August 27, 2014

Listening, and Being There, without Judgment

A number of people have sent me emails in response to my post the other day, more than is usually the case. I'm enormously grateful to all those who wrote, and I especially appreciate their sharing very intimate, and occasionally painful and even frightening, personal matters with me. Some of the messages moved me deeply.

As I was reflecting on one particular aspect of these messages, I had a very odd thought. "Wait a minute," I mused. "Do some of these people think that I view suicide as a good thing?" I found the idea enormously upsetting. So I looked over my post again. I wrote that I regard any suicide as a "horrible and horrifying tragedy." The same idea is repeated several times in the course of the essay; the article as a whole unmistakably conveys the idea that when anyone is driven to suicide, it is a terrible, awful calamity.

As an important side note, I add that I think it is a terrible, awful thing even in those instances when suicide is an entirely rational decision -- when, if you will, taking one's own life might even be regarded as the "right" action to take. I'm thinking in particular of the person who murders another human being (or more than one person), and does so not in self-defense, but as a act of gratuitous, unspeakable cruelty. When you have killed an innocent human being, it is impossible to make amends in any complete sense: you cannot bring the person back to life. It is an irreversible crime, one for which atonement is impossible. In such cases, if a person finally grasped the nature of what he had done, including the fact that he could never make amends in any way that would approach the full meaning of that term, I would consider the person's decision to kill himself as completely rational. I would still view it as an awful tragedy for all concerned, most particularly for those who had been the murderer's victims. I further note that this is one unassailable reason that no one should join the military -- or, these days, probably the police department or any other agency that utilizes lethal force -- of a government which murders innocent people with the systematic regularity employed. for example, by the United States government.

Much has been written about the suicides of U.S. military personnel. But this is one critical issue -- and in many ways, I think it is the critical issue -- that I have never seen discussed: How do you make peace with the fact that you have murdered entirely innocent people, people who never wished to harm you, if only your government had left them the hell alone? How do you make amends to their families and friends, to all those who lives have been grievously wounded for the remainder of their lifetimes? Such torments will certainly be felt by those who kill innocent people themselves, but they also might very well be experienced by those who provide indirect, but necessary, support to the murderers. That is, these people will be tormented if and when the full reality and nature of their actions begins to take definite form in their minds and souls. Given the rash of unprovoked, aggressive military operations undertaken by the U.S. government around the world, and in light of the huge number of utterly unjustified murders that are an inextricable element of such operations, is it any wonder that so many people in the U.S. military suffer the torments of hell? Aside from the meaningless, vacuous phrases often associated with religious or quasi-religious viewpoints, what comfort can anyone offer them?

When I thought about the messages I received concerning my post a bit longer, I realized that it wasn't that my correspondents thought I viewed suicide as a "good" thing, for I clearly don't. They obviously don't think it's a good thing, either. What I had picked up was enormously important, but for a very different reason: the people who sent me messages did so out of a profound feeling of relief. They knew they were writing to someone who would not judge what they wished to say about these matters, who would only listen as openly and compassionately as he could. And that, of course, was one of my central themes in that essay. In my own case, readers know that I myself have experienced episodes of deep depression, including thoughts of suicide. But it's not necessary for the listener to have had these feelings and lived through such episodes. What is necessary is that the listener be entirely open to what the person wishes to tell him, and that he do so in a completely non-judgmental way.

In the previous article, I wrote that some of those people who strongly condemned Robin Williams for his suicide claim that they offer such condemnation to "help" others who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts; in some way, they consider it a helpful preventive measure. I said that this could not be the real reason, and that I would take up this question again. Think about it for a moment. A person who is thinking of suicide -- even if he does not have a specific plan in mind (I never did) -- is in the depths of unimaginable despair. He is also assaulted by feelings of inadequacy, of worthlessness, even of self-hatred and self-loathing. For all these reasons and more, he is immensely vulnerable and suggestible. And you're going to help him by vehemently condemning him for what are, at this point, only thoughts, and often only partially-formed thoughts? You're going to tell him: "To commit suicide is the act of a coward. It's weak, and it's selfish. And it's incredibly cruel to all those who care about you." This is going to help him?

To the extent he believes you, and given his tremendous vulnerability it is all too likely he will, he'll conclude that he now has still more reasons to kill himself. He's much more worthless and even loathsome that he himself had thought. He's thinking of suicide! What a terrible, disgusting, horrible person he is! Obviously, he should kill himself immediately.

I underscore that the person who claims he is trying to "help" in this particular manner adds a new, devastating element to the unbearably painful feelings of despair and helplessness that the sufferer already endures: the "helper" is piling an enormous amount of guilt onto feelings that are already unendurable. If he believes that he is weak, selfish and cruel for even having thoughts about suicide, he'll hate himself still more.

As I indicated, all these observations should become apparent after even a few moments of serious thought about the subject. And yet, we know that many people -- actually, I would say most people -- offer "help" of this kind in varying ways and degrees. There is an explanation for this, but it is an explanation that many people do not care to consider. A story will help to make the explanation clearer. It's not my story: it's one that Alice Miller tells in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Here are two brief excerpts from Miller's chapter entitled, "Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering." Miller writes:
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.
In the book of Plath's letters, her mother relates that a pastel still-life of Sylvia's gets blurred accidentally when an apron brushes up against it. Sylvia said, "Don't worry, I can patch it up" -- but later that night, she wrote her first poem, "containing tragic undertones." Plath was fourteen.

Miller goes on:
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. This can be observed in various parental attitudes.
Let me repeat the two most crucial sentences from these passages:
Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person.
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.
The vast majority of parents are not concerned with attending to their child's genuine, firsthand emotions and needs, certainly not to any consistent degree. Instead, they are concerned with behaving "properly" and "correctly," with acting and even feeling the "right" way. They first learned this as children, when their own parents made the same demands of them. And now, they make identical demands of their children.

While I would not claim this is the explanation in every case, it is certainly the explanation for the majority of parents who behave as Plath's mother did (which is most of them), and it is also the explanation for all those who rush to condemn the person who kills himself. As I have observed, if we make real to ourselves the immense, unbearable pain experienced by someone who considers suicide, however briefly and in however vague a manner, we would quickly realize that the absolute last thing we would wish to do is add to their suffering, by criticizing them for cowardice, weakness, and the like. This is not a sophisticated, complex point encountered only in advanced texts on therapeutic techniques: it is simple common sense, a matter of what could be everyday understanding. But most of us are so bound up in the commandments imposed on us by our parents, and then internalized within us as we grow to adulthood when they are only very rarely dislodged, that we have rendered ourselves impervious to ideas that would otherwise be grasped quite easily.

There remain many additional issues to discuss about this subject, and I will shortly take up a few more of them. For the moment, I'll conclude with some thoughts I offered once before:
Finally, here's some unsolicited advice. If anyone you know ever makes a tentative effort to discuss obviously painful feelings with you, and perhaps even thoughts of suicide, do not judge them, do not condemn them, and above all, do not attempt in any way to shut them down. Listen, listen as carefully as you can -- and communicate to the person in every manner possible that there is someone who cares about them, who hears and sees the pain they are in, and who wants to help, if you can. Just be there, as a friend, as someone who empathizes, and make real to yourself what their pain feels like.

Just be there, with understanding, with compassion, with affection or love, as the case may be. As Miller indicates, be open to what the person is telling you. Sometimes, just being there, being there in the most meaningful sense, is the hardest thing in the world to do -- and the most important.

And perhaps, someday, the horrors will end. I still choose to believe in miracles.
Now, more than ten years later, I feel exactly the same way. That passage is from an article I published in February 2004, when I first related the Sylvia Plath story as discussed by Alice Miller. While my understanding of these issues has thankfully increased in the past decade, just as I have encountered (and sometimes written about) many other examples of these same dynamics, I did a decent job all those years ago. Perhaps the presentation is more effective this time, if only because Robin Williams' tragic death is still so recent.

Until next time.

August 25, 2014

When the Pain Never Ends

I'm just so tired, he thought. And the pain won't stop. What is it people say? Everything ends eventually. But the pain doesn't. He stood looking through the window, his eyes seeing nothing. His face was expressionless; to convey even the smallest emotion now required too much effort. He felt that merely breathing was too difficult a task to be managed any longer.

The voice behind him wouldn't stop either. His lover continued his litany of complaints. "You just won't do anything to help yourself get out of this mood. At my job, you get three days off for a death in the family. That's it. Then you carry on. But you lie around and won't do a damned thing. When I get home at night, you haven't even moved the newspaper on the table, or your morning coffee cup. It's time for you to snap out of it. You could do it if you wanted to. But you don't. I never would have thought you could be so weak."

He could recite the complaints from memory now. He heard them every two or three days. Does he think I'm enjoying this? he wondered. Does he honestly believe that I'd choose this grim, bleak existence? Doesn't he realize I''m desperate to find pleasure again in something, anything? But I've lost the trick of it, and I can't get it back. And I'm so, so tired.

He tried to calculate how long the agony had been going on. It stretched back almost eight months. His closest friend, the woman who was the nearest to a true soul mate he'd ever found, had grown progressively sicker and was finally diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer. She was dead two months later, faster than anyone had expected. She was gone so quickly that he never had the chance to see her a final time, for she lived across the country. But he would have long phone conversations with her, even during the final couple of weeks when she was heavily drugged and increasingly incomprehensible. He would talk with her for an hour at a time, letting her take the conversation wherever she wished. responding as if she were expressing thoughts that were intriguing and worthy of close examination. But in those last weeks, what she said was gobbledegook. She was a brilliant woman: it was as if she retained the form of her intelligence, including the ability to construct a long, complex argument, offering many specific examples to demonstrate what she meant, but the content had been obliterated to be replaced with nonsensical gibberish. Other friends of hers marveled that he and his friend had these conversations at all, but it was all he could offer her, just to be with her in any way he could. She wanted to talk, so they talked. That was when the profound exhaustion first struck him; after these conversations, he would collapse for hours, more tired than he had ever felt in his life, unable to grasp how the world, how life could be so ungraspably cruel. She had just turned 61 when she died.

Exactly one week later, his lover announced that he had fallen in love with someone else, and he felt they needed to discuss ending their relationship. He pointed out to his lover that his comments about this miraculous new love mirrored completely the way he had talked about him when they first met. He explained why he thought his lover was simply repeating an old pattern of avoidance, of pursuing a fantasy and fearing the genuine intimacy that comes with a relationship that lasts more than a couple of years. They agreed they would go to a couples counselor, to examine their problems and what they might do. He paid for it, for he had much more money than his lover at that time. He still paid for the counseling as he listened to the repeated complaints, for he thought his lover was committed to working through their problems if they could. It subsequently turned out that his lover had lied about that (undoubtedly to himself, as well), for he lied about many things. His lover spent the weekend his soul mate died -- when they knew she would die at any moment -- with his new boyfriend. He had lied about that, too.

A few weeks after his lover had announced his new infatuation, one of his beloved cats got terribly sick. It appeared he would die. He was finally diagnosed with a heart murmur and cardiomyopathy; the medication the cat was given led to stabilization and substantial recovery. But for a few months, the cat was at death's door. During this same time, his mother was dying; her breast cancer had returned, and there simply wasn't much they could do for her any longer. As his mother was dying, he and his lover continued their faux-work with the couples counselor. He thought it entirely possible that his lover might disappear at any moment. As tension-filled and nervewracking as their relationship had become, he felt that he would die himself if he experienced another major, final loss. All this happened just as he was trying to start a business of his own. It proved to be much more difficult than he had anticipated. Luckily, he had enough money at that point to support them (with a small contribution from his lover).

His mother died five months later. The accumulation of losses finally paralyzed him almost completely. During all this time, he was seeing no less than two psychologists and one psychiatrist: the couples counselor, a psychologist for himself alone, and a psychiatrist whom he saw once a month, who oversaw the medication he was taking, including an antidepressant. None of it helped in any substantial respect. He simultaneously felt entirely numb, as if he would never experience a vivid emotion ever again, while he also felt assailed by a pain that was unendurable. He felt there was nothing left to hold onto, nothing left to support him in any part of his life. And he had no strength to take even the smallest step in any direction. He wanted only one thing: he wanted the agony to stop.

But it wouldn't stop. And now his lover's complaints wouldn't stop. "You could change if you wanted to! You can snap out of it, but you won't. It's your fault! You're weak. And selfish." Finally, his lover stopped talking. He still looked out the window, unable to move, terrified that the next moment might bring still worse pain, seeing nothing, expressionless, feeling nothing but the desire for all of it to stop. After a few moments, he quietly murmured, strangely aware that he was choosing his words with great care, even though they seemed to come from someone else, "Sometimes I feel that the only thing I can do is kill you, kill the cats, and then kill myself. What else is there to do? What else can I do to make this stop?"

The words hung in the air for a minute or two. His lover said nothing. I've finally shocked him into silence, he thought. Good. He felt an odd moment of clarity, as if saying the words defined the issue in some way. After another few moments, he murmured, still more quietly, "But I can't do that, of course. So ..."

He couldn't complete the thought. So ... so what? What was he going to do? What could he do? He had no idea. He knew he was incapable of becoming a murderer, at least he hoped he was. So he prayed, a man who had never prayed in his life -- and it was the only thought that remained to him, and he clung to it with all the fierceness left in him -- that the pain itself would finally kill him, relieving him of all choice and responsibility, forever and ever.

Maybe tomorrow, he thought. Maybe I'll die tomorrow.


I have been painfully aware for a very long time that most people understand next to nothing about suicide. I view this particular ignorance as a derivative issue: it is a narrower expression of most people's ignorance about psychology in general, including their own. Nonetheless, the avalanche of heedlessly aggressive and cruel ignorance following the suicide of a celebrity, as in the recent case of Robin Williams, always takes me aback. It isn't simply that most people understand almost nothing about the subject. It's that they know nothing -- and their unblemished ignorance doesn't cause them to hesitate even for a moment before offering diagnoses cribbed from lousy books and crappy movies, or picked up from their favorite phony guru of the moment. All that would be sufficiently deplorable, especially when, as is usually the case, these pretenses at scientific understanding are announced in the loud, brash tones of an overbearing sideshow barker offering his latest secret patent medicine that will cure you of all ailments, present and future. "Drink Dr. Schmoo's Magic Elixir, and not only will you never think of suicide again. You'll be dizzily, deliriously happy!" These days, the barker can add that, if you still harbor violent thoughts, you can go to work for the U.S. government and kill countless people around the world. Not only can you do so with utter impunity; you will be celebrated for it. At present, if you work for almost any government entity at any level, you can murder innocent people at home, too. Truly we are blessed to have such a beneficent government, so devoted to our well-being that it provides numerous outlets for the repressed rage that is so widespread in our culture.

But no, all that is not enough for the amateur geniuses in our midst. It's the goddamned moralizing that so many engage in, and with such feverish glee, that horrifies me. What is this irresistible compulsion that so many people feel to pass judgment on someone who has just killed himself? In the case of Williams, as in every similar case, including those involving non-celebrities, we're offered a choice between sympathy for someone who suffered from "mental illness," or condemnation for someone who was weak and selfish. Some try to combine the alternatives; the result is only a monstrous hybrid destined for an early death, a hybrid that is singularly unconvincing during its brief life.

I find it difficult to convey how bizarre I find this need to pass judgment on the person who kills himself, whether the judgment is positive or negative. When I say "positive" in this context, I do so simply to stress the distinction between the "understanding" and "condemnation" approaches. And for most people who utilize the understanding-"mental illness" approach, the understanding is frequently heavily tinged with tones of forgiveness. "He committed a horrible act, but we understand why he did it and that his action was not truly voluntary. Therefore, we cannot blame him for it." The clear implication is that we should "forgive" him for an act that was not within his control. But to preach sermons of forgiveness or condemnation at a dead person is a singularly odd way to pass one's time. I often wonder if such people actually grasp what death itself is. Some polls suggest that many people do not. A few years ago, a poll found that just over half of people around the world believe in God and an afterlife. A Huffington Post poll focused only on the afterlife question had a similar result. The Huffington Post poll employed a dubious methodology, in that readers voluntarily selected themselves to participate. Regardless of the methodology, the result tracks many other polls on this and similar issues. Many, many people choose to believe in fantasies that comfort them in some manner. People can believe whatever they want, but they should not expect to be taken seriously when there is not a shred of evidence to support their delusions.

Robin Williams (or any other suicide victim) is dead. He doesn't give a damn whether anyone forgives or condemns him. There isn't a small collection of "Robin Williams" particles floating somewhere in the universe, and who is now comforted by the voices of forgiveness or tormented by the condemnations hurled at his (somehow conscious) atoms. Here, most people's tangled attempts to grasp the nature of suicide run straight into our culture's inability to face death squarely and maturely, as well as colliding with most people's failure to grasp the idea of nothing. Death isn't followed by another form of being. You may hope it is, but hope does not constitute evidence. I frequently have the sense that many people believe their own deaths will be followed by a few of their atoms (or "spirit" or whatever they wish to call it) sitting around (or whatever such atoms or "spirit" do when they relax) thinking about how terrible it is that they died. Your death is followed by nothing, by the void. Not a single piece of evidence exists to suggest otherwise, in however inchoate a manner.

Judgment of whatever kind cannot be offered for the benefit of the person who is now dead. So, for whose benefit is the judgment being announced? Some will say -- usually those people who strongly condemn suicide -- that they do it for the sake of those who might be considering suicide themselves. But this cannot be the genuine reason, not if one thinks about it seriously and honestly for a few minutes. I'll come back to this issue.

When I hear about a suicide, anyone's suicide, my first thoughts always concern what a horrible and horrifying tragedy it is. Life -- and the fact that we are aware that we are alive, with everything that entails -- is a miraculous gift. I am an atheist, but I consider the gift of life, and conscious life in particular, on the order of a miracle. Yet the person who kills himself has chosen to wipe himself out of existence for all time, to obliterate himself absolutely. Do you have any idea how unbearable the pain must be for a human being -- who is aware of the incredible fact that he is alive, and how precious that is -- to commit such an act?

I wrote the story that opens this essay in the hope that readers might understand the nature of that pain more completely. Attentive, regular readers will have realized that it is an autobiographical story; it's about me. It describes my life from roughly August 1993 through March 1994. And, yes, I was the person who thought that the only way to end the torment was to murder my lover, my cats, and then myself. Does that shock you? Do you condemn me for it? I'm sure some people will. I'm well aware that revealing this much about myself carries certain dangers, but I concluded that the dangers were outweighed by the importance of shedding more light on certain matters, and by a large margin. I left out many details, some of which were hardly insignificant in terms of adding to my torments. As just one example, in the midst of all these calamities, the Northridge earthquake occurred on January 17, 1994. It was terrifying, and it caused a lot of damage to the apartment my lover and I then shared. So when I write: "He felt there was nothing left to hold onto, nothing left to support him in any part of his life.," I am referring not only to the psychological agonies I was experiencing, but literally to the earth under my feet. And the aftershocks from that earthquake went on for weeks, even months. Experiencing that on top of everything else, I sometimes felt I would truly go insane.

Regular readers know how devoted I am to my cats. Perhaps you're horrified that I could even think of killing the cats that I had at that time. I would suggest that you should first try to understand the psychological process involved. My life was nothing but unendurable pain. I couldn't imagine any kind of life that would be free of that pain. If I were to die, what would happen to my cats? At that point, I realized I couldn't depend on my lover to see that they found good homes; this was especially true of my wonderful Elyot, who was still recovering from his brush with death and would require special care for the rest of his life. And I doubted that any of my friends would exert the effort required to see that they were safe and happy. So I thought it most likely that they would be taken away by the animal control people, to live in cages, to be miserably unhappy and terrified, until they were finally put down. More than anything, I wanted to spare my cats that pain and unhappiness. So I would kill them to protect them. There is a terrible, inexorable logic dictated by depression that is this severe. I raised this issue with the psychiatrist I was seeing during that period. He told me that he had testified on several occasions in the cases of mothers who had killed their children, and then tried to kill themselves. When the mothers survived their attempts at suicide, they were prosecuted for the murders of their children. The psychiatrist explained that the mother was attempting, in a cruelly, horrifically distorted way, to protect them from future pain and suffering, which she viewed as an absolute certainty. (Please note that this issue is entirely separate from what might need to be done to prevent these people from inflicting harm on others. Once a person has actually committed such acts, clearly certain steps are required to prevent them from committing similar acts again.)

As I say, I've known for a long time that most people have very little understanding of these issues, which admittedly are especially difficult and painful. But in the aftermath of Williams' suicide, we were all treated to a variant on the general cultural ignorance that was new to me. I first heard it from an outstandingly awful Los Angeles radio talk show host, Tim Conway, Jr. I have sometimes found his father very funny, on the old Carol Burnett show, for example. But my appreciation for the senior Conway's work has been entirely negated by the fact that he raised such an ignorant and bombastically offensive son. (Conway, Jr. employs only two modes of speech on his show: a normal conversational tone and screaming. I don't refer to talking loudly: I mean screaming. And with regard to the proportions of each, screaming wins in a knockout.) Conway, Jr. often talks of his reverence for his father, and about how his father was "tough" in the way he raised him, teaching him the value of hard discpline. All of this is directly relevant to what follows, as we shall see.

Conway, Jr. announced a moral principle that had escaped my notice until he enlightened me: it appears that, once you have children, once you have even one child, you forever forfeit the right to kill yourself. When a parent kills himself, he visits irreparable damage on his children, subjecting them to a lifetime of unending psychological torment. A parent must never, ever injure his children in this way. When I first heard this, I was struck by how strange it was to select this one issue to focus on in as single-minded a manner as Conway, Jr. did. As the week following Williams' death wore on, Conway, Jr. returned to this theme repeatedly. I must have heard him deliver this sermon at least three or four times. One question about this message presents itself immediately. What is the justification for carving out an exception for parents, and only for parents? We certainly would not wish to condemn young children for killing themselves, but such suicides are very rare. If we confine the argument to children aged 18 and older, isn't it true that a child who commits suicide subjects his parents to immense suffering and torment in precisely the same way? We know that it is. What about people who are married or share their lives with a partner, especially if the relationship is one of many years' duration? Isn't the person who commits suicide visiting terrible suffering on his spouse or partner? We know that's true, as well. For that matter, what about any of us? We all have friends and acquaintances, people who care about us, sometimes very deeply and for many years. Aren't many of those people going to be devastated by our suicide? But spouses, partners, and all the rest of us apparently retain the right to kill ourselves. To this way of thinking, parents constitute a unique class, set completely apart from everyone else.

If Conway, Jr. had been the only person I heard offering this view, I probably would have let it go. But then I heard several other public voices proclaiming the same notion: parents are a breed apart. When you become a parent, suicide is permanently off-limits. And then this column by Henry Rollins intruded into the cultural conversation. It is one of the most profoundly ghastly pieces I have ever had the misfortune to read. The concluding section is a monument to the obliteration of understanding, compassion and empathy; it is also an astonishing and shocking psychological confession. But the final section and those particular issues require a separate discussion, which I will get to in the next article.

Earlier in his column, Rollins offers his version of the position put forth by Conway, Jr. and others I heard. Here is Rollins' version of this theory:
I am sure some will strongly disagree with what I’m about to say. And I also understand that his personal struggles were quite real. I can’t argue with that.

But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.
It was when I read the Rollins article that I finally grasped what was happening here, and the source of this bizarre argument. It was then that I knew that I would have to write about Williams' suicide and some of the many issues it raises.

The source of this argument is what I will refer to as the Fable of the Good Parent. To put it another way, it rests on an inaccurate, false idealization of parents in general, of the parent as parent. The argument only makes sense if one assumes that the parent, any parent, is, at least for the most part, supportive and nurturing: that he or she deeply values the child as a unique human being in his own right, and that the parent is dedicated to encouraging the child to find and develop his own, genuine sense of self. But all of this is precisely what the majority of parents do not do. In fact, the goal of most parents' methods of raising their children is entirely and profoundly opposed to these aims. The simple, awful fact is that most parents inflict terrible damage on their children, damage that is often irreparable and that always leaves, at a minimum, wounds that last for the child's lifetime. And most parents do this in the name of "good parenting" and "responsible child-rearing."

The truth -- the truth that most people vehemently deny, the truth that most people will not seriously consider, and the truth that Williams himself could never face (as we shall see next time) -- is that most parents behave in ways that are "awful, traumatic and confusing" every day, and usually multiple times a day. Most parents "traumatize [their] kids" with a frequency that would shock us to the core, if only we had the courage to acknowledge the truth of the parents' actions. Much of what happens in the world, including in our politics and foreign policy, is explained by the fact that many parents regularly and consistently teach their children that cruelty, and even violence, are love. New horrors erupt in our country, and around the world, every day in very significant part because this is one of the primary lessons parents teach their children.

To single out suicide as a uniquely traumatic event that a parent visits on his children strongly testifies to the enduring power of our cultural denial about this subject, and to the unending delusions with which we seek to falsely comfort ourselves.

All of this requires a lengthier explanation, to which I will turn next time. Until then, you might want to read this article, particularly Part I (and look at some of the linked articles, if you wish), which will provide some of the background for my argument.

UPDATE: This discussion continues here.

August 04, 2014

Still (Barely) Here

Profuse apologies for my long silence. I truly am terribly sorry. But I haven't known what to say. I'm in scarily horrible shape physically, incapable of little more than moving a bit around the apartment a few times a day. It's taking me enormous energy and willpower to write just this. And I know most people want to be reassured, to know that I'm "okay." I'm not okay, and I have no reassurance to offer.

But the cats and I still do have a home for now -- and for that a multitude of thanks to those of you who have been very kind. So in addition to being unable to reassure you, I feel like the world's most ungrateful bastard. People are very generous, and I can't even write a couple of posts.

I've tried to do some writing, and I can't shape anything to my satisfaction. As much as I dread the subject, I would like to offer some commentary on the horrors in Gaza; I have the beginning of a draft, titled "Drowning in the Blood-Dimmed Tide." While I'm unable to summon forth that new post, I will refer you to two past ones, both of which remain sickeningly timely.

The first is from November 2012, and it begins with this:
Gaza is a concentration camp. It is not like a concentration camp. It is not a metaphorical or figurative concentration camp. It is a concentration camp. Our culture, our political leaders, and the cacophony of voices in the media have all agreed that this truth must never be spoken. If one wanted to be momentarily charitable about people's absolute refusal to recognize the obvious, one might argue that a land area of approximately 140 square miles, containing a population of roughly 1.7 million people, could not possibly be a concentration camp. But size and the number of prisoners are not the distinguishing characteristics of a concentration camp. The most essential characteristic of a concentration camp is what is permitted, and what is not. Only one question matters: Under what conditions are the people within its borders permitted to live?
The second article goes back further in time, to January 2009. In "The Slaughter of the Diseased Animals," I described the pattern repeatedly engaged in by both the United States and Israel, and perhaps it bears repeating:
For a very long time, the United States government has specialized in the pattern pursued by Israel. The vastly more powerful nation wishes to act on a certain policy -- almost always territorial expansion, for purposes of access to resources, or to force itself into new markets, or to pursue the evil notion that economic and ideological success depend on brutality and conquest -- but a specifically moral justification for its planned actions does not lie easily to hand.

So the powerful nation embarks on a course designed to make life intolerable for the country and/or those people that stand in its way. The more powerful nation is confident that, given sufficient time and sufficient provocation, the weaker country and people will finally do something that the actual aggressor can seize on as a pretext for the policy upon which it had already decided. In this way, what then unfolds becomes the victim's fault.
This is one of the most common, and one of the most damaging, patterns in human behavior, and we see its operations in many forms. A more recent example from the more personal realm will be found in this discussion about "tone."

Israel's attacks on Gaza always make me think of a horrifying sequence from the film Hud; I've thought of that scene often in the last two weeks, and it was that scene that provided the title for my earlier essay. I described it this way -- and I defy you to formulate a meaningful distinction between what happens to the cattle in the film and the nightmare that Israel inflicts on the Palestinians:
The story concerns a cattle rancher and his family. It is discovered that some of the cattle have contracted hoof and mouth disease. To prevent the spread of the disease, and because he can think of no other means to control it, the head of the family decides that all the cattle must be destroyed.

A large pit is dug, deep enough to prevent the cattle from getting out. The cattle are driven into the pit, with all means of escape closed off. The men stand around the edges of the pit, and they lift their rifles. They begin to shoot -- and they shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot.

Finally, after endless, terrifying minutes, all the cattle are dead.
That is what Israel is doing in Gaza: it is engaged in a program of extermination. Minimal decency and intellectual honesty should compel us to speak the truth about this matter.

At least the cattle were actually diseased, or at least some of them were. What is the disease carried by the Palestinians? It's very simple: their conviction that they, too, have a right to exist.

For that, they must be destroyed.