November 23, 2005

Things A Few People Know About Me

I inherited depression from both my parents. My father’s family was prone to anger, both silent and not, and cold intellectual rigidity. It’s the consensus among my generation of cousins that there was bipolarity running through the lineage: my father’s sister was finally diagnosed with it in her seventies. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of bipolarity whose upcurve is marked not by elation and joy but by irritability and rage.

On my mother’s side the depression was linked to anxiety in a chicken-egg relationship. The men drank to mask it, the women consumed their lives in worry over trifles and envy of every other human being. On meeting, reading of, or hearing about any person the programmed response was to seek mercilessly for something to envy, and therefore something to tear down.

The ideology of both families was pessimistic and defeatist. Nothing could be ventured, and certainly nothing gained. One reason — though not the only reason -- I decided I wanted to be a writer in my teens was because I didn’t believe I was capable of entering the normal work force. On countless occasions in my childhood it was brought to my attention, by people who occupied the niches labeled “loved ones” and “friends”, that I was too physically slight and emotionally fragile to be an effectual force in the world at large. I was lazy (the litany went), I lacked motivation, I didn’t know how to study or work, I looked like a concentration camp victim – this in a neighborhood where many of the residents actually were concentration camp victims – and most of all, I was too smart for my own good. Some of the people who gave me this information about myself lived in the same apartment as me, but they didn’t know any more about me than if they’d only heard of me through gossip.

Writing was something I could do while hiding these frailties and hiding from these accusations.

I got off light compared to my father, who was routinely called “a failure,” “a nothing,” and “not a man,” on the grounds that he was an English teacher, and who in reply called my mother a fucking bitch – carefully enunciating the “g” because he was an English teacher.

If my parents had been in any kind of harmony I probably would have gone crazy early in life, but because they were constantly warring I always had at least two viewpoints to choose from, and any hurtful thing one of them said was contradicted by the other. By steering among the contradictions I found space to become a third force in the family, unifying my younger brothers alongside me in a spirit of desperate mockery of the powers above us.

Please keep in mind that the people who brought me up were honest, decent people who meant to do their best – except toward each other -- and who suffered from their shortcomings more than I did. Above all, honest, because anything could be uttered as long as it would hurt one’s opponent. There were no taboos except, as I later realized, on joy. Joy was dangerous because it was the top of the upcurve, it presaged a fall. Joy and related emotions – contentment, hope, faith – were also suspect because they were simple-minded, as were straightforward active emotions such as ambition. We had complicated minds. Thus when we encountered people we envied for their contentment or material success, we could disdain them for simple-mindedness.

In early adulthood I once found a library book on New York City folklore. A small chapter was devoted to the Jews of the Bronx. The author, an experienced folklorist who was probably himself Jewish, claimed that the Jews of the Bronx were unlike all others people known to him, in one intriguing respect: they had no aspiration toward transcendence. All other peoples, the authors claimed, divided life into two categories, the instrumental and the transcendent. In instrumental life you worked for pay, you built a household, you raised a family. Transcendent life was granted less time but it was no less precious. In transcendent life you pursued activities beyond the sphere of just getting along day to day. You might paint pictures or pray to a god or try to perfect your body or give your time to help the suffering. To an instrumental mind, the more casual kinds of transcendence might look like mere hobbies or distractions, but to a transcendental mind, even a hobby could lead a person to a richer form of existence, a communion with other people or with some nonhuman source of emotional vitality.

The Jews of the Bronx, however, the author said – and we’re talking about the secular variety, not the funny Hasidim in black costumes who were sprinkled among us like cinders on Bronx snow -- made no separation between the two spheres. The instrumental was the medium into which any transcendence had to be smuggled. So a housewife’s argument with a butcher became a scene of grand drama; the necessity to earn a living became (as in DEATH OF A SALESMAN) a tragedy.

This rang true with me. The people among whom I grew up had no sense of transcendence whatsoever. They were not religious, they were not political (except for voting the straight Democratic ticket), they were not artistic (except for taking us to approved cultural institutions such as museums) – they didn’t even go to taverns or commit adultery. (I grew up in a neighborhood without a neighborhood bar.) They didn’t believe in anything – not themselves, not anyone else, not their culture, and absolutely not God. Belief was looked down upon as credulity. They were completely bent over with the weight of everyday duty, a burden proclaimed by a soundtrack of ceaseless verbal aggression, which was made by the aggressors into a kind of expressionist art. People who in middle age are still enchanted by verbal aggression, and practice it as a sport, don’t impress me. I literally learned it at my mother’s breast.

From some point in childhood – age 12? age 6? age 3? – until age 34 I was chronically depressed. Since then I’ve conducted a largely successful battle using all possible weapons against depression, including medication, therapy, meditation, exercise, nutrition, and more. I took the initiative to reinvent my life and it has worked to a great extent. Nevertheless, I suspect that there is an inborn melancholy in me that no treatment can ever reach.

My interior monologue during a large part of my life, especially in adolescence and early manhood, was dominated by self-denigration and feelings of undeservingness. It sometimes reaches proportions that seem almost psychotic to me. I still don’t believe that I work for a living or that other people think I do. (“You don’t really work,” my mother told me whenever the subject came up.) For example, recently I read an article about classical music announcers. The article mentioned how much one such announcer earned, and I was favorably surprised: “That’s pretty good money,” I thought, with the old inherited envy, and wondered why I wasn’t good enough to be a classical announcer and make that salary. Then I remembered I earn three times as much.

One often sees things written about people who were born with physical handicaps but succeeded through a positive attitude. The climate in my family was exactly the opposite. We were all brilliant and in perfect physical health – except for the much-lamented slightness – but oppressed by an attitude that said everything was impossible.

Given these conditions, the fact that I became a sane, productive, constructive adult, the leader of an loving and fully functional household – did not die of alcoholism at 31 as an uncle did, did not become a psychiatric invalid at 28 as my dear elder cousin and role model did -- is an accomplishment I’m proud of, despite a recent commenter who criticized me for congratulating myself on what should be taken for granted. I also wrote books. And I looked for transcendence.

These experiences have bred an emotional fortitude in me that I often don’t myself appreciate. No wonder, then, that people who don’t know me well don’t appreciate it either. A therapist, for instance, who diagnosed me as a passive temperament until, later grasping what it meant to spend one’s life aspiring to art, he admitted he was wrong. I act indecisive about small things but I have made every major decision in my life independently and, having made them, have stuck to them. The small things aren’t worth taking a stand on: if you want to go to a different restaurant, fine, we’ll go to yours. The time is long past when I had to be right or had to have the last word.

For these reasons, people who are emotionally predatory sometimes mistake me for prey. Most of the time I don’t bother to prove them wrong. I can outrun them any time and I delight in getting them winded by staying just out of reach of their claws.

They’re people with a nose for every human weakness, unaided by any organ of empathy.

Recently on my blog I decided to start showing a little more of myself, sharing some of a writer’s struggles. I knew it was the zebra baring his neck to the lions, but that’s all right, I never know when I‘ll learn something or from whom. Most of the communications I received were intelligent and well-intentioned, but they seemed to be directed at someone else – at a writer with their caliber of mind instead of mine, in which case the advice to stop being so introspective might have been justified. They told me to get over myself and just do it – although just do what was not clear. Judging from these responses, literature was to be created by characters from some athletic shoe commercial, who roared their way automatically over any hurdle and whose mantra was, “Stop thinking.” Exquisite sensitivity and a rarefied intellect were barriers to art or, more realistically, to the HarperCollins fall list. I was apparently being mistaken for some dilettante who had always felt it in him to write a novel but had never dared to try.

My goal in life is to be thankful for all of this.