June 28, 2006

The Culture of the Lie, I: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess"

[In connection with my Systems of Obedience series, which I plan to continue in the next several days, I've been looking through the archives I had saved, but which were lost to the internet when the data base was corrupted some time ago. I finally located one particular series of earlier pieces, and the first of those essays is republished below. I wrote and published this on April 26, 2005. This essay, and the following ones in the "Culture of the Lie" series, offer what I think are unusually compelling examples of the numerous connections between the personal and the cultural, and between the personal and the political.

This is the same theme I discussed in the final parts of my series, On Torture. After analyzing the broad cultural and political forces and dynamics involved in the barbarism of state-sanctioned torture, I turned to what I think are the most crucial questions of all, those that are most personal and intimate: What kind of person is capable of torturing another? And why will some individuals refuse to do so, even when they know that such a refusal ensures their own deaths? In the last part of that series, in contrasting my approach to that of Andrew Sullivan, who is very strongly opposed to torture but from a perspective a universe away from mine, I wrote:
For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order [to torture] will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that [Alice] Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what? ...

As I was reflecting on these issues, I recalled a line I once heard or read somewhere. I've tried to remember its source, but I can't. It is not the way I would choose to make the point; it's a sentimental, not fully serious manner of expressing the thought. The line went something like this: "Nothing happens in politics, that did not happen first in the human heart." Let us set the style aside: there is a great truth contained in that statement. It is crucial to appreciate what it is.

For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order?
That final installment and the entire series has much more about these questions.

In republishing this, I've omitted one parenthetical paragraph, both because it was unnecessary to this essay and because I'm saving it for further consideration in a new article. I've made a couple of minor editorial changes in wording; otherwise, the essay appears as it was first published.]


Over the last two years, I have periodically been haunted by one particular line from an extraordinarily fine film. From time to time, I've mentioned the line to a few friends -- when I've contemplated how people who had appeared to be civilized, in the deepest sense of that word, now have no hesitation about condescendingly lecturing Iraqis with regard to how "grateful" they should be to the United States, when I've thought about how many of the same people lecture in the same profoundly insulting way to entire nations when those nations do not behave in ways which the lecturers believe to be "correct," and when I've considered the seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of our increasingly enthusiastic embrace of torture, lawlessness. and barbarity.

It has often seemed to me, as I know it has to others, that 9/11 and the ensuing cultural atmosphere ripped off a very thin veneer of civilization -- to reveal a deeply disturbing combination of blind hatred and an unquenchable desire for revenge bubbling underneath. Our current administration perceives it to be in its own interest of amassing ever-greater power and control over more aspects of our lives to perpetuate this atmosphere of hysteria and fear -- so rather than eventually ebbing at least to some degree, these dangerously destructive emotions and impulses are constantly fed and encouraged. The result is a growing number of people who are increasingly desensitized to the horrors in their midst -- and who would be all too capable of committing the most unimaginable kinds of atrocities, if they felt sufficiently threatened and were presented with a "suitable" target for punishment.

Although this indicates the great danger now facing us only in general terms, this summary provides some idea as to why I have long thought that another terrorist attack here in the United States, either on the scale of 9/11 or, which would be infinitely worse for countless reasons, on an even greater scale, might well signal the end of genuine liberty here at home, for a long, long time to come. And the horrors that might accompany that loss of freedom are terrible to imagine.

As evidence has continued to pile up, I have simultaneously become increasingly convinced that tragedies of this kind, tragedies that spread across an entire culture (and eventually, possibly the world), simply reenact the tragedies that first take place in individual cases -- that what happens to a society at large happens in the first instance to particular people, in the specific circumstances of their own lives. This has been the general theme of my series on "The Roots of Horror," a series based upon the genuinely revolutionary and profoundly important work of Alice Miller. (Links to the entries in that series and to a number of other essays based on Miller's work and exploring its countless applications will be found here.) As Miller has convincingly demonstrated on the basis of an enormous amount of evidence, it is the wounds first inflicted in childhood that lead one to desire the destruction of the world -- whether the destroyer is a vicious dictator like Saddam Hussein, or a standard issue warhawk like Ralph Peters. It is these same underlying dynamics that also create the demand for obedience -- whether it is obedience to God, to a totalistic ideology, or to a specific political leader.

To return to the individual tragic case, and to the line that has haunted me: the line is spoken by the mother in Robert Redford's film, "Ordinary People": "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." For those who may not remember the story of the film, Vincent Canby wrote a perceptive review when the movie first opened in September of 1980 -- although he is wrong on one crucial point:
In her spare, efficient, best-selling novel, Judith Guest, seemingly without trying, dissected the contemporary white Anglo-Saxon Protestant psyche when, by accident, such perfect order is destroyed. Recently achieved economic and social privilege is no defense against emotional chaos. Privilege is a plywood treehouse in a hurricane.

The very real achievement of Robert Redford, who makes his directorial debut with "Ordinary People," and of Alvin Sargent, who meticulously adapted Miss Guest's novel for the screen, is that the Jarretts become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronized or satirized. "Ordinary People," which opens today at the Loews Tower East, is a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them. Not since Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer" has there been a movie that so effectively catches the look, sound and temper of a particular kind of American existence.

The Jarretts are not only ordinary people, they are also "nice" people. They wear the right clothes, read the right books, eat the right things and misbehave discreetly. They put great store in self-control, as much in the privacy of their own house as abroad in the company of friends or strangers. The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces.

At the start of "Ordinary People," young Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has been home from the hospital for just a month and is trying very hard to resume life - school, the swimming team, the glee club - as if, five months earlier, he hadn't attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Anyone looking at Conrad can tell that he is a wreck. He doesn't eat. He's nervous and he's too quick to say whatever he knows his mother and father want to hear.

Though Calvin (Donald Sutherland) worries about Conrad, he is unable to do much more than be enthusiastic in response to everything Conrad says. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), resolutely pretends that there's nothing wrong with her son. She goes about her daily routine of golf, tennis, bridge and committee meetings with the determination not of someone living the good life in suburbia, but of a woman climbing Everest. Her jaw is set. She doesn't look back or down.

She's quite right when she says at one point, "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." The Jarretts's "mess" was the accidental drowning of Bucky Jarrett one summer afternoon when he and Conrad were sailing together on Lake Michigan. Bucky, the strong one, gave up and drifted away from the overturned boat. Conrad survived, in guilt and sorrow, but when he realized he couldn't be the son Bucky was, he chose suicide.

More than five months after the suicide attempt, Conrad is in even worse shape than before. His mother, he tells the psychiatrist, will never forgive him for, among other things, having ruined the bathroom rug when he cut his wrists. "She had to pitch it out," he says. "They even had to regrout the tile floor."

In several ways, Mr. Redford's film is far more effective than the novel. It's difficult to write about people who cannot talk to each other because writing is itself a kind of talking. Mr. Redford's film demonstrates this lack of communication, the inability to express affection, in scenes of sometimes overwhelming pathos - a Christmas Day gone all to hell for Conrad when his mother, as if in reflex, refuses to have her picture taken with her son.
Canby's fundamental error is a tragically common one, and it is the root of much of the misery and unhappiness in the world. Note carefully what Canby says: "The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces."

You might believe something like this yourself. If you do, I hope to disabuse you of this enormously costly error. Canby implies that certain "fears, furies and resentments" only come into play "when things go to pieces." But in fact, what the film reveals -- and what Miller demonstrates over and over in her work -- is that those "fears, furies and resentments" were there all the time. These precise "fears, furies and resentments" are the necessary, unavoidable result when people's genuine, authentic, spontaneous selves are denied, and when those selves are prevented from expressing themselves. In other words: the "niceness" and "control" are a lie.

With regard to suicide, for example, recall these passages from The Suicide Taboo in my "Roots of Horror" series (quoting Alice Miller, in For Your Own Good):
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear.


If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
Miller thus describes the Jarrett family perfectly -- and the dynamics that drive the mother and Conrad, in particular. The lesson is obvious, but not any the less tragic for being so simple and so common: the Jarretts' "self-control" and their "niceness" were all a pretense. All of it was a lie. Thus, the mother is correct only in one very narrow sense to maintain, "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." She is correct in that this family, like many others, might have successfully continued the pretense if the "mess" hadn't happened -- but the pretense would have been at the cost of genuine thought and emotion, and authentic lives, lived in a truly meaningful way. And this kind of pretense is always accompanied by tremendous costs: possibly alcohol and/or drug abuse, other kinds of self-destructive behavior, and always profound emotional repression and a deadening of the soul. (If you want to see the costs of this kind of pretense in another unusually fine movie, watch "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes' wonderful reworking of the Douglas Sirk 1950s movie genre. Haynes shows in excruciating and telling detail the enormous emotional costs exacted by attempting to falsely fit one's life within the bounds of social convention, and "acceptable" behavior.)

But the "mess" that happened to the Jarretts tore the lie away -- and the family members were left with the actual emotions that lay beneath the surface. Those emotions are the reality that the surface was designed to cover up, and hopefully destroy. But such emotions are never destroyed: if they are not identified and defused in a non-destructive manner, they will simply be redirected and cause destruction in some other form. And when the protective covering was torn away, the Jarretts were helpless to deal with the truths they had worked so hard to hide. By the end of the film, the father and Conrad are slowly taking their first steps in dealing with this new reality -- the reality which had been there all the time, and which they can no longer avoid -- while the mother will not give up the lie, and therefore must leave.

And more and more, I think that for all of us, 9/11 was the "mess" that tore the thin surface of our civilization to shreds -- and many of us are now struck dumb with horror when we contemplate what had been seething underneath all the time. But to overcome that horror, we must first understand it, and grasp its causes. Only then can we begin to change it. It is for this reason that I have spent so much time on "The Roots of Horror," and why I have returned to this subject yet again. Of course, there are also many people who, like the mother in "Ordinary People," refuse to give up the lie -- and who, intentionally or not, would lead us all to a worldwide conflagration rather than admit the truth. We can only hope that enough minds and souls are changed before the devastation reaches the point where the recovery of genuine civilization finally becomes impossible.