me, because I'd often felt guilty, just reading for plot. I've noticed that when I do return to a novel for a second or third reading, it's like stepping from black-and-white into the technicolor world of Oz. There is so much you notice--so much that you couldn't possibly notice in a first reading.

-I don't have time to read the four early Melrose novels three times each, then crank out a review. My review is going to be late no matter what I do--even if I read each novel just once.

-In an effort to make the review as thoughtful as possible, I figured I'd list questions/reactions here, as I read. Now I'll have something to look back at in a week or two.

-Here's the scene where the six-year-old Patrick is raped by his father--the centerpiece of the novel, something you're unprepared for:

"What are you doing?" he asked, but his father did not answer and Patrick was too scared to repeat the question. His father's hand was pushing down on him and, his face squashed into the folds of the bedspread, he could hardly breathe. He stared fixedly up at the curtain pole and the top of the open windows. He could not understand what form the punishment was now taking, but he knew that his father must be very angry with him to be hurting him so much. He could not stand the helplessness that washed over him. He could not stand the unfairness. He did not know who this man was, it could not be his father who was crushing him like this.

From the curtain pole, if he could get up on the curtain pole, he could have sat looking down on the whole scene, just as his father was looking down on him. For a moment, Patrick felt he was up there watching with detachment the punishment inflicted by a strange man on a small boy. As hard as he could Patrick concentrated on the curtain pole and this time it lasted longer, he was sitting up there, his arms folded, leaning back against the wall...

Patrick recognized, dully at first and then more vividly, the humiliation of his position. Face down on the bed, with his trousers bunched around his knees and a strange, worrying wetness at the base of his spine. It made him think he was bleeding. That, somehow, his father had stabbed him in the back.

-If you have been abused by a parent, you may know what it's like to divorce yourself from the scene--to leave your body and hover over the room, watching. And you may also know the psychic cost of this kind of dissociation. Patrick ends up a heroin addict in his early twenties, and who can blame him?

-Reading a recent review of "How I Learned to Drive," I noticed a memorable phrase: "the damage that damaged people can do." This is precisely the subject of the Melrose novels. Damage is handed down--from one generation to the next. It's miraculous that St. Aubyn fought his way out of his condition. At the very least, it's unusual.

-St. Aubyn's occasional sympathy for the father/rapist character is stunning. St. Aubyn makes you see the power of rationalization. David Melrose, the rapist, is hardly human--but, to some extent, you can understand what is happening in his head. "I am human; nothing human can be alien to me..."

Monday, February 20, 2012


Things I Hate about the Restaurant "Supper," in the East Village

-When you elbow your way into the tiny waiting area to speak with the skinny, unsmiling hostess, you have to brace yourself for lies. For example, "It should be about thirty minutes" generally means, "It should be somewhere between sixty and seventy minutes."

-While in line, you might find yourself next to a snotty New Yorker, who might boldly cut you and begin hurling insults at the hostess. "Really? Ninety minutes?" says this irascible patron. "Do what you can to make it faster." ...And you wonder, does she really imagine that the restaurant staff will respond to such a bizarre command? "Do what you can to make it faster"--? ...As the snotty New Yorker moves away from the hostess, she will bump into you--she will almost tackle you--and she will not acknowledge her clumsiness. She won't even notice that you're standing there.

-Why should a popular restaurant in New York City bother to take reservations? Or equip itself to accept credit cards? No reservations; cash only. It seems, the less user-friendly the restaurant is, the more desirable it becomes...

-When you are finally seated in a dingy, cramped corner of the basement dungeon that is Supper's annex, you must get ready to make apologies. For example, I found myself apologizing when my testy waitress frowned at me and said, "I keep stepping on the back of your coat." And then I wondered, wait, is this my coat's fault? Is my coat doing a two-step to try to frustrate my waitress? Surely, if my waitress is stepping on the back of my coat, one possible solution would be for the waitress to STOP stepping on the back of my coat? Or, perhaps, to direct me to a coat-hanger? But, no, I was left to fold my coat into a bigass lap-warmer, and then I sat with it and tried hard to make myself as small as possible, so I would not cause any further disturbances by taking up space.

-Take a caffeine pill before you attempt to wait in line for the bathroom. And never close your eyes--not for a second. This is war...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Whitney Memories

Some More Thoughts on Whitney

-I have the good fortune to see--everyday--a friend who shares a large part of my outlook on life. Without her, I might not have thought so much about Whitney this week. The first thing my friend said when she saw me on Monday was, "I believe the children are our future..." By Tuesday, we were YouTube-surfing for "I Will Always Love You" (with its stunninng, 45-second a capella opening...would anyone else be audacious enough to try this?), "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "How Will I Know," and "So Emotional." My friend confessed that she had spent a large portion of Sunday listening to Whitney's first two albums back-to-back, in mourning.

-For me, a Whitney Houston song is like a trip down the rabbit hole of memory. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I was profoundly unhappy. I imagined that there was something deeply wrong with me, and I went through life in a kind of foggy panic. I fantasized about suicide. One thing that could momentarily pop the bubble of my preoccupations was: music. Some of my most vivid memories are car rides, when my dad would play Neil Young or the Grateful Dead, or (to indulge my own interests) show tunes. I remember when my brother presented me with my first cassette tape: "Like a Prayer," by Madonna. I remember, also, his tireless and adorable advocacy on behalf of the 10,000 Maniacs, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Aerosmith...(How fascinated I was by "Janie's Got a Gun"--!) ...I remember trips to Pilot Field, where I would suffer through a Bisons AAA game, and sometimes I would be rewarded at the end with a concert--Chicago, Billy Joel...And I remember Whitney. I have this image in my head: My mom is at jazz-ercise, and I am in the day care area, and I can hear "So Emotional" through the walls...and I'm thinking, Gosh, I would rather be out there dancing with those women; I have no urge to sit here and play with these blocks...

-I remember assemblies at my elementary school, Drake. Often, the assemblies seemed a bit sloppy, and they came from nowhere; in other words, you would be sitting at your desk coloring a maze, and then, without context, your teacher would say, "Now we'll go to the gym and listen to music about self-esteem." And you would wonder, Why? Where is this coming from? ...And you would think, I guess this is just the way life is--a bit disjointed and surprising...Anyway, I remember a woman serenading my classmates and me with "The Greatest Love of All." What a thrill that was! Beats multiplication tables, hands down.

-I recall the many years--the many consecutive years--when the Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl and lost. I had to attend Super Bowl parties each of these years, and I would mostly sit and wonder why I had no interest in this sport that seemed to captivate everyone else in my hometown. But, again, music occasionally penetrated the fog of those Super Bowl parties. I remember Michael Jackson singing "Heal the World" at half-time. I remember Whitney's Star-Spangled Banner, called by many "the greatest ever rendition of our national anthem." I remember the controversy: Was she lip-synching? ...This was fascinating to me...

-I remember Bobby Brown and "My Prerogative." There was something mythical and dangerous about him; I could perceive this even when I knew next-to-nothing about the world. (And I woke up this morning thinking, Why haven't I heard any Tina Turner commentary about Whitney's death? There have been comments from Aretha, Mariah...What does Tina--who lived through her own hell with Ike--have to say about all of this?)

-My favorite of the many observations I've read this week is: Whitney didn't need sets. When she came on-stage, she was not dressed in a bikini or miming self-abuse or hurling fireballs at the audience. She was just singing. She didn't need a distracting spectacle.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

One Moment in Time

Further Reflections on Whitney

(Clearly, this week, Ms. Houston has been on my mind.)

-Sometimes, singers talk about various flourishes in a surprising way. Julia Murney was once interviewed by Seth Rudetsky, and Rudetsky was praising a weird little thing Murney did with a vowel, or with a bit of phrasing. He played the excerpt, and he was right; Murney's choices were bizarre and really memorable. The surprising bit of the interview was this: Murney said, "None of that was planned. I was just singing." ...You see that, don't you, in people who are really good at their jobs? There are things they do unconsciously that take your breath away. This is true of singers, but it's also true of people in just about any profession. What I love about "One Moment in Time," which is kind of a syrupy, forgettable song, is this: Whitney has a rather bland descending line, something about "one lifetime," and she turns it upside down. She does something with the syllables--something very small--that makes the line exciting. I wish I had the vocabulary for this. Anyway, look up the clip where she's at the Grammys in white--and see if you notice what I'm talking about.

-I have also been reminded, this week, of my love for "Didn't We Almost Have It All?" Again, not a terribly remarkable song, but listen to this woman! She invests so much crazy passion into each treacly line! At times, she sounds homicidal! I didn't really notice this when I was a kid, but listening again this week, I keep thinking, wow, that lady is GOING THROUGH IT!

-The attention paid to Houston is all the more notable, I think...given that the songs themselves were often paper-thin. When we worship Houston, we are just worshipping the voice. Just a voice. No matter how snooty your musical tastes are, you have to bow down before that voice.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ads and Other Important Matters

What's on My Mind

-In "How Will I Know," when Whitney repeatedly sings, "I'm asking you, cause you know about these things," what is she talking about? Who am I supposed to be, in this song? Is this declaration really necessary? And did the songwriters try out other lines? The sentence has always grated on me, even when I was a little kid. I recognized that it was a writer's way of filling some air time. I wanted to say, Whitney, I'm no fool. I know that's a throwaway lyric. Try harder.

-What is "GCB"? It appears, from the subway ads, that this show features Kristin Chenoweth as a slutty gospel singer? I certainly hope I'm making correct inferences. Love you, Kristin.

-Why has the saxophone solo disappeared from pop music? And will Lady Gaga ("Edge of Glory") bring it back?

-Are the subway ads for storage space--you know, the ones that have smirking liberal tag lines--really effective? They make my skin crawl. They seem to say, "Feel good about yourself because you have disdain for a large portion of America." You know the ads I mean. There's the name of a storage warehouse, and then a random, bitchy comment about Mitt Romney or about the Mets. I always want to say, You don't know what I like and dislike, Storage Warehouse Company. You are not my friend. Also, you're just a storage warehouse; don't overshoot your bounds. Persuade me to store my stuff with you; don't talk to me about Michele Bachmann.

-Was Denzel Washington born awesome? Or did he really have to work at it?

-I really, really enjoy the new "Mad Men" ads....the ones that have a sea of white and then a short tagline, e.g. "Adultery is back," "Envy is back".....Matthew Weiner, you get my pulse racing. Well done.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Momma and the Meaning of Life (by Irvin Yalom)

-Irvin Yalom sometimes had/has patients listen to audiotapes of previous sessions as they drove/drive to meet him on any given afternoon. Can you imagine? Can you imagine subjecting yourself to an hour-long recording of all the whiny, repetitive things you had said recently in therapy? Spare me all that brutal honesty, at least for now.

-Is one of the main goals of life closing the gap between your perception of yourself and your actual role in the outside world? You can tell--can't you?--the difference between someone who is reasonably well-adjusted and someone who clings to a false notion of his or her own power/appearance/way-of-being?

-Yalom's number-one piece of advice is, "Make friends with death." Get to know death very, very well; this knowledge will inspire you to make an effort to live your life. Fear of death may prevent you from living; you may become so paralyzed with terror, or insecurity, that you neglect to make any kind of splash. It is easiest to die if you have lived well; it is people who have had miserable lives who tend to struggle the most with death. A parallel observation: Bereaved widows who are recalling happy marriages tend to move through their grief rather quickly. It's the widows whose marriages were unhappy--it's THESE widows who can't let go. And well-raised, emotionally secure children have a fairly easy time saying goodbye to their families and striking out on their own. It's the kids who dislike their families--it's THESE kids who find that they can't quite leave their families behind.

-A therapist is in constant danger of countertransference--the process whereby a therapist's irrational feelings color his relationship with his patient. It's not that a therapist cannot engage emotionally with a patient; it's that the therapist must be aware when his own history and his own biases color his responses. And the patient's job is just to talk--to say whatever comes to mind. Yalom is often on shaky ground because he rejects the Freudian idea of the icy, impenetrable therapist. (Freud himself didn't follow his prescriptions; Freud engaged emotionally with patients, and more and more therapists seem to do this.) ...Yalom recalls with sadness the therapist who told him that he had worked with a group of patients for ten years; this therapist said, triumphantly, "Each one of my patients changed significantly, and I did not change at all!" ...Yalom feels that a therapist SHOULD be changed by his encounter with a patient. The therapist and patient heal each other. A therapist should invent a new kind of therapy for each patient. Often, the project of inventing the therapy becomes the therapy itself.

-This stuff is like candy to me. I devour it. Recently, a co-worker asked me what I was reading, and I cheerfully said, "Some essays on death!" She looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head...but, a few weeks later, I felt less odd when she confessed to me that her current pleasure reading is "Midnight's Children." You have to have some appreciation for eccentricity if your own source of weeknight literary pleasure is "Midnight's Children"...

Edward St. Aubyn, Whitney Houston

-The British writer Edward St. Aubyn was raped by his father when he was six. This kind of abuse persisted until Edward's eighth year, when he somehow found the courage to stand up to his father. Papa St. Aubyn died young. Mama St. Aubyn was a cruel and ineffective mother who was happy to carry out charitable acts anywhere but in her own home. Edward became a heroin addict. At twenty-five, he attempted suicide. He began to see a therapist; he realized, Either I will write my story or I will kill myself. Over the years, St. Aubyn has told the story of a character named "Patrick Melrose," first in a trilogy, then in "Mother's Milk," and now in "At Last." Francine Prose says these are spectacular novels, and it's criminal they are not well-known in America. The character of Patrick Melrose is clearly a stand-in for St. Aubyn. Edward, however, has insisted that the novels are not memoirs...He feels his life's work is to turn excruciating experiences into well-crafted fiction.

-Michael Shannon had a rocky start to his acting career. He was fired from at least one project; he was in danger of getting fired from at least one more. Directors seemed to respond in a visceral way to something powerful in him...but directors didn't know how to use him. He sometimes resisted molding--resisted following another artist's orders.

-Rachel McAdams has said that her fatal flaw is believing that everything will take just about ten minutes. My flaw is quite the opposite--believing that everything will take several years, at least. And this is why McAdams is a perky movie star, and I am hemming and hawing more often than not. It would be useful to imagine that each new challenge is no big deal, something easily dealt with, something that will take "just about ten minutes."

-Who sings that creepy song at the end of "Safe House"? The one with the thudding bass? That song--plus the presence of Denzel--was enough to persuade me to see the movie.....I sometimes wish all movies were musicals. Often, I am so tired by Friday evening, I need a big sensory jolt. A sweeping score. Soaring high notes. A quiet domestic drama will not cut it. I need a gospel choir and a major anthem every ten to fifteen minutes.

-One woman who made fabulous movie musicals was Whitney Houston. Have you read the creepy (and oddly sloppy) piece about Houston on the "New Yorker" website? (The author of the piece was Sasha Frere Jones...Did no one at "The New Yorker" have editorial suggestions for Mr. Jones?) ...Anyway, the thesis of the NYer piece is that, for the past ten years or so, we have been watching Houston die. Jones posits that Houston herself was aware she would be dying young; he says you can hear some resignation in the songs from her last album. I always loved Whitney. Running in Prospect Park, I often played "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" back-to-back with "I Will Always Love You." I would play these two songs over and over and over again. I sometimes imagined I was Whitney herself, strolling imperiously down abandoned alleys (as she did in at least one video), smiling ruefully, swinging those hips...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Clementi, Scott, DeHaan

More General Observations

-Is Mrs. Clementi, in fact, a nice, reasonable person? This is tricky territory, since she is an actual human being, not a character in a novel. Discussing the Clementi article yesterday with my school's librarian, I learned that there is some suspicion w/r/t Mrs. Clementi. Was she doing her job? How much of all mental illness is the product of a rough childhood, and are rough childhoods always the fault of the primary caregiver? ...My school's art teacher observed that her child's roommate had recently committed suicide. She said that the child's parents were wonderful people, and the child's family life had seemed better-than-good. Isn't it interesting that some people fight through hell in their first twenty years, and then have happy, productive lives? Some people are like Thomas Cromwell, or Oprah.

-Reviewing the greatest hits of "Aida," I was reminded of my love for Sherie Rene Scott. Scott has a natural, effortless quality that is immensely appealing. My favorite of her roles is in "The Last Five Years." Though I have reservations about the show itself, I am reliably moved by both Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. (I imagine I have a love letter to Butz stored somewhere in my head; stay tuned.) Also, I particularly enjoy Scott's appearance on "Ask a Star" (see YouTube). Scott is asked, "What is your strongest suit?" (a reference to Scott's most notorious song from "Aida")...The person asking the question (via email) happens to be named "Heather." Scott gets a leering, lascivious look on her face, and says, "I assume that question came from Heather Headley...and Heather, I think you know what my strongest suit is." (Scott winks.) "...We were all very young then," she adds. "It was so, so long ago..." I enjoy the mix of dirtiness and absurdity in almost everything Scott says. I will always remember the bizarre, erotic speeches about Mr. Rogers in Scott's "Everyday Rapture."

-Dane DeHaan is worth the price of admission, if you're considering seeing "Chronicle." I had the pleasure of seeing an undiscovered DeHaan off-Broadway a few years ago in a play by Annie Baker. Even then (and could DeHaan have still been in his teens?), you sensed that this guy had the intensity and wisdom of an emerging star. (Incidentally, that night, I was seated in front of a petite woman named Marisa Tomei.) ...Anyway, it was a delight to see that DeHaan had landed a well-earned role in Season 3 of "In Treatment" (and I can't believe I haven't watched this yet)...I predict that "Chronicle" will solidify DeHaan's reputation, and (here's hoping) turn him into something like the next Leonardo DiCaprio...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cunningham, Boo, Taylor

Some General Observations

-How irritating Michael Cunningham's most recent novel is! This guy is in love with the sound of his own voice. If I went back and read "The Hours" again, would I love it as I loved it nine years ago? How lazy is it to include "and still, and yet" and other such wasteful bits of meaningless verbiage in your novel? A novel is a novel, not an e-mail. Choose your words with some care. And do you think, Mr. Cunningham, it's enough to make frequent, half-hearted allusions to Mizzy's you think this is enough to establish that Mizzy is, in fact, great? Have you never taught a writing class? Have you never heard that old adage, "Show, don't tell"---? I don't believe in the character for a second. And since he is the hinge for your novel, this is a major problem. Lastly, I know that you're trying to channel Virginia Woolf, but I can't recall a Woolf passage as windy and self-indulgent as even the best page in "By Nightfall." (Maybe I'm wrong, though; maybe Woolf, like Cunningham, is overrated. Diana Athill certainly thinks that Woolf is overrated.)

-When I worked in publishing, I was very much interested in Katherine Boo and wanted her to write a book. Now, almost a decade has passed, and what do we get? "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." It has been heavily implied that this is the greatest non-fiction book about India since Orwell took on the topic many, many years ago. Can you imagine creating such a thing? ...Boo has some kind of illness that would lead many other people to give up on writing. She took some time off after high school, then went to Barnard, then found herself ascending the ranks of various publications, including "The New Yorker." She does not believe it is her job to make policy prescriptions; she simply tells the truth as carefully as possible, and hopes that perhaps someone in power will have the brief experience of understanding and empathizing with someone who is powerless (someone who is described in her book). Because of a MacArthur, Boo was able to get surgery on one hand; if she hadn't received this surgery, she may not have been able to continue writing. Boo has spent the last several years living in the slums of Mumbai, where she has earned the respect of the various people she has studied. She does not speak the languages of her subjects. She has written about their response to the sugary, offensive, irresponsible mess that was "Slumdog Millionaire." Her aim is to erase the word "I" from all of her reporting. The work is so intimate, so carefully observed, that you imagine you are reading a novel.

-Did you know that Elizabeth Taylor's first Oscar, for "Butterfield 8," was a sympathy Oscar? In other words, it's not that Taylor's work was amazing...Oscar voters simply felt bad for her because she was going through a rough time...Also, Taylor's big splash as an adult actor was "A Place in the Sun." I haven't seen this, and I'm eager to see it...Taylor had two Tennessee Williams hits: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly Last Summer." (Katherine Hepburn is in the latter...I can remember watching it in college. I would very much like to read about Hollywood depictions of homosexuality mid-century--and were audiences really aware of the things they were seeing when they were watching "Suddenly Last Summer"?) ...Anyway, I think Taylor's last triumph was "Who's Afraid of VW?" She won her second Oscar, and then things went wrong. She made bad movie after bad movie. She stopped getting offers. Can you imagine being Elizabeth Taylor--and struggling to get movie offers?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tyler Clementi

Some Questions/Observations Provoked by the "New Yorker" Article about Tyler Clementi

-When Clementi asked his mother to take him on a tour of NYC's major bridges, did Mrs. Clementi wonder if something was wrong? The answer seems to be no...but I can't help but wonder, was there a voice in the back of Mrs. Clementi's head that said, My son has never been interested in bridges before.....?

-The Clementis seem like nice and reasonable parents. Could they have known what was going on inside Tyler Clementi's head? Did Tyler Clementi himself recognize what was going on in his head? ...One of the many heart-breaking moments in the article is the final story, in which Mrs. Clementi recalls approaching her son to talk about the suicide of a former classmate. Clementi said, "Don't worry, Mom. I would never do anything like that." ...Did he mean it, at the time? Reading this article, you continually think about how mysterious we are to one another--and how mysterious we can be toward ourselves. I also thought of a family of one of the Columbine killers (and I do not mean to suggest that there was anything similar between the horrific acts at Columbine and the tragedy that befell Tyler Clementi)...I thought of a father of one of the Columbine killers, who was stupefied by what his son had done. He wondered who had been living under his house all these years in which he had imagined he was sharing a roof with a decent, caring son. He said to a reporter, "I have lost my best friend."

-I also think of the myth of Narcissus, in which N falls in love with a 2-D version of himself. Are we ever able to see more than two dimensions? Is it possible to know someone--even a child, a spouse--in "3-D"?

-What kind of life will Dharun Ravi have?

-Did Clementi regret his decision in the split second before impact?

-How does a complex story so quickly become a black-and-white tale of heroes and villains? Why do we feel a need to impose moralistic narratives onto the mess of incomprehensible data that is human experience? And does Joan Didion plan to write about Tyler Clementi? How about Janet Malcolm? This story seems to be crying out for their attention...

Monday, February 6, 2012


Books I Am Currently Eager to Read

-Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym
-Anything by Melanie Klein
-Anything by Donald Winnicott
-Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse
-Diane Keaton's memoir
-Sister, by Rosamund Lupton
-In the Woods, by Tana French

Movies I Am Eager to See

-Safe House, the creepy Denzel-Washington-as-Hannibal-Lecterish-figure thriller
-Declaration of War
-Vanya on 42nd St.
-Once upon a Time in Anatolia
-Heavenly Creatures

Cultural Events I Want to Attend

-Laura Benanti at American Songbook
-Cynthia Nixon in Wit
-Porgy and Bess (still)
-MoMA's Diego Rivera Show
-Madame Butterfly at the Met


Some Observations from the Weekend

-Did you know that Anthony Perkins was 39 before he had a heterosexual relationship? (Yes, Anthony Perkins, of "Psycho.") Perkins was rumored to have slept with a number of men before his late thirties--men such as Rock Hudson and Stephen Sondheim. (Yes! Stephen Sondheim! Sondheim and Perkins collaborated on a writing project. Is this not bizarre?)...Perkins eventually married and had kids, and then died of AIDS. He hid his AIDS from the world; his disease was not common knowledge until after he had died. His wife--who did not have AIDS--refused to comment on whence Perkins's AIDS had come. Perkins spent long bouts of his professional life sitting home and playing the piano, angry that casting directors were not calling him. (Why didn't he choose to play more of a role in his own life?) ...Perkins is now on screen in repertory at Film Forum; you can see Perkins with Tuesday Weld in "Pretty Poison." What you'll notice right away about Perkins is that he was extraordinarily handsome and observant, and he had an innate understanding of timing. Why was his life such a mess?

-Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" is now off-Broadway. I saw it with a brainy friend who dismissed it as moralistic and trite...but I disagree. "Drive" is a thoughtful, gorgeous story about a woman who is burrowing into her past. She has had a troubled relationship with her uncle; her uncle has wanted to romance her, and in some ways, she has been complicit in this love affair. As you watch, you have a sense of peeling back the layers of an onion; there are things Vogel can't quite admit to us right away, because she can't admit them to herself. And then there is a shattering climax. The character of the child molester is unique and heartbreaking; he's played by Norbert Leo Butz, and I'm delighted I've again had a chance to see Butz on stage. Lastly, it's worth seeing "Drive" if you're currently reading Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child"; Vogel's insights into childhood, and into memory, nicely complement some of the observations Miller makes.

-Will Daniel Radcliffe really have a long-lasting film career? I think he's handsome, and I'm pleased that he reads so many challenging books (at least according to "'O' Magazine"), but I'm rarely excited when he is on screen.

-One reason to watch the Oscars this year is to root for "A Separation" as it fights against the other best-foreign-picture nominees. The Oscars have not always been wise in their decisions w/r/t this award. Still, I have a good feeling about "A Separation." It's exciting to chart the life of this movie in NYC--from little-known curiosity to force-so-powerful-it-has-even-made-an-appearance-at-BAM.

-Alice Miller writes that you must experience the rage and confusion you suppressed in childhood. You must experience it now, or you will continue to rely on neurotic crutches. Write about your childhood. Keep track of your dreams. Spend time with children. Notice how you respond. It's possible to have a full life. It's also possible to succumb to the myth of Narcissus, in which you fall in love with a distorted reflection of yourself. (You become prey to grandiosity.) ...Also, lastly, it's worth reading both Miller and Horney for their startling interpretations of various myths. Did you know that the expulsion from the Garden of Eden really represents the squandering of our authentic selves (at least according to Horney)? ...We become neurotic, we become unhelpful, in part because we have committed ourselves to lives of grandiosity and contempt...

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Gods Love Nubia

Some (More) Thoughts on Heather Headley

-One of my inspirations in writing this blog was the work of Seth Rudetsky. Rudetsky is a musician, writer, and actor. He should be a role model to all gay men. He's a small, odd-looking, slightly effeminate man who has sort of conquered the world. He has a husband and a child. He has appeared on Broadway, despite lacking any conventional, marketable acting skills. He gives fabulous readings of major musicals with starry casts--and the proceeds go to good causes (e.g. Gay Men's Health Crisis). He--Rudetsky--begins some of his appearances by saying, "You were raised in a household in which it was important for you to know all about end zones and penalties and field goals. Musical theater is a form of sport. It is just as valid to be obsessed with Idina Menzel's chest voice as it is to memorize the names of all of the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame." .....He--Rudetsky--contributes articles to playbills that are livelier and more informative than all the other playbill articles you will see. (Reading Rudetsky, you can almost hear his voice...You get the sense that this wealth of trivia just pours out of him...He doesn't have to do research or carefully prune his own prose...The thoughts just tumble out and onto the page...)

-Anyway, I can't be Seth Rudetsky, but I can match some of his fervor here. I'm unaware of what he has to say about Heather Headley, so I'll chip in and add some observations.

-Headley grew up in Trinidad. Perhaps this accounts for some of her glamor. She enunciates some words oddly, and in an exciting way...and I can't help but think that this represents conscious choosing, conscious planning...

-Here are some of my favorite observations from Ben Brantley's review of "Aida": "Pretty much everything that's right about 'Aida' can be summed up in two words: 'Heather Headley.'" "She not only has what is called It--that ineffable, sensual glow--but also a voice of stunning emotional variety and conviction...Anytime she sings, whether of memories of a lost girlhood, or of Aida's reluctance to take on a mantle of power, the show springs into vital life, only to sag into its torpor again when she leaves the stage..."

-Headley toured with Andrea Bocelli. Once, something unprecedented happened: Bocelli had to drag Headley from the wings for a second encore. (He apparently rarely, if ever, gives a second encore...and the audience tends not to want it when his accompanying diva is not Heather Headley.) ...And here's a secret, folks: That crowd was not begging for more Bocelli. They were begging for more Heather Headley.

-I particularly love Headley's appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," when she, Headley, sang "The Gods Love Nubia." This is like a master class for anyone who teaches for a living. Watch how she connects with each and every member of the chorus, in a way that seems spontaneous. Watch the bizarre and delightful way she uses her body. One critic called her "terrifying." I agree--she can be terrifying, in a good, thrilling way...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

More on Miller

More on Miller

-Sometimes, a patient with neurotic difficulties can conform (more or less) to this mold:

All the patients came from families who were socially isolated and felt themselves to be too little respected in their neighborhood. They therefore made special efforts to increase their prestige with their neighbors through conformity and outstanding achievements. The child who later became ill had been assigned a special role in this effort. He was supposed to guarantee the family honor, and was loved only in proportion to the degree to which he was able to fulfill the demands of this family ideal by means of his special abilities, talents, his beauty, etc. If he failed, he was punished by being cold-shouldered or thrown out of the family group, and by the knowledge that he had brought great shame on his people.

Reading about this phenomenon, I am reminded of two people--two brothers--I love very much. Their parents inflicted a great deal of suffering on them when they were very young. The parents' marriage was falling apart, and one of the parents would pull off the side of the road and dump volumes and volumes of her own suffering on her ten-year-old son. Both sons grew up to be not just successful, but winner-of-national-major-awards successful. Both are incredibly strong, and both have inherited a truckload of neurotic conflicts. I get so angry about this, but, as Miller points out, part of the tragedy of inherited neurosis is that the entire process is unconscious. The troubled parent does not recognize that he is troubled; he is not fully conscious of the suffering he is inflicting on his child. And then--unless the child recovers some sense of emotional security through therapy--the child will grow up and inflict the same psychic wounds on his own children.

-Miller writes about a basic requirement of competent parenting. The child should see a mirror in his parent. The parent should accept the child's autonomy and allow the child to express spontaneous feelings; these feelings should be welcomed and encouraged. Here is what Miller says:

...A mother can react empathically only to the extent that she has become free of her own childhood; when she denies the vicissitudes of her early life, she wears invisible chains.

Children who are intelligent, alert, attentive, sensitive, and completely attuned to the mother's well-being are entirely at her disposal. Transparent, clear, and reliable, they are easy to manipulate as long as their true self (their emotional world) remains in the cellar of the glass house in which they have to live--sometimes until puberty or until they come to therapy, and very often until they have become parents themselves. (And this is Dan writing again...When I get angry about thirty wasted years, I recall that many of the troubled people I am reading about are in their forties and fifties, and I think, Count your blessings!)

Robert, now thirty-one, could never be sad or cry as a child, without being aware that he was making his beloved mother unhappy and very unsure of herself. The extremely sensitive child felt himself warded off by his mother, who had been in a concentration camp as a child but had never spoken about it. Not until her son was grown up and could ask her questions did she tell him that she had been one of eighty children who had had to watch their parents going into the gas chambers and that not one child had cried. Because "cheerfulness" was the trait that had saved her life in childhood, her own children's tears threatened her equilibrium. Throughout his childhood this son had tried to be cheerful. He could express glimpses of his true self and his feelings only in obsessive perversions, which seemed alien, shameful, and incomprehensible to him until he began to grasp their real meaning...

This is life-and-death stuff. It is possible to experience a kind of constant death-while-living. It is possible never to live. (Read some Henry James.) Reading and writing about this material, I am excited in a way I'm rarely excited. I look at people I come into contact with, and sometimes I have to bite my tongue; I want to point out things I'm noticing, and to say, "Change! Change!" ...But often change happens slowly. I have to think about how to be constructive when I'm talking with someone...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Drama of the Gifted Child (by Alice Miller)

-Miller uses the term "gifted child" to refer not to someone with intellectual or artistic gifts, but to someone who has been raised by deeply neurotic parents (and yet has survived and may have even flourished), and who therefore has notable emotional strength. People who fit the bill are a significant subset of the human population. They tend to enter the helping professions--teaching, practicing therapy, nursing. They do this in part because childhood has taught them very well how to minister to the needs of others.

-Here are some common traits of the gifted children Miller is describing:

There was a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child's behaving in a particular way. This mother was able to hide her insecurity from her child and from everyone else behind a hard, authoritarian, even totalitarian facade. (And this is Dan writing again..."Mother" can refer to the father here; mother is simply a term used to refer to the primary caregiver in the first years of life, and this is often but not always the female parent.....Typing these words, I think of a friend from high school; she had a divorced and deeply nutty mother, and she spent a great deal of time working on this mother's "equilibrium." My heart goes out to her.)

This child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.

This role secured "love" for the child--that is, his parents' exploitation. He could sense that he was needed, and this need guaranteed him a measure of existential security.

-Miller is particularly irritated by the societal emphasis placed on the idea of "honoring thy father and mother." Often, parents are cruel and/or inept, and unworthy of honor. The demand on filial subservience is a misguided and paralyzing bit of folly. Examine your childhood, says Miller. Be honest with yourself. Do not worry too much about proffering honor when honor has not been earned. Try to have some compassion for your mother and father--and leave it at that.

-Reading this material, I think again and again of a friend who is going through a rough time. (Do you know that sometimes I switch the genders of friends when I write about them? And sometimes I don't. So guess; guess away; but you will not guess correctly.) ...This friend is gay and closeted, and quite obviously, exceptionally talented. She draws fabulous images; she is a remarkable actor; she writes vividly and with deep emotion. She very clearly hates herself. She externalizes this self-hate, so that her interactions with others become needlessly draining and complex. She has a remarkably needy and neurotic father who does everything for her under the false pretense of love. Both daughter and father are very, very worried about seeming respectable--crossing all t's, dotting all i's. Daughter irritates others by asking and asking and asking for help when she really doesn't need it, and when others (understandably) lash out at her, she does not defend herself. She clearly indicates that she feels she is worthy of this treatment. My heart goes out to her; I understand self-contempt. I am constantly assessing my behavior, wondering if I have done enough, if I have been enough. The answer, inevitably, is no. And then I go into a spiral of self-loathing. I don't type this as a request for help or pity; I'm actually quite interested in the condition and know that it will pass. (It is already beginning to pass.) ...It seems to me that one of our jobs in life is to learn to say what we are thinking and feeling in a constructive way, and another is to take care of ourselves. It's remarkable how difficult these jobs can be. But the challenge makes life interesting.