Saturday, November 06, 2010


When my father died (in the Sixties) my mother went through his things with trepidation. He made his living by traveling (a field representative for an ag wholesale cooperative) and she had always joked that he had a second family somewhere. It’s interesting that she imagined not a mistress but a second family. The issue was not sex but enough income for our family. He turned out to have a few previously unknown bank accounts but there was no money in them and no evidence of bigamy.

Something like that was also true of Bob Scriver. Not after his death so much as after the publication of the book I wrote about him, people told me secret things. I knew he had a lot of secrets and, in fact, got a little hooked on finding them: secret correspondences, secret financial arrangements, and the usual secret trysts. Once in a while he would go on a trip without me, saying he needed me to tend something at home, though in early years he always needed me to come along. Towards the end he sent me off alone on missions several days long to deliver or retrieve sculpture, usually to meet a deadline. When I got back there would be small signs of unmentioned guests. I had my own secret life in an attic room where I read books. No trysts. Whole worlds.

The advent of email has made it possible to pretend to be anyone -- “no one knows you’re a dog on the internet,” goes the joke. People use this convenient mask to persecute others -- no need to cut up the bedding to make pointy hoods. And yet it’s not impossible to discern consistency, authenticity. In fact, maybe it’s easier since it’s possible to lay on the table side-by-side text from years of communication. Apart from content, rhetoric can be a giveaway. Or a confirmation. (Nothing is more of a giveaway than absolute unvarying consistency.)

With my co-writer, Tim Barrus, our entire relationship is in print. Most of what I know about him is from books and emails, fortified with videos -- sometimes simply his talking face and other times carefully edited and overlaid with images and his voice. He is a person who has re-invented himself many times from childhood on, usually out of a need for survival. He also has a taste for theatre and a deep instinct never to reveal what cards he holds. I don’t press for facts, I don’t ask questions. But I “listen” (read) very closely for the core of what he says and I am satisfied that it is real and coherent. I listen the way a psychotherapist might.

So many of our television programs and movies are about deceptions: spies, secret agents, alternative realities, and the like, with revelations that are theoretically more “real” than appearances. But I often doubt the motivations of the screenwriters. The stories are covertly and cynically about control, power. That makes them political.

I’m watching “In Treatment,” which takes a long time because psychotherapy takes time and there are multiple weekly sessions over almost three seasons. The clients depicted are dramatic: types denying who they are and wanting to escape their lives. In reality most clients are pretty predictable -- they just don’t have enough power. And most psychotherapists do not discover stunning revelations about themselves. Most psychotherapists are not Gabriel Byrne. Too bad.

I myself, in my various roles and functions, am probably not completely known by anyone. (Maybe no one is completely known by any other single person, even spouses or family members.) This person remembers my animal control years. (My boss says I had balls.) Another person remembers me as a Lucille Ball of an English teacher with red curly hair. Classmates from seminary remember me quite differently from parishioners and people in one place brought out an entirely different side of me than those in another.

A religious leader soon runs into the problem of expectations. For those whose norm was a big powerful man with good connections, I was a loss. For those whose norm was closer to who I am, I was fine, though I was hurt when one parishioner insisted I was like the Vicar of Dibley, that vaguely ridiculous BBC program. I despise being patronized. The fight always on my hands is that no one thinks a tubby old woman can think. I think this is in part because lots of tubby old women pretend they can’t.

People who go into the ministry are admonished to be authentic, not to put up a front. (I’m talking Protestants here.) People can feel a charlatan, a phony, a hypocrite, we were told. Yet people can’t distinguish between a role and a private individual. When I left the ministry and re-assumed my un-ordained self, some people dropped me as being now powerless and therefore of no account. But others refused to let me be a private person. To them, being their minister meant something like a genetic role: you can’t stop being an aunt or a grandmother. Once assigned your part, you cannot set it aside. As for me, I sometimes continued to act as though I were a minister and became a target for it. Those in power marked me for extinction. I learned late. Maybe not at all.

So now I’ve snuck up on the Obama problem: people who refuse to allow him the role of President of the United States of America, partly because of his temperament, partly because of his race, and mostly just because he is not like them or anyone they know. Nor do they intend to find out about the type. How do we resolve this problem? I’m not sure we can.

Obama is powerful, check. Obama is well-connected, check. Obama is plenty intelligent, maybe over-educated, and even gets along with his mother-in-law. He has not told us whether he wears boxers or shorts. People who support him do not care. People who simply cannot stand him would not be reassured by the information, even if they believed it. But they would be quick to accuse him of hiding something. Maybe tiger-striped bikini briefs with his name in rhinestones. (These people have good imaginations, mostly based on the theatrical power plays of hyped-up wrestling.)

Therapy patients and seminary students are taught that the key to success is being who you really are and keeping your focus, but it’s a long-run sort of strategy. In the short run you need to rear up like a grizzly bear mama and fake it like Sarah. Of course, it will destroy your tabloid family. But for a little while you’ll have lots of money.

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